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Three Types of Christian Scholarship

1. Exegetes (research) – Level one studies

original research; learning; data; facts

These are the people who are continually doing research. They work primarily with first-hand resources. In biblical studies, they are concerned with original language, backgrounds, historical criticism, and textual issues. They are often (though not always) very timid to take theological stands due to their awareness of the complexities of the issues involved. Because of this, they are sometimes accused of “academic agnosticism.” They are very precise thinkers and normally find it difficult to teach because they are always qualifying everything.  More often than not they limit their studies to very particular areas.

They find all the pieces of the puzzle.

Examples in Evangelicalism:

  • Dan Wallace
  • Tremper Longman
  • D.A. Carson
  • Thomas Schreiner
  • Darrell Bock
  • John H. Walton
  • Peter T. O’Brien
  • I. Howard Marshall
  • Gordon Wenham
  • Craig L. Blomberg

Viewpoint: TREES

  • Why they might dislike theologians: “They often lack precise information and are sloppy with the facts.”
  • Why they need theologians: To process data and come to conclusions from a broader understanding.
  • Possible problems with exegetes: Truth often dies the death of a thousand qualifications. They can lack common sense. Their precise studies can blind them to the obvious.

2. Theologian/Philosopher (think) – Level two studies

systematize; reflect; theories

Theologians are the thinkers. They are not so much concerned about researching and discovering original data, but with the bigger pictures of determining what the data means and exploring original ideas. They spend their time reflecting on issues and coming to conclusions about truth. They systematize data so that creeds can be reasoned, established, and defended. They are much broader in their thinking and studies, having to be familiar with many areas of scholarship in order to provide a systematic understanding of the complete truth. They are concerned with biblical studies, history, apologetics, philosophy, psychology, sociology, logic, and the like.

They put the puzzle together.

Examples in Evangelicalism:

  • Michael Horton
  • Thomas Oden
  • Gerald Bray
  • Alister McGrath
  • Rob Bowman
  • John Frame
  • Wayne Grudem
  • Millard Erickson

Viewpoint: FOREST 

  • Why they might dislike exegetes: “They lack wisdom.”
  • Why they might dislike pastoral types: “They compromise the truth for acceptance.”
  • Why they need exegetes: To provide accurate data from which to derive their conclusions.
  • Why they need pastoral types: To test the truth in the real world.
  • Possible problems with theologians: They can be traditionalistic, being concerned with their preconceptions more than the truth. Can be rash about coming to conclusions without having done sufficient homework.

3. Pastoral/Missional (apply) – Level three studies

integrate; contextualize; communication

These are concerned with how to distribute information to others. They are focused on how information can be applied to real life. They spend their time thinking about church, mission, and strategies. They are didactically (teaching) gifted. They are discerning as to what applies, when, and where. They are more hands-on with the real world, which gives them a great understanding of whether or not the truth, when tested, actually works. This is often the determining factor of the reality of our faith. The books and commentaries they write are normally more practically oriented, highly illustrated, and application-driven.

They display the puzzle.

Examples in Evangelicalism:

  • Chuck Swindoll
  • Dan Kimball
  • Kent Hughs
  • Craig Groeschel
  • James MacDonald
  • John Piper
  • Rick Warren
  • John MacArthur

Viewpoint: TREES

  • Why they might dislike exegetes and theologians: “They are ivory tower scholars who cannot relate to the real world.”
  • Possible problems with pastors: Methodology can take priority over the truth. They spend so much time thinking about programs and contextualization, they can compromise the information in favor of acceptance.

While most of us will see ourselves as more of one than the others (I find myself mostly a Type 2), we need to be careful. Of course we need to recognize the dangers in our own leanings and listen to the critiques of the others, but more than that, we need to be continually committed to finding balance. Our gifts and calling are going to clearly drive us to one more than the others, so I am not saying that one should neglect one to brush up on the others. But I am saying that if the others are neglected, it will make you less proficient in the one. I have seen sloppy theologians. I have been a sloppy theologian. I have seen exegetes who seem to continually miss the obvious. I have seen pastoral types compromise. All I am saying is that you need to be aware of where you stand and remain committed to excellence by being appreciative of all three.

29 Responses to “Three Types of Christian Scholarship”

  1. Excellent points. Balance is difficult to establish, and sometimes even harder to keep. We all need one another, and we need to be very honest about how important it is to realize that.

  2. CMP: We Anglican Brits, at least those pressed like myself, like to think of ourselves as able to touch all three somewhat, but I am myself certainly like you Michael, with and in #2. But I hope a thinking man’s pastoral-presbyter-theolog! ;)

    Btw, also Calvin and Luther were more (as Reformers), in the theological “biblicist” place to my mind. But then Calvin did choose Theodore Beza to somewhat take his place, which surely fits into # 2. And also 2 is the place for a more ‘historical theology’ too. And Luther of course had, more like Beza, a Melanchton. (We should note too, Calvin liked Melanchton.)

