Tag Archives | pastoral theology

Theology Comes Standard | Kevin J. Vanhoozer

Kevin J. VanhoozerTheology is not a luxury, an optional extra (like leather trim), but a standard operating feature (like a steering wheel) of the pastorate.

—Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 27.

Transforming Practice | Elaine L. Graham

The cover of Graham's Transforming PracticePostmodernity has challenged modernism in every area. Positivist views of reality are being replaced by constructivist views. Modernity’s emancipatory mission to bring humanity out of superstition is now criticized as a new totalitarianism. Industrial capitalism is giving way to design flexibility. Universalism and metanarratives are being rejected in favor of fragmentary worldviews. How can pastoral theology exist in such an age? Is it possible to ground theology in something other than traditional metanarrative?

Using Gadamer’s practice theory, Graham argues that pastoral theology can be grounded in an understanding of faithful practice. She uses Gadamer’s habitus to describe “not merely ‘rule-governed behaviour’, but symbolic, purposeful strategies with many layers of meaning” (101). Habitus accounts for both human agency and cultural conditioning.

Practice thus emerges as the process by which social relations are generated . . . as purposeful activity performed by embodied persons in time and space as both the subjects of agency and the objects of history.” (110)

Graham uses feminist criticism to show how foundationalist understandings of theology rooted in modernism do not account for the heterogeneous experience of gendered people. In the end, Graham roots her pastoral theology not in a text or a tradition, but in the habitus and orthopraxis of the faithful community. Therefore, pastoral theology is not a “legislative or prescriptive [discipline, but an] interpretive” (208) task.

Elaine Graham is flat-out brilliant. She not only articulates her own views, she brings an encyclopaedic knowledge of various ethical, sociological, philosophical, and theological fields to the task. Her interpretation of Habermas’ Critical Theory in particular was incisive without being reductive.

I do fundamentally disagree with Graham’s conclusions, however, due to ontological and epistemological differences. When Graham roots pastoral theology in a hermeneutic of the situation, she removes it from the scripture and any historic understanding of God. For Graham, “not even the canon of Scripture thus inspired is definitive for all time, . . . no text embodies the truth absolutely and finally, but is merely a blueprint for, and prefiguration of, a reality still to come” (197). While I would agree that no text can embody truth absolutely, I do believe that God has chosen to reveal himself through text-as-inspired by the Spirit. If I understand Graham correctly, the normative role of scripture is gone with modernism and “the only vocabulary available to Christian communities in articulating their truth-claims is that of pastoral practice itself” (203).

Graham’s Transforming Practice has accurately described the uncertain state of theology as it tries to reformulate itself in a postmodern context. Her use of Gadamer’s practice theory enables her to accurately and faithfully observe and interpret the community of faith. Ultimately, however, her grounding of theology exclusively in the situation is unconvincing for me. My task moving forward will be how to relate the normative influence of scripture to a hermeneutic of the situation in a way that is dialogical and fruitful.


Graham, Elaine L. Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1996.

From Ministry to Theology | John H. Patton

The cover of Patton's From Ministry to TheologyA pastor’s life is never boring. In any one week I may counsel someone on how to pay their gas bill by stretching their grocery budget with the foodbank, shovel snow from the walkway, pray for the mourning, and preach God’s word. Each of these events can be interpreted theologically (yes, even shoveling snow), but it doesn’t happen automatically.

Patton makes the case that “theological conceptualization does not grow immediately out of pastoral experience. At its best the process is slow” (13). In From Ministry to Theology, Patton describes how ministry and theology are related.

Pastoral practice and theology are related through the imagination and its empowerment of pastoral theology’s three essential elements: action in ministry, relationship in community, and interpretation of meaning. (21)

In order to get to theological interpretation, Patton employs a phenomenological approach which first immerses the person in the details of the actual situation itself while bracketing out the human desire to ascribe meaning to the event. This enables the person to avoid the error of slotting diverse experiences into presupposed categories of meaning.

