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Monday, October 12, 2015

"The Pastor Theologian" (Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson)

TITLE: The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision
AUTHOR: Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015, (192 pages).

One of the biggest challenges between the academy and churches lies with expectations. The former thrives in an intellectually challenging environment while the latter tends to be focused on most things practical, managerial, logistical, and of course, pastoral. This gives rise to a whole set of difficulty when churches try to recruit pastors and when theological school graduates try to find a place to serve in churches. What about something in-between? What about an expectation that elevates the best of both worlds and minimizes the worst of both? It would be an ideal combination. According to authors Hiestand and Wilson, pastor-theologians fit the bill. In fact, arguing from historical trends, they claim that the pastors of yesterday are very much theologically astute and unashamedly scholarly. The need is urgent as our modern era seems to have a "theologically anemic" church and an "ecclesially anemic" theology. Pastors must not only be equipped but encouraged to pursue the theological vocation vigorously. The key problem is a culture that splits the theologian from the pastoral making it incomprehensible for both to exist in any one person. Even the renowned British theologian, NT Wright had to quit his job as "senior pastor" so that he can pursue his gifts in theological education and as a scholar. Wright confesses after serving 6 years as a pastor: "But my continuing vocation to be a writer, teacher and broadcaster, for the benefit (I hope) of the wider world and church, has been increasingly difficult to combine with the complex demands and duties of a diocesan bishop. I am very sad about this, but the choice has become increasingly clear." It tells of how hard it is even for one of the best theologians in the world to be a pastor of a regular Church. If it is hard for Wright, what about the rest of us?

This book is essentially about them making a case for the increasing role of the pastor-theologian as a single person, not two. In Chapter One, we learn the need for a clear "new division of labor" where pastors and theologians need to be seen as one unit. This means the academy must learn to address more concerns of church at the layperson level and at the same time, churches to allow their pastors to pursue scholarly perspectives and theological excellence. The new vision for the pastor-theologians contains two critical elements: Need and Identity. Needs do not always flow from identity, and the converse is also true. The modernity problem is that contemporary parish ministry is not conducive for anyone desiring to do "sustained theological reflection and scholarship." This is not the case in history as many of the most important theologians of the Church are pastors. People like Augustine, Basil, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Calvin, Edwards, Wesley, and others. This is dealt in depth in Chapter Two of the book, which looks at the historical development of theology in the Church. In the early years of the Church, due to persecutions and the newness of faith, much teachings center on "exhortative rather than theological." By the second century, the rise of heresies and pagan philosophies led to an increase in the number of theologians like Irenaeus of Lyon, Cyprian of Carthage, and Origen. The fourth to the seventh centuries produced some of the most dazzling array of theologians like the first doctors of the Church. By the first 1200 years, monasteries and universities marked a new era in theological training and institutional networks. Third, the authors lament the "great divorce" of the theologian and the pastor. Using the backdrop of the Enlightenment movement in Europe and the secularization, urbanization, democratization, and anticlericalism in North America, readers learn that complexity of cultural shifts play a big role in affecting how theologians and pastors are perceived. In Chapter Four, we discover the problem of how "bad religion" impacts theological thought and ethical beliefs. Hiestand and Wilson put the blame squarely on the anemic theology in the Church. The root cause: Erroneous division of labour that separates the theologian from the pastor. Chapter Five expands on this "ecclesial anemia" with the authors highlighting two challenges: a) The challenge of both theologians and pastors enabled to ask the same questions; b) the need for open theological engagement for common issues that matter to all. Without this common front, the division of labour and perceptions will continue. Chapter Six brings out the need for the pastor theologian through a "threefold taxonomy." The "local theologian" is one who constructs theology for the local Church. The "popular theologian" writes for both his church congregation as well as beyond. The "ecclesial theologian" is perhaps the one who would cast the widest net in constructing theology for other theologians, pastors, churches, and the believers at large. Rather than allocating a chapter for each of the three stated taxonomies, Hiestand and Wilson concentrates on the third that is largely "lost." It is this third kind of pastor-theologian who will be able to bridge the gap between the Church and the Academy. Such a person is first a pastor, then a theologian in the sense that his responsibility to his flock frames the construction of his theology. Just like John Calvin whose pastoral vocation provides the context for the writing of his Institutes. They write that the difference between an ecclesial theologian and a local theologian lies in the former's theological writing ministry. The former writes for other theologians and pastors. Chapter Seven lists eight characteristics of the ecclesial theologian.

