The Theologians in life and thought [1]

Ray S. Anderson

Fuller theological seminary 

It will ordinarily be assumed that a theological faculty is engaged in the activity of education for ministry. But this assumption cannot be held without raising some questions. Scholarship tends to become an end rather than a means. When this happens, the theological dimension of education becomes equated with theoretical learning as the pursuit of truth, while ministry is identified with its application. When the church this covers the graduates of the theological school are not adequately trained for ministry, and make their concerns known, the response of the law school faculty these usually to strengthen the department of practical theology. For, competence in ministry, is assumed, is a matter of proper technique and style of ministry, coupled with an indefinable quality called “charism.” Ministry, after all, is a calling to the heart, while scholarship and theology or gifts of intellect and will. Right?

Wrong! And for at least two reasons. With the logical thinking is practiced in abstractions from the church in ministry, It inevitably becomes as much a unapplied as pure and finally, irrelevant. On the other hand, when the theological mind of the minister is being educated and primarily through experience, an ad hoc theology emerges which owes as much or more to methodology and pragmatic concerns as to dogma. Both the practice of theology and the practice of ministry suffer from this dichotomy. And the product of the system, in making the transition from seminary graduate to ministry, assumes that the theoretical task is completed; Theological learning ceases so that practice of ministry can begin. This then is the third reason why this way of thinking is wrong. It does not produce the logical competence in ministry. It cannot, for its basic premise concerning both the nature of theology and ministry is askew.

Theology can a precedent ministry as an abstract formulation of truth, for truth of god is first of all the truth of ministry. All ministry is God’s ministry. Jesus did not come to introduce his own ministry. His ministry was to do the will of the father and to live by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.   God’s initial act and every subsequent act of revelation is a ministry of reconciliation.  Out of this ministry emerges theological activity, exploring and expounding the nature and purpose of God in and for creation and human creatures.  Theology, thus, servers as the handmaid of ministry to proclaim it as God’s ministry, and to make God known in his ministry as he is in his own being.

Thus, ministry cannot be construed solely as the practical application (or technique) which makes theological knowledge relevant and effective.  Theological activity emerges out of ministry and for the sake of ministry, if it is to be in accordance with the divine modality.  The “practice” of ministry, then, is not only the appropriate context for doing theological thinking; it is itself intrinsically a theological activity.[2]

Education for ministry must have as its goal the training of men and women who will be theologians in life and thought.  It will be assumed that the art of ministry requires skill and training, even the learning of techniques.  That is not in question here.  What is in view is a goal for producing competence in theology for ministry which will inform all departments of the faculty in preparing curricula and designing pedagogical structures.  What is proposed in this paper is a modest attempt to define at least one aspect of this competence and explore its implications for theological education.  Certainly, theological competence for ministry falls within the general objectives for readiness for ministry criteria.  Whether or not it is measurable, remains to be seen.

As a teacher of theology, one stated objective for each course is to develop theological instincts in the life and through of the students.  When this objective is announced at the outset of the course, the students invariably are both relieved and apprehensive.  They are relieved to discover that I do not place an absolute value on role learning and retention of information.  On the other hand, they suspect that by instincts I do not mean whatever impulsive or inclination happens to be in their mind or heart.  And they are right!

As an example of what is meant by theological instinct I cite Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was mad for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  When accused of violating the Sabbath commandment by ministering to human needs, Jesus argued on theological grounds that his actions were proper and that their charges were inconsiderate of God’s own nature and revealed will (cf Matthew 12:1-8).  Now it is apparent that this citation by Jesus is not a quotation from the Old Testament Scripture.  He had no chapter or verse for this teaching and action in this case.  But it is also quite clear that if any statement captures the intention and spirit of the Sabbath commandment, this one does.  Thus I would argue that it is a theological statement of the first rank.  Yet I cannot conceive of Jesus coming to this truth as an abstract concept and then seeking some situation in which to apply it.  Rather, it is easier for r me to believe that the concrete situation which required that he recognize the proper ministry appropriate to God also demanded of him a theological perspective,  I believe that he acted instinctively, accurately, and appropriately in making the judgment as to where the truth of God stood in that situation.  It is this competence which may be desired as a goal in preparing men and women for ministry.  Nor am I dissuaded from this conviction by the reminder that Jesus was uniquely the Son of God and thus endowed with more infallible instincts than all others who minister in his name.  For he has given us of his own Spirit and both promised and expected that we would do “greater works than these” (John 14:12; 16:14-15).

