I will never forget my first day of seminary. At 8:00 a.m., I walked into a classroom for the first time for a course in Systematic Theology taught by Paige Patterson. I sat on the back row with J.D. Greear and several other embryonic theologues. As Dr. Patterson began class, he announced that he would begin by handing out the class “syllabi.” As he said this, I leaned over to a friend and mentioned—being the willing servant of linguistic propriety that I was—that the proper plural of syllabus is “syllabuses,” not “syllabi.”
At this point, my friend raised his hand, was acknowledged by Dr. Patterson, and proceeded to say, “My friend Bruce has a problem with your grammar.” Dr. Patterson looked at me and said, “Yes?” To which I responded, “No sir, there is no problem with your grammar. My friend is joking.”
Dr. Patterson, however, told me that if I were man enough, I’d put on my big boy pants and tell him what I really thought. I, being man enough, as it were, proceeded to tell him. I offered my humble opinion that the word “syllabus” was not derived from the Latin and therefore the plural should be syllabuses rather than syllabi. Dr. Patterson thought about it for a second or two, looked at me, and said, “no, –buses are things that children ride to school, and since you seem to know so much about everything, I will grade your weekly quizzes out loud, in front of the entire class, for the rest of the semester.” And that he did. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of theological wedgies the remainder of the semester was for me?
More to the point, however, that semester was the beginning of a life-long love for Christian theology. There is nothing more satisfying, more unsettling, more helpful, and more practical than systematic reflection on the word of God. Aspiring pastors and church planters should embrace the calling to be theologians. Although their ministry will involve more than theology, it will never involve less.
In light of the centrality of theology for ministry, therefore, I encourage aspiring pastors and church planters to develop a theology with the following five characteristics:
1. Theology should exist in a living partnership with practice.
As a pastor or church planter, you will find yourself playing many practical roles—teacher, counselor, preacher, friend, comforter. In the exercise of these practical roles, you will be tempted either to divorce them from theoretical theology or to pursue the study of theology with only its practical effects in mind. You must resist both temptations.
Theoretical theology and practical ministry cannot really be separated in the first place; the more we try to separate them, the more each is impoverished. Each can, and should, inform and support the other. A theologian who ignores practical ministry will become an arid scholastic. A practitioner who ignores theology will find himself driven by merely pragmatic concerns or by the ideological trends of the day.
For that reason, you should make sure that your theoretical theology and practical ministry inform one another. Your theologizing should arise from within the context of ministry and mission; at the same time, it should drive you deeper and further in ministry and mission.
2. Theology should depend on the living word of God.
A healthy pastoral theology will be dependent upon the inscripturated Word of God. God’s written word is living and active because it is inspired by the Spirit of God, and is ever-relevant to our life and ministry in this world. As Henry Stob writes:
When…the Word is said to live, we mean that it is an authentic and authoritative witness to an historical and ever-present reality—the gracious and loving presence of God in Christ. As such it is not dated…. It spans the ages, and speaks to every situation. It addresses itself to changing moods, rises to meet each circumstance, suits itself to every need. And such indeed it is, for brooding over it, and speaking through it, and making application of it is the Holy Spirit himself.
Christian Scripture is also living in the sense that it is a narrative of God’s interaction with his world. It is a story that cannot be separated from the context of life, rather than a mere storehouse of impersonal facts. For that reason, when you theologize, you should keep your theological categories and conclusions tethered to the narrative. There is nothing wrong with abstracting from the text of Scripture, but there is something wrong with cutting those abstractions free from their narrative context, thereby allowing them to have their own autonomy.
As a pastoral theologian, you want your pastoral theology to be dialogical in nature. Your theologizing should arise from a deep and attentive reflection on the Word of God; at the same time, it should bring us into closer conformity to Scriptures. The worst theologies take a pastor up and away from the Scriptures. The best theologies drive us deeper into the Scriptures, enabling us to read them more faithfully than we did before.
3. Theology should arise from the soil of living faith.
A healthy pastoral theology grows from the soil of personal faith. Without a living faith in our living Lord, our theological frameworks and categories are little more than idolatrous ideologies and empty jargon.
