The Pastor as Theologian, Part 2
By Rev. Dan Thompson, Ph.D.
I didn’t set out to become a theologian. I didn’t even set out to become a pastor. I grew up in a Christian family, attending church every Sunday and hearing the Bible read to me by my parents, but I wasn’t all that interested in understanding the Bible. I went to church and listened to my father read the Bible because that’s what I was supposed to do. I didn’t have any reason to disbelieve what I was taught. I accepted it. I thought I understood it. I knew the basic message of the Bible and believed that I was a Christian.
When it came time to leave home and go to college, my desire was to study music and become a professional musician. I was young, and my parents, probably sensing something of my distance from a real relationship with God, asked me to attend a Bible college for one year, after which, they said, I could go to whatever music school I wanted to pursue. I agreed to that request, and chose a Bible college in Chicago, Illinois, where I could also begin to pursue musical studies. During that first year of college, I found myself in Bible classes with teachers who loved Jesus and loved the Bible, but interpreted the Bible in a way that was very different than the way I had heard it taught when I was growing up. I didn’t understand the theological views from which they were teaching. All I knew is that it sounded different than what I had heard all my life. Curiosity was stirred. I wanted to know the truth: were the things I was hearing the truth or were the things I had been taught all my life the truth? I was drawn into the study of theology without even knowing that’s what was happening. I just wanted to find out what was true. I wanted to understand what the Bible says.
My study of theology began very simply. I just investigated the background of the ideas I was being taught and compared those ideas to what other Christians had said through the centuries. As the years went by, I ended up pursuing a degree at a theological seminary and was called to become a pastor. My seminary education included studies in theology (the study of God). I read great books written long ago by gifted Bible scholars. I found answers to a lot of my questions. I found that the Bible makes sense and that it has a clear message from beginning to end. I was able to pass examinations in classes on theology and was able to pass a long examination by a committee and before a group of pastors when I was ordained as a pastor. I learned the right words to the questions I knew they would ask, and, to be fair, I understood the words I was saying when I answered their questions. But I didn’t realize then how shallow my understanding of the Bible and of the gospel of God’s grace really was. It is one thing to know the right answers to pass an examination. It’s another thing to get the truth of the gospel deep into my own heart and to experience God’s progressive transformation in my own life.
I have now been a pastor for more than 28 years. I didn’t set out to become a theologian, but I want the people I teach and serve to know God and to love His Word. More than that, I want to glorify and enjoy God in my own life – I want to know God better! Because theology simply means “the study of God” or what we think is true about God, every person in the world is a theologian. They are either good theologians or bad theologians, but everyone in the world has beliefs about what is ultimately real in the universe and about what is true about this ultimate reality. Those beliefs shape the choices they make in every-day life. All of life is inescapably theological because we were created in God’s image and likeness. We were made to enjoy and glorify God. What we think about God and how that shapes our lives is our theology. According to the Bible, it is possible to know there is a God and to know something about his power and majesty just by looking at the world God has made. But we can’t know God in a saving way without the Bible. Our opinions about what God is like or who He is will not lead us to the truth apart from God’s self-revelation in the Bible. God has to tell us what is ultimately true and what He is like. God has to tell us why our world is such a mess and why we innately sense that things in this world are not the way they should be. God has to explain why there is a longing in all of us for something this world never seems to be able to provide.
We live in a world that believes everyone’s opinion of what is real and true is just as valid as anyone else’s view. People tell us that we interpret reality like a bunch of blind men who run into an elephant. One blind man feels the elephant’s trunk and says an elephant is like a giant flexible hose. Another blind man grabs the tail and says a elephant is like a hairy whip. Another takes hold of a leg and says an elephant is like a tree. All of them have a partial view of reality. Each of them is wrong – a whole elephant isn’t completely like any one of his parts. People use this illustration to say that nobody can say what is completely true in the universe – all we have are partial truths but not the ultimate truth. But while we human beings are limited in perspective, God sees the whole elephant. He created the elephant. And if we listen to Him, we have an accurate view of what is real and true, even if we don’t have the answer to every question that comes to mind.
Certainly there are concepts in the Bible that are beyond my understanding. There are things about God that I will never fully comprehend. I am a finite creature. God is an infinite being. A finite creature cannot fully comprehend an infinite and eternal being. But God can be known. He has made Himself known in His written Word and in the person of Jesus. As a pastor, I am called to study, to work diligently at the task of understanding God’s Word so I can teach it and preach it as clearly as possible. There are times when I have to say to my people, “I don’t understand completely what this passage is saying.” I don’t have to pretend I understand everything. But I can say, “Here’s what I do understand from this passage and this is what I think the writer is telling us. This is what is clear from this passage, even if there are things here I don’t fully understand.”
