Pastors, not Professors …

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.

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  • I hear his concern loudly, that there needs to be more serious rigorous formal theology within church communities, but I tend to be more in line with Scot’s assessment of the situation. As one who has a foot in both academic and ecclesial worlds, I find frustrations which go both ways – the church doesn’t always get the academy, and the academy doesn’t always get the church.

    My initial concern was that, while his objective is admirable enough, perhaps his statement (as given here) has gone too far. There needs to be more of a bridging of these worlds than I see in this perspective.

  • Rob

    In a global, highly connected community, communication of ideas is no longer located in one particular spot. Is Mr Hiestand more concerned about my pastor or where I go to ask Theological questions? Or,maybe, where I go to get my answers?
    Not sure who his beef is with. Or how relevant it is.

  • Mark B

    Pastors do write or at least create a critical piece of theology almost every week. It is called the sermon. And the sermon is a dramatically different form of theology than anything created in the academic environment.

    What I hear and agree with out of the call for pastor-theologians is for pastors, lay-people and academics to respect that as real theology. In fact to acknowledge it as primary theology, where everything else supports that proclamation.

    Too many pastors don’t respect it by leaving it to the end of the week and not really being serious. Lay-people have been lead to expect next to nothing from the pulpit and God forbid that a sermon might challenge them to change. And sermons for academics are never critical or scholarly and hence not theology.

    To be lead by pastor-theologians mean recognizing that if it doesn’t make the pulpit proclamation, it isn’t primary. All those people claimed including Augustine were preachers first. The proclaimed Word took pride of place.

    I’ve got stacks of books on shelves filled with anthologies of the best sermons of the day. I’ll still take down Luther’s or Wesley’s. But all of those anthologies stop around 1965 – its like the sermon stopped being real theology. Or maybe using better language, it stopped being the live giving Word.

  • What of community? Why does it have to be one or the other? Why could not the “pastor” have “academics” in his midst to help shape the theology of the local congregation. Helping to both educate the pastor/shepherd and the congregation as a whole? If we are to be in community, then share your knowledge and help to shape and form the story to suit the community to which you are serving and leading – no?

    The problem I have encountered with some academics, is that they are wrestling with their own ideas and theological wrinkles as they dig deeper and deeper into a myriad of books and points and counterpoints. This then makes it confusing to even them at times; and makes us wonder at times if they have wandered off the ranch? So…,

    it comes back to community; if the pastor and the academic work together and the academic can be comfortable with the fact that not all of what is being shared as part of the Story is something he/she totally are in agreement with and vice-versa; and they collectively willing to invest in helping shape the story within that particular community – I say that is the best solution.

    Discounting one or the other doesn’t work well if you ask me? However.., if we do look to the very early church, the academic and pastor relationship was similar. Paul was out and about and the local pastor was being poured into from afar in many cases. How many of the early disciples were academics? Was Timothy a scholar? Is it the power of one’s knowledge that leads folks to Christ and into the story or is it the power of the Gospel and the stories of the folks living that Good News out that intrigues people and turns the world upside down? Things to ponder??

    Peace and One Love,


  • My thanks to Scot for noting this piece, and for his for his previous engagement with the SAET (Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology). Scot, you raise a number of fair questions. Don’t know that I’ll be able to do justice to every one of them, but I’ll try. (Note: if readers are interested in this discussion, I recommend you read my entire First Things essay, linked by Scot in the above post).

    1. Yes, I am largely (and intentionally) equating theology with writing. Of course there is more to theology than writing, but the pressing question of my essay is, “Who should serve as our wider-theologian?” In other words, who should be viewed — by the church — as the principle theologians of the church? And in this “wider” sense, I don’t see how a theologian can serve as a theologian to the wider church without some sort of writing ministry. The leadership of Piper and Wright to the larger church would virtually non-existent if they didn’t write.

