Category Archives: Pastor Theologians

How being a ‘Pastor-Theologian’ Convinced Me that Theology is a Contemplative, rather than Practical Discipline

By Jared Mickelson

Being a minister while pursuing a post-graduate degree in systematic theology taught me that the end of theology is contemplative (or even speculative), rather than practical.

Medieval and Protestant Scholastics debated whether the primary end of theology is speculative, practical, affective, or—more commonly—some particular combination of the three. While this might appear to signal significant doctrinal divergence, when viewed from a perspective shaped by the assumptions undergirding theology in the modern university, one is more impressed by the (relative) scholastic unity rather than diversity. This is because a scholastic’s characterising of theology’s end as either speculative or practical, usually did not concern crude calculations regarding the quantity of space devoted to esoteric ruminations on the triune relations over-against passionate appeals for humanitarian action, but whether the final state of the blessed is better glossed as an act of speculative meditation, active adoration, or affective delight.[1] We might identify a shared affirmation that theology’s end is contemplative, concerning the eternal fulfilment of creatures in God, rather than immediately practical, terminating in the exercise of practical reason in the temporal sphere. Scholasticism was thus rooted in an Augustinian vision, which evinces “A conception of paradise [that] provides a sharp corrective to modern notions of spirituality, inasmuch as eternity will apparently be spent in the reflection on issues today considered purely technical.”[2]

Thus Stephen Long: “I defend a ‘speculative’ theology whereby the doctrine of God serves no interest because God is an end in God’s self and not a means to something else. God is to be enjoyed not used.”[3] Pastors addressing parishioners and academics appealing to university administers or grant instituting bodies, share a common struggle here, to maintain that the knowledge of God is not a means to some other good, but itself constitutes the final, blessed end of human creatures.

Kant in the Conflict of the Faculties, notes that “truth (the essential and first condition of learning in general) is the main thing, whereas utility…is of secondary importance.”[4] Truth, not utility, is the main thing, yet in the same influential essay, Kant relegates theology to the status of an authority based-discipline which cannot attain to questions of truth without stepping outside its restricted domain. Thus post-Kantian academic theology is tempted to justify its existence in the university by means other than the appeal to truth,[5] by appealing instead (for example) to theology’s supposed ability to illuminate the motivations of political actors with religious faith, or to elucidate intellectual history, or to remind other university faculties of questions of ultimate value. Yet this remains a temptation. Articulating theology’s ‘usefulness’ in terms of goods less ultimate than Augustine’s summum bonum, is a perilous reduction of theology’s own historical self-understanding by appeal to mere utility.[6] Truth is ‘the main thing,’ for creatures were made to know and love—and to be known and loved—by the triune God who is truth itself. Theologians—even academic theologians—either have some small role in fitting human creatures for that unspeakably glorious possibility, or are of all people most to be pitied.

This temptation facing the academic theologian is analogous to the challenge facing the minister, particularly the ‘pastor-theologian.’ The minister too is tempted to secure theology’s usefulness by demonstrating its practical utility in securing lesser goods than the summum bonum. Ministry is pressed by the immediate, by the repeated and unceasing insistence that every sermon, address, or homily, succinctly present an immediate point of action capable of being implemented by the close of the week. This preoccupation with the immediate, corresponding to the claim that theology—if it is to be of use to the church—needs be ‘practical’ or ‘relevant,’ paradoxically results in a constriction and diminishment of human personhood. For if the end of the rational creature is blessed fulfilment in contemplation of the living God, and theology—like Christian discipleship, spirituality, and liturgy—exists to form and fit creatures for that end, then to reduce the end of the knowledge of God to the procurement of lesser, more proximate goods, is to obscure the greatest good to which I might direct my fellow congregants. It is to treat them as lesser beings, intended for a more mundane end than that suggested to us by the gospel of God become man.

Yes, theology is practical, but derivatively so: “In knowing and loving God’s name for his sake we rightly order our loves….The goal is resting in God for his own sake; in attaining this goal, practical ends are wondrously achieved.”[7] Pastors and priests most of all, must insist upon a contemplative end for theology, because standing with those we serve amidst the heartaches and tragedies of life, forbids cheap consolation, and the summoning of our congregants to ends less glorious than knowing and loving God himself, for his own sake.

[1] For a more fulsome description, cf. Ulrich Gottfried Leinsle, Introduction to Scholastic Theology, trans. Michael J. Miller (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 147-181. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1992), I, q.7, 1-15, p.20-23.

[2] A N Williams, “Contemplation: Knowledge of God in Augustine’s De Trinitate,” in Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church, ed. James J. Buckley and David S. Yeago (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 131.

[3] Stephen Long, “The Perfectly Simple Triune God Symposium,” Syndicate, accessed October 22, 2018, https://syndicate.network/symposia/theology/a-perfectly-simple-triune-god.

[4] Immanuel Kant, Religion and Rational Theology, ed. Allen W. Wood and George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 7:28.

[5] cf. Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 104.

[6] Two inaugural lectures issue this clarion call, though in distinct ways: John Webster, Theological Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998). Edwin Chr. van Driel, “Gospeling: Paul, Protestant Theology, and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,” Academia.edu, accessed October 22, 2018, https://www.academia.edu/9035282/Gospeling_Paul_Protestant_Theologians_and_Pittsburgh_Theological_Seminary.

[7] Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (Malden: Blackwell Pub., 2004), 22.

