Book Review: The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson
Let's start this post with a quick word association game: What comes to your mind when you hear the word "pastor"? An evangelist? A counselor? A speaker? An organizational leader or entrepreneur? A moral example?
All of these roles have their place in pastoral ministry and local church leadership. Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson want to make sure one other component of pastoral ministry isn't ignored or forgotten amidst these other roles, though - the role of "pastor theologian." To make their case, they've written a brief, accessible book advocating for the essential and valuable contribution a "pastor theologian" makes to healthy local church life.
The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.
WHAT'S THE BOOK ABOUT?
In a sentence, Hiestand and Wilson are advocating for the essential and valuable contribution a "pastor theologian" makes to healthy local church life, from within the community of a local church (or, conceivably, a network of churches). (The authors are careful to distinguish the pastor theologian role they are promoting from the "academic theologian" who spends his or her time in the setting of universities or seminaries.) As the subtitle of the book makes clear, the authors want to resurrect an ancient vision where robust theology was produced by local church leaders, for the health of the larger church (e.g. Athanasius, Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards).
After an initial chapter that is largely introductory (chapter 1), the authors devote the next chapters to historical matters - tracing first the valuable contributions of the pastor theologian in church history (chapter 2), and then moving to the separation of robust scholarship (/theology) and local church life since the Enlightenment and the modern university (chapter 3). The results of this separation, and the (near) vanishing of the "pastor theologian" have led to two significant errors, the theological anemia of the church (chapter 4) and the ecclesial anemia of theology (chapter 5).
The solution, of course, is the resurrection of pastor theologian. Heistand and Wilson describe three ways this role can take shape: (1) the local theologian, (2) the popular theologian, and (3) the ecclesial theologian (chapter 6).
The local theologian "is a theologically astute pastor who ably services the theological needs of a local church. This theological leadership is most immediately accomplished through a theologically rich preaching ministry but also through theologically thick pastoral care, counseling, and organizational leadership. A local theologian has a solid working knowledge of the primary Christian doctrines and is able to draw connections between biblical truth and lived experience. Such pastors are inevitably readers and lifelong learners; they are reflective and thoughtful and understand that ideas have consequences - not least theological ideas. They are frequently looked to by other pastors and those in their congregations for guidance and direction on theological matters. Theological study comes easy to them, and they engage in it as a life-giving font of personal renewal" (81).
The popular theologian "is a local theologian, yet with a broader range of influence. In this model, the pastor theologian is a pastor who writes theology, an activity not inherent to the identity of the local theologian. Bridging the gap between the professional theological community and the local church, the popular theologian translates academic theology down to other pastors and the laity" (83).
The role of the ecclesial theologian "will be in nearly every respect like that of the local and popular theologian. Which is to say, the pastor as ecclesial theologian is first and foremost a local church pastor who views the pastoral vocation from a theological vantage point" (85). Yet the duties of the ecclesial theological extend further: "With respect to his theological work, the ecclesial theologian writes theology to other theologians and scholars, drawing upon the wealth of resources found in the most enduring works of the church and in conversation with the most relevant contemporary dialog partners..." (86).
In chapters 7 and 8, the authors focus more specifically on the role of ecclesial theologian and provide some very practical steps individuals can take to move in the direction of being this sort of ecclesial theologian. (Some of these practical steps include getting a PhD, networking, guarding your study time, and earning buy-in from church leadership.)
The final chapter (chapter 9) lays ground for the sustainable future of the pastor theologian, with the authors giving some parting words to three groups of people: a word to professors, a word to pastors, and a word to students.
Below I've included the full Table of Contents, so you can get one more glimpse of what The Pastor Theologian covers:
WHY DO (OR DON'T) I RECOMMEND THIS BOOK?
Here are five (brief!) reasons I recommend this book, followed by two things I wish the book would have included.
First, the reasons I recommend The Pastor Theologian:
Here are two things I wish the book would have included:
WHO SHOULD CONSIDER CHECKING THIS BOOK OUT?
Certainly, those who feel called to the role of pastor theologian will gravitate towards this book. And may that be the case! These people will find much that they resonate with, and a camaraderie with the authors and their ideas that can propel them forward.
But I also suggest others who AREN'T naturally the "pastor theologian type" read this book - both to better understand the important contributions the pastor theologian makes to healthy church ministry AND to creatively brainstorm how this role can and should take shape in the life of their church.
HOW SHOULD THE BOOK BE APPROACHED?
As I thought about how this book should be approached, the two words that came to my mind were "seriously" and "patiently."
This book should be approached seriously - as the authors point out, both the church and the discipline of theology suffer when the role of pastor theologian is neglected or forgotten. The necessity of orthodox theology for the life of a healthy church cannot be overstated.
And this book should also be approached patiently. For those that feel called to this "pastor theologian role," the default mindset can be "let's get this started now and make sure things have 'arrived' by next week!" But let's be more patient than that. People may need time to get their minds around the contributions a pastor theologian will make to a church. Indeed, they'll perhaps simply need time to get their minds around properly understanding the role itself! Churches should be given time to talk through what implementation of some of these ideas might look like, and how they can begin to reconcile the relationship between robust theology and the ins-and-outs of church life.
Christian. Husband. Father. Pastor. Learner. Contributor. Reader.