Book Review: The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision, by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson

The Pastor TheologianIn The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision, Hiestand and Wilson add to the ongoing argument in favor of the need for pastor-theologians, noting the unhealthy dichotomy perceived by modern Christians wherein pastors are seen as preacher-counselor-managers and theologians are seen solely as university academics. Bringing more specificity to the conversation, the authors promote what they call ecclesial theologians over local and popular theologians. They do, however, go on for six chapters before finally nailing down in the seventh exactly what they believe an ecclesial theologian is and/or ought to be, also noting that they are pilgrims on this journey and are contributing to a conversation that they hope will continue into the next generation in a hopeful resurgence of pastor-theologians.

So, what is an ecclesial theologian according to Hiestand and Wilson? Before stating what it is, they note what it is not—or, perhaps more appropriately, what it is more than. They write, “The local theologian is a pastor who provides theology to a local congregation; the popular theologian offers more widely accessible theological reflection for a broader swath of the church; and the ecclesial theologian gives theological leadership to other theologians and scholars, all the while keeping a close eye on genuine ecclesial (as opposed to academic) concerns” (17). So, the authors do not mean to say that an ecclesial theologian does not care for the local congregation, nor does he refrain from writing for a larger Christian audience or the academy; they claim that ecclesial theologians are first pastors to their local congregation and then contributors to ecclesial scholarship with a primary focus on the church and leaders therein rather than the academy. Pulling from church history, the authors bring forth Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Calvin as examples of their ideal ecclesial pastor-theologians, citing N. T. Wright as perhaps the best example of in our time—at least for a number of years before Western Christian culture seemingly eventually forced a decision to be either an academic or a pastor, Wright prayerfully landing back in the former.

If one is so inclined, one may skip straight to the seventh chapter for the authors’ detailed explanation of what an ecclesial theologian does via the following subheadings: The Ecclesial Theologian Inhabits the Ecclesial Social Location (88), Foregrounds Ecclesial Questions (90), Aims for Clarity over Subtlety (92), Theologizes with a Preaching Voice (93), Is a Student of the Church (94), Works Across the Guilds (96), Works in Partnership with the Academic Theologian (97), and Traffics in Introspection (99). This is all encouraging and helpful. So, how does one become an ecclesial theologian? The authors’ strategies are listed in chapter 8: Strategy One: Get a PhD (104); Two: Staff to the Vision (107); Three: Get Networked (108); Four: Guard Your Study Time with a Blowtorch (110); Five: Read Ecclesial Theology (and Other Stuff) (113); Six: Refer to the Place Where You Work as “Your Study” (116); Seven: Build Studying-and-Writing Time into Your Schedule (117); Eight: Recruit a Pastor-Theologian Intern (118); Nine: Earn Buy-In from Your Church Leadership (120); and Ten: Let the Necessity of Love Trump Your Love of Truth (121). Though surely helpful for some, this, in culmination with terminology and implication found in the rest of the book, is where I want to push back on the authors and hopefully encourage the pastor-theologian conversation to move in a more holistic and biblical direction.

 

This book is written on behalf of “evangelicalism” for a “resurrected vision” from the past. I note three significant problems stemming from the authors’ perspective:

One: What is evangelicalism? There are a plethora of definitions, no few of which claim to be “the one” from popular pastors and scholars, but the one common denominator I have found is that all who claim this guild are “Protestant” (most nondenominational churches who claim the same title still function and promote theology from their founders’ Protestant heritages and traditions).

Two: If Protestant, then is a pre-Reformation vision desirable? This is not intended to speak from my own convictions, but rather question the foundation of the vision put forth. I’m looking for consistency here. If the authors are speaking for protestant evangelicalism (they do not include their Catholic and Orthodox contemporaries in the discussion), then they must recognize the hurdle before them in convincing Protestants that Catholic and Orthodox history and theology matter and can be helpful, as I believe they are. However, if we’re going to drop denominational labels and ties and look at our history by recognizing that from which we came, for which I am in favor, then why refer to “evangelicals” and “evangelicalism” and perpetuate an “us vs. them” mentality?

Three: The authors make two assumptions. First, they assume there was an “ancient vision” and that it wasn’t simply an organic development with cultural and societal variables, two of the most notable affecting the rise of notable “pastor theologians” being widespread illiteracy and the Constantinian shift. Second, again missing problems and difficulties with Christian culture, the authors assume churches are business establishments of hundreds to thousands of members with boards, staff, and a convoluted understanding of the term “pastor” itself. This perpetuates the problem of North American churches and their international plants that places more emphasis on a branded institution than the body of Christ.

 

I applaud the Heistand and Wilson for contributing to this ongoing conversation and pushing it forward in specific ways. I now pray the Spirit guides us further with a more holistic and less taxonomical view of the body of Christ.

 

*I received a temporary digital copy for review from Zondervan via NetGalley.

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