“Theologian” or Not, the Pastor Theologizes

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In 2004 I took a graduate-level seminar on Jonathan Edwards with resident Edwards’ scholar Douglas Sweeney—then professor of American Church History at Trinity Evangelical School. Sweeney pointed out that in Edwards’ day, the most important theologians of the colonies were pastors. This was largely because theologians, like poets and artists, don’t typically produce a saleable product sufficient to provide a living. Theologians (then and now) need patrons—people or institutions willing to support them in their craft. In seventeenth-century New England, patronage for theologians was provided by the local churches. Thus if one wanted to grow up and be a theologian, the only viable career choice was the pastorate. As such, the vast bulk of theology being read by the pastors-in-training at places like the Yale Divinity School or the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), was written by pastors. Young men who could not yet land a job as a “real theologian” in a local church often had to settle for teaching at the fledgling colleges—biding their time while looking for a pastoral opening.

Today’s context has shifted considerably. Local churches no longer self-consciously patronize theologians. Local churches tend to prioritize things like leadership, preaching, care, and disciple-making; hiring a theologian is often not on a church’s radar. Thus, those who desire to be theologians now set their sights on an academic post in a college or university. Young people who have not yet landed a job as a “real theologian” in the academy often settle for pastoral positions in local churches—biding their time while they scout for an academic opening. As such, the vast bulk of theology being read by today’s pastors-in-training is written by full-time academic theologians.

Gerald Hiestand, “The Challenges and Possibilities (and Continuing Need) for the Pastor Theologian

It is true that local churches no long self-consciously hire and house theologians. But pastors who lead, preach, care, and make disciples theologize nonetheless, even if they were not consciously “called” by a congregation to do such work. These pastors do theology as they lead, preach, care, and disciple; the church benefits to the degree the pastor does theology well, and suffers to the degree theology is done poorly. It goes with the gig. It’s why we want pastors who are sound theologians, whether we call them that or not.

The Center for Pastor-Theologians, which Hiestand helped found, equips pastors to serve vocationally as theologians housed within the church rather than the academy. They also raise consciousness that the work of theology is inextricable from the vocation of pastor.

It is not only pastoral candidates who need such an awareness, but also congregations. We should expect our pastors to offer us sound teaching and doctrine, and to apply the truth of the Christian faith to the present historical moment. And while academics who serve the church from the university can offer us much, there is always contextual work to be done by ministers in their local body and surrounding community. The Holy Spirit is at work, not only globally, but right in your neighborhood. The pastor helps us to discern where.

After decades of societal upheaval and rising sentiment toward anti-institutionalism, I’ve wondered if a counter-culture could arise that would invest newfound trust in the church. In an atomized society, this may only be possible at the level of the local church. But perhaps regionally, or even denominationally, a shift could occur that would result in people trusting established Christian networks and their pastors as sources of truth, knowledge, wisdom, and a pathway toward human flourishing through a restored relationship with God and shared fellowship with other people.

It’s possible; more than just a dream I have. Such a movement would be a work of God. A step in that direction might be to see our pastors as theologians–and perhaps to encourage our best theologians to serve also as our pastors.