The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision

Written by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson Reviewed By Chris Castaldo

Nearly a dozen pastors were assembled. At the invitation of Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, we met to discuss challenges facing “pastor theologians.” In the course of conversation, some confusion arose. What should come first, pastor or theologian? A participant proposed an illustration, “It’s like the hypostatic union—two natures conjoined in one person.” Another suggested inserting a hyphen: “We need pastor-theologians.” In all of its blessed ambiguity, the vision was cast and we went home inspired. Where it would lead, only God knew. The year was 2008.

Seven years later, we no longer look through a dim glass. Hiestand and Wilson have managed to develop The Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT), a fellowship of nearly fifty shepherds dedicated to renewing the church and theology through written production of biblical and theological scholarship. The CPT pulls together a diverse body of evangelical pastors from a variety of denominations that meet annually, the fruit of which is showcased in their journal, The Bulletin of Ecclesial Theology. And now there is the book, The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision. Here is a glimpse of what it offers.

What is a pastor theologian? According to Hiestand and Wilson, the identity of a “pastor theologian” can be understood in three ways: as a local theologian, a popular theologian, and an ecclesial theologian. The local theologian constructs theology for the laity of his local congregation. The popular theologian provides theological leadership to Christian laity beyond his own congregation. And the ecclesial theologian constructs theology for Christian theologians and pastors (p. 80). The key here is audience. While the local and popular theologians direct their theological scholarship toward Christian laity, the ecclesial theologian directs his theological scholarship toward other theologians and pastors.

According to Hiestand and Wilson, all pastors are called to be local theologians; some pastors have the calling and platform to be popular theologians; and a few have the calling, gifting, and training to be ecclesial theologians. According to Hiestand and Wilson, all three types of pastor theologians are vital to the health of the church. But they are mostly concerned to resurrect the ecclesial theologian. Why? Because the ecclesial theologian, though once a flourishing vocation, has gone all but extinct in recent times.

We no longer expect a pastor to be a bona fide, contributing member of the theological community. Sure, he may have spent a few years on the academic mountaintop, listening to the voice of the scholarly gods, before descending to his own congregation with a few choice oracles from heaven. But the heady atmosphere isn’t his natural habitat; he’s called to the more pedestrian concerns like budgets and buildings, small groups and series, leadership meetings and pastoral visitations (pp. 11–12).

Why then have most pastors ceased to generate theology? Hiestand and Wilson point to democratizing impulses such as the American Revolution and Second Great Awakening, which leveled pastor theologians as with a fire hose. They also credit the legacy of the Western Enlightenment, which tethered rigorous theological reflection to the university system. Such movements have effectively driven a wedge between pastors and theology. The effect, according to our authors, was the “great divorce” (42–52), “theological anemia of the church” (53–64), and “ecclesial anemia of theology” (65–78). The details of this narrative are explored in a variety of vivid examples.

Against this dispiriting backdrop, Hiestand and Wilson step forward like modern-day John the Baptists. Clad in camel hair and with wild honey on their lips, they desire to help pastors end their identity crisis and become learned prophets. They begin by providing a textured account of pastor theologians from the Apostolic Fathers to the Enlightenment. It is a compelling case for the robust and storied place that pastor theologian has occupied in the history of God’s people.

Having offered historical perspective, Hiestand and Wilson flesh out what it means for the pastor theologian to serve as an ecclesial theologian, that is, one who is “of and for the church” (p. 88). Chapter 7 highlights eight characteristics of a pastor theologian’s work, cast mainly in comparison to the work of academic theologians:

  1. The ecclesial theologian inhabits the ecclesial social location.
  2. The ecclesial theologian foregrounds ecclesial questions.
  3. The ecclesial theologian aims for clarity over subtlety.
  4. The ecclesial theologian theologizes with a preaching voice.
  5. The ecclesial theologian is a student of the church.
  6. The ecclesial theologian works across the guilds.
  7. The ecclesial theologian words in partnership with the academic theologian.
  8. The ecclesial theologian traffics in retrospection.

In the penultimate chapter, our authors get down to brass tacks, offering ten practical steps for realizing the vocation of an ecclesial theologian in the local church context. They explore such issues as time management, reading habits, staffing, study and writing leave, and the type of PhD one should obtain. The personal case studies that appear throughout this section further clarify the picture, illustrating the tangible patterns by which one embodies the role.

In the concluding chapter Hiestand and Wilson offer a final admonition to three distinct constituencies: professors, pastors, and students. Their point is clear: “The church stands in great need of pastors who are capable of functioning as robust theologians, for the sake of the church and its theology” (p. 128). And like an Apostolic Exhortation from Rome, they conclude with intercessory prayer, asking God to inspire a great host of pastor theologians, “since we truly believe that the vision of this book will only come to pass through the divine miracle of resurrection!” (p. 123).

Those who love data will eat up the appendix, which includes a historical survey of how pastoral theologians have been represented in the church among clerical, non-clerical, and monastic theologians from A.D. 90 to 1750. Finally, a full index testifies to the breadth of their study.

What are the liabilities of this book? Not many. It is a pleasurable read, remarkably so given its substantive and complex subject matter. It is, however, surprising that the book fails to provide a salient definition for the term “pastor theologian.” Perhaps this is by design, since our authors’ vision is so multilayered. One might have also appreciated a greater amount of reflection on how this model has found expression among Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic pastors, since this is where these traditions often excel. But these are minor criticisms. It is a terrific book that deserves a place on every pastor’s shelf.

Only time will tell if contemporary shepherds answer the call. For the world’s sake, I hope we do.

Chris Castaldo

Chris Castaldo
New Covenant Church
Naperville, Illinois, USA

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