  3. Great post, good distinctions, and accurate list.

    Where would you put NT Wright? I am thinking #1, but he does a good job systematizing…. could he be a “crossover”?

    Anyway, do think it is wise as us younger students evolve in our writing that we try to focus on one of these categories?

  4. I would put nt wright at 1 I suppose.

    Yes, I think that there is going to be one of these that a person is more gifted in than another. This is normally determined by personality types. However, this should never limit us in one way or another.

  5. I am not a “Wrighten”, but I would see him somewhere between 1 and 2.

  6. And Tom Wright has many “theories”! ;)

  7. Where does R. C. Sproul fit in your categories?

  8. RC’s easy for me anyway, a classic old school Federal Calvinist! ;)

  9. Is there any room for exegete theologians? And where do Mike Licona, Craig Keener and WL Craig fit in?

  10. Thank you for this post. Who do you see as potential crossovers? In regards to N.T. Wright, I’ve heard him share that he never made the choice to be a scholar or pastor, but rather desired to be both. I think methodologically speaking he’s in #1, but his “For Everyone” commentary series seems to me to show a pastoral bent. I also see a blend in an Alister McGrath, without a doubt a profound and erudite theologian, but

  11. Thank you for this post. Who do you see as potential crossovers? In regards to N.T. Wright, I’ve heard him share that he never made the choice to be a scholar or pastor, but rather desired to be both. I think methodologically speaking he’s in #1, but his “For Everyone” commentary series seems to me to show a pastoral bent. I also see a blend in an Alister McGrath, without a doubt a profound and erudite theologian, but also an ordained clergy (last time I knew). I think Tom Schreiner is another example of a crossover (exegete-pastor).

    Again, I would love to see more suggestions about people who are example of a mix of all these. I agree with your examples and from what I read it seems as if methodologically speaking they make sense, I just think we should be careful to pigeonhole some of these individuals (and others not mentioned). I know many wonderful exegete-theologian-pastors.

  12. If you’re a triperspectivalist then you can see these as non-mutually exclusive categories (you do have Frame on the list after all!)

    In other words, the best exegete will focus his attention there, but will demonstrate competencies in the other two areas (e.g. N. T. Wright). In order to truly excel at any one level, you need ability in the other two. The better you are at one area, the more likely it is that you have strong competencies in the other areas as well.

    The best scholar is the one who can hold his own in each category.

    If you’re super familiar with triperspectivalism, you could overlap it this way: exegete: king, theologian: prophet, pastor: priest. Christ is the true prophet, priest, king and as one grow in his image, one grows in each area.

  13. And then there are the bottom-feeders, like me, who are sometimes a bit frustrated with theologians who appreciate some of what Wright brings to the table (rightly so) but aren’t seeing how some of Wright’s theology plays out once fully employed in the church…particularly his corporate view of salvation. You end up with a pastor who always addresses the audience as if all of those who are a regular part of the community are saved. In an effort to avoid an individualistic, me-centered theology, we end up with a petri dish in which nominal Christianity flourishes.

  14. Perpectivalism was of course Nietzsche’s idea somewhat, but Triperspectivalism is a rather new epistemological approach from Frame and Poythress, that is perhaps a form of objectivity in relation to subjectivity. And Frame loves to see this in triad’s! Note btw, Calvin’s: prophet, priest & king of Christ! This is fine, but we always circle back to Luther’s Pauline “theologia crucis”, here is always an objectivity/subjectivity, ‘In Christ’.

  15. Truth Unites... and Divides April 30, 2012 at 11:59 am

    “All I am saying is that you need to be aware of where you stand and remain committed to excellence by being appreciative of all three.”

    Amen, CMP! Amen.

    FWIW, My Top Two in each category:

    I. D.A. Carson and Tom Schreiner.

    II. Wayne Grudem and John Frame.

    III. John MacArthur and John Piper.

  16. I agree with you, Susan on the nominal type corporate Christianity that so often prevails. My husband calls it pick and choose cafeteria style.

    Although we all have our favorites of course, I also agree with CMP that it is a big mistake to have only one outlook from one particular theological side. I think all three categories in proper balance are a must to develop in our clergy if we are going to both feed and educate people deeply and wisely. Otherwise we create an ‘in’ church mentality where the ‘real’ believers are, and an ‘outside’ church in which folks who are not quite as as ‘in the know’ are considered the bottom feeders. That’s exactly one of the biggest complaints I hear about people leaving churches.

    The other day I ran across this little daily devotional I thought was pretty appropriate:

    “The problem in the church nowadays is not a lack of God, but expecting God to conform to our theology, instead of us conforming to God first.”

  17. The biggest need in my opinion, in both ministers and so-called laity, is the “Mystery of God in Christ!”, and of course this will always be both doctrinal & theological. Here is the great place of ‘Word & Sacrament’! A minister that is all head, but little heart, and a layman that is all heart but little head, both are simply dwarfed!

