The Bible in Pastoral Practice: Readings in the Place and Function of Scripture in the Church

The Bible in Pastoral Practice: Readings in the Place and Function of Scripture in the Church

by Paul Ballard, William R. Elkins, Stephen R. Holmes

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Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
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The Bible in Pastoral Practice

Readings in the Place and Function of Scripture in the Church

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2006 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-3115-X


General Introduction: the underlying issues, challenges and possibilities


The Bible is at the heart of Christian life and witness. All traditions see it as the primary record of the saving events of the Gospel and as embodying the normative, apostolic interpretation of the faith. Thus down the centuries the understanding and interpretation of the Bible has been formative for Christian belief and practice.

This can be seen, indeed, in the New Testament itself. Even as the Christian notion of Scripture was emerging around the inherited Jewish Scriptures (usually in the Greek version, known as the Septuagint, designated by LXX) and the earliest apostolic writings, there are accounts of the purpose of the biblical texts. John 20:31 suggests an evangelistic application and 2 Peter 3:16-17 suggests instruction against heresy. And, importantly for our present purpose, pastoral work is a core and proper function for the deployment of Scripture: 'Every scripture inspired by God is also useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness' (2 Tim. 3:16 NRSV margin). Setting aside the debate about the nature of inspiration, it would appear, as indicated by the alternative reading cited, that the mainconcern in the writer's mind is the pastoral use of the Bible. This is further reinforced in that the New Testament letters and even the gospels (according to modern biblical critical scholarship at least) were written to address issues found in the emerging Christian communities that we would now think of as pastoral, that is, exploring how to live faithfully as Christians in the world.

History teaches us the same lesson. Before the rise of distinctively modern disciplines such as pastoral psychology, Christian responses to questions of ethics and daily living were shaped largely, and sometimes almost entirely, by appeals to the biblical text. So, for example, despite his respect for pagan philosophy, including its ethical content (Stromata 1), Clement of Alexandria's language, when he turns to offering guidance for Christian living in The Instructor, is full of biblical allusions and quotations. St Thomas Aquinas, asking so practical a question as to whether alms should be given out of illicitly acquired wealth, refers both to Scripture and to Patristic sermons and commentaries. In the Reformed tradition the point is only intensified. Whereas the Catholic and Orthodox traditions both have a strong sense of the importance of the tradition as carrying the interpretation of the Bible, the Protestant emphasis is on sola scriptura (Scripture alone), as being sufficient in all matters of doctrine and morals. This can be seen in the biblically infused allegory of the Christian life in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress or in the discussion about whether to abstain from certain foods in the Augsburg Confession (art. 26).

And in a real sense it continues to be true. The Scriptures are invoked and meditated upon in corporate and private devotion, and the pastor draws on the Bible in some way or other, whether visiting the sick or distressed in home or hospital, or guiding people through the turning points and crises of life such as birth, marriage or death.

The estrangement

There is, however, a real and deep problem. This project on the pastoral use of the Bible, of which the present volume is a part, emerged out of a widespread recognition that there has been a chasm opened up between those engaged in Biblical Studies and those in Practical Theology, whose function is the teaching of the theory and skills in pastoral care. Both groups are responsible, as part of their task, for providing the community of faith with insights and resources for its day-to-day witness and service, if not directly, then as guardians and mentors: the former as providing the foundations and methodologies for the interpretation of Scripture; the latter to support the growth in faith and practice of individuals and communities. That such a hiatus exists can be widely confirmed. Despite the teaching given in university and seminary the actual use of the Bible in spiritual development, pastoral discussion and even sermon is often too simplistic and naive. Moreover it is often difficult to see how to link the biblical text into pastoral conversation, with the result that the Bible is simply set aside or used inappropriately. This is reflected and compounded in the training process and by the structures of theological teaching which often keep them strictly separate. This is clearly undesirable and undermines the coherence of the Christian faith. It certainly weakens the positive and creative use of the Bible that should be seen in pastoral practice. Here it is only possible to indicate briefly why and how such a situation has arisen.

First, there is indeed the emergence of different disciplines in the theological spectrum. This post-Enlightenment development has been one of the results of the 'academising' and expansion of theological studies so that each area of concern has become specialised and self-contained. Each has also, in the context of the growth of modern knowledge and its challenge to traditional wisdoms, taken on and been influenced by other but different partner disciplines. So, for example, Biblical Studies works with historical methodologies and literary criticism while pastoral care draws on the human sciences such as psychology and sociology. It appears that the sub-disciplines of theology often have more in common with their sparring partners than they do with each other.