Three things occur to me as I contemplate this action of Jesus which is theologically perceptive.  First of all, there is a remarkable coherence in his perspective with the paradigm of revealed truth by which Israel knew herself as elect of God.  Thus, paradigm coherence rather than clever casuistry is a mark of theological competence for ministry.  The fact that Jesus could act instinctively was due to the continuity which he sensed in this situation with the essential paradigm of the covenant.  Far from merely trusting his impulses, and far less surrendering to sentimental feelings of pity, he acted out of an informed mind, steeped in the wisdom and tradition of the prophets, poets, and historians of Israel.  He could thereby go beyond the strict rule and the arbitrary principle in search of the truth of God in this situation.  There is coherence, and therefore continuity, because God faithfully keeps covenant with is people.  And his covenant is a judgment for the sake of his creature, not against it.[3]

Both Systematic and Moral Theology suffer the temptation to locate the truth in that which is universal rather than in the particular.  Thus, doctrine becomes an abstract system of thought for which applications are sought in concrete situations.  In the same way, Moral Theology often reasons from universals to particulars.  God is on the side of truth and he is good.  Therefore, consistency is a mark of truth, and the particular is subjected to the tyranny of the universal for the sake of this consistency.  So that even the exceptions do not actually violate the rule, but are the application of it in a way more congenial to personal interests.

Thus, there is a certain rigidity of method and attitude that can be measured in typical response to case situations which tends to view man as made for the Sabbath.  Where this phenomenon occurs, theological instincts are looked upon as unreliable at best, and anarchistic at worst.  Without proof text or moral principle, it is argued, it is better not to act than to act presumptuously.  However, this places competence on the side of the theoretician, and denies it to the minister.  At best, the minister can only be obedient and loyal in the application of the truth.  In acting and thinking as he did, Jesus demonstrated more competence than the scribes who were the specialists in the law, because he fulfilled the law.  This is to say, he discerned where God stood in the situation because he understood where God stands with regard to man.

Theological instinct, I would argue, results from scholarly knowledge of revealed truth, as well as theological comprehension of the paradigm by which that truth is present wherever God acts.  It then truthfully interprets the concrete situation as the absolute judgment of God upon and for man.  This I have called paradigm coherence.  Biblical and theological training can and ought to produce this kind of competence.  This is the first insight we have gained by looking more closely into the theological instincts of Jesus.

A second thing occurs to me as I contemplate the action of Jesus in declaring that the Sabbath is mad for man.  There is a powerful sense of his own presence which made the situation a truthful one with respect to where God stands in relation to man.  Thus, a second mark of competence for ministry is truthful presence rather than artful dodge.  The fact that Jesus could response instinctively was at least partly due to the sense of presence which he brought to every situation.   He was particularly aware that the divine Word had ontological status in terms of his own person.  He countered the appeal to Moses by saying “I say to you” (Matt. 19:9).  And to those who appealed to Abraham as their father, he responded by saying, “Before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58)

Jesus was cornered time and again by those who sought to bring him into the contradiction between the letter of the law and a common sense response.  He did not dodge the full implications of his own actions by appearing to uphold truth at the expense of righteousness and love.  Rather, he made the Word a truthful Word by bringing the presence of God to bear through his own actions.  More is at stake than mere credibility in the eyes of sympathetic observers.  Truthfulness establishes credibility because it is the power of being in act.  With respect to the questions of where God stands in a given situation, there can be no other than a truthful response.  To fall at the point of truthful presence in favor of an abstract point of truth, is to dodge the very occasion by which truth enters into the world.  Where there is truthfulness, says Hans Kung, “…there occurs in the midst of the world remote from God the miracle of experiencing God’s presence: … Wherever, among individuals or groups, there is a truthful church, there occurs a necessary demythologizing and de-demonizing, a deepening and humanizing of the world and of man; ….”[4]

Again, one should not too quickly dismiss this as restricted to Jesus because of his unique relation to God as his Father.  Through the Holy Spirit, the presence of God, both Father and Son, is given to the world in the life of the one in whom he dwells (John 14:23).  Every occasion of Christian witness is the occasion of this presence, and particularly is it so for one who ministers in the name of Christ.  The presence of one who ministers is also a manifestation of the divine Word with ontological status.  “We are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved,” says the Apostle Paul, and then goes on to ask, “Who is sufficient for these things?”  We are, Paul can be understood to answer, in response to his own questions, because “as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak Christ.” (II Cor. 1:15-17)

This truthful presence must instinctively go beyond concern for one’s own status and even one’s own good.  For the presence of God in a situation represents both a judgment upon the situation for the sake of the object of Go’s love as well as a kenosis, or self-emptying of the one in whom the presence is manifest.  Where there is evidence of self-serving or self-defense, the deficiency in the ministry is as much theological as spiritual.  In acting and thinking as he did, Jesus demonstrated more competence than those who served the temple.  Which is to say, he discerned where God stood in the situation because he understood where he stood with God.

Theological instinct, I maintain, results from being possessed by the truth as well as possessing the truth.  Biblical and theological training can be satisfied with nothing less than this competence.  For truthful presence is the aim of all God’s truth.  This is the second insight disclosed by studying more closely the theological instincts of Jesus.

