What makes pastoral work Christian?

This post begins a series examining key points of Andrew Purves' book Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. For other posts in this series, click a number: 2, 34567891011.

A concern of many Surprising God readers is how incarnational Trinitarian theology relates to the everyday challenges of pastoral ministry. It is to this concern that theologian Andrew Purves addresses himself in his insightful book, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology. He offers a fully incarnational and Trinitarian perspective on pastoral theology (or what some term practical theology).

Theologian Ray Anderson (now deceased) endorsed the book, commending Purves for grounding "pastoral care in Christ's continuing ministry of revelation and reconciliation in the world on behalf of God the Father through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit" (back cover---and click here for an earlier Surprising God series on Anderson's book The Shape of Practical Theology). 

Ministry as participation with the triune God

For Purves and Anderson, truly Christian pastoral ministry is about participation in the ongoing ministry of the triune God. Sadly, this trinitarian theological perspective is largely missing from much of the literature and practice of pastoral ministry in our time. Purves comments on his purpose for writing:
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. (Preface, p. x, italics added).
In writing, Purves relied heavily on the work of James and Tom Torrance (Purves studied with both). As a summation of the theology that undergirds his approach to pastoral ministry, Purves (pictured at right) offers this quote from Tom Torrance:
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 Spire have among themselves and are in themselves. (p. xi, quoting from The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons, p. 148)

Ministry with a Christological center, grounded in the gospel

Fundamental to an incarnational Trinitarian theological approach to pastoral ministry is the understanding that "God is the principal subject matter of pastoral theology...a theology concerned with action" (p. xiv). Unfortunately, much of pastoral practice in the modern area is more about anthropology than theology---human-centered rather than Christ-centered.

According to Purves, pastoral care in our era, "has moved in a distinctly clinical, psychotherapeutic, or, more generally, social-scientific direction" (p. xiv). As a result, pastoral care often lacks a Christological center, which means that it tends to move in a secular-humanistic direction. To avoid this, Purves challenges us to ask and answer a foundational question: What makes pastoral work Christian? His answer is that ministry that is truly Christian is possessed by the Gospel rather than merely being a ministry that possesses the gospel. He 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 understood now as 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)  
And so Purves' purpose in writing is to provide a basis for sound pastoral work (praxis) that is sound specifically because it is grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He comments:
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 of God. (p. xvi, italics added).

But what about real life?

But how does Purves' incarnational Trinitarian approach to Christian ministry work out in real life---in the trenches of everyday pastoral ministry? Purves asks a related 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 takes 232 pages to answer his question, and in this series of posts we'll try to capture his key points. This is a vital topic for as Purves notes, modern day pastoral theology and practice (praxis) has, in large part, "abandoned the responsibility to speak concerning God" (p. xvii), substituting instead a focus on human functioning (and dysfunction), and thus on pragmatic issues of ethics. 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 discipleship. The focus has thus become self-actualization rather than salvation. As a result, pastoral work in our day tends to be defined in functional (pragmatic) terms with great emphasis on "how to" knowledge. Purves offers his book as a corrective:
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) 
Knowledge of God and God's mission is the only critical perspective from which or by which we can judge our own pastoral actions. Thus the introduction to and the most important part of pastoral theology is a presentation of the doctrine (or better, the practice) of God in christological, soteriological, and eschatological terms. (p. xxi) 

Toward a theologically-grounded approach to pastoral ministry

Purves is not suggesting that pastors run from the trenches of everyday life to the safety (and unreality) of a theological "ivory tower." The pastoral theology he strongly advocates is fundamentally "practical" (real) for it is grounded in the reality of who God is (as Father, Son and Spirit), and in the reality of what the Father, through Jesus, by the Spirit, is actually (really) doing to bring healing into the lives of real, suffering people. Purves comments:
Trinitarian theology is inherently practical theology in that it is a knowledge of God's action grounded in God's being. The doctrine of the Trinity is the basis for Christian practical theology. (p. xxv)  
Next time we'll explore Purves' assertion that true Christian ministry is our participation in this reality of God's being and doing. Stay tuned!

For two You're Included videos with Purves on the topic of a theological approach to pastoral ministry, click here and here.