The Value of Systematic Theology to Pastors

Pastors are busy. I know; I was one. They hardly have time to prepare their sermons every week while at the same time visiting, counseling, planning, fixing, etc. Ask most pastors what good theology books they’ve read recently and you’ll be greeted by blank stares. Been there, done that. I often felt that I hardly had time to read my Bible most days, let alone anything else.

Yet, looking back now, I realize I was a bit short-sighted. Most of my agony over the text I was going to preach each week came from a lack of input from great minds of the past and present. I was trying to reinvent the wheel with every sermon. Sure, I was reading commentaries, but I wasn’t reading much theology that would provide the substance and nourishment of better preaching. By not reading theology, I was making my sermon prep more difficult.

I am not advocating the reading of just any theology to nourish spiritual life and preaching. There is no virtue in reading dull or poorly-written theologies. Rather, directed reading of good theologies will provide fodder for thought, clarify difficulties in the text, and sometimes even offer a pertinent illustration of the truth the preacher is trying to communicate.

Cornelius Van Til recognized the value of a pastor reading theology:

What is beneficial for the individual believer [studying systematic theology] is also beneficial for the minister and in consequence for the church as a whole. It is sometimes contended that ministers need not be trained in systematic theology if only they know their Bibles. But “Bible-trained” instead of systematically trained preachers frequently preach error. They may mean ever so well and be ever so true to the gospel on certain points; nevertheless, they often preach error…

If we carry this idea one step further, we note that a study of systematic theology will help men to preach theologically. It will help to make men proclaim the whole counsel of God. Many ministers never touch the greater part of the wealth of the revelation of God to man contained in Scripture. But systematics helps ministers to preach the whole counsel of God, and thus to make God central in their work.

The history of the church bears out the claim that God-centered preaching is most valuable to the church of Christ. When the minister has most truly proclaimed the whole counsel of God, the church has flourished spiritually.

Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed. Edited by William Edgar (P&R, 2007), 22-23.

Pastors who study theology do their congregation a great service. Generally their preaching has more substance, and their ideas are drawn from a larger pool of knowledge and exposure than one who does not read. Pastors who do not study theology tend to preach atheological sermons. They may be able to atomistically expound a text, but they will have difficulty connecting the text to the grand redemptive truths that give the texts weighty significance.

Van Til saw a definite connection between the study of systematic theology and the ability to preach the whole counsel of God. If a pastor is not well-versed in theology, he may shy away from Scriptures that his flock needs for growth in grace. Or worse, he may shy away from Scriptures his flock needs for spiritual and doctrinal protection. That will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Theologians of Glory or the Cross?

In the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 Martin Luther set forward his radical new theology publically for the first time. This prompted two significant responses. First, the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer became a follower of Luther, and second, Johann Eck was moved to debate Luther the next year in Leipzig, a debate that moved Luther to greater clarity regarding the nature of the gospel and the Reformation.

Most significantly at Heidelberg, Luther distinguished between theologians of glory and theologians of the cross. Theologians of glory see the things of God as a path of glory, whereas theologians of the cross see the path as one marked by suffering. In application, the former sees ministry as a way to glory, outward success, large numbers, adulation. The latter see the ministry as a path of self-sacrifice and deferring glory until God judges one’s ministry by his standards. The theologian of glory, says Luther, is “completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened” and “misuses the best in the worst manner.” A theologian of the cross, on the other hand “comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”

Carl Trueman applies this to present day churches and pastors:

Sad to say, it is often hard to discern where these theologians of the cross are to be found.  Yes, many talk about the cross, but the cultural norms of many churches seem no different to the cultural norms of — well, the culture.  They often indicate an attitude to power and influence that sees these things as directly related to size, market share, consumerist packaging, aesthetics, youth culture, media appearances, swagger and the all-round noise and pyrotechnics we associate with modern cinema rather than New Testament Christianity. These are surely more akin to what Luther would have regarded as symptomatic of the presence and influence of theologians of glory rather than the cross.  An abstract theology of the cross can quite easily be packaged and marketed by a theologian of glory. And this is not to point the finger at `them’: in fact, if we are honest, most if not all of us feel the attraction of being theologians of glory.  Not surprising, given that being a theologian of glory is the default position for fallen human nature.

Trueman is right. It is rather easy to spot ministries led by a theologian of glory. They are everywhere and their ugliness stands in sharp contrast to the beauty of the cross. It is harder, though, to see it in ourselves. When we do recognize it in ourselves, says Trueman, there is only onw remedy:

The way to move from being a theologian of glory to a theologian of the cross is not an easy one, not simply a question of mastering techniques, reading books or learning a new vocabulary.  It is repentance.    

Read it all here.

Change in Church and the “Religious People” Bogeyman

Demonizing opponents is (unfortunately) a common practice in churches where the leadership is making sweeping changes that are opposed by some in the congregation. Those who oppose the changes, the pastor tells the congregation, are just like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day who replaced God’s Word with their own traditions. They stand in the way of change and progress because they love their own comfort more than God’s glory. Jared Wilson calls this accusation of Pharisaism the invoking of the “religious person bogeyman.”

That is, when a pastor paints a vague picture of some unspecified group of people in the church who is against some unspecified change being made because they want to cling to some unspecified tradition, he is manipulating the congregation into siding against these unknown people (even though they don’t know why). In their natural desire to support and protect their pastor from criticism, undiscerning people may gullibly swallow whatever story they are being told. By using such tactics the pastor is practicing what Paul called cunning and underhanded tactics, in contrast to open statements of the truth (2 Cor. 4:2). Proverbs calls these tactics “devious” and likens such speech to crooked speech. Devious people do not fear God (14:2) and are an abomination to God (3:32).

Such a pastor creates in the undiscerning a disgust with and resistance to whatever tradition is being clung to by these unknown opponents of change. Because the tradition is not identified, congregants are not given the chance to judge whether or not the tradition is in conformity to Scripture and historic orthodoxy. They are not given the chance to be discerning like the Bereans who were praised for the refusal to simply accept what they were being told (Acts 17:11). The “religious person bogeyman,” in his opposition to proposed change, then, become an enemy to “progress,” even though no one can state exactly why. The effect is something akin to the “Two Minutes Hate” in George Orwell’s 1984.

Jared Wilson explains:

First of all, there are people in every church, no matter what kind of church it is, who struggle with the distinction between law and gospel, who struggle with the driving place of grace in their pursuit of holiness, so it won’t do to deny that legalism looms in our churches. Legalism lurks in every heart, actually, mine and yours. But this constant invoking of the judgmental “religious people” is very often a boogeyman. It’s an imagined threat, a scare tactic employed to both justify dumb exercises in license and arouse the self-satisfied mockery of self-identified “grace people.”

Wilson asks the question, “Why do pastors play the religious bogeyman card?” He proposes two possible answers:

We’re left with two options, really:

1. Pastors who invoke the “religious people” boogeyman are really just trying to offend people outside their church. This might be good for laughs and applause, good red meat for the congregation, good for camaraderie, but it is also profoundly stupid. If you make decisions at your church out of a desire to thumb your nose at people at other churches, you need to get a life.

2. Pastors who invoke the “religious people” boogeyman are really just bullying and dismissing sincere people in their churches who have concerns or questions about the goings-on. It’s a fantastic way to deflect all criticism, whether it’s legitimate or not. It’s a great way to insulate oneself from reflection and accountability by drowning it out with the fan club’s laughter and chest-thumping.

“Pharisee,” “legalist,” “religious person” is the church version of racist or Nazi. It is the rhetorical nuclear option specifically designed to shut up anyone with questions and paint them among their brothers and sisters as graceless jerks. But I think it actually works the other way around:

Employing the “religious people” boogeyman ironically indulges in what it professes to decry. It is a great way to pray along with the self-justified pharisee, “I thank you God that I’m not like those religious people.”

This is not an invective against change. Rather, it is a call to open statement of the truth and non-coercive arguments for new ideas. Pastor, if you want to bring change to your church, make a compelling argument. Don’t stoop to underhanded and devious ways by manipulating or coercing your church. If you have to manipulate your church through word games, ambiguity, coercion, and demonizing, then you have taught them to be gullible, easily led astray, and wide open to apostasy. If you can’t convince your church of a new idea through sound, biblical and compelling arguments, then maybe that religious person bogeyman is right.

The Pastor as Theologian, 6: The Inescapably Theological Nature of Pastoral Ministry

As Piper’s comment in the previous post argued, being a pastor/theologian does not mean staying up-to-date on all the latest scholarly publications produced each year. I teach seminary full time and cannot keep up with everything published in even one of the fields I teach (apologetics, theology, church history, ethics and New Testament). So there’s no way that a pastor can do this either.

What being a pastor/theologian means, then, is that you have a inherent love for the things of God. You delight in meditating on and communicating the great truths of sound doctrine. Your preaching is saturated with substance, not fluff, not your reflections, and not mere rhetorical flair. And although you can’t read everything, you do read as much good theology as you can. Without reading something, preaching tends to become repetitious and tired, like butter spread over too much bread. Reading spurs thinking, expands your frame of reference, and supplies an ever-fresh stream of ideas, illustrations, and analogies.

