Am I a pastor or am I a scholar?
John Calvin was certain God had called and gifted him to serve the burgeoning reform movement in France through biblical scholarship. He would retire to Strasbourg and lead the quiet life of a scholar. Having published the first edition of his Institutes, Calvin had unwittingly invented a new category of investigation: systematic theology. The ivory tower beckoned.
But divine providence, by means of a red-haired firebrand of a preacher named William (or Guillaume) Farel, intercepted the would-be academic on a summer evening in 1536. Forced by the Hapsburg-Valois War to travel an alternate path from Basel to Strasbourg, Calvin ended up spending a night in Geneva. There he encountered Farel, who urged Calvin to stay and serve the reformation’s cause as a pastor. Calvin viewed himself as an academic, not a pastor, so he resisted Farel’s overtures. In desperation, Farel called down a curse on his studies and, surprisingly, Calvin caved.
Calvin spent much of the remainder of his life as a pastor, penning many of the works that provided theological pillars for the Protestant Reformation and set a standard for biblical and theological scholarship that endures today.
Calvin hardly stands alone on the landscape of church history as a pastor who also labored to produce works of enduring scholarship for the instruction and edification of Christ’s church. Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was a preacher of God’s Word and a scholar. Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), arguably America’s greatest theological mind, was a longtime pastor in Northampton, Massachusetts. When he died unexpectedly at the age of 54, Edwards had just been elected president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton). His pastoral, philosophical, and theological works are voluminous—a result of rigorous study. And Edwards’s Puritan forebears, consistent with the broader Reformed tradition, valued a well-educated pulpit.
Of course, the pastor-scholar or pastor-theologian par excellence is found in the apostle Paul. Having studied at the feet of the Jewish rabbi Gamaliel, he was converted to Christ and then planted churches across the Mediterranean Basin. His letters are among the greatest theological treatises ever written. Paul’s pen dripped pastoral love—a shepherd’s heart and a scholar’s mind, both inspired by God’s Spirit.
Contemporary Dilemma Too
Today, the church is rich with pastors who produce rigorous scholarship and scholars who are skilled pastors or local church leaders, including men such as TGC co-founders Don Carson and Tim Keller; John Piper; R. C. Sproul; Ligon Duncan; and Sinclair Ferguson, among scores of others. Carson and Piper’s helpful 2011 book (edited by Owen Strachan and David Mathis) The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry (Crossway) examines this question through the ministries of Piper and Carson. It is recommended reading for all prayerfully weighing their ministerial options.
Many training for the ministry still face Calvin’s dilemma: Has God called me to be a pastor, a professor, or both? Is it possible to do both well, or will that lead to a ministerial mediocrity that’ll sap my strength and dishonor God? There have been fruitful, ongoing discussions on these issues of late. One of the most insightful articles is Michael Kruger’s taxonomy of the various combinations of the pastor-scholar. Others, including Andrew Wilson and Mark Jones, have offered valuable pushback on wedding the two.
For me, the question is filled with personal and practical significance.
In 1997 I surrendered to the gospel ministry with a strong desire to plant a theologically solid church in my hometown and spend the rest of my life shepherding that flock. I attended seminary, and soon realized that I loved reading, studying, teaching, and writing about theology and church history. Encouraged by mentors and church elders, I pursued a PhD—a profound course change for my family. I also gained opportunities to teach and found it particularly satisfying. Still, I possessed a gnawing desire to preach God’s Word and shepherd his flock. Was I a pastor or was I a scholar? I spent years prayerfully wrestling with the Lord over my calling and ministerial identity. Numerous seminary friends were pursuing the same degrees and asking the same questions.
Someone suggested it could be determined by my level of desire. But I’m moved in both the pulpit and sick room because I believe the gospel is the unique saving, sanctifying, healing balm from the Lord. I also enjoy what Pulitzer-winning historian David McCullough once called “picking through other people’s mail”: historical research. Teaching future pastors about giants in church history—Augustine, Athanasius, Luther, Calvin, Bunyan, Edwards, Ryle, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones—excites me. Writing about the past and showing how it can help the church today is exhilarating. My affections didn’t really settled the matter.
Some insisted it boils down to personality. I’m a pretty serious extrovert. I’m comfortable in a lively conversation. Does this mean I should pastor? Not necessarily. Many of my pastoral heroes are serious introverts. Besides, my most skilled professors took a relational approach to students and were also devoted churchmen. Many were or had been pastors. Personality may be a determinative for some, but it wasn’t in my case.
Two economic factors weighed—and weigh still—heavily in favor of the pastorate: supply and demand. Dozens of churches in my denomination needed men trained to preach the Word of God faithfully. Vast swaths of spiritual wilderness across the globe needed Christ-centered, gospel-driven churches planted—including my hometown. I knew scores of men who, PhD in hand, stood waiting in long lines for few teaching opportunities. I knew the odds of teaching full-time basis at a seminary or Bible college were slim. This remains the difficult dilemma facing many pursuing terminal degrees, and it promises to grow more acute as theological education moves increasingly in the direction of online delivery systems.