For Practical Theology this has meant responding, over the past century, to the emergent social sciences. These have opened up radical new understandings of the human condition that have often challenged the inherited approaches to, for example, moral responsibility or education. Thus the new burgeoning caring professions questioned much traditional pastoral practice and attitudes to ethical issues; but they have also positively offered alternative insights and skills. It is no wonder that pastoral care and associated activities are sometimes accused of selling out to the new humanisms, only becoming pale reflections of the new professions, and detached from their own tradition and heritage.

Such a situation is bound to be confusing, calling forth many and often radically different reactions and pastoral methodologies. It has been inevitably a time of exploration and experimentation as practitioners and theoreticians follow different leads offered by different schools of psychiatry, psychology and counselling mixed in with varying theological traditions and perspectives. It has also taken time for the new and the old to blend, to sort out their relative strengths and weaknesses and to begin creatively to inform each other. Not surprisingly, in recent decades, there has been a reaction and a conscious awareness of the need for pastoral care to recover its theological roots, including the Scriptures. In this latter regard it has been helped by finding common ground with some of the approaches to literary criticism such as narrative theory and hermeneutics, which can illuminate the nature of interpersonal relations and the life of the individual and thereby our understanding of human truth and worth.

A similar shift has overtaken Biblical Studies. The specialised study of the Bible, historical and literary, has too frequently become detached from the use of the Bible as Scripture in the community of faith, and this despite the fact that most modern scholars were and are people of faith whose primary interest is to ensure the continuing relevance of the Bible to that faith. This, too, produced a multiplicity of reactions, from a rigorous 'fundamentalism' that requires a false and untraditional literalism, to forms of reductionist liberalisms which can emasculate any sense of the divine reality, looking only at human experience. Again, however, there has been, in recent years, a shift from an all-absorbing concern with the historical, the origins and context of the biblical text, to a greater concern with the Bible as a literary text and, therefore, with its use, interpretation and engagement with the reader. This hermeneutical concern, going back in modern times to Schleiermacher, focuses on the reception of the Bible and its contemporary effects, that is, as Scripture that has to be listened to.

There is here, therefore, a convergence of perspective and interest, a double recovery of the Bible as a primary but underrated, yet complex, resource for pastoral practice. Much of what has been summarised above is the background to and is described more fully in the chapters that constitute this book, especially Parts II and III. Moreover, if there is a conclusion that can be drawn from the process of assimilating, gathering and editing this material from a wide range of professional and scholarly sources, it is that, perhaps, alongside the awareness of the very real problems and challenges, it is also possible to see a growing mutuality in this emerging common ground that will enable a fresh and hopeful dialogue between the two fields and the development of common understandings and action. There are already signs of this mutual engagement; for example in courses on the use of the Bible and schemes of study that endeavour to integrate learning with practice and/or cross-disciplinary study, as well as collaborative research. But such a convergence is no simple process and will only come about over a long period of time. It is presently, as this volume will indicate, all very tentative and experimental.

There are, however, two further contemporary reasons that make it difficult to access the Bible in pastoral practice. First, intellectually, culturally, technologically and socially we live in a complex, shifting and pluralistic world. It is a world that is changing fast and that continually throws out more and bigger challenges to inherited assumptions and faiths. Any recovery of the Bible will have to take cognisance of these pressures and to recognise that there are more and more issues that we confront that are not posed and so not answered in the Scriptures. Finding a biblical way of responding to them is simply difficult, if not impossible. It is not enough simply to treat the Bible as an oracle from which the timeless and perfect answer to every pastoral problem may be extracted. But to wrestle with Scripture to find wisdom with which to enter into dialogue with the contemporary pressures and understanding is not easy and is bound to produce divergence, dialogue and even controversy. Second, there is the recognition, raised by modern scholarship and current cultural and historical changes, that the Bible itself is many-layered, often difficult to accept at face value, even repugnant in some of its seeming beliefs and diverse in its self-understanding. One has only to look at the Psalms to recognise this. Such a task calls for continual patience in exploration. There are, thus, issues of authority and credibility. How can a collection of ancient texts speak cogently to the twenty-first century? Yet the Church, as already indicated, finds them to be at the formative heart of its understanding of God and the world.

