What Are Seminaries For? – an Excerpt from The Pastor as Public Theologian

The following is a short excerpt from Kevin Vanhoozer’s excursus “The Goods of Theology: What Are Seminaries For?” in Chapter 3 of The Pastor as Public Theologian.

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2. Seminaries exist not to reinforce but rather to transcend the typical compartmentalization of “biblical,” “systematic,” and “practical” theology for the sake of interdisciplinary pastoral-theological wisdom.

Too often practical theology is treated, not least by students intending to continue their studies, as the not-so-bright stepbrother in the family of seminary departments. These bright students complain about the various ministry hoops through which they have to jump to fulfill their degree requirements. Conversely, students keen on learning how to minister often lament having to take heavy-duty intellectual fare, the kind that systematic theology typically serves up. This theoretical/ practical system of theological apartheid serves no one; indeed, it sets pastors up for failure in the church.

Cover ArtThe “bright” students who opt for doctoral studies typically find themselves having to choose between church history, biblical studies, or theology. “Practical” theology is not on the menu (Want to be practical? Get a DMin or PsyD), and this is one of the main reasons intellectuals in the church have a reputation for being abstract and theoretical rather than organic and practical.

It is a real shame for, as we have argued throughout the present work, the work of the pastor-theologian is intellectually demanding, requiring wisdom and understanding—the ability to relate knowledge to on-the-ground problems and issues—which is often more than is required in the academy, where doctoral work is easily disconnected from the rough-and-tumble of everyday life.

The thrust of the previous section is that practical theology (the gospel in the imperative mood) is largely an implication of doctrinal theology (the gospel in the indicative mood). And doctrinal theology, at its best, is always practical to the extent that real-life questions about Scripture and the Christian life are the impetus to faith’s search for understanding. What is called practical theology is simply the outworking, in every life, of the theologian’s attempt to understand what is in Christ and how what is in Christ bears on practical situations (e.g., parent-child relationships, employer-employee relationships) and contemporary issues (e.g., social justice, sexuality).

The pastor-theologian does not have a unique professional or clinical skill but is rather the theological conscience of the church and thus understands everything in biblical-theological context and in relation to what God is doing in Jesus Christ. Practical theology is not so much a distinct subject, then, as it is the center of the seminary’s task to cultivate understanding: “Pastoral care is an opportunity to communicate, verbally or non-verbally, directly or indirectly, the faith of the church.” It remains an open question whether this means that practical theology should cease being a separate department in the seminary and instead become the glue that holds everything else together.

©2015 by Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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