Some pastors protest that theology is not their interest. It is difficult, however, to read the Pastoral Epistles without being confronted by Paul’s incessant exhortations to Timothy and Titus to be saturated with sound doctrine. This is not merely a charge to read the Scriptures. Rather it is to affirm the doctrines which the Scriptures teach, and to expand and develop the theological truths of the apostles by exploring their depths.

Al Mohler argues that no facet of ministry can be properly conceived or carried out without doctrine as its foundation:

In reality, there is no dimension of the pastor’s calling that is not deeply, inherently and inescapably theological. There is no problem the pastor will encounter in counseling that is not specifically theological in character. There is no major question in ministry that does not come with deep theological dimensions and the need for careful theological application. The task of leading, feeding and guiding the congregation is as theological as any other conceivable vocation.

Al Mohler, He Is Not Silent (Moody, 2008), 108.

So it is not just the preaching of the pastor that must be theological. Every aspect of pastoral ministry should be carried out from a truly biblical and theological viewpoint. A pastor should rigorously subject his ministry philosophy and practice to the scrutiny of the Word. It is too easy to assume that the way we do ministry is just fine because it s working for us, or we like it that way, or it fits our personality, etc. These are all man-centered justifications for not practicing ministry according to sound doctrine.

In Titus 1:9 Paul demands that Titus should be “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” Holding fast the faithful word means that theology was not to be laid aside when developing a youth ministry, a philosophy of Christian education, or a model of preaching. Theology should guide the development of all aspects of congregational life.

And the evaluation of that adherence to sound doctrine should not be the exclusive privilege of one individual, but of a multiplicity of leaders who can discern faithfulness or lack thereof. Assessment of one’s own ministry is not only dangerous (because we are so easily blind to our faults and trust our own judgments more than we should), but violates the biblical principle of Proverbs 27:2: “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth;
a stranger, and not your own lips.” And Proverbs 11:14: “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”

What is the conclusion of the matter? Pastoral ministry is inescapably theological. To ignore, abandon, disdain, or downplay theology is to minister at great risk. Outward appearances may not betray a downgrade. The results may, in fact, be great. The church may grow, offerings swell, praise may reach a crescendo. But there will be no “Well done.”

Pastors, heed Paul’s words to Timothy:

Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you. (2 Tim. 1:13-14)




The Pastor as Theologian, 5: John Piper’s View of the Issue

If I am scholarly, it is not in any sense because I try to stay on the cutting edge in the discipline of biblical and theological studies. I am way too slow for that. What scholarlywould mean for me is that the greatest Object of knowledge is God and that he has revealed himself authoritatively in a Book. And that I should work with all my might and all my heart and all my soul and all my mind to know him through that Book and to make him known.

This is the goal of every pastor.

Read the full article here.

The Pastor as Theologian, 4: The Nature of Pastoral Ministry

Much confusion exists today regarding the proper model of pastoral leadership. Both pastors and congregations develop concepts of pastoral ministry that are both unbiblical and destructive to the church. Some see the pastor as entrepreneur, the one who is supposed to mastermind church growth purely by his personality and remarkable business acumen. Others see the pastor as visionary, a sacred prophet who “futurecasts” and is set apart to receive a word from God for the church.

Most of these visions of the pastoral office flow out of a pagan syncretism of gospel ministry and worldly lust for power, glory and money. Most of the “pastors” who adopt these models are narcissistic sociopaths who can’t see that their own ambitions for glory rival that of Lucifer’s.

Al Mohler brings us back to reality when he writes:

Every pastor is called to be a theologian. This may come as a surprise to those pastors who see theology as an academic discipline taken during seminary rather than as an ongoing and central part of the pastoral calling. Nevertheless, the health of the church depends upon its pastors functioning as faithful theologians–teaching, preaching, defending, and applying the great doctrines of the faith…

In far too many cases the pastor’s ministry has been evacuated of serious doctrinal content, and many pastors seem to have little connection to any sense of theological vocation. All this must be reversed if the church is to remain true to God’s Word and the gospel. Unless the pastor functions as theologian, theology is left in the hands of those who, in many cases, have little or no connection or commitment to the local church.

Al Mohler, Jr. He Is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World (Moody, 2008), 105-6.

