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The Pastor Theologian for Today's Culture

The pastor is first and foremost a theologian.
The Pastor Theologian for Today's Culture

Princeton Seminary President Craig Barnes recently said that the hardest thing about being a pastor today is simply this: "confusion about what it means to be the pastor." There's probably not another profession that suffers from as great a lack of clarity as to what the job itself is all about. Many pastors feel like they've somehow lost the script that tells them what it means to be a pastor.

That hasn't always been the case. There used to be such clarity about the pastoral calling. For centuries, the church held out a clear and compelling vision of what a pastor is and what a pastor does. In short, this earlier vision of ministry said that the pastor is first and foremost a theologian. But this ancient vision is now buried under six feet of dirt, so we now hyphenate the word pastor to get theologian back into the definition.

What is a pastor theologian?

So what is a "pastor theologian"? The most helpful thing I can say is this—a pastor theologian is one person, not two. You may have heard the story about the girl who was strolling with her father, a country pastor, through the church's old adjacent graveyard. As she read the inscriptions on the headstones, a modestly adorned one caught her attention. It had the deceased person's name, his dates of birth and death, and the inscription: "Pastor Theologian." When this young girl saw those two words, side-by-side, on the headstone, her face lit up with a mix of surprise and concern; she asked her father worriedly, "Papa, why do they have two people buried in there?"

The pastor theologian [is] a trained theologian who combines spiritual urgency with profound learning—someone who's vocational home is in the church as a pastor, but whose calling is to feed God's people as a theologian

Now, this would be funny, if it weren't so true. The fact is, the designation "pastor" and "theologian" almost always refer to two different people, not the same person. And why is that? Because we no longer conceive of the pastorate as a theological calling. Pastors cast vision, mobilize teams, oversee programs, manage budgets, offer counsel to the hurting, and, yes, preach sermons. But we don't expect them to give serious intellectual leadership to the people of God. That's someone else's job—the Bible scholar, the seminary professor, or the academic, but not the pastor.

What I'm speaking to is the unfortunate division of labor that developed over the last two centuries, and that has divorced the doing of theology from the practice of ministry. And with this division of labor, the pastor's role is completely redefined, so that pastors are now practitioners, not thought leaders. I recently encountered a striking example of this division of labor. My colleague and I were asked to speak to a Bible college faculty on the theme of the pastor theologian—not the whole faculty, just the pastoral and educational ministries departments. Not, mind you, the biblical and theological studies departments. When I asked if those departments interact much, someone responded, sheepishly, that they're actually housed in two different buildings!

But, did you know, throughout the history of the church things were different? In fact, the church's leading theologians were pastors? Richard Lovelace, speaking about the time from the Reformation to the Second Great awakening, says, "The leaders and shapers of the Reformation, the Puritan and Pietist movements, and the first two awakenings included trained theologians who combined spiritual urgency with profound learning, men who had mastered the culture of their time and were in command of the instruments needed to destroy its idols and subdue its innovations: Luther and Calvin, Owen and Francke, Edwards and Wesley, Dwight and Simeon." Did you hear that definition of the pastor theologian: a trained theologian who combines spiritual urgency with profound learning—someone who's vocational home is in the church as a pastor, but whose calling is to feed God's people as a theologian.

What isn't a pastor theologian?

I think it's as important to be clear on what we're not talking about when we talk about a pastor theologian. As I see a resurgence of interest in the pastor theologian, I see growing confusion about what is a pastor theologian. It may be tempting for some of you, for example, to think of the pastor theologian as a pastor scholar, or pastor smart guy, or pastor with a Ph.D. But none of these is really the essence of the pastor theologian.

There is, of course, an important place for serious biblical and theological scholarship. The church needs highly trained academic theologians who give their life to robust, rigorous, and often fairly esoteric research—the kind of ground-breaking work the rest of us lack either the inclination or the gifting to do. Here I think of folks like Don Carson, Daniel Block, Mark Noll, or Kevin Vanhoozer, serious scholars who write really big books that can be hard to read, even harder to understand, not because they lack clarity but because they have such substance. These are bona fide scholars, and they're hugely valuable to the church. But they're not what I have in mind when I speak of the pastor theologian.

