The Scholarly Pastor and the Pastoral Scholar–thoughts on the pastor as theologian


In recent years there as has been a renewal of interest in the idea of the pastor as scholar and the scholar as pastor. I remember attending an event in 2009 where John Piper and D. A. Carson spoke on this issue for nearly two hours. Piper represented the scholarly pastor while Carson was the pastoral scholar. The 2009 event eventually produced a book, The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry.

Is this idea new? Historically, has it been normal for pastoral work and scholarly endeavors to co-exist in the life of a single individual?

Owen Strachan has argued that the pastoral office is a theological office. Strachan quotes both David Wells and Douglas Sweeney in support. Sweeney writes, “Most of the best theologians in the history of the church were parish pastors.” And David Wells says the pastor was historically “the scholar-saint, one who was as comfortable with books and learning as with the aches of the soul” (Strachan and Vanhoozer, The Pastor as Public Theologian). Furthermore, Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “Once upon a time, as recently as the nineteenth century, pastors were revered and respected public figures with a certain degree of social status. Pastors were frequently the best-educated persons in small- and medium-sized towns, the village intellectuals” (Strachan and Vanhoozer, The Pastor as Public Theologian).

It appears that the idea of intellectually serious pastorates is not novel.

It is, indeed, amazing to read the works of pastors from history and note their intellectual abilities. Augustine’s knowledge of pagan culture, including the writings of Plato and Cicero, and his profound acquaintance with Scripture is impressive. Fast forward a few centuries and note the likes of John Calvin. Certainly, Calvin had a firm grasp of Peter and Paul. But read his Institutes and appreciate his knowledge of Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hilary of Poitiers, and Peter Lombard. Both Augustine and Calvin knew the Bible, church history, and their culture.

Now, you might at this point feel a need to pause and question that last paragraph. Aren’t we talking about pastor-scholars, or at least scholarly pastors? We know Augustine and Calvin were scholars, but pastors? Didn’t they reside in theological ivory towers and simply work to produce book after book and treatise after treatise? If that is the picture you have of these two theological giants, let me correct your vision. Indeed, Augustine and Calvin were exemplary scholars. However, they both forged their theologies in the fires of pastoral ministry. They serve as two (imperfect) examples of what I believe we need more of today: pastor-scholars.

Due to space limitations, I’ve chosen to look at Augustine in this post and elected to save Calvin for another day.

Augustine became the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa at the end of the fourth century (AD 391). He would hold this position until his death (AD 430). Over the course of nearly forty years in Hippo, he would write numerous books, engage in a number of theological disputes, and preach countless sermons. In fact, his literary output was so voluminous that Isidore of Seville (AD 560–636) once said that if anyone claimed to have read all Augustine wrote, they were a liar.

But Augustine did not merely sit in his office reading and writing. He certainly took time for such things, but Augustine was a man who gave energy to pastoring those who lived in and around Hippo. Peter Brown notes that as the Bishop, Augustine would try “to secure priests who spoke the local dialect” for the villages in his jurisdiction. Furthermore, “Augustine would visit jails to protect prisoners from ill-treatment; he would intervene, tactfully but firmly, to save criminals from judicial torture and execution; above all, he was expected to keep peace within his ‘family’ by arbitrating in their lawsuits” (Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 189). Appointing priests, visiting prisoners, caring for criminals, and arbitrating between lawsuits for those in his “congregation” meant it would have been impossible for the man to have locked himself in a library simply to read and write. The people of North Africa needed a pastor.

And pastor them he did. Outside of mediating between disputes and caring for the criminal, Augustine would feed the flock. He gave himself to the regular preaching of the Bible. In fact, Augustine once said, “If I do gain any stock of knowledge (in the Scriptures), I pay it out immediately to the people of God” (Brown, 249). Augustine would regularly sit in his bishops’ seat, the people standing(!) before him, and they’d give their ears to Augustine as he explained the Bible. The Bishop of Hippo would give himself to preaching because he felt a “great burden, a heavy weight” for the care of their souls (Brown, 253).

Here, then, is a pastor. Augustine would mediate between disputes. He would care for the criminal, interceding on their behalf. And he’d unpack the Bible to feed Christ’s sheep. And all of this pastoral labor took place alongside scholarly pursuits.

Augustine would not only shepherd his people by speaking directly to them, but he would contend for the faith against the heresies and false teachings of his day. He wrote against Donatist groups. He dismantled the Pelagian heresy. And he worked to defend the Christian faith in the face of the fall of Rome. He produced De Trinitate and The City of God (and numerous other works) that speak to his theological brilliance and ability. But whatever theology we find within, is theology forged in the fires of pastoral ministry.

When we take stock of Augustine’s life and ministry, we find the idea of the pastor as a public intellectual is not something new. In fact, it has roots more ancient than Augustine. Paul himself, a shepherd of God’s flock, sets the trajectory for pastor-scholars when he lays down the qualifications for elders. An elder must be “apt to teach” (1 Tim 3:2). That means an elder/pastor must have the ability to interpret, explain, and apply the ancient text to the modern world. That is no easy task and requires a good amount of thinking.

Historically, pastors have taken up the mantle. They have studied God’s Word and God’s world and helped God’s people know how to apply what God has said to their present lives. That is the task of the pastor-scholar, or the pastor-theologian. Like Augustine, we study the divine Scriptures. We seek to see what God has said. Then, we try to make penetrating application of the Bible to the world in which our people live. That’s theological to the core. And we do it all for the good of God’s people and the glory of his name.

Till Christ returns or calls us home, pastor, set your mind to think deeply about all that God has said and how it applies to this present world. In short, aim your pastoral ministry in a scholarly, or theological, direction.




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