Vanhoozer, Kevin, and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015, pp. 240, $19.99, hardback.
Kevin Vanhoozer (PhD, University of Cambridge) is research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. An ordained elder, he has written or edited sixteen books. Owen Strachan (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is associate professor of Christian theology and director of The Center for Theological and Cultural Engagement at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Also, Strachan is the author of six books, and he is the president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. In addition to Vanhoozer and Strachan, pastoral contributions are woven throughout the work from twelve ministers across American and European evangelical contexts.
Vanhoozer, Strachan, and a team of seasoned practitioners provide a sweeping rebuttal to the contemporary approach of pastoral ministry. Throughout this work, readers are confronted with a passionate plea to recover a historical and biblical view that pastoral ministry is first and foremost a theological calling. The authors dispel the mentality that pastoral ministry is one of only praxis and robust theological reflection is reserved only for the academy. The authors argue that “theological minds belong in ecclesial bodies. We don’t wish to exaggerate: there is a place for academic theology, but it is second place. First place – pride of theological place – belongs to the pastor theologian” (p.xi, emphasis in original). The pastor theologian is not the only type of theologian, but his office is one of public visibility and ecclesial necessity.
Vanhoozer introduces the book with a riveting analysis of public, ecclesial theology. He traces historical and practical causes to establish his premise that pastors have lost their theological vision for ministry. Similarly and perhaps consequently, churches have lost their vision of a theologically robust pastoral office in favor of modern leadership and management skills gleaned from secular business practices. In order to reclaim a biblical vision, Vanhoozer wisely describes how the pastoral office is public and theological, and he provides the groundwork for prescribing a biblical and theological solution.
For Vanhoozer, a pastor is a public theologian because he says (through preaching and other ecclesial responsibilities) what God is doing in Christ. Declaring God’s work in Christ is the heralding of a theological message designed by God for needy sinners. The pastor equips his congregation with the gospel, and he does so to build up an active body of believers committed to spreading the gospel to all aspects of life. Thus, a pastor is a public theologian because he is involved with people in and for community (pp.16-17).
After the introduction, the book divides neatly into two parts: In part 1, Strachan provides two chapters which focus on biblical and historical theology. Strachan writes with acute awareness of how the pastor theologian model is indeed reflected within biblical and historical theology. Thus, this book is not advocating a new paradigm for ministry but a recovery of one rooted in sound biblical practice and unquestionably evidenced through historical reflection. Strachan’s chapter on biblical theology is superb. He carefully details the connections between the tri-fold office of Jesus (the munus triplex) as prophet, priest, and king and connecting them to pastoral theology. Strachan argues that ministers of the new covenant serve as priests by ministering grace, serve as kings by ministering wisdom, and serve as prophets by ministering truth. These ministries are emphatically theological, and they are the work of an ecclesial, public theologian. Seminary students will learn much from Strachan in this section, and seasoned pastors, at the very least, will find comforting reassurance or a helpful corrective.
In part 2, Vanhoozer provides two chapters focusing on systematic and practical theology. Readers accustomed to Vanhoozer’s previous books will recognize these chapters as reflective of his other writings. Vanhoozer’s writing is creative and probing, and throughout his work, he answers questions the reader does not even realize were asked. His chapter on systematic theology is historical in reflection and instructive in application. Readers are forced to consider the moods of theology (indicative and imperative). Pastoral ministry focuses on teaching the indicatives of theology, and the goal of this teaching is to “indicate what is in Christ” (p.110, emphasis in original). Ministers address the indicative mood through biblical literacy and a biblically informed understanding of cultural literacy. Ministers also employ the imperative mood by declaring how one is to live and pursue human flourishing in light of what is offered to believers in Christ. Throughout this chapter on practical theology, Vanhoozer refers to ministers as artisans in the house of God. As an artisan, the minister work as an Evangelist, Catechist, Liturgist, and Apologist. The twelve pastoral contributions are inserted within both parts and provide helpful reflections on the lengthier chapters. As academic theologians, one may be critical that these scholars are writing a corrective of pastor theologians. This criticism, however, loses any traction when readers grasp the helpful and wide ranging subjects the twelve pastors include in this work.
Finally, the book concludes with Vanhoozer’s fifty-five theses on the pastor as public theologian. Most of these thoughts are covered in one way or another in the book, but a few notable entries are worth further reflection. For example, thesis forty-eight focuses on the role of the sermon in assisting the congregation in interpreting culture. This thesis, and others, deserves further reflection, but each of them are descriptive enough that individual readers can apply them to their own contexts. While the book does not deal with the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3, the overall emphasis of the book does provide some substance to the qualification Paul establishes that elders should be apt to teach.
Students preparing for ministry should incorporate this book into their theological training. The authors present a compelling case rooted in various theological disciplines. Regardless of which contributor one reads, a consistent love for the church exists throughout this work, and students need to learn from this approach. The correctives listed advance needed conversations without being pushy or insensitive. Students in preparation for ministry can save themselves a lot of heartache by following the direction the book offers for ministry vision. Ultimately, pastoral ministry built upon shallow platitudes and cutting edge marketing skills are nothing more than a house of cards. And when those houses crash, many ministers do not recover. Capturing a vision of pastoral ministry embracing the role of public theologian sets a course of growth and strength for ministers and the churches they serve. In addition to this fine work, students interested in reading more widely on this subject are encouraged to read The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson. Both Hiestand and Wilson are contributors to the work under review, and their own volume on this subject addresses additional subject matter worthy of investigation.
Throughout this work, Vanhoozer, Strachan, and their team of twelve contributors have helped shape a necessary conversation within the academy and church. The authors did not ask every question within this crucial conversation, nor did they cultivate consistently explicit examples of how to be a pastor theologian. But these observations do not hinder the helpful instruction and application within this book. My prayer is that current and future pastors will use this work and others as way to bolster the pastoral office to its theological position. May the Lord use this work to help in the reformation of pastoral calling, and may future pastors resolve to embrace their theological role as public, ecclesial theologians for the glory of Christ and His church.
Justin L. McLendon
Grand Canyon University