Pastors from long ago share their secret sauce

Benjamin Golub_flickr commons_1

Credit: Benjamin Golub / Flickr Creative Commons

[This post is modified from a paper I wrote earlier this year for my doctorate at Duke Divinity School. By looking across every Christian century at the pastor’s chief responsibility, I found that his readiness with the Word of God was prioritized.]

The church fathers spoke extensively about the care and cure of souls. The physician metaphor, for all of its limitations, has merit. In the same way that we show even our most secret physical boo-boos to our physicians, people are unashamed to bear their most secret spiritual boo-boos to their pastors. Our job is to respond professionally and helpfully.

That’s why the pastor needs strong diagnostic abilities. Since our souls tend to be even more complex than our bodies, this requires time and experience to develop. According to Gregory the Great, “the afflictions of the mind are more hidden than the wounds of the body.” The cure of souls requires the pastor to have skills in customizing our approach according to the needs of the patient.

Our goal isn’t to make people just feel good. Medicine that heals doesn’t always taste good, and surgery hurts. Sometimes we have to inflict pain on the patient along the journey toward ultimate healing. According to Ambrose, “Harshness and severity or excessive forgiveness are equally inappropriate.”

If ministers are physicians, then their medicine that cures is the Word of God. According to Augustine, church leaders are above all “interpreters and teachers of the divine scriptures.” Is this true in our age? I have my doubts. The strong push to replace “Scripture training” with “ministry skills training” in seminaries is equivalent to replacing “medicine training” with “bedside manner training” in medical schools. Both are important and related, but only one is uncompromisingly necessary for the minister.

The study of Scripture takes a lifetime of hard work. Our labor in the text should include acquisition of the original languages whenever possible. Jerome is a good example of this. When he was impressed by a need to revise the Bible, he acquired Hebrew—the original language of the Old Testament. According to Jerome, “Read the divine scriptures constantly; indeed never let the sacred volume be out of your hand. Learn what you have to teach.”

The minister learns the Scriptures in order to teach them. According to Gregory of Nazianzus, “The first of all our concerns is the distribution of the word.” Many of today’s ministers have compromised their proficiency in the sacred text. “How often do people who are completely ignorant of spiritual precepts show no fear in proclaiming themselves physicians of the heart, when anyone who is ignorant of the power of medicine would be embarrassed to be considered a physician of the body?” asks Gregory the Great.

Perhaps more pastors today need to feel embarrassed.

Has a doctor ever been accused of endeavoring to know biology or medicine too well? Has anyone ever complained about a pilot attempting to understand flight and his equipment too well? We mustn’t seek to tame our message, but allow Scripture to do its dangerous work in our lives and through our ministries. Athanasius’ warning is as true today as it was then: “When our Lord Jesus Christ comes and we stand before him, what excuse will you give when he sees that his own sheep were starved for nourishment.”

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2 responses to “Pastors from long ago share their secret sauce

  • Ashley Alston

    Great thoughts. Even more than telling others about the Word of God though, I hope pastors will seek to live it in all their interactions. Paul talked about others being imitators of him, as he imitated Christ. It’s great to know about the Word, but if a person is not putting it into practice, it is not doing much good.

  • Ashley Alston

    After reading this post, I got more curious about the lives of the people quoted above. I’m no expert in Christian history, but I have been reading The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez. It has been really helpful in understanding more about how the Christian faith developed after Jesus ascended.

    Pretty much everything I know about these pillars of faith comes from The Story of Christianity and Wikipedia (for the dates of birth and death—yeah, I know it’s not really the best source of information). I found their lives really interesting, though. From the bits I understand, they were far from perfect but the Lord was still able to use them in great ways…kind of like us all, I guess. I’ve summarized what I learned below for others who might be curious. Feel free to correct any misconceptions you see!

