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.

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