3 Books on Pastors In The Public Square

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Every now and then, my reading choices coincide on certain topics. Recently, thanks to three different publishers, I had review copies of books about pastors in the public square. The first was The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson (thanks Zondervan!) 1 The authors makes the case that being a pastor is an intellectual calling that can alleviate the ecclesial anemia of the academy as well as the theological anemia of the church. In other words, the pastor theologian is able to bring local church concerns into the academic theological discussion while also boosting the theological literacy of the local church. As they say,

Our hope is that this book will serve as a clear call to an emerging generation of theologians to consider the pastorate as a viable vocational calling for serious theological leadership, by which we do not simply mean that pastors ought to take theology more seriously (as true as that may be). Rather, we mean that some pastors must take up the mantel of theologian by providing solid thought leadership to the church and its theologians, even as they tend the garden of their own congregations (15).

To help accomplish this, Hiestand and Wilson need to recover a holistic vision of the pastor as a theologian in his own right. After the introductory chapter, readers are taken on a historical survey showing that up until the mid 1700’s, most theologians were pastors in the local church. The following chapter takes the survey into the present, showing how the division between church and academy developed. The fourth and fifth chapters defend the idea of the academy being eccleisally anemic and the church being theological anemic. Then, the final two chapters offer a constructive proposal for pastors to be three different kinds of theologians: local, popular, or ecclesial.

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In very much related book, Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan write about The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (thanks Baker Academic!). 2 Unlike The Pastor Theologian, there is a clear division of labor with Vanhoozer authoring the introduction, chapters 3 and 4, and then offering 55 theses on pastors as public theologians. Strachan authored chapters 1 and 2, and then twelve pastor theologians (including Hiestand and Wilson) offer testimonies from everyday life in ministry supporting the vision that Vanhoozer and Strachan are articulating.

As far as the actual content goes, Strachan’s chapters offer first a biblical theology of the pastorate. Though not blatantly triperspectival, focusing on pastors as prophets, priests, and kings fits nicely into that framework. He then gives a brief history of the pastorate, somewhat overlapping with the first two chapters of The Pastor Theologian but not identical to them. I think because I had already read the other book, I didn’t find these chapters as helpful or insightful, although the first chapter does cover territory (biblical theology) that is not a focal point of The Pastor Theologian. In any case, I think the idea that a pastor should be prophet, priest, king and how that interfaces with being a theologian is something I already intuitively grasped.

Vanhoozer’s chapters focus on the purpose of being a pastor theologian and then what that actual practice looks like. I wouldn’t necessarily say these chapters overlap with Faith Speaking Understanding, but they do resonate in a similar key signature. At the very least, readers who have also read that book will find much of Vanhoozer says here to be a logical extension when applied to the pastorate. Also, since we are comparing, it extends the insights of Hiestand and Wilson’s work into a very practical direction (not that their work isn’t practical) and overlays signature Vanhoozerian harmonies to their tune. If you really to get more of a feel, take 10 minutes and watch these videos.

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A related book, both in terms of author and concept is Owen Strachan’s The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living With Faith in a Hostile World (thanks Thomas Nelson!). 3 It is one part biography and one part pathway of Christian cultural engagement. Since it has been written after Colson’s death, it offers a unique perspective on his later years that other works haven’t included. The thrust of Strachan’s brief biography is how we can learn from Colson’s approach to public square Christianity. In that sense, it fits nicely with the other books I’ve mentioned as far as helping pastors fulfill their calling as public intellectual.

Although Colson wasn’t a pastor, he took apologetics and theology very seriously. Strachan tells the narrative of his life and conversion well, taking didactic asides along the way. To me, those were the weaker spots of the book and ultimately why this might not be the best book to check out on the subject. In a short space, Strachan is trying to tell Colson’s story and use that as a means to articulate a way of approaching Christian cultural engagement. The asides explaining cultural engagement feel preachy and make the book seem like it should have just focused on developing those ideas and using Colson as an example here and there. But, because Strachan tells Colson’s story better than he explains cultural engagement, the book would have been better as just a biography. A better choice for cultural engagement (and an approach not necessarily at odds with Strachan) is Russell Moore’s Onward.

That criticism aside, reading The Colson Way in tandem with the other two books I’ve mentioned gave it some depth it might not have had on its own. At the very least, I was reading an example of a lay person being a public theologian with the idea of pastors being public theologians in the back of mind. It helped to prove that point that the other authors were making because if someone like Colson, with everything he juggled, was able to be a stable public theologian/intellectual, so can the average local church pastor. Colson never went to seminary and it is common today for many church planting pastors to not do that either. The vision that the other books recover more or less requires that kind of training, but Colson’s story shows that one can faithfully follow that calling without necessarily going to seminary, so long as one is committed to being a life-long learner.

At the end of the day, I think this is highly important topic and fully support the idea of pastors as public theologians. Being a pastor is an intellectual calling and knowing how to do that well in the public square and in the local church is a necessary knowledge to obtain. Hopefully seminaries will train pastors to fit this vision, but reading books like these will also go a long way. That latter point is supported well by Strachan’s book, which also helps to show that other leaders within the church can take on some of the roles that the solo lead pastor used to have and help build up the body together.

Notes:

  1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, June 2015. 192 pp. Paperback, $18.99. Visit the publisher’s page.
  2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, August 2015. 240 pp. Hardcover, $19.99. Visit the publisher’s page.
  3. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, July 2015. 240 pp. Hardcover, $22.99. Visit the publisher’s page.

Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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