We Are All Theologians: An Interview with Stan Fowler


If I made a list of the people who have influenced me most, there is no doubt that Stan Fowler would make the list. Stan is professor of theology at Heritage Seminary in Cambridge, and an elder at Grandview Church in Kitchener. He taught me theology over twenty years ago now, and he continues to serve me as a friend and mentor.

I appreciate Stan’s willingness to answer some of my questions.

Systematic theology seems to take a lot of knocks these days. Why is systematic theology important?

As many of us have said, we are all theologians — perhaps good, perhaps bad, but we are all theologians. If I make a comment asserting something about the nature of God and his works, I am making a theological statement. Systematic theology is just the attempt to fit those assertions into a coherent framework that allows us to make sense out of the whole of God’s self-revelation. If systematic theology is done appropriately, then it must obviously be grounded in responsible biblical exegesis that lets all the parts of the Bible speak in their own idioms and categories. In other words, systematic theology grows out of biblical theology. But it works in the other direction also—the system of doctrine helps us think carefully about the meaning of particular biblical texts, and this is necessary, because sometimes the texts seem to point in contradictory directions. For example, I believe that Scripture implies the doctrine of final perseverance (i.e., that all who are presently regenerate will be saved in the end), but there are many biblical texts that seem to say otherwise. A properly stated system helps me make sense out of those texts. In the end, unless we are willing to accept a final contradiction between parts of the Bible, we are forced to do systematic theology and bring the parts into a coherent whole.

As a theologian, what encourages you about evangelicalism these days?

I’m encouraged by the growing number of evangelicals who are trying to think theologically and not just pragmatically about the church and the ministry of the gospel. I see it in the work of evangelical scholars at ETS meetings and in their publications (far too numerous for me to keep up). I see it in the work of The Gospel Coalition and similar initiatives. I see it in blogs too numerous to name. I read papers written by my students in which they thoughtfully relate theology to the real issues of life and ministry, and that gives me hope for the future of evangelical churches.

As a theologian, what discourages you about evangelicalism?

I’m an American-Canadian, so I have concerns on both sides of that border. When I look to the USA, I am discouraged by the tendency to equate biblical faith with a particular political ideology, whether of the right or the left. Our unity is found in Christ and the gospel, not in political parties, and good people with the same values can come to contradictory conclusions about the best way to work out those values.

When I look within Canada, I’m concerned that Canadian evangelicalism seems to be less gospel-driven and theologically robust than is true in the USA. I’m also concerned that Canadian evangelicals may have lost confidence in the power of the gospel and retreated into a fortress mentality in the face of an aggressively secular culture. I suppose I could go on, but I’m too optimistic to focus on the negatives. God is still alive and well!

Some argue that Ephesians 4:11 teaches a fivefold ministry framework (APEPT). I know you’re not convinced that this is what Paul is saying. Can you explain why?

The APEPT idea is that Paul’s purpose in that text is to say that the risen Christ has bestowed gifts on all believers in such a way that every believer is oriented to be an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a pastor, or a teacher. The underlying desire is to promote every-member ministry and to recognize that the church needs people with diverse orientations, e.g., “apostles” to initiate new ministries and “prophets” to speak with special insight into diverse situations. Although I agree with this desire, this way of reading Ephesians 4.11 is both novel and indefensible, in my opinion. The emphasis on 5 forms of ministry is doubtful from the start, because in the structure of the Greek sentence, Paul does not divide between pastors and teachers. So it looks like 4 forms, the final one being pastor-teacher (two tasks of elders as seen in other NT texts). But the greater problem is that this approach demands that “apostles” and “prophets” mean something very different from what they mean in 2.20 and 3.5 in the same epistle. The natural sense of the text is that among the gifts bestowed on the church, there are some crucial ones that are focused on the ministry of the Word, and the goal of these ministries is to bring the church to increased unity in the truth and to Christian maturity more generally. Verses 7 and 16 give adequate support for the idea of the valuable ministry of all believers, but that just isn’t what verse 11 is talking about. So I think the APEPT idea is a bad argument in support of a good point.

What advice would you give to pastors who would like to continue developing as pastors and theologians?

I was a full-time preaching pastor for 13 years before I moved into academia full-time, so I understand the challenge. At the heart of my answer is a plea that we not drive a wedge between concern for truth and concern for people, or between teaching and leadership. When I read 2 Timothy, for example, I see in Paul a concern both for faithfully passing on the deposit of faith and a concern for relating the faith to real people in a loving and patient way. Given those twin concerns, then, I would suggest to pastors that they read both Don Carson and Bill Hybels, and that they attend conferences led by both John Piper and Rick Warren (just to pick some obvious examples). Reading selected blogs of diverse types is a quick way to stay fresh and stimulate growth, although I should say that the blogosphere can easily chew up ones’ life—so be disciplined. The bottom line, of course, is to read this blog! Seriously, Darryl, I am very appreciative of your attempt to grow and stimulate others to grow.

Thanks, Stan.

We Are All Theologians: An Interview with Stan Fowler
Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada