There was a time, as Hiestand and Wilson document, when local pastors led the church theologically. They preached doctrinally solid sermons, wrote theological works and interacted with the scholarship of their day. But all that began to change with the rise of the university prior to the Reformation (p. 33). Ultimately the role of theological study and development shifted to the academy and to professors who devoted themselves to scholarly endeavors. Pastors gave ground to the seminary and professional theologians and contented themselves with the more practical details of church life. In many cases pastors stopped attending to theology altogether, except for the basics. As a result, in recent days, it has become rare to cite a pastor who devotes much of his attention to the study and teaching of theology. Almost nonexistent is the pastor who is engaged in current theological debate with academic scholars or who actually writes significant theology. He leaves such pursuits to the “experts” and busies himself with more pragmatic matters. Consequently churches in America and throughout the world no longer have much interest in doctrine, or biblical exposition for that matter. Further, the average Christian has little appetite for intellectual engagement with Scripture and few resources to discern truth from error. They have become the very type of Christian Paul describes in Ephesians 4:14—“Tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of man, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.”
Today few choose or attend a church on the basis of what it teaches; rather they attend because of its musical style, its programs, its social outreach, or opportunities given for service. Doctrines are expendable to most modern evangelicals. Few seem to care. As Andy Stanley, with apparent approval, says “no one is on a truth quest—everyone is on a happiness quest.” Therefore, if you want to attract people you need to minimize truth and major on the supposed means of finding happiness. Churches have now become the market-place which offers the consumer happiness, and pastors have become the chief dispensers of happiness. Said differently, the church is now merely a one-stop spiritual mall specializing in happiness, fulfillment, self-esteem and whatever else the consumer desires, and pastors have become the shop-keepers working frantically to keep the consumer happy or else they will head down the street to the next spiritual mall (disguised as a church) which will. The evangelical church is suffering the fallout of several generations of this type of faulty ecclesiology and anemic theological diet. If things are to change it is the local pastor who must lead the charge. This is the heart-cry of the book under review.
Historically, the task of the pastor has been to instruct his flock in theology, which is defined by seventeenth century Puritan William Ames as, “The knowledge of how to live in the presence of God” (p. 7). The authors add, “The 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” (p. 55). Therefore, the goal of theology is not simply to fill heads with knowledge, but to change lives. Theology should lead to not only orthodoxy but also orthopraxy and doxology (p. 93). The authors lay much of the ethical floundering of evangelicals at the feet of pastors who have abandoned their role as theologians and left their people to embrace wrong beliefs regarding anthropology, epistemology, cosmology, and soteriology” (p. 56).
Hiestand and Wilson offer many reasons why most pastors no longer take up the mantle of theologian:
- The devolution of theology itself—many Christians do not take it seriously and simply don’t care (pp. 7, 16).
- Vocational pressure of the ministry which pushes pastors to do almost anything else (pp. 7, 22, 65).
- Neither pastors nor their people see pastors as theologians, but rather as practitioners.
- The work of serious theology has shifted to the academy (p. 14). As mentioned earlier the authors trace this shift to the rise of the university, which eclipsed the pastor-theologian in the 13th through 16th century (p. 53). The Reformation reversed this trend for a time (p. 37) so that during the 18th century most theological training in evangelical Protestantism was centered around the local church (pp. 46-47). But three factors undermined this paradigm: secularization and urbanization of the culture; loss of respect in general for the learned professions, and the shift to divinity schools. By the mid-nineteenth century, the pastor-theologian had been replaced by the professor-theologian (pp. 48-49).
Hiestand and Wilson see it as essential that pastors again take seriously their roles as theologians for “theology is not just another leg in the pastoral stool; rather, it is the floor upon which the legs rest” (p. 20). But they do not lump everyone in the same category. As historically they identify three classes of theologians, clerical, nonclerical and monastic (pp. 23-41), now they call for a distinction between the academic scholar and what they term “ecclesial” theology. They define the later as a theology as robust as academic theology yet distinctive as it is “germinated within the congregation, presses toward distinctly ecclesial concerns, and is cultivated by practicing clergy” (p. 18, cf. pp. 67-78 for more details).
While Hiestand and Wilson are calling all pastors to resume their role as local theologians, they recognize that not every pastor will fulfill that role in the same way. To that end they envision three types of pastor-theologians (pp. 81-87).
- Local theologians who minister mostly to their own church through “theologically rich preaching” and “theologically thick pastoral care” (p. 81).
- Popular theologians who have a broader range of influence. These may write theology and bridge “the gap between the professional theological community and the local church, the popular theologian translates academic theology down to other pastors and the laity” (p. 83).
- The Ecclesial theologian who “is a pastor who writes theological scholarship in conversation with other theologians, with an eye to the needs of ecclesial community” (p. 85). Eight characteristics of the ecclesia theologian is further fleshed out in chapter seven (pp. 88-101), and ten strategies to develop ecclesial theologians are found in chapter eight (pp. 102-122).
The Pastor Theologian is a most challenging, thought-provoking and encouraging book. I believe the authors have rightly identified one of the major problems within the modern church and they are working hard to offer solutions. To that end they have founded the Center for Pastor Theologians in 2006, to promote the ideas found within their book. However, for many, including myself, their theological stance appears too broad and ecumenical. They are apparently open to women pastors (pp. 8, 119) as well as evolutionary theory (p. 114); they quote favorably liberation theologian Jürgen Moltmann (p. 65), Joseph Ratzinger (p. 75) and Lesslie Newbigin (p. 113), and seem especially partial to N. T. Wright (pp. 21, 62, 91, 97, 102) who they see as a positive example (p. 97); they use an imprecise and too broad definition for the “gospel” (pp. 55, 58, 82), and members of their Center have wide theological views as they range from Anglican to Pentecostal to Messianic Jew to Presbyterian (p. 128). And so, while I would not feel at home within their sphere of theologians, I applaud their views on the return of the pastor-theologian.
The Pastor Theologian, Resurrecting an Ancient Vision by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015) 187 pp., paper $18.99
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel