These days, theology is done in the church on a number of fronts.
There is what I would call ecclesiastical theology; that which is done on the corporate stage of the church, such as at the General Conference or under its auspices. This includes what church administrators, corporate biblical researchers, and committees do as they attempt to articulate "what the church believes" or "the official stand of the church." Such theology is largely apologetic and is therefore done especially in the light of challenges to faith or because of disquieting debates that arise within or without the church. Although such theology contributes a crucial panoramic and collective dimension, it does tend to be weighed down with what may be called political apprehensions such as questions about authority, unanimity, policy, and tradition.
Second, there is what could be described as academic theology; that which is done in the classroom at educational locations such as colleges and seminaries. This includes the work of students but more especially the work of theologically trained professors, academicians, or scholars whose lifework is devoted to understanding and expressing God's revelation of Himself among human beings. This theology tends to follow more closely the classical contours and norms of scholarly pursuit and finds expression in associations and forums, books, articles, the classroom, to name some venues. Among other things, such theology contributes a valuable discipline and precision to the quest for truth. It also tends, however, to be out of touch with the concerns of everyday life, and thus it is subject to becoming an end in itself.
There is also what may be identified as personal theology; that which is done as the individual church member studies his or her Bible, attempting to relate it to the realities of everyday life. This kind of experience may of course include delving into more doctrinal issues, but ultimately even such pursuits are part of the personal quest for truth and meaning, rather than the more public theological forums implied in the two settings mentioned above. There is a fabulous warmth and authenticity in such theology, but it may easily become myopic, self-centered, and limited in its ability to relate itself to others in the church or world at large.
Then there is what is best described simply as pastoral theology; that which is done among the people, within and around the local congregation. The most obvious participants in this context are pastors, though congregations are definitely involved. Here the attempt is made to relate the revelation of God in the Bible and in life to the ebbs and flows, highs and lows, joys and sorrows, of the people of the congregation. Because of its rough-and-tumble nature and the almost raw, organic constraints that are part and parcel of doing it, this theology unearths, when conducted with any care, some of the purest forms of truth. In many ways it is the kind of theology done by the characters and writers of the Bible itself.
There is no question in my mind that each of the four theological forums described has a highly legitimate role to play in the church. The truth of this observation should, I feel, be fully embraced. Though some of us may be tempted to discard "ecclesiastical" and/or "academic" theology, we should seriously resist the temptation. There is tremendous value in exposing ourselves to a multidimensional approach in our truth quest. This is part of the value of belonging to a community rather than simply ending up in some kind of atomistic tumult, as is the tendency in so much of the contemporary world.
But why do I obviously champion "pastoral" theology? Let me briefly fashion an illustrative scenario: Pastor Jones does not believe in fornication or abortion. He can coherently articulate the rationale for his stand, along with the theological and biblical grounds behind it. In forming his viewpoints he has implemented the methodologies and presuppositions advocated in "academic" circles and embraced the church's official position on fornication and abortion, as it comes from "ecclesiastical" headquarters.
He has also plumbed the depths of his own personal-biblical approach to the question. But one Tuesday morning, into his church walks a young, unmarried woman, sixteen years old in fact, and a member of his congregation. She wants to talk to him confidentially.
Pastor Jones knows her well. He attended college with her parents, visited her and her mother the day she was born, and baptized her five years ago. She is good friends with his daughter, and he has often eaten Sabbath lunch in her home. Now she sits across from him sobbing, tears spilling down her cheeks as she confesses to him she is pregnant and asks his advice about whether or not she should get an abortion.
Although Pastor Jones's essential theological stand on fornication and abortion remains intact and normative, he is suddenly forced to take what he believes and apply it in this awfully poignant setting. His ecclesiastical, academic, and personal theologies are being challenged to their very roots by this classic pastoral, real-life situation. How will he approach this young woman? What will he say?
I believe that the best theology is the kind that is constantly being challenged by such realities, the kind that is formed on the hard, exacting anvil of pastoral reality and is constantly under the hammer blows of concrete life experiences.
Contrast the theology and resulting action of the scribes and teachers of the law who brought to Jesus the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) with the deep and unaffected application of truth that Jesus made in her situation. Jesus' action was based upon a living, mature theology that purposely placed itself under constraints that threw all the prescribed, policy-oriented theological formulations out of gear and into a kind of necessary chaos. Jesus' theology did not shrink from situating real-life dynamics near the head of the line of the realities to be considered in doing the theological task. Here Jesus was indeed the consummate theologian, and He was that largely because His theology was so pastoral.
We pastors should not allow anyone (least of all themselves) to devalue the tremendously legitimate role that pastoral theology plays in the church. We must not be overawed by the homage paid other kinds of thinking. Let us respect those theologies deeply, but let us know at the same time that God has called us to faithfully execute a discovery and application of His truth that is of inestimable value to Him and to His people.