Monday, November 19, 2018

Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition

Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition, Andrew Purves

This is one of those rather specific books that won’t have a large audience, but those who persist will find treasure within. It is highly recommended for pastors who long to see how a strong theology links with their pastoral care. In addition, there would be great benefit for students of both theology and biblical counselling to appreciate their history and the importance of having a strong understanding of both disciplines.

Purves writes to show the strong historical link between theology and Christian pastoral care. They should not be divided, and it is only in recent times that they have been. In the past, the strongest pastor was a theologian and a counsellor. Pastoral work has a specific Christian identity,
“for the grace of God in Christ for us exposes the depth of the human condition in its separation from God in a way that no human science can. This same grace offers a remedy which leads to healing, blessings, and salvation to eternal life in union with Christ. The strongest possible connection exists between pulpit and counseling room, and between the study of Christian theology and the practice of pastoral care.” (p2)
Purves has selected five men of history and examines their pastoral and theological teaching and draws links for the reader today. There is some original source material included, but much of it is Purves’ explanation of the person’s work and thinking, with some application. As such, it is really a primer on the subject, but it is all most of us need to whet our appetite considering the teaching of these figures of the past who were committed to holistic Christian soul care with some modern implications.

Please note that this book was required reading for a recent CCEF course (Counseling in the Local Church) and some of my reflections will show that it was read for that purpose. (We were meant to consider how the reading changed how we think about our life within the body of Christ).

With Gregory of Nazianzus, there was a strong reminder of the seriousness of the call to ministry and the acknowledgment that we should feel ill equipped to do it well. We should feel the burden of the souls under our care and that God will hold us to account. Husband & I view our ministry as a joint vocation: we’re both committed to serving God together, and I take the warnings to those in ministry as applicable to myself as well. I recall with clarity his ordination in 2004 and the weight of responsibility I felt as he made promises before God and others to care for the people of God and to maintain his own life with integrity.

But I also think that while we should expect a high standard in ministry, we need to allow for experience and wisdom that continues to grow. Real wisdom to help the people of God comes after formal training, years of bible study and teaching, and experience in ministry. We should ask those we minister to forgive us for our mistakes as we learn, and emphasize that we’re always learning. We’re not sinless and need to ensure our congregations know that as well. It’s also true that people are responsible for their own choices and lives. We have a God-given duty to model, teach, exhort and encourage, but they ultimately make their own decisions before Him.

I appreciated the summary of the difficulties of pastoral work and particularly the reminder the people are different and require different approaches. This is a challenge: to recall details of people’s lives, their situations and struggles, and to speak in a way that’s helpful. Some need encouragement, some correction, some thrive under a gentle word, others need a bold exhortation. The wisdom to discern requires skill, and so it can be tempting to avoid hard topics and conversations.

The chapter on John Chrysostom highlighted the danger of separating the word of God from counselling, for preaching and teaching has a central place in the care of souls. Much counselling today does not give eternal help, but rather stop-gap solutions to survive this life. Theological conviction needs to go hand in hand with pastoral care. Yet often the two are divided: we think, here is the pastor who preaches well and here is the pastor who counsels well. They should be one and the same. Much study, devotion, time and energy is required to grow both in the things of God and our understanding of people.

The suggestion that theological training needs to include moral formation as well as spiritual formation was very apt. It is so saddening to see moral failure take apart a ministry.

Gregory the Great’s main message was that there needs to be a balance between the life of inner contemplation and outer activity. A pastor must have both, and avoid neither. It is his responsibility to tend to his own spiritual, moral and theological maturity. So, we are led to consider, which of these three am I likely to avoid?

Much of pastoral ministry is a matter of balance. Where do we tend to be unbalanced? Perhaps it is too much compassion and so avoiding speaking truth. We want to remain compassionate and caring, and willing to listen, but also explore ways of gently pointing people to God’s truth and promises, rather than just agreeing or seemingly to tacitly approve their statements.

The chapter on Martin Bucer gave the challenge for our pastoral care to be overtly Christian, for if the way I speak would just echo the words of pagan counsel, how am I helping eternally? If our ultimate goal is growth in Christ, we must be speaking Christ, both knowledgeably and with confidence. Sin must be addressed, for if we do not acknowledge sin, we never grasp the true need for our saviour. In addition, we are to see pastoral care as evangelism, bringing the truth of Christ to those who do not have hope.

Richard Baxter reminded that the pastor’s relationship with God is crucial. Purves notes that warnings today are more likely to be about pastors’ mental health, and while we do need to be aware of mental health, spiritual health is also key.

Purves’ conclusion does a masterful job of drawing all the threads together and he gives the reader several propositional statements which are explained and considered, these include:

  • Pastoral theology is a discipline, and pastoral care is a practice, deeply rooted at all points in the study of the bible.
  • God will hold pastors accountable for the exercise of the pastoral office and the care of God’s people.
  • Pastoral work demands taking heed to oneself to the end that he or she is theologically, spiritually, and ethically a mature person.
  • Pastoral ministry is contextual and situational

This book is a helpful and instructive read about the history of some men highly committed to both a strong theology and teaching of the word and high view of pastoral care of people. It should help anyone in any type of pastoral ministry to identify areas they should consider more strongly and how to unite their theology of God with their practice of care.

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