September 3, 2009 by Gerald Hiestand
In a response to Tom Wright’s book on justification, Gerald Bray chastises Wright for producing a book that has “let us down badly” and is “full of digressions, personal anecdotes which appear to have no purpose other than to win sympathy for the author, and random attacks against unnamed people who are supposed to be typical of popular modern Evangelicals.” In short, Bray didn’t care for the book.
Aside from the caustic tone of the review (and to be fair, Wright’s tone wasn’t always particularly charitable in his book), and a few mischaracterizations of Wright’s position (contra Bray, Wright doesn’t see Christ as a “plan B” after Israel’s failure), I agreed with much of what Bray wrote.
However, I didn’t find myself in much agreement with Bray’s concluding comments.
If anything is clear from Bishop Wright’s book, it is that it is impossible to serve two masters at the same time. Either one is a diocesan bishop or one is a serious scholar—having a day job in Auckland Castle and pottering around with scholarship in one’s spare time is not a viable option in today’s world. Bishop Wright pleads lack of time for what even he recognizes is the inadequacy of his response to Mr. Piper, but if that is so, he needs to reconsider his priorities. There is no shame in giving up scholarship, or in resigning a bishopric, when the pressures become too great, but doing a half-baked job in one is bound to lead to the suspicion that one is doing an equally half-baked job in the other, and that the long-suffering recipients of such treatment are ending up with the worst of both worlds….Let us hope and pray that he will see this for himself and decide whether he wants to be a bishop or a scholar—but not both. We would all be better off if he has the courage to take the right decision and choose one or the other, but best of all, he himself would be a happier and more productive man for it, and it is for him that our primary concern at this point must surely be (Churchman, 104).
Hmmm. Does Bray really mean to look down his nose on the pastor-theologian model? Bray spends the whole review complimenting Pastor Piper’s handling of the subject, and then, in an attempt to insult the scholarly capabilities of Wright, delivers an (unintended?) shot to Piper by insulting the pastor-theologian model en toto. What the right hand gives, the left hand takes away.
Bray prefaces his critique of the pastor-theologian model by stating that it is not a viable option in “today’s world.” Presumably, then, he appreciates the viability of the model for days gone by. And indeed, how could he not? Church history is filled with evidence to the positive: Athanasius, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Wesley, Barth, et al. The list is nearly endless. But Bray raises a question worth considering: is such a model attainable in our contemporary context? Two thoughts here:
First, we haven’t really tried to find out. There is a dearth of intellectuals in the pastorate, and therefore it is difficult to assess accurately the viability of the model. Can a pastor realistically produce a book like’s McGrath’s Iustitia Dei, or Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God (written before he became Bishop of Durham)? Maybe, maybe not. But it should be pointed out that not every academic scholar can produce this sort of magisterial work either. It’s a bit unfair to compare the two groups of theologians, simply in light of the sheer difference in numbers. If we had as many pastor-theologians attempting to do “serious scholarship” (as Bray calls it) as we do academic-theologians, we would better be able to assess the viability of the pastor-theologian model. So maybe time will tell.
Second, Bray is absolutely correct that the pastor-theologian cannot serve the two masters of pastoral ministry and academic scholarship. This is a point I’ve made elsewhere. But the SAET (at least) is not looking to do academic scholarship. Ecclesial scholarship marks a third way, and—properly understood—is not a competing master to the pastoral calling. Indeed, the two masters are one. It may be true that the contemporary pastor-theologian will not have the luxury or time (or even interest) to chase down the secondary literature with the same vigor as the academic scholar. Undoubtedly the organizational structure of parish ministry needs to shift in such a way that the pastoral office is once again freed up to do serious theological reflection. But regardless, the pastor-theologian brings to the theological task an important strength the academic scholar lacks: an ecclesial context. The Scriptures are not merely an historical document, dead words on a page and fodder only for historians and scholars. The Scriptures are the life-blood of the Church—the local church not least. The sword hilt of Scripture has been uniquely fashioned for the pastor’s grip. The sensitive academic-theologian can wield it with profit, but it’s natural home is in the Church. The whole thrust of contemporary orthodox scholarship has largely forgotten this vital truth. We can not move theological reflection and writing out of the context of the local church without consequence.