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The Pastor as Public Theologian

Theology gets a bad rap.

When most people think of theology, they think of mind-numbing debates over trivialities. “Theology is all head-knowledge while Christianity is more about the heart,” they might say. Even many of the pastors that I’ve met seem to have little more than disdain for theology. They’re practical people. And theology doesn’t seem all that practical.

But they’re wrong.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post on why every Christian is called to do the work of theology. Theology is about so much more than nuanced arguments for the trinity or the inerrancy of scripture. According to Kevin Vanhoozer, “Theology is about speaking and doing the truth divinely revealed in Jesus Christ.” This definition seriously butts heads with the common understanding of theology as all head and no heart. If Vanhoozer is correct, theology isn’t merely something that happens in the head – it is the heart of the Christian life.

Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan’s recent book, The Pastor as Public Theologian, argues that pastors have given up the heart of theology for a pragmatism that may work for a time but ultimately leaves their churches empty (spiritually, if not literally).  Though neither Vanhoozer nor Strachan name names, there are reasons to believe that they have megachurches (“If pastors themselves cannot visit every household, then they should at least train elders who can. No church should be so large as to harbor anonymous Christians”), revivalists (“In one generation, America went from a nation featuring a carefully guarded pastoral office – marked by learning, communal stability, and staunch theological preaching – to one in which disestablishment reigned and highly gifted populist communicators like Finney dominated”), and pastors who view themselves primarily as managers, CEOs, entertainers, or counselors all in mind for critique.

The book is divided into four chapters: two which detail the history of the pastor-theologian (as well as how things slowly evolved away from this concept) and two which explain their vision of the pastor-theologian for today. Additionally, there are twelve short essays scattered between the chapters written by various pastors who are living out this vision for ministry right now. Vanhoozer and Strachan have obviously constructed their argument carefully, the structure of the book is evidence of that. But does it hold up?

In the first chapter, Strachan examines the three Old Testament roles of prophet, priest, and king. He then argues that each of these roles should be reflected in the role of the pastor – pastor as minister of truth, pastor as minister of grace, and pastor as minister of wisdom. He ends this chapter with an important observation: “In all this work, the set-apart pastor serves the set-apart God by feeding his set-apart people. This is inherently theological work: hence every pastor works as a theologian.” This chapter was good, although there were places where I felt like it repeated itself. Nothing major but I think it could have been condensed.

The second chapter has Strachan dealing with the role of theology in ministry throughout Christian history. In particular, he looks at the early church, the medieval period, the reformation, the puritans, Jonathan Edwards, modern changes, and Neoevangelicalism. Having no knowledge of Strachan’s background, this chapter made his theological biases very apparent. He’s a Calvinist. And like most Calvinists I know, he has a hard time acknowledging non-Calvinists except for the Early Church fathers. There’s no mention of Jacobus Arminius. A single reference to Wesley (and even that mention was only made to talk about Whitefield). There’s hardly a non-Calvinist in the bunch (and the ones who are, like Finney, are viewed almost completely negatively). This is what frustrates me most about many of the Calvinists I know. Their little doctrinal vein is the totality of Christendom. I seldom hear Calvinists mention non-Calvinists in their writings, preaching, etc. Wesleyans and Arminians, however, don’t seem to be as afraid to acknowledge the breadth of Christian understanding and practice. But I suppose that’s a rant for another day.

The third and fourth chapters have Kevin Vanhoozer taking the reigns and looking at how modern pastors can return theology to the heart of their ministries. Vanhoozer emphasizes the importance of understanding the scriptures, being able to read our own culture, living out our theologies, and making disciples. He goes into some much needed detail with regard to what making disciples looks like: counseling people with the word, embodying the word in visitation, preaching the word through the sermon, catechizing the congregation in doctrine, worshiping God in the liturgy, and apologetically defending God and his works. This is where this book really shines. Vanhoozer does an excellent job of explaining to pastors why everything they do is rooted in theology. And if that’s true, then we must become pastor-theologians. Our theology inevitably colors our pastorate. Pastors who don’t give theology the time and work it requires are doing themselves, their congregations, and God a great disservice.

The twelve essays scattered through the book are hit-and-miss. Some are excellent (such as Six Practical Steps toward Being a Pastor-Theologian by Gerald Hiestand) while others left me wondering why they were even included (such as On Death by David Gibson which was a good essay, it just didn’t seem to fit).

Overall, The Pastor as Public Theologian encouraged me to pursue theology ever more intentionally. It reminded me of its primacy and gave me a handful of good, practical ideas for making theology the center of my ministry. And yet, as I finished the last chapter, I felt like there were some missed opportunities. This was a great introduction. It’s an important call-to-arms. But it doesn’t include the detailed battle plans and strategies I was looking for. My hope is that some pastor – maybe even one of the twelve who submitted essays for this book – will write a second book that builds on the foundation this book has laid. Even with its modest shortcomings, this is an important book that every pastor needs to read and seriously consider.

Theology isn’t just for seminary. It’s the heart of the Christian life.

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