Why do pastors need to be trained as scholars, and how can their theological studies be organized so that their training as scholars will support their pastoral ministry?
1. Why Pastors Need to be Trained as Scholars
One of God’s good gifts to the Church is that some of God’s people are called to be pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the life and ministry to which they have been called. Such persons are not the rulers of the Church, but its servants. In the Reformed tradition their ministry is recognized and they are called to specific roles by the action of the Church in the calls issued by particular congregations under the guidance of their denominational governing bodies. Those denominational governing bodies also set the standards for their preparation for ministry.
In the Reformed tradition we have always required our pastors to be trained as scholars. This word means something slightly different than it did when the tradition was first adopted. Scholarship is now defined by the needs of the research University. A scholar is understood to be someone who is trained to be able to do original research in a specialized field. Original research is almost always carried out on the borders and fringes of a field, or in its hidden depths, because that is where it is easiest to discover new things. But this meaning of scholarship oriented to the needs and demands of research is somewhat less than two hundred years old, and has only proliferated in America since the Second World War. For more than a thousand years before that to be a scholar was to have learned the languages, history, and seminal works necessary to be conversant in a particular tradition. It meant to be a living participant in a tradition, able to read in it, learn from it, explain it, teach it, and carry on a conversation with it. This is the kind of scholars that our pastors need to be. They do not need to be capable of doing research into the tradition, as research is defined by the University, although they must be capable of learning from research. But they must be able to carry on a conversation with the tradition of the teaching of the Church throughout the ages.
Sometimes it is suggested that the modern world is so complex, new, different, and strange that it is necessary to break with our traditions and to deal with it entirely in the present in order to be able to cope with it at all. But on the contrary, it is only participation in the deep tradition of the Church that gives us any hope of being able to keep our balance and to deal with this world in a way that enables us to do the good to which we have been called, rather than being swept away by the social and intellectual currents of our times. The tradition of the Christian Church gives us access to experience that extends beyond our own culture and beyond the lifetime of the oldest person we know. It is composed of contributions from a wide variety of cultures stretching across more than three thousand years of human history. To be a conversation partner in this tradition, to be skilled at using this tradition to interpret the Bible, and to interpret our present experience in light of the Bible, is a specialized task. Every particular congregation of the Christian Church needs someone to do this with them and for them. It is for this reason that we train our pastors as scholars and call and pay them as professionals.
This is not to say that there are not other tasks which we require of our pastors as well. Counseling in a variety of forms, something that was traditionally called the care or the cure of souls, is also a critical ingredient of pastoral ministry. The logistical necessities impose administrative and program-oriented responsibilities upon pastors as well. But the defining task, by virtue of which a pastor is not just a family practice counselor, or church business administrator, or a custodian of culture or religion, or church project manager, or a religious lecturer and performer, is the task of being a conversation partner in, and an interpreter of, the tradition of the Church. This does not fail to put the study of Bible in its proper place as the first of our concerns. The Bible is the root of our Church tradition, and the majority of our tradition is devoted to understanding and interpreting the Bible.
It is the duty of the whole Church to proclaim the Gospel and serve as ambassadors for Christ. Pastors equip their congregations for this task by teaching them from the Bible in continuing conversation with the whole church throughout all of time and space. In this way the Church measures and criticizes its talk about God and its proclamation of the Gospel by reference to the Word of God written. The theological tradition of the Church is, in large part, the history of our self-criticism in continuing encounter with the Word of God. Pastors care for their congregations, but so do elders, deacons, and many other people in the congregations. It is the specialized task of Reformed pastors to exercise their care from out of a deep knowledge of the Scripture and in conversation with the theological tradition of the Church.
This does not mean that pastors should or would spend their time with their congregations teaching them as if a church were a small college. Far from it. Nor does it mean that the scholarship in which the pastor is trained comprises most of what a pastor does on the job. Far from it. It only means that this training as a scholar in the tradition of the church constitutes the defining feature of who the pastor is and how the pastor does all the various things that constitute professional pastoral ministry. It is the specific ingredient that makes a pastor more than a ceremonial leader. It is the defining characteristic that makes pastors the particular kind of counselors, teachers, mentors, preachers, servants, leaders, and healers that they are.
