Pastor-Theologian? Pastor-Scholar? What’s the Difference?

pastor as theologianThere’s been plenty of buzz in the air lately around the idea of the “pastor-scholar” and how the job is or isn’t impossible. And how we used to have pastor-theologians, but no longer. Or how being a scholar must be possible for the pastor because pastors are theologians and theologians are scholars and…you see the problem. There’s a lot of talk around the issue, but some confusion as to just what everyone is talking about. In order to help aid the discussion along, I figured I’d canvas and categorize a few recent articles, books, and so forth, on the subject and note some distinctions and differences.

Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan: Vanhoozer and Strachan have recently put forward the idea of the pastor as public theologian, or organic intellectual. The argument, in a nutshell, is that pastors, before they are counselors, business managers, “strategic leaders”, or whatever else, are ministers of the Word, and therefore the theologians of the public of their local churches. Pastors are in the business of theology, ministering the reality of what is “in Christ” to their people. That said, they are not arguing for (or against) the idea of pastors being scholars writing academic works, teaching courses, and so forth. It’s just a different thing than what they’re talking about.

Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson: Wilson and Hiestand are arguing for the unique spot of the ecclesial theologian, who does occupy that weird, middle ground of being a local church pastor who simultaneously participates and even lead the conversation in both the academy and the church. Note, this isn’t just the Vanhoozer/Strachan localist model, nor is it the pastor as popularizer of theology model (think the pastor who writes pop-theology books). But someone like a Calvin or Augustine doing game-changing theology from the social location of the local church. They don’t say all pastors should be this kind of theologian, but certainly that some should, and that this unique role ought to be recovered in our churches. So, in this case, the pastor-theologian is a scholar.

Mark Jones: In a nutshell, Jones argued that being a scholar, doing original research and so forth, requires an enormous amount of work that occupies you full time. So does being a pastor. Ergo, no true pastor-scholars because there’s no possible way of doing a good job of both unless you water down the meaning of either pastoring or scholarship. That said, a pastor-theologian? Ya, sure. That can happen.

Andrew Wilson: My boy Wilson wrote something fairly similar to Jones, basically noting the extreme difficulty of the actual practice of being a full-time pastor and a scholar. It’s got some serious tensions in it, but he doesn’t rule it out–he says it’s “nearly” impossible. Note what he does not say: he does not say it is totally impossible, nor does he ever question the idea that a pastor could be a theologian in the sense that Vanhoozer and Strachan argue for, nor even Wilson and Hiestand.

There have been other pieces, as well, with variations on these themes. Let me note two or three points that should be made clear.

Not all advocates of the pastor-theologian are advocates of the pastor-scholar.

Not all critics of the pastor-scholar are opposed to the pastor-theologian.

Much tends to ride on what you make of the terms “pastor”, “scholar”, and “theologian.” The stricter you are about the requirements of time, footnotes, pastoral visits, and position in the academy, the less likely you are to find the prospect of the pastor-scholar to be feasible. What’s more, it’s not wise to conflate the terms “scholar” and “theologian” as some tend to do. Jeff Robinson had some helpful concluding thoughts in that direction over at the Gospel Coalition today.

Well, again, I hope this little bit of explication helps as I’m sure there are not a few people confused by the welter of recent publications on the issue. And if that doesn’t, I suppose it isn’t inappropriate to note that Mere Fidelity did have a podcast with both Kevin Vanhoozer and Gerald Hiestand on the subject. You can listen in here.

Soli Deo Gloria

One thought on “Pastor-Theologian? Pastor-Scholar? What’s the Difference?

  1. Pingback: New Calvinism & Scholarship: Roses by Other Names – Catholics & Calvinists

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