Book Review: Piper and Carson, The Pastor as Scholar, the Scholar as Pastor

John Piper and D. A. Carson.  The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry. Edited by David Mathis, Owen Strachan.  Wheaton: Crossway, 2011. Paperback, 124 p. $12.99. Amazon Link.

This little book is a joy to read.  Recently I expressed some ideas about the need for pastors to do good exegesis as they prepare their sermons.  My point that pastors have a moral responsibility to accurately present the Word of God to their congregations.  This new book from Crossway asks two related questions: Can a pastor also be a scholar?  Can a scholar be a pastor?  As Owen Strachan says in his introduction to the book, for most of the history of the church these two categories have been synonymous.  Trinity Evangelical Divinity School hosted a seminar in 2009 on the issue of the Pastor-Scholar, inviting Piper and Carson as the keynote speakers.  This book is a record of their talks (sermons? papers?) at this seminar.  I believe this book should be required reading for everyone training for ministry in an Evangelical Bible College or Seminary.

Piper and Carson provide testimony that the categories “pastor” and “scholar” not only can be combined, but that they should be a single category: the Pastor-Scholar.  Piper’s chapter is a personal testimony of academic and pastoral influences from Wheaton, Fuller, and his Ph.D. studies, teaching and Bethel and eventually his ministry at Bethlehem Baptist Church.  The second half of the chapter provides an excellent outline drawn from scripture which demonstrates that the believer (whether a pastor or scholar) is called to intellectual honesty as the basis for faith. If our faith is grounded in warm feelings, it is less genuine than a faith grounded in some rational reason to believe.  I would add here, a faith which is grounded in warm feelings is likely to decay and die when the warm feeling goes away!

Carson’s contribution is a little less autobiographical.  After sharing a how he was called first into ministry, he explains his journey into teaching at a seminary.  He quips at the end of this  personal section that he ought to have titled his chapter “The Scholar as a (Frustrated) Pastor.” He then provides a dozen points in his chapter which serve as warnings to the cloistered academic to teach in a way which impacts the church.  As a college professor and (part-time) pastor, these were especially invigorating.

I see several factors which have divided the pastor from the scholar.  First, scholarship has retreated to the university or seminary because people can actually make a living being scholars. Until 150 years ago, the people who “did scholarship” did not make a living from teaching and writing unless they were lucky enough to have a patron or a rare state-supported teaching position.  Today someone can teach in a university or seminary and have a good living without having to work in a church as a pastor.

Second, more emphasis on the pastor as shepherd has led to a false view that a good pastor needs to have “people skills” rather than scholar preparation.  Since a pastor must deal with all sorts of problems, they need training in grief counseling, conflict management, time management, and the like more than they need to read the New Testament in Greek or courses in hermeneutics.  I think it is true that the ideal pastor needs training in psychology, sociology, counseling and other related “human service” type fields, but to train a pastor in these skills and give them only a light survey of Bible, Theology, and Exegesis is to create life-coaches rather than true pastors.

Third, there is an anti-education attitude present in the American church, especially in the more conservative forms.  I meet people from time to time who think that all higher education does is kill someone’s faith.  We have all heard the joke: “that pastor went to study in the cemetery, oh, I mean seminary….”  (I am not sure that joke was ever funny!)  Many lay-people have the impression that all the pastor needs is a Bible and the Holy Spirit.  There is a certain populist appeal, but it leads to unprepared pastors doing serious damage in churches.  While it is probably true that some seminaries do not create a spiritual environment which fosters the sort of development of pastoral skills I would consider appropriate, I doubt there are very many seminaries which intend to beat the faith out of their students!

In the end, I think this is biblical.  After all, Paul described one of the offices of the church as “Pastor-Teacher” in Ephesians 4:11.  Both Jesus and Paul were able scholars in their own right, yet cared for people in ways which are models for the modern pastor.  I recommend this book as an encouragement to good scholarship in the pastorate, or pastoral concern in the academy.

Thanks to Crossway for sending this book my way.