2. Concerning the Order and Structure of Theology for Training Pastors as Scholars
A. Pastoral Theology
The most important job in theology is Pastoral Theology. Pastoral Theology is the work of enabling the people in our churches to grow up to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ so that the whole body, knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, may truly be his body upon the earth and complete the work, which he began in us, of reconciling the world to himself so that the whole of creation might acknowledge his lordship and enjoy his blessing forever. This is an impressive statement, assembled out of bits and pieces of Scripture, and easy to agree with on that account. But unless it is broken down into smaller more direct statements it will remain, for all its scriptural impressiveness, meaningless.
To pastor is to shepherd, to parent, to guide, to preach, to enable, to teach, to coach. Pastors are not hired holy people whose job is to become what the members of the congregation do not have time to become themselves. A pastor’s job is precisely to enable people to become what they do not have the time or ability to become by themselves: children of the living God, Christlike servants of their Lord. This is something that no one can do for themselves. This is something that pastors cannot, of themselves, do for any other person. It is something that only God can do for anybody. But the good news is that it is something that God has done, is doing, and will do. The pastoral ministry is one of the ways that God has chosen to do it.
How do the pastors do this thing that they cannot do, that only God can do? They do it by talking about God. That is what theology means: talking about God. We have created a great many more specialized, specific, scholarly definitions of theology, but the root meaning remains: talking about God. Pastoral theology is the actual way that pastors talk about God with their churches. The abstract, academic, scientific description of the principles and content of pastoral work are secondary reflection upon pastoral theology.
This is not to disparage the abstract theorizing that scholars do. This very article is composed mostly of abstract theorizing. Sometimes, abstract thinking is the most practical thinking possible. But scholars are ser-vants, not people called to some higher way. Their work should serve the church, not leave it gasping in the dust.
How do pastors talk about God in such a way as to enable the people of the congregation, the children of the living God, to become Christlike servants of their lord? There are three primary ways.
The first is fairly simple. Its profundity lies in the fact that it is simply an instrument by which the Holy Spirit does much deeper and more important things inside people’s hearts. Pastors proclaim the gospel. They tell again the story of how God made himself present to the people of Israel. They tell how God made himself present to us in the life of Jesus Christ. They declare the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death on the cross. They announce the new life in Christ made possible by his resurrection from the dead. And they tell us these things over and over again because we need to hear them over and over again. For, although we do not usually forget them, we constantly forget to take them to heart, to put our trust in them.
The difficulty here is that merely repeating the words that accomplished this task hundreds of years ago will not often be successfully heard. The Gospel has not changed, but the hearers of the Gospel have. To pro-claim the Gospel in new words, and yet to be careful that those new words proclaim the same Gospel, requires the training of a scholar, in the sense defined above.
The second is more complex. Pastors talk about Christ’s command that we love one another. They talk about our calling to upbuild one another in love. They talk about the gifts of the Spirit that enable us to serve one another in love. They talk about the life that we have together in Christ. They talk about the maturity in Christ that is the goal of our growth.
“Talking about God” here includes a great many other things that usually have more specific names, such as preaching, teaching, leading in worship, personal counseling, encouraging fellowship, enabling personal and corporate Bible study, fostering personal and corporate prayer, coordinating church activities and staff responsibilities, and much more. These things are “talking about God” because pastors do them as a part of a continuing conversation with their congregations about who Jesus Christ is and what difference that makes to who we are.
The third is the most difficult of all. Pastors talk about God’s call to us to be ambassadors for Christ. They talk about the ministry of reconciliation which has been given to us. They remind us of our call to love our enemies. They tell us again how Jesus redefined for us who the neighbor is whom we are called to love.
This is difficult in several ways. But the most significant difficulty in the United States in the twenty-first century may be that most congregations would prefer the church to be a safe haven in a stormy world. We shy away from the enormous expense in time, effort, and money that is needed to minister to a world that is as broken as this one is. And we are afraid to expose ourselves and our families to the dangers of this culture. But just as surely as we were saved by grace, and that through faith, we were also saved for good works that we should walk in them.
It must be understood that all these categories and characterizations are temporary conveniences, being used to understand how training pastors as scholars will serve their work. They are an attempt to construct conceptual tools that will help us do the job of formulating a scholarly education that serves the ministry of the church first and foremost. We are making a new effort to offer a variant on the usual pattern of training for pastors. That effort, and the development and improvement of that variant, will require the ongoing conversation that this paper intends to serve.
