Biblical Theology and the Pastor
Biblical Theology and the Pastor
Biblical theology is the attempt to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors. This task could also be described as the process of having the mind of Christ formed within us, so that we attain to the unity of the faith. Understood this way, biblical theology is for discipleship.
In what follows I want to answer four questions: 1) how should pastors read the Bible? 2) what is the pastor's role in the Bible's big story? 3) how does the Bible use symbolism to summarize and interpret the role of the pastor? and 4) what can we say about the truths, culture, and liturgical practices that flow from a biblical theological understanding of pastoral ministry?
How should pastors read the Bible?
As followers of Jesus, pastors should read the Bible the way Jesus did. This is what it means to read the Bible with biblical theological sensibility.
Moses set an interpretive agenda followed by the prophets and psalmists, from whom in turn (on the human level) Jesus learned to understand the Scriptures and the world. Jesus then taught his disciples to read the Bible the way Moses and the Prophets intended, and under the inspiration of the Spirit the Apostles wrote the New Testament to teach followers of Jesus how to understand the Scriptures and life.
To do biblical theology is to learn to read the Bible from the biblical authors themselves. It is to embrace their way of understanding earlier Scripture. To read the Bible without biblical theology is to fail to learn from the biblical authors how the Bible is to be read, how the world is to be understood. As pastors, our job is to help people live in the world of the Bible. To get people into the Bible's world, we have to learn from the biblical authors how to understand the Bible, the world, and life.
Biblical theology attempts to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors. As N.T. Wright, in his books Paul and Faithfulness of God (Vol. 4) and The New Testament and the People of God, explains these authors tell the big story of the whole world, use symbols to summarize and interpret that story, and highlight key patterns and themes to help people live in the real world. There will be truths that flow from the story, a response of worship and gratitude entailed by it, and a culture to be fostered in our churches.
In his "Introduction" to Athanasius's On the Incarnation, C. S. Lewis noted that "Every age has its own outlook." Reading "the controversies of past ages," Lewis was struck that "both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny … . they were all the time secretly united … by a great mass of common assumptions."
The biblical authors have their own outlook and share a great mass of common assumptions. The task of biblical theology is to trace out the worldview that the biblical authors share with one another. To do biblical theology is to attempt to get inside the worldview of the biblical authors by examining the Bible's story, symbols, patterns, and the church's role in it all.
What is the pastor's place in the story?
God has been pleased to orchestrate a cosmic battle between good and evil. The powers and principalities are like Goliath, and the people of God are like the little shepherd boy David, a babe from whose lips will come God's strong praise to silence the enemy.
Satan initiates a cosmic revolt, and God answers with the promise that a baby will be born. He grows up in Nazareth, of all places, then sets about choosing for himself the weak things of the world and the things that are not to bring to nothing the things that are.
After Jesus, the world's unlikely Savior, has accomplished his mission, he commissions his Apostles, unlikely Ambassadors of the High King, to make disciples of all nations.
There are many impressive institutions in the world, all engaged in high-minded pursuits, but God is using the lowly church to accomplish his program (Eph. 3:10).
The Old and New Testaments indicate that the last days, in which we are, will be a time of persecution, affliction, and suffering: the messianic woes. Jesus has given pastors to the churches to shepherd them through the messianic woes.
What about biblical symbolism and pastors?
Abel was a shepherd. Joseph was keeping the flock of his father. Moses was a shepherd, as was David. These righteous suffering shepherds established a pattern fulfilled in the good shepherd, the chief shepherd, and Peter explicitly calls elders to shepherd the flock and exercise oversight, using language he used to describe Jesus as the Shepherd and Overseer of souls (1 Pet. 5:1-2; 2:25).
On the one side we have "the great dragon …, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world" (Rev 12:9), and those who have him as their father (John 8:44). On the other side we have the chief Shepherd, his Apostles, and the pastors and teachers given to shepherd his flock.
The intersection of the pastor with biblical theology is the place where we understand our role in the big story of the Bible, the symbolic import of what we are doing, the truths we are to maintain and enforce, and the worshiping culture we tend and cultivate.
What about truths, culture, and liturgical practices?
Church members and pastors are to contend for the faith so that the flock will be preserved through the wilderness to the land of promise, where the city has foundations. These truths about the story speak to us about our identity. We are not the characters in the story who have to have the right clothes, the right computers, the right friends, or the right facilities. We are not those who must be affirmed by the culture. We proclaim the Bible's teaching about who God is, how he sent his Son to redeem, and gave the Spirit to his followers. We hold fast the word of truth in the Scriptures, and those Scriptures make explicit statements about salvation, marriage, sexuality, and much else.
We are liberated slaves on pilgrimage to the land of promise. We have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, who transformed the celebration of the Passover at the last supper, turning it into a commemoration of the salvation he accomplished on the cross and the new covenant he thereby initiated.
Just as Israel was redeemed at the exodus through the death of the Passover lamb, Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. Just as Israel was baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, we were baptized into his death and raised to his life. Just as Israel ate manna from heaven and drank water from the rock, Jesus gives us himself as the bread of life, the rock struck from which water flows, in the Lord's Supper. He sustains us through the preaching of the word, the baptism of new believers, and participation in the Lord's Supper as we sojourn to the new and better land of promise, where the city has foundations.
We want the Bible's story to be our story, the Bible's imagery to stock our symbolic universe, and the theological, moral, and ethical norms of the story to be our own. We want to respond to God's revelation of himself with the worship due him, and we want to cultivate a community where the Bible's story, symbolism, truths, and the response of worship are all normal. Biblical theology produces biblical culture in our local churches.
Editor's Note: If you want to learn more about biblical theology see Jim Hamilton's book What Is Biblical Theology? For a great example of an attempt at whole Bible biblical theology also see Hamilton's book God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology. Both will better help you understand the important part the biblical theology plays in your sermon prep each week.
Jim Hamilton serves as Professor of Biblical Theology at Southern Seminary and Preaching Pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church.