Webster: Why Study Theology?

I’m really grateful to my doctoral advisor and friend, Prof. John Webster of St Andrew’s School of Divinity, for this great piece on the question: “Why should theological study be a primary occupation for the Christian minister?”  In it John is attentive to the importance of contemplation of God as ingredient to pastoral formation and inspiration for service to the Gospel.  In a School that is called to thoughtful, engaged and generous Christian faith for the formation of thoughtful, engaged and generous Christian leaders, this reminder is crucial.

For a list of Prof. Webster’s publications and interests see: http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/divinity/about/news/title,217819,en.php

Richard Topping

Principal, VST

Professor John Webster
School of Divinity
St Andrews University

Why should theological study be a primary occupation for the Christian minister?

Pastoral ministry is apostolic practice.  Its origin lies in the apostolic vocation of the church: in the fact that the church as a whole and its pastors in particular are called and sent to be ambassadors and heralds of Jesus Christ, the one who is himself sent from God and who in his person constitutes and announces the gospel.  From this origin and vocation, pastoral ministry derives a definite content and task: the ‘matter’ which is to govern and direct all its activities is Christ and his gospel.  The gospel reaches back into the infinite ocean of God’s own life (‘in the beginning was the Word’) and reaches forward into the created world which is the object of God’s unrestricted benevolence (‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’).  In the gospel we find God’s loving instruction of guilty and sad creatures, whose treason  against their creator is such that they have lost their way, and no longer know who or where they are or how to reach out to happiness.  To these creatures – to us – the gospel holds out illumination and healing.  As it is set before us, we come to know who God is, what we are made to be, where we have gone astray, how we have been sought and recovered, in what way we may begin to flourish.  Pastoral ministry in all its various undertakings – in teaching and preaching, in administering the gospel sacraments, in seeking the lost, in offering consolation and correction and direction – is the indication, extension and application of apostolic truth in all its goodness and restorative power.

Yet apostolic practice is not the heart of ministerial work; in all its necessity, dignity and importance, it is secondary and derivative.  The first act of ministerial work is that of receiving and meditating upon divine instruction.  The apostles are disciples – learners – before they are apostles.  Gathered into his presence, keeping company with him, they receive the inestimable benefit of his teaching: ‘I have given them the words which thou gavest me … I made them to know thy name.’  On the basis and power of this instruction alone do the disciples become apostles: ‘I have sent them into the world.’  Apostolic ministry in the church, likewise, is orderly and fruitful when it follows the instruction of the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ to recall us to God and the ways of God in the gospel.  Pastoral ministry has its foundation in contemplation of the gospel, and its goal in passing on to others the fruit of contemplation.

This is why theological study is the indispensable preparation for and accompaniment of the exercise of pastoral office.  Theology is contemplative consideration of the gospel and its claims upon thought and conduct. Yet neglect of theological contemplation is commonplace.  Some shirk it as too exacting; others judge it a distraction from the proper occupations of the minister.  Distaste for contemplation may be compounded by the allure of a culturally-authoritative model of the leader as busy manager and problem-solver rather than thinker.  And theologians, too, must shoulder much responsibility for distaste for contemplation: many pastors experience theological study as abstract, technical and spiritually barren.  Some – perhaps much – contemporary theology and theological instruction participates in the centuries-long drift of the discipline away from the setting of the church and the task of formation of godly reason and love of truth, and its giving of itself to other ‘scientific’ tasks.

The disarray of some kinds of theology is all the more reason for retrieving theology’s principal vocation, which is by contemplation to consider God and all things in relation to God.  The fruits of theological contemplation are, first, knowledge of and love for the gospel and the gospel’s God, and, second, the shaping of conduct.  Unformed by such knowledge and love, pastoral ministry risks debasement: it may accompany the world earnestly and solicitously, it may offer some kind of exhortation and encouragement, it may be full of confident therapeutic technique, but it will have little to say about how in Christ God’s creatures have been reconciled by infinite love.  Among the things which the early Anglican ordinals ask God to supply to those entering into pastoral office is ‘replenishment in the truth of divine doctrine’.  The agent of such replenishment is God himself; its principal instrument is Holy Scripture, in which the prophets and apostles communicate divine teaching.  But theology, too, has its part to play: grounded in prayer, quiet dedication to and delight in theological study are a primary means of acquiring apostolic wisdom and renewing apostolic practice. Thomas Aquinas prayed thus before study:

 

Ineffable Creator…
You are proclaimed
the true font of light and wisdom,
and the primal origin
raised high beyond all things.

Pour forth a ray of your brightness
into the darkened places of my mind;
disperse from my soul the twofold darkness
into which I was born:
sin and ignorance.

You make eloquent the tongues of infants.
Refine my speech
and pour forth upon my lips
the goodness of your blessing.

Grant to me keenness of mind,
capacity to remember,
skill in learning,
subtlety to interpret,
and eloquence in speech.

May you guide the beginning of my work,
direct its progress,
and bring it to completion.

You who are true God and truly human,
Who live and reign,
world without end.

 

John Webster

 

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