When it comes the world of pastoral ministry, I’m a civilian, or at best a reservist. I have experience teaching Bible studies for several years, and very occasionally stepping behind a pulpit during a Lord’s-Day or mid-week service. I am also a very-part-time seminary student who still holds out hope of one day transitioning to some sort of bi-vocational or full-time pastoral ministry. I note all this to say, I am more interested in the pastoral office than the average churchgoer. Books about ministry interest me both practically and aspirationally. For this reason, I started reading The Pastor Theologian by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson.
In The Pastor Theologian, the authors identify a trend in the church that concerns them: namely, that “pastors aren’t theologians and theologians aren’t pastors.” This unhealthy division of labor, they argue, results in spiritual anemia in both the church and the academy. After outlining the problem in the first few chapters, the authors then examine the relationship between the pastorate and the role of theologian throughout the history of the Church. They note that until the time of the Enlightenment, the Church was closely involved with education, and there was close cooperation between the university and the church, not only in Europe but in the United States, as the earliest universities and colleges were primarily begun as seminaries. However, with the advance of the Enlightenment, the academy pulled away from the Church and began critiquing and opposing it. In the US, the years after the Second Great Awakening found the same thing happening: academia asserted its independence from the Church. The result of this, the authors suggest, is that “theology” has become “ecclesially anemic, and the church has become theologically anemic.”
The solution, according to Hiestand and Wilson, is a return of the pastor theologian, and particularly the ecclesial theologian. In Chapter 6 (in my opinion, the most useful of the book), they present a taxonomy of pastor theologians. In this chapter, they address 3 types of pastor theologians:
The local theologian is a pastor who provides theology to the local congregation; the popular theologian offers more widely accessible theological reflection for a broader swath of the church; and the ecclesial theologian gives theological leadership to other theologians and scholars, all the while keeping a close eye on genuine ecclesial (as opposed to academic) concerns.
They suggest that this last type, the ecclesial theologian, is “indispensable to the reshaping of the theological identity of the pastoral vocation.”
These three types are contrasted against the academic theologian, who is thinking and writing within the academy. Academic theologians, the authors suggest, are bound to the expectations and limitations of secular academic publication, and cannot write from a pastoral or church-centric position. Thus, academic theology is largely bound to a level of neutrality and disinterested separation that ecclesial theology is not.
First, the authors unambiguously put the responsibility of theological leadership on the shoulders of the local pastor. Throughout the book, there is a call for the local pastor to labor in study and research so that he may preach and teach with a robust theology. This idea cannot be said enough, in my opinion.
Second, this book really helps to clarify the different tracks and approaches one can take in a pastoral setting. While the main thrust of the book is a call for ecclesial theology, they give honor and regard to each type of theologian, and discuss the benefits of both local and popular theology. I found this to be refreshing as well.
Third, the book is clearly intended to be inspiring, rather than merely descriptive. Rather than merely critiquing the intellectual shift in pastoral theology in the past 200 years, the authors are seeking to do something about it. It is clearly an area where they are passionate, and that comes through in several places.
What Didn’t Work (at least for me)
I had a few concerns about the book, as I read it, and some of them grew a bit over time. First, I’m not as widely read as some. So there were times when the authors would refer to academic theologians in a positive manner, and I wasn’t able to recognize most of the names. It would have been more helpful to me personally if I were more familiar with academic theology, so that I can understand better where the authors were coming from, doctrinally and ideologically.
Second (and again, this may just be me), the book struggled to hold my interest in a few sections. The early chapters that detailed the history of each type of theologian throughout the first 1700 years of church history began to drag on, and I found myself tempted to skim over paragraphs more and more. The latter chapters, in which the authors detailed ways to promote the development of ecclesial theologians, also lost my attention. There were lots of practical suggestions and case studies for church administration approaches in this area, but it started to feel a bit repetitive. This information might have been better saved for an appendix, with fewer case studies or more targeted questions and answers. I am fully willing to admit that I may not be the target audience for this type of material, so others who are more directly involved in these scenarios may benefit more.
Finally, the thing that confused me most was that the goal the authors spent the entire book calling for is already happening. They seem to treat the idea of an ecclesial theologian — a church theologian writing to church theologians — as a kind of unicorn, lost long ago but perhaps one day re-discovered.
Maybe it’s just that my experience is within a particular niche of the Church (conservative, reformed or reformed-ish evangelicalism), but I’m seeing several examples of ecclesial theology happening already. Places like Southern Seminary are producing pastor-theologians who are doing deep theological research. Men like Dr. Jim Hamilton and Kevin DeYoung are producing works of ecclesial theology while still ministering to local congregations. Journals like Themelios feature peer-reviewed articles by pastor-theologians. (Incidentally, Themelios reviewed this book very favorably!) All in all, I think the authors should be more encouraged that the very thing they are calling for is really happening, in many circles.
Final Analysis: The Pastor Theologian is a clarion call for the return of serious theology that is grounded in the realities of church ministry. Their taxonomy of pastor theologians is extremely helpful in understanding the different circles of influence a pastor might have, and I benefited from their considerations of the impact of vocation on thought process as well as their understanding on the differences between ecclesial and academic theological writing.
On the whole, I don’t think The Pastor Theologian is bad in any particular way. (I know, that sounds like “damning with faint praise.”) It just wasn’t for me, I think. However, those theologians that the authors are calling for may well benefit from their work here.
Please Note: I was provided with a free electronic copy of the book, in exchange for an honest review. The preceding thoughts are entirely my own.