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Jared is married to Becky and serves as a minister at Cornerstone Church in St. Andrews. His PhD research concerns the doctrine of divine attributes from scholasticism to modernity in the Reformed tradition.

Why Take a PhD to Pastoral Ministry

Dr. Joey Sherrard

Dr. Joey Sherrard recently defended his PhD thesis in St. Mary’s College, and he now serves as Assistant Pastor of Discipleship at Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  We congratulate Dr. Sherrard on his successful thesis defense and wish him the best as he ministers at his local congregation. This post continues our blog series on pastor theologians.


Why Take a PhD to Pastoral Ministry

When I decided, after six years of local church ministry as a pastor, to move across the Atlantic and to begin a doctoral program in systematic theology, what already felt like a lonely endeavor seemed even just a little bit lonelier. When I matriculated at St Andrews, I did so with a clear sense of calling that I would return to pastoral ministry upon the completion of my degree. Many of my colleagues at St Andrews, while sympathetic to intellectual demands of the task of ministry and committed to the local church in their personal and professional lives, came to St Andrews to pursue a vocation in academia and the specific context of institutions of higher learning. The clarity of their own calling and the relative straightforwardness with which they could integrate the work into their preparation for their careers contrasted with my own. How exactly did the work of seminar conversations about the doctrine of divine simplicity and papers presented on the extra Calvinisticum justify the significant commitment that my family and I had just made?

I’m grateful that in my first year at St Andrews I discovered the Center for Pastor Theologians and began almost immediately to be involved in their work. That institution, alongside the example of other pastors, the encouragement of friends and colleagues at St Mary’s, and the last two post-St Andrews years of work as a pastor, have helped me begin to articulate the immense blessing it is to be bring a PhD to the local church and the acute need there is for pastors who have completed the kind of intellectual formation required by a doctoral degree. What follows are three reasons why men and women discerning a call to ministry might consider doctoral work and why those currently undertaking a PhD can find their work well put to use in pastoral ministry.

The Fragmentation of Late Modernity

The lack of a coherent, shared intellectual framework and the abundance of identities now available in the modern marketplace has been well-documented by scholars such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. Modern Western culture is a confusing place to be a human being, let alone the shepherd of a group of men and women who bring into the pews each Sunday the questions and opinions they’ve formed from the various theological, media, and relational wells they have drawn from in the past week. Whereas in previous generations pastor and congregant might be able to agree upon a relatively narrow set of first principles that guide preaching, worship, and pastoral counseling, in most contexts this consensus has largely been lost. And this is the reality not just outside of the pastor, but also inside of him or her as well.

The gift of a doctoral degree is not only the opportunity to go a mile deep on a single biblical or theological conversation, but also the opportunity to think synthetically across the disciplines and historically across the ages. The pastor-theologian already has a tendency to be a generalist; the work of a doctoral program allows one to be a much more knowledgeable one. Seminars invite you to learn about much more than your own project. And (at least at the Roundel in St Andrews) lunchtime and water cooler conversations about colleagues’ interests are where much of the learning takes place. All of this is a significant asset that the pastor-theologian can bring into the study and the pulpit. In the middle of a time of intellectual and spiritual fragmentation, a doctoral program allows the pastor-theologian to begin to integrate.

The Intellectual Demands of Discipleship

This aforementioned integration is a much-needed asset for the pastor-theologian as he or she seeks to shepherd the flock toward Christian maturity. While there may be reason to sympathize with the pragmatic orientation of discipleship that is found in many contemporary churches, a deep acquaintance with the Scriptures and the Church’s theological tradition reveals the thinness of what can pass for spiritual formation. My own work in systematic theology at St Andrews has provided for me a number of tools that have been brought to bear on my work as a pastor: a greater attention to the doctrine of creation for understanding the ends of formation, an appreciation of the structure and depth of Christian catechesis, and a deeper understanding of the ways that doctrines relate to one another.

The work of discipling men and women in the local church is quite different than the work of constructing a 80,000 word doctoral thesis. In many ways it is more complex, requiring relational sensitivity, wisdom, and persistence. But it is not less than a robustly intellectual task that requires the fullness of the Church’s theological resources. Pastor-theologians can be an asset to the Church’s witness in the task of discipleship.

The Beauty of Theology in the Local Church

A doctoral program, and particularly the research-intensive structure of UK doctorates, affords one an immense amount of time to engage with the great texts of the Christian tradition. This time, alongside the habits of attentiveness and charity that the St Mary’s community encouraged in me, led me to an increased appreciation for the Spirit’s work in the Church and the lives of the theologians who sought to be faithful to the witness of the prophets and the apostles in their works. Experiences such as a semester spent reflecting upon the elegance and beauty of Augustine’s City of God leads one to a greater appreciation of and confidence in the riches of the Gospel of grace.

But there is an equally profound beauty found not only in discovering these works and in furthering the conversation about them with the academy, but also in seeing their truths forged in the lives of the saints. In our age of anxiety and uncertainty, there is a deep satisfaction to be found in bringing Augustine’s abiding confidence in the City of God to bear upon the hearts of those in the local church. This is a work that requires not only wise and learned pastor-theologians but also production of robust theology by these same men and women to encourage and edify fellows pastors and followers of Jesus in their calling.

For these reasons and an abundance of others, doctoral students and discerning pastors will find their PhDs put to excellent use in ordained ministry in the local church.