    2. Yes, it is the substance of theology at the pastoral level that concerns me. To be sure, every pastor is a theologian. Some are good theologians and some are poor theologians. But we’ve created a context where we send our intellectuals/theologians/bible scholars into the academy, and have left the pastorate for practitioners. The overall effect is that the pastoral community is no longer viewed as a theological vocation. Of course, not every pastor can or should be a “wider” theologian in the way I’ve outlined in my essay. Indeed not every professor is capable of this! But my point is that we should stop viewing the academy as the place where theology happens, and the church as the place where ministry happens. And that we won’t get rid of this bifurcation until we start returning some of our wider theologians to an ecclesial vocation. Simply telling pastors and professors to work together won’t cut it.

    3. Perhaps I’ve overstated the effect of social setting (perhaps). There are many university profs (Scot is one) who think first as Christians and then second as profs. So my point is not that ecclesial theology is impossible to do from within the academy. But many profs who choose to engage ecclesially do so at the expense of their academic standing in the larger university scene. This is true in biblical studies, church history, and even theology. (See Marsden Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship and Legaspi’s Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies. One could find a doze article/books by Christian scholars making this point.) The point being, there is often strong vocational pressure to NOT be ecclesially minded. This is, of course, more true as one leaves the bible colleges and divinity schools and enters into the broader university context. So all of that to say, I do believe social location is a factor, even if not determinative.

    4. Agreed. It’s a question of quality and focus. If someone were to say, “I’m going to a theology conference,” our first thought wouldn’t be, “He must going to a gathering of pastors.” But that wouldn’t have been the case 200 years ago, or for most of church history, for that matter.

    5. I’ve got a an article in WTJ 70 (2008), “Pastor-Scholar to Professor-Scholar” that gets more concrete with examples, as well as a piece in the review process at Pro Ecclesia. Both of those are extended treatments that tease out some of the issues associated with this question. On the whole, it’s easier to point to dead pastor-theologians as positive examples. For an example of contrast, see Luther’s Bondage of the Will compared with Erasmus. Regardless of what one thinks of Luther’s conclusion, Luther’s treatment massively captures the pastoral import of the topic in ways that Erasmus doesn’t even begin to do. I think Piper and Wright are good examples of present day pastor-theologians. But on the whole, I think finding a long list of present day examples is difficult simply because the church stopped trying to produce pastor-theologians about 150 years ago. Back to (3) above, my point is not that ecclesially sensitive profs can’t do ecclesial theology, it’s that the vocation of a prof (especially in the wider university context) often makes it difficult.

    6. and 7. Agreed.

    8. Yes, my historical examples are exceptional. Again, my point is not that every pastor should try to be Augustine or Anselm or Calvin. That would be like saying every prof should be Barth. These are all exceptional men. But just as Barth represents an ideal (even if unachievable for nearly every theology prof), so too Augustine and past pastor-theologians represent an ideal for pastors. We pastors have long since stopped viewing ourselves as wider theologians. We think that our vocation as pastor exempts us from this function. And that, I contend, is a mistake.

    <I>You do have to put something on the table</i>.

    Indeed. And for the most part we haven’t. We pastors, as a larger community, lack the theological muscle to meet this challenge. And that’s what the SAET is about. We’re trying to raise up a new generation of pastors who take seriously the theological guardianship of the wider church. I’ve published a few journal articles on historical theology and soteriology, but I make no pretense at (yet?) being the sort of theologian I’m advocating for. Time will tell what we pastor are able to produce. But I am convinced that,

    1. Scripture calls pastors to serve as the theological guardians of the church,
    2. Pastors have largely neglected this mandate, and
    3. Theology is best done in the context for which it is intended.

    And I suspect most of us will agree with that.

  • Scot makes a good point with regard to the number of theological greats in a generation. There are two questions that I would love to see addressed.

    (1) How broadly did those great theologian-pastors affect the church in their lives? It’s easy to see the influence that Augustine has had on the church over the past millennia but how much did his writings and influence affect churches outside his immediate geographic context in his lifetime?

    (2) How much does technology and culture affect this issue? Our culture is trained to communicate in tweets and sound bites. Homiletics courses seem informed by this attribute of culture. The depth of theological thought that seems to be presupposed here cannot be communicated in 140 characters or less.

    I propose that the root issue here may be that scholar-theologians are doing ecclesial-theology (as Scot proposes) but it is not being communicated in a way that the “person-in-the-pew” can apprehend.

