Theology and Pastoral Ministry
In an excellent and timely article, Gerald Hiestand addresses the unhelpful bifurcation of theological scholarship and pastoral ministry. Hiestand warns that the result of this split is theological atrophy in the local church. He also calls the emerging generation of theologians to consider the pastorate as both a vocation and a fitting context for further scholarship.
With that in mind, I want to challenge pastors to reconsider their view of theology and its value for local church ministry. My reasons for writing this article extend beyond my love of theology and are born from a genuine concern for the life of the local church, along with its ministers.
An Unhealthy View of Theology
I’ve heard many of my ministry colleagues and college alumni express an unhealthy view of theology, considering it to be no more than an important grounding before heading into the pastorate. Such a view is not only opposed to the Evangelical tradition; it also dangerously diminishes the value of ordered thinking around truth in a relativistic age, and leaves those in ministry underdeveloped and doctrinally blunt. My aim, then, is to convince the reader that studying theology is a crucial and on-going aspect of pastoral ministry.
A prominent reason for the mothballing of theology is that we have lost sight of its purpose and place. This is undoubtedly in part the fault of inaccessible and obscure theological inquiry, along with the growing distance between doctrinal pursuit and Christian living. John Webster comments that the reduction of theology to something vaguely moral and overly academic gives the impression that it is nothing more than the academy’s conscience or folk religion.
Theology as Guide
But on the contrary, theology is in its essence a guide to reading scripture and living the Christian life. John Calvin knew this and wrote in a preface to his Institutes that it is the task of those with greater understanding to guide others and help them find the sum total of God’s teaching in his word. He hoped that his systematic theology would “be a key to open a way for all children of God into a good and right understanding of Holy Scripture.” Calvin saw his hugely significant contribution as a humble tool for directing others to the perfect doctrine contained in Scripture.
We would do well to remember that theology serves in the understanding of Scripture and is therefore an important component of Christian ministry and living.
Sola Scriptura and Theology Study
Another reason for theology’s unpopularity amongst those in the pastorate stems from one of the Reformation’s key principles: sola scriptura. Timothy George notes the irony in Protestants’ modern adoption of this as an excuse to ignore systematic theology, for the Reformers never studied scripture apart from the church’s tradition. Later, George writes: “The Reformers read, translated, and interpreted the Bible as part of an extended centuries-old conversation between the holy pages of God’s word and the company of God’s people.”
A few dangerous attitudes are inherent to this misunderstanding of sola scriptura—from thinking I am the most equipped exegete of any passage, to belittling the rich history of biblical interpretation, to the denial of theology of as an invaluable supplement to the reading of scripture.
Most of us, some perhaps unwittingly, express this narrow view of sola scriptura yet profess otherwise when we corporately declare the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds in our liturgies, or when we teach our congregations using the Heidelberg and Westminster catechisms. Like the Reformers, we must remember that we belong to a long line of godly, devoted, and gifted theologians who, in the past two millennia, have given much to the universal Church.
Lose Theology, Lose Clarity?
At this point, the reader might remain sceptical because in their own experience theology appears disconnected from the challenges of pastoral work and, as such, an unnecessary detraction from simply understanding and applying Scripture.
I would argue that this scepticism fails to recognise the role that theology serves in helping us grapple with biblical truth. Furthermore, I suggest that a low view of systematic theology reveals itself in unclear teaching. As Michael Ramsey writes: “It is those whose studies are shallow who are confused and confusing.”
A Brief Case Study
Before concluding let me offer an example of how theological study might be translated in the pastorate and where its absence could be harmful: human suffering and God’s sovereignty. This subject is pastorally significant and poses a serious hurdle to belief in a loving God. When confronted about how an all powerful but benevolent God could allow suffering the typical responses approximate the following: “Well, God suffered for us in Christ,” “he has promised to bring it to an end,” or “God is in control, trust him.”
Now, none of those are necessarily wrong answers, but because questions on this topic normally come from a place of angst, anxiety, and doubt we would do well to wrestle with the issue. Our answers must be nuanced and thoughtful, not broad and glib. Is God behind all evil in the world?
D. A. Carson speaks about how important it is to get our thinking on this question right; coining the phrase “asymmetrical sovereignty,” he argues that God does not stand behind good and evil in the same way. What this does not mean is that evil is outside of God’s sovereign domain.
So, Fred Zaspel could write this way after the death of his daughter: “[In glory] God will enable us to see things from his perspective, to see his wise purpose as he has worked it out in history unerringly for the good of his people to his own glory.” Only a developed theology can understand, and therefore offer counsel on, how God remains sovereign without being amoral or even evil. Only a developed theology can explain how nothing is out of God’s control, despite “evidence” to the contrary. A shallow answer given to someone struggling with suffering and loss and how it relates to the character of God is not only unhelpful; it can be harmful to a person’s faith.
Dust off Your Libraries
There is more to be said about the role of theology in the pastorate, not to mention my passing exploration of suffering, but I will conclude. Most pastors take their libraries with them when they leave college or seminary. So, pastor, I plead with you: Don’t let your books become decorative and dusty testaments to your theological study.
Theological study is not an academic hoop to jump through in order to get into the pastorate, but a vital aspect of any vital pastoral ministry. I will close with a few fitting words from Michael Ramsey: “Study gets very irksome if you think of it as adding more and more of items of knowledge to your bag. Think of study rather as being refreshed from the deep, sparking well of truth which is Christ himself.”
Editor’s note: this article originally appeared at 9Marks, way back in 2014. It’s used here with permission and without any changes. My proximity to theological studies over the past few years, involvement at TGC Africa, and recent reflections on pastoral ministry has only reiterated the necessity of the article and more like it.