Pastors: Carousels or Buffaloes?
December 16, 2014
The best theologians have typically been pastors (e.g., Augustine, Calvin, Owen, Edwards). And the theologians I enjoy reading the most are those who had/have real pastoral experience. There is a purpose to their writing that sometimes isn't found when scholars attempt to write for the church. (I do not have a problem with scholars writing for the academy, but only speak to those who attempt to write for the church, as well).
I'm almost finished a book on knowing Christ. The last thing I need are distractions, especially from people in my church. I'd like to be locked in my office for a few weeks in order to get the book done. But this type of thinking is not only stupid, but sinful.
Whether visits to hospitals, homes, and bible studies, or counselling the grieved, theologians cannot afford to be locked in their offices. Neither, of course, can pastors.
Because when you're faced with real people in real-life situations, you have to speak to them in a manner where the gospel is no longer theoretical, but a matter of life and death. You have to speak to them in language they can understand. And, I think, that gives your writing an edge.
You might also find that you end up walking away more blessed than the person you ministered to.
It certainly gives your preaching an edge when the people you preach to actually know who you are, have been to your home, and want you, more than anyone, to preach at their funeral. Do we not listen better to those who love us most?
I can't wait to bury the people in my church - some more than others - and tell a story or two about events in their lives that testified to God's grace to them.
Despite some of my theological disagreements with Richard Baxter, his example at Kidderminster is an extraordinary one. The whole idea that the church became Unitarian as a result of his "moralism" is so stupid as to not need comment, especially since he ministered there in his early career (until the Great Ejection), but for the last thirty years of his life was basically an itinerant in London.
His knowledge of Patristic and Medieval theology was perhaps only bettered by John Owen, among the Puritans. But the vast majority of his writings were pastoral pieces, designed to benefit the church. He was no "pastor of preaching"!
When you read him you feel as though you are reading not just a dying man to dying men, but also a real man to real men.
Interestingly, Baxter continued to minister to people in London during the great plague (1665-66), risking his life. Nearly 70,000 deaths resulted from the plague and there would have been more if thousands had not fled London. Among those who fled was John Owen, who left London for Stoke Newington. Baxter surmises that Owen deliberately left London, and his gathered church, during the plague. The implication seems to be that, from Baxter's perspective, Owen should have stayed and cared for his people during this time like the other heroic nonconformist ministers (e.g., Thomas Goodwin).
All of this is to say, sometimes the best writing springs not so much from the study, but from the trenches. Perhaps that's why God, in his providence, moved Calvin from Strasbourg back to Geneva!
So pastors and theologians, writing for the church, can have their pick: