The (Welcome) Rise of the Pastor-Theologian: A Friendly Response to Donald Miller
In a recent piece posted on his blog, Donald Miller wrote the following cris de coeur on the scholarly nature of the American pastorate:
The church in America is led by scholars. Essentially, the church is a robust school system created around a framework of lectures and discussions and study.
Miller laments this situation and suggests that the divisions in evangelicalism flow from academics:
Church divisions are almost exclusively academic divisions. The reason I don't understand my Lutheran neighbor is because a couple academics got into a fight hundreds of years ago. And the rest of the church followed them because, well, they were our leaders. So now we are divided under divisions caused by arguments a laboring leadership might never have noticed of cared about. Practitioners care about what works, what gets things done. . . . Educators don't have to agree at all. They can fight and debate and write papers against each other because, well, the product they are churning out is just thought, not action.
The author of Blue Like Jazz suggests that the church needs to follow the example of Jesus in appointing pastors:
In the great commission, Jesus graduated his first group of students. He pushed them into the world and said, you don't know everything, but you know enough. You'll have a guide and that guide will be with you always. Go and teach the world to obey my commands. . . . [H]e taught them by doing, in action, with people, by touching stuff, not by taking over a school and recruiting educators.
As in his previous work, Miller does not fail to entertain and provoke. His punchy writing is fun to read, and I think his main point is worth considering (I, too, feel bad for disenfranchised music executives). It certainly is possible for pastors to lose themselves in reading and writing to the detriment of their shepherding and for Christians to get bogged down in theological disputation. We can all too easily re-create our very own Diet of Worms, thinking that the fate of the church hinges on our latest comment flame-war, neglecting all the while the family, church, and vocation that depends upon us.
I do wonder if Miller, himself something of a bardsman-theologian, bites off a bit more than he can chew in his essay. His heart for Christian unity is commendable, but his understanding of ecclesial division seems characteristically youthful. Scripture is the Word of God; it demands careful handling (2 Tim. 2:15). From the birth of the church, Christians have given their time, their energy, even their very lives to nourish the church and keep it from error. We see this in countless historical examples: Athanasius suffering at the hands of his detractors to champion the then-fragile doctrine of the Trinity, Martin Luther risking his very life to promote the final authority of Scripture, Charles Spurgeon heroically fighting the down-grade in post-Victorian England. Courageous defense, nuanced discernment, necessary separation from false teachers—these traits don't necessarily play well in postmodernia. They do, however, sustain and strengthen the church by God's grace (see Rom. 12; 2 Tim. 1; 2 Pet. 2).
Theology Is Practical
This is a broad discussion, and I could say much more, but I will suggest just one other major response to Miller: Scholarship, or theology, or whatever you want to label it, is not the enemy of lived Christianity. Theology, when done biblically, gives life. It is eminently practical. Faithful Christian scholars and theologians necessarily engage in an intensely practical task: teaching ideas that will shape the life of the student and the lives of those the student will affect. I issue a friendly challenge to Miller: Find me some teaching that produces "just thought, not action." Isn't Miller doing a form of teaching in his post that is intended to stimulate thought—and isn't this thought intended to provoke action?
In my systematic theology classes at Boyce College, I do my level best to lay out a theological feast for my students. I gun for their minds, seeking to show them the pleasures of the intellect, handing down to the best of my ability a body of richly biblical doctrine, honed in the fires of history, whittled by the hands of skillful craftsmen, guarded by countless shepherds. At its most high-flown, this doctrine is always, unavoidably, without exception practical. How can it be otherwise? How can the truth that God reigns over creation not produce trust and comfort in the Christian? How can the realization that our justification stems from God's decree and the imputation of Christ's righteousness not create gratitude and freedom? How can a careful study of biblical testimony on the eternality of hell not inspire a believer to reach out to lost coworkers, seat-mates, neighbors?
Provided we don't lose our self in some kind of internal monastic commune, how can the teachings of Scripture—handed down by faithful pastor-theologians and theologian-pastors—not exert a profoundly practical effect? Who was a deeper, more exhilaratingly insightful teacher than Jesus, the man who loosed the apostles to turn the world upside down (Luke 24:32; Acts 17:6)?
I'm happy to report that many portions of the Christian past knew no such division between theology and life, scholarship and sanctification. Many ministers of God's church worked as pastor-theologians, laboring in their studies amidst the many duties of ministry to produce sermons and works that would feed their people meat and not milk (Heb. 5:12-13). This is true of countless pastors in varied areas of Christian history: John Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Sibbes, Owen (not me, the Brit), Edwards, Spurgeon, and Lloyd-Jones, to name a very few.
There is a reason we still read the sermons and writings of these men, antiquated as their language may be, strange as we may find their historical contexts. They sounded the depths of the Bible in their preparation and created faithful, doxological, and utterly consequential messages. Few if any modern preachers will match Edwards; every preacher can, however, feed his people a biblical feast each Sunday that will enlarge their understanding of God and set their affections on fire, loosing Christocentric citizens of the kingdom to take dominion of their minds, their practices, their families, their communities, and the earth itself.
A Theological Renaissance?
Miller may be right that some churches are teaching-oriented and that scholars lead our churches. I happen to think that contemporary churches suffer far more from pragmatic, "milk"-feeding ministries. Yet in the interest of charitable discussion, let's grant his point. If this means that our people hear warmed-up lectures on the Bible and fight with a ferocity usually reserved for Vikings or McRib lovers over the precise year in which Christ will return, I share his lament.
But if having scholars as preachers means that shepherds are delving deeply into doctrine to lead their people into life, and theologians are working with all their might to strengthen the church of God, then we are poised for spiritual health and theological maturity, not pointless division. The Reformation had its low points, but do we not feel our hearts stirred by the soaring theology produced by its leading lights and extended to thousands of congregations by their students? If pastors and scholars would take seriously their callings, could we not see God accomplish great things in our day?
I hope that we will. We have contemporary models for this kind of pastoral renaissance. Two of them, John Piper and D. A. Carson, share reflections on robustly theological ministry in a new book I edited with David Mathis, entitled The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry. Here is hoping for many to follow them, resulting in an entire generation of pastor-theologians and theologian-pastors.
As we conclude, perhaps we can consider this call afresh and find fresh stimulus for our calling by listening to the conception of the pastor's task held by Edwards, one that bears equally on the work of theologians:
Ministers are set as guides and teachers, and are represented in Scripture as lights set up in the churches; and in the present state meet their people from time to time in order to instruct and enlighten them, to correct their mistakes, and to be a voice behind them, saying, "This is the way, walk in it" [Is. 30:21]; to evince and confirm the truth by exhibiting the proper evidences of it, and to refute errors and corrupt opinions, to convince the erroneous and establish the doubting. (Jonathan Edwards, "Farewell Sermon" in Wilson Kimnach, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Douglas A. Sweeney, eds., The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader (New Haven: Yale, 1999), 217)