Yet another, but important, reason for the tension between the use of the Bible and pastoral practice arises from differences in perspective or approach, a division that to some extent runs through the whole of the theological enterprise. Much theology can be described as deductive in form; that is, prin-ciples of faith and consequences for action can be drawn from prior givens. At the heart of such fundamental assertions lies the Bible, as source of Christian understanding. So doctrine or the ordering of worship and liturgy or, to some extent, ethics have, at least traditionally, looked for some prior basis for guidance in the authoritative teaching. But in recent years, often under the influence of some kind of 'liberation theology', the focus has switched to the context, the particularity, within which it is necessary to seek the appropriate Christian response and which can indeed shape the very understanding of God and God's relation with the world. There is a greater sense of encountering 'new things' that are drawn out of the encounter with the truth discovered in the existential reality, and, therefore, the possibility of fresh insights into the Gospel that can challenge inherited views. Such a dichotomy, however, is not absolute, but there can be a tension between the two approaches. And, importantly, the pastoral is always contextual, starting with the concrete situation and giving primacy to the needs of the particular. Experience tells us that there is often a struggle with the mystery of grace, and it is out of this wrestling that, for individuals and communities, new perspectives are found and new depths plumbed. Practical theology always wants to give theological value to living experience. Yet this is not alien to the Bible or the tradition for, as with Jacob, God has been revealed in encounters, fresh challenges and new demands.


Given all this, it is perhaps almost inevitable that the relation of Biblical Studies to Practical/Pastoral Theology has been something of a neglected area. And yet, as we have suggested, there is currently something of a convergence that makes taking up these issues timely. We are very conscious, however, that this book represents no more than a beginning, a first foray, into almost virgin territory. One of the exciting aspects of putting these pages together was the repeated comment from many people that this was relatively unworked ground. Indeed in some cases, particularly in the historical section, we were told that the soil had never been worked for this purpose. Few had thought to ask how Christian pastors had used the Bible in their day-to-day work in this or that period.

In seeking to address these somewhat neglected issues, we present here a series of chapters by experts in various fields. They come out of a range of different backgrounds from the United Kingdom and the United States: women and men, lay and ordained, from Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, Anglican and evangelical traditions and with a breadth of practical and pastoral engagement. For each the issues raised in scholarly analysis are also relevant to contemporary Christian concerns. We are, however, also very conscious of the limitations of the material. A decision had to be made as to the parameters of the enterprise. It would be impossible to offer comprehensive and complete coverage. The discussion has inevitably been dominated by the transatlantic English-speaking traditions; but those who write have been and are themselves, in varying degrees, very practically engaged on the world stage on which they stand. There is a very deep awareness of the contextual nature of their own theological culture and of the cultural diversity of the present time. Thus there are explicit discussions of liberationist and feminist perspectives and the African experience and significant reference to other approaches such as Black theology. Areas that should have, perhaps, been more strongly noted, but are not entirely neglected, are the Catholic and Protestant traditions elsewhere in modern Europe (but see the bibliography below for possible sources of information) and the ancient churches of the Middle East which are currently in the news. Similarly we recognise that there are theological issues, such as the Christian use of the Jewish Scriptures and inter-faith contexts, which are referred to in passing but which could have occupied a more prominent place.

These papers, however, are not definitive maps but reports from initial explorations, a solid starting point for further enquiry. The coverage of the topics taken up is not, nor could be in the space available, remotely comprehensive. In some cases a bird's-eye survey of the main territory is offered. In others a detailed description of two or three examples of particular interest serve to give a flavour and illuminate the wider scene. But there is a real consistency that gives the whole a strong coherence. There is continuity from one contribution to another and issues noted in one place are taken up and filled out and given a fresh perspective in another without repetition. We believe, therefore, that there is enough to whet the appetite of the reader who is invited to dip in where their interest lies, and from that point to discover other authors and interests and thus to be led through unexpected paths as new vistas are opened up. Indeed, while there is every reason to read through the whole book, as it is arranged to follow a logical sequence, the aim also is to provide a reference book that can be mined for differing purposes as the occasion demands. It should, therefore, prove itself to be of interest and a resource to a wide number of people.


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