(Hodges Chapel, Beeson Divinity School)

As soon as I read Douglas Sweeney’s article, “A Call and Agenda for Pastor-Theologians,” I shared it on Facebook wall with the comment:

“Why I am doing a PhD.”

What I meant is that the vocational vision of the “pastor-theologian” is one of the most compelling motivations for my current endeavors as a doctoral student in biblical studies.  The logistical, emotional and financial upheaval of the doctorate should certainly have some reasonable sort of grounding, and the sense of calling to serve in some way as a “pastor-theologian” is one of the footings for my new life in England at Durham University.

But I am not exactly sure what a pastor-theologian is.

I am grateful to have been able to interact with Sweeney and handful of other folks with Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology (or “SAET”; see this article by their Executive Director, Gerald Hiestand).  SAET is are deeply invested in re-presenting the vocational vision of 1) a theologian who is intractably bound not only to the church at large but to a localized parish, and of 2) a pastor whose theological competence is commensurate with those whose working context is a campus and a classroom as opposed to a parish and a sanctuary.  And much of the conversation concerns how these aforementioned redefinitions of “pastor” and “theologian” can be conjoined into one office.

Perhaps an even bigger task than clarifying the pastor-theologian’s vocational identity is explaining why such a vocation is relevant for the church—why do we need one of these pastor-theologians or whatever they are behind our pulpit and in our pastorium?  Here is how Sweeney alerts us to the need for the pastor-theologian:

There have never been this many Christians around the world, yet few know much about God, the actual contents of the Bible, or the ways in which God’s people have interpreted and applied the Bible historically. Many Americans, at least, still go to church and read the Bible–as their social lives permit. Even more in the Global South do so with fervency and zeal. Still, despite our apparent esteem for the Bible’s status and authority, few believers know as much about its contents as they do about Hollywood movies, popular music, or athletics.

As far as how the pastor-theologian plies the craft, and what exactly that craft is, and how church and academy serve as dual domains for forming the craft, Sweeney avoids definitive answers and instead offers 15 “theses” to pique interest and stir up some constructive dialogue.  I appreciate the approach.

What I want to address in this post is a concern that showed up in the comment streams.  Some readers seemed to feel as though the model Sweeney is suggesting is that of a high profile intellectual (the photo of John Piper and Don Carson perhaps contributed to this interpretation more than Sweeney’s words; the photo is understandable, however, since the two have written on the issue together).

A certain degree of elitism is evoked by the perception that a pastor-theologian might be a high profile intellectual.  In all honesty, I feel extremely pretentious even to write about my interest in serving as a “pastor-theologian” as opposed to a “pastor” or a “theologian/professor.”

I can imagine the questions at a pastors’ conference:

“Oh, so you are one of those ‘pastor-theologian” -types, eh?  Did you get a special name tag? Are you are staying at the nicer hotel up the road?  Is there a ‘green room’ for you and your kind?  Shouldn’t you be at the pastor-THEOLOGIAN conference next month at the more posh hotel where they serve sherry instead of soda and let you smoke pipes?”

(Or the questions at the next academic conference:”Oh, so I hear you are not just a scholar, but a pastor-scholar? Does that put you on a faster tenure track?  How do you pastor the students you have to fail for inadequate work?  Does this mean you are better at serving as a department head, since you have all these shepherding gifts?”).

The vocational idea of a pastor-theologian may seem elitist: you have your run of the mill pastors, but then you have the Special Forces militia, the few and the proud, the P-T unit.  There are Buicks and there are Mercedes, pastors and pastor-theologians….

But sort of pretentiousness that comes with the expansive (excessive, some might suggest) educational investments of a pastor-theologian would have to be entirely squashed.  Integral to the vocational identity of a pastor-theologian will have to be a palpable and conscientious humility.  The elitism of higher education (though often unfairly caricatured, the stereotyping sometimes does fit) perpetuates this cyclic bifurcation between church and academy (see my chapter, “Anti-Intellectualism” in Faith Without Illusions).  Pretentiousness will sabotage the vocation of pastor-theologian from the onset.

I heard a sermon not long ago by an exceptionally bright doctoral student.  It was rich, deep, solid, biblical….

…and almost incomprehensible.

Is high-falutin’ verbiage in the pulpit par for the course for a pastor-theologian?  (Of course, I should acknowledge, that, in terms of high-falutin’ verbiage, I myself just used the words “aforementioned,” “bifurcation” and “verbiage” and even referenced a book I’ve written.  Hmmm.)