    This became clear to me when I asked my wife (a lawyer with her undergraduate degree in English) to proof read a paper for me. She said that it was good but she didn’t understand it. As we talked about it, it became clear that it wasn’t because my logic or presentation were bad. It was because I was talking to other seminarians using academic theological jargon.

    Those are a few random thoughts I have. I would love to read your responses.

  • Gerald,

    With all due respect sir, where is that mandate?

    Secondly, how does any normal person in this modern/post-modern world have the time to siphon through the hundreds of thousands of thougths on what proper theology is? This is why I thinks Scot’s question is valid – What is Theology? Do we believe the Calvanist; the Arminians; the Catholics; the multi-dissected denominations; etc, etc..?

    Mankind has made “theology” too complicated for even the educated mind to understand, because even academics cannot agree on theology, doctrine, etc…

    So.., what pray tell is Theology? The more important question to me is, “Why is the power of Theology more important than the simple message and power of The Gospel”?

  • rjs

    Gerald (#5)

    Where do you get the biblical mandate for pastors to be the theological guardians of the church? I see no such thing anywhere in the text. In fact there is a clear expectation that various members of the body of the church will fill different functions to which they are called. Some pastors will be theologians, all theologians are a key part of the church. In fact, there is no effective theology apart from the church.

  • smcknight


    Thanks much for your gracious response to my pushbacks.

    A question back at you: Do you think this whole problem is generated by our system of education?

    I’ll flesh that out. When Augustine wrote, no real university system as we now know it. When Aquinas wrote, there were the beginnings … but they were controlled by the Church and for the church. That obtained until — well, you mention Legaspi’s book — until the 18th and 19th Centuries in Europe. Theology had to be one of the subjects and had to establish itself as a science (Wissenschaft).

    Today we inherit a system where education is separate from the church so that the academic types gravitate to universities/seminaries, while the practitioner types gravitate toward parishes.

    Is the problem, then, not the church pastors but the educational system? (I wanted to make this a focus of the piece, but thought would derail my other comments.)

    I see your issue without solution in the current educational system.

  • DRT

    The pastor in my last church kept saying that we should not do theology because it divides people, not bring them together. What he did not say is that he did do theology in his sermons so what he did not want was peoples views other than his own.

  • dopderbeck

    Excellent discussion! I agree completely with the general idea that theology should be done for, in and by the Church. And I agree completely that local congregational pastors should understand that their vocation entails being a public theologian.

    I think, however, that I’d flip something around. I don’t really think the problem is that “academic” theologians have insulated themselves from the “churchmen” / pastors. I think the problem is that pastors often insulate themselves from serious “academic” theology and Biblical studies.

    The trouble is creating space in a local church setting in which serious theological conversation — which necessarily involves sometimes uncomfortable questions, diversity of opinions, and so on. In my experience, the first concern of many pastors — and this is understandable — is “will this unnecessarily stir up a hornet’s nest?”

  • I’m hearing Gerald’s concern, and it resonates with me. At the same time, I’m not sure that the answer is to make the church the center of theological discourse. I think a better approach might be to work harder on better partnerships and mutual respect between church-based theology and academy-based theology.

    I’m a full time pastor/church planter, and it definitely consumes the better part of my time, as well as my emotional and physical energy. And though I’ve been super blessed to do some writing and teaching for the larger church (not sure if that qualifies me as a pastor-theologian!), I also know I’m the exception to the rule. I take great comfort knowing there are full-time theologians who are doing what I can only moonlight doing. In fact, I rely heavily on their work to do my own!

    Long live the professional, academic theologian, and may God continue to bless the partnership between them and the theologians in the pulpit.

  • Rick

    When I first read this article I hoped Scot would mention it. Glad to see it here.

    Like others, I am not sure the problem is as serious as Hiestand describes. However, I do think there are some elements in the church that are taking some emphasis away from theology, such as the emphasis on church growth and “leadership” skills. Granted, some of this can be attributed to a missional theology, but I don’t think that is fully the case.