Aspiring pastor or church planter, you must maintain a vital personal faith, a deep inner life of dependency upon the Lord. Nearly everything in our current context—the unhealthy emphasis on action at the expense of contemplation, the distraction caused by email and social media notifications, the superficiality and narcissism fostered by American consumer culture—mitigates against spiritual depth. We must take countermeasures in order to sustain a close walk with the Lord. (As I have written elsewhere, I encourage pastors and church planters to follow a four-fold pattern in their devotional life.)
Your theologizing must arise from a living walk with the living Lord and, because it does, it will also grow you into a more mature relationship with him.
4. Theology should be done in the context of a living community—the local church.
A healthy pastoral theology exists in an interface with a living community—the local church. All theology is local in the sense that all reflection on the word of God is done within a specific context. It takes shape in the pastor’s study, by a man in daily contact with the questions, concerns, and needs of the people. Henry Stob writes:
I submit that a theologian is bound to exhibit [theology’s] significance for Christian living…. There is a relevance to Christian theology to the temptations, trials, hopes struggles, anticipations, and frustrations of people, and that relevance must appear. The formulas and distinctions of theology must be so interpreted and mediated, kept so alive and dynamic, as to make a difference to the practical and moral conduct of people. Its truths must be truths that liberate, enrich, direct. Theological truths are truths to live by, and the theologian has the awful responsibility of ensuring that their existential import becomes apparent.
The best theology arises from ministry to the people of God; in turn, it enhances and enlivens one’s ministry to them.
5. Theology should issue forth in a living apologetic.
A healthy pastoral theology should be brought into contact with contemporary thought. It should address the issues, problems, crises, questions, and perplexities of the day. In other words, a healthy pastoral theology will be public and missional. As Tim Keller says, a missional public theology should facilitate at least four things.
a. It will enable us to discourse in the vernacular.
First, it should enable the people of God to talk about God in vernacular discourse. It brings the historic Christians faith into an interface with contemporary unbelievers’ prevalent vocabulary and thought forms. It will translate the Christian faith into contemporary categories even while, at the same time, it invites the unbeliever to delve into the historic Christian faith and its traditional language and categories.
b. It will enable us to enter into the culture’s stories.
Second, it should enable the people of God to enter into, and re-tell, the culture’s stories via the Bible’s narrative. We will become deeply acquainted with our culture’s story of the world, able not only to appreciate the positive aspects of it, but also how the biblical narrative alone can make sense of those aspects. Instead of merely ordering our neighbors to believe, we will be able to engage, listen, and persuade.
c. It will enable lay people to shape their vocations and public lives in light of their faith.
Third, it should enable lay people to shape their vocations and public lives in light of the Christian faith. Our pastoral theology will help the people of God think Christianly about the various dimensions of life such as art, science, politics, business, education, service, sports, and leisure. Like glasses, it will help people view their workplace as a fertile ground for Christian witness.
d. It will help create Christian community that is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.
Fourth, it will help create Christian community that is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. It will help the people of God reframe divisive socio-cultural issues in light of the gospel. For example, the gospel reframes our approach to money by revealing that it’s neither our savior nor our security, and by propelling us to be radically generous to the economically disadvantaged. Likewise, it reframes our approach to power by causing us—counterintuitively—to lovingly serve and empower others by decentering ourselves.
As Tim Keller often reminds us, this gospel-centered reframing will break the ability of our fellow Americans to dismiss your church as a special interest group beholden to any given political party. Your church will be able to speak with distinctiveness, clarity, and power by viewing public issues through the lens of the gospel.
Syllabuses for Life
A syllabus is a summary outline of a course of study. On that first day of seminary many years ago, I received a (literal) syllabus outlining Dr. Patterson’s plan for introducing embryonic theologues to the contours of systematic theology. Although I was not immediately aware of it, however, I was receiving a (metaphorical) syllabus guiding me in what would become a life-long journey in doing theology.
Aspiring pastors and church planters, I hope your life-long theological journey will exhibit the five characteristics featured in this short essay. The health and vitality of your ministry depends, in part, upon whether you do so. Theology should be done in living partnership with ministry practice, rooted in a living faith, dependent upon the living Word, interfaced with a living community of faith, and done in service of a living apologetic to contemporary unbelief. To build this sort of theology is not a small or essay task, but its construction is vital to our shared Christian mission.