B. Biblical Theology
The second most important job in theology is Biblical theology. I am not a properly trained Biblical theologian and am not going to attempt to say anything about the content and practice of Biblical theology. I only speak here to the place of Biblical theology among the theological practices that train pastors as scholars.
In order to put Biblical theology in its proper place as a scholarly enterprise and to understand how to teach it to those preparing for pastoral ministry we need to understand the relationship between the human and the divine in Scripture after the model of the relationship between the human and the divine in Jesus Christ. But the Chalcedonian formula is not a statement of what we understand out of our own powers, but rather a statement of something perceived at the limit of rational understanding which nonetheless grasps us and demands to be known by us. So also our understanding of the authority of Scripture is based not upon our own powers of understanding but upon the hold it takes of us in revelation. We need not fear to turn all the powers of critical scholarship or of any other tool of human understanding upon the Scripture, for it is the self-revelation of the living God. God is responsible for revelation, as it is beyond our power to reveal God no matter how good our theology is. And that is as it should be, for being both living and active, God is well able to keep up with all that develops in the various schools of scholarship and still have strength to spare to reveal himself in and through his Word.
It may be helpful to distinguish between biblical studies and Biblical theology. Biblical studies are oriented to the human character of the Scriptures and are usually well served by academic scholarship. But Biblical theology is talking about the content of the Scriptures rather than their form and the material of which they are constructed. Biblical theology is the interpretation of the Scriptures on the presumption that God speaks and that God says what this text says. All further conversation on this point needs to be carried out by those properly trained and qualified for it.
C. Church History and History of Doctrine
The third most important job in theology is the History of the Church and its Doctrine. This is the substantial work in which pastors are trained in the tradition of the church as a living conversation in which they are engaged on behalf of their congregations and to which they bring their congregations. Church history and history of doctrine are here joined together in a unity in which the emphasis should lie slightly on the side of history of doctrine. Church history as taught in departments of history at secular universities is not directly helpful here, as it treats the history of the church as a mere record of sociological, political, and economic causes. Such history may serve a useful purpose as background and commentary, but the point of this study is that pastors should be initiated as living bearers of the tradition of the church as it reflects upon its talk about God in light of the Scripture.
The proper elaboration of this is a coherent plan of core courses in Church History and Theology. The best possible introduction into the tradition would be a series of courses, lessons, or conversations in the core works of Reformed theology. This is the classic sense of introduction, that is, being put into interaction with the thing, rather than the modern sense of becoming briefly acquainted with the thing from the outside.
And again, the particular development of this part of the training of pastors must be done by those with the professional qualifications for it. I have only a few things to say about it from my perspective as a philosophical and systematic theologian.
The character of each of these courses, lessons, and conversations must be carefully considered by those that teach them. I once took a master’s level course at seminary on “Creation, Trinity, and Christology in the Early Church.” This course was taught by an excellent scholar and was well taught given its goals. But its goals were oriented to preparation for Ph.D. work. Ten of the twelve weeks of class were spent on recondite aspects of the background to these issues in the early church: Philo, middle Platonism, and newly discovered resources within the historical documents of the Syriac churches. Only two weeks were spent on the actual content of the Nicene controversy itself, and Chalcedon we never even got to. Now this work on the fringes is precisely the proper preparation for research scholars whose job it is to search out new things. But the great majority of those taking the course were preparing for pastoral ministry. What they needed was a firm and solid grounding in the heart of the matter that led to the Nicene Creed and the definition of Chalcedon.
All of the course work planned for training pastors as scholars must take a lesson from this, and every course must concern itself for the heart of the matter, seeking to enable students to understand the faith in such a way that it enters into their own heart and becomes part of their own thinking and understanding. It is true that little that is new and has not been studied and understood for long centuries will be treated in these courses. But our students are not centuries old, and these matters are new to them. The Pelagian controversy (the problem of how much human free will can accomplish in our salvation and sanctification) breaks out afresh in every college fellowship and every congregation blessed with new believers. And the church has never yet developed a theology and a preaching that is not challenged by the Chalcedonian definition. We are agreed that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human. But how that can be the case “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” eludes us. And if all that eluded us were the intellectual problem of how to formulate an understanding of the problem, then it could be left to the systematic theologians. But for pastoral theologians the problem of understanding how the divine and human are joined in Christ is the problem of understanding how we are to be human as Christians, as those joined to Christ. It is a problem for preaching and pastoral counselling. And the Reformation is still taking place, in individuals as well as in the church. The course work must concentrate on the heart of the matter because that heart is the life of the church.
