Archive for the ‘Pastoral Theology’ Category

We often hear the phrase “pastor as scholar” used to describe the serious intellectual responsibilities tied to the ministry. A pastor should be well-versed in the original languages, master the trajectories of church history, and possess a solid grasp of the philosophical issues facing the church today (just to name a few).

And as important as these are, we must never forget that they are all, in the end, pastoral. In other words, theology is for ministry; it is for proclamation. It’s not so much that the pastor is a scholar but that the scholar is a pastor.

Carl Trueman gets at this in summarizing John Owen’s own study and practice.

In his work on the communion with the divine, Owen connects his theology, it its catholic, Protestant, and Reformed dimensions, to that most critical of Puritan concerns: the worship of God. And in so doing, Owen demonstrates that most delightful aspect of precritical theology: its essentially ecclesiastical and practical purpose. None of his theology was intended for its own sake, as some kind of glass-bead game to be played by an elite few in isolation from the world around. On the contrary: it was theology done within the church for the benefit of the church. As speculative and as metaphysical as many of the issues [were], for Owen none of it was purely abstract. Whether polemic, commentary, or doctrinal exposition, his work always connects to the life of the church and the health of Christians, individual and corporate. The divorce of theology as an academic discipline from the ecclesiastical context, so basic to the modern discipline, would have been inconceivable to Owen and is another point of basic continuity between his work and that of his predecessors. As the great patristic writers were capable of flights of intellectual brilliance in developing a theology which was basically concerned for the health of Christ’s flock; as the great medievals put their massive intellects to the service of the church and wrote both massive theological systems and profound and moving hymns and prayers; as Luther and Calvin always saw their theology as having a primarily ecclesiastical function and as terminating in the preaching of the word and the administrating of the sacraments; so Owen draws on that most Christian of doctrines, that of the Trinity, refracts it through a Reformed soteriology, and applies it to that most basic and universal aspect of the Christian faith, the devotional life. – Carl Trueman, “John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man,” (2007) p. 128.

Ministry, therefore, is not so much about “going up” into the rarified airs and untrammeled musings of theological exactitude, untouched and untroubled by the world below. Here we may feel impregnable, fully equipped to battle the problems of society. But “here” is not ministry. No, ministry is very much about “going down” into the very depths of peoples’ pain and confusion; to empathize with them; to appreciate their humanity (which is our humanity); to weep when they weep; to laugh when they laugh; indeed, to “become all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22).

Is this not what Christ did? Is this not what Paul did?

As such, the tools of the trade (i.e. a seminary education) are only valuable when we see them in this light: as eminently practical. It’s not so much about learning theological principles and philosophical abstractions which we can then later “apply” to reality down bellow. No, it is in our studies that reality itself is opened up to us! And we are sent plummeting to earth, our feet firmly striking the ground. It is here that our problems become apparent; that our nature and weaknesses strike us in the face. And then we realize that our problems are not just “down below,” but all around us. We all suffer from the same fallen humanity; and we are all weary pilgrims.

Thus a pastor doesn’t become a scholar to escape the vicissitudes of the mundane and the ordinary, to perch unassailable by the unpleasantries below. For here we will not find safety: only coldness, and finally death.

God demonstrates his character to us by stooping down to our nature, and “getting his hands dirty,” as it were, with our flesh and blood. Out of the dust of the earth he created them male and female (Gen. 1:27). And then, God, in the person of Christ, took this humanity upon himself, forever, identifying with us in the most empathetic and intimate way ever. And as under-shepherds, ministers are called to no less. Indeed, we must first loose our lives if we want to find them (Matt. 10:39). For there is no greater love than this (Jn. 15:13).

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Today, even in Reformed and Presbyterian churches, I believe there is considerable confusion and misunderstanding about what preaching is.  Often, this comes in the form of preachers giving sermons which sound very much like Sunday-school lessons or bible-study lectures. One might here a lot of truth (even about Christ and his grace) but won’t hear Christ himself. Indeed, it alarms me to conisider how often words about Christ might be present, while the very Word of Christ is absent — that very word to which (alone) are attached the very precious promises of God.  What do I mean?  Let me try to explain.

Does teaching = preaching? Or is there a qualitative distinction? If someone gives a lecture about the nature of the atonement, does this qualify as preaching? And yet if we agree that preaching includes teaching, is preaching really something altogether different? These are good questions, and important ones to be asking for sure.

Here I’ve quoted at length from Michael Horton’s book, A Better Way, on the topic of the preached word.

A sermon is not only an exposition of God’s Word but is itself God’s Word. It is the Son of man preaching life into the valley of dead bones, wielding the two-edged sword that kills and makes alive. It is the Holy Spirit alone who is the effectual cause of the Word’s work, but it is administered through preaching….

Sometimes we see the sermon merely as an opportunity to make the Word effective. For some, it is an opportunity for mere reflection–data processing, to put it indelicately. For others, it is a chance to make a decision. Still others see it as a stimulation to emotional experience. But whether we make our intellect, our will, or our heart sovereign, we are exchanging the glory of God for that of the creature. As Scripture presents it, the Word itself–wielded by the heavenly agent (the Holy Spirit) and the earthly ambassador (the preacher)–does what it threatens in the law and promises in the gospel. The Word itself does this work, not because it provides an occasion for us to do something but simply by its being used by God according to his own sovereign will. It is not just the content of the Word but the preaching of the Word that is central in worship and is, strictly speaking, a means of grace.

