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Nonexistent Pastor Theologians Have Led to Theological-Ecclesial Anemia

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The American church is suffering.The Pastor-Theologian by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson

Pastors are suffering, because they don’t know who they are and what they are supposed to be doing; churches are suffering, because there is a deep, chronic theological deficit within our congregations; the academy is suffering, because post-Enlightenment academics ceased to view the pastorate as the best context for robust intellectual engagement.

The culprit? Nonexistent pastor theologians.

That’s the verdict according to a new book by pastor theologians Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand, The Pastor Theologian. In it they argue what many of us have witnessed and personally experienced:

Pastor theologians aren’t extinct, but sightings are rare…pastors no longer traffic in ideas. They cast vision, manage programs, offer counsel, and give messages. We expect our pastors to be able to preach; we expect them to know how to leader; we expect them to be good at solving problems and giving direction…But we no longer view the pastorate as an intellectual calling. (11)

Consequently, the church is suffering in two distinct, profound ways: Theology has become ecclesially anemic; the church has become theologically anemic.

The Theological Anemia of the Church

“No longer is the pastoral community as a whole able to provide serious intellectual leadership for the crucial issues facing the church.” (13)

That’s quite the indictment! Yet it’s not without merit.

There is a “sweeping and near universal assumption that pastors are—at best—brokers of theological truth,” perpetuating “the myth that theology is an essentially academic enterprise.” Furthermore, “pastors are no longer expected to generate fresh theological syntheses in light of contemporary intellectual challenges.” Such a role has been outsourced to the academy. (61–62)

The professor, not the pastor, has become the default theologian of evangelicalism. Wilson and Hiestand contend this failing by the pastoral community has led to the theological anemia of the church—which, in turn, has led to its ethical anemia: “evangelicals are floundering ethically because we are floundering theologically.” (56)
Wilson and Hiestand urge pastors to resume their rightful, God-given roles as theological leaders of the church:

The pastoral office retains the burden of the church’s theological leadership, regardless of the vocational context of professional theologians and scholars…they simply are theological leaders of the church. As goes the pastoral community, so goes the church. (57)

While the authors acknowledge not every individual pastor is called to such a task, they still urge pastors to take their role seriously. Because as they argue, “The theological integrity of a local church will not rise above that of its pastor.” (58)

The Ecclesial Anemia of Theology

Not only has the nonexistence of pastor theologians damaged the theological integrity of the church, its ravaged the ecclesial integrity of theology, too:

The migration of Christian theologians away from the pastorate into the academy has been, we believe, at the root of the frustrations surrounding the relationship between the academy and the church. (66–67)

Wilson and Hiestand argue such a shift has resulted in at least two challenges.

First, the shift from the church to the academy has created diverging social locations. “The questions being addressed in the academy…are not always the same questions being asked by pastors on the ground.” (67)

Historic pastor theologians like Jonathan Edwards and Luther serve as examples of pastors whose theological aims were socially located: “the unique social location of each theologian raised important concerns that subsequently directed their labor of theological reflection,” which in turn impacted they pastoral priorities. (67–68)

As theologians have moved from the pulpit to classrooms, the theological foci has shifted. The result: the academy doesn’t address the real, pressing theological needs of congregations.

Second, the shift from the church to the academy has resulted in diverging theological methods: “the way theologians and scholars are taught to do theology in the academy often runs counter to the needs of pastoral ministry.” (79)
Some of the blame comes from the need to defend theology, rather than develop it. “The battles for higher criticism,” for instance, “allow us to merely hold the ground upon which we were already standing.” (74) The “methodological agnosticism” of the academy, also prevents much gains theologically in the church. Which is why Wilson and Hiestand say it’s a mistake for pastors to adopt passivity when it comes to theology.

***

Wilson’s and Hiestand’s book offers a way through the theological-ecclesial anemia. For they envision “a return of the pastor theologian who has a shepherd’s heart and a pastor’s primary vocational identity, yet who functions as an intellectual peer of the academic theologian…” (15)

If you are a pastor, this book could save your ministry—and your church. Read it, engage it, discuss it to provide the kind of intellectual leadership the church needs.

Come back to this space in the coming weeks to learn about the three types of pastor theologians and ten practical steps you can take to be an ecclesial-theologian.

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