Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan. 2015. The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Amid periods of rapid social and philosophical change, tension in the church often revolves around our interpretation of the identity of Christ which, in turn, informs our sense of identity as Christians and other things, like worship. Worship and identity are practical applications of our theology because one of the primary tasks of theology is interpreting both the Bible and our world. Hence, theologian Karl Barth’s comment that pastors should preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other clearly assumes that at the heart of the pastor’s role is applying theology.
In their new book, The Pastor as Public Theologian, Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan start with a harsh assessment:
“Societies become secular not when they dispense with religion altogether, but when they are no longer especially agitated by it. The church, the society of Jesus, is similarly in danger of becoming secular and in the very place where we would least expect it: its understanding of the clergy. This not because churches are dispensing with the pastorate, but because they no longer find its theological character particularly exciting or intelligible.” (1)
Their objective in writing is to “reclaim the theological pedigree of the world’s boldest profession” with three groups in mind—pastors, churches, and seminaries (2)—and against competing visions, such as the pastor as therapist, the pastor as political activist, the pastor as story-teller, the pastor as professional XYZ, and the pastor as manager (7-10). Against these competing visions, the author’s caution: “Without a biblical vision of the pastor, the people of God may indeed perish: they will certainly fail to prosper.” (15) In order to prosper, they write: “Success in ministry is determined not by numbers (e.g., people, programs, dollars) but by the increase of people’s knowledge and love of God.” (22)
In expanding our knowledge of the pastoral office, Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan collaborate with a number of pastors to write a series of 4 chapters, including:
Introduction: Pastors, Theologians, and Other Public Figures
PART 1: Biblical Theology and Historical Theology
- Of Prophets, Priests, and Kings: A Brief Biblical Theology of the Pastorate
- Of Scholars and Saints: A Brief History of the Pastorate
PART 2: Systematic Theology and Practical Theology
- In the Evangelical Mood: The Purpose of the Pastor-Theologian
- Artisans in the House of God: The Practice of the Pastor-Theologian
Conclusion: Fifty-Five Summary Theses on the Pastor as Public Theologian
The introduction and each of the four chapters includes short “pastoral perspectives” written by working pastors.
One of these pastor perspectives, written by Gerald Hiestand, offered some practical advice for would-be pastoral theologians in the form of 6 steps:
- Hire staff with the vision to overcome isolation.
- Network with like-minded pastors through Skype, ETS or blogging.
- Make study-time a priority in the weekly schedule.
- Get buy-in from your leadership.
- Remember that theology serves the church, not vice versa.
- You do your work in a “study”, not an “office”—Bureaucrats work in offices while theologians have studies (29-31).
Personally, my study time in the morning minimally includes journaling, studying, reading, and praying for 30 to 60 minutes before wandering out to swim laps, but as a writer I spend more time in my “study” than would be typical for pastors.
In the Old Testament, three anointed offices are described—priest, prophet, and king (40)—which today describe different aspects of the role of Christ in the New Testament. Concerning these anointed offices, the authors write: “The priest was a man set apart by the Lord to be an on-the-ground mediator of holiness between God and the people.” (4) “The prophets exercised the ministry of truth-telling.” (44) The king personified divine wisdom (46). These three anointed offices do not readily transfer to the role of pastor, as the authors observe:
“Priestly ministry was centered around the teaching and performance of the law. Pastoral ministry is centered around the person and work of Christ” (49).
Still, aspects of these three anointed offices inform the role of a pastor and the interpretation of each of the roles differs among denominations, ethnic communities, and age groups, as is frequently observed.
An important observation repeated throughout the book is that throughout church history the best theology was often written by pastors, not academics, as the authors observe:
“…it is easy to forget that Jonathan Edwards spent little time in the ivory tower. He was never a professor in the modern sense. Edwards composed many of his treatises in the middle of a demanding pastorate, at the largest church in New England, outside of Boston. Later he wrote soaring theological works on the Massachusetts frontier while serving as a missionary.” (82-83)
This observation remains a valid point today as many of my own influences—Barth, Bonhoeffer, Ortberg, Sproul, Lucado, Peterson, Keller—are better known as pastors than academics, even if they have freely moved between the academy and the church.
Clearly, a lot more could be said about this book.
Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan’s The Pastor as Public Theologian is timely resource on where pastors ought rightly to be spending their time, which is unfortunately much needed by some of my best friends who are pastors. Pastoral burnout is a huge problem for the church, not only because of the loss of great talent, but also because “pastor as dervish” is a poor model for a church that, presumably, glorifies the “Lord of the Sabbath”. A better model is the pastor-theologian presented in this book—buy it; enjoy It; share it in a group study.
Barth, Karl. 1991. Homelitics. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press.
 Barth’s comment, which is widely cited by his students, appears nowhere in his writing. Instead, we read: “theology as a church discipline ought in all its branches to be nothing other than sermon preparation in the broadest sense.” (Barth 1991,17).
 Vanhoozer is a research professor of systemic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago and the author of numerous books (http://divinity.tiu.edu/academics/faculty/kevin-vanhoozer).
 Strachan is a professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of numerous books (http://www.mbts.edu/about/faculty/owen-strachan).
 I am currently studying First Samuel which has been surprisingly fruitful.
 Sample review: Bonhoeffer’s Nachfolge: Following After Christ (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-y9),
 Review: Ortberg Sharpens and Freshens Jesus (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-138).
 Review: Lucado Calls Out Fear; Instills Peace (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-99).
 Sample review: Keller Argues the Case for God (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Sr).