Trinitarian foundations of pastoral ministry

In the book Pastoral Theology, Theological Foundations for Who a Pastor is and What He Does, Daniel Akin and Scott Pace assert that the fruit of our ministry as pastors will never exceed the depth of our Trinitarian theological roots. Agreeing with that assertion, this blog advocates grounding all aspects of ministry in incarnational Trinitarian faith (what Thomas F. Torrance calls Nicene faith).

Toward that end, we urge readers to ask, How does incarnational Trinitarian theology relate to the particular ministry task at hand? Answering that question is the focus of two books that I highly recommend: Reconstructing Pastoral Theology by Andrew Purves, and The Relational Pastor by Andrew Root. Both authors ground pastoral ministry in the ministry of revelation and reconciliation that Jesus Christ continues to conduct. In previous posts on this blog I've provided detailed reviews of both books: click here for Purves; click here for Root.

The Way of Joy by Greg Olsen (used with artist's permission)

Purves and Root emphasize that ministry (pastoral ministry included) that is truly Christian, is a real participation in the ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit, in fulfilling the Father’s mission for the sake of the world. Purves comments:
I am trying to think radically concerning Jesus Christ and to understand pastoral theology ...guided by the twin doctrines of union with Christ and our participation in his ministry from the Father and to the Father. This is pastoral theology that is thoroughly Christologically grounded. (p. x)
In this Christocentric approach, Purves draws heavily from the work of Thomas F. (TF) and James B. (JB) Torrance (he studied with both). Quoting TF, Purves offers this summary of the theological vision that undergirds his view of pastoral ministry:
For us to be in the Spirit or to have the Spirit dwelling within us means that we are united to Christ the incarnate Son of the Father, and are made through union with him in the Spirit to participate, human creatures though we are, in the Communion which the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit have among themselves and are in themselves. (p. xi)
Purves emphasizes that "God is the principal subject matter” of truly Christian pastoral theology. He notes that this theology, rather than being mere theory, is highly practical in that it is “concerned with action" (p. xiv). And that is good, for we all want our ministry to be “real” (i.e., action oriented), not merely theoretical—in short, we want to see it bear fruit. However, a desire for “action” (or call it “success”) can lead in wrong directions. As Purves notes, much of pastoral practice in the modern era, being concerned about “results,” is more about anthropology than it is about theology in that it tends to be more human-centered than Christ-centered.

According to Purves, pastoral care in modernity "has moved in a distinctly clinical, psychotherapeutic, or, more generally, social-scientific direction" (p. xiv) —what Purves calls a “secular-humanistic direction” that, sadly, lacks a clear “Christological center.”

For Purves, modern day pastoral practice, being largely disconnected from theology, tends to focus on human functioning (and dysfunction), and thus on pragmatic issues of ethics (behavior). Added to this humanistic emphasis is a focus on psychological categories regarding human experience. And flowing from that is an emphasis on subjective questions of meaning and human functioning rather than on Christian discipleship (which is real sharing in Jesus’ life by the Spirit).

To help us avoid a human-centered (humanistic) focus in our pastoral and other ministries, Purves challenges us to ask and answer this foundational question: What makes pastoral work Christian? His answer is that ministry is truly Christian to the extent that it is possessed by the gospel rather than merely being a ministry that possesses the gospel. Purves comments:
The actuality of the gospel is the basis for the possibility of our ministry. It is not Jesus Christ who needs pastoral work, it is pastoral work that needs Jesus Christ. Just as faith lives not by human effort, but solely by the grace of God in, through, and as Jesus Christ, and through our incorporation into his life, so also ministry must be understood to be built not upon human striving for growth, well-being, and health, but upon the grace of God, which is… a participation in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, on earth, in heaven, and as the one who will come again. The focus of pastoral theology, then, is God's extrinsic grace in Jesus Christ, on the gospel that is a...Word from beyond us, and to which gracious Word and to that Word alone pastoral theology and pastoral practice must submit in order to be faithful to the gospel. (p. xvi)  
Purves thus sees to provide us with a theological basis for an approach to pastoral ministry that is both Christ-centered and gospel-shaped. He comments further:
Pastoral theology can only meet its basic task to speak concerning God by grounding pastoral work in God's ministry through attention to the act of God in, through, and as Jesus Christ in such a way that it draws out the basis for all Christian ministry as a Spirit-enabled participation in the praxis [ministry practice] of God. (p. xvi)
Andrew Root takes a similar approach, strongly emphasizing the historic, orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation as pointing to the true nature of Christian ministry, which he, drawing on the teaching of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, describes as "place sharing" with Jesus. According to Root, the incarnate Son of God (Jesus), by the Holy Spirit, is sharing the place of all humans and so ministering relationally to them in particular, personal ways. Our goal (and calling) in Christian ministry is thus to participate as relational place sharers with Jesus, in what he is actually doing, by the Spirit, in sharing the lives of people. Root comments:
Ministry isn’t necessarily about building or maintaining something. Ministry is the gift given us by God to share in God’s life, to participate in God’s action as we share in the person of others…. Ministry is God’s gift to us, the gift of leading others in sharing in the life of God. (p. 125)
Now, at this point you might be asking yourself, How does this incarnational Trinitarian, place-sharing approach to Christian ministry work out in everyday, real-life pastoral ministry? Purves gives voice to that question on our behalf:
What does pastoral work have to do with incarnation and atonement, resurrection, ascension and eschatology; with the Christian doctrine of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one being three persons; with the teaching and ministry of Jesus; with the theology of Paul, and the author of Hebrews, and so on? (p. xvii)
Purves goes on to answer his question in his book. Here is a synopsis of his answer:
I argue that pastoral theology guides the practice of the church in speaking forth and living out the gospel by bringing to expression the meaning of our life in union with Christ, who is both God's Word of address to us and the fitting human response to God. As such, pastoral theology has both a prescriptive and a self-critical responsibility explicitly in the light of the gospel. (p. xx) 
According to Purves (and to Root as well), knowledge of God’s being (theology) and God's work (missiology) is the only critical perspective from which or by which we can rightly judge our own ministry actions. But there is a problem: people often complain that theology is too theoretical to be of practical value (or, as some say, "So heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good!"). I understand the frustration. When a person first wrestles with the stunning reality of who Jesus is (the proper focus of Christian theology), they are lifted up by the Spirit into the "heavenly realms" where the "view" can seem, at least at first, disconnected from earthly reality. Some struggle is thus to be expected, and even necessary. Wrapping one's mind around the glorious mysteries of the triune God revealed in Jesus Christ is no small task. But it's a vital and rewarding one.

If you are finding the study of incarnational Trinitarian theology on this blog a bit overwhelming, I urge you to persevere. As you do, I believe you will, by the grace of God, discover that the theological vision presented here to be highly practical, for it deals with ultimate realities (heavenly and earthly) brought together and made comprehensible in the person and work of Jesus Christ. 
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Note: This post is excerpted from one of Ted Johnston's lectures in the Practice of Ministry course that he teaches at Grace Communion Seminary. To learn more about the seminary, click here.

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