I recently finished reading the book The Pastor as A Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015). The authors write, “Our task in this book is to argue, first, that pastors must be theologians; second, that every theologian is in some sense a public theologian; and third, that a public theologian is a very particular kind of generalist.” (p. 5) I am not going to review this excellent book but use it as a spring board to the question of missionaries as public theologians.
First I would argue that missionaries, like pastors, must be theologians. The missionary task is fundamentally a theological task. Unfortunately, theology is often seen as impractical and esoteric. But theology is practical; “William Ames [a Puritan] says it is simply the teaching of ‘living to God’.”(Vanhoozer and Strachan, p. 16) “To be a Christian theologian is to seek, speak, and show understanding of what God was doing in Christ for the sake of the world. Christian theology sets forth in speech what is in Christ: God; true humanity; all visible and invisible created things; the reconciliation of the world to God (2 Cor. 5:19).” (p. 17, italics original). This is indeed the missionary task! So missionaries must seek to grow in “living to God” and helping others to grow likewise. Theology includes understanding, emotion, and practice. Understanding what God was/is doing in Christ is expressed in worship and godliness.
Secondly, like pastors, missionaries are in some sense public theologians. Vanhoozer and Strachan explain, “Public theology, as we are using the term, means ‘theology made up of people’; ‘God is at work to bring into being a people under his rule in his place. The idea of the people of God, therefore, stands at the heart of biblical theology.’ The church – not a building but the people of God speaking, acting, and perhaps suffering – is that ‘place’ where God and the kingdom of God best come into focus.” (p. 20). The people of God stand at the heart of missions. The missionary’s focus is on making disciples in the community of the church. As a public theologian, the missionary communicates the gospel in speech and action. Vanhoozer and Strachan write,
What are theologians for? What is the distinct service of the pastor-theologian? We reply: for confessing, comprehending, celebrating, communicating, commending, and conforming themselves and others to what is in Christ. Theology serves the church to the extent that it helps disciples fulfill their vocation to put on Christ and to grow into “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). The real work of theology is indeed public: growing persons, cultivating a people. It is about helping individuals and communities to grow into the fullness of Christ. In sum: the real work of theology is the work of getting real – conforming people’s speech, thoughts, and actions to the mind and heart of Jesus Christ, the source and standard of all truth, goodness, and beauty. (p.125, italics original)
Like pastors, missionaries are a particular kind of generalist: “a generalist who specializes in viewing all of life as relating to God and the gospel of Jesus Christ” (p.25, italics original). Missionaries are concerned about all of life. We study the culture and society to be able to relate the gospel to all of life.
Yes, missionaries, like pastors, are public theologians sent into the world to communicate in word and deed all that God has accomplished in Christ to build up a people for God’s name among every tongue and tribe and nation! So let us seek to grow in practical knowledge of God’s Word so that we may represent him in speech and action in the public arena where he places us to form and nurture the people of God.