23 October 2015

the pastor as public theologian

Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan. The Pastor as Public Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.

One of the challenges facing modern American evangelicalism is finding the right relationship between theological thought and ecclesial practice, what has been referred to as the balance between orthodoxy and orthopraxis. It has become commonplace for congregations to look at the academy with suspicion, while many in modern scholarship regard the local church as a place where thinking about faith is no longer welcome. As a result, pastors can often feel as though they are caught in the middle – wanting to be serious about the study of scripture, but often afraid to present too great of a challenge to the average churchgoer. What is needed is a way forward, placing the work of theology within the context of the church, and putting the pastor at the center of such work.

To this end, Vanhoozer and Strachan assert, “Theological minds belong in ecclesial bodies” (xi), and provide a thoughtful book aimed at restoring the vocation of pastor as a theological undertaking to three publics: the academy, the church, and the broader society (4). This is a book that is intended to invoke change, and one which pastors, churches, and those who work in the academy ought to hear. The text is structured around four main chapters (two by Strachan, two by Vanhoozer, who also writes the Introduction and Conclusion), with two or three “Pastoral Perspectives” following each chapter. These perspectives come from various local church pastors who offer a brief response, and often illustration, of how these principles are being lived out.

The heart of the problem, suggests Vanhoozer, is that the vocation of pastor as public theologian has become a lost vision. While much of biblical and theological scholarship has become more technical and increasingly detached from daily congregational life, the common understanding of pastor has become quite varied and confused (6–9). The heart of this book is to restore the pastor as a public theologian – one who is “the organic intellectual of the body of Christ, a person with evangelical intelligence who is ‘wise unto salvation’” (23).

Chapter One (Strachan) provides a biblical survey of pastoral work, beginning with the embodied theological voices of the priest, the prophet, and the king (40–48). These figures stood at the center of the divine-human relationship, each bringing the faith of Israel into daily life. One of the marks of these offices was that each worked from within the context of the community, without “the luxury of cognitive dissonance” (46). From this the author compares the work of the New Testament pastor to these three offices, as being set-apart, and ministering wisdom and truth (53–58). The foundation of this is finding the nature of pastoral work as, “helping the word of God to dwell richly in the people of God (and vice versa)” (58).

Chapter Two (Strachan) then surveys the role of pastor in a brief history of the church. The author seeks to provide encouragement to the modern pastor who often faces major pressure “to be relentless inventors and creative visionaries” (70). Thus, this survey dwells on the best theological voices of the church coming from the pastorate. The early church understood the pastorate as an “office” to which on entered, more than a particular task or trade (75). By and large, this perspective remains constant in each era of the church, though with various developments to the specific understanding of the pastorate. One of the defining characteristics of the pastorate is that it has consistently been viewed as a call to engage theology in the life of the local church (82). What happened to the pastorate in American Christianity is linked to a radical shift somewhere in the twentieth century, as being theologically sound in the pulpit gave way to the art of dynamic public communication (88f.). Along with this, theology became a specialist’s discipline rather than the work of the local pastor (89). The author believes that there is a modern movement to recover the pastor-theologian, and is hopeful that this book will help foster such change.

In the third chapter (Vanhoozer) the process of rebuilding the role of pastor-theologian is given discussion. The purpose of the pastor-theologian is given the short answer, “for cultivating life and for coping with death” (104). In more detail, the work of the pastor-theologian is to “embody the evangelical mood” by bringing the reality of the resurrection into the fallen world in which pastoring occurs (107). Vanhoozer thus suggests that the pastor-theologian is a “minister of reality” – bringing to life what God has done in Christ, the pastor-theologian introduces this reality into every aspect of life to men and women in the local context (109). Thus, the pastor-theologian is “to indicate what is in Christ” in the lives of the community of faith (110, emphasis original). This work is realized in introducing this new reality into the lives of the faith community, and also in the teaching of the Word, and in working to create an atmosphere within the local faith community which embodies the new life that has come in Christ. In the end, Vanhoozer contends that the role of the pastor-theologian is “confessing, comprehending, celebrating, communicating, commending, and conforming themselves and others to what is in Christ” (125).

At the end of Chapter Three there is a specific challenge given to the work of the seminary. Certainly, with the many questions and challenges that exist within the relationship between the academy and the local church, the task of the seminary has become increasingly difficult. Often, the seminary experience places great pressure on the student, who is often found caught in between these two worlds. Vanhoozers comments on this are also encouraging and good, summarized: “The point of seminary curricular integration should therefore be pastoral wisdom, which demands literacy, competency, and excellence alike (128).

Chapter Four (Vanhoozer) is the longest of the book, and focuses on the many practices that are taken up by the pastor-theologian in the daily course of work. He refers to them as “Artisans in the House of God,” for they will bring these theological practices into the local church as various ways of “communicating what is in Christ” (141, emphasis original). The pastor-theologian takes on this role in various ways, and here the author gives five broad areas that encompass the ministry work within the local congregation. The pastor-theologian is called to as 1) Disciple-Maker, 2) Evangelist, 3) Catechist, 4) Liturgist, and 5) Apologist. Within these broad areas is found the specific work of making the faith alive in the community, bringing theological truth into ecclesial life. Vanhoozer is correct in reminding us, “There is no single formula or shortcut for making disciples, though there is a template: Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd” (144).

The work of making disciples is indeed a long process, and the modern evangelical culture seldom celebrates the qualities that make for strong discipleship. What is more, much of what is given to those who are working as pastors do not reflect the qualities that help foster an atmosphere of discipleship. Hence, this chapter is good in that it provides the would-be pastor-theologian with a reflection on the various areas of ministry that this office holds. Though it is not possible to review all of them here, it is good that the author allows us to consider the work of counsel and visitation, along with teaching and praying, and living a life that demonstrates the gospel as vital pieces of being a pastor-theologian. He also here emphasizes the sermon, an area that is often challenged on its effectiveness, as part of the high calling – demanding both courage and faith (156). What is central to these aspects of pastoral work is the edification of the body, a work that is accomplished by God through the office of the pastor theologian (168f.). The work of the pastor-theologian is public, and it finds its rightful place in the shared community of faith.

The Conclusion (Vanhoozer) is a summary message of the book, presented in fifty-five theses on the pastor as a public theologian. These are good statements, but their content will find more impact for the reader when read in the fuller discussion of the book’s chapters. This is a well-written and thoughtful study that both challenges and encourages pastors and local congregations to embrace the idea of a pastor as public-theologian for the good of the church, the body of Christ Jesus. It is my hope that this movement to strengthening the core leadership of the local church may allow God to move his kingdom in new and powerful ways, on a firm foundation that is focused on him.

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