Authors and pastors Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson are “resurrecting an ancient vision,” that of The Pastor Theologian. In their book, they lament that with the rise of the academy, theologians and intellectuals tend to find their home in that atmosphere, while pastors “no longer traffic in ideas. They cast vision, manage programs, offer counsel, and give messages…We no longer expect a pastor to be a bona fide, contributing member of the theological community” (11). And this has caused a chasm between academia and the church. As a result, “theology has become ecclesially anemic, and the church theologically anemic” (13).
The authors make a heart-felt case by offering a brief sketch in church history on the “great divorce,” a plea for why we need to reunite theology with the church, and some practical ways to bring us forward. They describe three types of pastor theologians, as local theologian, popular theologian, and the one they want to spend the most time encouraging, the ecclesial theologian. While the pastor as local theologian focuses on the theological needs in the context of their own congregation, the pastor as popular theologian extends his leadership beyond his congregation. And the main focus of the book, the pastor as ecclesial theologian, “constructs theology for other Christian theologians and pastors” (80).
As an informed layperson, I appreciate this call for the importance of pastor theologians. We live in the time of the gluttonous Christian bookstore. How are lay people to be equipped on how to discern the so-called Christian literature marketed to them? Most will gravitate toward popular level books, but while the title may appear to offer the theological guidance they are hoping for, the content may leave them worse off than they were before cracking open the book. Where can the ordinary person go for guidance to their real-life questions about how God works in the lives of his people? Timothy George opens the Foreword of the book with a quote from William Ames, “Theology is the knowledge of how to live in the presence of God” (7). This is not a mere intellectual quest. It shapes our everyday lives and it is an eternal matter.
We are no longer limited to the few churches within a five mile range. There are well over 100 churches to chose from within fifteen miles from my house. How is a Christian to learn about the biblically faithful places to worship? In our early years of marriage, my husband and I knew that there were some things amiss in our church. We could discern that there were some serious issues that were in fact unbiblical. Our own pastor didn’t think so of course, but it was the writings of pastor theologians that helped us to spot the problems and finally articulate them.
The thing is, we are all a theological community in a sense. Of course, there is a need to distinguish the professional theologians for their educated contribution to specialized fields of theology. However, what is the point of academia if they exist just to talk amongst themselves? Their contributions should trickle down to us lay theologians if they are of lasting value. And if the proffesionals stay locked away in their classrooms and university libraries, they will be out of touch to the needs of the church.
The authors make a good case that without pastor theologians, theology has become ecclesially anemic, and the church theologically anemic. While it’s a blessing to have academic theologians working on specialized topics, such as whether James Dunn’s interpretation of Paul viewing the Jewish law as an ethnic boundary marker is correct or not, we also need students of the church who will help us see why that matters. We need pastoral theology that will “deepen the health and faith of God’s people” (91). “The theological integrity of the church will never rise above its pastors, no matter how astute the local university’s religion department” (17).
I will say that while agree there needs to be a return to the idea of the pastor theologian, there are many great ones out there now. For that I am thankful. And yet, pastors who are faithfully serving their congregations with the ministry of Word and sacrament already have a lot on their plates. Many want to contribute more theologically, but the pressures from their vocation make it difficult to carve out the time and energy. Another benefit to this book is that the authors give practical advice to help pastor theologians. I encourage every pastor to read it! But it is also advantageous for elders and lay people to read because pastors need our support and we should be concerned about the theological depth of our churches.
*Originally published on October 20, 2015.