None of this is meant to demean the work of modern scholars but only to reorient slightly the way in which they teach those preparing for pastoral ministry. Pastors need to be exposed to and informed by research scholars. Research scholarship has four great strengths. First, it tends to dissolve nonsense by exposing error. Second, it discovers new things, or things long forgotten, by probing in new ways into the material. Third, it relates what is found in the Scripture to everything else that we know. And fourth, it questions everything, even when it seems irreverent to do so. This is important because our greatest sin in interpreting the Scripture is our constant assumption that we already know what God is saying. Even when it seems irreverent, research scholarship does us a service by reminding us that our interpretation of the Word of God is not, in and of itself, identical with the Word of God. But research scholarship must not be permitted to define the content and methods by which pastors are trained as scholars.
It should be noted that this idea of how to train pastors as scholars for the good of the church may mean a course of studies with more required courses and fewer electives than is the modern custom.
D. Philosophical and Systematic Theology
Philosophical and systematic theology is, at best, only the fourth most important job in theology. Philosophical and systematic theology is, first, an attempt to fashion a set of conceptual tools to be used when reflecting upon our talk about God, and, second, an attempt to talk about everything in our experience from out of our talk about God. We reflect upon our talk about God because we feel constrained by our calling to check and correct all our talk about God by reference to God’s talk about himself and our relation to Christ. By God’s talk about himself I mean the Word of God written. This task is only of third or fourth importance among the tasks of theology because it does not even begin until we are already doing the work of pastoral theology and biblical theology as defined above. We cannot reflect upon our talk about God until we are talking about God. And we cannot correct our talk about God by reference to God’s self-revealing talk until we have heard and studied the Scriptures, the Word of God written.
Philosophical and systematic theology often creates the illusion of being of first importance by the character of its job. As the art of creating a conceptual tool kit for doing the other jobs of theology, it often seems as though the tools must come first. In actual fact, we begin the work of pastoral and biblical theology at the call of God, in the midst of life, with whatever tools come to hand. And, unsurprisingly, those first tools are often clumsy or derived from the culture which surrounds us and only partly suited for the work to which we put them. It is the nature and character of the work itself that forces us to seek and invent better, more widely varied, more carefully honed, and more suitably designed tools. After two thousand years of theologizing, it often seems as if the tool set is so well developed and so complete that we must study the tools first. But the work comes before the tools, for it is the work that teaches us how to use the tools, not the tools that teach us how to do the work.
Philosophical and systematic theology also sometimes creates the illusion that it is of first importance because, in attempting to draw conclusions and implications from the Word of God written, it often idealizes and systematizes what it finds there. By idealizing, philosophical and systematic theology gives theology infinite extension in the manner of both mathematics and philosophical idealism. But this is often an illusion. The revelation of the Word of God is actual, not ideal, and in its actuality it criticizes both the lesser finite elements in which it is found and also the greater infinite idealizations which can be extended from it. The ultimate actuality of the revelation of the Word of God is Jesus Christ and him crucified, not idealized universalizations that can be derived from him. This is a mistake that has been made several times in the history of theology, and it is so severe that it might be understood as idolatry on a new plane.
We see from Scripture that God is sufficiently powerful to accomplish whatever he chooses. But when idealized into an abstract concept of omnipotence we are exposed to the problem of whether this means that God exercises all power. Is God the active agent in doing everything that happens? This idealization threatens to turn God into fate and makes the ethical demands of the Gospel problematic. And the ethical demands of the Gospel are one of the premiere problems of pastoral theology.
We see from Scripture that God knows the consequences of choices and actions. But when that knowledge is systematized as an abstract concept of omniscience it leaves human free will stranded. How can we be free to choose if God already knows what we will choose and what we will do? There are possible intellectual answers to this question. But the original data from which omniscience was abstracted appear most often in the context of God making a demand for the choices and actions of his people. The pastoral problem is helping people to choose consequences when they make decisions. This is done by talking about God’s knowledge of the consequences of choices and actions, not by knowing the future.
