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Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars

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Image result for called to the life of the mind“You don’t need to go to seminary.  Jesus never went to seminary.”  I still hear the echo of these words stated to me by an ministry aspiring young man.   This is a young man I recognized as gifted by the Lord.  This is young man I enthusiastically encouraged to acquire sound biblical and theological education.  This is a young man whose religious tradition views theological education as somehow alien and with great suspicion.  Upon reflection of this encounter, I went ahead and read some small books that speaks to the importance of education and the essential necessity of cultivating the life of the mind in the service of Christ.

American philosopher and theologian and former President at Fuller Theological Seminary Richard J. Mouw wrote a small book entitled Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars (Eerdmans, 2014) that makes some salient points in regards to the anti-intellectualism winds that blow from some particular places in American evangelicalism today.  While directed to the evangelical scholar community and not at the church, I will attempt to review some of its main points and close with some critical and practical questions.  My hope is that potential ministers, church leaders and Christ followers will be encouraged to cultivate the life of your mind and not just your heart.  After all, Scriptures invites us and exhort us to do so. Luke 10:27: And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  (Deuteronomy 6:5; Mark 12:30; Matthew 22:37).

Called to the Life of the Mind begins by Mouw’s personal testimony of his journey into the world of Christian scholarship.  Mouw recalls the ‘simple Gospel’ emphasis and its implications.  Messages were as follows:

  • “You don’t need exegesis, you just need Jesus!” (p. 1)
  • “Education is a good thing only if you get the victory over it.” (p. 1)
  • “The only school any Christian needs to attend is the Holy Ghost’s school of the Bible.” (p. 1)

Mouw narrates that while he was in college he fell in love with the liberal arts.  But then as an evangelical preacher’s son he was worried.  “I worried much that not only was I disappointing my family’s hopes for me, but I was also rebelling against the plans that the Lord himself had for my life.” (p. 3).   However, an encounter with a guest speaker who insisted that “Christians must insist that our intellectual life is infused with faith” (p. 3) inspired Mouw to pursue ‘a lifelong commitment to Christian scholarship.” (p. 4)  Called to the Life of the Mind offers some lessons and wise words regarding the value, dichotomies, meaning, perils, pitfalls, victories and dilemmas that Christ followers who commit to the life of the mind may face in their journeys.

Called to the Life of the Mind underscores some of the accusing voices that Mouw faced as he was to enter the intellectual life.  “They were Christian voices from my past, and they spoke the familiar language of that long line of preachers, Bible teachers, and family members. You have compromised with the world, this voice said.  You have followed ways of thinking that are not fitting for a child of God.” (p. 5).  After much struggling, Mouw was grateful for those voices and for the need to keep in dialogue with them because he acknowledged that there is a spiritual struggle and because of the tendency of the intellect to favor the wrong side of this struggle.  Faithful cultivation of the life of the mind (knowledge) go hand in hand with living a life that pleases the Lord (experience).  Called to the Life of the Mind acknowledges that assuming that loving God implies having, gaining and mastering certain concepts of God can be very elitist because “not everyone in the Christian community needs to be seriously involved in intellectual pursuits.” (p. 10)  The crucial thing is for the Christian community to recognize and encourage some people to cultivate the intellectual disciplines.  The church needs good teachers and scholars.

Called to the Life of the Mind insists on the need for the Christian to do practical exercises (pragmatics) that seemingly may look unrelated at first to the Christian life but that actually would someday contribute to the growth and spiritual formation and maturity of such.  And equally, Called to the Life of the Mind asserts that “a sustained and disciplined intellectual life has also value apart from its pragmatic results.” (p. 15).  Cultivating the life of the mind in itself is a good thing.  Called to the Life of the Mind calls out the false choice between withdrawal or takeover when engaging the culture and to “doing the best we can to be an influence for the good without actually gaining any sort of cultural control.” (p. 19) Called to the Life of the Mind reminds us that we are finite and fallen beings and thus must “take a humbly modest approach to human knowing” (p. 23) heeding the Christian message that we are “tempted to arrogance and self-centeredness.” (p. 23)  Called to the Life of the Mind calls us to “live in the tension between epistemic humility and epistemic hope” (p. 26) lest we fall in the temptation to use knowledge in a triumphalist tone “moving from separation to an attempt at domination.” (p. 26)  Called to the Life of the Mind reminds us that the task of scholarship is a communal task.  Historically speaking, intellectual communities have been undergird by spiritual virtues.  Likewise, evangelical scholars today take a vow “to nurture a healthy tradition by a shared commitment to creative teaching and scholarship.” (p. 33)  Called to the Life of the Mind urges Christian higher institutions to become safe spaces for intellectual explorations and reminds us of the diversity of gifts in academic communities.  Called to the Life of the Mind urges evangelical scholars to acknowledge hopes and fears and its accompanying “frequent encounter with loneliness.” (p. 47)  evangelical scholars should procure communal involvement and consider appropriate “to invoke the support of the everlasting arms” (p. 47), a spiritual support system the church do not seem eager to develop.  Called to the Life of the Mind claims that critical thinking can be one way to serve the Lord and urges evangelical scholars to be “lovers of created reality,” (p. 56) by honoring, celebrating and beholding creation.  Called to the Life of the Mind urges evangelical scholars to Christ-like suffering and self-sacrificing collegiality by observing and practicing   the spiritual virtues of “humility, faith, self-denial and love” (p. 65) and by displaying “the kind of patience that is capable of tolerating complexities and living with seemingly unconnected particularities without giving into to despair or cynicism … a Christ-like ministry.” (p. 71)