My wife and I, along with our friends and church leaders, prayed for months. I sent résumés by the dozen to churches and academic institutions alike. Providence would settle it, I decided, and to a great degree it did. So far, this is the most satisfying personal answer to the question. For several years I served as a full-time pastor in Alabama. I continued to teach as an adjunct professor and remained semi-active in ETS. A fellow elder would tease in his delightful Walker County brogue that I had nine toes in the church, but one stuck in seminary. Last Sunday, I began a new ministry as pastor of a church plant in Louisville, one I’m privileged to co-lead with three fellow elders. I am a bivocational pastor, serving as senior editor at TGC and adjunct professor at Southern Seminary. Additionally, I’m involved in a long-term academic project, helping a team of historians—several of whom also serve as pastors—edit critical editions of the works of Andrew Fuller, a model pastor-theologian from the 18th century.
So have I answered the question? Perhaps not. Up to now, it has simply been a matter of seeking to serve the local church with the gifts God has given me through providentially opened doors. The church is my first love, and all my labors—pastoral, TGC, academic—must serve God’s people. That is the most important answer.
A few years ago a wise pastor-friend who’s logged more than four decades in the foxhole of the church helped me profoundly. He posed a simple but poignant question: If you could only do one, which would it be? It didn’t take me long to answer: I would pastor a church. Maybe that’s the final answer.
5 Lessons to Light the Path
God doesn’t waste our strivings, and he has taught me some valuable and humbling lessons through the wrestling. Here are five that have helped me to see the similarities between the offices of pastor and scholar, what should be required of each, and why it’s no surprise some are drawn to both.
1. Scholars, like pastors, serve the local church.
Christian education must serve the local church. Here I’m indebted to Southern Seminary’s founding president James Petigru Boyce and his 1856 essay “Three Changes in Theological Institutions.” Boyce’s three points argue forcefully that a Christian institute exists fundamentally to train leaders for service in the local church.
2. Both pastors and scholars are called and gifted by God for his glory.
Both heart and mind must be calibrated to glorify God, not self. Neither church ministry nor scholarship exists as an end in itself.
3. Both pastors and scholars are lashed to the Word of God.
Higher-critical scholarship washed ashore from Germany in the late 19th century and positioned the scholar as arbiter over God’s Word. By contrast, historic orthodox Christianity has insisted that all—scholar, pastor, parishioner—sit under the Word. It judges us, not vice-versa. Neither the scholar nor the pastor is called to proclaim theological or practical novelties, but the unadorned Word of God. This is priority one. Theology matters supremely for scholar and pastor alike.
4. Pastors should strive to be public theologians.
I’m grateful for the thoughtful new book by Strachan and Kevin Vanhoozer, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Baker Academic, 2015), which explores this assertion fully. They contend the pastorate is properly seen as a theological office provided by God to help his people think biblically about all aspects of life. Vanhoozer’s “55 Summary Theses on the Pastor as Public Theologian” provides a brilliant exposition of this point. Another thoughtful contribution is Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson’s new book, The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision (Zondervan, 2015). Likewise, the Center for Pastor Theologians is devoted to restoring this lost vision to its rightful place within evangelical churches.
5. Scholars should strive to be committed churchmen.
Godly scholars are a gift to pastors and to the church. I’ve found the more deeply a scholar is embedded in the life of his local church, the more effectively he serves the body of Christ in practical ways. Professors who approach students as Christ’s sheep and theology as a matter of doxology are a powerful instrument in the Redeemer’s hands. My doctoral supervisor and father in the faith, Baptist historian Tom Nettles, is a profound example of the committed churchman. If you left his classes with a cold heart for Christ’s church, you simply weren’t listening.
There is no single correct answer to these questions. There may be seasons in a minister’s life when God calls him from the pastoral office to the academy, or vice-versa, and then back again. It seems difficult to imagine one man doing both simultaneously to the highest level of competency each office demands—maybe not impossible, but exceedingly difficult. That much I see with clarity. Thus I am fairly certain at this point it’s best to do one primarily and, at most, dabble in the other as opportunities determine.
This series will seek to address the issues I’ve raised here and a host of others—including the role of seminaries in helping students, when it’s wise or unwise to pursue a doctorate degree for ministry, and the possibility or impossibility of serving in both roles. Perhaps God will be pleased to use this series like a call from Farel to Calvin to help you reach a final answer to this question.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on The Gospel Coalition’s website.
Jeff Robinson (M.Div. and Ph.D., SBTS) is editor of the Southern Seminary blog. He is pastor of New City Church in Louisville, serves as senior editor for The Gospel Coalition and is also adjunct professor of church history and senior research and teaching associate for the Andrew Fuller Center at SBTS. He is co-author with Michael A. G. Haykin of To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy (Crossway, 2014). Jeff and his wife Lisa have four children.