This week I had the privilege of attending The Center for Pastor Theologians’ first annual conference in Oak Park. I’ve been excited about it for some time, not simply because of the buzz around the subject right now, but also because of the space I inhabit in my own studies, having recently (temporarily?) left my position in the local church. Now, I unfortunately could only make one of the days, but thankfully, it was the largest bulk of the time. That said, what I did catch was on point. Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand know how to put a conference together.
First off, Calvary Memorial felt like it was designed to host this sort of event. I mean, really, when I say it’s beautiful, I’m not just blowing smoke. Second, the size of the conference was really nice. I’m terrible with numbers, but it seemed like maybe two hundred or so people were, which is great for meeting, chatting, and feeling like you’re not being herded around like a bunch of cattle. I had the pleasure of meeting a number pastors and students working through some of issues I’ve been chewing on. Beyond that, the line-up was great. Not only the plenaries–which I’ll get to–but the breakout sessions, which featured speakers who could have easily been plenary speakers. If I had some spare cash and any extra time to read, the exhibitor section would have been tempting as well, with their sizable discount on books. All that to say, I look forward to coming back next year.
Oh, and one more thing: I think the thing that surprised me the most was the worship. For one thing, I was surprised at how good it was. The worship team had a tightly ordered, historic, yet contemporary liturgical order with each plenary session that actually ministered to some burdens in my soul. And that’s the second thing: I expected to be challenged and stimulated intellectually, there, but I was blessed to be comforted spiritually. But shouldn’t spiritual benefit be one of the impacts of a theological conference?
Now, as I mentioned, I only made it for the Tuesday portion, but that included the plenaries by Peter Leithart, James K.A. Smith, and Kevin Vanhoozer. While I was sad to miss Wilson and Hiestand’s pieces and the panel discussion, I was far from feeling robbed. All three were in fine form. Leithart discussed the Pastor as Biblical theologian, Smith, the Pastor as Political theologian, and Vanhoozer, the Pastor as Public theologian. Here’s what was funny: while all of the talks were distinct, content-rich, and focused on different aspects of the pastor’s theological work, there were some very clear–though, I think, unplanned–commonalities and themes. What I’d like to do is highlight four of them, summarizing and drawing on the different talks to do so.
Local. The first theme that clearly stood out was their focus on the local setting of the pastor. Leithart explicitly grounded his reflections around the activities of of the preacher in the “parish” ministry of study, pulpit, and table, as he sees one of the challenges of the pastor as biblical theologian is to develop new methods since much biblical scholarship that’s arisen in the academy is simply unusable by the church. As Vanhoozer joked, “Location! Location! Location!” is not only a principle of real estate, but of the reality of gospel-theologizing. Local pastors are theologians who are to know the specific locales–geographical, cultural, and spiritual–of the people (the public) to whom they are ministering. Smith even spoke of pastors as cultural ethnographers who are keen observers of their people and their environments, observing and reflecting on the cultural liturgies that shape the polis that exerts spiritual formative influence on their people.
Apocalyptic. Connected with this is the pastor as “apocalyptic” theologian. I believe the term was Smith’s, but it easily could apply to all three, though especially Leithart who framed his reflections around a close reading Revelation 17. In any case, local pastor-theologians are to be keen cultural observers, in part, in order to “unveil” and unmask the unreality of the prominent paradigms of the good life shaping our people without their understanding. Smith spoke of the “purging of the Christian imagination” that is partly the work of the pastor theologian who exegetes the festivals and practices of Empire. A theological sociologist, of sorts. Vanhoozer also stressed the formative power of culture, returning to some the themes from his work Everyday Theology. Part of ministering the reality of what is “in Christ” to the public of your people, means exposing the lies of the principalities and powers at work in the everyday rituals and narratives that hold our imaginations captive to the bestial practices of Empire.
Canonical. Of course, unsurprisingly, all three stressed the ministry of the Word as forming a canonical consciousness. Vanhoozer noted that the sermon is the “quintessential theological act”, which pastor-theologians practice in order to communicate the excellence of Christ and shape the congregation into who they already are in Christ. Leithart also stressed the ministry of the Word, suggesting that for the Word to have this effect, sermons must begin to take the shape of deep Bible studies, which illumine the narratival, typological, and theological depth of the texts, in order for our people to begin to inhabit the world of the Gospel. Hearing his phenomenal handling of Revelation 17 and the various theological, cultural, and political implications in his presentation, it’s hard to disagree. Looking to the practice of St. Augustine, Smith emphasized the preaching of the Word as well, but also pointed to Augustine’s theological work in his letters to the general Boniface, in which he gave biblical counsel in order to shape Boniface’s vocational self-understanding. The theological ministry of the Word expands beyond the pulpit for the pastor of a sent people living in a secular age.
Liturgical. Finally, all three, unsurprisingly if you know their work, emphasized the liturgy and especially ministering the sacraments as key theological activities of pastor theologians, both for shaping their theologizing and their people. Vanhoozer says the Lord’s Supper is the “summa and apologia” of the gospel; it is a “verbal, visual, and visceral” summary of the good news. As such, it is a powerfully formative liturgical practice for shaping the theological imagination of the polis of the church. The Table and the Pulpit go together in the work of the pastor theologian.
Of course, I’m still barely scratching the surface of these talks, especially since abstracting commonalities like this obscures the unique arguments of Leithart, Smith, and Vanhoozer. For that reason, I’d encourage you to go check out these talks and those of Hiestand and Wilson on the CPT Vimeo channel, which will be posted up by next Monday. I know I’ll be checking in to catch up on the sections I missed myself. In the meantime, they’ve got some helpful videos already up.
To sum up, the conference was a
Soli Deo Gloria