Public Theology as Pastoral Ministry: a book review

Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan aim to recover a theological vision for pastoral ministry. The Pastor As Public Theologian diagnoses our contemporary anemia as “[t]oo many pastors have exchanged their vocational birthright for a bowl of lentil stew (Genesis 25:29-34; Heb. 12:16): management skills, strategic plans, “leadership” courses, therapeutic techniques, and so forth”(1). Pastors are recast as CEOs, therapuetic gurus, managers, life coaches, community activists, storytellers, political agitators and a host of other images borrowed from secular culture (7-9). With the bifurcation of academic theology from practical disciplines, pastors increasing are leaving theology to the academics and rooting their identity in these secular cultural images.

9780801097713So Vanhoozer and Strachan propose recovery. The publican theologian is a scholar saint deeply invested in people’s lives, sound doctrine, and biblical faith. They unfurl their proposal with a brief introduction (written by Vanhoozer), an examination of biblical and historical images for pastoral ministry (Strachan), and an exploration of the purposes and practices of pastoral theologians. Vanhoozer and Strachan point out the pastor’s role as an organic intellectual who builds up the body of Christ (22). Theology is too important to leave in an ivory tower. However, Strachan and Vanhoozer are both career theologians and not pastors. Between their chapters are short reflections by twelve other scholars: mostly pastors (with the exception of Cornelius Plantinga), all male, and generally Reformed. These little snippets provide an ‘on-the-ground’ view of how these ideas work out in real life. These are written by people like Josh Moody, Gerald Hiestand, Melvin Tinker, Todd Wilson, Jim Samra, Wesley Pastor, Kevin DeYoung, David Gibson, Bill Kyes, Guy Davies, and Jason Hood.

Strachan is professor of theology and church history at Boyce College and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His contribution to this book explores biblical and historical images for pastoral theologians. In chapter one, he looks at the Old Testament and how Yahweh’s wisdom, truth and grace was mediated to the people through kings, prophets, and priests. While acknowledging differences between Old Covenant contexts and New Testament and contemporary realities, Strachan uses these images (of priest, prophet and king) to give us a biblical theology of the theological office in the pastorate. In chapter two he gives an overview of church history, highlighting the importance of theology  in the tradition for pastoral work. Early church theologians, Reformers,  Puritans and the leaders of the First Great Awakening (especially Jonathan Edwards), and Neo-Evangelicals like Harold Ockenga all prized the practical importance of good theology for ministry and mission; however,  Medieval Scholasticism divided theology and ministry (76-77) and contemporary populists placed no premium on theology for practical ministry (86-90).

Vanhoozer’s chapters present the fetures of their positive proposal. He argues that pastors are generalists who use theology to help form people in Christ’s image:

Christian theology is an attempt to know God in order to give God his due (love, obedience, glory). Jesus Christ is in the thick of it: he is both the ultimate revelation of the knowledge of God and our model of how rightly to respond to this knowledge. Pastoral-theologians, too, are in the thick of it: they represent God to the people (e.g. through teaching by word and example) and the people to God (e.g. through intercessory prayer). Changing a lightbulb is child’s play compared to teaching people to walk as children of the light (Eph. 5:8). Far from impractical, the pastoral-theologian is (or ought to be) a holy jack-of-all-existenital-trades. (104).

Vanhoozer than presents a compelling vision of the pastoral theologian’s task: expressing the gospel , with biblical, cultural and human literacy, with wisdom and love in the image of Christ. “What are theologians for? What is the distinct service of the pastor-theologian? We reply: for confessing comprehending, celebrating, communicating and conforming themselves and others to what is in Christ” (125). In chapter four, Vanhoozer walks through the peculiar tasks of pastoral ministry (i.e. evangelism, counseling, visitation, preaching, teaching, liturgy, prayer, apologetics) and show how public theology enriches and enables real ministry.

This is a well reasoned account of the importance of theology in pastoral ministry, one in which I am in deep sympathy. Studying is spiritually formative for me, so I resonate with Vanhoozer and Strachan recovery of a robust theology for ministry.  My own ideas of pastoral ministry have been shaped by my reading of Eugene Peterson. As I read this book, I thought of Peterson as the public-theologian par excellence. He certainly embodies the sort of combination of thoughtfulness, active attention and pastoral concern that Strachan and Vanhoozer describe and argue for.

Nevertheless I found this book limited in a couple of respects.First, I am on board with this vision but I have served and attended churches where good theology was not valued. What this book doesn’t do is present a way to bridge the gap from the modern therapeutic/CEO models of ministry to their public theologian proposal. More work needs to be done on how this works out practically, especially in churches and contexts that ‘don’t get it.’ Second, for a book that includes contributions from fourteen people, it is exceptionally narrow. White. Protestant. Reformed. Male.  Calvinists aren’t the only Christians who value theology and the life of the mind.  Methodists, Radical Reformation churches, and Pietists deserve their due (there is one Evangelical Free Pastor, so Pietists are marginally represented). Women and minorities would bring different perspectives and concerns. I wish that Vanhoozer and Strachan widened their net beyond their own boys’ club.

But these demurrals aside, I liked this book, agreed with it and find aspects instructive for ministry and mission. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review

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