May 5, 2012 by Gerald Hiestand
In his recent post, “A Call and Agenda for Pastor-Theologians,” Doug Sweeney offers fourteen theses on theological education, the academy and the pastor-theologian. Number seven reads as follows:
7. Nor will we always need academic, systematic theologians to do all the heavy theological lifting for God’s people.
We are not often explicit about this, but systematic theology, insofar as it is distinguished from biblical, historical, philosophical, psychological, and intercultural theology, is the work of generalists, people who synthesize the findings of those in the other scholarly disciplines and neither have nor require a methodology of their own. They put the big picture together and apply it to our lives. They don’t require the resources or the structures of the academy to do this kind of work (though they do need very good libraries). In fact, the people best suited to synthesize our knowledge of God and his ways in the world today, applying this knowledge to the empirical realities we face, are pastor-theologians.
Sweeney’s comments here are both helpful and generous. The pastoral office is capable of theological scholarship, and we serve the church poorly when we forget this. To be sure, there will always be a need for academic systematicians. I am not here suggesting (nor is Sweeney) that academic systematicians be replaced by ecclesial systematicians. The academic vocation offers the academic theologian time and resources that the ecclesial theologian will not be able to match. (The contract of one research professor I know includes thirty-two weeks a year for study and writing.) When functioning in service of the church, the ability of an academic systematician to produce technical work that engages with a wide range of conversation partners is a great value to Christian theology, and a tremendous resource for ecclesial theologians. Given the rise of the modern research university, as well as the development of the specialized guilds, it is no longer realistic to expect pastor-theologians to flourish wholly independent of the academy. The fields have simply become too specialized and the secondary literature too vast.
Yet Sweeney is correct that it serves the church poorly when we rely exclusively on academic theologians, to the exclusion of ecclesial theologians. What the ecclesial theologian loses in research time and institutional support is compensated for by the shaping influence of the pastoral vocation. As Vanhoozer rightly observes, “The church is less the cradle of Christian theology than its crucible: the place where the community’s understanding of faith is lived, tested, and reformed” (Drama of Doctrine, 25). The pastoral vocation raises questions that are not always congruous with the questions of the academy, pushing the ecclesial theologian into the exploration of issues that remain underserved in contemporary theological discourse. And beyond this, the grind and press of pastoral care forces one to grapple in deeper ways with one’s theological conclusions. One’s theodicy is deepened (and confronted) when one has to conduct the funeral of a six week old baby who was accidentally killed by his own mother when she shifted in her sleep. And one’s theology of marriage is pressed and shaped in profound ways when one has to provide counsel to a husband whose wife is on her third affair, or to a woman whose husband has left (for the fourth time) because of drug addiction. And one’s anthropology and views on gender are forced beyond the facile when one has to help a man wrestle through the question of gender identity. One cannot help but be shaped in profound ways by the steady rhythm of such experiences, and consequently one’s theology is likewise shaped.
Pastors are not, of course, the only Christians called upon to give counsel and care in the face of such circumstances. But without question the vocational Sitz im leben of the pastorate uniquely tests and shapes one’s theology in ways the vocational context of the academy does not. The church will continue to need the vital contributions of academic theologians, but ecclesial theologians are uniquely positioned, as a matter of vocation, to produce ecclesially sensitive, field-tested, theological work that deepens faith and nurtures the church.
One thinks here of the work of Hans Gadamer, who dispenses with modern notions of objectivity, as well as the corresponding post-modern epistemic despair associated with this loss, and instead argues (rightly, in my mind) that one’s immersion in a given social location is the very means by which one is able speak intelligently about that social location in the first place. Modern attempts at distance are futile; post-modern despair about such futility is misplaced. Subjective placement within a context (in this case, the church) is not a liability, but indeed a necessity for properly understanding that context.