  • Scot,

    Your last comment hit the nail on the head. Our educational system is completely divorced form the church creating this problem. As the head of the Spiritual Growth Department at a large church I often said that there was a difference in the role of the local church and the seminary. Perhaps that paradigm is false.

    Gerald – What do you propose to overcome our educational structure so that the church can claim a stronger place in “wider-theology”?

  • dopderbeck

    There are numerous places in the NT where pastors / elders are told to guard the Church’s doctrine: e.g. 1 Tim. 1:3, 2 Tim. 1:13-14, 2 Tim. 2:14-26 — heck all of 1 and 2 Timothy.

    I think many of us who have experienced fundamentalism blanch at this idea because our church experience might have involved lots and lots of pounding on debatable, or just plain wrong, doctrines. Maybe this is one place where real and deep academic theological education is vital. Education is a humbling process of sifting, weighing, listening and discerning.

  • Scot #9

    Yes, exactly right. This isn’t the 4th century anymore, and we can’t expect to turn back the clock. The university is here to stay. But I’m not sure we should simply roll with it as inevitably pushing theological production away from the church. But you are right that the inertia of our modern educational system pushes intellectuals into the academy. In my mind, there will necessarily need to be a vital partnership between academics and pastors, particularly as it relates to guild specific questions. But I think theology proper is place where the pastoral community (as whole) might be able to make real contributions. Here’s how Doug Sweeney (TEDS Edwards Historian) put it at last year’s SAET gathering,

    We will not always need academic, systematic theologians to do all the heavy theological lifting for God’s people. We are not often explicit about this, but systematic theology, insofar as it is distinguished from biblical, historical, philosophical, psychological, and intercultural theology, is the work of generalists, people who synthesize the findings of those in the other scholarly disciplines and neither have nor require a methodology of their own. They put the big picture together and apply it to our lives. They don’t require the resources or the structures of the academy to do this kind of work (though they do need very good libraries). In fact, the people best suited to synthesize our knowledge of God and His ways in the world, applying this knowledge to the empirical realities people face, are pastor-theologians.

    We should work toward a day when professors view themselves as handmaids serving pastor-theologians, and pastor-theologians play an important public role in guiding people theologically. Professors should continue to offer specialized instruction in ancient languages and history, exegesis, church history, social science, and philosophy. They will continue to raise up future generations of pastors. But we should work to raise up the kinds of pastors who can synthesize, exposit, and apply the knowledge of God to the lives of all God’s people with authority.”

    But I wonder if this really gets to the question raised by Richie (#7) and rjs (#8) –do in fact pastors have a biblical mandate to guard the theological integrity of the church? If they do, then we need to figure out a solution, even if one does not easily present itself.

  • dopderbeck

    Bryon and Scot — yeah, but… Can theology be pursued as an ever-reforming discipline without some spaces of academic freedom? Local churches can create spaces for conversation, but they cannot be spaces of real academic freedom — that is not their mission. I do therefore think there is a role for “academic” theology, though I agree that the “Enlightenment” model of the “theology department” within the social sciences or humanities is a problem.

  • dopderbeck

    Gerald — while I’m agreeing with you in significant part, I sense that there’s not much notion in your quote in #16 that “systematic” theology can ever be a “research” project. I don’t agree that “systematic” theology merely synthesizes what other disciplines bring to the table, nor do I agree that systematic theology lacks its own methodology. Honestly, that strikes me as nonsense!

    Systematic theology necessarily interacts with philosophy, and the average pastor is not adequately trained to undertake a philosophical research program. If the Church is to grow in its understanding of God, then there must always be a place for “academic” systematic theology.

  • rjs

    The last paragraph of the quote in #16 strikes me as rather absurd – professors as handmaids serving pastor-theologians?

    Give me a break – this will only serve to further destroy our church by increasing the height of the pastoral pedestal. We do not need a more finely tuned hierarchy with pastors at the apex. We need a church where we are all accountable and filling individual calling aimed at the same purpose of the kingdom of God.

