Chapter 10: The Ministry as Theologizing

Ferment in the Ministry
by Seward Hiltner

Chapter 10: The Ministry as Theologizing

With due respect to Roman Catholicism, to which the idea is not now alien, it is nevertheless a unique emphasis in Protestantism that every minister is to be a theologian. However important the things he does — preaching, shepherding, administering, teaching, evangelizing, and the like — he is also to think and inquire. He may and should pay attention to the thought and inquiry of others who may be more gifted than he. But no matter how great their expertness, he is not to follow it slavishly as if his is not to reason why. Thus his ministry includes theologizing as an active process. No more than any other function of ministry is theologizing to be set apart by itself, or interpreted out of context. But in that context it is indispensable, not merely preparation but ministry itself. This conception of church leadership is unique to Christianity; and the emphasis on it is unique to Protestantism.

If our focal concern in this book were the church rather than the ministry, we should be obliged to point out that in some basic sense every Christian is expected in Protestantism to be a theologian. He is himself, for instance, to read the Bible and, with expert help, to try on his own to understand it. He is not to sit passively and leave its interpretation to others. Thus there is a theological obligation on the part of every Christian, especially to back up universal priesthood and Christian vocation. But this degree of obligation does not absolve the ordained minister of special theological obligations. It is indeed part of his obligation as minister to evoke the theologizing of other Christians, but he can hardly use their participation in it as an excuse for getting out of it himself. Our concern here is with the ordained minister. An elucidation of his obligation to theologize is certainly not to be read as an excuse for laymen not to participate. But laymen are not our point of reference here.

Reluctant Theologians

The evidences of what this emphasis upon the minister as theologian has done are very widespread in the history of the past four centuries. The immense Protestant contribution to education at virtually all levels is incomprehensible without it. Our own American colleges were first founded to raise up men for the ministry, and it was explicitly defined as a "learned ministry," not training in a trade without ability to think and theologize. At least until our own century ministers were generally regarded as the most learned men in town. Printing, publication, and other means of public communication were also stimulated by this conviction.

And yet, if a Gallup poll were done of ministers of all denominations with the question, "Do you regard yourself as a theologian?" the results would probably emerge as follows:

31% said, "Well, I am a minister, but you could hardly call me a theologian."

22% said, "It is true I have studied theology, but I’m not really a theologian."

17% replied, "Brother, I sure ain’t. I’m only a simple parson, not one of those high-powered book guys."

8% admitted, "Well, I guess I am, in a way, but I am more interested in serving people than in theology."

7% said, "Where did you get that idea? And don’t do it again. I’d even rather be called ‘Reverend’ than ‘theologian.’"

5% said, "No."

4% replied, "I am about twice a year, when I go back for the alumni lectures."

2% said, "Pardon me, I have to rush to a funeral."

1% snorted, "I wonder who thought up that question?"

2% alleged, "I can see that someone from Princeton Seminary has been propagandizing George Gallup."

0.9% said, "Yes."

What does this contradiction mean? Why do most ministers deny that they are theologians, even though the requirement that every minister be a theologian is the functionally unique emphasis of Protestantism among the religions of the world? Certainly a partial answer to this question comes from common sense: that the notion of "theology" has come to have academic and specialized meanings from which a general practitioner, with some justice, excludes himself. On this matter the specialists are not innocent. They have, in two ways, intimidated ministers into disassociating themselves as theologians. First, they have taught the various branches of theology so academically in seminaries that the students come to regard all theology as the work only of specialists, and apparently nonministering ones at that. Second, while acknowledging that the ministry is a good place to use theology, they have not admitted that it also involves theological construction, and hence have helped remove from the minister any sense that he is a creative participant in the larger theological enterprise. Thus the minister comes to feel like a salesman who gets his products from the factory by way of the warehouse, but who would answer "no" to the question about his creative participation in making the product.

A proper study of this matter would demonstrate very complex historical reasons behind this reluctance of ministers to admit either that they are theologians or that their theologizing is a part of their ministering. Without professing to be in any way exhaustive, and still keeping the cartoon images focally before us, we can get inside some of these historical reasons by examining implicit images that ministers in various circumstances have been rejecting when they were reluctant theologians.

We may begin, for example, with a certain tradition within the Church of England, in which the minister or priest performed his liturgical, homiletical, and pastoral duties, and perhaps even did spots of reading about them, but in which his serious continuing intellectual work along some particular line might have little or nothing to do with theology. One thinks, for example, of Bishop Berkeley’s mathematics and philosophy. At least through a good part of the nineteenth century, a great deal of the specialized scholarship in nearly all fields was done by clergymen in England, not as the center of their jobs but as the intellectual accompaniment to their work of ministering.