This type of reflection may seem antithetical to the fast-paced demanding life of the pastor, but it produces genuine theological insight into the daily life of ministry.


Patton, John H. From Ministry to Theology: Pastoral Action & Reflection. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1995.

The Pastor | Eugene H. Peterson

In my personal hierarchy of “Most Important Books I’ve Ever Read”, two always rise to the top: Mere Christianity (C. S. Lewis), and A Celebration of Discipline (Richard Foster). Everything else suffers by comparison . . . until now. Meet the most important book I’ve read in over a decade: The Pastor.

Here’s why it ranks so highly:

  • Like Peterson, I’m a pastor—this book resonates with my own experiences.
  • Peterson bucks the trends of modern Christendom in favour of authentic biblical fidelity.
  • Peterson is painfully honest, describing both failures and successes.
  • Peterson describes how the various themes that form his major books developed.
  • Peterson spends time describing how he wrestled with what he was called to do.
  • In the end, there’s nothing better than hearing the wisdom of a seasoned pastor with an academic background.

You know, that list doesn’t seem so spectacular in retrospect. There’s something about this book that I can’t quite put my finger on yet. Sure, his writing is as poetic and lucid as ever—but there’s something extra.

All I can suggest is that you read it for yourself. If you’re a North American pastor, order it right away!

Shepherds after My own Heart | Timothy S. Laniak

It’s always difficult to write a review for a book that didn’t live up to your expectations. This is the third book I’ve read in the NSBT series. After devouring Beale’s brilliant survey of the Temple motif across the Canon, I was looking forward to a similar experience from Laniak.

Shepherds after My own Heart can be described in three sections:

  1. What did shepherding look like in the ancient world surrounding Israel?
  2. How is the shepherd metaphor used of God and of human leaders throughout the Old and New Testament?
  3. What does this mean for pastors today?

The first section on the ancient world was fascinating. Laniak delved deeply into ancient literature and unearthed relevant background information helpful for understanding God’s use of the shepherd metaphor. An Akkadian hymn to the sun god, Shamash, is particularly interesting:

You care for all the peoples of the land . . .
Whatever has breath you shepherd without exception . . .
Shepherd of that beneath, keeper of that above,
You, Shamash, direct, you are the light of everything (60).

Swap YHWH for Shamash, and most people would assume you’re quoting Psalms!

The middle section (and bulk of the book) was where I was disappointed. Laniak provided a comprehensive survey of the shepherd metaphor throughout the entire Bible (Genesis to Revelation). Instead of deep exegetical work, though, it felt at times like reading an embellished concordance. It was clearly an epic amount of work—Laniak interacts with Hebrew and Greek with equal fluidity—it just didn’t go deep enough exegetically.

The final section, officially titled “Concluding observations and reflections” returned to the great insight provided in the introduction. Unfortunately, using 5 pages to explore the implications of the other 308 was too little too late.

Shepherds after My own Heart is a fine book for what it is: a detailed survey of “shepherd” across the Canon.

Good News in Exile | Copenhaver, Robinson, & Willimon

This book is what happens when three pastors rethink their theology and praxis. With the help of Brueggemann, who provided a foreward and clearly inspired their reflections, Copenhaver, Robinson, and Willimon sketch out how the liberal church can be relevant in a world where liberal religion is no longer mainline.

After three quick biographic sketches, these authors dream how the more theologically liberal denominations can again be effective in the areas of scripture, preaching, sacrament, discipleship, mission, and conversion.

This was an interesting read for me, since I come from a theologically conservative background. Even so, I saw numerous similarities between the state of the liberal church they described, and the state of conservatives. The prefix, “post” has been worn out in the years since this work was published, but that’s what they’re looking for. What does post-liberal religion look like? How can it be meaningful in a world that’s moved on?

Good News in Exile is not about liberal pastors turning conservative: it’s about theologically honest pastors finding their way forward.

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