This is a gigantic distinction. This means that when a minister ascends the pulpit to preach, his task is not merely to offer certain truth claims to his hearers, or to exhort them to believe more strongly. But rather more specifically (and simply) it is to proclaim and announce a specific message of good news even to those who might have heard it more times than they can remember. Here in lies the real challenge of the preacher. His job as under-shephard and feeder of God’s flock, is not to feed them with whatever whimsical concoction his hermeneutical and homiletical wizardry can cook up. Rather, it is to faithfully serve up that menu which Christ (as the over-shephard) has prepared for him already — namely the message that Christ has accomplished all of our redemption for us who believe.

And as he proclaims this very (specific) message, God the Holy Spirit works according to his good pleasure to strengthen, establish, and confirm his saints in the faith. In this way, Christians’ hearts are washed, their doubts quelled, their faiths built up, and their souls nourished — all by the very word of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit through the ordinary means of a mortal preacher.

Furthermore, this means that when we come to worship God on Sunday and hear the word proclaimed through the preacher, it is not merely the voice of a mortal man we hear, but the very Word of God being announced to us.  It’s not as if the preacher can say whatever he wants. And likewise, it’s not as if we can listen to him as if he were just another guy.  No, God (in Christ) has commissioned his minsters for the special service of speaking Christ’s very words for him so that we could actually still here Christ’s voice today — even two-thousand years after his ascension.

That’s why preaching is so important. Horton concludes:

To be sure, many other methods in our hi-tech era would appear to be more effective forms of getting us to do something. Drama can entertain and inspire, emotional choruses sung in ascending chords with growing instrumental intensity can alter consciousness and moods, while audiovisual sophistication can persuade people that the Christian message (whatever that may be ) is relevant in our age. A booming anthem with a pipe organ and well-trained choir may stir us. But if the primary goal is not to get us to do something that will effect our salvation but for God to plant his Word in our heart, our criteria for effectiveness and success will be rather different. It is important for us to realize that it is not only the message of the Word but the method of preaching that God has promised to use for salvation and growth. It must, therefore, be central in worship. – Michael Horton, A Better Way: Redescovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship. p. 156

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Following up on my previous post on Calvin and ‘prayer of gratitude‘ in J. Todd Billings book, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift, I found this set of quotations outstanding in their pastoral insight and theological depth at reading John Calvin. Speaking of the necessity of gratitude in prayer, Billings writes:

Yet there is a ‘negative’ side to this same theme. Two of the central ‘sins’ that one can commit in a wrong approach to prayer involve the violation of Calvin’s Trinitarian portrait of adoption: first, since one is under obligation to always give thanks to God, the sin of ‘ingratitude’ in prayer is a strong concern for Calvin.

The second frequent ‘sin’ of prayer is similar to the first, but it makes the structure of the dublex gratia all the more apparent: an uneasy conscience. The experience of prayer entails ‘extraordinary peace and repose’ for the conscience precisely because of the first grace: the imputation of Christ’s righteousness upon believers, assuring them of their salvation. In contrast, others relay upon the prayers of the saints because their consciences have not experienced this first grace. After asking why persons rely upon the intercession of the saints, Calvin writes: ‘If we appeal to the consciences of all those who delight in the intercession of the saints, we shall find that this [practice] arises solely from the fact that they are burdened by anxiety, just as if Christ were insufficient or too sever’. This not only brings dishonour to Christ, but ‘at the same time they cast out the kindness of God, who manifests himself to them as the Father. For he is not Father to them unless they recognize Christ to be their brother.’

One doesn’t have to be Roman Catholic or to have prayed to the saints to appreciate the reality of this uneasy conscience inhibiting one from coming to the Father with full assurance and confidence. It happens to evangelicals too. And yet this is correlated to the abject need for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Billings continues:

If the imputation received from one’s union with Christ is not recognized, the Spirit of adoption does not manifest the kindness of the Father. The conscience can be calmed in only one way: by recognizing the kindness of the Father in freely pardoning the sinner, through the imputation of Christ’s fully sufficient righteousness. In Calvin’s account, those who rely upon the prayers of the saints do not explicitly seek to dishonour Christ. Yet, because they have not accepted the first grace of imputation, they necessarily dishonour Christ by implying that Christ’s righteousness is insufficient…. Calvin’s repeated concern in the prayer chapter is that believers express gratitude to God with a conscience at rest, not trusting in their own righteousness, but in the assurance, that comes through the Spirit that the Father has freely pardoned believers because of their participation in and oneness with Christ. Believers are freed from terror before God, because ‘our prayers depend upon no merit of ours, but their whole worth and hope of fulfillment are grounded in God’s promises, and depend upon them’. Accepting that one has no worthiness ‘in oneself’ before God is part of the dynamic of entering into the wondrous exchange–experiencing the reception of Christ’s righteousness through a restored relationship with the Father through the Spirit.
— 111-2

What a lovely summation and correlation of Calvin’s theology of prayer with his doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the assurance of the believer. For they are all interconnected with each other.

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