The minister as a theologian

Does theology offer more benefits than risks? Just what role does it play in a pastor's ministry?

Daniel Augsburger, Ph. D., now retired, was professor of historical theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Once when I asked those who had taken my Theology I class to evaluate the spiritual impact of the class, a student answered tersely, "It is theology; it cannot be spiritual." The same conception probably motivated the church official who advised the ministers under his direction to "talk about any thing except theology."

Should a pastor be a theologian? Some people have strong reservations about such an idea. They think that preaching and theology are incompatible. The former, they believe, leads men to faith in God; the latter confuses and destroys all belief. In their view theology is a monument of human reason that challenges revelation and asserts itself. It can only lead to divisions and disruptions.

The opinion that theology destroys faith is not new. Recognizing theology's potential for divisiveness, the great sixteenth-century humanist Erasmus adjured those who debated on theological issues, "Define as little as possible if you want to restore the peace." It is well known that the Reformers rejected scholastic philosophy because it was an expression of human pride and was too of ten grounded on pagan assumptions.

Because he was afraid of the chilling impact of human reason, J. J. Rousseau, the great French philosopher of the Enlightenment, recommended that boys be taught religion before they reached the age of 14. And not long ago Etienne Trocme of the University of Strasbourg wondered aloud about the compatibility of Bible study and theology. He questioned whether the human philosophical framework did not distort our perspective on Scripture and lead us to fabricate from its contents answers to questions that it never attempted to consider. It would not be difficult to mention others who have viewed theology as a liability rather than an asset for the believer.

No escape from theology

But on the other hand, one must admit that it is impossible to do pastoral work without asserting theological convictions. The way we use the church building has theological implications. Those who insist that the Sabbath school lesson should not be taught from the pulpit pro claim a certain concept of the place of the clergy and the laity.

The language we use also has a theological significance. When we announce in the church bulletin that Holy Communion will be celebrated the fol lowing week, we make a theological statement about that ritual. On a day when several pastors take part in the same baptismal service you can hear as many theologies of baptism as there are pastors. One states: "Because you love Jesus . . ."; another, "Because of your profession of faith . . ."; and still an other, "Because you have decided to live as a Christian ..."

The liturgy we follow is eloquent theologically. When we have the choir and ministers enter in procession while the congregation sings the opening hymn, we teach a particular concept of the nature of the church. We also proclaim a view of the church when we discipline or disfellowship members. Planning an evangelistic effort indicates a certain concept of human freedom to respond when the Word is preached. In certain conferences we have revivalists, and this raises the issue of whether man can initiate a revival or whether this is the exclusive prerogative of the Holy Spirit.

To say that we have selected a liturgy or used a certain wording or performed a ritual without conscious reference to a theological concept does not mean that we have thereby removed all theological content from the actions. What we do or state unconsciously soon becomes a part of the religious perception of the church members. In fact, we must realize that the repetition of acts and formulas may have a far deeper and more lasting influence than the most carefully thought-out words of any sermon. Carrying out church work with no thought to its theological implications poses as much of a threat to Christian experience as does theology in the abstract. Since this is true, we dare not act without theological awareness.

Some are sure to say that it is because the Western mind proceeds in quite a different way than did the Hebrew mind that we have problems with theology. While the Semite was deeply concerned with what God required in terms of morality and action, the Hellenistic person was eager to find out about the nature of God and the universe. The Semite was essentially practical, the Hellenist speculative and theology grew out of Hellenism. So, they conclude, theology is in congruous in a Bible-centered church.

But a Seventh-day Adventist needs little persuasion to recognize that the Levitical sanctuary service was pregnant with theological meaning. People who worship a God who through the ages has sought to reveal Himself cannot agree that there is something inherently evil in the effort to know more about Him and His will. It is one's attitude and one's understanding of the task of theology that make of theology either a blessing or a curse.

Theology's pitfalls and duties

In one of his letters to Timothy, Paul indicated clearly both the pitfalls and the duties of theology. "Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us."

"Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. Avoid such god less chatter, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will eat its way like gangrene. . .

"Have nothing to do with stupid, senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to every one, an apt teacher, forbearing" (2 Tim. 1:13, 14; 2:15-24, RSV).

Paul warns first against useless chatter, quarrels about words. His concern points out the danger of staying on the purely speculative level. It warns against concentrating on issues on which we have little or no information. Often it seems that the less we know about a topic, the more dogmatic we become about it. For that reason the most speculative aspects of Christian theology have often caused the most heated debates, sometimes involving differences in mere words or even vowels as happened in the Arian controversy. It is the speculative domain that also poses the danger of intellectual arrogance. Because the opponent's challenge involves one's pride, theological debates seldom lead to agreement. We must teach our flocks to think for them selves without tearing up those who may not fully agree.

While Paul warns of the dangers that theological study may entail, he also assumes that there is such a thing as truth. He would not, with Pilate, ask skeptically, "What is truth?" He counsels: "Follow the pattern of ... sound words . . . guard the truth." His counsel signals that the search for truth must follow the safe path of divine revelation rather than the various paths of human opinion. In essence, rather than being a human creation, theology is the discovery of a given. The expression "to do theology" is rather misleading. Theologians who are truly Christian are willing to work within the limits of divine revelation, confident that our gracious God has revealed all that we need to know.

Ellen White often made comments along similar lines. In a letter she wrote to medical students and nurses in 1903, she said: "All that man needs to know and can know of God has been revealed in the life and character of His Son, the Great Teacher. "* Whether or not we are successful in our study of theology depends upon our willingness to accept what God has revealed.

Paul tells Timothy that he is not a museum curator. Theology must not be an esoteric science guarded by obscure words. Paul advises him to "rightly handle the word of truth," to be "an apt teacher." The true theologian is characterized by an extreme sensitivity to the needs of the church. Karl Barth emphasized this point when he entitled his major theological work Church Dogmatics.

Rather than centering our theological work around our own pet interests, we should focus on the welfare of the flock. We should strive for clarity and simplicity, and not be satisfied with solving communication problems by stating in some language our audience cannot understand what we cannot explain in English. The truly Christian theologian does not remain in an ivory tower, looking down with mixed pity and contempt at the people in the parish. Good theology grows in the setting of the cure of souls and the search for the lost and the alienated. It provides the resources from which the preacher can draw when problems arise in the church.

Defining theology's task

With that understanding of Paul's description of the proper attitude of the theologian, we can better define the task of theology. It is first of all a reflection upon the biblical message. It is an at tempt to see God's words in the setting of one's own time and culture. Like the ex pert who studies a painting and discovers there the mind of the artist and the mood of the age, the theologian discovers in the Bible the mind of God and His eternal purpose—even when they are expressed in words and images that are culturally conditioned.

In the second place, theology is spiritual engineering. It is an effort to link the themes of Scripture by mental girders and beams. As someone has said, if we knew only two facts about God, we would need a theology. If we knew only the covenant titles of Christ, they would call for a theology of our great Mediator and His assuming the responsibility for human actions. The Gospels' speaking of Father and Son made necessary a theology to establish the relationship between these two persons. As we know, talking about justification without referring to sanctification can be positively dangerous. And by itself the doctrine of the Sabbath sounds quite legalistic, but placed in the setting of the understanding of God's character and His relation ship with man, it acquires much beauty.

We also need beams between theology and liturgy, lest we deny liturgically what we assert theologically.

Theology, then, is very much concerned with order. It seeks a system, an architectural design in which a principle determines the order of the parts. Like the mathematician, the theologian seeks to reduce a multiplicity of related elements to the basic formula or principle that holds the parts together. So theology aims at simplicity and clarity and solidity.

