There is an English saying: “You wait ages for a bus and then two come along at once.” For some, the arrival of these two (nearly identically titled) books evokes a similar feeling: long-held expectation met with seemingly redundant supply. To be sure, other buses have been down this road in the past (most recently John Piper and Don Carson’s The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry), but it’s been a while. Now they are here, and the casual observer might be forgiven for thinking they can climb aboard whichever book they pick up first.
On the other hand, their arrival has been met with some exasperation: can pastors really be expected to be public theologians or scholars? Even if church history furnishes us with the occasional example, the theologians usually namechecked (Augustine, Calvin, Edwards) were so uncommonly gifted that it’s unrealistic to hold them up as models for the average pastor.
In light of these responses, this review focuses on two main issues. First, we’ll explore the ways in which these two volumes are actually rather different. Despite the similar titles; despite the dedication of Vanhoozer and Strachan’s book to Hiestand and Wilson; despite the chapter Hiestand contributes to Vanhoozer and Strachan’s book; and despite the anecdotes and quotes common to both, these books are buses headed in slightly different directions. Second, we’ll focus on definitions as we go, because they are key. Both works introduce new terms and define them carefully: “public theologian,” “organic intellectual,” “ecclesial theologians,” and “academic theologians.” Only by attending to these definitions can we decide if the proposals are viable or the exasperation justified.
Owen Strachan and Kevin Vanhoozer. The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. Grand Rapids. MI: Baker Academic, 2015. 240 pp. $19.99.
We will begin with Vanhoozer and Strachan. The “lost vision” of the title is the theological vision of pastors. It is “difficult to pinpoint the precise moment when pastors lost interest in theology” (5), but lost it they have. In part, this happened when theology as a discipline migrated to the academy, where it was demythologized and compartmentalized into the narrow disciplines of biblical studies, church history, systematic theology, and practical theology. The result is that when pastors turn to scholarship, they find little to help them in their task and everywhere the assumption that their department (practical theology) is somehow unrelated to biblical studies, systematic theology, and historical theology. To make matters worse, pastors in the 20th century were encouraged to base their leadership on any number of secular models—as CEOs, or therapists, or social agitators. So, for lack of theological vision among the pastors, the people perish.
The solution proposed is for every pastor to recapture his calling to be a pastor-theologian and to understand that calling as a public ministry. This is where the language of pastors as “public theologians” or “public intellectuals” arises, and also where the potential for misunderstanding is high. By public theology the authors don’t mean the specialism of applying Christian thought to public policy, but simply a ministry that’s “involved with people in and for the community” (17) since the gospel touches every area of life. This way of putting things is rooted in the view that the church is to be a witnessing community in the world and that the pastor is called to equip the church for that task. In Vanhoozer’s earlier language of theodrama (see The Drama of Doctrine), pastors direct the performance of local congregations.
Relatedly, pastors are called to be “organic intellectuals,” but again, banish all thoughts of Parisian salons and ivory towers; the “kind of intellectual we have in mind is a particular kind of generalist who knows how to relate big truths to real people” (23). In particular, the reality of what is “in Christ,” the great indicatives of the gospel, and our place within its narrative.
One implication is that pastors can breathe a sigh of relief at this point. This is a stirring vision for pastors, but they aren’t expected to be academic or apologetic specialists in ways beyond ordinary reach. Rather, Vanhoozer emphasizes the generalism pastoral ministry calls for and locates apologetic power in a congregation living out the gospel, not so much in a sophisticated cultural analysis delivered by a pastor (174–76).
The rest of The Pastor as Public Theologian trends in a similar direction. Strachan’s chapters offer biblical and historical theologies of leadership that ought to thrill pastors, reminding them of their privilege to serve as agents of “divine business.” Distributed throughout the book are “pastoral perspectives” contributed by various pastors. Most of these explore their own self-understanding as pastor-theologians. A couple, though, offer a trailer for the benefits of a pastoral-theological ministry (i.e., some notes toward a theology of technology by Jim Samra [66–68], and a piece by David Gibson titled “On Death” [131–32]). The latter especially is a kind of firstfruits, and a highlight of the book.
Gerard Hiestand and Todd Wilson. The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015. 192 pp. $18.99.
Turning to Hiestand and Wilson, we ought first to note the agreement between the two books on the problems facing pastoral ministry. Both agree pastors have been disenfranchised by the professionalization of theology within the academy and that all kinds of alternative models of leadership are in the mix such that “pastors don’t know who they are or what they are supposed to be” (9).
Beyond that, however, the analyses begin to diverge. For Hiestand and Wilson the problem isn’t so much that pastors have forgotten the theological nature of their calling, but rather that theology has left its natural home in the church. So while the historical chapter in Vanhoozer and Strachan demonstrates that historically pastors saw themselves as theologians, the corresponding chapter in Hiestand and Wilson argues that many leading theologians were pastors.
