Monday, October 13, 2014

I've failed to be a pastor-theologian: Not everyone is a theologian.

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It has been more than two years since I've graduated and started serving as a pastoral staff. With the passion for academic theology and a pastoral job, I aspired to be a 'pastor-theologian'. My senior colleague told me that I should aspire to be like one. John Piper has preached about it. Al Mohler advocates for it. A center is set up to facilitate it. But after trying for two years, I confess that I've failed.

I can't be a pastor-theologian. 

Technically, I'm not a 'pastor' as the local Presbyterian Synod only endows the title to ordained minister. I do all the things a pastor does except presiding over Holy Communion, solemnize marriage, and conduct baptism.

I am not a theologian as I don't follow the idea that "everyone is a theologian". Just because someone has some thoughts about God, that doesn't make him/her a theologian. To paraphrase my friend Khiong, if we don't consider a cashier as mathematician, then we shouldn't consider someone with ideas about divinity a theologian.
 
At times, I think that perhaps we can still use the title 'theologian' with appropriate adjective. For example, we can call lay people who are well-versed in theology as 'lay theologian', or full-time teachers of theology as 'academic theologian' or 'professional theologian', or full-time pastors as 'ecclesial theologian' (which is synonymous to 'pastor-theologian'). However, if so, then should we call cashier 'retail mathematician'? I think not.

So, I cannot agree with the "everyone's a theologian" slogan. A theologian is a Christian disciple whose expertise in theology is expressed through his/her full-time work. He/she spends most of his/her time doing teaching and researching on theology, presenting at academic theological conferences, and publish in respectable and ecumenical academic journals. 

Some may question the insertion of 'ecumenical' as it excludes many academic journals which are supported by denomination and churches. Precisely because they are supported by denomination and churches that these journals are restrictive in academic critique.

Others may say that this would exclude many, if not all, apostolic fathers, church fathers, and reformers from being called 'theologians'. My answer to that is that a vocation changes according to social changes. In the past, there was no 'seminaries' or 'theological colleges' like ours today. In the past, the church and the academy did not relate in the same way today's church relates to the academy. In fact, the 'church' and 'academy' in the past are not like today's church and academy. Even pastoral ministry carries different responsibility in different era. The definition of 'theologian' that I mention here belong specifically to our time and locality, which may change in the future.

Then what about those who teach and research on theology in the academy and at the same time provide pastoral care to local church? I think these are 'theologian-pastors', not 'pastor-theologians'. And these theologian-pastors usually have served as pastors for some years before becoming theologians.

Pastoring is highly demanding. One simply don't have the energy and focus to research into theology after work. Hardly can one write and publish in established academic journals on theology. There are pastors who publish two to five journal articles, but that's all they can manage in their whole career life. It's easier for them to write popular-level Christian living books based on their own pastoring experience. Cases in point: John Piper and Timothy Keller haven't been publishing in academic journals, and Tom Wright resigned from his bishopric to go back to the academy. The former two are pastors, the latter is a  theologian-pastor.

It's not that I haven't been trying. I've been presenting at semi-academic conferences and forums, attending academic seminars, giving talks, helped proof-read theological papers for publication, and reading up academic literature. A friend asked me to consider cleaning up my own paper for publication. A former director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia asked me to kickstart a 'pastor-theologian' movement in local churches. I wanted to continue to do all that, but I'm just tired after the day's work.

This doesn't mean that 'pastor-theologian' is an impossible vocation. There might be people who can do it. What I'm saying here is that I've failed to be one--I'm not one. To come to term with my own limitation, after trying for two years, does clarify my own direction and lighten the burden of attempting to be someone that I can't be.

1 comment:

Alex Tang said...

as you have noted, terms like 'theologians' changed with time and culture (church fathers etc), perhaps you will like to reconsider your terms 'pastor-theologians' or 'theologian-pastors'. Or even to understand whether theology is done from top down or bottom up. What benefits to there to the catholic church if you publish or present some obscure theological paper which nobody understands?