The Pastor as Public Theologian (Kevin Vanhoozer & Owen Strachan) - Review

THE PASTOR AS PUBLIC THEOLOGIAN: Reclaiming a Lost VisionBy Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015. Xi + 221 pages.

I am by vocation a pastor and a theologian. In my mind these two go together, but it would seem that many pastors do not see themselves as theologians. They may believe that theology is an academic discipline that has little to do with parish life. Having taught theology and church history I know that many of my students struggled to connect these disciplines with ministry. What they seemed to want was skills that could grow and manage the churches they wanted to serve. Courses in leadership and communication seemed more appropriate than the seemingly arcane courses in theology and history. A bit of Bible was okay, but even there one needn’t go very deep. What you learned in Sunday school would suffice.  The fact is, however, pastors/ministers/clergy are by definition theologians. They may not be specialists, but as generalists they/we have the important responsibility of helping disciples of Jesus connect their faith to the world in which they live. That is, we need to think of our context theologically. To be a pastor/theologian doesn’t require an advanced degree. I happen to have one, but then I was expecting to spend my career in the academy not the parish. Nonetheless, I have found that the parish is an excellent place to do theology. In fact, I think I’m a better theologian today having spent the past seventeen years in parish ministry than I was (and possibly could be) had I continued on the path I had for myself.

Having introduced my own interest in the relationship of the pastoral vocation and the work of the theologian, I come to the book under review. It is intended to be a clarion call to pastors to reclaim their vocation as pastor-theologians. The authors of the book, both conservative evangelical theologians name a problem and offer their solution. They are, like me, concerned that too often clergy see themselves as simply another helping profession, who look to the latest therapeutic and business models for their inspiration. In this view, theology just doesn’t seem relevant. Who cares about Barth or Augustine, when Wayne Dyer or Tom Peters has a word of inspiration? We tell ourselves that this is what the people want, and there’s some truth to that. The question is whether what a consumerist population thinks is useful is what will lead to thoughtful disciples of Jesus.

It was with some excitement that I saw the listing of this book by Vanhoozer and Strachan in the Baker Academic catalog. So, I requested a review copy (most of the books reviewed here are provided by the publisher). I understood going in that the authors were evangelicals whose primary audience would also be evangelical. As a post-evangelical/post-liberal pastor I understood myself not to be the target audience, but still the title of the book seemed to speak to me. As for the authors, I knew of Kevin Vanhoozer, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and author of numerous books of theology. As for the co-author, Owen Strachan, he was an unknown quantity, though from the book’s bio I discovered that he was a professor at Southern Baptist Seminary and a former Vanhoozer doctoral student at TEDS.   

Although things started out well, as I dove into Vanhoozer's introduction, affirming his call of pastors to reclaim their role as public theologians, I soon began to have concerns.  In agreement, I affirm that for most Christians and most members of the community it will be pastors and not academic theologians who will be defining and describing the Christian faith in public. It is pastors who are charged with opening up with the scriptures in sermons and bible studies. As Stanley Hauerwas suggests, “one of the most fruitful genres of theology remains the sermon” [The Work of Theologyp. 26].   I agreed that seminaries need to beware of the trend to give folks what they think they need -- skills in management and counseling, skills one can learn elsewhere—at the expense of learning the foundational elements needed to teach and preach and provide worship leadership and pastoral care. I became uneasy, however, as I continued through the book and found the tone and tenor rather different from my own vision of theology and ministry. I agree that the primary vocation of the pastor is that of theologian (a generalist not a specialist), but I struggled with what I saw as a call for the pastor to take control of church life and even public life, and serve as a sort of theological enforcer, defending absolute truth and refuting theological error. Such a vision that seems to draw from Jonathan Edwards, John Knox and John Calvin doesn’t fit well with my own vision or my theological tradition, which values freedom of the individual to do theology for themselves within a covenant community. To give a sense of the purpose of the book, let me share this excerpt from the book written by Kevin Vanhoozer:  
Whatever doctrine we imbibe—communism, capitalism, consumerism, or something else—we live out what we believe to be true and right. To think wrongly about reality is likely to lead to foolish living. Theology—living to God— is the lifeblood of the body of Christ, and the present book aims both to stop the bleeding (i.e., theological illiteracy) that is draining the life out of the church when nonbiblical doctrines (e.g., selfism) lead us to live not to God but to oneself. Pastors need to inoculate the body of Christ against idolatrous toxins, ideological infections, and other forms of false teaching. (p. 162).
Although I agree that what we believe influences how we live, the vision of the Christian faith that seems lodged in this offering is rather narrow and even legalistic. I doubt the authors and I would agree on what the false teachings and toxins might be (I know we disagree on homosexuality and gay marriage), but I’m not sure that my first responsibility as a pastor is to inoculate the church against false teaching.  Rather it is to help persons form thoughtful and engaged theological visions of the world.  