Theology moves people

Third, theology is not only spiritual engineering; it is also an artistic creation. Helmut Thielicke has called it "a praise song of ideas." Biblical truth not only convicts theologians intellectually; its harmony, balance, and rhythm moves them. The plan of salvation is not only logical; it is beautiful. There is an equilibrium between justice and mercy. There is harmony between the character of God and the solution that He devised for the problem of sin. There is a rhythmic correspondence between human needs and divine grace.

So theology is a task of the heart as well as of the mind. Theologians pay attention to their feelings. Their personal sense of God's presence in their lives sup ports their intellectual belief in God's existence. Theology, then, can kindle fire on a preacher's word.

Fourth, theology is a prescription for life. William Ames, the great Puritan divine, called it "the teaching of living for God." The real test of theology is the degree to which it can assist people to face the problems of daily personal and church life. It is clear that the writers of the Gospels selected for their books the incidents from the life of Jesus that had the most application to the needs of the church. And as to theology's application to personal life, it is reported that when some one asked Karl Barth to state the deepest insight of his theology, he answered simply, "Jesus loves me, this I know!"

Theology can apply to life because it captures the life of the Word. It takes very seriously Jesus' statement that His words are spirit and life (John 6:63). In his Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Thielicke repeatedly warns against the danger of an intellectual growth that is not matched by spiritual growth. Theology must express a person's own experience. "Unless a man's theology has something of himself it is dead."

For that reason we should not be surprised when a person's theology starts at the place where the Bible began to speak to that person and where Christ became a living reality. For some that point may be at justification; for others at regeneration. Prophetic fulfillments may be the point at which some came in contact with the infinite, while for yet others the simple story of the love of Jesus may have served that purpose.

The danger is that we may stop at the starting point and look askance at all who do not stand at the same spot. Regardless of the starting point, we must continue to grow until eventually we embrace and appreciate all the facets of Bible truth.

Personal experience not only marks the places where we start our theological journeys; it also determines our progress and growth. In my own case, for in stance, the concept of the judgment and the sanctuary became really meaningful only at the time of Watergate. At that time I saw the vivid and significant contrast between God's willingness to allow all the books to be opened before the multitudes of the universe and President Nixon's desperate efforts to keep the truth from being known.

Theology grows through the crises of life. What the disciples could not comprehend, though it came from the lips of the greatest Teacher, they learned in the darkness of their disappointment when Jesus died and in the brightness of the message of the Resurrection. One often learns theology on one's knees, as one struggles with frustrations and sorrow. A theology that is prayed will inspire sermons that convert souls.

What the pastor must understand

While all the facets of theology are significant, some are more essential than others. Certainly the pastor needs a clear understanding of God's character and will, of Christ's mission and salvation, and of the Holy Spirit's work in the believer and in the church. In addition, we cannot overemphasize the importance of ecclesiology, for many of the issues with which pastors must grapple are in essence ecclesiological questions. A person's understanding of the nature and task of the church impinges upon problems of authority, liturgy, and discipline.

Pastors who recognize the importance of theology will find that understanding their joys and problems in the context of God's purpose enriches their lives. And recognizing the importance of theology will greatly enhance their ministries as well. Their sermons will have a greater simplicity and solidity. They will constantly relate Scripture to experience and needs. Their ministry for others will be more consistent. They will be able to gauge better where the members of their flocks stand in spiritual growth. When problems arise, such pastors will be able to involve their parishioners in the solution. Instead of resorting to edicts, they can help them to see the theological facets of the issues and can, with God's grace, draw from them the proper decision.

While it is true that theology without ministry soon becomes a bitter potion, it is equally true that ministry without theology is little more than perfumed air. The histories of the Arians and the Donatists show that churches that never develop a clear theology do not survive op position. And what is happening in many Protestant denominations makes clear that churches perish when the theology of their ministry is totally unrelated to that of their laity.

May Adventist preachers be theologians who jealously guard scriptural truth. May they be faithful shepherds who are apt teachers of sound doctrine.

*The Upward Look (Washington, D.C.: Re view and Herald Pub. Assn., 1982), p. 323.

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Daniel Augsburger, Ph. D., now retired, was professor of historical theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

May 1990

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