Book Review: Come, Let Us Eat Together

Come, Let Us Eat Together
Ed. George Kalantzis and Marc Cortez
InterVarsity Press, 2018. 252pp.

Essay collections can be a tricky matter to balance well. At times, even the b

est of collections (see, for instance, my review of The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. Hauerwas and Wells) can drag if one reads them cover to cover, simply because one covers the same materials in different formats from different voices. The same can easily be said of essay collections that are, in essence, the collected works of symposia, as the Wheaton Theology Conference and its correlated IVP book series are.

But Come, Let Us Eat Together drew me in. Maybe it was the incredible diversity of the writers (= speakers), or the panoramic insight of the varied angles, or, even, (and this surprised me the most) the sense that even at a conference with pre-prepared talks and papers, the interlocutors were engaging with the speaker or writer before them.

come let us eat together

And that is how it should be! When one covers the topic of “Sacraments and Christian Unity,” navigating the tricky lines between sacramental theology / ecclesiology on the one end and eschatology / ecumenism on the other, one would hope that each essay and each author would be “speaking” with one another. That, after all, is a crucial essence to the modern ecumenical movement.

Talking Together, Eating Together?

Of course, talking together, an essay collection from a conference with Catholic and Orthodox, Reformed and Anglican, Lutheran and (Ana-)baptist, is, as the essays assert, not enough. The chief question is: Can we share the table with one another?

Here the essays portray a vast array of views. Cherith Fee Nordling’s essay on the ascension of Christ, on the one end, gives a positive, eschatological assertion on the essential nature of the Church as unified; so too Paul L. Gavrilyuk’s (surprisingly) optimistic essay on the same theme from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. But Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s address of the topic from the Roman Catholic end of the conversation is less optimistic, observing some of the crucial fault-lines between the “orthodox episcopal” churches (i.e. the RCC and EO) and the Protestant churches; and Marc Cortez’s incredibly helpful discussion on the history of Baptist views on sacrament concludes with similar difficulties.

It might be easy, especially for someone like myself who has emerged from Pentecostal free-church traditions, to say that doctrine ought not separate us at the table. What is perhaps most surprising throughout Come, Let Us Eat Together is how relatively small the problem of doctrine is in comparison to other, largely ecclesiological, problems. With only a few exceptions, the conversation on transubstantiation versus Sacramental Union (the Lutheran view) versus real presence is glossed over very lightly. Far deeper is the historical realities and ecclesial distances between the various wings of the Church.

 

Wheaton Theology Conference (Bradley Nassif)And, as a result, the argument against open communion is, to my surprise! (being a lifelong open communionist), robust and reasonable and, at the end of the day, uninterested in doctrinaire authoritarianism. The historic relationship between baptism and Eucharist, for instance, cuts to the core of most sacramental debates (Cortez touches on this from the Baptist end, and so does Kalantzis from an early Christian historical lens). The question of the episcopacy and whether it descends from the apostolate also emerges as a central theme (one that Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen tackles valiantly in his essay). It turns out, and this has been an interesting surprise to me, that open communion is not as gracious or mindful or, even!, ecumenical as its proponents might say. The whole topic is far more complex; extending the right hand of grace and mercy to the disparate parts of the Christian Church might actually look more like learning the various wings’ views and traditions and honoring them. (InterVarsity actually does this actively at their Urbana conference, where Catholics and Lutherans are invited to join in the time of prayer at communion, knowing that many would bow out from full participation.)

 

Overall, Come, Let Us Eat Together is a fantastic volume on a particularly tricky subject. The wisdom of this particular set of authors, their diversity both externally (i.e. from different traditions) and internally (i.e. within a given tradition) provides the unique ecumenical balance necessary for accomplishing a book like this. And Kalantzis and Cortez, as editors, have done an excellent job of preserving the “conference” feel in the essays, even in the transition to print; the essay-writers “speak” with one another. Even the less intriguing essays contribute to the overall polyphony of the Church, and one can sense underneath this polyphony there is a powerful, supernatural work of God’s Spirit that will, before the end, bring all His people together again as one flock under one shepherd.

May it be so.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

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Book Review: Becoming a Pastor Theologian

Becoming a Pastor Theologian
Ed. Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand
IVP Academic, 2016. 217pp.

“Pastor-theologian,” especially as a hyphenate, is perhaps as unhelpful a term as “public intellectual.” So often, it gets bogged down into the mire of (on the one hand) bad academic work and (on the other hand) poor pastoral vision. Even more often, and this is the true misfortune, it can easily degrade into an excuse for theologically-minded pastors to neglect their pastoral duties on the behalf of a misconstrued picture of their theological duties, which, at the end of the day, harms the local church.

And yet, for those more theologically-inclined pastors (like me), the term holds allure that goes beyond a mythical (and, at times, perverse) desire for scholastic isolation. There are pastors who hope to be both successful in their local ministry and in their academic- / theological- work. There are pastors whose theological prowess has something to contribute to the academic discourse. And then there are pastors who find informed theological discourse a vital source for their pastorate. It is for the sake of advancing this latter vision that Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand put together the Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT) and have compiled the essay collection Becoming a Pastor Theologian.

A Useful, Balanced, and Articulate Vision

The vision of the CPT is (from their website):

a broadly evangelical organization dedicated to recruiting, networking, and resourcing pastor theologians to provide faithful written, intellectual and theological leadership on behalf of the church, in light of the cultural challenges and opportunities of the late modern world.

Such a vision, “intellectual and theological leadership on behalf of the church,” is refreshing in an individualistic epoch. In Wilson and Hiestand’s own essays, they cast this vision with articulate precision. For those seeking to become pastor theologians or to navigate the nuances between the pastor theologian and, say, the academic theologian, these two essays (and the overarching architecture of this book) are incredibly helpful. They steer the issue away from the “pastor who writes theology” kind of vision and the “pastor who’s really just a theologian” one, and firmly assert, instead, a kind of theological ethnography picture of the pastor theologian. Instead of the pastor theologian being holed up in his or her study, working to write some dense and complex treatise, Wilson and Hiestand envision the pastor theologian as a theologically-empowered thought leader, tasked with engaging their particularized locality with the Gospel in the unique ways demanded of their context.

In short, Wilson and Hiestand rebuke the abstract, ideational picture of a pastor theologian, one that is sometimes portrayed by the prominent pastor theologians of our day (John Piper, A.W. Tozer, and R.C. Sproul all come to mind). Instead, they commend a practiced, local, contextualized, ethnographic, sociological vision of the pastor theologian, where theology is no longer a matter of simple discourse but, as it ought to be, “how now ought we live?”, that is, an ethics, a wisdom, a prophetic challenge to the powers-that-be, a local voice. This vision is articulated consistently throughout, and Wilson and Hiestand have clearly given a lot of time and thought to it.

 

Center for Pastor Theologians

Editorial Issues: Weak Essays with Narrow Diversity

That being said, two major issues harm Becoming a Pastor Theologian‘s effectiveness, and both serve as existential challenges for Wilson and Hiestand’s bigger project. The first is that a handful of the essays in this book are weak. Perhaps this is magnified by the organization of the text, which puts three academic theologians (Peter Leithart, James K.A. Smith, Kevin Vanhoozer) front-and-center, followed by Wilson and Hiestand’s essays, followed by the rest. But magnified or not, some of the essays written by pastor theologians show the rhetorical and stylistic sloppiness that plagues the field.

I’ve already written about how much I disliked Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God (not to rehash an unpleasant experience). One of the major problems with that work is how poorly organized it was, how clunky its rhetorical structures, how disheveled its writing. When I discovered, later on, that Boyd was a pastor theologian, I simply shrugged and thought “Ah, well that makes sense. How would he have time to edit a dissertation like this?”

Given that Wilson and Hiestand’s explicit goal is to reject this assumption, to assert that pastor theologians can indeed write good theological work, the presence of anemic essays in this collection serves as a threat to the vision of this project. To be clear, none of the weak essays in particular are useless; they just show the signs of weak writing, signs that are evident enough to those who read a lot of this kind of work, like pointless footnotes or citations that divert from the thesis or citations for citations’ sake or disorganized thought. Whatever the weaker essays contribute in terms of content, their form is a problem that Wilson and Hiestand must address.

