The Pastor Theologian (Hiestand and Wilson)

Pastor as Theologian

Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision.

Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015.

I came across one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s works today and the marketing tagline on the back referred to him as “the legendary German pastor.” Bonhoeffer is undoubtedly among the best theologians of the 20th century, not only for his remarkable life, but also for the quality of his writing. And yet Bonhoeffer was as much a minister as an academic, if not more.

In today’s climate the idea of a minister producing works of theological genius is laughable. At best a minister’s job is to be a “broker” or middle-man between good theology and the church. Perhaps this is because many ministers have traded theological integrity for a spot on the best sellers list. Or perhaps it is because the power-hungry convention that is the academy scorns anything with less than 500 footnotes as pedestrian.

It has not always been this way. In fact, the vast majority of Christian “classics” are written by intelligent, highly-educated men and women at work outside the university, and usually in a clerical vocation. Thus Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson’s recent book The Pastor Theologian is subtitled: “resurrecting an ancient vision.”

The Gist

Hiestand and Wilson want to revive this ancient vision of the pastor theologian by advocating what they call “ecclesial theology.” Ecclesial theology is not a theological method akin to dialectical theology or feminist theology, but rather theology done from a specific place: the pastorate. While recognizing that not all ministers will be great theologians, and that not all academics need (or should) be full-time ministers, the authors resist the reduction of the minister to a broker of good theology and call pastors to contribute to the theological discourse at large.

The heart of the book involves two complimentary claims: the church is theologically anemic, and the academy is ecclesially anemic. On the one hand, it is not hard to notice that American Christianity in general suffers from an anti-intellectual hangover. Not only are churches more biblically and theologically illiterate than ever, even the education that trained ministers have is called into question by a congregation who perceives the university as a place where sound doctrine is twisted and perverted by secular philosophies. Yet this resistance to doctrinal maturation has not helped the church improve ethically or spiritually.

On the other hand, academic theology tends, understandably, to be geared toward its own innate concerns, and in neglect of ecclesial and otherwise everyday matters. Hiestand and Wilson are careful to say that this is not a fault of academic theology per se. At the same time it seems an implicit critique against academic theologian’s resistance to addressing anything that might be perceived as popular or mundane.

The rest of the book is devoted to working out in skeletal fashion the idea of an ecclesial theologian, including a helpful chapter (chapter 9) with practical wisdom on the idea of being an ecclesial theologian in the local church. Two chapters at the front end also provide a helpful historical analysis of clerical vs. non-clerical theology.

What Stuck

The phrase “division of labor” pops up regularly. The point being that in the current scheme of things it seems like the academics do the theology and the ministers make that theology accessible to the people. This latter task is undoubtedly vital in today’s church, and perhaps a neglected duty itself. But Hiestand and Wilson reject that absolute division of labor. Not every minister must, but the ones that can should read and research and write good theology.

The other thing that stuck with me was the enlivening effect this paradigm of “ecclesial theology” might have on the church. Without a doubt, one of the central problems with the church is its theological illiteracy. Those of us who are academically educated (myself included) tend to be frustrated with the Bible-thumping layperson. We wonder why so many people think Donald Trump is an example of Christian values, but we have no room to complain because we refuse to actually challenge the church to think in different terms—finding it easier to think the things we want to think and write the things we want to write in an academy that fosters that kind of thing rather than a church in which such a habit would be resisted.

The academy is actually a wonderful place. It is necessary, important, and not as Ivory-tower-esque as one might suppose. Most professors I know are at the very least active in their congregations, if not elders or deacons or teachers or part-time preachers. There needs to be some people who work as professors in universities. But there needs to be a lot more intelligent, educated, trained ministers who do theology as ministers and pastors in the local church. The deterioration of the church is at least partially at the feet of would-be theologians (like me) who don’t want to get down and dirty with good-hearted people who don’t think like us.

Memorable Quotes

By and large, pastors aren’t viewed as theologians, but as practitioners. As such, pastors who desire to do robust theological work for the good of the church find they’re often misunderstood by both the academy and their congregations. And the result? Frustration and, not infrequently, isolation. (10)

We no longer view the pastorate as an intellectual calling. . . . Intellectually speaking, we expect pastors to function, at best, as intellectual middle management, passive conveyers of insights from theologians to laity. A little quote from Augustine here, a brief allusion to Bonhoeffer there. That’s all. (11)

To be sure, academic theology has many clear strengths; our comments are not intended to be dismissive either of it or of the academy. But we insist that since the dawning of the Enlightenment and the vacating of theologians from pastorates, theology has become increasingly professionalized and thus “academic” in ways not always relevant to the church. (14)

The theological anemia of the church, and its corresponding ethical anemia rests squarely on the shoulders of a theologically anemic pastoral community. Not every pastor need be a theologian, of course; many are gifted in other vital ways. But collectively, the pastoral community is responsible for deftly sheepherding the people of God to embrace the truths of the gospel. (58)

Having thus been reduced to second-tier status, the pastors no longer view theological education as a vital aspect of their training. Sustained theological engagement after seminary—even middle-management-level engagement—is not always easy to find within the pastoral community. None of this is surprising, given the fact that we have told pastors to content themselves with occupying the passive role with respect to theological scholarship.

But despite the bifurcation between pastoral ministry and theology, the pastoral vocation remains vested with the theological leadership of the church. The pastoral community may conceive of itself as middle management, but this does not change the fact that pastors are the theological chief executive officers of the church. What God has joined together is not so easily separated. (63)

Many graduate and postgraduate students feel pulled mutually toward a career as a theologian and a career in the church. Finding the road forked, they are constrained to choose between the two. Generally, such individuals move into the academy, thinking that it is easier to be a pastorally active theologian than it is to be a theologically active pastor.

And who can blame such logic? The church has ceased to provide a vocational context for clergy to function as productive theologians. As such, we have, for the past one hundred and fifty years, siphoned the best and the brightest minds away from the pastorate into the academy. (77)

An ecclesial theologian is a theologian who bears shepherding responsibility for a congregation and who is thus situated it he native social location that theology is chiefly called o serve; and the ecclesial theologian is a pastor who writes theological scholarship in conversation with other theologians, with an eye to the needs of ecclesial community. (85)


It seems like in today’s world there is a “division of labor” between the academic and the minister in terms of the work of theology. The academic does the theology and the minister is the stalwart copyist, doing their diligent translation work at their desk to make the theology available for the masses.

This idea is reinforced by the myth that academics possess the ideal environment for good theological work. But the professors I know and admire hardly have much more time than ministers to think and write, though perhaps the culture of the university cultivates the life of the mind to a higher degree.

Yet why should the Church not be the best and most ideal environment for good theology?  Yes, ministry is a busy life. Between pastoral visits, emergencies, funerals, weddings, prep for sermons and classes,  handling some administrative duties, and the inevitable arrival of unexpected visitors it seems like one has little time left to sit down at the desk and read, study, research, and write. And yet all of these tasks are the fertile grounds on which good theology is done. They are the lifeblood of the Church in which the Spirit moves invisibly and sometimes visibly. The question is not whether good theology can come from the Church. It is why hasn’t more come out of the church!


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