Introduction to Christian Scholarship

Christian scholarship encompasses much more than what meets the eye on a Sunday morning. It’s akin to the creation of a birthday cake, with various individuals contributing their considerable efforts at each stage. From the intricate reaping and processing of ingredients to the painstakingly precise mixing, and concluding with the specific preparations and decorations required for its presentation to the individual birthday boy or girl. Christian scholarship follows a parallel path, where every element, from word studies to illustrations, finds its rightful place.

I want to provide you with a creative glimpse into the world of Christian scholarship (please forgive the multiple metaphors; I might have gone a bit overboard). It constitutes a vital theological ecosystem that thrives through symbiotic relationships. Within this realm, we find distinct types of scholars: those who excavate truths with the precision of archaeologists, others who scale the heights of thought like philosophers contemplating the stars, and still others who, with the pragmatism of seasoned gardeners, ensure that these truths take root in everyday life. It’s important to acquaint ourselves with each of these groups as they occupy unique positions within the theological narrative, each making a distinctive and pivotal contribution to our journey with God. I believe you’ll find these three groups fascinating, as they represent the intellectual steps we take in our endeavor to love God with both our minds and hearts.

The Three Levels of Christian Scholarship

1. Exegetes (research) – Level one studies

Original research; learning; data; facts

First are the exegetes. These are the people who are persistently doing deep-dive research. They work primarily with first-hand resources. In biblical studies, they are concerned with original language, backgrounds, historical criticism, and textual issues. They write the commentaries of the Bible.

Personality: Type C

  • Analytical: Exegetes often have a strong attention to detail and a methodical approach to their work.
  • Patient: They spend long hours on meticulous research, demonstrating a capacity for deep focus and patience.
  • Curious: A natural curiosity drives them to ask probing questions and explore the intricacies of texts and historical contexts.
  • Reserved: They might be more introspective, preferring the company of books and ancient manuscripts to the crowds and social gatherings.
  • Cautious: A tendency towards caution, perhaps being less likely to jump to conclusions without substantial evidence (often referred to as “academic agnosticism).

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
  • Richaed Bauckham
  • Craig L. Blomberg
  • Craig Keener

Viewpoint: TREES

Relation to the Other Scholars

  • 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.
  • Primary weakness: 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. They systematize data so that creeds can be reasoned, established, and defended. They are broad in their thinking and studies, having to be familiar with many areas of scholarship in order to provide a systematic understanding of doctrine. They are concerned with biblical studies, history, apologetics, philosophy, psychology, sociology, science, logic, and the like.

 Personality: Type C

  • Conceptual: These individuals enjoy dealing with abstract concepts and big-picture thinking.
  • Reflective: They are often introspective, spending time in thought to develop and systematize theological ideas.
  • Intellectually Bold: Unafraid of challenging existing paradigms and exploring new interpretations of belief systems.
  • Broad-minded: They typically have a wide range of interests and the ability to synthesize information from various disciplines.
  • Assertive: More likely to take a firm stance on issues, given their role in shaping and defending doctrines.

They put the puzzle together.

Examples in Evangelicalism:

  • Michael Horton
  • Thomas Oden
  • Gerald Bray
  • Alister McGrath
  • Rob Bowman
  • John Frame
  • A. W. Pink
  • Justo Gonzalez
  • Donald Bloesch
  • Alvin Plantinga
  • Wayne Grudem
  • Millard Erickson
  • Charles Hodge
  • Lewis Sperry Chafer
  • William Lane Craig
  • Michael Licona
  • Charles Ryrie
  • Michael Bird
  • John Frame

Viewpoint: FOREST 

Relation to the Other Scholars

  • 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.
  • Primary Weakness: 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

Pastoral types are concerned with how to appropriately and effectively deliver synthesized content to others. They focus on the application of truth to real-life circumstances and devote their time to thinking about people, the church, missions, and strategies. Gifted in didactics (teaching), they possess a discerning understanding of what is applicable, and when and where it should be applied. Their hands-on approach to the real world grants them a profound insight into the practical effectiveness of truth. The books and commentaries they author are typically oriented towards practicality, featuring extensive illustrations and a strong emphasis on application.

They display the puzzle.

