Theology for ministry

Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, Untitled, 1972

Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, Untitled, 1972

Alister McGrath’s very good and timely comment on the Church of England’s Resourcing Ministerial Education document echoes observations made by many others. John de Gruchy, for example, in his excellent little book, Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective, writes:

In Germany the title ‘theologian’ refers in the first place not to the academic theologian but to the pastor. It is the primary designation within the Protestant churches of an ordained minister. Yet few priests or pastors would regard themselves as such, especially within the Anglo-Saxon world. In his book Ferment in the Ministry, the north American pastoral psychologist Seward Hiltner imagined the possible responses which ordained ministers would give to a Gallup Poll which asked the question: ‘Do you regard yourself as a theologian?’

  • 31% said, ‘Well, I am a minister, but you could hardly call me a theologian.’
  • 22% said, ‘It is true I have studied theology, but I am not really a theologian.’
  • 17% replied, ‘Brother, I sure ain’t. I’m only a simple parson, not one of those highpowered book guys.’
  • 8% admitted, ‘Well, I guess I am, in a way, but I am more interested in serving people than in theology.’
  • 7% said, ‘Where did you get that idea? And don’t do it again.’
  • 4% replied, ‘I am about twice a year, when I go back to the alumni lectures.’
  • 2% said, ‘Pardon me, I have to rush to a funeral.’
  • 1% snorted, ‘I wonder who thought up that question?’
  • 0.9% said, ‘Yes.’

Why is there this reluctance on the part of ordained ministers, to regard themselves as theologians, and, on the part of some, especially Anglo-Saxons and their heirs, why is there such antipathy towards theology? In the Germanic world the traditional tendency and temptation is precisely the opposite, to glory in the title ‘theologian’, and to create theologies remote from Christian praxis and existence in the world. Helmut Thielicke has a German audience in mind when, in his A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, he writes about the ‘pathology of the young theologian’s conceit’. Yet even in Germany the idea that the ordained minister’s self-perception is that of a theologian cannot be assumed. At Christmas in 1939 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter to his former students:

How superficial and flippant, especially of theologians, to send theology to the knacker’s yard, to make out that one is not a theologian and doesn’t want to be, and in so doing to ridicule one’s own ministry and ordination and in the end to have, and to advocate, a bad theology instead of a good one!

This attitude parallels the tendency within the church generally to disparage theology in the interests of ‘practical Christianity’.

Theology has a bad name amongst many theological students and ordained ministers, not primarily because of their modesty but because they fail to grasp its vital necessity and relevance to their vocation. Indeed, they may even regard it as something detrimental to their calling and the life and mission of the church. There are theological students who regard the study of theology as an unfortunate requirement for ordination, rather than as that which should provide the focus for their work. The image of a theologian is academic, intellectual, and far-removed from the everyday tasks of the parish minister. Much of the blame for this must be laid at the door of university departments of theology, theological colleges and seminaries, and those of us who teach in them. Theology has too often been taught in ways which reduce it to idealistic abstractions, and result in its rejection as a useful, indeed, essential part of the mission of the church and therefore of the ordained ministry. After all, the value of theology taught as a series of independent academic disciplines lacking both coherence or direction and unrelated to biblical vision or faith, is not self-evident for the Christian community struggling to be faithful in the midst of the world. This situation needs to be radically transformed if theology is to become the vocation of the ordained minister, and central to the total ministry of the church, and not simply be regarded as the peculiar province of scholars.

In John T. McNeill’s magnificent A History of the Cure of Souls, there is what we might call a ‘give-away’ comment which reinforces my argument that the ordained minister, is primarily a theologian. McNeill refers to the fact that ‘Jean Daniel Benoit, the expert on Calvin’s work in the cure of souls, states boldly that the Genevan Reformer was more a pastor than theologian’, but he then continues, ‘to be exact, he was a theologian in order to be a better pastor’. Conversely, in his introduction to Karl Barth’s essays, Against the Stream, Alec Vidler has this perceptive comment about the theologian’s theologian, Karl Barth: ‘I was aware of a quality or style about him which is hard to define. It may perhaps best be called pastoral, so long as this is not understood as a limitation.’ Christian pastors are called to be theologians, and those whom we normally designate theologians may well be pastors …

The primary task of the ministry of the Word and Sacraments is to enable the upbuilding of the church in such a way that it is always pointed beyond itself to the reign of God in Jesus Christ in the midst of the world. Its task is to keep the People of God mindful of the tradition of Jesus, crucified and risen, and what this means for their lives and the praxis of the church today. Its task is to enable the church to be faithful to its identity as the People of God in the world, discerning who God is and what God requires of them. In this way the ministry of the Word and Sacraments is, literally speaking, church leadership because it provides theological direction for the mission of the People of God in the world.

