Theology for the community

The quote from David Lyall to which I drew attention in my previous post, What is practical theology?, and the ensuing discussion, reminded me of a section from John de Gruchy’s brilliant little book Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective, wherein de Gruchy writes:

In Germany the title ‘theologian’ refers in the first place not to the academic theologian but to the pastor. It is the primary designation within the Protestant churches of an ordained minister. Yet few priests or pastors would regard themselves as such, especially within the Anglo-Saxon world. In his book Ferment in the Ministry, the north American pastoral psychologist Seward Hiltner imagined the possible responses which ordained ministers would give to a Gallup Poll which asked the question: ‘Do you regard yourself as a theologian?’

31% said, ‘Well, I am a minister, but you could hardly call me a theologian.’

22% said, ‘It is true I have studied theology, but I am not really a theologian.’

17% replied, ‘Brother, I sure ain’t. I’m only a simple parson, not one of those highpowered book guys.’

8% admitted, ‘Well, I guess I am, in a way, but I am more interested in serving people than in theology.’

7% said, ‘Where did you get that idea? And don’t do it again.’

4% replied, ‘I am about twice a year, when I go back to the alumni lectures.’

2% said, ‘Pardon me, I have to rush to a funeral.’

1% snorted, ‘I wonder who thought up that question?’

0.9% said, ‘Yes.’ (Seward Hiltner, Ferment in the Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969), 159.)

Why is there this reluctance on the part of ordained ministers, to regard themselves as theologians, and, on the part of some, especially Anglo-Saxons and their heirs, why is there such antipathy towards theology? In the Germanic world the traditional tendency and temptation is precisely the opposite, to glory in the title ‘theologian’, and to create theologies remote from Christian praxis and existence in the world. Helmut Thielicke has a German audience in mind when, in his A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, he writes about the ‘pathology of the young theologian’s conceit’. Yet even in Germany the idea that the ordained minister’s self-perception is that of a theologian cannot be assumed. At Christmas in 1939 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter to his former students:

How superficial and flippant, especially of theologians, to send theology to the knacker’s yard, to make out that one is not a theologian and doesn’t want to be, and in so doing to ridicule one’s own ministry and ordination and in the end to have, and to advocate, a bad theology instead of a good one! – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, True Patriotism: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1939-1945 (ed. Edwin Hanton Robertson; trans. Edwin Hanton Robertson and John Bowden; The Collected Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; vol. 3; London: Collins, 1973), 28.

This attitude parallels the tendency within the church generally to disparage theology in the interests of ‘practical Christianity’.

Theology has a bad name amongst many theological students and ordained ministers, not primarily because of their modesty but because they fail to grasp its vital necessity and relevance to their vocation. Indeed, they may even regard it as something detrimental to their calling and the life and mission of the church. There are theological students who regard the study of theology as an unfortunate requirement for ordination, rather than as that which should provide the focus for their work. The image of a theologian is academic, intellectual, and far-removed from the everyday tasks of the parish minister. Much of the blame for this must be laid at the door of university departments of theology, theological colleges and seminaries, and those of us who teach in them. Theology has too often been taught in ways which reduce it to idealistic abstractions, and result in its rejection as a useful, indeed, essential part of the mission of the church and therefore of the ordained ministry. After all, the value of theology taught as a series of independent academic disciplines lacking both coherence or direction and unrelated to biblical vision or faith, is not self-evident for the Christian community struggling to be faithful in the midst of the world. This situation needs to be radically transformed if theology is to become the vocation of the ordained minister, and central to the total ministry of the church, and not simply be regarded as the peculiar province of scholars.

In John T. McNeill’s magnificent A History of the Cure of Souls, there is what we might call a ‘give-away’ comment which reinforces my argument that the ordained minister, is primarily a theologian. McNeill refers to the fact that ‘Jean Daniel Benoit, the expert on Calvin’s work in the cure of souls, states boldly that the Genevan Reformer was more a pastor than theologian’, but he then continues, ‘to be exact, he was a theologian in order to be a better pastor’. Conversely, in his introduction to Karl Barth’s essays, Against the Stream, Alec Vidler has this perceptive comment about the theologian’s theologian, Karl Barth: ‘I was aware of a quality or style about him which is hard to define. It may perhaps best be called pastoral, so long as this is not understood as a limitation.’ Christian pastors are called to be theologians, and those whom we normally designate theologians may well be pastors …

The primary task of the ministry of the Word and Sacraments is to enable the upbuilding of the church in such a way that it is always pointed beyond itself to the reign of God in Jesus Christ in the midst of the world. Its task is to keep the People of God mindful of the tradition of Jesus, crucified and risen, and what this means for their lives and the praxis of the church today. Its task is to enable the church to be faithful to its identity as the People of God in the world, discerning who God is and what God requires of them. In this way the ministry of the Word and Sacraments is, literally speaking, church leadership because it provides theological direction for the mission of the People of God in the world. – John W. de Gruchy, Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective (London: Collins, 1987), 40–3, 47

