The Pastor as Public Theologian, Reclaiming a Lost Vision by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan

The Pastor as Public Theologian is the latest in several recent books calling pastors back to their role as theologians.  This one, interestingly, is written by two academians, neither of whom is a pastor: Kevin Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Owen Strachan, Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College.  Perhaps for this reason they wisely asked twelve pastors to make contributions to the book, each providing a short essay on a variety of pastoral related subjects.

The burden of the book is that “theology is in exile and, as a result, the knowledge of God is in ecclesial eclipse” (loc. 168).  The solution is for pastors, churches and seminaries to reclaim a lost vision for the pastor ministering as theologian (loc. 174-186).  The claim that something is lost implies that something once existed.  To that end a historical review is offered by Strachan demonstrating that the pastor as theologian had a long history within the church (loc. 1345-1808).  While this role was largely lost due to Medieval scholasticism and monasticism, it was recovered during the Reformation.  Unfortunately, Friedrich Schleiermacher in the early 18th century introduced the “Berlin” model which restructured theological training into two distinct categories—academic disciplines and practical disciplines (loc. 237-253).  A century later this division fleshed out its logical ramifications during the second Great Awakening which swung the evangelical church away from doctrinal and exegetical concerns to practical ones.  By the rise of Charles Finney, in the middle of the 19th century, the Protestant church was ripe for his semi-Pelagian soteriology and pragmatic methods.  Strachan writes, “In one generation, America went from a nation featuring a carefully guarded pastoral office—marked by learning,  communal stability, and staunch theological preaching—to one in which disestablishment reigned and highly gifted populist communicators like Finney dominated” (loc. 1706).  Since that time the ministry of the pastor as theologian has never been fully recovered and other models have been popularized such as the pastor as revivalist, builder of churches, manager, media mogul, and community activist (loc. 283-290).  Sadly to recover the ancient, biblical model of the pastor feeding the sheep with the meat of the Word and instructing them in the doctrines of Scripture, numerous obstacles must be faced, especially modern day public sentiment and opinion (loc. 197).  Yet the argument of this volume is “that pastors must be theologians; second, that every theologian is in some sense a public theologian; and third, that a public theologian is a very particular kind of generalist” (loc. 223, see also loc. 445-446).

The authors define theology as, “The attempt to speak well of God, and to live to God’s glory, on the basis of the story of God recounted in the written Word of God” (loc. 463).  Therefore the task of the pastor is to help God’s people “to become what they are called to be” (loc. 566, 601).  Toward this end the authors offer much advice and insight, including six practical steps toward becoming a pastor-theologian (loc. 675-717), the need to be a reader of good literature (loc. 623, 2191ff), and the importance of exegeting both Scripture and the world (loc. 1211).  The bottom line is that pastors are instruments whom God uses to cure souls through the Word (loc. 1992).  If true the epidemic of biblical illiteracy (loc. 2108) is perhaps the most serious plague in the world today.  Western society, in particular, has defaulted to MTD (moralistic therapeutic deism) as the cultural theology of our time (loc. 2153), and both the cause and the cure for biblical illiteracy and MTD lie in the pulpit.  The authors firmly believe the pulpit leads the world and provides four reasons why they are convinced this is true (loc. 2891-2971).  As one contributor wrote, “Few churches will grow deep in the Word if they only swim in the shallow end on Sunday morning” (loc. 1870).

As stimulating and insightful as A Pastor as Public Theologian is, there are parts with which I disagree.  The authors are apparently all covenantal in their theology and this forms some of their understanding of the pastorate.  For example, there is a forced attempt to view the pastoral ministry through Old Covenant lenses, seeing pastors as prophet, priest and king (loc. 800-1050, 1193).  This is an unnatural interpretation of Scripture and unnecessary.  The authors also believe that Acts 2 (Pentecost) is the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy (loc. 1090-1120).  The use of confessions, catechism, and creeds as tools for training will please the more confessional reader, but not others.  And references to Lesslie Newbigin of the World Council of Churches (loc. 541) in so many evangelical works always mystifies me, as does uncritical acceptance of the questionable (at best) apologetical approach of Timothy Keller (loc. 3336ff).

These issues aside, The Pastor as Public Theologian is a valuable contribution to the subject.

The Pastor as Public Theologian, Reclaiming a Lost Vision by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 160 pp./ebook, $9.99 paper (reviewed using ebook)

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher, Southern View Chapel.