One of the great weaknesses in Christianity today, particularly among her pastors and leaders, is the lack of theological foundation. I have seen this weakness in my own life in my ten years of ministry. I went to Bible school and graduated from a conservative, reformed, seminary. Yet despite this I was not prepared theologically for pastoral ministry. I spent too much time in practical books that dealt with contemporary subjects and too little that dealt with the great truths of God’s Word. As I moved through pastoral ministry I became more and more aware that I did not have a solid theological foundation. I did not know the catechisms, confessions, creeds, nor basic theological categories. I found this often led me astray. A cool, neat, sounding, novel idea would gain my ear. I would later find out it was either poorly worded, unnecessary because there are better answers, or just plain wrong. This could have been prevented by a thorough study of classic works. Here are some suggestions directed primarily at those who are in ministry or are going into ministry.
First and most obviously, read God’s Word over and over again. If you can read Greek or Hebrew do that. If not try to learn some so you can navigate the languages. For some reason it is easy to let other things crowd out reading the Scriptures. Don’t just read to teach, but read to learn and grow yourself. The Bible is always central.
Second, regularly read the creeds, confessions, and catechisms. I read through the Westminster Standards, the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Confession, Canons of Dordt, Second Helvetic Confession, Thirty-Nine articles, and numerous other catechisms yearly. I have read through the Roman Catholic Catechism, which is huge by the way, at least three times. Luther has catechisms. Calvin does as well. Read and re-read these basic documents. Become familiar with them. There are numerous great study guides that you could read alongside them, such as Johannes Vos on the Westminster Large Catechism or Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity. There are at least two benefits to this regular course of reading the catechisms
- You learn central theological and ethical truths in a short scope. Outside of the Roman Catholic Catechism, these are not long documents. You can learn a lot and be introduced to major ideas in a short span of time.
- You will learn to think better. The precision, care, and wording of these documents are of great benefit to the sloppy thinking of modern pastors.
Third, make sure you are reading a major theological work at all times. Several years ago, I realized that I was spending more time reading blogs, articles, and practical books than I was great theological works. Therefore I made it a policy to be reading a classic work of theology at all times. These include Calvin’s Institutes, Bavinck, Turretin, Aquinas, Augustine, Hodge, Berkhof, Owen, etc. I read something that makes my brain hurt every day. Would it be easier to read a modern take on God’s Word than Bavinck? Probably. Would it be as helpful? No.
Fourth, read the men more. Read about the men less. Every time I see a new book on Calvin’s theology I am tempted to get it. But in the end reading Calvin is better. That does not mean books about the men are unnecessary. In particular, historical studies and biography can place their writings in context. But when it comes to theology, it is best to read Augustine instead of read someone else’s writing about what Augustine thought.
Fifth, when theological, ethical, or other church controversy arises go back to these central men and documents. For some reason when controversy arises we begin with contemporary writers and bloggers. These older men and documents do not get everything correct. But I doubt we can come to correct theological conclusions without understanding them. And most of the time, in particular on the great, central truths of God’s Word, they are correct.
Sixth, give the confession and catechisms that your church holds real (not absolute) authority and teach them to your congregation. Include them as illustrations when you preach. Use them in Sunday school classes. In our evening service we are currently going through the Westminster Larger Catechism’s section on the Ten Commandments. It may not be as sexy as some of the contemporary topics, but in the end it will profit your people more. Besides you will find that most catechisms and confessions address the major issues of the day such as hate, sexual immorality, worship, and economics, but they also cover a whole lot of other stuff, such as the atonement, the Trinity, doctrine of Scripture, the resurrection, how to pray, etc.
Finally, encourage your congregation to read the confessions and catechisms. I find it hard to get most of my congregation to read anything over a thousand words. We are not a reading culture. I cannot expect them to pick up Calvin or even Berkhof. Yet here is where the catechisms and confessions can be so helpful. They are broken up into short chunks, that can be read easily. It doesn’t mean they will understand it all, but as they read they will learn. I would love to see memorizing of the catechism, but baby-steps are fine: Just get your congregation to read them. Your church will be healthier for it.
I am not discouraging contemporary or practical reading. Look at my blog. I read a lot of contemporary things. But in the end if that type of reading pushes out the great theological documents and writers we will find ourselves deceived by false ideas, unable to properly ground contemporary issues in basic theology, unable to refute false teachers or good teachers with false ideas, unable to separate a fad from a real, long term danger, and unable to feed our people. My encouragement to pastors is to make sure you regularly read the confessions, catechisms, and great works of theology. You, your congregation, and the church at large will benefit from it.