Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Pastor As Public Intellectual

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Owen Strachan, The Pastor As Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015).

As soon as I heard this book existed I looked it up, read up on some of the details, and immediately purchased it. I knew it was going to resonate with my thoughts on the pastorate, what has been lost and what needs to be regained, and it had the promise of producing significant insight. It was only in the second paragraph into the Introduction when my pencil came out and began making notes:

Too many pastors have exchanged their vocational birthright for a bowl of lentil stew (Gen. 25:29-34; Heb. 12:16): management skills, strategic plans, “leadership” courses, therapeutic techniques, and so forth….Theology is in exile and, as a result, the knowledge of God is in ecclesial eclipse.

Amen, and amen. The goal of the book is to reclaim theology as the core of the pastoral vocation. In their educated opinion, and mine as well, theology has been successfully separated from the pastorate with serious consequences. In order to reclaim this ground, the authors delineate three publics, or arenas, which have laid claim on this change in the pastoral profession: the academy, the church, and the broader society. In each arena there are distinct challenges to meet in order to reunite the role of theology and the vocation of pastoring.

Their first broad argument is that the pastor is inherently and necessarily a theologian and is always in some sense a public theologian. As such the pastor ought to become a public intellectual, a generalist of sorts, or what they call an “organic intellectual.” The pastor is not as specialized as most academic intellectuals, but they are competent in the world around them, the Gospel, and in the human condition. So much so, that they are reliable voices on truth where these things intersect. They do specialize, but in the knowledge that is made available in Christ and his Word, and become adept at relating those truths to all that the church interacts with. If this sounds like a tall order, that may be for two reasons. First, it may sound like a lot because we have sold the vocation of pastor short by defining it in corporate and managerial terms. And secondly, it sounds expansive because maybe that really is what the vocation of pastor is supposed to be.  The authors write:

Pastor-theologians, like Solzhenitsyn, are generalists, yet with a difference: pastor-theologians give voice to the church’s understanding of the meaning of life – or rather, the meaning of the life hidden in in Christ (Col. 3:3). Pastor-theologians know something particular and definite, but strictly speaking, it is not specialized knowledge. The pastor-theologian is rather a special kind of generalist: a generalist who specializes in viewing all of life as relating to God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Better: the pastor-theologian is an organic intellectual who is present as the mind of Christ, which animates the body of Christ. (pg. 25, italics theirs)

With a lot of challenging materials in just the Introduction, I am struck by the vision of pastoring presented by the authors. Pastors are not small figures overseeing the management and volunteer structures of their fiefdoms, employing some version of the same old marketing techniques to grow their influence. They are significant cogs in the spiritual and public lives of their congregation and the communities they find themselves in. They have significant things to say about reality and the way things ought to be. They are not relegated to some kind of spiritual social worker who everybody really knows is just a glorified food pantry operator. They are the bearers and translators of actual knowledge and ought to treat their lives as such.

But in order for this to be true about the pastor, they must recover a vision as old as the people of God in which the leaders of the congregation are deeply serious about the things of God, the souls of the people, and the life of the world around them.

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