But, returning now to content, there is another considerable hurdle that hampers Becoming a Pastor Theologian, and it is editorial bias. Whether this bias was explicit or implicit, intended or accidental or even incidental, there is a clear, sub-denominational trend amidst the writers of these essays. There is a tendency (and a lean) towards Neo-Reformed thought, and, with that, a tendency towards complementarianism.

Becoming a Pastor TheologianWhereas such leans and tendencies, even biases, are not in themselves a problem — I tend to commend a writer or writers for sticking to their viewpoints instead of obscuring them — they do constitute a challenge to Wilson and Hiestand’s vision in the way they manifest in this book. The CPT, in word and in practice (judging from their fellowship lists), aims to work ecumenically, to advance a more inter-denominational vision of the pastor theologian. How can they do such without enlisting more diverse voices for their writing work? One essay referring to the Catholic John Henry Newman and one essay written by a woman discussing women’s theological role (but not, notably, their pastoral theological role) are simply not enough to constitute theological diversity; a that lack of reasoned theological diversity is problematic if the CPT purports to be “broadly” evangelical. Even the image of CPT fellows (shown above) is entirely white and entirely male.

What makes this lack of diversity problematic is, at the end of the day, that it harms Wilson and Hiestand’s stated vision. If the pastor theologian is, indeed, to be a social-, ethnographic-, and local- theologian, informed by the spaces he or she inhabits, then the future of good pastor theological work requires a diversity of inhabited spaces. Without that diversity, the work becomes narrowed and limited in its effectiveness. These two troubles, the poor writing in the weaker essays and the lack of diversity, are both serious threats to Wilson and Hiestand’s project as a whole, and they injure the effectiveness of Becoming a Pastor Theologian as a book.

Standout Essays on Local and Social Theology

That being said, there are more than a few standout essays to be underscored that make Becoming a Pastor Theologian more than worth its weight. Aside from Wilson and Hiestand’s articulate vision-casting essays and the opening salvos (written by three academic theologians whose works are already universally admired), there are three particularly engaging essays that bring a well-roundedness to the CPT’s work that I wish to highlight.

The first is Scott M. Manetsch’s essay on John Calvin’s Geneva. This historical reflection discusses the unique ways Calvin’s theological community impacted both the social and the political in Geneva through regular theological reflection. Whether we like Calvin or not (and whether we agree with his magisterial political theology or not), the essay provides a powerful “social imaginary” for considering the role of the pastor theologian in his or her city, as well within the network of ecumenically-committed churches in that city. What Manetsch’s essay does most successfully is cast a vision for new constructive orderings of theological-, social-, and political- community, and reveals the role of the pastor theologian(s) in ordering and endowing life to that vision.

The second great essay is Chris Castaldo’s reflecting on the life of John Henry Newman. Mentorship is an all-too-often neglected gift of the church and, given that the stereotypical vision of a pastor theologian is “the scholar in the study,” re-considering mentorship from a theological and pastoral perspective is incredibly valuable. Castaldo’s intermingling of biography and mentoring wisdom provides a jumping-point for reinvigorating this long-lost gift of the Church.

Finally, the conclusory essay by Douglas Estes on the letter of II John and the pastor theologian’s call to write was fantastic. Beyond deftly navigating the postmodern understanding of écriture, Estes reflects on the phenomenology of writing in a way that is absolutely crucial for the task of the pastor theologian, reminding us that writing is the mediation between the theological work and its effect, manifest in an audience. Even further, Estes raises the same challenge I raised earlier in this review, that pastor theological work ought to be well-written. As a closing note, Estes’ essay gives me hope of better and brighter things for the CPT in the future.

Final Thoughts

Altogether, Becoming a Pastor Theologian is a suitable starting-point for those considering what pastor theological work looks like. It provokes certain assumptions and challenges certain selfish desires, and it prioritizes, rightly, the role of the local, the ethnographic, the social, and the ecclesial in the work of the pastor theologian. Despite their well-articulated vision, Wilson and Hiestand’s editorial decisions constitute a challenge to their work, with essays that need further refining before publishing and a lack of diversity in the author-base. Still, their essays, the essays of the three well-established theologians, and the three essays I highlighted above all make the work more than worthwhile, and I look forward to seeing more fruits of their labor with the CPT. The problems are not so big as to be insurmountable, and I am hopeful that their vision will bring about more and more change to the understanding of the pastor theologian’s role in the Church for years to come

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.