And then there’s that wonderful section from Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, a book written in part to speak to ‘the present-day younger generation’ (p. i) and clearly with an intention to encourage budding pastors. The first lectures of this collection were delivered under the auspices of the Divinity School, the University of Chicago and were the Annie Kinkead Warfield Lectures of 1962 at the Princeton Theological Seminary. The section which I was reminded of appears in a chapter titled ‘The Community’:

Since the Christian life is consciously or unconsciously also a witness, the question of truth concerns not only the community but the individual Christian. He too is responsible for the quest for truth in this witness. Therefore, every Christian as such is also called to be a theologian. How much more so those who are specially commissioned in the community, whose service is preeminently concerned with speech in the narrower sense of the term! It is always a suspicious phenomenon when leading churchmen (whether or not they are adorned with a bishop’s silver cross), along with certain fiery evangelists, preachers, or well-meaning warriors for this or that practical Christian cause, are heard to affirm, cheerfully and no doubt also a bit disdainfully, that theology is after all not their business. “I am not a theologian; I am an administrator!” a high-ranking English churchman once said to me. And just as bad is the fact that not a few preachers, after they have exchanged their student years for the routine of practical service, seem to think that they are allowed to leave theology behind them as the butterfly does its caterpillar existence, as if it were an exertion over and done with for them. This will not do at all. Christian witness must always be forged anew in the fire of the question of truth. Otherwise it can in no case and at no time be a witness that is substantial and responsible, and consequently trustworthy and forceful. Theology is no undertaking that can be blithely surrendered to others by anyone engaged in the ministry of God’s Word. It is no hobby of some especially interested and gifted individuals. A community that is awake and conscious of its commission and task in the world will of necessity be a theologically interested community. This holds true in still greater measure for those members of the community who are specially commissioned … – Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (trans. Grover Foley; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979, 40–1.

A little later on Barth proceeds to recall that theology – even, one should add, that is as extensive as Barth’s own Church Dogmatics (the word ‘Church’ is crucial here) – ought to be undertaken for the sake of the Community and its witness to the Word of God:

Theology would be an utter failure if it should place itself in some elegant eminence where it would be concerned only with God, the world, man, and some other items, perhaps those of historical interest, instead of being theology for the community. Like the pendulum which regulates the movements of a clock, so theology is responsible for the reasonable service of the community. It reminds all its members, especially those who have greater responsibilities, how serious is their situation and task. In this way it opens for them the way to freedom and joy in their service. (p. 42)

Who would have thought – dared to think – that a human discipline might have a responsibility beyond its own indulgence! In this case, ‘for the reasonable service of the community’, even for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God … (Eph 4:12–13). Pastors who are serious about serving their communities will be theologians, and unashamedly so.


  1. Thank you for this post, Jason. This is much needed not only for encouragement for what my professor Dr. Wm. C. Turner, Jr. calls “pulpit-theologians.” I here some people at Duke state that learning theology is not “practical” for ministry. They find it inconceivable to connect what seems to be ethereal, cerebral doctrines to “concrete” praxis. The blame has to be laid upon, I think, the gross pragmatism which plagues many churches in contemporary American society.

    Intellectual discipline is put on the back burner and gives way to what is expedient, relevant, or what is considered “practical.” Every time I hear that word I flinch because I think I know what many mean when they say it.


  2. “Much of the blame for this must be laid at the door of university departments of theology, theological colleges and seminaries, and those of us who teach in them. Theology has too often been taught in ways which reduce it to idealistic abstractions, and result in its rejection as a useful, indeed, essential part of the mission of the church and therefore of the ordained ministry.”
    I think this is much of the issue, Jason. Theology is surely, at its basic level, thinking/talking about God and everything that entails, such as how it affects the way we live our lives. For many people “theology” has become to be regarded as something too complex for the average person, (and indeed some of it is ridiculously so) and so they don’t go near it – failing to realise that every time they open their mouth to talk about how they should behave, what God is doing in their lives, how they pray and far more, they are talking theology.


  3. Jason,
    “Pastors who are serious about serving their communities will be theologians, and unashamedly so.”
    Furthermore, Theologians who are serious about the Word of God will be serving their communities, and unashamedly so.
    Thanks for this post. It was quite helpful.


  4. You might be interested in John Howard Yoder’s essay: “On Not Being Ashamed of the Gospel: Particularity, Pluralism, and Validation,” in Faith and Philosophy 9:3 (1992):283-300. It gets at the intelligibility vs. authenticity debate in an insightful and illuminating way, a debate that I think is also implicit in the theologian vs. pastor debate. I’m not sure if it’s available online but you seem to have quite the library/journal resources so I don’t think you should have trouble finding it.


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