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” taught Jesus, when his own ministry was called into questions.  His accusers could only repeat the law in its original form, buttressing their argument by appealing to centuries of case situations in which it had been interpreted and applied.  But Jesus saw that the situation of ministry is not simply another occasion for the application of law, but for the discovery of the mind and heart of the lawgiver.  Against the crippling legalism of the Scribes, Jesus instinctively seized the theological offensive by stating a new law which became a new revelation, not merely a new application of the original law.  This suggests to me a third mark of competence for ministry – theological nerve.  This is the courage to transform a situation into a theological task and the wisdom to discern the old in the new.

Ministry is a series of situations in which the truth of God is always at stake.  But if one comes into the situation with a truth to defend there will always be the danger of betraying the truth of persons for the sake of dogma.  The theological task, on the contrary, is quite different.  Here the situation itself becomes the occasion where truth is revealed through the presence of God.  This truth of God’s presence is the final truth, in the eschatological sense, but all situations are penultimate.  This must always be done with the confidence that one is discerning the absolute truth, even though it is never the final occasion of that truth.  There must be no wavering of the eye, no apprehensive glancing over the shoulder for some other criterion to which one can appeal so as to save one from that task.

In this sense, the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was a theologian in life and thought.  He grasped the significance of the penultimate as the critical event in which the ultimate Word commanded obedience and faithful action.  For this reason, his theological thinking was inseparably united with his theological action.  Because his thinking emerged out of the demand that the present situation made upon him, he broke new ground by disclosing new depths of the incarnation in terms of the presence of the church in the world.[5]

Yet Bonhoeffer brought no new word to the situation, nor did he allow the situation to dictate the content of the Word itself.  Rather, he understood the Word to be the original Word which demanded absolute priority in the contemporary situation to determine truthful existence.  For this reason, one who ministers must have an instinctive sense of the theological issue in a concrete situation and must have the courage to transform the situation in to a theological task.  This task combines authentic action with theological explication.  That is, one must stand where God stands in the situation and then one must be able to give account of this action in terms of the dogma of God’s own act in Jesus Christ.

In the most practical sense, this is the task of uniting the work of the Holy Spirit with the work of Christ in such a way that the subjectivizing tendencies in both situational and systematic ethics are overcome by an objective work of God.  Situational ethics betrays the ultimate in terms of the penultimate so that a subjective response becomes morally justified.  Systematic ethics betrays the penultimate for the sake of the ultimate so that subjective (human) reason becomes the standard of correctness.  But the true theological task in which every minister must have some degree of competence is to take the Word which has been once and for all delivered and release its authority to judge, renew and liberate that which sin binds and oppresses.  Surely this is the competence to which Jesus pointed when he said, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who bring out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matt 13:52)  Many achieve scholarly competence with regard to that which is old.  It is more difficult and less often the case, that one has the competence also in bringing forth the new.

For this reason, the church has been woefully negligent in responding to the crisis which new technology and new forms of humanism produce.  The average minister has little to say with regard to the issues which are tormenting contemporary human beings.  I refer to the questions which arise concerning abortion, right to life, cloning, and human sexuality, to name but a few.  The response of the church has often been what I term “theology by intimidation.”  Given the powerful forces of humanism and technological advance, the theology of the church makes concessions when it can no longer retain commitments to the old truths.

Because theological educators are too often securely established in pedagogical habitats which are largely unfrequented by demonic creatures, they arrive on the scene with too little too late.  Many who are in ministry have already had to make a response, usually with no time to consult a professor, much less read a text book.

My basic thesis has been that one way of looking at competence in ministry is to view it in terms of a theological instinct.  I have explored three facets of this instinct.  Paradigm coherence grounds the instinct in the objective reality of God’s own act of ministry, which includes both revelation and reconciliation.  Truthful presence gives ontological status to the revealed Word as a component of the concrete situation itself.  This is now one can understand the work of the Holy Spirit in ministry.  Theological nerve is the wisdom and the will to transform an ambiguous human situation into a theological task.  Ministry thus becomes the context in which theology continues as the servant of the church.

It only remains for me to add that I believe this competence can be learned if theological training for ministry is willing to become competency based and contextualized in practice.  When it is seen that every minister is also a theologian in life and practice, the goal will determine the pedagogical method.



[1] A paper delivered at the APEM Biennial meeting in Toronto, Canada, June 17-19, 1978.

[2] I have written more in-depth on this subject in an essay entitled, “Toward a Theology of Ministry,” to be published in the fall of 1978 in Theological Foundations for Ministry, Ray S Anderson (ed.)

[3] As an example of a theological method based on paradigm coherence, one should see the book, Space, Time, and Resurrection, by T.F. Torrance, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.

[4] Truthfulness – The Future of the Church. (London: Sheed and Ward Ltd., 1968), pp. 214-215.

[5] For Bonhoeffer’s discussion of the penultimate and ultimate, see Ethics, (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co.,, 1965), pp. 120-143.