Book Review: The Pastor as Public Theologian, by Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan
Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. Baker Academic, 2015. 240 pps, $21.99.
Back in seminary, I remember hearing a question from a seminary student who thought he was smart. The guy asked something about the “relevance” of the Bible in our modern world, to which the speaker responded, “The Bible is eternal. You’re the one that’s irrelevant.”
Though that’s a bit overstated—human beings are, after all, also eternal—I couldn’t help thinking of this incident when reading Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan’s helpful book, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. The authors’ contention is that the biblical and historical office of the pastor transcends faddish variety and should therefore be reclaimed, whether or not they are perceived as “relevant” by current trends.
THE “WHAT” OF THE BOOK
Vanhoozer and Strachan wrote the book to address two urgent needs: a clearer definition of the office of pastor, and churches who seek to be shaped by such pastors. However, if you think that this is simply another collection of essays by stuffy academics that malign worship bands and altar calls, then you’re mistaken.
According to the authors, the office of pastor began its demise due to a division of labor that explicitly separated the work of the pastor and the professional theologian. This division created two disparate classes: the theologian as the thinker and the pastor as the practitioner. That said, Vanhoozer and Strachan aren’t interested in the pastor becoming a specialist in the academic world. Instead, they contend the pastor must be a public theologian.
At this point, definitions are in order: “pastor” fundamentally refers to one who spiritually shepherds a congregation. When Vanhoozer and Strachan encourage him to be a “public theologian,” they mean he should seek to be a leading thinker for the congregation, a generalist who exegetes the Word and the world so that he might shepherd people toward loving God and embracing all things in Christ. The rest of the book puts flesh on these bones from biblical, historical, and theological perspectives.
THE “WHO” OF THE BOOK
The primary target for the book is the educated pastor. There’s certainly room at the reading table for the self-taught, but Vanhoozer’s chapters in particular might be challenging. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found it personally uplifting and even focusing for my ministry.
For these reasons, I suspect many pastors will be instructed and encouraged by it, especially those who are tempted to be either the overtly academic pastor or the overly pragmatic “shepherd.”
For better or worse, the book will appeal mostly to the Reformed world, and both writers are seemingly geared toward a “higher” church tradition. The concerns and categories that Vanhoozer uses reflect this orientation. For example, I have yet to run into a non-denominational pastor (or perhaps a Baptist one) who automatically thinks of communion when they think of worship (164) and even fewer who think at all of catechism (p.161). Throughout the book, I often thought about how Pentecostal and so-called “traditional” Baptist pastors might react to their arguments and paradigms.
My fear is that some might put the book down before getting through the introduction. Those pastors who fashion themselves as “blue collar” or “just Bible” pastors might hear Vanhoozer and Strachan’s call to reclaim the position of leading theological thinker in their congregations as something totally foreign. But I hope that doesn’t happen. If the so-called “traditionalist” and Pentecostal pastors will stay with this book, enduring the more distant moments, then I’m convinced they’ll see the beauty of what Vanhoozer and Strachan are saying. There’s a unique call to shepherd the bride of Christ, to practically and thoughtfully love Christ and all things in Christ, to minister the word of God to people, and to help them interpret the scriptures, their world, and their individual lives.
THE “HOW” OF THE BOOK
Vanhoozer provides the introduction and the theologically reflective chapters. Strachan provides a glimpse into the biblical portrayal and requirements for the leaders of God’s people and a brief contour of the office of “pastor” from church history. The authors admit up front that they’re academics rather than pastors, acknowledging this as a weakness. But to shore up this weakness, the writers bring in the experts, local church pastors, to portray the authors’ theses in practical portraits throughout the book.
Overall, the pastors’ input was very helpful. However, I found it more beneficial to read their remarks out of order. For example, I stopped in the middle of Part 2: The Evangelical Mood, and jumped to David Gibson’s helpful chapter on death. I stopped in the middle of the last chapter dealing with pastors as artisans in the house of God and jumped to Guy Davies’s pastoral perspective on the drama of preaching. This practice isn’t necessary. The chapters make good sense as they are laid out, but I found reading out of order allowed me to keep my focus on the sub-topic at hand (ministry between death and resurrection, preaching, etc.) rather than return to it later.
Overall, I applaud this book. The call of the pastor to be both practical and theological is rigorously biblical. There’s nothing more theological than the practical shepherding of Christ’s people, and there’s nothing more practical than robust theological thinking and speaking to Christ’s people. Regardless of perceived relevance, true thinking about the office of pastor is always refreshing.