Monday, April 11, 2016

BookPastor >> "The Pastor as Public Theologian" (Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan)

This review was first published at Panorama of a Book Saint on Dec 11th, 2015.


TITLE: The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision
AUTHOR: Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015, (230 pages).

What is the primary role of a pastor? One job description I read recently includes the typical duties such as pastoral care, preaching, evangelism, missions, visitation, small groups, office administration, oversee the care of facilities, taking care of Sunday School, and so on. On top of that, it includes a requirement of playing the piano! I smiled at first but soon my smile turned to frowns. How can a pastor be all things to all people, and all things to all work in the Church? If a pastor is going to be a spiritual Swiss knife to do everything in the Church, then only superman is eligible to apply. The tragedy of the Church is how pastors are turned from theologians into administrators; from biblical proponents to management strategists; from biblical preachers to motivational speakers. This book aims to reverse the trend and to instill in churches and pastors the need for theological reflections to be taken more seriously. The Church need more pastors to be deep in the Word and to be the public theologian in the marketplace of ideas. The call is not for less but more theology in churches to be taught.

The authors are passionate about all things theology. Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan are both professors of theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary respectively. Vanhoozer is the author of numerous books such as Everyday Theology, the Drama of Doctrine, and Is there a meaning in the text while Strachan is a Fellow with the Center for Pastor Theologians. Both of them believe that the vision for theology in the Church must be reclaimed and re-discovered. They show us the problem, the proposal, and the prospect of why they write this book.

With passionate please, Vanhoozer urges pastors to rediscover their theological vocations amid a tide of expectations for them to be all things to all people in the Church. He reminds churches to rethink the way they view pastoral roles, and to become the theological community needed in accordance to God's Word. He tells seminarians to train pastors and serve the churches, to encourage their best students to serve in churches. The problem in our modern churches is simply we have lost the vision for the theological vocation, seconding them instead to Bible schools and seminaries far away from churches. He says that the pastor's calling is to be counter-cultural instead of becoming self-emptying before the academy, the church, and the public. When theology is separated from the church, what we will have is a religion of private choices, easily influenced more by worldly theories instead of Christian theology.  Theology has generally been perceived as something abstract and for the academy. In churches, people tend to restrict theology to some private domain. The challenge is to speak with theological truth to these three arenas: Academy, Church, and the broader society. In the academy, the pastor-theologian needs to adapt much theological material and translate them to understandable form for Church and society. The pastor is not a CEO but a shepherd. He is not primarily an administrator but a visionary for pastoral care. At the same time, they must remember that the pastor-theologian is not just another helping ministry. It is about anchoring congregation members on the gospel for them to let Christ help them meaningfully. Indeed, one of the problems in pastoral ministry is the tendency for church members to tie down their pastors to a perpetual codependency where without the continued presence of a pastor, the member feels lost. The pastor-theologian also engages the public square by being able to interact knowledgeably and sensibly with people in the culture. In other words, pastor-theologians do not see their influence only within the Church but also outside of the Church. The proposal in this book is for the pastor-theologian to have a biblical vision of the pastoral vocation. The belief is that pastors are by nature theologians. They do not simply minister to the people inside the Church but must engage public matters that the gospel touches. They must serve by equipping the people of God to do the same. The prospect of doing this will flow out of getting everyone on board; from the pastor to the congregation; from the private communities to the public sphere. It may seem to be trying to be all things to all people, but it is simply about being Christ to all, beginning with our neighbours. Gerald Hiestand lists down six steps toward becoming a pastor-theologian with vision as the number one goal. Josh Moody shows us seven ways to theologize as a pastor, my favourite of which is how pastor-theologians are asked to cultivate confidence in the Word.

It is no surprise to see the rest of the book anchored on theological premises. Owen Strachan, Melvin Tinker, Todd Wilson, and Jim Samra all contribute to the chapters on biblical theology and historical theology to describe the necessity of a pastor-theologian. Strachan goes back to the Old Testament covenants and describes the roles of priest, prophet, and royalty. As king, one ministers wisdom. As prophet, one proclaims truth. As priest, one ministers grace. Tinker sees the pastor as a bridge between God's Word and the world. Strachan presents the historical development of the pastorate from the Early Church to the neoevangelical times. On Systematic and Practical Theology, Vanhoozer returns with an essay to focus on the purpose of a pastor-theologian, saying that the real work is to be a farmer of people, to help them grow. He has some really good things to say about the role of seminaries.David Gibson, Bill Kynes, and Cornelius Plantinga Jr. bring in various pastoral perspectives surround the role of the pastor-theologian. Gibson maintains that the pastor-theologian in dealing with times of death and grief learn to see death as the beginning of life, that is is even better than birth. Kynes and Cornelius Plantinga focus on the preaching and matters of the pulpit.

Then comes the popular question of "What then does the pastor-theologian do?" Vanhoozer points out the primary role as making disciples followed by other roles such as preaching, teaching, celebrating, and constantly demonstrating the reality of Christ. Guy Davies sees preaching as the primary vehicle to proclaim the gospel. Jason Hood maintains the apologetics angle that the pulpit needs to overcome at least one of six barriers to belief. The challenges are to answer the following questions appropriately:
  1. Isn't all religions the same and all teach us to be good?
  2. What about the problem of evil and suffering?
  3. How can one's personal choices be violated by other religion?
  4. The Church has a bad track record and you are telling me to join it?
  5. How can we explain the wrath of God?
  6. How can we believe the Bible?
Finally, Vanhoozer ends the book with 52 summary theses on the pastor as a public theologian. This is certainly one of the most exciting books written for those in the pastoral vocation. It can even breathe life into those who feel they are forced to choose between the parish and the academy. The truth is, there is no dichotomy between theology and pastoral ministry. The unfortunate theological labels have given people a wrong impression about theology or theological education in the first place. It is not meant to be that way. I have always believed that preaching and teaching are both highly significant expectations of a pastor or pastor-theologians. A good pastor needs to be able to teach well. A good teacher needs to be able to care as well. In fact, the best preachers are those who had substantial pastoral experience and the best pastors are those who are well trained theologically. That brings us to the question of "What about existing pastors?"

There are three ways to look at it. First, we can see the pastor-theologian as a third kind of pastors, a go-between, instead of being forced to choose either the practical pastor or the academic pastor. In doing so, we play into the perceptions of existing congregation bases who expect seminaries to continue to churn out graduates who are well formed in theology but with no practical use for the Church. That would be most unfortunate. Second, we can start developing a vision for some pastors to move away from their existing roles toward the vision cast by Vanhoozer and team. In this way, any change is gradual and will not dramatically alter the status quo. This is least disruptive and would be most acceptable. Third, we can cast the net even wider to declare that we are all called to be pastor-theologians. All are expected to play the roles and practices as laid out in this book. The difference is the degree to which we exercise that role. I prefer this third way because there are so many things in this book that apply to the entire pastoral vocation. Even if it is not applicable immediately, it is vital to cast the vision for the future.

Insightful, inspiring, and innovative, I hope this book can help bridge the divide between the Church and the academy. They need each other and pastor-theologians may become the all important agent to bridge the two more and more.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Academic and Graf-Martin Communications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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