The weekly responsibility of teaching and preaching has been a tremendous blessing in my life. I have had to study God’s Word diligently so I could teach it well to the people in my congregation. I remember a teenage boy coming to me one Sunday after we celebrated the Lord’s Supper. He said, “Pastor Thompson, you said the Lord’s Supper is a sign and seal of God’s covenant of Grace, but what does that mean? How is it a seal?” I was using biblical words (the language of “sign and seal” comes from Romans 4 – God gave Abraham circumcision as a sign and seal of the righteousness he had by faith). I was using those words in the appropriate context (explaining something about the Lord’s Supper). But I didn’t understand what the words meant. I told my teenage friend that I would think about his question and come back later with an answer. I had to do some reading and thinking to get the concept clear in my own mind before I could explain what I believe the Bible means by that language. That’s theological study that is practical! The purpose of digging for a deeper understanding was not just to file away thoughts in my head as a kind of intellectual exercise. I wanted to help my young friend and I wanted to understand better how God’s Spirit seals the truth symbolized in the Lord’s Supper to my own heart. How thankful I am for people’s difficult questions through the years!
If we pastors are going to teach what the Bible says, we need to get things clear in our own minds as we prepare to teach others (we have to be theologians – students of God and students of His Word). A few years ago, I went to see a skin doctor about a red spot on my chest. I thought it was a bug bite that just wouldn’t get well. The doctor looked at the spot and told me it was the early stage of a kind of skin cancer that would kill me if left untreated. I had to have the cancer surgically removed, and I have to go back periodically for check-ups, so the doctor can watch for other cancerous spots that may be forming. I am thankful that this doctor can tell the difference between a bug bite and cancer. What if he looked at the spot I showed him the first time, and said, “Well, I’m not sure. It might be a bug bite or it might be some kind of rash or an allergic reaction or it might be cancer.” I want a doctor that knows the difference between a bug bite and skin cancer. The treatment for a bug bite is very different than the treatment for cancer.
We expect a doctor to make an accurate diagnosis and to prescribe the right treatment for the problem. Why should we expect anything less from those who preach God’s Word every week? They’re not diagnosing cancer or skin rashes. They are talking about issues that are infinitely more important – am I right with God, does God love me, am I forgiven, will God welcome me into His presence in the end or will he reject me? Pastors are offering a diagnosis of people’s spiritual problems and pointing people to the treatment (the cure) that God has provided in the Gospel. It is very important that we pastors understand the truths we’re called to preach. How can we explain things to people if we don’t understand what the Bible is teaching for ourselves?
Twenty years ago I had the opportunity to have a nationally known and respected Bible teacher preach a series of sermons for our little church (his name was James Montgomery Boice). He was traveling to speak somewhere else and agreed to spend three days with us. This man had written many books – theological studies and collections of sermons. His sermons were broadcast on the radio in many cities around our country. He was a gifted, very intelligent student of the Bible. As we were driving in my car to lunch one day, he said, “I am so glad God called me to be a pastor. I don’t think I would have had the discipline to study the Bible on my own if I didn’t have to prepare every week to teach other people.” It wasn’t just a job he did. He delighted in understanding God’s Word better for himself as he prepared to teach others. That’s what I want for myself as a pastor.
Preparation for preaching and teaching is often difficult. Sometimes a passage is pretty clear and easy. Sometimes it is complex and very difficult to understand. But what a privilege it is to have the responsibility to study God’s Word, to wrestle with the meaning of a passage until it begins to make sense in its context, and to work to explain it to people so they can understand what God is saying and apply it in their own lives. My people benefit from my study of God’s Word. But I benefit far more!
I didn’t set out to become a theologian. But by God’s tender mercy, I have been given a task that calls me into an ongoing study of the person and work of God in a way that has transformed my life and led me to a deeper understanding of what God has done for me through Jesus Christ. What greater calling is there than to be a pastor-theologian? What greater gift could God give any man than a deeper knowledge of Himself and a growing relationship with Himself? The most important habit or discipline a pastor can establish is to be a diligent student of the Bible. The Bible is not just a book about God. It is God’s revelation of Himself in order that we may come to know and love and enjoy Him.
I Timothy 4:6 If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.