    The real Christian life will always be a place of depth and separation within, an interior life and faith, alive.. a ‘disciple of Jesus’! ;) This goes for the clergy as well!

  18. Is the “viewpoint” for #3 really supposed to be “trees”?

    If so, could someone please explain it to me why it’s the same viewpoint that the #1’s have?

    Thanks.

  19. Btw, we Brits have a few other theologians besides N.T. Wright! Though he was certainly not as prolific, J.N.D. Kelly, one time principal of St. Edmund’s Hall, Oxford, still has several fine books and works. His book: Early Christian Doctrines is still a classic read! And in the place of # 2, there is no one quite like the one time friend and rector of C.S. Lewis, the great man and mind Austin Farrer. He was somewhat individualistic, but was a brilliant theologian. He was to my mind, one of the great Christological theologians in modern time! He was also one that fills all three here, he loved to preach, and preach he did! (See the book, Captured by the Crucified, edited by David Hein and Edward Hugh Henderson, T&T Clark, 2004). I think one can get this on-line?

  20. This is a great post…especially for realizing the aims and limits of particular piece of writing, talk, etc.

    There is something that bothers me, though, and I wonder if this also struck anyone else. I suppose, Michael, maybe you didn’t mean to imply it, either. It has to do, not with pigeon-holing or cross-overs, but with the relationships between the categories.

    To paraphrase, the #1’s find the data, the #2’s interpret this data, and the #3’s apply the data. There’s a progression implied. But if that is the case, then the theology of the #2’s is dependent on the information of the #1’s. Theology is dependent on scholarship? Scholarship is ultimately the root of pastoral endeavors? Something seems to be missing. (And right now I’m not sure exactly what.) Wisdom from obedience and servanthood and love? Maybe a circular or some type of triangular model would be better than a linear one.

  21. This is one reason why systematic theology is so important.

  22. Indeed we cannot overly press these categories, as too we cannot overly press even systematic theology. For quite often the tension of biblical theology should remain! That’s my thinking anyway. It is here btw, that Federal Calvinism, really needs also the idea anyway of the Federal Vision, but hey, I am an Anglican Reformed, and even something of an Open Evangelical (kind of a British thing, Ecumenical Creeds, the historical church, etc.)

  23. And btw, most British Open Evangelicals are friendly with the history of John and Charles Wesley. Though I am a Calvinist, or more Reformed in doctrine, I have read and studied both of the Wesley brothers (and still do sometimes). I love their place of Word & Sacrament! They were Anglicans! And as I have stated, I see them as closer to Calvin on the doctrine of Justification by Faith. And they were familar with Luther also. I mean what Evangelical Christian cannot love these brethren!

  24. Perhaps really I am a “Closed Evangelical”? Closed to the soli Deo gloria: glory to God alone! ;)

  25. Bob Anderson May 1, 2012 at 5:56 am

    The article certain speaks of the complexity of Biblical interpretation and application, but after reading it, I went back and check five of my exegesis books. Theological reflection, synthesis of data, and application are all part of the process of exegesis.

    Tell me – was Paul an exegete, a theologian, or a minister?

    There are two key issues I see with what you have done in this post.

    The first is the common act of self-aggrandizement here, by yourself and a few others.

    Type 2 – “Theologians are the thinkers… I find myself mostly a Type 2″

    Interpretation – C. Michael Patton is a thinker. Those in the other categories are not.

    The second problem is that people who adhere to historical theologies and feel the need to protect them seldom are willing to look at the “data” when it contradicts what they believe. They are not willing to be true synthesizers of the data.

    That is not much in the way of thinking in my opinion.

  26. @Bob: Of course St. Paul had all the above, at least in that time, we should note how Paul used a free Hebrew text often, of course with the Greek LXX. But Saul/Paul will always be the premier “theologian” and model! I will admit myself I am certainly a Pauline Christian.

    And every pastor-teacher that knows his calling by God in Christ simply must play close attention to his work and ministry. We can even see St. Paul’s style of “self-aggrandizement”! Indeed we shall all be judged here that pastor & teach! (James 3:1 / 1 Cor. 4:3-4 ; 9:16-27)

    And none of us can do “theology” or anything without history and something of the historical method.

    And as has been mentioned we all use Systematic Theology, but that must be tempered by a Biblical Theology.

  27. I like your idea here. I have a question though, you mentioned philosopher in #2 but didn’t list any straight-up philosophers. Who might you add here?

    And with that I wonder if Philosophers would agree with the putting the puzzle together notion without major caveats. For instance, there is probably more first order research done in Philosophy than the other disciplines mentioned. And philosophy, at some level, seems to inform the way ppl approach these other disciplines – operating assumptions, etc.

    That said, the post is helpful in helping us see our need for all these forms of scholarship. So thanks.

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