I realize that others will see things differently. The book receives strong recommendations from heavyweights like Eugene Peterson and William Willimon. Who am I to disagree with Willimon’s assessment that this is a “Spirit-filled book?” But, while there is much here to commend in the book, I found much of it wanting. 

Having laid my caveats about the book, let me turn to the structure of the book and its argument. Although the authors seem uncomfortable with the traditional schema of theological education created by Schleiermacher in the 19th century, they lay out the book along these lines, with chapters looking at the question from the perspective of scripture, history, systematic theology, and practical theology. These chapters are introduced by Vanhoozer’s introduction that lays out the problem and offers a preliminary solution.  

Owen Strachan takes up the first two disciplines in part one: “Biblical Theology and Historical Theology. “ Strachan takes up the question of a biblical theology of the pastorate, organizing it around the three Old Testament offices: Prophet, Priest, and King. These three offices, which Calvin applied to Christ, are applied here to the pastor. Pastors are like “covenant officers of old, an office grounded in theological realities: salvation, wisdom, and truth—in a word, Christ” (p. 60). From this foundation Strachan moves to history—Scholars and Saints.” In this chapter he takes us on a journey from the early church to the present day. It’s a quick journey that starts with Irenaeus and moves through Chrysostom, Augustine, through the medieval era (when theology became more institutionalized in the universities and monasteries, and then on through the Reformation to today. Calvin is seen as a strong model, with his public role as pastor and governor of Geneva. Calvin’s commitment to expository preaching is also highlighted. From there we move forward to the contemporary situation. Things go well until Charles Finney, who seems to abandon the traditional role of the pastor theologian for a more entrepreneurial model. While many evangelicals will look to Finney for inspiration, Strachan doesn’t! The same is true of the professional model that seems to tame the pastorate (and there’s some truth here, but it needs to be kept in perspective). Things get better in the 20th century with the rise of Harold Ockenga and his theological descendants. As a graduate of Fuller Seminary, of which Ockenga was the founding president, the vision of theology offered by the seminary I attended was much broader than the old neo-evangelicals championed here.

As Strachan finishes his tour, Vanhoozer steps up in part two—systematic and practical theology. In the first of two chapters, which is entitled “in the evangelical mood,” Vanhoozer offers a theological take on the calling and purpose of a pastor-theologian. He speaks of the many moods, but most specifically of the indicative (descriptive) and imperative (commandment).  This ministry is one of describing and prescribing a course of reality; that is “sound doctrine.” They are called on to help form a particular worldview (metaphysic). I should not that evangelical schools in recent years have been concerned about defining worldviews for their students, so, I would assume, they can resist the contemporary world views. In the final chapter of the book, Vanhoozer takes up the practical side of theology: disciple-making, building of God's house, evangelist, catechist, liturgist (he envisions the pastor as the presider over most of the worship service), and apologist (the role of public intellectual arguing for the truth).  Again there is much to commend, but he offers a narrower vision of the world, of God, and of ministry than I find comfortable from my vantage point.

The book concludes with fifty-five theses that serve to summarize the content of the book. If you are not a patient reader, and want to get to the heart of things, just skip to the end and read the theses! I should note that interspersed through the book are "pastoral perspectives," essays offered by practitioners who have embraced the model. All are conservative evangelical, and most (all male) embrace a rather narrow and hierarchical view of ministry. I should note that neither Calvin nor Edwards were necessarily popular with all their parishioners! 

In conclusion let me say that I affirm the premise that pastors are public theologians. We are called to help form the theological vision of the people we serve. In most congregations, the pastor will be the one person with significant theological training, and that the church is stronger when it is theologically informed. This is why I am a strong believer in an educated ministry, and that theology (this would include Bible and History, as well as the practical disciplines) is at the heart of that education. While I’m not sure that we must return to “expository preaching,” I do believe that preaching needs to be rooted in scripture and in Christian tradition (the historical interpretation and integration of that message).  That said, as a left-of-center Disciple of Christ pastor, the vision of the pastor theologian offered here is too narrow for me, and therefore, I just will need to wait for another book, one that speaks to my own context and vision of ministry as pastor-theologian. 


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