Pastors, not professors, should be setting the theological agenda of the church. This is, of course, a loaded statement, and one that requires more nuance than I’ll be able to give it here. But I stand by it nonetheless. As a pastor who cares deeply about theology, I’ve become convinced that the present bifurcation between theological scholarship and pastoral ministry accounts for much of the theological anemia facing the church today.
Robert Jenson, in his Systematic Theology, defines theology as the church’s “continuing discourse about her individuating and carrying communal purpose.” A typically dense Jensonian statement, but one that rightly captures the essence of theology. Theology is “church speak” about the God who calls and constitutes the church and about the message she proclaims. Reflection on this message—its meaning and specific cultural application—constitutes the church’s theology.
What’s more, guardianship of this message is vital to the health of the church. Yet while all Christians are called to guard the apostolic trust, there is an ascending level of theological responsibility within God’s economy. At the most basic level, all Christians are called to draw a circle of theological protection around their own lives. Beyond this, some have been entrusted with a family and are called to draw a larger circle of protection around a spouse and children. Elders and pastors among us are called to draw a still larger circle, encompassing an entire local Christian assembly. And finally, there are those who are tasked with the theological care of large swaths of the Christian tradition, or even the whole of the tradition itself (think Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas, Luther, and Calvin). These we may call, after a fashion, “wider theologians”—theologians who have been tasked with caring for the theological needs of the wider church.
And so we arrive at a pressing question, one that I believe speaks to a significant shortfall in Christian theology: Who should the church call upon to serve as its wider theologians?
Postmodern theology—on the whole—makes too much noise about the effect of social location on theological formation. But one need not drink the entire cup of Derridian Kool-Aid to see that postmodernity has a valid point here. Social location plays a key role in shaping the agenda of one’s theology. And, while perhaps obvious, it must be stated that the social location of pastoral ministry is different than the social location of the academy. Simply put, the questions facing clergy are not always congruent with the questions facing professors. This is not in itself troubling. We need not discount the validity of either set of questions. What is troubling is the fact that nearly all of our theologians have entered the academy, expending the greatest part of their energy answering academic questions. And when academic theologians do get around to addressing ecclesial questions, they tend to do so in academic ways. The chronic “disconnect” between the academy and the church is the inevitable result.
Historically, the church’s most influential theologians were churchmen—pastors, priests, and bishops. Clerics such as Athanasius, Augustine (indeed, nearly all the church Fathers), Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Edwards, and Wesley functioned as the wider theologians of their day—shaping not only the theological vision of their own parishes, but that of the wider church. In their day, the pastoral community represented the most influential, most insightful, and most articulate body of theologians.
But since the nineteenth-century (in North America, at least) the center of theological reflection has shifted from the parish to the university. The pastoral community is no longer called upon—as a matter of vocation—to construct theology for those beyond their congregations. Instead, our present context views the academy as the proper home for those with theological gifts. Those with shepherding gifts are directed toward the pastorate. And those who are gifted in both areas? Well, they’ll have to choose. But can this be right? Do we really mean to suggest that the proper home of a theologian is in the academy, disconnected from the pastoral vocation?
The drain of our wider theologians from the pastorate to the academy has resulted in a two-fold problem. First, the theological water-level of our local parishes has dropped considerably. Inasmuch as the pastoral vocation is no longer seen as a theological vocation, pastors no longer bring a strong theological presence to their local parishes. The net effect (particularly in the evangelical tradition in which I reside) is a truncated understanding of theology and its import among the laity. Theology has largely left the local church.
The second part of this problem is perhaps more even troubling. Not only has theology left the church, but the church has left theology. To be sure, many academic theologians view themselves as self-consciously serving the theological needs of the church. But on the whole, academic discourse has lost its way, becoming preoccupied with questions—especially questions regarding its right to exist—that minimize its ecclesial relevance. As Karl Barth noted in his Evangelical Theology,
Theology [given its place in the academy] has taken too many pains to justify its own existence. It has tried too hard, especially in the nineteenth century, to secure for itself at least a small but honorable place in the throne room of general science. This attempt at self-justification has been no help to its own work. The fact is that it has made theology, to a great extent, hesitant and halfhearted.
Of course, Barth’s critique does not hold true for every academic theologian. Barth, himself an academic theologian, writes self-consciously in service to the church. And similar contemporary examples can be found in John Webster, Robert Jenson, Kevin Vanhoozer, R.R. Reno, and David B. Hart, among others. But who will gainsay that theology—on the whole—has taken an unhelpfully academic turn?
Not only has academic theology neglected to focus on the right questions, but it has also lost its ecclesial dialect. The ultimate telos of Christian theology is the edification of the church. And not simply the church in its broad intellectual sense, but the church as comprised of regular people—the widower, the business executive, the married mother. Theological reflection is—if nothing else—our best efforts to preach the content of the divinely spoken Word to such as these in a way that births faith. And though much of a theologian’s project will inevitably remain inaccessible to the laity, all of a theologian’s labors should be pressing toward the pulpit.
But academic theologians do not—as a matter of vocation—have to do draw connections between theology and pulpit. Thus academic theology has become unhelpfully nuanced—a more sophisticated, gentlemanly discourse that can get away with flying at 50,000 feet. It often lacks a bare-fisted, take-no-prisoner, prophetic, pulpit voice. And yet, in reading the work of past wider theologians such as Athanasius and Calvin, one encounters theologians who draw weekly, if not daily, connections between their most profound thoughts and the lives of average people. Pastor-theologians, by means of their vocation, are best positioned to remember the inherent preachy-ness of theology.
Of course, my critique of academic theology is inevitably subjective. Some will not find the situation so dire. But all Christians of good will must agree that the church could use more ecclesially focused theology—theology that is born within an ecclesial context, driven by ecclesial concerns, and prosecuted by ecclesial theologians. We need a theology that moves boldly beyond self-justification, and that answers ecclesial questions in pastorally rich ways.
The ecclesial renewal of Christian theology will not take place apart from a concerted effort to reestablish the pastoral community as the church’s most significant body of theologians. The pastoral community must once again become serious about the duties of the theological task—study, prayer, writing, and theological dialog. The pastoral community as a whole must once again don the mantle of theological responsibility for the wider church.
I am not simply stating that pastors must become more theologically informed, or that pastors much preach with more theological precision. True enough, but this will not solve the problem. Rather, an entire paradigm shift is needed. Pastor-theologians, not academic-theologians, must once again become the leading theological voices of the church. We ask too much of our academic theologians when we ask them to answer—from the outside, as it were—the pastoral questions facing the church.
Ecclesially sensitive academic theologians have much to offer the church; I count them among my most valuable dialog partners. But we pastors must stop outsourcing the entire theological enterprise to the academy. Maintaining the theological integrity of the people of God is a task that has been assigned to the pastors of the church.
Of course, not every pastor must be—or can be—a wider theologian. Indeed, we pastors have neglected the theological calling for so long that the present pastoral community no longer possesses the theological resources necessary for the task. But a reversal is possible. Our hope for the future lies with the emerging generation of theology students.
While some of these students would make poor pastors, many have both intellectual and pastoral gifts. We must stop insisting that pastorally sensitive theologians and theologically sensitive pastors choose between theological scholarship and the church. Theologians not only belong to the church, they also—in the main—belong in the church.
Gerald Hiestand is Senior Associate Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois, and executive director of The Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology (SAET)—an organization dedicated to assisting pastors in the production of biblical and theological scholarship for the ecclesial renewal of Christian theology and the theological renewal of the Church.