    Professors are serving the church, pastors are serving the church, theologians are serving the church (whether pastors or professors or neither), …

  • To Richie (#7) and rjs (#8),

    I’ve written, in a preliminary way, about this question here. And I like what dopderbeck says in #15. We could start trading proof-texts, but frankly,who else would scripture assign this function to? Clearly (at least to me) a primary function of a pastor–made explicit in Scripture–is to provide theological leadership to the Christian community. This is made explicit in the pastoral epistles, and then clearly seen played out in Acts, most notably in Acts 15 were the pressing theological question regarding Jew/Gentile relations was worked out exclusively by the elders and the apostles.

    And historically the church has always understood the role of the Bishop/Elder/Pastor/Priest to be a role that includes theological guardianship. Most clergy exercised this role at a local level, but the most gifted were called upon to do so in a wider way. Councils have always been decided by clergy, even if contributions were made by non-elders/bishops, etc. (like Athanasius when he was still a deacon at Nicea).

    But you are asking the right question. We can go around and around all day about whether it works better to do theology in the church or the academy. But if the Scripture’s speak to the issue, then we need to listen.

  • A number of the comments above seem to be working from the assumption that I think the present pastoral community should just up and start writing theology. I don’t think that. The present pastoral community is no longer gifted for this. It would be asking the impossible. The essay is looking to future, and is suggesting that we must stop sending all of our theologians into the academy.

  • rjs

    But Gerald, the scriptures cannot speak to this issue, neither can the ancient councils for that matter. The division of labor and the structure for that division was simply different.

    At first there was no ‘academy’ and later there was no ‘academy’ outside of the clerical ranks.

  • I’m hopeful that the increasing number of women in ministry will pave the way for some new wine in the old wineskins of the pastor/scholar vocation. I know my perspective is limited, but a few of my pastor friends (who also happen to be women) are very gifted on this front.

  • dopderbeck (#18)

    I think Doug’s point is that theology is a synthesizing discipline, and as such one not need be a specialist in a narrow guild (like biblical studies, or church history), which would inevitably require continual engagement with ongoing academic discussions. But writing a theological essay on the identity of the pastor, or soteriology or even a theological commentary (say Barth’s Romans commentary, done while still a pastor) is possible from within parish ministry. But it wouldn’t make sense for a pastor to try to do what Doug does with his Edwards scholarship. That’s important work, but do we really need a pastor in the Yale university library putting transcribing Edwards text into edited volumes? Not really. I think that was Doug’s point.

  • @22

    From the post I linked to in 20…

    “Of course one might suggest that the foregoing methodology is decidedly anachronistic. After all, the Scriptural charge to pastors to serve as wider theologians is to be expected—there was no one else to do it. It’s unfair, one might suggest, to make the Bible arbitrate between pastors and professors when pastors where the only viable candidates in the in the first-century context. Perhaps. But I’m certain the burden of proof lies on the side of those who would deny the theological primacy of the clergy in maintaining and articulating the church’s message. A plausible and convincing reason must be put forth demonstrating how the cultural moment has so changed that clergy need no longer take responsibility to function as wider theologians. I doubt that one can be found. That the Scriptures lay this charge upon the pastoral community is undeniable. That the pastoral community has—on the whole—farmed this responsibility out to the academy is, it would seem, an egregious case of pastoral neglect.”

  • rjs

    And after having said that – I also admit that I find Tom Wright among the most significant theologians. I think in part this is because he is both pastor and academic and he approaches even academic theology pastorally. We do need pastor-theologians because this will strengthen the church and ground it in reality.

  • dopderbeck

    Gerald (#24) — Ok, I’m with ya. I’m a law professor, BTW, and we have exactly this same conversation regarding legal academia and the disconnect between the scholarly and “practice” communities. And Lord Willing I’m hoping to start working on a doctorate in theology, not to become an academic theologian, but to enhance my work as a legal scholar and to serve the Church.

  • #11,

    I think, however, that I’d flip something around. I don’t really think the problem is that “academic” theologians have insulated themselves from the “churchmen” / pastors. I think the problem is that pastors often insulate themselves from serious “academic” theology and Biblical studies.

    This is a deep and abiding concern for me. It colors my thoughts on this topic so much that I’m not sure much else I can say that would be productive, but thank you for mentioning it.

  • rjs, very much agreed.

