On Witsius, Character and Cleaning Rosters

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I confess that I am still relishing Jim Garretson's two volumes on Princeton and the pastoral ministry.  If you do not have them, you should buy them.  These are those rarest of books: ones that you know on first reading will be companions for life. 

One prize essay is 'The Character of the Genuine Theologian,' a translation by Archibald Alexander of a piece by Herman Witsius.   The opening lines read thus: 'The theologian, as I use the term, is one imbued with the knowledge of God and divine things, under the teaching of God himself; who celebrates his adorable perfections, not by words alone, but by the ordering of his life, and is thus entirely devoted to the Lord.'

I have posted before on the importance of character for holding office in the church but these books brought its importance home to me once again.  It is, of course, a long-established  commonplace of theological reflection that the separation of the study of theology from the life of the church which was solidified at the Enlightenment and epitomized in modern education was a significant and unfortunate move.    Often this is seen in terms of its impact upon theology. Detached from an ecclesiastical context, this ceases to have an ecclesiastical agenda and becomes merely an arm of secular scholarship. That is certainly a valid observation.  What is less often noted, however, is that this move does not only affect theology; it also affects the theologians who do the theologizing.

In the classical theological tradition, character and theology were seen as inseparable partners.  In Oration 27, Gregory of Nazianzus makes the case that only the one who is being purified by God can engage in proper theological reflection.   For Anselm, theology was famously something carried out in the context of personal faith and contemplation.   Thomas Aquinas is often reviled as conceding too much to human reason but the last twenty-five years of Thomist scholarship have exposed that as a misreading based on a post-Cajetanian stream of reception and have, among other things, reasserted the centrality of the devotional and contemplative nature of his work which in turn point to matters of personal character.  As for Luther, it is significant that Thesis 21 of the Heidelberg Disputation is frequently mistranslated as talking of theologies when Luther was actually talking of theologians: theology is done by real people and impacted directly by the state of their hearts and minds; only the one who knows the cross can actually be a theologian of the cross.   That character was essential to the Reformed and Puritan understanding of ministerial office is so obvious as to need no further comment.

This is a real challenge for theological educators as it is one area where seminaries cannot go very far in meeting the need.  Indeed, I find the whole notion of 'spiritual formation' within seminaries to be somewhat problematic: seminaries impart knowledge and skills which are essential for ministry and which cannot be acquired with like ease in a practical mentoring situation; they also provide a context for developing important and useful friendships which will last a lifetime; but they cannot really engage in spiritual formation in any deep way.  Certainly, the professor can and should strive to model  Christian behaviour; but the real, deep, lasting spiritual formation for ministerial candidates takes place in a church context just as it does for every other Christian.  The church is where the word is preached, the sacraments administered and discipling takes  place.

To address the issue of character, seminaries need to work with local churches; and students need to understand the limits of a seminary education.   It is work in the local church, where the word is preached, the Lord's Supper administered and discipling implemented, that forms true Christian character.  An MDiv, or equivalent, is just a technical accomplishment.   Read the right books, learn the right things, and you can pass the test. 

A further problem is that the contemporary  world can sometimes make into normative aspirational models of spirituality those men and women who are not actually tied primarily to the weekly chores of serving and worshiping in the local church.  Indeed, in the current situation, where the prize of an influential ministry so often goes to the most media savvy, the possibilities are even greater and even more dangerous of detaching ministerial impact from the teacher's own character formation and discipleship.  The man who can speak and write well might easily find himself with a worldwide or at least wide-ranging ministry and an influence far beyond that for which his character really qualifies him and where there is no means of rectifying this.  Ironically, his technical ability has lifted him clean out of being in a regular, local church context where Christian character is nurtured and where superstars, prima donnas and overgrown poppies, if they are allowed to exist at all, are often regularly brought back to reality with a rather brutal kindness.  To put it bluntly, there is nothing like being on the clean-up roster after church on Sunday to keep things - and especially oneself - in perspective.  

To close by quoting Witsius once again: 'Contented with the grace of Christ the Saviour, and the fellowship of the indwelling Spirit, [the genuine theologian] looks from an eminence down on all the blandishments of earthly vanity, and craves no wealth, nor pleasure, nor fame.  Fully intent upon the care of souls, and the guarding, protecting and extending of Christ's spiritual kingdom, and on beautifying what is already possessed, he owes nothing to the forum, the camp, or the court.  He looks for no office, preoccupies no rostrum, courts no patronage, seek no favour of no authority, plays no oratorical part, but justly discriminating between the church, the college, and the court, limits himself to the pulpit or the chair.'

If you do not have this set, buy it.   The Witsius piece alone is worth the purchase price.

Posted August 2, 2012 @ 5:48 AM by Carl Trueman

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