A theology that traces promise across the contours of human history and misery, sees that its trajectory ends in a genuine hope which is of greater gravity and density than any merely topical words of comfort. Biblical theology arms the pastor, sitting by a death bed, sitting in the ruins of relational betrayal, occupying the hinterland of doubt and complexity, with the one Story whose ending is joyous without being artificial.
If a theology is true and good it will live well outside of the textbook and the classroom. If a body of scholarship fairly represents the word of God and the God of the word, then its impact will be felt beyond the pulpit and the more obvious didactic activities of the local church. A theology which has the Incarnation at its heart but that fails to land in everyday life is an inadequate and anaemic parody of divine revelation. Not all theology is experiential in content but it must be experiential in impact, the truths the theologian handles are not lifeless pinned butterflies but live specimens whose beauty and benefit should be seen and felt in the world, with the weight of God about them.
The work of a local church pastor is one of the most obvious interfaces for theology and practice, for doctrine and experience. Taking Biblical Theology as my starting point (I hope to write on Systematics at a later stage) in this post I want to share three ways in which this discipline has helped me in the caring aspect of my work as a local church pastor:
1. The Big Story gives me a book that travels well.
One of the things that can mark out a pastoral visit to a home from those made by other members is that such contact provides an informal opportunity for word ministry. This is the ‘house to house’ element of Christian service that Paul was keen to highlight to the elders in Ephesus (Acts 20:20), the ministerial priority that Richard Baxter so heavily emphasised in The Reformed Pastor, and an unseen work that forms the backbone of individual and family discipleship within the local church. Whether it is to the hospital ward, a care facility, or a home, bringing the Bible with me and leaving a word from it behind me is one of the rich privileges of being engaged in Christian service.
In this forum Biblical Theology comes into its own. Many (but by no means all) of the people whom a pastor visits are suffering from ill health, or have faced other setbacks in their Christian walk. This means that many of the texts shared in this environment are Bible promises: the consolation of the Psalms, the tender ministrations of the major and minor prophets, the pastoral heart of Jesus, or the loving counsel of the apostles. The dynamic of a broken heart or stricken health coming into contact with the living word of God can be an electrifying experience. This is often where the real conversation begins, with the word softening the reader’s and hearers’ hearts and opening a door for the mercy and goodness of God to be ministered. The danger of this, however, is that texts can be atomised or psychologised, and the insistence on context that garrisons the pulpit on a Sunday can be lost in the side ward or living room during the week.
This is where the Big Story of Biblical Theology is so beneficial. It has become common to sneer at Jeremiah 29:11 as the anthem of a therapeutic Christianity, but its counsel can be shared with those in crisis merely by disclosing something of the movement of redemptive history that gave dimension and pathos to the prophet’s words. Sections of the Psalter can be ripped away from their moorings, but Biblical Theology insists that the setting is what allows a gem to show its lustre. Having the imprint of the drama of redemption, the sweep and line and arc of what God was doing when this text was written, allows the pastor to speak hope that is real and tangible, textual and contextual. Where appropriate, and where the capacities of those visited allows it, brief context can be given to what is being read, opening up the conversation to be a teaching moment rather than a textual extraction/abstraction. It is hard not to believe that the Holy Spirit can honour the word of God when shared in this way.
2. Small stories are where the Big Story happens.
Aside from direct teaching of Scripture, Biblical Theology helps with pastoral visitation because of its esteem for history and narrative as the channel through which we come to know the mind and ways of God.