  • dopderbeck

    Something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately is the role of monasteries in the Middle Ages, and what we can learn from that history. The mediating structure we lack today, I think, is the monastery. These were the places where learning was preserved, advanced and transmitted; these were the places where Church and proto-academy met; and these were the places where learning was inseparable from prayer, spiritual meditation, and acts of mercy. We need a new monastic movement. (I’m aware of the “new monasticism,” which I admire very much, but which has a different emphasis I think).

  • rob

    Well, if we agree with John Franke (as I do) that all theology is contextual and local, then theology can not BUT happen in the local setting. However, I think it takes a blending of the theological wrestlings and the local context to make it useful and transforming. The challenge is being able to bridge the gap. As an academic, I’m more comfortable in the world of ideas, and it is sometimes difficult for me to translate that to “well what does this mean on the ground, in the community”.

  • rob

    As an example, take the New Perspective on Paul. I see great merit in that whole discussion, but one could argue, “what does average Jane in the pews care about that?”. My answer would be “because it changes how you approach Paul, it changes how we read Romans for instance, etc”. What DOES that mean to average Jane? I don’t know, that is why we need conversations between the academy and the pulpit.

  • rob

    One more and I’m done (I think!). I see a real issue with the pastor as the sole dispenser of truth, and the hierachy it represents (my own language of Average Jane reinforces that false dichotomy). So my comments are more addressed to those operating under current paradigms/structures of church.

  • rjs

    To Scot’s questions:

    Should pastors be leading the charge in theology? No – and yes. Pastors gifted in theology should be using those gifts, Tom Wright is an excellent example. But pastors working as theologians will be both pastoral and critical thinkers. Some current examples who come to mind scare me because their “theological thinking” is shabby and illogical and closed. I think this is part of what scares me in the idea of pastors as guardians of theology.

    Is there too much sterile or non-ecclesial theology? Yes – far too much. But this is not because pastors have abdicated responsibility for theology, it is because theologians have abdicated responsibility for and to the church. Academic theologians should be part of the church leadership. Theology is for the church.

    What do you think of Hiestand’s proposal? It needs more nuance and careful development. Who is a pastor? The local leader of a local church? Anyone on staff of a local church? Anyone ordained by a church? Anyone who is called to teach and lead?

  • smcknight

    RJS, that last comment — on sterility — says something important there that I think Gerald is also big on: too much of theology shuts out the church and the pastoral task.

    One major issue here is that we evangelicals have no centralization and that means we have an infinitude of popes. Like it or not, while this gives maximum responsibility at the local level, it also creates so much theological nonsense.

    Gerald’s discussion is not a discussion for RCatholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or for the more conservative groups among Lutherans. They have their recognized “pastor-theologians.” It is evangelicalism that has created this problem.

  • rjs


    I know – and I agree with Gerald here. But it isn’t either/or – either pastors or academics. It is theologians in the church and for the church in whichever setting. The best will probably be in both camps to an extent. Certainly you’ve written and commented on many occasions on the importance of Christian scholarship for the church rather than for the guild.

    What sets me off is the expression “pastor as guardian of theology.” This conjures up too many bad images.

  • I don’t know how a pastor would go about leading a theological conversation. It is the nature of the preacher’s role that his or her theological opinions will always seem like officially dictated church positions, whether they are or not. It’s hard to be part of a church that preaches ideas you disagree with, and it’s easy for the church to move towards treating those ideas as irrefutable truth.

  • rjs, don’t read too much into the word “guardianship.” I don’t think I mean it in the Orwellian tone you’re hearing it in.

    And Scot, you’re right that this is a distinctly evangelical problem.

