Can (Analytic) Theology Help Pastors?

December 4th, 2015 by

Ivory tower theology is all very well, but the burning question that most pastors and Christians want addressed is, what difference does this all make? On the face of it, it looks like there is not very much to be said for theology from a pastoral perspective. In fact, theology seems to be pretty far removed from the sort of everyday problems facing those in ministry.

A typical minister will have to deal with pastoral problems that may be extremely difficult and complex, as well as time consuming. She or he will have to cope with meetings that go late into the night with church leaders. liaising with agencies outside the church also take up time, and (for some ministers at least) there is a certain expectation that the pastor will be present at particular social gatherings. There will be budgetary issues to negotiate and books to balance, as well as liturgies to organize, worship bands to corral, and sermons to write. If anything, the writing of sermons may take up the smallest amount of time, being squeezed by the many other pressing social, administrative, and political demands upon the minister. No wonder it sometimes seems like the pastor wrote the sermon earlier on Sunday morning or late on Saturday night: often that is exactly what happens.

The pastoral task is never done. There are no checklists one can tick off regarding pastoral problems, and many ministers burn out after only a few years of ministry because the demands upon them seem impossible. Add to all this the fact that families of ministers feel they too live in a fish bowl and are held accountable for how they behave, and you quickly have a recipe for a very stressful and difficult job. Calling it a vocation doesn’t make these challenges any less difficult to manage, or easier to juggle.

So what role can theology really play for such people? It is all very well having rose-tinted views of ministry as something that transforms people and communities one prayer at a time. What about all those Monday mornings when you feel utterly empty and wonder what you are doing with your life?

Some years ago, I served as a trainee minister for three years, and it was all of the above and more! Yet one of the things that can keep a minister going in the midst of many difficulties is spiritual nourishment. It is also one of the first things to go when other commitments seem pressing. Reading theology is just such nourishment. It feeds the soul as well as the mind. It provides new ideas and avenues for thinking about the gospel, and about God himself. But it also generates creative ways of thinking about pastoral difficulties, about how to approach particular topics in Bible studies, and about what to say in sermons

Theology isn’t a pastoral panacea. But staying engaged theologically is a real lifeline in ministry. Not only that, the sort of theology one reads will be more or less nourishing depending on circumstance and context. I found that the great theologians of the past often had something vital to contribute to the present. At least part of the reason for that was that they too had been pastors. Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Schleiermacher, Barth—they were all pastors as well as theologians. We need more such pastor-theologians today. We need more pastors that are theologically engaged. And we need more pastors who see the vital need for theology in their life and work. Analytic theology is, in many ways, a continuation of the sort of theology one reads in the great tradition of past thinkers. It makes argument clear, helps hone the logical shape of our thinking, enables us to see clearly where the problems really lie. It may not be the only way of doing theology that is pastorally helpful, but it is one way, and a way that resonates with much of the theology of the past, though it isn’t the theology of the past. Our hope is that the Analytic Theology for Theological Formation project  at Fuller Seminary will help thicken up analytic theology in a theological direction by engagement with the great tradition and with other theologians today. We also hope to explore how it may help pastors. Our thought is this: theology matters, and theology done well will be of great service to the Christian churches. We invite you to join us in this task.

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Oliver Crisp is a professor of systematic theology who joined Fuller Theological Seminary in 2011. He holds a PhD from King’s College at the University of London, an MTh from the University of Aberdeen, and a BD from the University of Aberdeen. Crisp’s current research projects include writing a book on the atonement, and work on the doctrine of sin.

2 responses to “Can (Analytic) Theology Help Pastors?”

  1. I hail from a very small town, in a very small part of the US. In this small town are many small country churches. In those churches are many godly people who genuinely desire to know more about the christian faith. However, a problem that I noticed–since my departure to the big city of Dallas, TX–is that no one takes interest in historical or systematic attempts to better understanding the things of God. This might be because there is a great lack of education in this region in particular (there is only one university within a 150 mile radius of my hometown), but I know that, given the right encouragement and resources, these people would really benefit from an understanding of the value of theological engagement. I am just learning of the benefits of this effort myself. I plan to send this post to a friend who is still back home, wondering if doing this kind of study is profitable for ministry. I believe he will.

    Thank you for your work, Dr. Crisp.

    • Oliver Crisp says:

      Dear Ross (if I may), many thanks for this encouraging comment! You’re right that having access to the resources needed in ministry is often a challenge. I do hope that this post and some of the resources you can find through our website are useful to your friend and to you! With very best wishes.

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