The abstractions and idealizations of philosophical and systematic theology lie closest to reality when they stand in subordination to the actuality of the crucified and risen Jesus as attested in the witness of the prophets and apostles. They are abstractions from, and idealizations of, our actual encounter with God in Christ. In practical terms, they will be the best abstractions possible when they arise immediately from, and are kept in close interaction with, the concrete work of pastoral and biblical theology. A theology which becomes pure abstraction, far from being the most refined and ideal form of theology, has become philosophy. The purification has purified the distinctive content out of it.
This does not mean that theology will not use philosophy; it will use it frequently. But a right theology will always understand that it abstracts away from its characteristic content for the sole purpose of shaping its conceptual tools more appropriately to its object in order then to return to the concrete revelation of God in Jesus Christ with minds better prepared to hear what God has to say. It will never treat some one set of philosophical tools as definitive or complete. This means that abstraction and idealization are always and only intermediate steps in the work of theology. In mathematics and philosophy they may rightly be the end goal of our work, but in theology and the sciences they remain a subordinate means.
All this means that philosophical and systematic theology is at its best and truest when it voluntarily submits itself to the service of Pastoral theology, Biblical theology, and the history the Church and its teaching. It is an abstract art, it is true. But it is the art of abstracting from, and providing conceptual tools to, the actual pastoral and biblical work of the church.
As a philosophical and systematic theologian my primary concern is theological epistemology. John Calvin writes: “God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word” (Institutes 1.7.4). This means we know God in and through God, by God’s own act of self-revelation. As abstract and theoretical as this is, it leads directly to the concept of the proper place of philosophical and systematic theology elucidated in this paper, for the church is the body of Christ on earth. If God is known in, through, and by God, then God is known in, through, and by the church. But epistemology ought to lead directly to pedagogy. So, I have often formulated my concern for theological epistemology in terms of teaching students for pastoral ministry.
The nature of the act of knowledge in faith and theology is a product of the relationship of love in which we find ourselves by God’s grace and mercy.
When we learn and know something, we build a model of it in our minds. But the character and quality of that model are dependent upon our constant effort to bring the model, our knowledge, into interaction with reality. This means that when we know anything, the act of knowledge, in as much as it is a response to an encounter with an other, is specifically and necessarily an act of changing our minds, and changing them in response to the other and because of the other. Calvin writes: “all right knowledge of God is born of obedience” (Institutes I.6.2). This means that in every act of knowledge of God, who we are changes. When we do not change, we do not really know. Thus, every act of knowledge is an act of love in which we allow who we are to be changed by that which we love in our knowledge of it.
In theology this means that we only know God as we are changed by our encounter with the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. And given our sinful being, for God does not become incarnate in order to save the unfallen, the change which we undergo in being given such knowledge is radical. Nothing less or other than love can be the ground of our acceptance of such a radical change in our being. Repentance is not only a religious and moral dimension of our relation to God, it is an epistemological dimension as well. Moreover, given the sinful state in which we receive such knowledge, the love in question can only be, in the first instance, God’s love for us, of which our love for God is only a consequence. Knowledge depends upon and arises from love, and theologians should know and understand this better than anyone.
All of this reflection on the parts and structural relations of theology means that the basic shape of any effort to train pastors as scholars is not a practical decision arising from any disappointment or dissatisfaction with seminaries as they are currently organized. It is, rather, an integral and organic consequence of abstract theorizing about the nature of the act of knowledge in the realm of theology. It is not an attempt to transform an entrenched and impractical emphasis on scholarly study (as the university defines it) into a more practical and useful form of professional training. It is a radical attempt to formulate the most thorough and self-consistent form of academic and scholarly study (in the traditional sense) that can arise from a true understanding of the nature of the act of knowledge in the Church and the nature of learning among those who are called to be pastoral scholars for the sake of the Church. Just as the most abstract, theoretical, academic, and scholarly thing a scientist can do is go into the laboratory or the field and test theories against reality, so also in theology. At least, in any theology that attempts honestly to correct its talk about God by reference to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.