The Pastor as Public Theologian - A Review

Can there be such a thing as a pastor-theologian? What would that look like in practice? Would attempting to be a practicing, professional theologian take away from ministry to the congregation?

These are some of the questions Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan attempt to address in their recent book from Baker Academic, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision.

Definitions are important here and the title is somewhat misleading. The phrase “public theologian” conjures the image of a predominately Christian society with the theologically astute sage devising and proclaiming theological concepts to the broader society. There is an element of this in the definition offered by Vanhoozer and Strachan, but not in the idealistic sense that desires a theonomic society.

In contrast, the public theologian in this volume is one that does theology primarily for an audience other than the academy or personal enrichment. Instead, the public theologian does his theology for the church primarily, to build up the body of Christ and present clear theological truths to those who lack formal training in the subject. At times this individual may contribute to academic conversations or to broader societal discussions, but the primary public is the redeemed souls within the walls of the church. By the definition offered, the pastor as public theologian studies in private, but practices and proclaims theology openly through his ministries of Word and deed.

The introduction lays the groundwork for this discussion. Vanhoozer explains his vision of the pastor theologian, arguing that such a vision existed in reality in earlier days before the contemporary management movement. In Chapter One, Strachan provides an overview of leadership patterns throughout Scripture. His conclusion is that although the title and some specifics of the roles have changed, there has been a consistent emphasis on theological leadership among the leaders of God’s people. In Chapter Two, Strachan surveys the historical role of the pastor (or priest) in leading his people theologically. His historical conclusion is that until very recently the local congregational leader has served as a theological shepherd of the church.

The book shifts, then, from an argument for the pastor as public theologian to an explanation of what that looks like. In the third chapter, Vanhoozer unpacks the purpose of the Pastor-Theologian. He argues that a primary role of the pastor is to illuminate the present culture in light of Scripture for the edification of the local church. This is designed to lead people toward the glory of God and result in evangelistic fire. Seminaries, therefore, should be primarily educational institutions rather than practical training centers. Despite the intellectual rigors necessary for the pastor-theologian, Vanhoozer argues in Chapter Four that the pastor maintains the roles of disciple-maker, evangelist, catechist, liturgist, and apologist. This should all be enhanced by his fervent study of Scripture and theology. The conclusion of the volume lists fifty-five theses on the pastor as public-theologian, which are all drawn from the text. If you have only a few minutes to grasp the content of this book, read the final chapter.

Vanhoozer and Strachan have managed to produce a reasonable, well-balanced book. There are testimonies and practical instructions written by pastor-theologians interspersed between the chapters. These men provide guidance and background that compensate for the fact that the authors are both professional theologians. Because of the mixture of theological interpretation and practical guidance, this book is extremely useful and will help shape evangelical theological culture in the future.

This is a text that is targeted toward pastors that have the training and desire to engage in theology already. It is also helpful for congregations attempting to understand the work their pastor-theologian should be engaging it. This text reveals that the Christian tradition demands much more than preaching a felt-needs sermon on Sunday and doing some counseling and hospital visitation during the week. The pastor should be doing theological work to translate that information to his congregation to disciple and form them.

The most significant weakness of this text is that it is not as helpful for the pastor who wants to be a thorough-going pastor-theologian but lacks the training and finds little opportunity to get that theological education. The vision of a pastor-theologian is good, but there is a shortfall in helping men transition into that role. It may be that a second edition can include an appendix or that a second book on the topic might be in order.

The Pastor as Public Theologian is well-written, succinct, and clear. It presents the vision of the pastor-theologian in the present context, but grounds the vision in Scripture and the historical witness of the Church. This is a volume that will have a place in future discussions among pastors and should be examined by seminary professors and administrators as they shape their curricula in hopes of preparing men to better serve the Church.

The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision
By Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Owen Strachan

Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.