Ecclesial Theology and Academic Theology: Why We Need More of the Former

Gerald Hiestand
Ecclesial theology has fallen on hard times as of late--not absolutely, but pervasively.

But what is ecclesial theology? It is, I would suggest, more than ecclesiology; and defining it over and against academic theology is a start, but more needs to be said. Earlier this year, I was hired as the part-time executive director of The Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology (SAET), an evangelical organization dedicated to assisting pastor-theologians in producing biblical and theological scholarship for the renewal of the church. This article (beyond a shameless plug for the SAET) is a brief attempt to define--and promote--the kind of theological project the SAET hopes to embody--a theological project born in an ecclesial context, driven by an ecclesial agenda, and prosecuted by ecclesial thinkers; not merely theology about the church--but theology for the church. [1]  The threads of my journey in this matter are woven intricately into the fabric of the SAET, and so a brief history of the organization will serve as an appropriate springboard into our broader discussion.

In 2003 I transitioned from full-time pastoral ministry to full-time graduate school. The experience left me with the distinct impression that much of academic theology did not always translate easily into the life of the church. Not because it was too sophisticated, but because it often missed the mark. As I reflected on this tension, I became increasingly convinced that the unique social locations of the academy and the church were significant factors in this disconnect. In short, pastors and professors do not always orbit around the same sun. Of course, it's not entirely a zero sum game. Many evangelical professors serve meaningfully in their local assemblies, thus keeping the church firmly at the center of their theological radar. This is particularly true in Reformed/Presbyterian circles. But even given the dual ministry focus of many evangelical theologians, our current context is a far cry from the historical precedent of yesteryear. Unlike the early days of North American evangelicalism--and indeed much of the history of the church--theologians, in the main, no longer reside in the parish. The pastor-theologian has been replaced by the professor-theologian.
As I transitioned back into the pastorate, I began to appreciate in fresh ways the benefit of uniting theological formation and pastoral ministry--a union typified by many of the church's greatest theologians: Athanasius, the two Gregs, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Wesley, etc., etc. The list is a veritable "whose who" of the most influential theologians in church history. I had a hunger to pursue such a model, but the local church context, unlike the academy, does not typically foster an atmosphere that encourages the production of robust theological scholarship ("publish or perish" is not a burden pastors must carry). I wanted to do more than study theology; I wanted to write theology. Given my isolation from the theological community, I began to seek out a network of like-minded thinkers with whom I could partner in the task of producing ecclesially focused theology--theological reflection born out of the context of the church, driven by local church concerns, and directed back toward the ecclesial community.

Formally incorporated in 2006, the SAET filled this vacuum. The SAET endeavors, through a variety of means, to encourage pastor-theologians in the theological task. Beginning in 2007, and then again in 2008, the SAET has pulled together a small nucleus of pastor-theologians from around the country for a working two-day theological symposium that focuses on the intersection between theology and the life of the church. Most of the SAET Fellows have finished their doctoral work, and all are committed to making ongoing contributions to the believing theological community. The camaraderie, level of theological depth, and sharp ecclesial focus has been a source of great encouragement--both pastorally and theologically.   

But as we embarked on this journey, we on the SAET board wrestled to clarify for ourselves just exactly what kind of theological vision we were pursuing. Were we simply a bunch of pastors attempting to write academic theology? That didn't seem quite right. We all recognized academic theology as a necessary and legitimate evangelical calling; clearly there was a need for able scholars and thinkers to interact with the wider secular academic community. But we were after something different. We were envisioning a theological project that intersected with the academy at many points, but that also trod the ancient paths in ways unencumbered by institutional constraints. We have, I think, settled on something helpful. By no means do I think the SAET has carved out an entirely new genre of theological discourse. Ecclesial theology has been around for a couple of millennia. But I do think we've located a neglected current in the broader theological river. We've done our best to pin-point its exact location and dive in. What follows is a brief effort to identify this stream, and invite you--as our Lord directs--to dive in with us.

The Demise of Ecclesial Theology
Throughout much of the history of the church, theological discourse was largely an in-house project. A broad house to be sure, but even during the upheaval and turmoil of the Reformation, both sides agreed with the basic tenants of historic Trinitarian Christianity. Scripture was viewed as authoritative. Miracles were possible. God was transcendent and worthy of worship. In short, the God of the Bible existed. These starting assumptions guided theological reflection--both East and West--for much of the Christian tradition. Even theologians as diverse as Augustine and Pelagius, Athanasius and Arius, and Luther and Erasmus, all worked within the same bibliocentric framework. Whether pastor (Augustine) or professor (Aquinas), theological reflection was, by its very nature, ecclesial. Even the heretics presumed to write in service to the church.

