The Minister as Particular Theologian

I have not been very faithful the last couple of weeks in my writing.  The reason for that is largely because I have been immersed in writings by and about Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).  Jonathan Edwards is most known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  This is, of course, in a way unfortunate, as the breadth of the Edwardsian corpus is much broader than this one sermon.

One of the aspects of his life that I am intrigued by is how he lived out his calling as a minister.   I, at times, wonder if this was simply contextually and temporally specific, or if there is something to ministry that we’ve lost.

It cannot be denied that the world of eighteenth century New England was very different from our contemporary contexts.  However, in many other ways, there were great similarities.  Edwards struggled with his congregation to overcome their spiritual apathy, he dealt with teenage pregnancies in his congregation, and people that little interest in helping those less fortunate. Regardless of whether it is the year 2012, the year 1712, or the year 12, human nature is relatively consistent.

As a parish minister, Jonathan Edwards not only composed a large body of sermons, but also letters and theological books and articles.  Edwards was a venerable theologian, and as a theologian he was also very clearly connected to the church.

One thing that I have consistently encountered during my formal education is a growing division between theory and practice.  Those who engage in “practice” argue that they don’t have to know theory because it is “empty head knowledge.” Furthermore, those who are engaged in theory sometimes lack any practical interest as they are interested in intramural academics. This all contributes to a strong distinction between theoreticians and practitioners.  Although in Christianity there is a rapidly growing distrust of knowledge and education, this phenomenon is not limited to the Church and occurs in many arenas.

I, of course, come at this discussion with a master’s degree from a theological seminary.  I also place a great deal of importance on highly educated clergy, and history has always placed an importance on educated clergy. This trend of lowly or uneducated clergy is of relatively late origin, and the anti-educational sentiment among some is recent as well.  Although I am not sure which is the proverbial chicken and which is the egg, I see this as connected to this trend of divorcing the role of pastor and the role of theologian.

I have heard it argued that theologians do theological work, and pastors take care of things “which really matter to people.”  This of course grieves me to my core.  I am a person who both cares deeply about the church and the people of God and also loves theological work and study.  I have always assumed that I would have to choose, either give up my passion for leading the church and teach in a seminary, or give up my interest in theological work and pastor a parish. I have at times felt as though my only choices where to ignore my heart or ignore my head.

This is what interests me about Jonathan Edwards because he was both a parish pastor who sought to make God real to his congregation week after week, as well as a theologian in his own right.  This inspired my journey on reflecting on the minister as a theologian.

To be sure, I do not have a doctoral degree, and I do not argue that my theological credentials are the same as a professor at a seminary.  However, I do see a minister as a theologian, albeït a theologian of a particular order.

In my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, we have four offices: Elder, Deacon, Minister of Word and Sacrament, and General Synod Professor of Theology.  The fourth office (General Synod Professor of Theology) are teachers and theologians of the whole church, they are general theologians.  However, Ministers of Word and Sacrament earn a master’s degree in divinity at a theological seminary and in the local church Ministers serve as “pastor and teacher” (as my denomination’s Book of Church Order defines the role of minister in a local church).  If Ministers as parish pastors see themselves solely as practitioners or as professionals that deal with practical and “down to earth” matters and not theological work, our churches then are devoid of theology and the manufactured gap between theologians and pastors, between theoreticians and practitioners widens.

A minister/pastor however, is not called to be a general theologian, a minister/pastor is called to be a particular theologian.  A pastor is called to be the theologian for a particular people in a particular place; to help the people entrusted to their care experience and make sense of God and their lives.  We are called to love God with our hearts and our minds, and part of the role of the pastor is not only to move someone’s heart but also to help them grow in understanding.  After all, theology, according to St. Anselm, is “faith seeking understanding,” so what better place for theology than in the local church?

As ministry has become a profession rather than a calling, and a job rather than an office, this idea of pastor as theologian no longer seems to make sense.  If pastors are professionals, then their highest responsibility is to run a church — administration, employee supervision, building and grounds superintendence.  This is why some argue that pastors should have education and background in business, because much of contemporary pastoral ministry has devolved into running a business.

However, this is a grossly (and sadly) deficient understanding of ministry.  A pastor is not called to run a church, they are called to help teach and lead the people of God, and a part of this is the ability to be a competent theologian.  I do this not for intellectual exercise, but to help my congregation seek an understanding for their faith, to help make sense of God and make sense of their lives, to understand where God is calling them, and what God desires.

Theologians in a seminary or university, while they may be brilliant theologians, are not able to help my congregation make sense of God and their experience simply due to the fact they do not live and dwell among the congregation.  They are general theologians, who teach the whole church and help to educate and form particular theologians who will live in and exist in a particular community, to understand a particular community, and to speak to the particular experience of a particular community.

As I continue to form my understanding of myself as a pastor and teacher, I have come to be convinced that theological study is a major part of my responsibilities. My study, however, is not solely for general interest or for my own edification, but it is so that I can better help my congregation as they learn to love God with heart and mind, and as they make sense of their existence, as they seek to understand and apply scripture to their everyday lives.  Seeing myself as a theologian allows me to ascend to the pulpit week in and week out and help my folks to understand and apply scripture, it helps my pastoral care as I minister to someone who is dying of cancer, it helps my exhortations as I seek to help people live into God’s desires.

Without adequate study and reflection, my sermons and teaching can become formulaic, simply regurgitating what I find in commentaries.  Without knowing the fundamentals of biblical Greek and Hebrew I am unable to understand the nuances of the original languages.  Without a theological lens or hermeneutic, I will tend to approach every piece of scripture as isolated and I will lack any coherent beliefs that hold consistent, and can be blown easily with any shift in the winds of change.  Without seeing myself as a theologian and scholar, my work to preach and teach the scriptures becomes trite and irresponsible.

My only hope is that we will be able to deepen our understanding of ministry and return to a focus on minister as pastor and teacher and not as the professional who runs the church.

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