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A Feature Review of
The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reaclaiming a Lost Vision
Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan
Hardback: Baker Academic, 2015
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Reviewed by Adam Joyce
When talking with pastors, you sometimes hear how the work of theology—reading, writing and research—is a luxury. Seminary provided the space for it, but accumulating ministry pressures mean book spines remain uncracked, theological memories remain dormant, the conference room supplants the study, and the balance sheet replaces Barth. Theology (especially academic theology) appears inapplicable to the practical and immediate concerns of ecclesial life.
In The Pastor as Public Theologian, written by theologians Owen Strachan and Kevin Vanhoozer, the aim is to revive the theological portion of the pastoral vocation. Strachan and Vanhoozer argue that many churches and pastors have forgotten what pastors are for, too often viewing them as CEOs, entrepreneurs, activists, therapists, or celebrities. And while the pastorate has undergone changes throughout Christian history, the multiplication of pastoral roles is a sign of mission drift and confusion.
Hoping to save theology from its academic captivity, they argue the pastor is a generalist theologian, an “organic intellectual,” responsible for helping a particular community “view…all of life as relating to God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.” The pastor-theologian builds up the body of Christ in knowledge and love of God and is called to “seek, speak, and show understanding of what God was doing in Christ for the sake of the world and lead others to do the same.” This calling is fulfilled through sermons, counseling, life itself, and the embodied act of worship. The pastor-theologian is less Steve Jobs, more St. Paul. Less Billy Graham, more John Stott.
Strachan argues this is a faithful reclamation, as the office of pastor-theologian finds its “ancestry of leadership…in the offices of ancient Israel: prophet, priest, and king,” which means the local pastor ministers grace, wisdom, and truth to his or her congregation. Theological work is neither optional nor consigned to the seminary classroom, and ministers must preach and embody the truth of the gospel or perish.
Part argument, part how-to, Strachan and Vanhoozer’s essays provide the backbone of the book and lay out the history, biblical, systematic and practical theology of the pastor-theologian. Their essays are interspersed with micro-reflections and practical advice by pastors on specific aspects of their calling as theologians.
There is a lot in the book, and as with most ambitious arguments, numerous issues arise. Strachan’s history of the pastorate ends with a resounding and one-sided note of “neoevangelical” triumphalism. While naturally resulting from the authors’ theological commitments, there is not a single female voice in the book. The micro-reflections provided by pastors are uneven, at times feel disconnected from the larger arc of the argument, and none has enough space to develop a complete argument.
Vanhoozer’s chapters “In the Evangelical Mood” and “Artisans in the House of God” are superb. Here the book moves away from the idea that sermonic words are the entirety of what it means to be a pastor-theologian. As a “holy-jack-of-all-existential-trades” the pastor-theologian helps the Church understand and live into the resurrection of Christ. While suffering and confusion mark this life, the resurrection and the deep joy it provides is our “way of being attuned to the world.” Good theological work helps conform all of life to Christ, and in a beautifully Trinitarian and communal formulation, he states: “Living to God, living into Christ, living through the Spirit, with others—this is the essence of theology.”
Vanhoozer then works through the “concrete practices” of communal life and worship that participate in God’s work of building a holy people and accomplishing cosmic reconciliation. Baptism and communion, prayer and catechesis are part of the pastor-theologian’s work of public theology—acts that both worship God and form the people of God. He helpfully emphasizes how apologetics is more than intellectual argument, and requires the church to embody a holy life of love. Like an inversion of St. Francis’ misattributed phrase: Argue for the gospel at all times, when necessary, use words.
However, a suspicion of certain types of sermons is peppered throughout the work. Owen Strachan asserts that “The apostles did not perform rhetorical flights of fancy…” and Cornelius Plantinga says, “In general, highly literary preachers…can sound effete.” This consistent mistrust of “literary preaching” raises the question: How is the pastor-theologian supposed to communicate the truth of theology? The pastor speaks and lives it, but how do they speak it? What form should their preaching take? Ultimately, Vanhoozer and Strachan spend a lot of time on what should be said (and what the “what” means), but devote limited space on how it should be said. The type of sermon the pastor-theologian speaks is presumed—exegesis done with an awareness of the culture and the story of scripture.
The unilateral emphasis on the expositional sermon and disinterest in the how of proclamation betrays an error in Vanhoozer and Strachan’s understanding of the current ecclesial context: plenty of pastors are still acting as theologians, it’s that many congregations have stopped listening. In Christian contexts (esp. Christendom and even post-Christendom) the gospel hangs in the air, is the cloud that surrounds congregations, and listeners are secure in their knowledge of the gospel. Here, certain words about the gospel become, as preacher and theologian Fred Craddock states, a “piece of information,” “non-redemptive,” something known but unloved, a bit of cultural currency devalued by its ubiquity. Lack of theology is not the problem, but a specific and singular form of its continual presentation is. In such a context, it’s possible for true words about the gospel to bury the gospel itself, for how you say something can make what you say untrue.
Kevin Vanhoozer describes the sermon as “the gospel’s Western front” the “heavy artillery in the pastor-theologian’s arsenal and thus the best frontal assault on imaginations held captive by other stories.” But the artillery of learned exegesis isn’t enough. The congregant’s mind and heart are crowded places, a conflicted cosmopolis, and the city of the heart is not always well served by continual shelling.
For congregations where grace has become worn with trivialized familiarity, Scripture itself provides different ways for us to think about the form of theological words. Rather than heavy artillery, at times the sermon can be the shovel for tunneling under the heart’s walls. Sometimes sermons need more Psalms, less Romans. Less Paul in the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-34), more Nathan in front of David (2 Samuel 12). Pitting Scripture against itself is dangerous, but it makes my point: churches don’t always need culturally informed exegesis papers. They need poetry and parables that reveal the illusions that hold us captive, sermonic stories that steal a congregation’s false self-understanding, words formed to break what Craddock calls the “illusion of participation” in the truth of Christ.
I grew up hearing two different sermon types every week. At my church the sermons were long, deeply learned and exegetical; sometimes I struggled to stay awake. At my school the sermons were personal, often narrative-based, sometimes wooly and deistic. Every week I heard undiluted logos, and then uncut pathos. But how I reacted to the best of each proved important. After the best of my church’s sermons I was often intrigued by a topic, certain authors, enlivened by hearing a new angle on a familiar passage. After the best of my school’s sermons I felt apprehended by the text, almost as if the original event of the passage had happened again. Looking back, I see how my faith and theological formation needed both.
A deeper attention to the variety of ways that Scripture expresses theological truth, and what this means for how pastor-theologians speak to the Church’s current cultural context, would have served Vanhoozer and Strachen well. Only the local pastor has any idea exactly what sort of words a community needs to hear, where the person of Christ needs to be encountered, but humans need true poetry as often as they need true propositions.
The Pastor at Public Theologian provides a necessary correction, a vital reminder. Yet as a book, it is like half a meal—delicious and desirable, but incomplete.
 To be fair, Vanhoozer briefly mentions how pastors must be “minor poets” who “see, and express, the reality of things deeper than surface appearances” (160). But this aside is so brief it brought the larger omission into relief.