Perhaps it is timely that I waited so long for this post. Two other posts in the blogosphere have helped sharpen my thinking a bit. Gerald Hiestand with the Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology wrote on article for On the Square, a blog for First Things to which Scott McKnight has brilliantly responded at Jesus Creed.
Hiestand contends that pastors should be doing the church’s theology more so than academics.
As the dust continues to settle for me from the SBL meeting in November, I can think of a few ways that academics can learn from pastors when it comes to the rigorous exercises of exegesis and theology, particularly when it comes to pastoral preaching vs. the presentation of academic presentations at guild meetings (SBL, AAR, et. al.).
But first some caveats: I acknowledge that SBL is not a place for pastoral preaching, nor would I want it to be, necessarily. Also, I am aware that there is plenty of bad preaching out there. In my points below, I have in mind preaching that is meticulously crafted, sensitive to the theological complexities in the church’s traditions, and conscientiously attentive to the highest of exegetical standards (some readers may believe I have eliminated most preaching altogether with these qualifications!).
Solid pastoral preaching is (usually) accessible. I do not expect academic treatments at SBL of, say, Philo’s logos theology or Paul’s participatory soteriology to be accessible to church laypersons. But at times it feels as though esoteric obliqueness is actually a goal (is “esoteric obliqueness” too esoteric or oblique for making this point?). I have to admit that in my exegetical papers in seminary I have assumed that the more recondite my language the more brilliant I will appear (unfortunate logic). The reading of specialist papers commands a very limited audience, even in settings like the SBL where many scholars attend papers in areas outside their expertise. Interdisciplinarity (an exciting new goal for many academics, it seems) can hardly get off the ground with inaccessible presentations. Moreover, it would seem to me that if we really want to share our scholarly findings, then it would be in our interest to use more accessible language. I have heard papers given by giants in their fields that were very accessible… and maybe that is why they are giants, because an audience can actually hear and understand what they have to say.
Pastoral preaching (again, usually!) demands action in response to information. When a pastor does theology from a pulpit, that theology must translate into ethics—into behavior. The sermonic task is to transform as well as to inform. Pastoral preaching assumes that theology is fused with lifestyle and behavior. Secular academic realms require no such fusion.
So, should a goal of studying Philo’s logos theology be transformation by that Alexandrian philosopher’s belief system? Sounds unrealistic. But it seems to me that central to the very concept of the humanities is the idea that our mental labors extend into our lives.
In all honesty, I feel that pastors have more to learn from academics than the other way around. My perspective is due in part to my struggles with cynicism toward the anti-intellectualism within the church. Also, most of the scholars I read and listen to are actually churchman who conduct their labors on behalf of the church (whether the church receives the fruit of those labors or not!), but are so competent in their field that they can make challenging and respectable presentations at guild meetings like SBL. So as I write, know that I am most passionate about pastors learning from those biblical scholars who conceive their painstaking efforts as nothing less than ministry.