The Pastor-Theologian in a Different Light

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Ministerial students regularly ask me for advice on doing a Ph.D. in Theology. I almost always find myself advising against it. If your goal is to get a job with this Ph.D., I suggest, your chances are slim and the costs will be enormous to your life. The seminary academic world is shrinking by the day. And the jobs are going with it.

Instead, if you want to get a job with a Ph.D., then do a Ph.D. in the social sciences where you can sneak theology in and somehow maybe get a job in the university system.

More than all this however, I advise against doing a Ph.D. in theology because I think the PhD forms you to work in the academy versus the church. And I don’t understand why anyone would seek to study theology for any other reason than working for the furtherance of God’s Kingdom in the church. So why would anyone do a Ph.D. in theology (which forms you against this)?

I argue for a different kind of academic work in theology that keeps the student grounded in the work (and life) of the church. This is the work of the pastor-theologian (or what I have called organic intellectual), people who sit in the fields of mission, learn the questions of culture and church by actually living in and among the struggles of the church, and then do the work of theology out of this context within a collective of other people doing the same. This, I contend, is where the revolution (or insurrection) shall come from. This will be the way theology changes the church and shapes its future.

This is why Andrew Wilson’s recent article at Christianity Today entitled “Why Being a Pastor-Scholar Is Nearly Impossible” both disheartened me and inspired me. I was inspired by the article’s putting forth of the idea of the pastor-scholar as a model for theology. The numerous people mentioned who argue for this role like Kevin Vanhoozer, Owen Strachan, Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson gave me encouragement. I applaud the article for pointing out how important it is to do theology out of the place of leadership from within the life and work of the church.

Nonetheless, I was equally disheartened by the way Wilson dismissed the pastor-scholar as unfeasible. I resist the way he shapes what it means to be a scholar.

For Andrew, to be a scholar is to do a Ph.D., regularly submit articles to refereed journals, to deliver lectures among peers at AAR (American Academy of Religion) and become a specialist in the University. Really? Is this the only way to be a serious scholar/intellectual?

The Ph.D. trains you to be a specialist on minutia within a stream of research. You end up knowing more about less, a narrowing subject within your specified field of study. It narrows you and intensifies you into one area. You become less capable of integration (although not all Ph.D.’s are like this). The practice of writing journal articles and defending presentations at AAR orders you toward the theoretical. Theory is separated from practice (as intimated in the article). You spend less and less time on the ground in the ethnography of real life in the church and its engagements with the world. (The AAR section on ‘Ethnography and the Church’ is one exception.)

I know there are exceptions. Nonetheless, I contend this view of the scholar forms you to become irrelevant to the church.

'I contend this view of the scholar informs you to become irrelevant to the church.' - @fitchest Click To Tweet

This kind of scholarship comes from Europe. It started with the University of Berlin model of the early 1800’s. (To see a description of this model and its problems in U. of Berlin see Hans Frei Types of Christian Theology Appendix A ‘Theology in the University’). It is less than 200 years old. Before this, scholarship was done in the church. But now, scholarship separates you from the church. I am certain there are still places where such an education can help the church. There are those rare Ph.D’s who are vibrant pastors and servants of the church. Nonetheless, I think it largely improbable that theology that moves the church shall come from these halls.

Because paid theologians in academia end up doing scholarship that supports the institution.

The temptation in such hallways is to do things that support the advance of one’s own tenure. You end up writing things to be read by fellow academics for their approval and positive reviews. These institutions are holdovers from Christendom. Theologians tend to support the Christendom institution because Christendom supports them. The research in essence becomes captive to Christendom. But Christendom is dying, which makes this research all the more irrelevant. For all these reasons and more, many of us who have been to American Academy of Religion are thankful the leadership of the church shall not be coming forth from this place.

What we need is a different vision of scholarship. We need new consortiums of pastor teachers. New venues for writing. It is already happening. Blogs, publishing houses, groups of scholars that meet denominationally to discuss the issues we face as pastors.

131ae72I believe in this so much that Northern Seminary created a D .Min program for the development of such scholarship. Our D Min program in Missional Leadership could just as easily be called a D Min in Contextual Theology. We work hard at integrating and growing Biblical scholarship, theological scholarship and ethnography and the ability to lead churches into engagement with culture. It is, I contend, approaching what future organic theologians should be doing. (We start a new cohort in June 2016 – final deadline for four spots open in the program is Jan 1 – if interested, comment on this post!)

Many of you might be saying, but Dave, you have a Ph.D. You have a job in academia. You are doing your Christendom thing. Yes, yes and no. I continue on as a pastor/church plant coach. I do my work from this daily location. I consider my task here to prepare theologians for the future and my own situation as a bridge. I consider myself to be working myself out of a job. 

In summary, I eschew the dismissal of the pastor theologian by Andrew Wilson. I know he means well. But the time is ripe to chuck the notion of what it means to be a pastor-scholar for the organic theologians of the future. The time for the emergence of a whole new class of scholars/practitioners is upon us. The church needs you. We need to form new spaces to do this work, and a new imagination for how it is done.   

Tell me what you think. 

