Pastor-Theologian: A Different Angle (by David Fitch)

A few weeks back my colleague David Fitch had an important post on the pastor-theologian that caught fire. It has been a hot topic in the blogosphere alot lately. Here it is again. Give him your response and he’ll be sure to pipe in.  (@fitchest Reclaiming the Mission)

The Pastor-Theologian in a Different Light

Ministerial students regularly ask me for advice on doing a Ph.D. in Theology. I almost always find myself advising against it. If your goal is to get a job with this Ph.D., I suggest, your chances are slim and the costs will be enormous to your life. The seminary academic world is shrinking by the day. And the jobs are going with it.

Instead, if you want to get a job with a Ph.D., then do a Ph.D. in the social sciences where you can sneak theology in and somehow maybe get a job in the university system.

More than all this however, I advise against doing a Ph.D. in theology because I think the PhD forms you to work in the academy versus the church. And I don’t understand why anyone would seek to study theology for any other reason than working for the furtherance of God’s Kingdom in the church. So why would anyone do a Ph.D. in theology (which forms you against this)?

I argue for a different kind of academic work in theology that keeps the student grounded in the work (and life) of the church. This is the work of the pastor-theologian (or what I have called organic intellectual), people who sit in the fields of mission, learn the questions of culture and church by actually living in and among the struggles of the church, and then do the work of theology out of this context within a collective of other people doing the same. This, I contend, is where the revolution (or insurrection) shall come from. This will be the way theology changes the church and shapes its future.

This is why Christianity Today’s recent article entitled “Why Being a Pastor-Scholar Is Nearly Impossible” both disturbed me and inspired me (found HERE).  I was inspired by the article’s putting forth of the idea of the pastor-scholar as a model for theology. The numerous people mentioned who argue for this role like Kevin Vanhoozer, Owen Strachan, Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson gave me encouragement. I applaud the article for pointing out how important it is to do theology out of the place of leadership from within the life and work of the church.

Nonetheless, I was equally disturbed by the way Andrew Wilson (the author of the article) dismissed the pastor scholar as unfeasible. I resist the way he shapes what it means to be a scholar.

For Andrew, to be a scholar is to do a Ph.D., regularly submit articles to refereed journals, to deliver lectures among peers at AAR (American Academy of Religion) and become a specialist in the University. Really? Is this the only way to be a serious scholar/intellectual?

The Ph.D. trains you to be a specialist on minutia within a stream of research. You end up knowing more about less, a narrowing subject within your specified field of study. It narrows you and intensifies you into one area. You become less capable of integration (although not all Ph.D.’s are like this). The practice of writing journal articles and defending presentations at AAR orders you toward the theoretical. Theory is separated from practice (as intimated in the article). You spend less and less time on the ground in the ethnography of real life in the church and its engagements with the world. (the AAR section on ‘Ethnography and the Church’ is one exception).

I know there are exceptions. Nonetheless, I contend this view of the scholar forms you to become irrelevant to the church.

This kind of scholarship comes from Europe. It started with the University of Berlin model of the early 1800’s. (To see a description of this model and its problems in U. of Berlin see Hans Frei Types of Christian Theology Appendix A ‘Theology in the University’). It is less the 200 years old. Before this, scholarship was done in the church. But now, scholarship separates you from the church. I am certain there are still places where such an education can help the church. There are those rare Ph.D’s who are vibrant pastors and servants of the church. Nonetheless, I think it largely improbable that theology that moves the church shall come from these halls. Because paid theologians in academia end up doing scholarship that supports the institution. The temptation in such hallways is to do things that support the advance of one’s own tenure. You end up writing things to be read by fellow academics for their approval and positive reviews. These institutions are holdovers from Christendom. Theologians tend to support the Christendom institution because Christendom supports them. The research in essence becomes captive to Christendom. But Christendom is dying, which makes this research all the more irrelevant. For all these reasons and more, many of us who have been to American Academy of Religion are thankful the leadership of the church shall not be coming forth from this place.

What we need is a different vision of scholarship. We need new consortiums of pastor teachers. New venues for writing. It is already happening. Blogs, publishing houses, groups of scholars that meet denominationally to discuss the issues we face as pastors.

I believe in this so much that Northern Seminary created a D .Min program for the development of such scholarship. Our D Min program in Missional Leadership (link HERE) could just as easily be called a D Min in Contextual Theology. We work hard at integrating and growing Biblical scholarship, theological scholarship and ethnography and the ability to lead churches into engagement with culture. It is I contend, approaching what future organic theologians should be doing. (We start a new cohort in June 2016- final deadline for four spots open in the program is Jan 1 – if interested contact me at)

Many of you might be saying, but Dave, you have a Ph.D. You have a job in academia. You are doing your Christendom thing. Yes, yes and no. I continue on as a pastor/church plant coach. I do my work from this daily location. I consider my task here to prepare theologians for the future and my own situation as a bridge. I consider myself to be working myself out of a job.

In summary, I eschew the dismissal of the pastor theologian by Andrew Wilson. I know he means well. But the time is ripe to chuck the notion of what it means to be a pastor-scholar for the organic theologians of the future. The time for the emergence of a whole new class of scholars/practitioners is upon us. The church needs you. We need to form new spaces to do this work, and a new imagination for how it is done.

Tell me what you think.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.