The Case for the Anglican Pastor-Theologian
Many of the great Christians of history who engaged their culture were both pastors and theologians. But in our culture we tend to divorce the two, says the Rev. Wesley Walker of Christ Our Redeemer Anglican Church and co-host of the Sacramentalists podcast. Why is it important to recover this often-bifurcated role, and how can we go about it?
By Wesley Walker
To realize its missional potential, modern American Anglicanism has to speak to the larger culture in which it finds itself. This, of course, does not mean we compromise the essential message of the Gospel. Much like the generations preceding us, our task remains the same: to bring the good news of Christ crucified to a culture which sees this proclamation as foolish.
But many churches have ignored their prophetic vocation.
The statistics continually bear out a fact stated almost 50 years ago by Anglican theologian E.L. Mascall: There is no longer such a thing as the Christian Mind. The fabric of our culture is devolving away from an inherently religious framework. The rapid rise of the “nones,” those who do not affiliate with institutional religion, is a well-documented phenomenon. Interestingly, this group is becoming more secularized. According to a Pew Study, over the course of seven years, there was an 8% increase in nones who claimed religion is not very or not at all important to them. 91% claimed they attend church only a few times a year or less. The percentage of those who claimed they did not believe in any sort of god jumped from 22% to 33%.
Even in the Church, trends prove Mascall’s thesis. In the 2018 State of Theology survey, it was revealed that heresies like Pelagianism, pluralism, Arianism, and others have left a large footprint on modern Christianity. Mascall diagnoses this: “unfortunately the Christian mind has succumbed to the secular drift with a degree of weakness and nervelessness unmatched in Christian history.”
“Who will save us from this body of death?”
Consider the great Christians of history who engaged their cultures: Augustine, Dominic, Francis of Assisi, Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Wesley, Pusey, etc. What do many of them have in common? They were pastors. In our post-enlightenment world, we often bifurcate the “pastoral” work of the parish minister from the “intellectual” work of the theologian in the academy. Such a dichotomy not only hurts the health of the Church but also leads to the death of theology. Divorcing the intellectual facets of the faith from the Church prevents theology from fulfilling its telos.
I believe we must recover this vision of the pastor-theologian for our modern Anglican churches to really engage culture. This is particularly true as we continue to recover an Augustinian anthropology which recognizes that theology is not just an intellectual exercise but is driven by the loves. It’s helpful for pastors to communicate the Gospel in ways aimed not just at the head but also the heart. Theology as an academic discipline and the pastoral context of the Church need each other. Theology without the Body of Christ is fruitless; the Church without theology is groundless. Only one office stands in the breach: the pastor.
Here are 4 ways ministers of the Gospel can more fully serve as pastor-theologians.
Reading is a discipline that helps us grow as thinkers and humans. The brilliant Karen Swallow Prior rightly exhorts us to read “promiscuously.” She says, “Reading widely and well shapes and forms our character. It cultivates virtue.”
Diving into the Scriptures helps us explore what Cranmer described as the “fat pastures of the soul.” Reading theology helps us engage in the wider discussions of the Church while helping us convey the Gospel to our parishioners. Secular literature that we may even disagree with can help us understand our milieu and provide us opportunities to consider effective means of cultural engagement. Reading fiction improves our ability to empathize with others. We cannot go wrong by “reading widely and well.”
In a world of social media where it is so easy to make comments, we have lost the art of listening. Listening to those with whom we disagree is a necessary practice. As ministers, we are charged with proclaiming, but to effectively proclaim, we must first be aware.
Paul’s time in Athens recorded in Acts 17 is a wonderful example of this. Prior to his speech at the Areopagus, Paul makes it clear he spent time trying to understand the Athenian religious practices (see 17:16, 23). Paul used the material he gleaned from them in his subsequent presentation of the Gospel.
I suggest we find opportunities to do this in our culture. Perhaps we do this in some of the books we choose to read. Or we listen to people in our community through intentional relationship building. I love listening to podcasts on my way to work every day. While there are some podcasts I listen to because they are theologically sound, I listen to others that do not share my perspective. This enables me to better understand our cultural moment and, hopefully, helps me communicate with others.
Many of us in ministry have social media. The decentralization and digitalization of the public square afford us the opportunity to easily disseminate information. As a result, we can think of ourselves as curators who distribute things that may be helpful theologically.
This is a particularly important role when one considers the divisive state of social media. By encouraging friends and followers towards the true, good, and beautiful, we can interact with social media in positive ways. While the internet never displaces our embodied pastoral work, it does enable us opportunities never afforded to church leaders in previous generations.
According to Mascall, the theologian should theologize “as a member of the Body of Christ; he needs to be under not only an academic but also a spiritual ascesis.” The reading, listening, and curating we do must all lead to kerygma, Gospel proclamation. Pastor-theologians only do their job when, with Paul, we know “nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Theology is the Queen of the sciences but only when it functions in its proper role: to know God and make him known.
The message of the Gospel precedes our efforts at contextualizing it for our modern audience. Our contextualization must be subordinate to the message of God’s grace offered to sinners.
The Church is the site of theology. In a post-Christian culture, I believe ministers of the Gospel must avoid choosing between being “pastorally” or “theologically” minded. To be effective, we who are ordained to Holy Orders must be adept at communicating biblical truth to a culture increasingly estranged from it. At a certain point, pastoral and theological needs converge into one; people are best served when we convey truth winsomely. Recovering the concept of the pastor-theologian will only help us accomplish that objective.
The Rev. Wesley Walker is from Raleigh, North Carolina. He went to Liberty University for his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Biblical Studies where he was also on the debate team. He is currently pursuing an STM from Nashotah House and resides in Bedford, Virginia. He is the curate at Christ Our Redeemer Anglican Church in Lynchburg, teaches Latin at Faith Christian School in Roanoke, and co-hosts The Sacramentalists podcast. He lives with his wife Caroline, their son Jude, and their two dogs.