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Five Questions With Gavin Ortlund
Friends, I’m excited to introduce a new feature of this newsletter. Every now and again I’ll be posing five questions to various folks about their writing and work. My hope is that these little Q/As will give us all a window into the people who are helping us think and worship.
Today’s five questions are with Gavin Ortlund, a pastor-writer based in California and the author of several books, including two recent Crossway volumes: Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals, and Finding the Right Hills to Die On.
SJ: How does being a pastor affect how you write about theological issues?
There are many ways, but one of the biggest is that it adds a level of honesty and practical sensitivity to your work. In academic contexts, so much is oriented toward saying something that hasn't been said before, and that can lead to a kind of obscure novelty or aloofness from real life. The desire to be clever more than helpful is a real temptation.
In my experience, being a pastor sensitizes you to certain values that can offset academic tendencies. For example:
Being a pastor encourages you toward clarity. Preaching, for example, nearly forces you to acquire better organizational and conceptual clarity (if you are working at getting better, at least!).
Pastoral ministry gears you toward practicality. In academia you are often speaking to other specialists at a more theoretical level, but in pastoral ministry you are speaking to a more general audience about the real issues of life. This forces you to think in more practical ways.
Pastoral work helps you acquire greater sensitivity for how theology plays out amidst the nuances and politics of human relationships. Being a pastor helps you develop the people skills and wisdom to address controversial issues with minimal relational fallout.
While certainly not all theologians should be full-time pastors, I do think every trained theologian should be pursuing some kind of ministry (teaching Sunday school, hospitality/witness toward neighbors, etc.). When theology is disconnected from ministry, it becomes lopsided—like a guy who does basketball drills all the time but never actually plays in a game.
SJ: Why did you write a book about theological retrieval?
It was never something I set out to do. In the course of my theological training for pastoral ministry, I stumbled across Anselm (a medieval theologian). At first, I found him somewhat jarring. I was intrigued by how different he was, and over time I began to see a richness and subtlety in his thinking that pulled me in. It was similar to what Richard Dreyfuss' character in Mr. Holland's Opus experienced while listening to John Coltrane:
“I hated it. I mean, I really hated it. I just didn’t get it. So I played it again. I played it again, and I played it again—and then, I just couldn't stop playing it. I kept listening to those notes. And I realized that that's what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
Anselm taught me what pleasure and fascination there is in thinking. I will never forget first encountering his “ontological argument” for God’s existence. Till that point in my life, I had no idea how interesting an idea could be.
Anselm then led me on a journey of exploring other classical texts, especially among the church fathers and medieval doctors. I began to see all kinds of ways that classical historical theology was needed in our current cultural moment, particularly for evangelical theology. It was like hunger finding food. The book grew organically out of this experience.
SJ: You and I are both pastor's kids. What do people not realize about us PKs?
I know everyone has a different experience, so my perceptions may apply more to some than others. But there are two ways I think we can better serve our pastor’s kids. First, get to know them as individuals. Many times pastor’s kids are interpreted and engaged through the lens of their identity as a pastor’s kid. They are “so-and-so’s child,” rather than simply, “Johny” (or whoever).
Pastor’s kids can sense that. It means a lot to them when people take a genuine interest in them as an individual person. So when you relate to them, don’t let the first way you see them be in relation to their family. Give them freedom to be their own person.
A second thing can be respecting their privacy. What pastor’s kids do is given disproportionate notice and gossip, and it can often feel like you live in a fishbowl, open for all to see. For children who are more introverted, or who have had unpleasant experiences with church people, this can feel like a lot of pressure is put on them. So when pastor’s kids are more private, they often appreciate being given freedom to “blend in.”
SJ: You recently wrote a book about doctrinal disagreement. What are the consequences when Christians don't think biblically and carefully about how to disagree?
In the book I mention several dangers, particularly when doctrinal disagreement is done in a harsh, unloving way. One is that it leads to unnecessary division, diminishing our unity and health as the church. We fail to learn from others who could help us grow in our weak areas. We miss out on opportunities to link arms for more fruitful ministry. And there is a huge amount of sheer hurt. The tragic fact is, churches are sometimes very painful places. I know so many young people who want nothing to do with the church, and so many pastors whose “ministry wounds” have been among the worst experiences of their lives. I know the reasons for these problems are complicated, but I think ungodly disagreements are a significant contributing factor.
None of this is a reason to avoid discussion about doctrinal disagreements, of course. But it is a reminder to always conduct our disagreements in a spirit of love and humility. No matter what the issue, when we are dealing with our brother or sister in Christ, we are dealing with someone for whom Christ died, and on whom Christ has set his love and favor. That should flavor our interactions.
Another danger to ungodly disagreement is that we make the gospel less credible to those around us. Jesus prayed that we would be one so that the world would believe the Father sent him (John 17). When we engage in theological disagreement in an unloving, unspiritual way, we actually unsay everything we are trying to communicate to the world about the gospel. We are proclaiming a message of reconciliation with our words, but tragically, the lack of reconciliation in our lives makes the message hard for others to hear.
SJ: What's the Lord teaching you right now?
So many things! Here are a few:
It is important to slow down and take times to rest. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. I want to finish well, and I think that means pacing myself for the long haul. My early 30’s have been focused on various accomplishments and goals; I want my late 30’s to be a bit more focused on friendships, my family, personal health, etc. I think it is healthy to have seasons where we deliberately try to slow down and focus on the basics, and this is one of those seasons for me.
My family is at a demanding and fun stage (four kids, ranging from infant to 7). I want to be a good dad. Being faithful in serving my family is more important than more visible forms of ministry. I want to remember that each day. I often need the Lord’s strength for the 5:00-8:00 P.M. push till bedtime. But I know that I’ll miss these years once they are gone, so I’m giving it everything I have.
Over the last year I’ve been cultivating the practice of intentional gratitude. I have planned times when I focus my attention on all the blessings in my life, and give thanks to God for them. It’s been a very fruitful and happy practice. I have so much to be grateful for. I want to be known as a person of gratitude, joy, and kindness.
We live in challenging and in many ways discouraging times, both in our culture and in the church. I want my life to maximally fruitful for the gospel in the midst of the times in which we live. So I am doing a lot of dreaming and praying with my wife, asking how the Lord would put us to work in the decades ahead. What research and writing should I be giving myself to? What dreams should we be dreaming, and prayers should we be praying? How can I prepare myself for whatever God has for me? It’s helpful not to simply be discouraged at the challenges we face, but to ask God to put us to work “for such a time as this.”