My guess is that the image these men and this tradition were rejecting was that of the "hired man." Generally speaking, the income level and social status of Anglican clergy was not high. One was often at the mercy of the local lord or squire or, even more ghastly, of his wife. To be sure, the primary duties of ministry were seldom subject to arbitrary manipulation; but feelings about churchmanship could often be nudged up or down a few degrees on the high-low scale. How, under such pressures, could clergymen effectively retain their sense that they were not just hired men but also learned ministers? For this purpose, expertness in some branch of theology might be quite inferior to a serious pursuit of mathematics, or classical literature, or archaeology, or botany. If such a person were asked whether he were a theologian, he could reply, "I am a priest, and also a kind of mathematician." This may not always have been a bad thing, although it did tend to leave many of the functions of ministry uncriticized from various important theological perspectives. For it often took the heat off the need to find focus, interest, and status entirely through the functions and relationships of ministry, and thus no doubt contributed to mental health.

If we turn to one important development in the history of the ministry in our own country, we may think, for instance, of one of its important representatives in the person of circuit-riding Peter Cartwright. No doubt he would have replied negatively if asked about his being a theologian. Or else he would have said, "I am a theologian only to the extent that I study the Bible daily, even while on horseback." What Cartwright would have been reacting against, in image terms, was the picture of a fixed, settled, and shielded person not moving about the migrating world to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to people who need it. He might also have been suspicious of all the other books in the study of the settled minister as endangering the all-sufficiency of the Bible. It hardly needs elaboration that both these considerations have been prominent in the development of ministry in America.

In German-speaking countries and in Scandinavia there was still another kind of tradition, Whether or not the university-educated minister did in fact continue his scholarly pursuits alongside the work of his parish, he was encouraged to do so and was often evaluated positively to the degree that he did so. The subject of his continuing studies was usually either a branch of theology or something that theology had given rise to, such as Oriental languages or history. Since most of his studies in university days were in the traditional fields of theology, his later pursuit of a special theological subject was ordinarily within the traditional fields. Even today, visiting Americans are surprised at how many German or Swiss ministers are fully up to date about Barth’s or Bultmann’s latest, even to the extent of being able to write learned reviews with all the technical paraphernalia.

What differentiates this situation from the older Anglican one is that the specialties here pursued are alleged to be theological in character. But the definitions of what is theological have seldom included emerging fields and concerns and have usually been conceived traditionally. What seems to be argued for implicitly in this tradition is the positive assertion, "I am a scholar; a scholar is one who pursues a specialized field; and since I am a theological scholar, what I am pursuing is a special field of theology." In reply to the question, "Are you, then, a theologian?" such a person would reply "yes" only if his special field were doctrinal theology. Otherwise he would say, "I am a New Testament scholar," or "My field is medieval church history." In other words, the positive image is to show that, even though one is not literally within the groves of Academe, his robe and his pen are still as dominant in his vocational self-image as if he were a professor. Another proof of this is the status accorded even theological professors in German and Scandinavian cultures.

I hope I do our Continental brethren no injustice in suggesting that this tradition has also, implicitly, rejected a particular image. That image seems to me to be the servant image, when servant-hood is understood as functional in nature. If service is as service does, then that seems to be the image rejected by this part of the Continental tradition. To be sure, the minister must perform certain functions; but what is important about even the functions is not their function but something else: their authority, their source, or the knowledge from which they proceed. This fact helps to explain why the "custodian" image of the ministry, to use the phrase of a Dutch scholar, Heije Faber, has been so prominent on the Continent and appears so strange in America.

In America the reluctance of the minister to be a theologian is also a product of the anti-intellectual aspects of American culture. To this stream of American life intellectualism means pretentiousness or potential arrogance. If you are an intellectual in America, you have two ways in which you may proceed without being rejected. The first is to be obviously successful. In that event, you are out of the competition. You become a father or a lord instead of participating in sibling rivalry. If successful, your actions that otherwise would have been regarded as condescending now become thoughtful. The other path is to prove you are one of the boys; or, in sibling-relation terms, that you know you are no smarter than anyone else. It is a curious thing how the sibling rivalry motif is so deeply involved with our anti-intellectualism.