  1. He "inhabits the ecclesial social location" or otherwise known as the "vocational pastor"
  2. He asks appropriate "ecclesial questions"
  3. He aims for "clarity over subtlety"
  4. He "theologizes with a preaching voice"
  5. He is a theologian for the Church
  6. He "works across the guilds"
  7. He partners with the "academic theologian"
  8. He is able to "peel back" common beliefs, reshape the theology that is consistent with the gospel and with the times

Chapter Eight sets out eight strategies on how to develop the pastor theologian as an ecclesial theologian. The first strategy is about training in which the authors propose the pursuit of a PhD. In such a pursuit, the student is able to network and publish for the masses. The second strategy is to create a theological culture starting with the Church staff. The third strategy is to network widely. The fourth strategy is to protect and to use one's study time well. Hiestand and Wilson even suggest using a "blowtorch" for such a purpose. The fifth strategy involves intensive and extensive reading/writing of theology. Strategy six seems to be strange as it urges one to refer to one's workplace as one's study. It makes sense when I think about it because that is essentially merging the two roles of pastor and theologian right from the beginning. I like strategy seven which makes the case for building an intentional "study-and-writing" leave. Strategy eight is like discipleship where the existing pastor-theologian hires an intern to do the same. The last two strategies of getting buy-in from the church leadership and the need for love to trump proclamations of truth seem too important to be left to the last.

So What?
Is the pastor-theologian possible in this day and age? It will be like pushing a big rock up three hills. The first hill is the church mindset and culture. Just reading books like this is not enough. Church members need to not only see the need for theology in the Church, they must recognize that without theological depth, the Church will continue to flounder and managed according to principles learned from the office, from external organizations. After all, if members of the church spend six out of seven days in the world, there is a good chance that members often bring the world into the Church. That makes the challenge of culture changes even more difficult. In such situations, it is much easier for such members to understand the church in worldly terms than to understand the church in theological terms.

The second hill is the financial and human resources. The Church must be big enough or has the financial muscle to hire more staff to address the many pressing needs in a typical church. If the Church is to give time and space for the role of a pastor-theologian, there must be a reasonable time and space allocated for the conventional and spiritual needs of the church such as visitation, pastoral care, program planning, Sunday services, and so on.

The third hill, and probably most controversial of all, is we need some kind of a heresy for any church to start taking theology more seriously. There is a historic precedent for that. Remember the writings of the creeds? The Athanasian and the Nicene creeds were all written to counter the heresies against the Trinity and the Person of Jesus Christ respectively.

It will be tough but not impossible to create space for the birth of more pastor theologians. In order for the ecclesial theologian to emerge, we need more local and popular theologians. We need more role models. We need more theological challenges that the laypersons would appreciate. As long as churches are bogged down by the day-to-day issues of meeting present needs and licking past wounds, churches will remain myopic about their direction and their ecclesial purpose. We need bold leadership to take a stand and create space for for both theological and pastoral vocations.

The pastors of today are very different from those in the ancient times. They are expected to be more of practitioners rather than theologians; execute workmanship rather than scholarship; and to be interested more in the functional more than the intellectual. Most people do not expect their pastors to be theologians, though they would reckon them to have some theological training. Be pragmatic. Be approachable. Go simple. According to Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, co-founders of the Center for Pastor Theologians, this need not necessarily be the case. Using the historical revivals and ancient examples of theologically rich pastorate in the past, they assert that "the pastor theologian" today is a "rare species." With this book, it is hoped that we have planted the seeds of the emergence of a two-in-one future pastor-theologian in every Church.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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