Nor do I have in mind the pastor who is simply the really smart guy with the Ph.D. To possess a degree does not make one a pastor theologian; it doesn't even make one a theologian, much less a pastor. But we live in a credential-obsessed society, where unless you've got a dozen letters behind your name, you're a nobody, certainly not a pastor theologian. It was for this reason that on the eve of my graduation from Cambridge University with a Ph.D., my mentor handed me this poem, entitled, So Call Me Doctor!:

The title, "brother," once I wore,
But that could satisfy no more,
Since on my journey up to fame,
I added M.Div. to my name.
But still I was not yet seen as bright,
What could I do to make me feel right?
Now they call me "Doctor"—how I love it!
No other accolade is above it!
Never was I thrilled like that before,
As on that day upon my door
They added "Doctor" to my name,
Now I'll never be the same!
So call me "Doctor," - Man alive,
On my ego I must thrive.
At conference rounds I will shine;
Praise the Lord, the title's mine!
Once I was humble, now I'm proud,
Walking erect with the Doctor crowd.
Surely the world hath need of me;
A man of learning with a grand degree!
The Apostle Paul knew no such bliss,
For he had no title to equal this!
I tell you my brothers, I'm not the same
Since I added "Doctor" to my name.

If anything, the scholarly wiring and specialized training of academics, which many pastor theologians do tend to have, can be a hindrance rather than a help to being an effective pastor theologian. I remember an older gentlemen bee-lining to me after a sermon. "I know what your problem is." Really, what's that? "You need to crucify that Cambridge Ph.D.!" He then walked off. It took me years to get my heart and not just my head around what he was saying. Pastor theologians are pastors, with all that entails, not scholarly smart guys with the Ph.Ds. who couldn't find a paycheck in the academy and so wound-up in the church.

What does a pastor theologian do?

But what does a pastor theologian do? I'd like to distill it down into three primary tasks. Although these aren't the pastor theologian's only tasks, nor are they tasks unique to pastor theologians. Hopefully, every pastor, as a leader for their congregation, will pursue these three tasks. But, for the pastor theologian, this is at the very heart of their calling.

First of all, and most importantly, a pastor theologian feeds God's people on the riches of God's Word. During the prophet Jeremiah's time, Israel was in serious crisis; the nation was threated from without, and it was decaying morally and spiritually from within. And God's answer to the crisis? "I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding" (Jeremiah 3:15). Or consider the Lord Jesus. "When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things" (Mark 6:34). A pastor theologian is a theologian, first and foremost, in the pulpit, not the classroom. He's riveted by the grandeurs of the Bible, and revels in the prospect of serving his people with a substantive, Scriptural diet.

Second, a pastor theologian retrieves the treasures of the Christian tradition in order to reapply them to the contemporary context. A pastor theologian is therefore not only a student of the Bible, but a student of church history. He doesn't suffer from what C. S. Lewis rightly referred to as "chronological snobbery," the notion that what is most recent must also be the most helpful, or insightful, or true. Instead, the pastor theologian recognizes the need to mine the Christian tradition for its amazing intellectual and spiritual resources, and then offer them up afresh to the church.

If I might use an example from my ministry, I was preaching a series entitled Mere Sexuality, where I addressed some contemporary challenges to a Christian vision of sexuality by simply retrieving truths that were obvious to Christians of other centuries, but that we've somehow forgotten. The Apostle Peter says his task is simply to stir up their sincere mind by way of reminder (2 Peter 3:1). This is at the heart of the pastor theologian's task as well—the retrieval and reapplication of classic Christian truths and practices.

But, thirdly, a pastor theologian helps his people think theologically not just about Christian things, but about everything. This is critical. Pastor theologians don't just train people to think theologically about Christian things, like the Atonement, small group ministry, worship services, or missions. Of course, they do all of that. But their task isn't limited to Christian things. It encompasses everything—how to think theologically about immigration, same-sex practice, and evolutionary biology. Mark Noll said there is a Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and the scandal is there is no evangelical mind. While we may think Christianly about Christian things, we don't think Christianly about everything. Learning to do so is one of the chief tasks of a pastor theologian, "to take every thought captive to obey Christ" (10:5).

Creating a culture for pastor theologians: a personal plea to pastors

If we're going to recover this kind of pastoral calling, one that is inherently theological in nature, then we need to work toward making the church a more hospitable place for this kind of calling. Which means we need to change the culture of the church so that pastor theologians can thrive—not as an end in itself, or to make the pastor theologian's life more cushy and comfortable, but for the good of the body of Christ as a whole, in its own spiritual integrity and ministry and mission to the world.

To pastors, may I encourage you to stand in the gap? Don't neglect the gift that has been given you or fall prey to the assumption that academic theologians or Bible scholars can meet all the theological needs of the church. In fact, let me appeal to you to stand in the gap between academy and church, and take on a less passive posture toward providing theological leadership to your congregation. You're their shepherd.

Todd Wilson (PhD, Cambridge University) is Senior Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, IL, cofounder of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and author most recently of The Pastor Theologian and Real Christian.

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