Review: Becoming a Pastor Theologian

becoming a pastor theologian

Becoming a Pastor TheologianTodd Wilson & Gerald Hiestand (eds.). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: A collection of papers from the first Center for Pastor Theologians conference in 2015 focusing on the identities, historical examples, and biblical engagement of pastoral theologians.

Many of us have been aware of the deep divide between the theological academy and the church. Theological work has been increasingly confined to the academic setting, written for other academics, while the church focuses on a theologically weakened and deficient praxis  drawn more from management, marketing and sociological resources. The founders of the Center for Pastor Theologians believe it is time for a reconciliation of this “great divorce.” Acknowledging the value of academic theologians, they call for pastors to do careful theology in the church for the church.

The papers that make up this book are the result of the first Center for Pastor Theologians conference in 2015 and chart what the restoration of theological work to the setting of the church might look like. The book is divided into three sections.

The first explores the identities of the pastor theologian. Peter Leithart explores the identity of ecclesial biblical theologian, one who exegetes, preaches, and leads in biblically grounded liturgy in the context of the church. He imagines the pastor theologian in the study, the pulpit and at the table spread for communion. James K. A. Smith considers the role of political theologian, one who both exegetes the political culture surrounding the church, and in the church’s liturgy forms believers around the new polis of the church. Kevin J. Vanhoozer advocates that “pastors should be evangelicalism’s default public intellectuals, as distinguished from academic scholars….to speak meaningfully about broad topics of ultimate social concern and to address central issues about what it means to flourish as human individuals and communities.” Gerald Hiestand identifies four spheres of theological scholarship: research, systemization, ecclesial significance articulation, and ecclesial implementation and contends that ecclesial theologians engage the latter two areas, while connecting with research and systemization. This section concludes with a call to be cruciform theologians, pastors whose calling, theology, and ministry, including the experience of suffering is informed by the cross.

Part two focuses on the pastor theologian in historical perspective. There were four papers in this part, each of which are case studies, focusing on Calvin’s Geneva, Thomas Boston, John Henry Newman, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I found the study of Calvin’s Geneva fascinating in controverting the idea of Calvin as a Reformed “pope” by demonstrating the structures of plural leadership, clerical accountability, and collaborative theological reflection that Calvin set up. Newman, in his personalist doctrine is a model of one whose theological convictions shaped his mentoring of those in his ministry. Bonhoeffer gives us theology that springs to life from the congregational setting.

The papers in the third part seemed a bit more eclectic but focus on the pastor theologian and the Bible. Edward W. Klink III focuses on the interpretation of scripture through an ecclesial lens. He makes interesting observations about the connection between the doctrine of revelation and scripture (around telos), and also the role of both canon and creeds of the church in interpretive matters. Jason A. Nichols look at the pastor theologian in the Pastoral epistles, noting five directives: (1) a call to guard and protect the gospel; (2) a call to teach, exhort, and pass on; (3) a call to pursue godliness with exemplary living; (4) a call to share in suffering; and (5) a call to provide active oversight for the church. The one female contributor, Laurie L. Norris argues for the place of women in this discussion as image bearers and those being renewed in knowledge after the image of the creator, whether they may participate or not in pastoral roles, as ecclesial theologians who have important roles and perspectives to bring in the church’s theology. John Chatraw contends for the particular importance for pastor apologists as a subset of pastor theologians both in its witness, and in confirming the faith of those who believe. The collection concludes on the pastor as wisdom-giver, and a study by Douglas Estes on 2 John as an example of the work of a pastor theologian.

As I noted in my review of The Pastor as Public Theologian, the conversation about pastor theologians seems largely to have been one dominated by complementarian white men from a Reformed tradition. This work exhibited a slightly larger tent, including one woman (who I felt tread very carefully in her paper to avoid offense to complementarians) and one paper that discussed Anglican turned Roman Catholic, John Henry Newman, Those from Missionary Church, Evangelical Free Church and Evangelical Covenant, and non-denominational backgrounds joined those from the Reformed, Calvinist tradition. Wesleyans, Anabaptists, and Pentecostals are not yet a part of this conversation, nor are those from other ethnic backgrounds. The “great divorce” that serves as the impetus for this initiative is far broader than the traditions and ethnic backgrounds represented here, and I hope this movement will continue to take initiative to enlarge the tent. At the risk of ruffling complementarian feathers, there are many female lead pastors who are doing thoughtful theological work in their congregations.

The title for the work probably should have been something like “a vision for pastor theologians.” The collection of papers does articulate a bracing vision of the necessity and contours of such a ministry. It does not say as much about the formation of pastor theologians though I thought Todd Wilson’s call to cruciform theology and life, and Philip Graham Ryken’s study of Thomas Boston spoke to aspects of the pastor’s formation as pastor theologian. Different papers touch on the importance of collaboration with others, the importance of mentors, and the shaping role of scripture.

I’ve long been impressed that the most enduring theological works have been written by those who write out of the setting of the church rather than the academy. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Baxter, Brooks, Bunyan, Bonhoeffer and Niebuhr are all examples. Pastor theologians remind us that we are to be shaped by a creation-fall-redemption-consummation narrative rather than secular visions of material prosperity, human progress, nationalism, or the emerging hopes of trans-humanism. One hopes that the work this book envisions would spread throughout the American and global church. It seems to me to be sorely needed.


3 thoughts on “Review: Becoming a Pastor Theologian

  1. It would help to specifically identify the Center for Pastor Theologians, and then go to the website to see just how much white males dominate the enterprise. There are a couple women in a couple of the photos, but see them only as tokens – one of them was a science speaker, Deb Haarsma who is President of BioLogos and whom they needed for their 2017 conference. I went to this conference a month or so ago and felt very uncomfortable with the intense white male dominance.

    At their webpage they say “The Center for Pastor Theologians is a broadly evangelical organization ….” Clearly not, especially when one thinks of all the denominational groups not participating. The main leaders, and editors of this book, are pastors at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, a west suburb of Chicago. They desperately need to enlarge their leadership.

    The idea of promoting and training pastor theologians is a good one. But, not this way IMHO.

    John Mulholland

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: December 2017 | Bob on Books

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