Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Academic Pastor

John Piper and D. A. Carson. The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. 124pp. Paperback. $9.99.

Reviewed by Ryan McGraw
I came to this book with high expectations from its authors. This is a captivating read that actually exceeded my expectations. Instead of merely treating the relationship between the pastorate and academia, this work presents largely biographical sketches of two leaders in American evangelicalism. It is full of sound wisdom, valuable insights into personal piety, and guidance with reference to the increasingly thorny question of the relationship between the church and the academy. The title of the book is somewhat misleading. Instead of blending what are commonly treated as two distinct vocations, it is about learned men serving in the pastorate and pastorally oriented men serving in seminaries. This book helps to promote learned piety both in the pastorate and in the seminary. At the same time, it leaves much room for further refinement and continued discussion. After setting forth the contents of this book briefly, this review will add some reflection upon the proper relationship between the pastorate and academia.

The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor was difficult to put down. It is divided into four parts. Owen Strachan and David Mathis wrote a brief introduction and a conclusion respectively in order to set the tone for the topic at hand. The main text of the volume consists of two long chapters by John Piper and D. A. Carson. Piper’s chapter presents the journey of a young man who was a slow reader and who experienced complete paralysis when trying to speak before a group of any size (26, 29) into academia and then into the pastorate. Carson’s life followed the opposite track: he is a man who loves the pastorate yet who was led by the unexpected providence of God to teach in a seminary for over thirty years (80). It was Piper’s desire to proclaim God’s glory with passion rather than to describe him in a sterile academic manner that led him away from teaching at the college level into the ministry. It was Carson’s desire to remain in the pastorate and to serve the church that has made him such a warmhearted, godly, and useful scholar (see pg. 81, where two other professors at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School implored him at one stage not to leave the seminary in order to return to the pastorate). By the end of the book, it is clear that Piper’s pursuit of learning fuels his passion for the God of Scripture, and that Carson’s excellence as a scholar is driven by his love for Christ and for His church (108).

The ongoing discussion of the relationship between the pastor and the scholar is often ambiguous. Most of the difficulty (as Carson notes on pages 71-73) surrounds how we define the term “scholar.” If “scholar” refers to someone who is an academic at a university by vocation, then unless they are bi-vocational, pastors would be excluded from the term by definition. In addition, whether or not a pastor should be a “scholar” depends upon what kind of scholarship is in view. Are pastor-scholars men who seek academic recognition while serving in the pastorate? If so, then this desire can become a snare and a temptation both to the ministry and to their souls. Another question is that if the term “scholar” refers to someone who holds a professorship, then is the seminary or the university in view? Both authors have recognized these inherent vagaries in their assigned topic.

In this reviewer’s opinion, we should distinguish between seminaries and universities. Seminaries should grow out of the church and the need to train ministers for the service of the church. While scholarship in a seminary should learn from academia, its agenda should be set by the church and her needs. When seminary studies are shaped by academia rather than by the church and the pastorate, then they often distort their purpose and their effectiveness in serving the church. They will likely produce scholars rather than learned ministers. Seminaries should learn from the rigors of the university and they should require the same if not higher excellence in learning, but they should not be concerned with whether or not their conclusions are academically acceptable. This is a fine line. If the seminary and the pastors of the church are not concerned about gaining academic recognition, then the danger is that both become less rigorous and diligent in their labors. I suspect that the primary reason for this is that most of us assume that academic rigor is equated with being dull, detached, and devoid of spiritual vitality. However, in addition to the fact that truth and godliness are never detached in Scripture, we should remember the tremendous theological output from men such as Calvin, Owen, Boston, Edwards, Thornwell, and many others in the context of the pastorate under the motive of deep love for Christ and for His people.

Some examples from the book will illustrate how this tension between academia and piety works itself out today. Piper makes reference to George Eldon Ladd being virtually ruined emotionally and professionally upon reading a critical review of one of his early books by a professor at the University of Chicago (37. Carson later warns against this very attitude on pg. 89). My first thought upon reading this was, “Who cares what an unbelieving professor at the University of Chicago thinks about your book on the Kingdom of God?” In an earlier part of his chapter, Piper cites the autobiography of F. F. Bruce in which Bruce states that he intentionally said very little about the things that mattered most to him, even in his autobiography. Piper responded, “My first reaction when I read this was to say, ‘No wonder I have found his commentaries so dry’ – helpful in significant ways, but personally and theologically anemic” (22-23). Similarly, I have little sympathy with a seminary professor or a pastor whose primary concern is to maintain a good reputation in the academic world (see Carson, pg. 84). Why should we expect unbelieving, or at least non-Reformed scholars, to approve of our academic output? They share neither our presuppositions nor our theology. On the other hand, Carson warns us that we should avoid the subtle temptation to pride through loving the applause of a particular faction that spurns academia and that looks to people like us simply to bolster their own cause (90).

Both Piper and Carson hint at the fact that while the level of our study, learning, and writing should excel in every respect, yet our goals should differ widely from academia. This does not mean that Christian ministers cannot write works of academic excellence that are accepted in the scholarly community (for instance, Mark Jones or Brian Lee among many others, each of whom are pastors who have written academic volumes in historical theology for a series by Vandenhoek and Ruprecht). However, we should remember two things: the importance of our work does not depend inherently upon academic approval, and academic approval a more realistic possibility in the area of historical theology than in other areas.

In light of the excellent food for thought that this volume provides, I offer the following thoughts to plot the course ahead:
  1. Let our seminaries grow around the needs and goals of the church, rather than the academy. Piper believed that his work was less immediately relevant to the church and was frustrated when he taught New Testament at a college instead of at a seminary (44). Carson has found great satisfaction in mentoring students in the seminary precisely because they were going on to serve in the ministry (92-94). Our seminaries should serve the church while learning from the academy, rather than serve the academy while learning from the church.
  2. We should aim at producing less of a discrepancy between ministers and professors. Gifts differ widely even among ministers (see 95-98). Not every minister should be forced into the same mold. Yet the discrepancy between the seminary and the church should not be as wide as it currently appears to be. We do not have the liberty to use some of our talents and not others. Ministers must trade with all of the talents that they have. They must aim for an intelligent piety. In the history of the church, the church has often chosen those men who were the best and most learned ministers to teach in theological seminaries. Not all ministers should train the next generation of pastors, but the pastorate and the professorship should be marked more by continuity than by discontinuity on both sides.
  3. Communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit should be the goal of all Christian scholarship as well as of the pastorate. We must pursue what is good for ourselves and for others (1 Thess. 5:15). The best thing that we can pursue in this respect is that both we and those whom we interact with would know the love of the Father, through the grace of Christ, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14). The Triune God gave His people a book that must be studied (see Piper, 63-66) and that has been studied by His people through the assistance of the Holy Spirit over many centuries. This means that we must study the history of what the church has done with God’s book as well. This should make pastoral piety more scholarly and studious. Yet the Triune God has also made scholars in the image of God. All genuine scholarship should lead Christians into closer communion with their Lord, especially in the seminary, where this should be scholarship’s primary goal.
May the Lord use this little but mighty book to help both pastors and scholars be what Christ has designed them to be.

This review first appeared in the January 2012 issue of Puritan Reformed Journal.