But the European enlightenment brought with it a fundamental shift in the theological landscape. The old assumptions were challenged, and the intellectual grip that Christianity held on the Western world began to weaken. The secular/non-orthodox theologian began to emerge in greater numbers. To be sure, modernity wasn't the first age to birth unorthodox theologians. But it was the first age (since the third century, anyway) to produce an entire generation of scholars and theologians whose primary intellectual pursuit involved consciously deconstructing the apostolic faith.

And of course, such thinkers did not seek professional occupation in the churches. Instead, they moved toward the academy. Likewise, as the academy in the West became the dominant center of intellectual life, orthodox theologians also shifted increasingly from the churches to the academy. Speaking broadly, the net effect was a divide between academic theologians who worked within the boundaries of historic Christianity, and academic theologians who did not. Intellectual warfare ensued. Orthodox Christianity, while not routed completely, certainly did not ascend to a place of supremacy. The dominant worldview in the wider academic community became increasingly hostile to the historic faith. Set back on their heels, orthodox theologians found themselves responding to an agenda set by secular/liberal theologians. Ours became a defensive posture, and it has largely remained so to this day.  

Consequently, believing academic theologians now live and move in a theological environment dominated by agendas and presuppositions that are consciously contra orthodox Christianity. To be sure, the deconstructive aspects of enlightenment and post-enlightenment thought demanded an appropriate response from those in the orthodox fold. But one wonders if orthodox theology as a whole has become too preoccupied defending against, and responding to, an agenda that is not directly related to the mission and glory of Christ. Orthodox theology, given its academic context, has taken on an apologetic bent not seen since the first centuries of the early church.  

Ecclesial Theology, Academic Theology

This is not to say that orthodox theologians have completely neglected ecclesial concerns. Not at all. Many today, particularly those in the evangelical tradition, write with explicit concern for the church. But broadly speaking, a division between ecclesial theology and academic theology has emerged. From where I sit, academic theology is theology written to the wider academic community, set within an academic context, and driven by academic concerns and presuppositions. Ecclesial theology, on the other hand, is theological reflection written to the believing community, for the good of the church catholic, and born out of pastoral/ecclesial concerns.

Perhaps a compare and contrast will help flesh out this distinction in greater detail. Speaking in perhaps over-exaggerated terms, ecclesial theology differs from academic theology in the following ways:
•    The depth of academic scholarship is often measured by its interaction with secondary literature. The depth of ecclesial scholarship is measured by its interaction with primary literature.
•    Academic scholarship is written to the wider academic community, much of which lacks any commitment to historic orthodoxy. Ecclesial scholarship is written to the believing community, and builds upon and assumes--rather than defends--the basic commitments of historic orthodoxy.
•    The success of academic scholarship is measured by its acceptance and influence in the academic community. The success of ecclesial scholarship is measured by its ability to renew the church.
•    Academic scholarship is informative. Ecclesial scholarship is informative and prophetic (i.e., it makes moral assertions and calls the church to action).
•    The power of academic theology arises out of the success of the academic-scholar as a scholar. The power of ecclesial theology arises--in large measure--out of the success of the pastor-theologian as a pastor. In other words, the influence of a pastor-theologian as a theologian is related to his success as a pastor.
•    Academic scholarship tends to be guild-specific. Ecclesial theology is a cross-guild project, working within and attempting to construct a coherent theological system/worldview. It is explicitly theological.
•    Related to the above, the academic-scholar functions more as a scholar (digging up new data) and less as a theologian (synthesizing that data in an ecclesial direction). In contrast, the ecclesial-theologian functions less as a scholar and more as a theologian.  

Definition by example might prove useful here. My conception of ecclesial theology, past and present, would include (thought not be limited to):

Athanasius--The Incarnation of the Word
Augustine--Confessions, On Grace and Free Will
Luther--Galatians, Bondage of the Will
Calvin--Institutes and commentaries
Baxter--The Reformed Pastor
Edwards--Freedom of the Will, etc.
Bonhoeffer--The Cost of Discipleship
Stott--The Cross of Christ
Piper--Desiring God

Ecclesial theology then, is rich, scriptural theology covering the entire Christian life; Christian living, ecclesiology, ministry, exposition of Scripture, church history, dogmatics, etc., --anything relevant to the mission and life of the church. And it addresses these issues not merely as an academic exercise--a raw quest for knowledge--but with the conscious and preeminent aim of building the church. It unapologetically purposes to advance the glory of Christ.