The matter is also taken up directly by Karl Barth. In his Evangelical Theology, written in part to speak to ‘the present-day younger generation’ and clearly with an eye on encouraging budding preachers, Barth raises issues that remain relevant to our own time, and aims his challenge not at the feet of pastors alone but also at the feet of the entire Christian community, and of those who consider themselves to be ‘Christian’:

Since the Christian life is consciously or unconsciously also a witness, the question of truth concerns not only the community but the individual Christian. He too is responsible for the quest for truth in this witness. Therefore, every Christian as such is also called to be a theologian. How much more so those who are specially commissioned in the community, whose service is preeminently concerned with speech in the narrower sense of the term! It is always a suspicious phenomenon when leading churchmen [and churchwomen] (whether or not they are adorned with a bishop’s silver cross), along with certain fiery evangelists, preachers, or well-meaning warriors for this or that practical Christian cause, are heard to affirm, cheerfully and no doubt also a bit disdainfully, that theology is after all not their business. “I am not a theologian; I am an administrator!” a high-ranking English churchman once said to me. And just as bad is the fact that not a few preachers, after they have exchanged their student years for the routine of practical service, seem to think that they are allowed to leave theology behind them as the butterfly does its caterpillar existence, as if it were an exertion over and done with for them. This will not do at all. Christian witness must always be forged anew in the fire of the question of truth. Otherwise it can in no case and at no time be a witness that is substantial and responsible, and consequently trustworthy and forceful. Theology is no undertaking that can be blithely surrendered to others by anyone engaged in the ministry of God’s Word. It is no hobby of some especially interested and gifted individuals. A community that is awake and conscious of its commission and task in the world will of necessity be a theologically interested community. This holds true in still greater measure for those members of the community who are specially commissioned …

A little later on Barth says that all theology ought to be undertaken for the sake of the Community and its witness to the Word of God; neither of which, by the way, are served particularly well by the high levels of egotistical testosterone that characterise much academia:

Theology would be an utter failure if it should place itself in some elegant eminence where it would be concerned only with God, the world, man, and some other items, perhaps those of historical interest, instead of being theology for the community. Like the pendulum which regulates the movements of a clock, so theology is responsible for the reasonable service of the community. It reminds all its members, especially those who have greater responsibilities, how serious is their situation and task. In this way it opens for them the way to freedom and joy in their service.

(One of the things highlighted (some 17 times!) in the C of E report is the focus on so-called ‘lay’ ministry (still an ugly, clumsy, and theologically-preposterous concept. Can’t Anglicans, who might still, even in these darkened years, be the champions of theo-speak in the Anglophone world, find a better word?). Interpreted kindly, it’s a nod to the fact that the church in toto is a theological community, and an expression of the fact that theological education is on the way to being liberated from its clergy-centric shackles, even if many of the pressures for such a move have principally not been theological in nature.)

Whenever I think about the strange place of a pastor as a member and resident theologian of a theo-hermeneutical community, I remember one of my favourite passages in Jürgen Moltmann’s autobiography, A Broad Place:

With my doctorate, I at first felt a fool standing in the pulpit in front of this farming congregation. But earlier I had lived with workers and farmers in ‘the hard school of life’, and it was out of these experiences that I preached, not from my Göttingen lecture notes. This congregation taught me ‘the shared theology of all believers’, the theology of the people. Unless academic theology continually turns back to this theology of the people, it becomes abstract and irrelevant. For the fact is that theology is not just something for theological specialists; it is a task laid on the whole people of God, all congregations and every believer. I only got into difficulties when I used the same sermon for the student congregation in Bremen and the farmers in Wasserhorst. The farmers were not interested in questions about the meaning of life and were not going through any adolescent orientation crises. They trusted in God and loved the Ten Commandments. When my elders rolled their eyes, I knew that I had lost them. So they guided me and preached to me.

My own personal theology developed as I went from house to house and visited the sick. If things went well, on Monday I learnt the text for the following Sunday’s sermon, took it with me as I visited the congregation, and then knew what I had to say in my sermon. Here a ‘hermeneutical circle’ developed, not the one between textual interpretation and one’s own private interpretation, as in Bultmann, but the one between textual interpretation and the experience of a community of people, in their families, among their neighbours, and in their work. In conversations, in teaching, and in preaching I came to believe that this was a shared theology of believers and doubters, the downcast and the consoled.

So McGrath: ‘It’s the theology, stupid’.

4 thoughts on “Theology for ministry

  1. Well said. My favorite example of this is John MacLeod Campbell, who (as you well know) wrote what he did and risked what he did because he wanted his congregation to know the joy of their salvation. What a beautiful marriage of academic endeavor and pastoral love!

    I’d be willing to bet that the most profound works of theology are born from such a place- where the Word of God is allowed to become flesh and blood, where theology is worked out in the gritty and sacred paradox of real life. To me, when life and theology become one, they are now revelation– for He is revealed in us in the earth. “The church in toto is a theological community.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Jason. It has always seemed to me to be my prime task in ministry, but assailed on all sides by Mission leaders, administrators, “Ministers” and “Pastors”, it has sometimes felt like being a voice speaking in a culture that doesn’t do theology, to a world that doesn’t do “God”. So we are left with feel-good, personal developmental individualistic idolatry.

    Liked by 1 person

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