We have seen, then, a sampling of the images that various traditions of the ministry have rejected when reluctant, on one count or another, to accept the responsibility of being theologians. The full story would go much more deeply than our samples. But for present purposes, we can see how such images as the hired man, the functional servant, the unadventurous bookman, or the pretentious highbrow have been involved in the rejection of responsibility as theologian. Theologian, then, has become ambiguous, and theologizing incomprehensible. We shall turn to ask if there is another image or images, actually or potentially more positive, of the minister as theologian that may help us deal with the contradiction that now exists between the clear Protestant call for the minister to be a theologian and his reluctance to accept the charge.

The Passive Theologian Image

The older Protestant image of the minister as theologian was, or appeared to be, passive. The minister sat reading his Bible. To be sure, "reading" is an active and transitive verb. But the thrust of the image was that the Bible, or the Word of God through the Bible, struck the minister as he read. He was a theological recipient. But is a theological recipient a theologian? Indeed, is a passive recipient a faithful or competent recipient? If he appears to receive, but has no pen in hand to make notes against the fallibility of his own memory or the evanescence of profound insight, is he really taking seriously what he professes to receive?

In actual fact, the passive image of reading the Bible seldom occurs alone in Protestantism. It is nearly always followed at once by the image of preaching we have already noted, by a teaching image, or by some other image of function and service such as that of shepherding. The Word through the Bible may indeed strike the minister recipient, which is as it should be. But he does not just go on sitting. He responds in action, in service, in communication, and in testimony. Nevertheless, despite this inescapable linkage of theological receptivity and response through function, this image is dubious. It could have characterized no leader of Protestant thought or work. Luther did not just read the Bible. He also translated it. Metaphorically speaking, one cannot imagine Calvin without pen in hand as he read. Such men were clearly aware that theologizing was an active process, whether they were making notes, writing sermons, compiling commentaries, or writing letters. Even Luther’s table talk is theologizing. Surrender was an attitude toward God, not an invitation to passivity. One could not even grasp the meaning of surrender without reworking it. Hence the old theologian image was always inadequate to the best theologians.

Nor does the old image lose its passivity when some aspects of its context are made explicit. We can, for example, add the following items to it, since they were always implicit. We can show the minister in a book-lined study, reading and being guided by the Bible, but consulting other works which may be important even in understanding the Word through the Bible. This addition does, in principle, guard against a bibliocentrism that may distort our understanding of the biblical message itself. It is good, but it does not transcend passivity.

We may also add to our Bible-reading image a typewriter. This suggests that the modern minister, technically speaking, is not confined to the technologies of the past. He may write his sermons so that cryptography is unnecessary in reading them. And yet, although this too is good, passivity remains. He seems only to be more efficient and clearer in passing on what he has received.

The minister and his desk may be shown before a window. And through the window we may see perhaps the smoke of industry, the log jam of traffic, the uproar of a football game, or the grimy ruin of inner-city slums. By this addition we may show that the Word is for the world, to rejoice when it rejoices, to bind up its wounds when in pain, to rescue it from barbarity and attrition and impoverishment. This too is good, and it does imply that something is finally needed beyond passivity. But as to the intellectual aspects of the task, there is still nothing beyond passivity. Action? Yes. But an active and creative dimension of thought and reflection after being struck by the Word? The image does not say so.

Even if we move to the various specialist images of the theologian, we remain in the realm of passivity. The biblical scholar crouched over scrolls or archaeological remnants, the doctrinal theologian holding an earthen vessel that he at least believes to contain a treasure, the moral theologian stoutly defending something or other against something else, or the historical theologian looking like the Connecticut Yankee in somebody’s ecclesiastical backyard — all are doing something and in that sense are active. But there is nothing in such images that suggests the theologizing as active. The response to it is indeed active. But what comes between hearing and doing? Apparently not much of consequence.

To a frightening extent, the modern arrogation of the title "theologian" to seminary professors with doctor’s degrees, Latin styles, German specialisms, concealed inferiority complexes, and a conviction that they have been "elevated" from the ministry of the local church is now exacerbating the long-standing condition. We Americans are charged with being activists. But what American has the courage to try writing a systematic theology in any field: doctrine, Bible, ethics, history, or otherwise? Only Paul Tillich and Nels Ferre have even tried it, and Tillich’s roots were German while Ferre’s intent to be systematic is still in doubt. It is surely not that we lack theological minds of high scholarship, efficient capacity for work, or ability to find publishers. It is rather that such active intent to acknowledge theologizing as perpetual reconstruction appears pretentious, overambitious, getting too big for one’s hood, and other successfully self-intimidating motivations. The result is that the scholarship of American activists is astonishingly passive. On smaller and more partial matters, it is becoming astonishingly good. And there is more of it than ever. But who really sticks his neck out, except Tillich and Ferre? Most academic theologians obtrude a little finger. A few risk one hand. But all seem terrified of sibling rivalry.