  • normbv

    I say if you want to stir up a hornet’s nest start teaching extensive theology in churches. Even when pastors who have some theological skills start their work I doubt they are going to take their congregation down paths that can cause division as they didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday. Just do the general stuff and have a feel for your local church body and tell em to come visit Jesus Creed and Biologos for their theological fix. 😉

  • RJH


    I didn’t see you respond to this, but I think RJS makes a strong point in #19 about the increasing the “pastoral pedestal” by (I’m assuming) adding an additional intellectual component to said pedestal. This strikes me as a real possibility (and one that sneaks up on you), though I can’t say how that functions in your own church (which odds are I’ll be visiting in February). Directly related to the role of university education in this separation is the rise of academic theology as its own professional guild with its own subtle sociological pressures about appropriate topics, style, etc., which in addition to discouraging PhDs from pastoral settings has a way of setting the tone even for those in the academy. I did see this “no place but the academy” bias while in grad school in the 1990s (history at ND), which luckily several colleagues overcame to pursue other avenues.

  • rjs


    I appreciate that you may not have meant the word in this fashion. Yet as a scientist in the church, who wrestles with issues of science and faith, and has spent a great deal of time thinking about these issues, I have a hard time looking at the word “guardian” neutrally. It isn’t usually applied with any degree of neutrality.

    And when pastors become involved it usually becomes “you’re not allowed to think that” or “you’re not allowed to say that” or … Think Waltke at RTS last year, or Enns at WTS or the current hullabaloo at Calvin or those pressing to have Falk fired after his book came out in 2004 or …

    You are free, of course, to say that I am part of the problem that pastors need to guard against. Plenty of others have.

  • OnTheOtherHand

    The answer, of course, is yes and no. Considering that most lay people couldn’t find the book of Amos if asked, teaching theology seems to me to be jumping the gun. What is theology, if not a synthesis of the biblical raw data. I do believe theology will take care of itself (up to a point) if we could even get people to read their bibles.

  • dopderbeck

    OTOH (#42) — one thing good theology can do is disabuse people of the notion that the Bible is a collection of data to be synthesized. 😉

    Seriously — you need theology to read the Bible theologically, which is how it must be read.

  • rjs,

    A fair enough concern, and a real one. But it is hardly limited to pastors. The wider academic context has its own “police force” that dictates what can and can’t be taught. Such “policing” is, I suspect, inevitable regardless who is in charge.


    My sense (and perhaps this reflects my ecclesial context) is that the days when pastors had wide public prestige is long gone. So this hasn’t been a substantial concern of mine. Maybe others, in different contexts, see that differently. Something to think about.

  • By the way, thanks everyone for a great conversation. Appreciate you all helping me think through this issue. The dialog here was much more helpful than the comments left at the original post.

  • Pastors ought to engage in “academic” theology at least by reading and teaching their people if not also writing theology for the people’s learning and edification. In evangelical churches, in the pietist tradition, the focus is almost exclusively on changing people’s lives often to the exclusion of teaching their people theology and biblical literacy. Too often a false dilemma is established by pastors; either teach the people how to live or teach them “academic stuff” about the Bible. It is not an either or, nor is one without the other sufficient. I would love to see evangelical, Bible churches care about people’s minds as much as their souls since those are not competing interests.

  • Dan Arnold

    I have to say that I agree with RJS on this. When the pastor says from the pulpit, “There will be no evolutionists in heaven” or when he says that “if you say the Bible is not inerrant, then you are calling God a liar,” it is hard to look to pastoral leadership in theology. Guardianship ceases to be about applying theology in our particular historical context and sounds more like developing power and control. This is not saying the pastor is a bad person; this is how many pastors understand what it means to guard orthodoxy. (Look at Albert Mohler, even if he is not a pastor.)

    And like dopterbeck notes, it’s not just pastors, congregants do not see value in theology. When a Sunday school teacher and deacon says he doesn’t like theology, what should that tell me? All of this tells me that Guardianship is understood as solidifying what like-minded people already think they know about God and less about how fallible humans created in the image of God grow in understanding the holy, loving, yet ultimately unknowable God?

    We are all theologians, the question is what kind of theologian will we be? Do we stand guard over theology or do we seek to allow our theology to be conditioned by our context?

  • Gerald:

    It’s true that theological policing happens in many contexts, but shouldn’t we therefore minimize its opportunities to arise by avoiding placing theologians in leadership positions?

