Andrew Purves, Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. 137 pp., paperback. ISBN: 0-664-22241-2. $16.95.
Andrew Purves is Hugh Thomson Kerr Professor of Pastoral Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. His concern in this book is the direction of modern pastoral care. He says, "Biblical and theological perspectives . . . no longer shape the practice of much pastoral work. The modern pastoral care movement within the North American Protestant theological academy by and large revolves around psychological categories regarding human experience and symbolic interpretations about God" (p. 3). He further explains the situation by saying, "Modern pastoral theology is characterized largely by the study of what Anton T. Boisen, the founder of the Clinical Pastoral Education movement in the United States, called 'living human documents'that is, the study of people, especially in their distressrather than the study of biblical texts" (p. 85). This is illustrated in the writings of Seward Hiltner, the leading figure in the formation of the modern pastoral care movement. "Hiltner's inductive approach, following Boisen, saw the study of pastoral events and human experiences as the primary fonts of constructive theological inquiry" (p. 85).
Purves is calling for a change in this situation. He desires a return to what he calls the Classical Tradition in Pastoral Theology. For him "the classical pastoral writersdeconstruct our theological subjectivity and its concomitant pastoral anthropology by insisting on the capacity of Christian doctrine to really talk about God truthfully and the need to guide the souls of the people accordingly" (p. 3).
The bulk of this slim volume is then spent on the examination of the pastoral works of five men who are prominent in church history. There are two Greek fathers, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom; one Roman Pope, Gregory the Great; one reformer, Martin Bucer; and one Puritan, Richard Baxter. All these men wrote works that influenced pastors in their time and beyond.
I found very helpful the form that Purves uses in discussing each man. There is an introduction, followed by a brief biography; then a discussion of the major themes in each man's theology, followed by a summary of his pastoral theology. I especially appreciated the spelling out of the man's main theological emphasis during his ministry. This helped me to understand where his pastoral theology originated and where it developed. It also showed that Purves was not trying to have an amorphous classical unity without differentiation.
Indeed, we have in these men a wide variety of theological opinions. Gregory of Nazianzus's "images of the relationships between the soul and the body, and the pastor and the congregation, are drawn from neo-Platonism" and have a strong dualistic and hierarchical bent (p. 19). For John Chrysostom there was no salvation without the use of a priest. Purves states "he replaces the priesthood of Christ with the priesthood of the pastor/priest" (p. 47). Gregory the Great believed in prevenient grace that "enables and demands good works, for in salvation the human also must act" (p. 62). In this framework his pastoral care was the forerunner of the monastic orders of the Middle Ages. Even the title of his book indicates this in its Latin original, Liber regulae pastoralis. You might expect that the Puritan, Richard Baxter, would be different, but even his theology was flawed. "Baxter taught a doctrine of justification that contained elements of Roman, Reformed, and Arminian perspectives" (p. 102). The result for his famous work "The Reformed Pastor" was a method of pastoral care that "appears to be an exercise in compulsive overwork and a recipe for exhaustion" (p.95). (By the way, the word Reformed in the title does not refer to his theology, but his desire to see a changed minister).
Considering all of these differences, is there such a thing as a Classical Tradition? It is indeed the history of the church, but there is no unified theology in that tradition. From my way of thinking, it is wrong to appeal to this tradition to counter the Pastoral Theology of our generation. The only appeal that should be made is to the Scriptures themselves. The theology that informs our pastoral work must be a true Biblical theology. In the Bible, Christ says that he will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. He is the great shepherd of his sheep. He will gather his sheep. He will call under shepherds and use them to feed and tend the sheep. The power to do the task is to be found in the equipping of Christ and not in the effort we put forward.
In the progression of recommendations for pastors found in Purves' Classical Tradition, it seems to me that there is a substitution of emphasis on human dedication and effort of the worker for the human condition and need of the subject. This is not the word our generation needs to hear. Instead, there should be the emphasis placed on Christ and his work as found in the Scriptures.
By contrast to the above, we find Martin Bucer. Purves says of him, "At all points his approach is expositional and deductive, attending not only to the letter of scripture, but also to the true spirit and the power of the Lord.Thus, the emphasis always moves on to Christ's lordship over the church through the various ministries. Christ, alive and reigninghas and exercises all power and rule in the church and congregation" (p. 84). Now there is a man worth reading! The only problem is that his work, Von der waren Seelsorge, was written in German in April 1538 and has never been translated into English. Now there is a good doctoral project!!
J. Peter Vosteen