Called to the Life of the Mind is a succinct yet meaningful reflection and advice to evangelical scholars by a premier and influential leader in the American evangelical academy and seminary community.  One reads Called to the Life of the Mind and senses the voice, dilemmas and challenges that only a seasoned scholar and administrator has experienced.  For that I commend Richard J. Mouw.  And while Called to the Life of the Mind is directed at evangelical scholars one can certainly use it and read it as an occasion to ask some questions to the evangelical churches and their leaders as follows: Does one’s faith requires sacrificing one’s intellect?  Do our churches provide safe places for intellectual explorations and for the cultivation of intellectual virtues, dispositions and habits?  How can our churches nurture a spiritual support system for the preparation of scholars and good teachers for the proclamation of the Gospel?  How can our church leaders promote an environment that holds in tension hope and humility?  Perhaps, the young man’s claim that attending seminary is unnecessary since Jesus never went to seminary would be unnecessary if some of our places of worship and their corresponding traditions create and cultivate a space and a culture where one’s faith can actually be married to the pursuit and development of the intellect.  Faith and reasons are friends rather enemies, albeit the latter is the maid of the former.

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faith alone
Faith alone – sola fide – is one of the five rallying cries of the Reformation. In Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification (Zondervan, 2015),
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The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision

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The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision 

(Zondervan, 2015) by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson

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Driven by Puritan theologian and Dutch divine William Ames who in The Marrow of Sacred Divinity affirmed that Theologia est Scientia vivendo Deo meaning “Theology is the knowledge of how to live in the presence of God” (p. 7), The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision confronts one of those elusive and false dichotomies that has shaped the life of the church, namely: “Can a Christian minister be both a pastor and a theologian?” (p. 7) This is described as a crisis of identity due to the claim that “we’ve lost touch with the ancient traditions of the church” (p. 9).

The authors here are the founders of the Center for Pastor Theologians whose mission is to “help pastors provide intellectual leadership to the church and to the church’s leaders” (p. 10). The underlying assumption is that “pastors aren’t viewed as theologians, but as practitioners” (p. 10). The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision make the case that pastor theologian are a rare species since they “no longer traffic in ideas” (p. 11). The pastorate is not viewed as an intellectual calling. This underscores a division of labor between theologians and pastors that does not have historical precedent. Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins, Joseph Bellamy and Nathaniel Taylor were all pastor theologians “who combined spiritual urgency with profound learning” (p. 12). Of course this was a time when the word ‘theologian’ was synonymous with pastor. However, The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision informs us that nowadays this is not the case for “theology has become ecclesially anemic, and the church theologically anemic” (p. 13), a reality that has led to a new division of labor where “pastors aren’t theologians and theologians aren’t pastors” (p. 14). Despite this predicament, The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Visionenvisions and advocates “for a return of the pastor theologian who has a shepherd’s heart and a pastor’s primary vocational identity, yet who functions as an intellectual peer of the academic theologian and, as such, produces theological scholarship” (p. 14-15).

The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision proceeds from chapters 2 to 9 to resurrect the paradigm for the pastor theologian. Chapter 2 consists of a historical survey that examines the legacy of the pastoral theologian and underscores the division of labor between clerical and nonclerical theologians. After introducing the experiences of British theologian and scholar N.T. Wright (Tom) Wright, The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision provides an account of the relationship between the church, the pastorate and theological scholarship through five major periods, namely: Apostolic Fathers to Constantine (90-300), Constantine to the monasteries (300-600), monasteries to the universities (600-1200), universities to the Reformation (1200-1500), and the Reformation to the Enlightenment (1500-1750). Theologians here are described and examined under three headings, namely: clerical, nonclerical and monastic. Chapter 3 continues the historical survey by documenting how theologians from the Enlightenment to the present ended up in the academy. The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision points out that the Enlightenment in Europe and the Revolution and the Second Great Awakening led to the “tragic divorce between the theologian and the pastor” (p. 42).  On the one hand, under the upheaval of the Enlightenment and its ‘new science’ theories the church was part of the problem and not the solution leading the university to be instruments of the state rather than being in the service of the church; to the undermining of the Bible as a sacred text and to the dethroning of theology as the queen of the sciences. On the other hand, the American Revolution and the Great Awakening led to the divorce of the pastor and the theologian due to the ensuing urbanization and secularization of American culture, the resulting egalitarian impulse and the founding of evangelical divinity school obviously shaped by the cultural shifts. The pastor theologian was replaced the professor theologian, a shift that was accompanied by the institutional structures of the university and its cultural and intellectual prestige.