  • I am deeply convinced that it is more about the locus of theological reflection/exploration. I genuinely believe that the community of faith, the church, should be the primary place for engaging theology- a community that includes pastors, professors & parishioners. Ched Myers brilliantly recognizes the need to bring together the three spheres of the sanctuary, the seminary and the streets. While the following quote can unfairly generalize some, I think it worth reflection:

    “This insulation wreaks havoc in all directions. Professional theological and biblical scholars tend to ignore the demands of practice, and feel increasingly less obligated to interpret their work to lay Christians. Their students feel the pressure to get their degrees so they can get a job so they can begin paying off student loans, and usually receive little incentive to engage in “practical” diversions such as service among the poor or engagement in social movements. Meanwhile, faith-based activists who carry out the works of mercy and justice are themselves notorious for neglecting the disciplines of critical reflection—theological and political—on why and how they are trying to change the world. They are too tired, the needs are too overwhelming, the resources are too thin. And people in the pews—as well as their clerical and denominational leadership— too often ignore both the insights of academics and the challenges of activists, settling instead for the insular confines of religious entertainment. All three spheres are profoundly impoverished by their isolation from each other, and the church as a whole is paralyzed. Key to the struggle to renew the church today, then, is the task of re-integrating the competences of these three alienated worlds of Christian witness. I believe the key is to return theological reflection to an organic, not a specialized, vocation. Specifically, its focus should not be credentialing, but community formation, conscientization and capacity building, in order to rehabilitate the church as a faith based movement of personal and social transformation.”

    (from “Between the Seminary, the Sanctuary and the Streets: Reflections on Alternative Theological Education” by Ched Myers)

  • nathan

    It’s always been fascinating to me how evangelicals tend to downplay “theology” without realizing that they are, by doing so, offering a kind of theology.

    In my view this is not just about addressing the disconnect between pastors and theologians.

    Nor is it simply about calling theologians to remember that theology is for the Church. (Tillich’s opening paragraphs of his Systematics makes this point quite eloquently.)

    Neither is it about enjoining pastors to value the life of the mind, the richness of our 2000 year conversations, and to communicate with passion the value of our doctrine, etc.

    It’s also about raising an unflinching critique of the assumed (and even unconscious) ecclesiological values of the evangelical lay person whose eyes glaze over as soon as we start talking about theology. At this point in the game, many pastors are simply the offspring of what we have sown in our congregations and seminaries.

    Some other thoughts….

    We need to raise high the value of robust theological thinking/reflection in our congregations and ground it in the ongoing 2000 year discourse of which we are inheritors.

    Over the course of a little more than a decade in ministry I left a church situation that had spiritually and emotionally abused me. I didn’t want to go to church, much less work in one after that, but I knew that I still loved theology… I had an M.Div, but I went back to grad school for an M.T.S. to get my feet wet for possible doctoral work.

    It was in those two years that the academic theological project impressed upon me AGAIN the importance of theology for the Church and so, for now, I’ve deferred my plans for doctoral work and have returned to the parish. It was the scope of theology in the Church, as transmitted in the academy, that renewed my love for her.

  • DRT

    Sorry for this question, but I have never read a Piper book. What is a good one that is more theology oriented.


  • I found this post along with comments quite interesting. I wish I had the time and strength to plumb out of it all I could.

    I would like to say I am not impressed by what I do pick at times as an elitist mentality among professional theologians. If humility does not mark their path, and if they do not make every effort to connect with the church, then I believe their work is hurt.

    This is certainly not the case with you, Scot. You’ve more than gone out of your way to be sure to be in close association with the entire body of Christ, in fact this blog is a model of that!

  • DRT

    …to finish my story, I picked Piper’s rebuttal to Wright, the Future of Justification, but I in the mail today I also got the Blue Parakeet and Surprised by Hope. Looks like a good day.

  • Dale A. Brueggemann

    Devil’s advocate: We’ve mentioned a few of the Patristics, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, and Wesley. Mostly separated widely in history. Has there EVER been a time when many or most pastors were functioning as theologians for the wider church? Seems to me our own age isn’t doing badly with that with men like Wright, Piper, Keller, et. al.

    Nonetheless, I do agree that the robust theologian should learn to speak better to the general church, and the local pastor should labor to develop and declare a robust theology. And I don’t think either is happening nearly often enough today.