The solution, then, is to restore theological scholarship to an ecclesial setting. The summons isn’t for the restoration of the pastor-theologian per se, but for a particular kind of pastor-theologian. It is at this point Hiestand introduces a threefold taxonomy (79–87; see also his article “A Taxonomy of the Pastor-Theologian: Why PhD Students Should Consider the Pastorate as the Context for Their Theological Scholarship”).
There are “local theologians” who seek to give theological leadership to their own flocks, and “popular theologians” who exercise a broad writing ministry (taken together, these are really what Vanhoozer and Strachan mean by “public theologians”). The problem, though, is that both of these figures digest theological resources from the academy and make them accessible for their audiences. They are merely “brokers,” and this is problematic because the connection between the church and academic theology is broken. The secularized academy doesn’t provide the kind of theological resources pastors need. There are topics the academy won’t address (e.g., giving contemporary voice to biblical sexual ethics), and whatever it does address it does so in a “neutral” and “objective” rather than pastoral voice.
Hence the third category of pastor theologian, the “ecclesial theologian” who “provides theological leadership to God’s ecclesia,” writing “theology to other theologians and scholars” (86) but always inhabiting the church and speaking to its concerns with explicit Christian convictions. This figure is at the center of the book’s proposal, and the restoration of ecclesial theologians is seen as crucial. Not every pastor is so called, but without them Vanhoozer and Strachan’s vision for (local/popular) pastor theologians will perish.
Notably, this proposal puts less store in the seminary. For Vanhoozer, the seminary must aim for synthesis rather than reproducing the disciplinary divisions of the academy, but it has a key role to play. For Hiestand and Wilson, that role is much reduced, chiefly because a larger role would perpetuate the idea that “theology” can be delegated to others outside the church. Additionally, in their view, seminaries adopt the academic mode of speaking and aren’t sufficiently shaped by the church’s social location and agenda. Seminary professors therefore are “academic theologians,” specialists who play a supporting role to ecclesial theologians but cannot meet the need of the hour.
This is probably the point at which to declare my interests. I teach part-time at a seminary and serve part-time a network of more than 500 churches in the United Kingdom as their theological adviser, developing resources to support pastors in their theological engagement. I’m also completing a PhD (something Hiestand recommends for aspiring ecclesial theologians). With that in mind, I offer a few comments.
(1) The pastorate is a theological office, and Vanhoozer and Strachan’s vision for it should be compulsory reading—even though most pastors I know have embraced this and have neither lost their interest in theology nor are as confused about what they should be doing as these books suggest. But we can forgive them some overstatement, and doubtless the generalizations ring true in many places.
(2) With Hiestand and Wilson, I’m persuaded that the church needs to look within for theological leadership. The church, after all, is the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). We must not, therefore, respond to the secularization of the academy by throwing out the theological baby with the bathwater, but rather by bringing it back home to the church and taking the initiative to see it prosper.
(3) Reliance on the academy to train scholars or provide resources is increasingly unwise; both because the academy is increasingly hostile to evangelical convictions (as some of my fellow Cambridge PhD students discovered to their cost) but also—at least in my context—simply because theology and religious studies departments are closing down. I am, however, more optimistic about the potential for seminaries to contribute. There are seminaries that are confessional, identify themselves as servants of the church, and function as what Jonathan Edwards called “nurseries of piety.” Their facilities can enable “doctors of the church” (whether pastors or faculty members) to exercise a wider ecclesial ministry.
(4) Lastly, there is the question of who can produce ecclesial theology. Hiestand and Wilson give the impression that it is only the serving pastor. For example, “the ecclesial theologian is a theologian who constructs theology as a vocational pastor” (88); or again, “the theological contributions of the ecclesial theologian spring from the overflow of the shepherding responsibilities that he carries for his local congregation” (85). Understandably, some reaction to the book has focussed on this, wondering about the identity of these supermen who are capable of producing anything, let alone works of high scholarship, once they have seen to their “sermons, leadership, pastoral care, administration, and outreach” (85). Doubtless there are a few such exceptional figures but they are rare.
A solution might be to grant that ecclesial theology is a broader category than just the output of serving pastors. Given the need rightly identified by Hiestand and Wilson, it’s surely worth trying to get creative. Why, for example, could churches not also set men or women apart for research and oversee them, either full-time or for a season, or delegate such projects to other ecclesial bodies? After all, delegation is not necessarily the abdication of responsibility, but often the wise exercise of it, as every pastor knows.
In conclusion, there are two invaluable insights championed by these books: the pastorate is a theological calling and theology is an ecclesial enterprise. The current cultural climate makes those insights all the more urgent and calls for imagination on the part of churches and pastors alike. Happily, there is much fuel for imagination here.