Examples in Evangelicalism:

  • Chuck Swindoll
  • Dan Kimball
  • Kent Hughs
  • Craig Groeschel
  • James MacDonald
  • John Piper
  • Mark Driscoll
  • Beth Moore
  • Matt Chandler
  • Andy Stanley
  • Philip Yancey
  • Billy Graham
  • Max Lucado
  • Rick Warren
  • John MacArthur

Personality Type: B

Empathetic: Strong ability to understand and share the feelings of others, crucial for effective ministry and counseling.
Pragmatic: They often have a practical approach to applying theological concepts to real-life situations.
Communicative: Good at articulating ideas and engaging with people, often possessing strong public speaking skills.
Adaptable: They are generally flexible, able to adjust their methods and message to different audiences and situations.
Community-oriented: A strong desire to connect with others and nurture communal faith experiences.

Viewpoint: TREES

Relation to the Other Scholars

  • Why they might dislike exegetes and theologians: “They are ivory tower scholars who cannot relate to the real world.”
  • Primary Weakness: 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.


Most Christian leaders can easily identify themselves with one of these. Sometimes, there may be those who are a combination of two, but almost never do you find this between the first and the last. Normally it will be pastor/theologians or exegete/theologians. Exegete/pastors are rarely ever found as their personality set is too far apart.

We need to recognize the dangers of isolation and remain continually committed to finding balance. Our gifts and calling will inevitably lead us to favor one over the others; thus, I am not suggesting that one should neglect their natural inclinations to try to master the others. However, I am asserting that neglecting the others can diminish your proficiency in your primary area of expertise. I have observed exegetes who appear negligent of the implications of what they know. I have seen theologians force a piece of the puzzle to fit their system. And I have witnessed pastoral types sacrifice truth for the pragmatic comfort of their listeners. What I am emphasizing is the necessity to be cognizant of our position and to remain dedicated to excellence by valuing all three perspectives. They are interdependent expressions of a shared faith.

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C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    4 replies to "The Theological Ecosystem in a Nutshell"

    • Wolf Paul

      Where would you put people like Kevin Vanhoizer or Scot McKnight in this ecosystem?

    • Eric Quek

      Your metaphorical exploration of Christian scholarship as a complex, interdependent ecosystem is very insightful! This reminds me of the parallel in medical sciences and would like to share my take on this.
      Consider homeostasis for electrolyte imbalance from dehydration, what would the body do for each layer?
      Exegetical layer—physical homeostasis for dehydration:
      Physical example: Body is dehydrated and electrolytes are out of whack. Body will seek out water. Kidneys conserve water by concentrating urine, and various hormones are released to retain water and restore electrolyte imbalance.
      Spiritual parallel—Exegetically, scholars could explore biblical passages about spiritual thirst, such as Jesus encounter with Samaritan woman at the well, where He talks about living water. These scholars will delve into the cultural and historical context to understand and teach the significance of Jesus massage about what satisfies our deepest spiritual needs. From exegetical view thirst here means a longing for purpose or meaning, which can be quenched by turning to Christ the “living water”.

      Theological layer—Systematic theology of Spiritual health.
      Physical example: The body systematically adjusts to fluid intake but alos balances electrolytes.
      Spiritual parallel: Theologians may develop a framework for understanding how various spiritual disciplines work together to maintain a healthy faith, similar to how hydration, diet and rest work together for physical health. The end result might be a comprehensive spiritual health plan for the church, encouraging regular “hydration” through prayer, “nutrition” through scripture study, “exercise” through service, “rest” through Sabbath

      Pastoral level—Practical ministry applications:
      Physical example: (this is an over simplification and is use for illustration only) Drink water that are electrolyte rich like Gatorade.
      Spiritual parallel: Pastoral care could include “hydration strategy” for spiritual life. Such as (drinking water) equivalent to regular community worship , small group Bible studies. End result—church members are regularly “rehydrated” spiritually, preventing “dehydration”, stagnation or moral crises.

      Where would Michael Patton be in this layer/level? I would venture to say: Theological and Pastoral. Doing double duty.

      • C Michael Patton

        That is really creative. I believe you are right. At seminary, interestingly, I was a New Testament major, focusing on the Greek New Testament. I did this to fill a perceived weakness. I tried to figure out what I needed most and sought that out. However, I would never see myself as putting up with original research in Greek for too long. It was fascinating and necessary for me to know how and why it all happened on that level.

        Maybe in health, I would see myself as a Family Doctor, guiding people to the right place to get what they need. Not a surgeon (exegete) or a health coach/physical therapist (pastoral). I don’t know. Maybe that does not work.

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