Chapter 4 examines the challenge of theological anemia of the church. After noting the role of the theologian in the church, The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision points out that the evangelical church has lost its way not because of the absence of contemporary theologians and scholars but because “pastors, not professors, are the theological leaders of the church” (p. 57). The local pastors is not only no longer endowed with the theological capacity it once enjoyed but also is no longer able to be a “broker” of theological truth, a position not fully embraced by the authors here since it represents in their view a ‘demotion’ and one that leads pastors to be mere middle-management position. Thus, the task of theology is up to the academy and not the pastoral community, a mistaken belief that has delayed the church from experiencing theological recovery. Chapter 5 examines the challenge of the ecclesial anemia of the church. The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision addresses the popular claim that evangelical theology is too removed from the needs of the local church. Two challenges related to this claim are the diverging social locations and diverging theological methods of the academy and the church. The former highlights the different pressures, needs and vocational priorities that the pastor and the theologian have. The latter describes the different questions that the pastor and the theologian face particularly exacerbated by the academic guild-specific rules that govern evangelical theology and the hostile culture that undergirds the modern university and the resulting lack or discouragement of theological engagement on explicitly Christian matters that are of utmost importance to the local pastor.  

Chapter 6 proposes a taxonomy of the pastor theologian. The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision proposes the pastor theologian as local theologian, popular theologian, ecclesial theologian. The local theologian “is a theological astute pastor who ably services the theological needs of the church” (p. 81). The popular theologian “is a pastor who writes theology” (p. 83) and whose writing is “an effort to help other pastors and the laity better understand the importance of relevant issues in theology” (p. 84). The ecclesial theologian is “a local church pastor who views the pastoral vocation from theological vantage point” (p. 85) and “who provides theological leadership to God’s ecclesia” (p. 86). Chapter 7 provides a vision of the pastor theologian as ecclesial theologian. The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision expands on the previous chapter by highlighting eight characteristics of the ecclesial theologian’s scholarship and identity. The ecclesial theologian (1) inhabits the ecclesial social location; (2) foregrounds ecclesial questions; (3) aims for clarity over subtlety; (4) theologizes with a preaching voice; (5) is a student of the church; (6) works across the guilds (7) works in partnership with the academic theologian and (8) traffics in introspection. Similarly, chapter 8 offers ten practical steps as they relate to the ecclesial-theologian paradigm. The local pastor is urged to pursue the vision of the ecclesial theologian by following these ten strategies: (1) getting a Ph.D. (reasons for such endeavor are provided); (2) building a staff that values theology; (3) getting networked (a case study of a church is presented here); (4) guarding study time with a blowtorch; (5) reading ecclesial theology and good literature (another case of teaching pastor of provided here); (6) urging pastors to refer to their workplaces as their primary study place; (7) building study-and-writing leave into the pastor’s schedule; (8) recruiting a pastor-theologian intern (a case study is presented here); (9) earning buy-in from church leadership; and (10) letting the necessity of love trump your love of truth. Chapter 8 concludes by stating that “theology serves the church” (p. 122) and that “all our scholarship ought to drive us deeper into our love for God and his people” (p. 122). Finally, chapter 9 urges students, pastors and academics “to seriously consider the church as the best place to satisfy both their theological and ecclesial impulses” (p. 19). Grounded by the claim that “churches won’t rise above the theological level of their leaders” (p. 123), The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision offer some advice to three constituencies, all of which are simply urged to be aware of the present division of labor between the academy and the church. First, professors are asked to embrace and hold out the vision of the ecclesial theologian. Second, pastors are asked to embrace their intellectual gifts for the “church needs pastors who are capable of connecting – with robust intellectual integrity – the deep truths of God and our contemporary context” (p. 127).  Third, students are asked to “take seriously the need for, and believe in the possibility of the ecclesial theologian” (p. 128). A prayer to God closes this chapter. The appendix of The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision offers an excellent survey of the ratio of clerical, nonclerical and monastic theologians in order to orient the reader to the larger narrative of the pastor theologian” (p. 133).

Reading The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision is an enriching experience for three reasons. First, I was quickly reminded of three little, yet significant books that echo similar pastoral and theological themes, namely: Piper and Carson’s The Pastor as Scholar and The Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry, Kapic’s A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology and Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. Second, I was alerted of the illuminating role that church history plays in today’s contemporary challenges. Finally, while I am content to witness a group of God-exalting and Gospel-loving pastor theologians who are committed to sound biblical study, theology, church history, I am equally joyful and hopeful (as a teacher of clergy and lay leaders) that this conversation will remain a courageous sign and beginning of a generation of Christ leaders who are courageous enough to retrieve the catholicity of the church for the renewal of the church by resurrecting the ancient vision of the pastor theologian.

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