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13 responses to “The Pastor-Theologian in a Different Light

  1. As a lead pastor in a smaller CMA church in MN for the last 7 years, and a TEDS M.Div grad, I completely agree. I am a good student, and enjoy scholarly stuff, but being a theologian holds little to no interest for the reasons you highlight. I don’t care if I am an academic, but I care greatly to be a God-honoring pastor, with great theology. The D.Min program you highlighted above is the first time since finishing seminary in 2007 that I have thought I might be interested in that more formal education in that vein. Thanks for posting this, and thought 2016 isn’t happening, I am going to keep my eyes on that program in the future. Thanks. – Kirk Knudsen, Central MN

  2. David, I think you may have pinched the organic interllectual idea from an Italian marxist by the name of Antonio Gramsci. Credit where credit is due! 🙂

  3. I resonate with much of this and hope to embody this in my local church (that’s why I went the D. Min route instead of the PhD route). However, as someone who has spent his career in a small (under 100) member church, I wonder if there aren’t hints of Christendom remaining in your proposal. How many churches are going to be able to support the full-time scholar-pastor? I know you are big on bi-vocationalism, and perhaps that answers my own questions – and I really like the consortium idea and think there is a lot of traction there.

    I see what you are talking about happening in my group as well – the Churches of Christ. Conferences are dominated by academics whose main point of reference is the classroom. Our universities have become our denominational headquarters. And while, I don’t think that is all bad, for those of us in smaller churches removed from those locations, they continue to speak a different language. Most of what they say doesn’t resonate with me. I didn’t learn in seminary how to faithfully pastor to my group of married friends who decide to head down to the strip club one Saturday night or who get together to drink and party regularly. I didn’t learn much in my systematic theology classes to aid these situations, but, man, it sure has helped inform my systematic theology since leaving the classroom. You highlight the local church context and its significance for fleshing out theology, but I would say more than that, the broader localized context is just as important. Getting out of the church and learning to articulate our theology with nonchurch people is perhaps even a more significant ramification of getting our butts out of seminary.

    1. Adam, just FYI, I assume "church" means engaged people in a context … the broader localized context. Theology makes no sense to me as an enclosed enterprise. Peace!

  4. I agree very much. Though I still plan to pursue my PhD. I think I’ll be better for it. I plan on pursuing historical theology and bringing that to the local Church. In fact, as id I’m studying historical theology in my year off between undergrad and graduate studies. I’m looking forward to the future where the higher levels of theological work will be another weave in the local Church; When theologian will be an almost trade craft (in similar to how preaching has developed as a craft) within the Christian faith community.

  5. There is much truth to this article in my opinion. I have been worried sick about my own chances of making it into the scholarly world with a Ph.D. in theology. I still think my chances are almost zero, even when I would be playing the "European Theologian" card (yes, I am from NL). Just because of the job market alone (but also for the sake of forging a new authentic theology), young theologians will have to create hybrid forms of theological existence between academia and the church, but also between academia and the business world. I have, for instance, recently accepted a position as senior editor for a soon to be launched international online magazine for Christians. In it I will combine my skills as a theologian, writer, and art director. Of course, I will still try to get a teaching job 🙂

    As for the academic model advanced by your opponent, Andrew Wilson, I have to disagree with you if it means that we should not strive to attain to academic standards, visit the AAR, and publish essays. This is where the professional conversation happens, so this is where theologians need to sharpen their skills, learn from others, and stay abreast of developments on the field. This is how we become better theologians.

    However, if this would necessarily mean that a hybrid form is not feasible, I have to disagree with Wilson. You are entirely right that there are very negative aspects to the theoretical model of academia.

    My personal take on this is from a slightly different perspective. Because my evangelicalism crumbled from under me in seminary, my doctoral study of necessity forced me to distance myself from the church. Not, however, as a detached scholar, but as one who had started to see the failure of evangelical theology and needed to form a new theological framework. For me, then, my doctoral studies have not been a dry academic experience. Rather, it has been an existential roller-coaster that almost took my life, obliterated the safety-net of my previous belief-system, and forced me to adopt ambiguity and paradoxical thinking in order to again be able to believe in God. I know that for many evangelicals, who see themselves forced to break through the boundaries of the evangelical worldview, their theological studies are often deeply existential and transformational.

    But again, generally speaking, you make a couple of very good observations.

  6. David, thank you for this. I have been tracking with you for some time and took your original mentioning of organic theologians in a podcast and began a project for pastors in Edmonton. Trying to connect interested local pastors and theologians for dialogue regarding this exact thing. I also agree with you regarding Andrew Wilson’s understanding of what Kevin Vanhoozer puts forward. I imagine your idea of the organic theologian differs slightly from Vanhoozer’s. Looking forward to more from you 🙂

  7. To a certain extent I agree with a lot of the observations made here. I specifically appreciate the emphasis on contextual theologies. Organic intellectualism leads to contextual theologies and (ergo) missional communities. Ideally speaking all of that’s great.

    But this is where my problems come to the fore–perhaps out of personal experience but also out of practicality.

    1. Being a minority who has alternative political and theological positions I have a hard time finding opportunities for me to do what I love to do: teach, preach and write about Old Testament theology/identity/political theories. One reason I would do a PhD is to give myself a chance (!) at gaining a bit more legitimacy because my social context and my ideologies often times result in people dismissing me outright.

    2. The idea of an organic intellectual is enticing and revolutionary but I have to be honest here: are there really churches out in the world who would compensate (housing or food or resources etc) someone for thinking theologically? I’m a student. I have loans I need to pay off. But I also have a passion to do theology. But in my experience, churches see parishioners who think theologically as bonus members and not as vocational leaders within the community.

    3. I don’t necessarily agree that PhD’s result in a person becoming fixated on one particular area (e.g. Gal 3:15a). J Kameron Carter is extremely interdisciplinary but he comes at things from a theological perspective. Walter Brueggemann is a specialist in the OT but he touches on topics ranging from the Torah to psychoanalysis. In the case of Brueggemann, he does all of his work for the church (parishioners and ministers esp).


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