What kind of theologian is a pastor?

For about a month this spring we (Kent and Zen) got together over lunch and wrestled with that question by discussing the book, The Pastor-Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision by Heistand and Wilson (Zondervan 2015). We come at the topic from slightly different angles, a college professor and a pastor respectively, but we both long for pastoral ministry that is theologically rich and pastorally wise. I (Kent) help train young theologians to envision their ministry along those lines, and Zen is trying to live it out in his congregation. So, wPastor Theologianhat kind of theologian is a pastor?

Our conversations were rich and the book was rewarding, though it left us with some questions and a few critiques. We’re going to interact with the book in the form of a dialogue.

Zen: I remember reading Stanley Hauerwas’s essay “The How of Theology and Ministry” for the first time during my years at Duke. In that essay, Hauerwas gives a brief history of the fragmentation of theology from ministry. I was neck deep in academia and maintained a snooty disinterest in working in a parish. Hauerwas’s essay forced me to reconsider what I thought theology was and, more importantly, for whom it was practiced.

Now I’m a pastor. (God’s ways are higher than our ways!) Reading The Pastor Theologian gave me an opportunity to think about the fracture of theology from ministry again. This time, however, I read it with a deep interest in finding some way to help heal the fracture.

So what can I, as pastor for one hundred people in Huntington, Indiana, do to work toward healing? Heistand and Wilson offer one incredibly simple and profound suggestion. They encourage “ecclesial theologians” to transform the “dialect” of theology. “The ultimate telos of Christian theology,” they suggest, “is the edification of the church” (p. 89). Implicit in this statement is a negation: Christian theology that obsesses over qualifications and complexity may misunderstand its chief end. So, Heistand and Wilson encourage ecclesial theologians to write “above all—as pastors. Such writing has been the lifeblood of the church and has constituted her highest theological discourse” (p. 101).

While I’m in agreement that writing in a pastoral perspective will help heal the fracture, I found myself struggling with Heistand and Wilson’s focus on writing. I get that most theology throughout history is written. Yet I am keenly aware that many within my congregation either can’t or won’t read the things I write. So then, how is it that writing is the best or primary mode for doing theology? If the “ultimate telos of Christian theology” is the church’s edification, what other modes might lead to a more widespread edification?

Kent: Yes, I also struggled with their focus on writing. I think their main concern is to reinvigorate pastors to contribute as publishing theologians, and this is well and good. But in doing so their estimation of the “local theologian” is downplayed, and unhelpfully so in my opinion. The local, or “pastor,” theologian is “a theologically astute pastor who ably services the theological needs of a local church. This theological leadership is most immediately accomplished through a theologically rich preaching ministry but also through theologically thick pastoral care, counseling, and organizational leadership” (p. 81). They go on to say rich and beautiful things about this role, things that can alter a pastor’s theological imagination for their role in profound ways. Yet, I kept feeling like this was less valuable than the ecclesial theologian, who writes and publishes for audiences beyond their congregation.

They argue that ecclesial theologians should exist again, and they will look like PhD holding, theologically astute pastors who write commentaries, publish academic articles, and write monographs. But I’m not sure about that vision. Yes, it would be great if some pastors would do that, I guess. But I would rather have pastors be great local theologians and not feel guilty about it!

Zen: That’s right, Kent. I kept waiting for them to open the toolshed a bit farther. Writing is an important part of theology and ministry. (I am writing right now after all.) But what other tools might we use to work toward changing the dialect of theology?

I’m thinking of a conversation I had with a friend who is a pastor theologian. He was explaining to me how the aesthetics of the Lord’s Supper, from the taste of the bread to the beauty of the cup, help communicate the theology of the Lord’s Supper. This is a way of “foregrounding ecclesial questions,” which the authors state is one of the ecclesial theologian’s priorities, in a way other than writing an essay.  No doubt, this person’s church is edified week after week by the pastor’s careful theological reflection on the act of preparing and serving communion. In this case, the tool was not a keyboard, but a communion table.

Here’s something I loved from the book. In their chapter “The Theological Anemia of the Church,” the authors offer a beautiful description of what the theologian does:

The theologian seeks to grasp and then articulate the central message of the gospel in such a way that the gospel becomes the norm by which all the various messages are judged worthy or unworthy of belief. The theologian seeks to unravel and shed light on the intricate web of beliefs—both conscious and unconscious—that shape our vision of the world and, thus, our desires and ultimately our actions. A chief task of the theologian is to peer beneath the surface and identify the mistaken beliefs that give rise to misplaced affections and subsequent erring ethics. Ideas have consequences, and it is the theologian’s job to sort out these consequences.

To me, that sounds very pastoral. So it gives me a window into why Heistand and Wilson think pastors should be theologians. I do this work with congregants all the time. I’m curious, Kent, how you feel your work as a professor of theology reflects this description of what theologians do?

Kent: I think it reflects much of what I do, particularly the bit in which they say that the work of the theologian is to “peer beneath the surface and identify the mistaken beliefs that give rise to misplaced affections and subsequent erring ethics.” In the classroom I talk about this in terms of the imagination, that unique human capacity that integrates intellect, instinct, and emotion. It’s the human capacity for making sense of things. It is more than intellectual without leaving the intellect behind. Theology is so critical for a Christian to shape their imagination in order that they are capable of seeing the world, themselves, each other, and God as they are – or at least as close to that as we can come as creatures. It’s to know things truthfully, even if not completely.

I also resonate with their mention of our “affections.” You are what you love, Jamie Smith writes, but you might not love what you think. Theology at its best – and I try to teach it this way – helps us to identify our loves. I don’t do this as well as I hope to, but I do hope I am getting better.

All in all, we would recommend the book to pastors who want to serve their church as a theologian and who may be wondering how its possible to do that.

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