The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015.
Summary: The authors contend that at the heart of the pastoral calling is a vision of doing theology with the people of God, pointing them to what God is doing in and through the Christ, and how they may participate in that work.
The central thesis of this book addresses something I’ve long thought–that there is a growing divide between those who teach and write theology, and those who teach and shepherd the people of God. Many theological works on issues that are actually important for the life of the people of God read as written only for the academic guild of theologians. Meanwhile, pastors increasingly are viewed as those who are church growth technicians, counselors, and inspirational worship leaders. The authors contend rather that pastors are public theologians, in that they communicate the truth that is in Christ to the people of God, who then bear witness to Christ in every sphere of public life.
The authors then develop this thesis using four of the disciplines that classically define the theological academy: biblical, historical, systematic, and practical theology. They seek to show that the core of what is taught in these disciplines is in fact not something to be confined to the academy but is vital to the life of the church.
Under biblical theology, they consider the prophet, priest, and king roles as they find fulfillment in Christ and are expressed in pastorates that are prophetic, telling forth the word of God; priestly as those who minister grace in the message of the gospel; and kingly in both speaking wisdom and serving diligently as did the servant King.
With regard to historical theology Owen Strachan traces the pastorate from the earliest days, through monasticism and scholasticism, into the reformation and the Puritan and Edwardsian expressions in early America, to the professionalization of the pastorate, and an Evangelical recovery in the twentieth century. In this section, it seems the reformers, Puritans, and Jonathan Edwards are held in highest esteem as approaching the model of public theologians the writers envision.
Then Kevin Vanhoozer turns to systematic theology. He makes a startling contention here: that pastor-theologians both cultivate life and cope with death and that much of their work is helping people who inevitably will die understand how to live in light of this. It is a ministry of teaching the indicatives of theology: what is already reality for us through new life in Christ. It is ministry of the word: cultivating both biblical literacy and a biblically-informed cultural literacy. And it is the ministry of the imperative: how we should then live in light of the realities true of us in Christ.
Finally, Vanhoozer discusses practical theology, and the work of pastors as artisans in the house of God through the work of Evangelist, proclaiming what is in Christ in counsel, visitation, and sermon; the work of Catechist, as teaching what is in Christ through careful instruction of new converts and all of God’s people; the work of Liturgist in worship, prayer, and communion; and the work of Apologist, demonstrating what is in Christ against the alternatives that are in error.
Each section of the book is concluded with testimony from one of twelve practicing pastor-theologians. These are a highlight of the book in many ways in practically translating theory into theological practice. It was striking how many emphasized the priority of study and wide reading as essential to the life of the pastor-theologian. Lastly, the book concludes with fifty-five theses that essentially are a summary of the main points of the book.
If I were to have any reservation with this book, it would be that it should more accurately be titled “The Complementarian Reformed Pastor as Public Theologian”. Both authors and all twelve contributors are men writing and, in the case of the twelve, pastoring churches in the Reformed tradition. Yet I would contend that this theological perspective is not central to the contention the book makes, with which I would heartily agree, but it may serve to limit the book’s audience. I would contend that Martin Luther King, Jr. was just as much a public theologian as Harold John Ockenga, and King’s leadership in the civil rights movement is perhaps the signature example in the twentieth century of the impact public theology can have both upon the people of God and the public square. The contention these authors are making for the noble role of pastor as public theologian, indeed public intellectual, is vital both for the equipping of a people of God saturated by a secular culture, and for the engagement of that culture. I hope it can contribute to a wider conversation throughout the church of the vital role pastor-theologians can play in equipping the church for a witness both cogent and charitable in a world that desperately needs it.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Editor’s Note: Thank-you to Bob Trube for sharing his reviews with Emerging Scholars! Bob first posted the above review on Bob on Books. I found this review of particular pertinance as we approach the new year, potentially a conversation starter for the prayerful consideration of the role of the pastor in relationship to the congregational mission in our world today. Praying for God’s blessing upon the local assembly of which you are a member and the whole Body of Christ as we journey through Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany as the people of God declaring the Gospel with a yearning for the new heavens and the new earth to come in their fullness. Come, Lord Jesus! Lord Jesus, come. ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director, Emerging Scholars Network