From Gerald Hiestand, who wants to draw theological discussions back into the church, to see those discussions led by pastors (instead of academics), and who wants to see pastors become more theologians.
Here are our questions: Should pastors be leading the charge in theology? Is there too much sterile or non-ecclesial theology? What do you think of Hiestand’s proposal?
Pastors, not professors, should be setting the theological agenda of the church. This is, of course, a loaded statement, and one that requires more nuance than I’ll be able to give it here. But I stand by it nonetheless. As a pastor who cares deeply about theology, I’ve become convinced that the present bifurcation between theological scholarship and pastoral ministry accounts for much of the theological anemia facing the church today.
Robert Jenson, in his Systematic Theology, defines theology as the church’s “continuing discourse about her individuating and carrying communal purpose.” A typically dense Jensonian statement, but one that rightly captures the essence of theology. Theology is “church speak” about the God who calls and constitutes the church and about the message she proclaims. Reflection on this message—its meaning and specific cultural application—constitutes the church’s theology….
What is troubling is the fact that nearly all of our theologians have entered the academy, expending the greatest part of their energy answering academic questions. And when academic theologians do get around to addressing ecclesial questions, they tend to do so in academic ways. The chronic “disconnect” between the academy and the church is the inevitable result….
Historically, the church’s most influential theologians were churchmen—pastors, priests, and bishops. Clerics such as Athanasius, Augustine (indeed, nearly all the church Fathers), Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Edwards, and Wesley functioned as the wider theologians of their day—shaping not only the theological vision of their own parishes, but that of the wider church. In their day, the pastoral community represented the most influential, most insightful, and most articulate body of theologians….
The pastoral community is no longer called upon—as a matter of vocation—to construct theology for those beyond their congregations. Instead, our present context views the academy as the proper home for those with theological gifts. Those with shepherding gifts are directed toward the pastorate. And those who are gifted in both areas? Well, they’ll have to choose. But can this be right? Do we really mean to suggest that the proper home of a theologian is in the academy, disconnected from the pastoral vocation?…
I am not simply stating that pastors must become more theologically informed, or that pastors much preach with more theological precision. True enough, but this will not solve the problem. Rather, an entire paradigm shift is needed. Pastor-theologians, not academic-theologians, must once again become the leading theological voices of the church. We ask too much of our academic theologians when we ask them to answer—from the outside, as it were—the pastoral questions facing the church.
I have sat down with Gerald to discuss this very topic, and have a few thoughts and hope to draw him in to this site, but I begin with this:
Yes, we need more pastors doing theology, pastors who tell the gospel Story of Jesus and who can make it sing and sting in our world, and we need more organizations like Gerald’s (and Todd Wilson’s), and I support their every endeavor to enlighten the church and the academy with ecclesially-shaped theology. I agree that churches are increasingly thin in theology. Their entire organization is composed of sharp thinkers and devoted followers of Jesus. So, I’m with them in their concerns.
I speak from my field: many biblical scholars have become nothing more than historians. They trace parallels with Akkadian culture or sort out traditions in the pseudepigrapha or they find layers and redaction in Q or they map some archaeological site. And I don’t devalue these things but say that some do only this. Genuine ecclesially-shaped biblical scholarship eventually connects discrete bits of knowledge with the regula fidei and with concrete following of Jesus in our world. So, yes, I know of academic stuff that is not ecclesial.
Before I say anything else, I say this to Gerald and to SAET (the organization): Give us some examples of university theology that has no ecclesial value or some ecclesial theology that reveals how this can be done better by pastors. I’m ready to be convinced but I want to see what is actually involved here.
First, I fear he’s equating “theology” with “writing books.” Which is a way of saying I’m not sure what he means at the concrete level when he talks about doing theology. So, what is meant by “theology”?
Second, pastors all over the world are doing theology every day — at the local level, in all sorts of ways — and that grass roots level of theologizing is setting the real agenda of the church since it is where the church actually is. I want to emphasize this: pastor-theologians probably are ignoring what Gerald calls “academic theology” and instead they are pursuing genuine ecclesial theological concerns. Perhaps it is the substance or quality of those concerns that concern Gerald.
Third, most theologians who are professionals (university, seminary, college etc) are heavily-shaped by their own church life and church concerns. I know I am; most theologians I know are too. Christians doing theology through an academic vocation and Christians — that’s what pastors are — doing theology in a church aren’t two different things but one theology being done in different settings. I don’t disagree, though, that some do theology in the most arcane of ways — but I don’t think there’s as much as that as is being suggested here. It seems a false dichotomy (ecclesial vs. academic theologians) when there is a spectrum from ecclesial shaped theology to purely theoretical theology.
Fourth, pastors and churches are setting all kinds of theological agendas by having conferences about church concerns and theological concerns; they do this by the sorts of books they read and the sorts of speakers they invite to their churches and by the sorts of conferences they attend. Is it that what shapes those conference is not “theological” enough?
Fifth, give us some examples of what is meant by pastor-theologians leading the edge — we need to see what he is talking about because I’m not yet convinced pastor-theologians do all that much different work than university-theologians who are deeply at work in their local churches.
Sixth, the last generation of evangelicalism was led by a pastor-theologian, John Stott.
Seventh, this generation is heavily influenced by pastor-theologians, Tom Wright and John Piper. Two very sharp theologians who are church-based (until Tom’s recent move to St Andrews University). I could give more examples.
Eighth, his examples are exceptional: Augustine and Athanasius weren’t ordinary pastors. And how many from each era do we know of? I suggest there have always been a handful of pastor-theologians, not hundreds and hundreds at the top level. From our time we’ve got the continuity-line successors of Augustine and Athanasius: Pope Benedict, Archbishop Rowan Williams, the patriarchs of the Orthodox church and not to discount Bishop Ware, Helmut Thielicke in Germany … but these are the exceptions and not the norm. The norm doesn’t have time to write theology but to do theology in the mundane day-to-day. Where are the hundreds of thousands of pastors who were theologians in their local churches and who have left nothing but a trail of one church living out the one gospel in local places? That’s the norm and that’s where the best theology is done.
So I will close with this: What I’m hearing is that pastors want to be shapers of theological discourse. I will stand in line to listen. So, speak up — let’s hear what you’ve got to say. You don’t have to fight for your right to be heard. But you do have to put something on the table.