The Pastor as Theologian

Theology is not a luxury.

William G. Johnsson is associate professor of New Testament at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


ONE OF the saddest aspects of the church in these times is the gulf be tween the pastor and the theologian. As we look out over the Christian world at large, it seems evident that theology increasingly is limited to "the experts." Theologians as a group spend a large portion of a lifetime mastering the ancient language of the Bible, church history, and philosophical skills in order to understand and help develop the theology of the church. The learning required in preparation is enormous and difficult; small wonder, then, that the theologians seem to be a breed apart and that their pronouncements often go unchallenged.

Some aspects of this situation, how ever, create unhealthy conditions as far as the life of the church is concerned. On the one hand, the writings of the theologians attract an ever-diminishing circle. More and more they appear directed toward other theologians; what we end up with is a self-perpetuating system within the church. Further— and this is a distressing fact of modern theology—many theologians seem to feel that they can carry on their endeavor without a deep commitment to the church itself. A curious detachment (or even divorce) from church policy and evangelistic endeavor often marks their efforts.

The pastorate, on the other hand, is less and less concerned about theology. It is preoccupied with accommodating itself to methods and skills made avail able by the human sciences such as counseling, guidance, and sociological understanding.

Problems of church administration also demand the pastor's constant attention. Very often pastors look upon theologians as enjoying a life of luxury luxury that the hard-pressed church can no longer afford. The concern more and more is for "relevance"; for answers for the here and now, not the abstruse meanderings and hair-splitting arguments that seem rooted in an age long since dead.

It is in the light of such a situation that I would like to frame a proposal: The best theologian will be one who is also a pastor, while every pastor, if he is truly to be a pastor, must also function as a theologian.

Time to Define "Theology"

Perhaps it is time for a definition of "theology." Standard works on systematic theology usually employ statements like that of Augustus H. Strong, "Theology is the science of God and of the relations between God and the uni verse." * The problem with this definition, and all others like it, is that they do not presuppose any requirement on the part of the one who is doing theology presumably, anyone can be a theologian. But is this so? Must not theology be a study that grows out of the life committed to God in Jesus Christ?

For this reason I reject Strong's definition in favor of a much older statement. Anselm of Canterbury in the twelfth century spoke of fides quaerens intellectum—" faith seeking understanding." 2 It is the one who believes who seeks to understand! Personal understanding, communication of the faith and its defense all drive us ever onward and deeper in the search for the "science of salvation." So often we read the Bible and rejoice, but when we read the works of the theologians we wonder where the life has gone. In my judgment theology is never to be viewed as a cold, detached, rational study. Instead, it is to be rooted and grounded in "the faith;" it should glow with life, for it deals with ideas that are gloriously alive.

Thus, the best theology will grow out of a deeply devotional life. Theology and piety are not opposed; each may sup port the other. Nor will the best theologian be one who locks himself away among his erudite books and comes out periodically to blink in the light of the day. No; he is dealing with the faith— not a faith once held by the saints, but the faith that is now to be lived—and preached. Only as he keeps close to life, only as his ear is open to "the still, sad music of humanity," 3 can he do his best work. Ultimately, the faith is concerned with people, not with remote ideas. This is why the best theologian at heart will truly be a pastor.

How Can Pastors Be Theologians?

What of the pastor how is he to be a theologian? Granted, it is not his calling to spend long hours with books as does the theologian—though I fear that ministers today study all too little. The pas tor's work of communicating the gospel inevitably involves him, however, in the tasks of theology. Every time he opens his mouth to speak about the faith, he is revealing his understanding of it—he is in some measure a theologian. The only question is whether he will be a good or poor theologian.

As the pastor visits his flock and senses their needs, he must be driven to ponder the great truths of the Word. The people look to him for guidance, for instruction, for comfort. He must spend many hours on his knees, pleading with the Lord for wisdom and understanding; he must come back again and again, pondering the mysteries of his religion. Without this, he may indeed be a counselor, a social worker, an organizer, or even a jolly good fellow—but not a pas tor. Only as he himself has sought (even with tears and intensity of struggle) for understanding can he feed the flock. So, at his own level and in his own way, the pastor is a theologian.

Theology Not a Luxury

Theology is not a luxury. Without theology there would be no Christian church. It is theology that has made us what we are.

Nor can we rest upon the work of the past. The pillars of the faith shall continue to stand, but the ongoing rush of time calls for continual effort in theology. Each generation must rethink the faith; it must seek to understand it in an effort to be more effective in communicating and defending it. The task of theology will never be done.

And in that task every pastor is to have a part. He should not become an echo of the voices of those who are professional theologians, nor should he dis miss the entire theological enterprise with a shrug. Let him be, first of all, a man of the Word and a man of the people. Then his work as a pastor will truly forward the theology of the Church.


Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology, London, 1958, p. 1.

2 Anselm, Proslogion, I.

3 William Wordsworth, "Tintern Abbey."

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William G. Johnsson is associate professor of New Testament at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

July 1976

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