Paul the Pastoral Theologian

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about Paul as a pastoral theologian (or, as a theologically-oriented pastor). I was struck by, and had to re-read a few times, this wonderful closing passage to Part 2 of N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God:

So when people say, as they often do, that Paul ‘was not a systematic theologian’, meaning that ‘Paul didn’t write a medieval Summa Theologica or a book that corresponds to Calvin’s Institutes,’ we will want to say: Fair enough. So far as we know, he didn’t. But the statement is often taken to mean that Paul was therefore just a jumbled, rambling sort of thinker, who would grab odd ideas out of the assortment of junk in his mental cupboard and throw them roughly in the direction of the problems presented to him by his beloved and frustrating ekklsiai. And that is simply nonsense. The more time we spend in the careful reading of Paul, and in the study of his worldview, his theology and his aims and intentions, the more he emerges as a deeply coherent thinker. His main themes may well not fit the boxes constructed by later Christian dogmatics of whatever type. They generate their own categories, precisely as they are transforming the ancient Jewish ones, which are often sadly neglected in later Christian dogmatics. They emerge, whole and entire, thought through with a rigour which those who criticize Paul today (and those who claim to follow him, too!) would do well to match.

What is more, the reason Paul was ‘doing theology’ was not that he happened to have the kind of brain that delighted in playing with and rearranging large, complex abstract ideas. He was doing theology because the life of God’s people depended on it, depended on his doing it initially for them, then as soon as possible with them, and then on them being able to go on doing it for themselves. All Paul’s theology is thus pastoral theology, not inthe sense of an unsystematic therapeutic model which concentrates on meeting the felt needs of the ‘client’, but in the sense that the shepherd needs to feed the flock with clean food and water, and keep a sharp eye out for wolves. For that, pastoral theology needs to be crystal clear, thought out and presented in a way that teaches others to think as well. That, too, is part of the point: Christian theology, for Paul, was not just about what you know, but about how you know. And, just as the Christian worldview compels people to think in a new way, because otherwise the worldview itself is unstable, so Christian theology remains both a corporate task, one in which the church as a whole has to engage, rather than being spoon-fed by one or two high- octane teachers, and also an incomplete task, because each generation needs to become mature in its thinking, which wouldn’t happen if Paul, Athanasius, Aquinas, Luther, Barth or anyone else had closed off the questions with answers that could then simply be looked up. The ‘authority’ of Paul did not consist in his providing lots of correct answers to puzzling questions. That would have left his converts, and subsequent generations, with no work to do on the questions he had answered, and no starting-point for the ones he didn’t. They would have remained radically and residually immature. Give someone a thought, and you help them for a day; teach someone to think, and you transform them for life. Paul’s authority consisted in his setting up a particular framework and posing a specific challenge. Living as Messiah-people demanded, he would have said, that people work within that framework and wrestle with that challenge (PFG, 568-69).

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3 responses to “Paul the Pastoral Theologian

  • imaginewithscripture

    Reblogged this on Imagine with Scripture and commented:
    “Christian theology, for Paul, was not just about what you know, but about how you know. And, just as the Christian worldview compels people to think in a new way, because otherwise the worldview itself is unstable, so Christian theology remains both a corporate task, one in which the church as a whole has to engage, rather than being spoon-fed by one or two high- octane teachers, and also an incomplete task, because each generation needs to become mature in its thinking, which wouldn’t happen if Paul, Athanasius, Aquinas, Luther, Barth or anyone else had closed off the questions with answers that could then simply be looked up. The ‘authority’ of Paul did not consist in his providing lots of correct answers to puzzling questions.” N T Wright

  • Wesman

    Crazy—in preparation for reading book 2, I spend a couple of hours last night reviewing book 1, and I ended with and was inspired by this exact passage! As a pastor myself, this phrase kept ringing in my ears: “All Paul’s theology is thus pastoral theology.” Good stuff. Thanks.

  • Andrew T.

    Implicitly, Paul appeared to think theology was something more than a mere academic interest; something to be lived, not studied.

    I’ve long argued, and been criticized for suggesting the radical notion the ‘Kingdom of God’ is not merely a spiritual construct, an invisible thing, but a historical one, so there’s no such thing as ‘invisible church’. This is a fairly literal reading of the bible, but not one that mistakes the symbolism for the signified.

    This means the ekklesia, as the messianic bride can be named and identified in history, since those who bless it are blessed, and those who curse it are cursed historically (or why else should we take Daniel seriously when he alludes to a stone that strikes the Babylonian image and grows into a great (super-power) mountain that fills the whole earth: if this is just prophetic fluff not intended to inform us – we can safely ignore it)

    Therefore, the influence of the ‘Kingdom of God’, the nation of priests, and Holy mountain / Messianic bride can also be seen historically and in a geopolitical sense since it is the ‘salt of the earth‘, ‘light of the world‘, ‘lamp on a stand that cannot be hid‘ [Matt 5:15]. Certainly the Roman Empire was smashed as a pagan force against a people possessing the faith of their messiah.

    It’s ironic then, that many modern Christians call this ‘the invisible church‘. What value is there in ‘invisible light‘? If it is indeed invisible, it has lost its saltiness, and is worthless. The Messiah it is modelled upon is not invisible at all [John 1:1-5, 9-10][2 Cor 4:6][2 Peter 1:19]. So its unlikely the bride the bridegroom married is invisible, since the bridegroom finds no value in worthless things [Matt 5:13]

    Paul was ‘doing theology’, the same reason Christ was ‘doing theology’,
    and that was to establish David’s thrown and its Kingdom in history as a literal thing; even if it continues to be largely unrecognised / unnamed (a partial blindness HAS befallen Israel, until the ˻multitude of nations˼ is come [Rom 11:25])

    This brings me to another a point of criticism; I find it a mix between mildly amusing and greatly disturbing that the faithful continue to await an eschaton that has been progressing 2000 years. We call ‘baptism‘ to be raised in newness of life‘ yet refuse to see it as the resurrection it is, awaiting some other.

    If we really need a new body to recognize the restoration God is performing in the world we really are a stiff-necked people; and our epiphany will come too late.

    If the Kingdom of God were recognized as a force of history and the instrument of God’s restoration, oh the urgency it would instil in flock to act as a kingdom of priests! If every sheep were a shepherd we would not be a flock but a pride!

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