Ministry: sharing in God's being and doing

This post continues a series examining key points of Andrew Purves' book Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 34567891011.

For Purves, a truly incarnational, Trinitarian understanding of Christian ministry is grounded in two great theological precepts:
  • The dual mediation of Christ: Jesus is both God's Word and act addressing humanity, and humanity's word and act addressing God. Athanasius was an early champion of this truth.
  • Union with Christ: by the Spirit we are joined to Christ and thus to his mission from and to the Father. Calvin emphasized this truth in the Protestant reformation.
Hand in Hand by Greg Olsen (used with artist's permission)

Given these foundational truths, Purves makes several key assertions:
  • The ministry of God in, through, and as Jesus Christ is the proper foundation for the understanding and practice of ministry.
  • The focus is on God's ministry, which was and is and ever will be actual, and therefore relevant and appropriate because of what it is. The church's ministry is a participation in that ministry, not something new of the church's invention to meet some present need or circumstance, or a vague imitation of Jesus Christ but doomed to failure because we are not messianic. It is not an ideal ministry yet to be made practical; it is the actual ministry of God, rather, that makes our ministries practical, relevant, and appropriate. 
  • Pastors do what they do because of who God is and what God does. Or more precisely before it is the church's ministry all ministry is first of all God's ministry in, through, and as Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • Pastoral work has no subject other than Jesus Christ, and no content other than "the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people" (Jude 3). (pp. 1-3)
Unfortunately, much of ministry in the contemporary church has become "unhinged" from the true ground of pastoral ministry, which is the actual ministry of God in the world. This is so because ministry today tends to be "skill-driven rather than theology-driven and seems to incorporate little of the dynamically practical nature of theology insofar as it speaks about who God is and what God does" (p. 3). Another way to say this is that much ministry has become disconnected from the actual ministry of Jesus, who is present in the world, "clothed with his gospel" (p. 4).

To remedy this disconnect, the church must ground its pastoral ministries in Jesus and his gospel, which means grounding ministry in a clear understanding that God, in and as Jesus Christ, is the one source of life and hope. By understanding pastoral ministry in this way, the church sees ministry for what it truly is---a sharing in "the priesthood of Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit" (p. 6).

With this perspective, rather than "being cast back on ourselves" (a favorite saying of J.B. Torrance), we are led to depend solely on Christ and his ongoing ministry. That dependency is not a passive one---it involves active participation, by the Spirit, through faith, in what Jesus is actually doing in the world. Our ministry does not replace the ministry of (a supposedly absent) Jesus---it participates in it. This theological perspective on ministry is not pie-in-the-sky, ivory-tower stuff. It's highly practical because it is addressing reality--what Jesus is really doing. Purves comments:
Practical theology is practical because it is theological: it has to do with God. All theology, all knowledge of God, by virtue of the subject matter---the acting God---is inherently a practical theology or a practical knowledge of God. Axiomatically, knowledge of God is knowledge of God creatively, redemptively, and eschatologically active in the world and in human history through Jesus Christ... Knowledge of God is knowledge of the missio Dei [mission or actions of God], of Jesus' ministry to the glory of the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit for the sake of the world. (p. 7)
Purves then points out two consequences of this theological perspective on ministry:
  • God is in himself always and reliably what he is toward us in Jesus Christ. This was made clear in the Nicene Creed by its declaration that Jesus is "of one substance with the Father" (homoousios to Patri). T.F. Torrance was a champion of this vital truth in our day.
  • While our knowledge of God is dependent on God's self-revelation to us in Jesus, we don't understand God by deductively reflecting on ourselves and our experiences of God. Rather we understand that God himself (not our experience of God) is the subject of our knowing. As applied to ministry, it is not we by our actions who define what constitutes Christian ministry, rather it is who God is and what he does. And what God does is seen definitively in the person of Jesus, who by his acts reveals clearly who God is and what God does. (pp. 8-9)
Purves then draws this important conclusion:
The ministry of the church...has no content apart from the content of the gospel of Jesus Christ to which the doctrine of the church bears witness and on which it depends for its truth and reality... Doctrine exists as the church's witness to the primary ministry of God in, through, and as Jesus Christ and as such has its source in the freedom and love of God to be God for us... [Therefore] there is [a close] connection between doctrine and the church's expression of the God who acts and what the church and pastors do.... There is a difference between helping someone therapeutically and leading that person to Jesus Christ (p. 10) 
Christian ministry, being gospel-shaped, is true participation in the ministry of Jesus, who comes to us clothed in his gospel. It is Jesus himself who heals and transforms, not our pastoral methods and practices. As Karl Barth said, "It is not Jesus Christ who needs pastoral work, it is pastoral work that needs Jesus Christ" (p. 10). Purves comments:
Because pastoral care is at all points both a ministry of God and a ministry of the church, it is tied to the gospel given in Word and sacraments. Functionally, this means that as a ministry of Word and sacraments pastoral care is tied also to Christian worship and community, discipleship and mission. (pp. 10-11) 
I imagine that most readers of this blog will, at this point, find themselves agreeing with Purves, but also asking, "How do I as a pastor or other Christian minister, live this out day-to-day?" We'll look at Purves' answer to this important question next time. Stay tuned.