This apparent humility that is actually passivity is tempted to even greater extremes as our academic institutions become larger, cultivate more specialized faculties, and thus make possible more accurate teaching and scholarship and more penetrating specialized inquiry. The retreat into professed ignorance but for one’s specialty may appear, on the surface, like that of the Germans. But whatever one may say against the Germans in theology, they have not lacked intellectual guts, vigor, and a disposition to very active articulation and controversy. Our situation is now tempted with the bad side of German theological scholarship, without assimilating the other side that has been its glory.

Although I have enjoyed these last few moments of spanking the professors, which is my way of dealing with sibling rivalry, my concern is with the way in which what is happening to theology in academic circles is infecting ministers generally. So long as those who call themselves theologians are essentially passive, what they communicate about the nature of theologizing is also essentially passive. Not that most ministers understand what is happening to them. "He understands Barth and Bultmann, and I don’t," implies that understanding those gentlemen is itself a sufficiently active process to be worthy of the term "theology." But the fact is that anyone who understands either or both of those gentlemen, and who is not champing at the bit to make the needed corrections in their views, is either brainless or passive. The view of theology actually insinuated is rather more like that of a competent language translator than of an active and creative reworker of man’s assimilation of the faith. A translator can be most impressive; his skill may be very great. But all his skill and competence cannot conceal the fact that he has few ideas of his own.

I am often amused by the irony of, above all others, Karl Barth declaring, in twelve long and complex and very active volumes, that man can simply trust in, receive, and be struck by the Word of God — especially when, with a manner so confident that he can afford to be utterly calm, he explains the desirability of such passive attitudes to American ministers who have driven hundreds of miles, raised a few extra dollars for gasoline, and bound up a few wounds on the way while feeling guilty throughout the journey that they have not diligently yielded themselves to the discipline of the twelve volumes. I believe Peter Cartwright would have done better than that by Barth. With those long rides of his, he might even have got through the twelve volumes, always regarding them, of course, as recreational reading between his bouts with the Bible. At any rate, I cannot imagine him being passive at a Barth lecture. Either he would be, next day, preaching with the help of a Barth who had convinced him or analyzing in his diary where Barth was fudging. But in neither event would he be passive.

I frankly doubt that the professors will acknowledge and correct this growing passivity on their own. But suppose that many ministers, and not just the professor theologians, become convinced not only that they too are and must be theologians but also that theologizing is part of their ministry? Then, I think, even we professors may listen.

The Functional Theologian Image

Many historians of science have noted that the progression of subjects to which science has turned its attention has been rather steadily from the remote toward the proximate. Scientific astronomy preceded scientific psychology. The reasons for this sequence are severely complex. They are not mere reluctance over self-exposure, although such a motive is indeed present. They certainly include a distrust that the close, the proximate, and the commonplace are worthy of study in the same sense as the majestic stars, the mystifying atom, or the intriguing developments of biological or linguistic evolution.

So far as I know every science in its infant days has put its principal attention upon what seemed most strikingly different from the commonplace. Cultural anthropology went to Samoa before it invaded Japan or New York. The psychology of religion studied adolescent conversions before it asked why the psychologist left fundamentalism and became a Quaker, an Episcopalian, or a Unitarian. Professional sociology is still much more revealing about the interior workings of all social classes except the professional. Only the natural sciences have moved far enough to realize that the macroscopic and the microscopic are actually close together, that the road to objectivity demands the steady clarification of subjectivities, and that what may have seemed remote may actually be nearer than breathing and closer than endocrine glands.

Although it ought to know better, theology has generally succumbed to the same temptation. It has usually felt more at home with the theological equivalent of astronomy than with the opposite number of psychology, geniuses like Augustine always excepted. To the respectable, what happened then has always seemed more worthy of study than what is happening now. The illusion that the now is either so insignificant and commonplace as to be unworthy of study, or that it is so well known anyhow — without analysis, critical reflection, or even systematic observation — as to be beneath serious notice, has become all too characteristic of a theological tradition that knows perfectly well that we cannot understand either God’s grace or man’s sinfulness without in some fundamental sense understanding the other first.

