[ Note: this article by professor Nathan Finn is the fifth in a semester-long series on Mondays describing various ways we at SEBTS seek to equip pastors for local churches. Dr. Finn serves as Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Baptist Studies
Fellow of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at SEBTS.]
When I was a senior in college, I began to sense that God was calling me to the ministry of theological education. This calling was confirmed through my studies in two Southern Baptist seminaries. I have never seen this calling as being in competition with the calling to pastoral ministry that I first felt at the age of eighteen. Theological education and pastoral ministry are complementary callings that I have the privilege of living out at Southeastern Seminary (full-time, as a professor) and First Baptist Church of Durham (part-time, as a non-staff elder).
I have heard it said that every pastor is a theologian—the only debate is whether or not he is a good theologian or a bad theologian. I could not agree more. Though I enjoy teaching all kinds of students with all kinds of ministry callings and goals, my great vocational passion is to equip men to serve as pastor-theologians, primarily in Southern Baptist churches. My prayer is that these pastor-theologians will be warmly evangelical, intentionally missional, and convictionally Baptist.
At Southeastern Seminary, I teach courses in church history, Baptist history, and historical theology. In every class I teach, I regularly make application to the ministry of the pastor-theologian. I encourage students to find a theological role model and allow that figure to becoming an ongoing conversation partner for the remainder of his or her ministry (mine is Jonathan Edwards). I argue that pastor-theologians have been key leaders in nearly every major movement of revival, renewal, or reformation (pick the “R” word of your preference) in church history. I regularly offer practical application from church history that is aimed at helping students to think like pastor-theologians, even if God has not called all of them to that particular ministry vocation.
Pastor-theologians have fundamentally shaped the Baptist tradition. The list is long and impressive: John Murton, Roger Williams, William Kiffin, John Clarke, Benjamin Keach, Dan Taylor, Abraham Booth, Andrew Fuller, Isaac Backus, Benjamin Randall, Thomas Baldwin, W. B. Johnson, Richard Fuller, R. B. C. Howell, Charles Spurgeon, George Truett, Herschel Hobbs, W. A. Criswell, Martin Luther King Jr., Adrian Rogers, Jerry Vines, Mark Dever, John Piper, etc. Of course, pastor-theologians have also shaped other denominational traditions as well.
So what are some of the characteristics of a thoughtful pastor-theologian? I think there are at least four. First, pastor-theologians are guided by theological convictions that arise from the Scriptures rather than giftedness, trendiness, pragmatism, or tradition. I am not saying that these latter things are inherently bad. What I am saying is that what we believe should guide what we do. Pastor-theologians work hard to make sure that biblical orthodoxy shapes pastoral orthopraxy.
Second, pastor-theologians are intentional in modeling sound doctrine, both publicly and in one-on-one settings. Publicly, they model solid theological thinking in their sermons and other teaching. On a more personal level, they pass on biblical doctrine in their pastoral counseling, in their approach to leadership, and even in they way they answer questions from church members. Pastor-theologians reference the Scriptures far more than they do other resources—even other helpful, edifying resources.
Third, pastor-theologians make sure they carve out time to make studying a priority. Of course, they study the Scriptures first and foremost. But they do not only study the Bible. A good pastor theologian also continues to read strategically in the fields of biblical studies, systematic theology, church history, ethics, and other disciplines. He is always trying to grow as a theologian. Too many pastors only study for their sermons—if that. Good pastor-theologians never stop studying and they are always looking to go deeper into the things of the Lord.
Finally, pastor-theologians work hard to form member-theologians. You see, not only is every pastor a theologian, but also every church member is a theologian. A pastor-theologian not only preaches to exhort, encourage, rebuke, or convict his people—though he does preach unto these ends. He also preaches to shape them into mature disciples who think theologically and allow their convictions to shape their priorities and practices. Pastor-theologians replicate themselves in the lives of their people.
I am thankful for godly pastor-theologians, living and dead, who have informed the shape of my own spiritual walk. At Southeastern, my colleagues and I are working hard to equip our students to become pastor-theologians who are constantly winning the lost, discipling the saved, and equipping the saints to be member-theologians for the glory of God and the sake of the gospel. If you want in on that action, I hope you’ll prayerfully considering joining us at SEBTS.