[This is the third post in an ongoing discussion on the Pastor-Theologian in response to Douglas Sweeney’s article, “A Call and Agenda for Pastor-Theologians.“]
My friend Gerald Hiestand has made available an excellent paper on the pastor-theologian. I know of no one more devoted to articulating this vocational vision for my generation. If you are grasped by the ongoing conversation, check it out. It is very, very good.
His piece stirred a couple of questions for me:
What type of “theology” does the pastor-theologian produce?
How should the discipline of theology change when conducted within the church rather than the academy?
Central to the discuss about the pastor-scholar / pastor-theologian is the institutional gash between academy and church, a chasm freighted with a vast and complicated series of historical developments and visually depicted as reforged in some sense by that little hyphen in the vocational terms at hand.
(I just love that hyphen).
Now that the rigorous intellectual engagement with theology and Scripture seems to have shifted more toward the academy, Gerald makes this chilling observation:
“…not only has the church become theologically anemic, but theology itself has become, in many instances, ecclesially anemic.”
The church-academy divide has resulted in a pastoral ministry that is more practical than theological—in other words, pastors are more focused on administration, counseling, evangelism, community development, hospital visitation than they are focused on studying and writing theology.
But are not those practical pastoral tasks articulations of theology? If the church recovers its theological vocation, should the discipline of theology be most properly embodied in study and in writing?
The Pastoral Epistles (1, 2 Timothy and Titus) are perhaps the most sensible collection of New Testament texts to turn to for guidance on for direction on ecclesial leadership. Within these three letters “doctrine” is of prominent significance. But this doctrine is to be articulated not only through preaching and teaching but also through praxis. Doctine is practically expressed. When Paul (okay, I know this is contested, but let’s just assume the Apostle is indeed the author) writes against that which is “contrary to sound doctrine” he has produced not a series of theological propositions or statements but a list of lifestyle choices (1 Tim 1:8-11). Theology—the crafting, assessing, and working out of doctrine—is expressed in ethical and practical terms as well as in writings and teachings.
In Titus, we are encouraged to “adorn the doctrine of God” (2:10). This clothing of ourselves in theological garb (what a great image!) means treating each other respectfully and lovingly (see the wider context, 2:1-10). The church’s theology is to be expressed relationally and ethically, as well as homiletically and textually.
The discipline of theology within the academy is ultimately textual; that is, academic theologians are working with texts and producing texts. You are not regarded a professional theologian in the academy if you are not publishing (the rite of passage for the PhD is a publishable thesis or dissertation).
The call for pastor-theologians is a call for theology to become once again moored within the harbor of the church. But surely the endeavor will be sabotaged if the church recovers a robust interest in rigorous theology but allows the (secular) academy to define the discipline. Theology published is one of the primary measures of the discipline as plied in the academy. Theology adorned (lived and practiced) is one of the primary measures of the discipline as plied in the church.
This is not to say that writing and publication are theological projects to be viewed with suspicion—we know the image of adorning doctrine because we read it in a canonically published text! I am contending, rather, that as the church seeks to think as rigorously about theology as academic theologians, then it will need to redefine theology as a discipline, which will include a broader imagination as to how theology is articulated. Visiting the sick in the hospital and reading Scripture at a graveside are powerful demonstrations that “he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’ (Isa 53:3). Taking the time to meet with a couple in a disintegrating marriage embodies the reality that God is a “wonderful counselor” (Isa 9:6) and that Jesus is maritally bound to His people. These theological articulations may bear much greater fruit over a lifetime and beyond the parish than even a published work.
So… the theology of the pastor-theologian: doctrine published? Sometimes. Doctrine adorned? Always.
This should come as an encouragement to those pastors who are not so inclined to write.
It should also comes as a tremendous challenge….
Articulating robust theology through writing may not be included within our pastoral calling, but the articulation of robust theology is indispensable. For our “practical” labors to be expressions of expansive, rich theology, however, they must be sourced in a rigorous life of studied fixation on the Gospel and the God the Gospel announces.
[To be clear, I am not writing against anything in Gerald’s essay. He is calling for “ecclesial theologians” who write theology out of the “steady rhythm” (p. 10) of dealing with the dire needs of the flock. He is well aware that many pastors will not have the gifts or inclinations to write publishable theology. Much of what I am saying in this post applies to the model of the pastor-theologian as “local theologian,” as he defines it in his paper.]