Recovering Pastoral Theology

We need to recover a wholesome reconstruction of pastoral care that is informed by Christian theology, within the context of the Christian community and where the pastoral office is correlated with liturgy and prayer, preaching and the nurturing of a Christian community. There has been over-dependence on the scientifically proven wisdom of this ‘world ‘ that has often secularized the model and context of priestly ministry and created an identity crisis. This does not to trivialize what the behavioural sciences have taught us but to make them ancillary rather than central. Our context as priests and pastors must always be ecclesial rather than secular, rooted in a living relationship to Christian Revelation, Baptism, Eucharist, the ministry of Word and Sacrament, the grace of orders out of which our pastoral care emerges and to which it is accountable. We need to know in what sense pastoral theology is and remains theology if we are to determine the classical model of the pastoral office and what pastoral care is.

Pastoral Theology

The term pastoral theology is unknown to antiquity but the science is as old as the Church itself. It appears in our text from St Mark 3, v14, ‘… and he called the twelve to himself so that they might be with him and that he might send them forth to preach and to heal’ and in the many instructions Jesus gave to his apostles for the cure of souls. It is in the pastoral letters of St Paul and his instructions to Timothy and to Titus in regard to the sacred ministry. The term itself originated in Germany in the eighteenth century appearing on the title-page in Jacobi’s Introduction to Pastoral Theology in 1760, and was made classical in 1797 by Professor Sailer’s Lectures on Pastoral Theology, but was not adopted in England until the nineteenth century when in 1836 an Act of Parliament endowed a chair of Pastoral Theology in Oxford.

There is no treatise entitled Pastoral Theology in patristic divinity. The Fathers who wrote of the duties and qualifications for Christian ministry gave various titles to their treatises. Gregory Nazianzen entitles his Apologia or Self-Defence and John Chrysostom writing under similar circumstances, entitles his On the Priesthood. Ambrose wrote, De Officiis Ministorum and Jerome’s Letter to Nepotianus is entitled De Vita Clericorum. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana and De Catechizandis Rudibus are pastoral essays. Written primarily for bishops is Gregory the Great’s Liber Regulae Pastoralis. None of these Fathers treated the subject as a department of theology or gave a scientific form to his discourse. Similarly in Anglican divinity there is no treatise on Pastoral Theology properly so-called. A number of classical works, include Bishop Burnet’s Discourse on Pastoral Care, published in 1692 to raise the standards of ordination candidates in the Diocese of Salisbury, Archdeacon Wilson Evans The Bishoprick of Souls, William Perkins, Of the Calling of the Ministry, George Herbert’s A Priest to the Temple, Thomas Fuller’s Pastor and People, and Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor. In 1852 Professor JJ Blunt published his On the Duties of the Parish Priest.

Gregory Nazianzen points out that a Pastoral Theology should be to theology what the rules of an art are to the science on which it rests, an application of the truths of theology to the practical ministry of souls. He claims that being a healer of men is much more difficult than being a leader of men and being a healer is what is meant by the cure of souls and that the medicine of souls is more subtle than that of bodies.

The Incarnation is the medicine of the soul, undoing the Fall and bringing man to the Tree of Life. And the office of a priest is to administer this medicine. Theological training is therefore necessary to the priest as medical training is to the physician. For to suit our treatment to the various cases that come before us is difficult; yet more difficult is it to instruct our people in the saving doctrines of our holy faith. Herein a half-educated pastor may do infinite harm without being aware of it. Zeal which is not according to knowledge leads men away from the truth … Men are foolish if they do not know their own ignorance; rash, if knowing it, they lightly undertake the ministry of souls.

Richard Hooker taught that the sacraments effect in us ‘the medicine that doth cure the world’ – God in Christ – ‘was distributed to Christ’s body the Church.’

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon, Hon Canon of Durham and a Tutor at St Chad’s College.