The Pastor-Theologian: Valuable and Necessary

There was a time when the pastor was viewed as a town’s leading intellectual.

When a pastor takes some time, after fulfilling his immediate pastoral duties, to engage in theological reading, writing, and, if the Lord wills, publication, he is not participating in mere ivory-tower banter that has no bearing on the life of the church. Rather, by utilizing his gifts and experience in this way your pastor-theologian is acquiring greater skill to better serve his flock while also supplying the academy with a much-needed pastoral perspective on its work of theology. Perhaps with some effort and much prayer, we can recapture the vision of the pastor-theologian for the glory of Christ and the health of His bride.


While it may be difficult to believe in our current cultural setting, there was a time when the pastor was viewed as a town’s leading intellectual. Pastors of what seems like a long-lost era were doctrinally grounded and biblically saturated, to be sure; but they were also well-read in other important branches of study—literature, economics, politics, philosophy, and science—and were therefore able to apply biblical truth to these areas of inquiry with keen spiritual and intellectual skill, helping their people think theologically about major trends within the church and the greater society.

Most importantly, the pastor was a theologian. Today, however, the pastoral office is no longer viewed in such categories. At worst, the title “pastor-theologian” is a contradiction, for to be a pastor is to be one whose primary work is people and their spiritual well-being; to be a theologian is to labor away from people among books, and mainly in the area of academic scholarship. The pastor-theologian, despite what history may tell us, appears to be an ecclesiastical impossibility in our current age.

This is due, at least partially, to the fact that the larger contemporary church has loaded the pastoral role with responsibilities and expectations that hinder if not altogether prohibit the work of theology. The pastor is seen chiefly as a “leader, organization builder, administrator, coach, inspirer, endless problem solver, spiritual pragmatist, and so much more.”1 For a pastor to consider how he might engage in important doctrinal discussions and cultural issues, pursue some form of theological writing, and make scholarly contributions to the larger Christian academy is to indulge in pointless fantasy: his role and his time preclude these kinds of endeavors.

How the Enlightenment Changed Pastoral Ministry in Europe
But the popular reshaping of the pastoral role is also a symptom of the massive rift that has slowly but surely formed over the past 300 years between the church and the academy (i.e., the university). Due to the Enlightenment’s (c. 1685-1815) detachment of biblical authority from rational inquiry, the contribution of the Christian pastor in any realm other than religion was greatly diminished. As the Enlightenment’s suspicion of authority pervaded Europe, Christian theology was soon viewed to function only within the realm of “faith;” other areas of inquiry—especially science—functioned within the realm of “reason.” Faith dealt with that which was private and non-falsifiable; reason traded on that which was public and empirical. Autonomous reason, unaided by divine revelation, was now valued as the chief means by which all people would be able to arrive at universal knowledge.2

Theology, therefore, no longer referred to objective truth about the Creator and His ways, but as a collection of improvable propositions that have no authoritative bearing on other areas of study. The separation of faith and reason led inevitably to the detachment of the church and the academy. “Over the space of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson observe, “the universities [in Europe], which had been largely conceived and reared in service of the churches, gradually became institutions of the state.”3 The sociological fruit of this institutional rending was that the pastor was now marginalized in terms of intellectual contribution to the greater society. The scholar, however, was lionized.

How the Pastoral Role Changed in North America
While not dismissing how the Enlightenment served to undermine the pastoral role in North America, the factors that led to the separation between the church and the academy are slightly different than in Europe. The three major features of colonial and post-colonial life that sharpened the divide between pastoral ministry and the work of theology were (1) urbanization; (2) the Revolutionary War; and (3) the development of divinity schools.4

Before the small and scattered towns of the fledging American colonies started to see significant population growth, it was usually the pattern that each town had one church with one pastor, with the church at the center of the town’s spiritual and social life.5 Because of this societal structure, the pastor’s engagement in and influence on the town’s religious and civic life would have been significant. The pastor would have likely been the most educated person in town, and training for the ministry would have taken place primarily within the ecclesial setting as young men learned theology and ministry skills from the pastor himself.6

As these towns grew in number, they soon became too large for only one church. The pastors who once enjoyed substantial political and cultural influence soon found their authority and social status reduced. Furthermore, the spirit of democracy and societal egalitarianism generated by the Revolutionary War had persuaded a new generation of would-be spiritual leaders that theological education—in the church or elsewhere—was no longer needed for ministry. True piety, they claimed, was only hindered by much theological learning; all that a minister needed for gospel proclamation and growth were the Spirit and the Scriptures, and sometimes not much of either.7

The early nineteenth century also saw the establishment of several divinity schools in North America. Whereas theological education in colonial America was previously the domain of the local church, with the development of divinity schools the primary sphere for pastoral training was now located in an institution outside the church. “By the mid-nineteenth century, the pastor theologian in North America had been replaced by the professor theologian.”8

The fracture between the role of the pastor and the work of the theologian has only widened and deepened since the separation began in Europe and North America over four centuries ago. But this development is neither healthy for the church or the academy. As pastors increasingly view their role as managers, spiritual coaches, corporate executives, and social coordinators, and professional theologians drift further from the needs of the church into more refined areas of expertise (intelligible to only a handful of highly-trained scholars), both institutions will suffer.

1. Owen Strachan, “Of Scholars and Saints,” in The Pastor as Public Theologian, by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), 70.

  1. See W. Andrew Hoffecker, “Enlightenments and Awakenings: The Beginning of Modern Culture Wars,” in Revolutions in World- view, ed. W. Andrew Hoffecker (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2007), 240-80; Jonathan Hill, Faith in the Age of Reason(Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 113-35.
  2. Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 44.
  3. Hiestand and Wilson, The Pastor Theologian, 46-49.
  4. David Wells, No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 24.
  5. Hiestand and Wilson, The Pastor Theologian, 47.
  6. Hiestand and Wilson, The Pastor Theologian, 49
  7. Hiestand and Wilson, The Pastor Theologian,49.

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