Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Differences between Ecclesial Theology and Academic Theology

My article, "Pastor-Scholar to Professor-Scholar: Exploring the Theological Disconnect between the Academy and the Local Church" is now out in the current issue of Westminster Theological Journal (vol 70, 2008). In the article, I argue that the eighteenth-century transition from pastor-scholar to professor-scholar has had significant implications for North American evangelical theology, namely that evangelical theology has become too apologetically focused and has lost sight of distinctly ecclesial concerns. In the paper I argue for a resurrection of the pastor-scholar.

But "pastors writing academic scholarship" is not my vision of a pastor-scholar. Instead, I'm calling for a return to the sort of theological reflection done by past pastor-scholars such as Augustine, Athanasius, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, etc.--theologians who wrote from within the social location of the Church, whose reflection was driven by ecclesial concerns, and who were unashamedly Christian and prophetic. As Luther has said, theologians who are willing to "assert".

I've been continuing to work along these basic lines in light of my role as the executive director of the SAET, and the most challenging obstacle that we've come across is distinguishing ecclesial theology from academic theology. Ecclesial theology isn't simply Christian Living books on steroids (though ecclesial theology would include this genre, i.e., Bonhoeffer's Cost of Disciplership, Augustine's Confessions, etc.) The terms "theology" and "scholar" have become so identified with the academy, that most of us lack a capacity to conceive of scholarship outside the academic genre. In an attempt to provide some clarity by what I mean by the term "eccleisal theology", I offer the following compare and contrast (note, in an attempt to make my point clear, I've caricatured academic theology a bit.)
  1. The depth of academic scholarship is too often measured by its mastery of secondary literature. The depth of ecclesial scholarship is measured by its mastery of primary literature.
  2. Academic scholarship is written to the wider academic community, much of which lacks any commitment to historic orthodoxy. This in turns gives much of evangelical academic scholarship an apologetic slant. Ecclesial scholarship, in contrast, is written to the believing community, and builds upon and assumes—rather than defends—the basic commitments of historic orthodoxy.
  3. The success of academic scholarship is determined by its acceptance and influence in the academic community. The success of ecclesial scholarship is determined by its ability to renew the church.
  4. Academic scholarship is informative. Ecclesial scholarship is informative and prophetic (i.e., it makes moral assertions and calls the church to action).
  5. The power of academic theology arises out of the success of the professor-scholar as a scholar. The power of ecclesial theology arises—in large measure—out of the success of the pastor-scholar as a pastor. In other words, the influence of a pastor-scholar as a scholar is related to his success as a pastor.
  6. Academic scholarship tends to be narrow and guild-specific. Ecclesial theology is a cross-guild project, working within and attempting to construct a coherent theological system/worldview.
  7. The academic scholar tends to be more of a scholar and less of a theologian. The pastor-scholar tends to be more of a theologian and less of a scholar. Here I'm distinguishing between scholarship (mining new data) and theology (arranging the data into a synthetic whole).
I'd be interested in any of your thoughts on this, as I am preparing an article for Reformation 21. Would you add anything to the list? Do you disagree with anything on the list?


Westy's Kid Brother said...


I'm very interested to see where you come out on this, and thought I'd pass along some resources I noted on the inter-web: the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding (with which I am not affiliated, but wish I could be) shares your passion for the resurrection of the pastor-scholar, and is hosting a co-lecture by D.A. Carson and John Piper on April 23, 2009. Press release here:

Hope it's helpful, and blessings to you.

Anonymous said...


I'm a student and taking a Theology class. I was wondering if you could clear up some things for me. I'm trying to see the differences between Luther and Aquinas on grace and Augustine and Rahner on grace... I have come up with some things but would love to hear what you have to say... You can contact me by e-mail at Hope to hear from you soon. Take Care

Gerald said...


Thanks for the link. I was aware of the conference, and the Henry Center shares much of the same vision. Owen Strachen, the managing director is on my SAET board, so he keeps us in the loop on all things Henry Center.