If the comments after a pastor-theologian’s sermon are “wow, that preacher is sure smart” rather than, “wow, our God is so mysterious and loving and glorious,” then there is a devastating problem.

But “high profile,” “pretentious,” and “pedantic” (that is, incomprehensible to normal folks) need not characterize the pastor-theologian… right?  As far as “high profile” goes, it is quite likely that a pastor who “leads theologically” (I love Sweeney’s way of putting it), may not draw such massive numbers into his/her local congregation.  A rather low profile on a theologically ambivalent ecclesial landscape might actually be more realistic!

And the reason “pretentious” and “pedantic” must be avoided is that these terms capture the church’s impression of the academy.  The anti-intellectualism many of us bemoan in the church has reasonable foundations, and to adopt any sort of academic elitism will only distance the church more from the great resources the academy can legitimately offer.

So, I am affirming Sweeney’s wisdom and answering his call for dialogue.  For this post, the questions I am adding to the conversation are these: is the model of a pastor-theologian intrinsically pretentious?  And if not, how can pastor-theologians avoid operating out of the elitist tendencies of their intense academic training?  

Coming up:

Part 2: How does Eugene Peterson’s model of a “Contemplative Pastor” compare with that of the “Pastor-Theologian”?  Should we scratch the title “pastor-theologian” or “pastor-scholar” and simply redefine the model of “pastor” by our contemplative, theological labors?

Part 3: Is the Pastor-Theologian a vocational model that expects too many gifts from just one member of the body of Christ?  Should every pastor be able to write and think with the sharpest of minds in the Christian theological tradition?  Can the office of pastor-theologian be fulfilled by a pastoral team with differing gifts?

8 thoughts on “(Re-) Forging a New Vocational Identity: the “Pastor-Theologian” (Part 1)

  1. Exegetically can you show how a pastor needs to have the equivalent of a Mdiv or higher, in light of the Pastoral Epistles? Paul’s instructions to Timothy regarding handing down the truths to other men who will in turn do the same and to rightly handle the ‘word of truth’ seem to center around biblical truth and eldership in the local church context?

    1. Thanks for that question!

      In our current context, ministerial qualification and theological education occur primarily within academic institutions, not solely within the church. Our educational world is quite different from that of the 1st century, of course, so we are somewhat placed in the position of comparing apples to oranges when we look at the Pastoral Epistles and at how pedagogy is done in our own day.

      But I would say that the biblical model of theological education is certainly “in-house,” that is, within the setting of the home and the local church. Families and churches should be the most trustworthy, the most conscientious, the most diligent stewards of the Christian faith.

      In my view, they are not.

      The problem many of us are pointing to is that the church and home today are inadequately resourced for the sort of extensive biblical and theological competence the Bible and our theological tradition seems to demand. As far as I can tell, the “pastor-theologian” is a church leader who, enriched by the positive elements of academic training, can equip churches and families to resume the role of teaching the people of God.

      So I agree that we should find the church and home to be the most fitting settings for administering theological and biblical training. But that is exactly why we need the “pastor-theologian.”

      1. I just see a big disconnect between how the NT lays it out vs the seminary model which is the new kid on the block. I don’t see the 21st century as apples to the oranges of sacred scripture regarding praxis any more than I do to doctrine way back yonder.

  2. This:
    “The problem many of us are pointing to is that the church and home today are inadequately resourced for the sort of extensive biblical and theological competence the Bible and our theological tradition seems to demand. As far as I can tell, the “pastor-theologian” is a church leader who, enriched by the positive elements of academic training, can equip churches and families to resume the role of teaching the people of God.”

    This article. This statement. This is what I feel what God has called me to do.

    Thank you. Now I don’t feel so alone and overwhelmed. Thank you for solidifying this vision.

  3. I want to expand on something Gerstner said: all pastors are theologians, the question is whether or not they are good ones. That’s why education is so important. All lay people are theologians as well. In Gerstner’s words: “A lay theologian is a person who has a true knowledge of God which he understands in nontechnical, nonprofessional, nonacademic terms” (Theology for Every Man). Doesn’t this make it all the more imperative for our pastors to fully equip themselves to shepherd their people? Maybe we would all get it a little better if the elders handed out cigars after the sermon 🙂 Thanks for the article.

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