Theological vs. Pastoral

Posted on September 6, 2011


During my time in seminary, there was a distinction between theology and ministry. In fact, the faculty was broadly divided into three main fields: the biblical fields, the Christian ministry fields, and the theological field. This meant that we were taught theology in one class and then pastoral ministry in another and biblical studies in still another. I don’t fault the school for making these distinctions, for they have their place, but they are also problematic.

For example, in a course on the theology of the sacraments, we would be taught the historical development of the Lord’s Supper, read Calvin’s understanding of baptism, and study various heresies as well as the current Reformed perspective.

Then in Christian Ministry class we would have to face these type of theoretical (but very possible) scenarios: “A family has just lost an infant, hours after birth, and asks that you baptize the dead child. What do you do?” The common agreement was that, in spite of the fact that this theologically didn’t make sense (life being a requirement for baptism) the loving and pastoral thing to do would be to baptism the body.

This contradiction between theology and ministry is unacceptable to me. Our theology is not a perfect system to which all lives are a shadow, an inherent failure to meet a standard of perfection. If our theology has no traction in our lives, then it is a problem of the theology. Call me an empiricist if you will, but theology does not come a priori out of which flows our daily living. I have tried to live this way before, letting my thoughts and actions flow from intellectual affirmations about God, but to do this I had to assume complete self-knowledge and ignore various inconsistencies in my own life.

Most of the time theology should be descriptive, becoming prescriptive only at those times of fear, loss, struggle, and hopelessness. This means that theology is going to be unsystematic, inconsistent, harsh, beautiful, powerful, useless, funny, and sad; because life is all those things and so much more. Perhaps put a better way: our thoughts about God and our experiences of God must inform and correct one another.

For too long, the Reformed tradition has neglected (at least openly) to ask the question “Does this make sense in our lives? Does this makes sense with way we experience the world?” We have held our theology as a prescriptive perfect standard, and when life got messy, we used the loop-hole called “pastoral action” rather than question the over-idealized theology.

Theology is a messy, messy business. Be prepared to get dirty.

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