    Gregory the Great (AD 540-604) was a deacon first under Pope Benedict, then an ambassador to Constantinople under Pelagius II. Eventually he returned to a monastery in Rome where he was abbot. There he helped organize sanitation for the city, burial of the dead, and feeding the hungry along with the Pope, since Roman government was in severe decline with the invasion of the “barbarians.” He was eventually elected Pope, though he tried to have it annulled. When it was clear that he wasn’t going to get out of this role, he sought diligently to take care of the people, organizing shipments of wheat from Sicily, food distribution, repair of the aqueducts and city defenses, and even negotiating with the invading Lombards and securing a peace with them. And of course, he was still writing and preaching in the Roman churches…and helping convert the Arian Visigoths (who didn’t believe Jesus was divine) to orthodox Nicene Christianity (belief that the Father and the Son are of the same substance—one God—and two persons). Oh yeah, and he sent missionaries to England. Unfortunately though, he took some of Augustine of Hippo’s conjectures too literally and thus the doctrine of purgatory was born. He believed that the soul had to be purified before entering heaven and that Christ was sacrificed anew in communion. So he is an interesting mix of practical helps, defense of orthodox Nicene Christianity, and father of doctrines not found in scripture…

    Ambrose (AD 337-397) was a Roman government official before he was a bishop. In fact, he was elected bishop before he was even baptized. At that time, Christians went through a long catechism process before being baptized and participating in communion and then had to rise through the ranks, so to speak, in order to become leaders in the church. Because Ambrose was a capable leader of people and able to foster peace in tense circumstances, it seems he was very quickly catechized and in 8 days elevated through all the offices required before becoming bishop. To his credit, he studied his new-found faith diligently and enlisted Simplicianus to tutor him. When refugees fled to the city from the Goths, he sold church property to raise money to care for them and to ransom captives back from the Goths. He claimed that a pastor’s most important function was to support the weak against the strong. Like Gregory, he was enlisted as a negotiator or ambassador. Ambrose met Maximus and convinced him not to attack the boy emperor Valentinian. Also like Gregory, Ambrose was a staunch defender of Nicene orthodoxy and refused to allow Arian worship in the basilica where he served, angering the Arian empress mother to the point she ordered troops to surround the church and threaten the congregation. Ambrose stood firm and encouraged his congregation to sing hymns and would yield neither the building nor the vessels to the government. Finally, after the Nicene Christian Theodosius became emperor, Ambrose again stood up to the governing authorities, though this time, not so rightly. Theodosius called for certain Christians whom had burned a Jewish synagogue to be punished and forced to rebuild the synagogue. Ambrose would not allow them to do so, stating it was wrong to force Christians to build a synagogue (despite the fact that they had burned it). Eventually, Theodosius yielded to him in this matter. He yielded to Ambrose again later when Ambrose refused to allow him into a church or to participate in communion until he repented. In his anger, Theodosius had ordered many slaughtered after he had told them he granted them pardon. To his credit, Theodosius did repent before Ambrose, and he was allowed into the church. From that day forward, their relationship seemed more amiable, perhaps because Ambrose was unafraid to tell Theodosius what he didn’t want to hear…

    Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) began as a pagan, followed Manicheanism for a while until he found it just didn’t square with the problem of pain he saw in the real world, and settled for a time on Neoplatonism, influenced by the same Simplicianus who tutored Ambrose. In Neoplatonism, he found an answer to the problem of pain—essentially that God is entirely good, but He gave people free will. Our choices are what allow evil to occur. Evil is not a substance or force like Manicheanism claimed, but rather the absence of good, which emanates from God alone. The closer one is to God, the closer one is to good. The farther from God and His ways, the farther from good, as when one is farther from a candle and darkness seems to grow. The darkness is absence of light, not a substance in and of itself. When in Milan, he went to church with his mother and heard Ambrose preach. Ambrose interpreted some parts of scripture that Augustine had found offensive as allegorical rather than literal. This made Christianity more palatable to him, and he found he had no intellectual objections left. It was in Milan that Augustine became a Christian. Unfortunately shortly thereafter (with the influence of his mother), he decided to dismiss his concubine whom he had been with for many years and whom had borne him a son. He moved for a while to North Africa but when his mother died, went to Rome. Eventually, while visiting in Hippo, he was elected bishop against his will. He wrote many refutations of Manicheanism, Donatism, and of Pelagius. He also developed the “Just War Theory” which claimed that war might be acceptable under certain restrictions, the chief being that the aim of the war had to be grounded in love. He is very well-known for his doctrine of “irresistible grace” developed to refute Pelagius’s claim that people are born capable of sinning or not sinning. Augustine, while affirming free will, claimed people could neither stop themselves from sinning apart from God nor resist when He called them to become Christian. His theories on this were rejected at first by the majority, but were reinterpreted and eventually accepted at the Synod of Orange in 529.

    Jerome (AD 347-420) just seems like a sour, bitter old man! He called people with views different from his own “two-legged asses,” whether they were heretics or respected church leaders. Earlier in life he was obsessed with sex and could not quit thinking about the dancers he had seen in Rome. To distract himself, he began to study Hebrew, which eventually led to him being able to translate the Hebrew scripture directly to Latin (Vulgate translation). Prior to that, the scripture used in the Latin-speaking West was a translation from the Greek Septuagint. Somewhat ironically, his closest friends became women in a monastery, whom he taught Greek and Hebrew to. He never had close male friends and made enemies with his quick, sour attitude quite readily. He was an excellent scholar, but a shepherd of men, he does not seem to have been, though he did found a monastery for men in Bethlehem later in life.

    Continuing the theme of unwilling leaders, Gregory of Nazianzus (AD 329-390) started as a monk, but ran away after being made presbyter. Later he came back and explained to his new congregation that “it is difficult to practice obedience; but it is even more difficult to practice leadership.” However, when almost all of his family died, he again retreated into solitude, until his friend and the one who had made him presbyter without wanting to be, Basil the Great, died, too. He then came back to the life of community and began fighting Arianism. He was treated very cruelly by Arian church leaders and the Arian-influenced Roman government until Theodosius came to power. Theodosius, though, made Gregory Bishop of Constantinople—again against his will. He happily returned to Nazianzus when objections were raised that church law did not allow a person to be bishop of two churches. There he lived quietly for the rest of his life, declining the emperor’s request that he preside over a church council.

    Finally, Athanasius (AD 296-373) known as the “Black Dwarf” due to his dark complexion and small stature was the first of these church fathers to fight against Arianism and argued for Nicene orthodoxy throughout his life. Athanasius was a person who lived out his faith with the people and had ties to the lower classes—it is thought he was probably a Copt, which means he was part of the lowest class of people in Egypt. He adamantly insisted that the incarnation was central to Christianity. It was largely due to Athanasius’s efforts that the Western Church accepted the Nicene Creed as orthodox belief. However, it was not without much trial. Athanasius was exiled by Constantine, whom despite presiding over the council that had come up with the Nicene Creed affirming Christ’s divinity…and himself suggested the phrase that was eventually accepted to explain that Jesus Christ was of the same substance as the Father…and whom, by the way, still held the title of High Priest of the pagan Roman Empire and participated in pagan rituals… and, oh yeah, had appointed the unwilling Athanasius as Bishop of Alexandria, had accepted Arian theology and sought to force the entire Roman church to do so, as well. When Constantine died, his empire was ruled by his sons. Constans ruled in the western portion and requested that this brother Constantius reinstate Athanasius. This he did, even though Constantius preferred Arianism just as his father had, in order to please his powerful brother. However, when Constans died, Constantius condemned Athanasius again, so Athanasius fled to the desert to live with the monks he had befriended there. Under Emperor Julian he returned to Alexandria, only to be banished again because he opposed the emperor’s paganism. When Jovian became emperor, he called Athanasius back to Alexandria, but his reign was very short-lived. The Arian Valens replaced him as emperor, but Athanasius was not hindered in his duties under Valens’s reign.

    It was very interesting to learn about these church fathers. I’m not sure that I would call them all “pastors,” but clearly they all had very significant influences on the church and on what we now consider orthodox Christianity. Please let me know if I have misrepresented anything. Thank you!

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