Some Restrictions on a Theological Approach to Jesus

· fun

There are differences between how theologians generally approach ministering the Person of Jesus to those who are in need, or how pastors do so. One of the valuable ways to understand this difference is to recognize that the rôle of pastor or that of theologian are actually significantly different from each other. Here are some thoughts on those differences.

The Rt Revd N T (Tom) Wright delivering the Ja...

The Rt Revd N T (Tom) Wright delivering the James Gregory Lecture, "Can a scientist believe in the resurrection", St Andrews, Thursday 20 December 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Theologian and pastor — they’re both “spiritual teachers” in the church, but they’re not the same.

Very few people, religious or not, actually understand the task or the rigorous expectations with which a theologian of the Church is faced. They are not pastors or presbyters spiritually concerned with the life of congregational members. In some senses, the distinctions between today’s theologians and pastors are similar to that of the scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day, 2,000 years ago.

Contemporary theologians (as so with the ancient scribes) do not “pastor” or “shepherd” the people. They may have many followers, but are not primarily “spiritual healers” or “shepherds” as is expected of pastors. Many writers today try to blur the distinction between the two by speaking of “pastoral theology”. But when the tasks and expectations of both are compared, practically speaking, there’s no way the two can be blended.

The main hindrance to doing so is time. The rôle of a pastor typically demands that he/she prepare and deliver sermons or homilies (from one to possibly five per week), visit the housebound, pray for the sick, lead or superintend a variety of regular committee meetings, teach catechism or similar instructional classes (demanding time for preparation) and other, similar, time-consuming tasks.

The rôle of a theologian of the Church (or professor of Religious Studies) is even more demanding time-wise and is astonishingly rigorous. In the first place, a theologian is an academic scholar. No theologian is allowed by his/her peers to blandly state unsupported matters of opinion. Every statement made pertaining to studies of God (including subjects such as the Church [ecclesiology], humanity [anthropology], the Holy Spirit [pneumatology], salvation [soteriology], etc.) must have been compared and contrasted to every other theologian’s views concerning that issue over the last 2,000 years. A theologian uses the academic tools of biblical exegesis, reasonable analysis, and logical argument to assess, interpret, explain, critique, defend or propagate the beliefs of the Church and/or facilitate reforms in the Church.

Generally, a theologian is a professor at a university (not necessarily church-related) and through years of schooling, has gradually developed an area of theological expertise. In addition to having learned at least German, Latin, koine Greek, Hebrew and likely French, the theologian has read (from the original languages) all the writings of the Early and Late Church Fathers (thousands of pages), become familiar with every additional theological “voice” throughout the last 1600 years, written and published ongoing research into theological issues, taught university classes, chosen narrowly selected theological subjects in which to construct a coherent system of thought and practice — as well as fighting for regular increases in salary, additional stipends and awards, financial maintenance for his/her theological department and a continuous search for both peer-review of his/her work and publishable material to fulfill the “publish-or-die” dictates of higher academia.

Simply speaking, there’s no possibility that any person can fulfill the tasks and expectations of both pastor and theologian at the same time. Essentially, when a theologian has taken a role as a pastor, he/she requests and receives a leave of absence from the university, sets aside his/her academic demands and shepherds the people in a particular congregation.

If there is any legitimacy to the term, “pastoral theologian”, it speaks of a pastor who maintains some acquaintance with the work of one or more recognized theologians. A theologian a pastor does not make — and from personal experience let it be said that an attempt by a true theologian to pastor people is sad indeed. The person trained in academia, versed in multiple languages and centuries of theological analysis is usually not well fitted to comfort the afflicted by offering an emotional “shoulder” needed in times of a parishioner’s personal crisis. A brief (but thorough) explication of the universality of anthropomorphic tendencies for man [Heb.,”adam”; Grk. “anthropos”]  to unconsciously reconstruct one’s expectations concerning the afterlife will do little to comfort a woman holding in her arms her dying child.

All-in-all, I suppose the very best response in such a horrific situation is that of Jesus Himself as told in the story of the Widow of Nain

“And it happened on the next day, Jesus went into a city called Nain. And many of His disciples and a great crowd went with Him. And drawing near the gate of the city, even behold, one having died was being carried out, an only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a considerable crowd of the city was with her. And when the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ And He came and touched the bier. And the ones who bore the child stood still. And He said, ‘Young man, I say to you, Arise!’ And the one who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He delivered him to his mother.”

It might be over-simplistic to make this comparison, but a pastor would probably use this very passage to emphasize the Compassion of God for the brokenness of our lives, whereas a theologian would probably launch off in an explanation of how the myth of the Widow of Nain demonstrates that, after Jesus’ death on a cross, His disciples began to construct primitive mythologies in order to alleviate their anxieties arising from trying to co-exist with pagan cultures in the midst of an environment of continuing persecution.

As for me, when I’m in tears, give me a pastor. And, for that matter, give me Jesus everyday.


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  1. emdog

    [Author’s Note] Stealing a line from Herman Melville who wrote to Hawthorne of his novel, “Moby Dick”: “I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb” — I also can say that I have written a wicked blog, and feel as spotless as the Lamb…


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