The Audience of Ecclesial Theology

But in our quest to identify ecclesial theology, something important needs to be said about its intended audience. As can be observed in the above examples, the works mentioned are not lower-shelf material. Too often the distinction between academic and ecclesial theology presents a false alternative. Academic theology is viewed as sophisticated, robust reflection written to the informed theological community. Ecclesial theology, on the other hand, is often viewed as lower-shelf, popular-level theology written to the lay believing community. Now I have no grievance with popular-level ecclesial theology; it's an important part of the life of the church. Much of my writing falls into this category. But we sell ecclesial theology short when we limit it to the lay community. Ecclesial theology--in its most robust form--is neither academic, nor popular. Ecclesial theology is theological reflection written to the thoughtful, theologically informed, historically aware, biblically literate, ecclesial community. It's as intellectually robust as sound academic theology, but is driven by ecclesial concerns.

Luther's Galatians commentary comes to mind here. Luther's work is quite a bit different than your average modern commentary. But it's not different because it's "lighter" or "easier to read" or "pitched to a less informed audience." It's different in that it doesn't feel such a need to plumb the nearly endless depths of secondary literature (there wasn't as much), because it's not afraid to be explicitly theological and confessional, because it 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. Luther didn't change the world because he was a successful academician. He changed the world because he wrote as a robust, theologically informed, intelligent, prophetic Christian.

Where to from Here?

Ecclesial theology, while present in the church today, is not the dominant genre of theological reflection. And given the nature of our current ecclesial and academic contexts, things are not likely to change overnight. Yet there are steps we can take that will help put ecclesial theology back on the map as a serious component of evangelical theology. In closing, I would like to offer a few thoughts on where we might go from here.  

The Return of the Pastor-Theologian

There is a need, I believe, to resurrect the pastor-theologian paradigm. Not because academic theologians are incapable of producing ecclesial theology (quite the contrary), but because the pastoral office uniquely positions one to think both theologically and ecclesially. If history is any guide, the relationship between the pastor-theologian and ecclesial theology is such that the success of each rises and falls with the other. And postmodernity--for all its weaknesses--properly reminds us of the connection between theological formation and social location. The situation on the ground greatly influences the starting assumptions and questions that a theologian brings to the theological task. Who better to articulate theology with a view to the church than those whose primary social location is the local church? [2]  There is a need to counter the sentiment that says, "Deep, penetrating commentaries and books on the atonement--that stuff is for the academy. Pastors should stick to writing pop theology and Christian living stuff." God forbid! Expounding God's Word and reflecting on the nature of the atonement, etc., needs to be brought back into the domain of the church. We need a return to the days when pastors wrote theology that was richly theological, deeply biblical, historically informed, culturally aware, prophetic, and intelligent--not so it would be accepted by the academy, but so it would renew the church. The ecclesial theologian has not gone entirely extinct but, it would seem, he has become an endangered species. Which leads to my second suggestion.

A Fresh Vision for Seminarians

Not every pastor is called to be a (writing) theologian. Nor is every theologian called to be a pastor. But many seminarians today feel the pull between the life of the mind and the life of the church. They love study, writing, reflection, and theology. But at the same time they have a deep heart and calling for pastoral ministry in the local church. Too often our current context compels young people to choose between these two callings. Yet this need not be--history has proven otherwise! Evangelical theology is crying out for individuals who are willing to unite the life of the mind and the mission of the church. The emerging generation of theologians should consider whether or not the Lord is directing them toward an ecclesial context. And the seminary would do well to hold out the local church as a legitimate context for robust theological engagement--not only for the benefit of their local congregations, but for the wider theological community as well.

Many evangelical theologians undoubtedly need to press forward with a robust academic agenda. But we must get past the notion that theology is solely an academic enterprise. Evangelical theologians, whether called to write ecclesial or academic theology, need to recognize that the church needs both.


The Church is God's vehicle for changing the world. While apologetically driven academic theology is legitimate, the bulk of evangelical reflection and writing needs to be written in service to the church, to the believing community. We won't change the world by reforming the academy. But we will--by God's grace--change the world by renewing the church. But such renewal will only come through the communication of deep, robust, biblical, historically informed, culturally aware, thoughtful, and prophetic truth. Frankly, the sort of theology that will advance the cause of Christ will likely not find much favor in the wider academy, given its current rules of engagement. But that's fine--our goal isn't to win the favor of a secular academy; our goal is to renew the church.

[1] This article builds off of, and attempts to expand, my recent WTJ article, "Pastor-scholar to Professor-Scholar: Exploring the Theological Disconnect between the Academy and the Local Church." WTJ 70 (2008).
[2] Ibid., 360-66.

Gerald Hiestand is the executive director of the Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology, (SAET) and an Adult Ministries Pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, IL.

Gerald Hiestand, "Ecclesial Theology and Academic Theology", Reformation 21 (August 2009)

This article was published in Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional biblical resources can be found at

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