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A Review of The Pastor as Public Theologian

Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015. 221 pages. $19.99.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan have set forth their vision for pastoral ministry in The Pastor as Public Theologian.  Vanhoozer and Strachan are no strangers to the Trinity community: Vanhoozer is Research Professor of Systematic Theology at TEDS, and Strachan, Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, received his PhD from TEDS in 2011.  The book also features contributions, inserted between the four main chapters, from several evangelical pastors, endorsing  the importance of theological engagement in ministry.  The book’s purpose is to encourage pastors to embrace the role of “public theologian,” that is, the role of guiding their congregations (people)  to “understand the world in which they live and, what is more important, how to follow Christ in everyday, as well as extraordinary, situations” (23).

The book’s first chapter, authored by Strachan, examines the role of the pastor through a biblical-theological lens.  He contends that the fundamental functions of pastoral ministry have their roots in the Old Testament.  Prophets spoke God’s truth, priests drew the people near to God and the king mediated God’s wisdom to the people; all of these activities, according to Strachan, are paradigmatic for pastoral ministry, as described in the New Testament.

Strachan’s second chapter sets forth the historical-theological roots of pastoral ministry, describing how the pastorate was viewed from the patristic period, all the way through the rise of neo-evangelicalism.  Noting some exceptions in the medieval period and in 19th and 20th century American revivalism, Strachan shows that the importance of a sharp mind and robust theological understanding to the pastorate has, in general,  tremendous support in Christian tradition.

Chapter 3, from the pen of Vanhoozer, lays out a vision for the theological work of the pastor.  “Pastors are called not to practice academic theology but to minister theological understanding, helping people to interpret the Scriptures, their cultures, and their own lives in relation to God’s great work of redemption summed up in Christ” (112).  Drawing on syntactical metaphors, Vanhoozer notes that there are both indicative and imperative “moods” to the pastor’s theological work: teaching people the Gospel (what God has accomplished through Christ: the indicative) and urging them to walk in accordance with it (the imperative).

In Chapter 4, Vanhoozer turns his attention to pastoral practices, showing how the pastor participates in “God’s mission” (139).  Though he appeals to various NT texts (see esp. Eph 2:18-22),  perhaps his most intriguing contribution is where he turns to the OT, describing  Ezra as a “quintessential public theologian,” who, through teaching  Scripture, works for “the restoration of a holy people” (147).   Vanhoozer concludes the chapter by showing how all pastoral functions  are oriented around the reality of “what is in Christ” (152).  The pastor’s roles of evangelist, liturgist and apologist involve teaching and  responding to this reality, to which the Church was founded to bear witness.

The book’s conclusion is a list of fifty-five theses from Vanhoozer, demonstrating the need for pastor-theologians.  The theses are thus intended to reinforce the books’ main points.

I enjoyed several features of the book, not the least of which is the very holistic angle from which it approaches pastoral ministry.  In an age where many evangelicals have a bifurcated understanding of the Christian life, Vanhoozer and Strachan propose a sort of pastoral ministry that guides people to view their identity “in Christ” as having bearing on their whole lives.  Moreover, the book challenges the “real ministry is all cut and paste” mindset that devalues the life of the mind, and theological competence, in ministry, and that has characterized the way many view the pastorate today.  The book reminds us that the ultimate reality for the Church is what is “in Christ”; thus, there is nothing more “real” that a pastor can do than shepherding a congregation toward a right understanding of God and their place in his redemptive mission.

I do wish the book had given some focused exegetical attention to 1 Tim 3:1-13, which specifically lays out the virtues and role of the pastor. Doing so certainly would have enhanced the book’s already cogent argument, as this is a foundational NT text for understanding what God himself requires of a pastor.  1 Tim 3:2 strongly alludes to the necessity of being able to teach for pastoral ministry, perhaps even more straightforwardly than does Eph 4:11, which is discussed in the book.  Moreover, the virtues required of a pastor, set forth in 1 Timothy 3, may be the greatest demonstration that one has truly grasped Christian orthodoxy, and that this person is capable of leading others to grasp the same.

Nonetheless, this book conveys powerfully a vision for pastoral ministry that must be heard by the Christian community. Drawing from the resources of Scripture and Christian tradition, Vanhoozer and Strachan help their readers rediscover what makes shepherding God’s people “a noble work” (1 Tim 3:1; HCSB).  While I feel its message should be digested by clergy and laity alike, I especially recommend the book to pastors, other church leaders and all aspiring ministers.