The creative theologians of our day — including, each in its own way, Barth, Brunner, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann, Niebuhr, Tillich, and others — have all moved in their content in the direction of acknowledging the importance of analyzing the commonplace, the near, or even the functional. I confess freely that some of them do it backhandedly. But they all do it to some degree. But when we examine their methods, we find quite a different story. Barth includes in his content things that are not permitted by his method. Tillich promises in his method things that never appear in his content. The great uniqueness of Niebuhr, his social science perspective on theological questions, is constantly deprecated by him; or else, when in one of his self-depreciative moods, he claims he is not a theologian. That is nonsense, but it is nonsense based on the error that insight into function is an inferior form of theory.

Let me return to the minister at work, in the hope that these comments on the history of science and the ideologies of theology can be connected. What does this minister do, for instance, when he is driving back to the church after making a hospital call, or driving home after a frustrating committee meeting at the church, or flying home after a freedom march or an assault on poverty? Unless he is perfectly adapted to the ministry, in which event he should be selling something somewhere, he is certainly being reflective about what he has just gone through. Whatever the specific nature of the situation he has just left, he did not respond to it in detached fashion. He was, and is, involved. It meant something to him. He felt, and still feels, it. He may, of course, have only the rudimentary and uncritical reflections from his feelings, concluding that he did well because he feels good or that he failed because he is still concerned. But let us assume that lie has some transcendence over such subjectivities. In that event, he is truly appraising what happened and why, not sparing the egoistic horses but primarily with an eye to the next occasion. He may, as many ministers actually are, be conducting the most rigorous and penetrating kind of professional self-appraisal that will indeed improve what he tries to do next time. Such moments may be, for him, the hurting but helping true learning experiences of his ministry. They may be, in actual fact, the most penetrating theologizing he ever does. And yet, despite their benefit to him and to his people and to the church and to the Kingdom of God, it may seem to him utterly bizarre and eccentric to say that he is here engaged in a kind of creative theologizing that even a Barth should envy.

Let me be clear that I am not baptizing subjective feelings as theologizing. If the minister has not read and studied the Bible, gone to theological seminary and learned about other branches of theology, acquired an insight and a skill or two along the way, and seen what he was trying to do in a context appropriate to the ministry of the Christian church, none of what I am asserting would follow. The context and the conditions are indispensable. But if they are present, and if the critical reflection is as suggested, then we have in fact an active and creative theologizing that should have no inferiority complex before the big B’s, the professors, or even God himself. For Job, the psalmist, Paul, and the prophets, whatever their particular concerns, were never passive theologians even before God himself. And they all came round to theologizing about the commonplace and the familiar.

I would readily agree that theologizing is not merely reflective meditation about immediate functions or events, apart from the context in which these are seen, the motives with which they are approached, and the perspective that one brings. But, granted those conditions, then reflection upon them — in that context, with those motives, and with that perspective — is fully as much an act of theologizing as any apprehension that strikes us out of the Bible, or Bultmann, or Barth, or any other alphabetical characters past or present. This kind of reflection is theologizing; it is also ministry, for it cannot be done except in the context of preparing for future occasions of function and service. It ought to be ruthless in its subjecitivity. "Why did I drag in that old saw at that point?" But this is toward an objective end. "Next time at least I won’t do that, in the light of. . . ." Right or wrong, and in whatever degree, what can be more theologically responsible than that? Or, if he got it right, more creative?

To my entire line of argument, you may of course reply, "Very good. If the minister is preaching properly, shepherding people effectively, building up the body of Christ along with other Christians, that is great. But why all this business about making theology out of it? Why not let us get on with the task? Why give it such a fancy and highbrow name? That’s all right for those fellows at Princeton, Basel, Gottingen, and Edinburgh. But all we want is to help our people, to be instruments of mediating the Word and the finger of God to these human, likable, troubled, and sinful people. Why fuss us up with theology?"

Why indeed? The answer is that theology is a very human, and very important, enterprise; that grasping and assimilating what God has done and continues to do is not something that can be engaged in passively but is a challenge to everything any of us possesses; that the separation of theologizing from what the minister and the church try, fallibly but authentically, to hear of the Word of God in specific situations from some alleged and remote theology is bound to be blasphemous as well as mistaken; and that the one way to hear the Word of God, if it contains the Protestant principle, is to submit our functions to concrete self-criticism. But, if any of this is done, it is not just psychology or sociology or philosophy or linguistics or technology, however competent; it is also, in the quite precise sense, theology. And if it is sifted and criticized and verbalized, and submitted for criticism, it may become some form of systematic theology.

The minister is also a theologian, and theologizing in its proper context is an aspect of ministry. Go thou and do likewise. And then, as even Thomas J. Watson has counseled us, THINK. The result just might be theology.