The Pastor as Theologian, 3: Without Theological Preaching, There Is No Revival

One of the clearest lessons we learn from church history is that strong biblical preaching is absolutely vital to the health and vitality of the church. From the birth of the New Testament until today, every significant phase of authentic revival, reformation, missionary expansion, or robust church growth has also been an era of biblical preaching…

It s remarkable, then, that over the past half century (or longer) evangelicals have devoted vast quantities of energy and resources to the invention of novel church-growth strategies that tend to discount biblical preaching. Such schemes sometimes even deliberately avoid any reference to the Bible altogether–especially when unbelievers are present. They aim instead at attracting people through marketing campaigns, entertainments, social activities, and other similar techniques.

Many of today’s evangelical church leaders have borrowed their management philosophies from the corporate world; they have taken their fashion from the entertainment industry; they have imitated the communications styles of secular mass media (favoring sound-bites over substance); and they have employed various bells and whistles from modern technology designed mainly to amaze and impress rather than to teach and edify. The visible church now mirrors the world to a disturbing degree.

A major portion of Christendom is spiritually starved–and sound, biblical preaching has become an extremely rare commodity.

John MacArthur, Foreword to Al Mohler, He Is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World (Moody, 2008), 11-12.

The Pastor as Theologian, 2: The Modern Division of Pastors and Theologians

The idea that depth of learning and theological concern should be relegated to the classroom while the “practical” aspects of Christianity should be reserved for the church is deadly. It was perverse when liberals espoused it in the first half of the twentieth century and it is no less diabolical when advocated–even if subtly–by conservatives.

The separation of the role of the pastor from that of the theologian is a modern development…How did the separation of this unified calling occur? One significant factor has been the church’s abdication of its theological task. The Apostle Paul declares the church to be “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). This means that the church is the steward of truth. We must recognize, therefore, that God has give to the church the responsibility to confess, reflect upon, and apply the truth, which is simply another way of describing the work of theology.

The Christian faith is inherently (though not exclusively) doctrinal. The truth which God has revealed throughout all of redemptive history and which culminates in Christ is to be explored, understood, explained, proclaimed and defended. Thus, truth is to set the agenda for the church.

Where this understanding of the church prevails, the pastor will be seen primarily as a “truth-broker.” He will see himself responsible for doing the work of theology-studying, proclaiming and applying God’s Word.

Tom Ascol, “The Pastor as Theologian”

As Ascol implies, if a pastor abdicates this role as theologian for the church, he is acting essentially no different than the liberals of the early 20th century who minimized the centrality and authority of Scripture. It is not only possible to minimize the centrality and authority of Scripture as a conservative, it is a rather common occurrence. Sermons become the opinions of the preacher, shallow in content and without the ability to change lives.

The only corrective for this trend is for pastors to reclaim their role as theologians. This is not to imply that the pastor’s job will look like the theologian’s in the academy.

It does mean, however, that the pastor will have the same conviction of the theologian that what people need to hear is sound doctrine. Not his ruminations on the text. Not his last minute thrown-together sermon. Not his bypassing of observation and interpretation of the text just to get to the application that will please his listeners. A pastor-theologian understands that many parishioners are starving for a substantive Word from God.

In Part 3 we’ll look at the preaching of a pastor-theologian. To conclude, we’ll return to Tom Ascol’s article:

Recovering the pastor-theologian model is not optional for a ministry which is committed to being biblical. God’s Word requires pastors to see themselves in this light. Though this approach to ministry will require going against the stream of modern thinking, the benefits are far reaching.


What Happens When Pastors Stop Seeing Themselves as Theologians

Inasmuch as the pastoral vocation is no longer seen as a theological vocation, pastors no longer bring a strong theological presence to their local parishes. The net effect (particularly in the evangelical tradition in which I reside) is a truncated understanding of theology and its import among the laity. Theology has largely left the local church.

Gerald Hiestand, “The Pastor as Wider Theologian, or What’s Wrong With Theology Today,” First Things, January 3, 2011

Read the article.

10 Mistakes Churches Make in Choosing a Pastor

1. Not choosing the right people for the pastoral search committee
2. Prayerlessness
3. Being people-centered rather than Word-centered
4. Lack of follow-through and due-diligence by the pastoral search committee
5. Impatience that leads to the wrong decision
6. Failure to properly administrate the pastoral search
7. Inadequate communication
8. Failure to adequately budget for the pastoral search
9. Allowing the experience with the previous pastor to direct the calling of the next pastor
10. Spending too much time trying to call pastors who are not “reasonably gettable”

Chris Brauns, When the Word Lead Your Pastoral Search: Biblical Principles & Practices to Guide Your Search (Moody 2o11)