Is Every Pastor Really a Theologian?


When I became a policeman, in the course of training at the LAPD academy we all received training on investigating traffic accidents[1]. In theory, every officer in a marked patrol car should be able to investigate an accident and arrive at a proper investigativecrash conclusion; and in probably 90% of the cases that’s true. However, like all departments we also had specialized collision investigators, of which I finally was one. It’s actually where I spent the bulk of my career.

Recently there has been lots of discussion of “pastors as theologians” and even the idea of every believer being a theologian is currently a popular theme.[2] Often the presentation of this concept will invariably point to the Reformation leaders Martin Luther and John Calvin, although it seems calling them “pastors” is sort of like calling the head of Southern California Edison an “electrician.” The calls for a pastor to be a theologian is all well and good, but I wonder if there isn’t a disparaging of what might be called “classic theologians” in the process.

I previously talked about the differences in the list of elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 here. In that essay I pointed out the key difference in the two lists as it related to the ability to teach. However, in both lists it is clear that the elder, or if you will pastor, should be able theologize, that is hold to “sound doctrine.” In the most basic sense every pastor should be a theologian much like every police officer should be able to investigate a traffic collision.

Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has recently written that “The rise of the modern research university has led to the development of theology as merely one academic discipline among others –and eventually to the redefinition of theology as “religious studies” separated from ecclesiastical control or concern.”[3] This in turn he states,

These developments have caused great harm to the church’s ministry has been evacuated of serious doctrinal content, separating ministries from theology, preaching from doctrine, and Christian care from conviction. In far too many cases, the pastor’s ministry has been evacuated of serious doctrinal content and many pastors seem to have little connection to any sense of theological conviction.[4]

While both statements are perhaps largely true (although the use of vague phases such as “many pastors” in this context bothers me as a researcher) I’m not sure they are as causally connected as Mohler asserts. His conclusion that “the pastor who is no theologian is no pastor” is again perhaps true in the same manner I have already mentioned, but in my view a little library2overstated. Douglas Sweeney is perhaps more correct when he says, “the kind of theological leadership that the world so desperately needs is not for everyone engaged in pastoral ministry.”[5] Although he perhaps a bit sanguine when he says, “the dissolution of Christendom and the rise of the modern research university are good things.”[6]

Can every pastor possibly keep up with the totality of theological nuance we see today? By the way this works both ways: nuance and precision that are good and in keeping with the Biblical text can be rejected as well as bad nuance and error be mistakenly accepted. The works of Karl Barth are once again popular, and increasingly so, but how many seminary graduates in the last 20 years have been thoroughly exposed to his works? The debate on inerrancy, inspiration, and authority of Scripture is on ongoing issue, but this has risen to the top again in the last decade.[7] Defending accurate Biblical doctrine with the same arguments as the 1880’s or even 1980’s simply will not do. The concept of the Perspicuity of Scripture, the Reformers doctrine that is probably stands in the most thorough and stark contrast with their Catholic opponents, does not allow for every pastor to be equally sufficient as a theologian. My friend Dr. Larry Pettegrew, one of the most incisive theologians you could meet stated,

The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture does not mean the teaching of Scripture is everywhere equally simple. There is a difference between clarity and simplicity. Scripture is clear, not mystical or hidden. But it often takes work to understand what the biblical authors meant in a certain passage. Commenting on Paul’s writings, the apostle Peter admits, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scripture” (2 Pet 3:16).[8]

When E. P. Sanders began his idea of the “New Perspective on Paul” and then saw his work picked up and modified by both N. T. Wright and James. D. G. Dunn, many pastors rightly and properly saw the dangers this view presented to the classic theological truth of justification by faith. The idea of New Perspective Theology that “Paul was wrong” was a sufficiently egregious proposition to warn off most evangelical pastors; most, but certainly not all. I know of more than a few churches who were torn apart by New Perspective teaching.

This and other subtle doctrinal deviations perhaps through lack of training or unsatisfied curiosity can take in the average regular pastor in the average regular church. This is why the classic or professional theologian, the experts, are still of vital importance to the church. In the end, the New Perspective theology was finally dealt a decisive, and in my view lethal library1blow, when the time was taken to create two volumes of significant theological, exegetical, and historical work, carefully compiled by D. A. Carson and Peter T. O’Brien: Justification and Variegated Nominism (Baker Academic, 2001 & 2003). These two volumes were never answered and effectively destroyed New Perspectivism as an intellectual force.

When working traffic accident investigation I was once assigned to “reconstruct” an accident that had for reasons of workload been investigated by regular officer and not an accident investigator. I went over the original report, which was written competently enough, went to the location where the accident had occurred, and went to the tow yards where the wrecked cars were. The officer had everything available that I did and the significant advantage of being at the scene immediately instead of 24 hours later as I was. As I said his investigation and report were competent, but his conclusions were entirely wrong. My experience and expertise led me to an examination of the brake light bulbs, a small thing that likely never occurred to the officer. This examination conclusively proved an entirely different scenario for the accident; shifting the cause, criminal blame, and ultimately the bill for about $200,000 in civil claims.

While every pastor in theory should be a theologian, at least at a certain level, my plerophory is that the church especially their pastors, will always need the classic or professional theologians. The skilled specialist will sometimes only properly do the investigation of new or interesting theological propositions and conclusions about them. This should neither disparage the central role of the pastor who must protect the flock, nor elevate the expert to some mystical status; both are needed to work in harmony for the stability of the church and the advancement of the kingdom.



[1] There are two views of traffic accidents or collisions. One is that they are accidents, a very Arminian point of view. There are others, like me, who understand they should be called collisions, since with vehicles there are actually very few real “accidents.” But, in keeping with modern English the terms are used interchangeably.

[2] E.g. R. C. Sproul’s, Everyone is a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Reformation Trust, 2014).

[3] R. Albert Mohler, “The Pastor as Theologian.” Albert Mohler Blog, April 17, 2006. (accessed 19 April 2016).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Douglas Sweeney, “A Call and Agenda for Pastor-Theologians.” The Gospel Coalition Blog, April 26, 2012, (accessed 15 March 2016).

[6] Ibid.

[7] In this area I highly recommend a new book, edited by D. A. Carson. The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (Eerdmans, 2016). This book of over 40 essays totally 1200 pages was undertaken over the last several years. The material here was presented to peers, refined, and now is available. This is the type of material that is vital to the pastor who cannot possibly replicate this type of in depth study on his own.

[8] Larry D. Pettegrew, “The Perspicuity of Scripture,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 15:2 (Fall 2004): 213.

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About Dennis Swanson

Dr. Dennis M. Swanson is currently the Dean of Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Formerly was the VP of The Master's Seminary Library, Accreditation, and Operations for 24 years. He also oversaw the production of The Master's Seminary Journal, and is an experienced writer and editor. Prior to the he was an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department.