Why John Calvin Does Not Sound Like Modern Systematic Theologians

If you read John Calvin’s Institutes and compare it modern systematic theologies (and commentaries) you will immediately notice one striking difference: Calvin preaches. Most moderns do not. They look at all the data, examine all the secondary literature, and then eventually come to a conclusion that sounds more like the outcome of a science experiment instead of arriving at a great truth about God and his world. Why is this? Why does Calvin preach in everything, his Institutes, his commentaries, his polemics, and even his letters? Why are modern men so afraid to preach? Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson in their little book, The Pastor Theologian,  think it is the current division between the academy and the pastorate that is in part to blame. They want to see a return to what they call an “ecclesial theologian.” Here is their description of an ecclesial theologian. I have put a few explanatory remarks in brackets. All italics are their’s. All bold is mine.

An ecclesial theologian is a theologian who bears shepherding responsibility for a congregation and who is thus situated in the native social location [local church] that theology is chiefly called to serve; and the ecclesial theologian is a pastor who writes theological scholarship in conversation with other theologians with an eye to the needs of the ecclesial community [local church and beyond]…the pastor as ecclesial theologian is first and foremost a local church pastor who views the pastoral vocation from a theological vantage point…the theological contributions of the ecclesial theologian spring from the overflow of the shepherding responsibilities that he carries for his local congregation… Yet the ecclesial theologian is more than a theologically astute congregational leader. The ecclesial theologian is a theologian in the fullest sense of the term-one who provides theological leadership to God’s ecclesia [the whole church, not just local]…The ecclesial theologian represents a return to the days when pastors wrote theology that was richly theological, deeply biblical, historically informed, explicitly pastoral, and prophetic.

I am not fond of all the terminology the authors use, but the concept is a good one.  For most of church history the best theologians were pastors who used their local context to hammer out the truths of God’s word. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, etc. were men who preached regularly and were involved intimately in the local church. And even those who were in the academy were often so intimately tied to the church that they were de-facto pastors. Today that is not the case.  Pastors are rarely considered or expected to be theologians. There are a few exceptions. John Piper and his rebuttal of N.T. Wright come to mind. But what was the last book on theology written by a local church pastor that garnered national attention and acclaim? This has had the double of effect of not just removing theology from pastoring, but also removing preaching from theology.

The authors follow the paragraph above with this quote about Calvin:

John Calvin and his Institutes come to mind here. Calvin’s work is a fair bit different than the average modern theology text. But it is not  different because it is “lighter” or “easier to read” or “pitched to a less informed audience.” It is different in that it is framed according to Calvin’s pastoral context, does not feel such a need to plumb the nearly endless depths of secondary literature.., is not afraid to be explicitly theological and confessional, interacts with the great thinkers of the past who have helped shape orthodox thought, and-most significantly-because it prophetically calls the church to take action. We cannot dismiss the academic training that informed and undergirded Calvin’s theological insights. But neither can we dismiss the way his pastoral duties at Geneva shaped his overall theology. Calvin did not change the world because he was successful academician…He changed the world because he wrote as a robust, theologically informed, intelligent, prophetic pastor who understood-as a matter of vocation-what it was to have the weight of souls upon his shoulders. The ecclesial theologian, then, is a pastor who writes theological scholarship that is self-consciously “churchy” and explicitly Christian, and whose agenda is driven by the questions that emerge from the grind and angst of the parish context. 

Calvin, of course, was gifted in ways not many pastors are. But we should pray for the day when pastors are putting out major works of theology again. When they write books on the atonement, the Trinity, the covenant, Sacraments, Old Testament law and eschatology and all of these are written in the pastoral voice for the sheep. When it is not the professors only who are known as theologians, but pastors who are also church theologians can be found across the country. 

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