By Dr. Owen Strachan
Today, it’s common for church folk to be scared of theology. You can’t really blame them. They have heard that theology accounts for division and disunity. Many people have not heard a pastor preach theologically (at least not consciously so), and so they feel their spider-sense tingling if the preacher gets too doctrinal. They start twitching. Uh oh—now we’re moving out of the “practical.” That’s not good! We’re verging into the theoretical, the abstract, the deep stuff. They yearn for the preacher to return to life tips, folksy stories, and inspiring appeals.
Many people have a version of this reaction to theology because they have never had an opportunity to develop their homiletical palate. We do not heap scorn on them; we feel compassion for them. After all, they have been fed a diet of milk, not a diet of meat (Heb. 5:11-14). But we should not rest easy with this situation. We should seek to change it. In what follows, I want to bring a different understanding of theology to the surface. I want to highlight the Puritan conception of theology. Today, the Puritans are bad guys, but this is far from a fair characterization of them. The Puritans were zealous for God, yearned to be wise unto God, and preached the doctrines of God without reserve and without hesitation. As I cover in The Pastor as Public Theologian (co-written with Kevin Vanhoozer), and as I’ll make plain in the 2019 Founders Midwest conference, we need to recover the model of the pastor-theologian. This was the Puritans’ model; it should be ours today.
The Puritans defined theology in churchly terms. For William Ames, author of the classic Puritan theology manual Medulla Theologiae, “The Marrow of Theology,” defined theology itself as “the doctrine of living to God.” Ames argued in his book that “since the highest kind of life for a human being is that which approaches most closely the living and life-giving God, the nature of theological life is living to God.” In Ames’s construal, theology is for living. It is for the people of God, and designed so that they might flourish before God. It belongs to those who would live for Him, and know his will, and treasure his goodness. This is a pre-modern, pre-critical definition of theology that has much to commend it.
The Puritans loved theology, but they loved it in large part because it was fitted for life. Few of their ilk advocated for the practicality of biblical truth more than Richard Sibbes, the “Sweet Dropper” of Cambridge. Sibbes famously pictured the Christian as a “bruised reed” in fundamental need of Christ and his comfort:
The bruised reed is a man that for the most part is in some misery, as those were that came to Christ for help, and by misery he is brought to see sin as the cause of it, for, whatever pretences sin makes, they come to an end when we are bruised and broken. He is sensible of sin and misery, even unto bruising; and, seeing no help in himself, is carried with restless desire to have supply from another, with some hope, which a little raises him out of himself to Christ, though he dare not claim any present interest of mercy. This spark of hope being opposed by doubtings and fears rising from corruption makes him as smoking flax; so that both these together a bruised reed and smoking flax, make up the state of a poor distressed man. This is such an one as our Saviour Christ terms ‘poor in spirit’, who sees his wants, and also sees himself indebted to divine justice.
Because of this weakened condition, the believer needed the church, which Sibbes depicted as “a common hospital, wherein all are in some measure sick of some spiritual disease or other, so all have occasion to exercise the spirit of wisdom and meekness.” In Sibbes’s hands, theology is essentially Christ-shaped comfort for a weary, needy, broken people.
We gain further appreciation for the rich connections made by the Puritans between theology and life in the ministry of Richard Baxter, the seventeenth-century catechist of Kidderminster. Baxter has passed into pastoral immortality for his unflagging efforts to train the 800 families in his congregation in the rudiments of biblical faith. For this reason, Baxter is often grouped as a “practical theologian.” But here again we glimpse the difficulty of this descriptor. Behind the Puritan’s prodigious program, after all, lay the settled conviction that the chief need of the church was theological instruction of such a kind that it produced a transformed heart.
In his classic work The Reformed Pastor, Baxter suggested that the members of the church needed to have things of eternal weight pressed into their souls by the their pastors, for
It is these fundamentals that must lead men to further truths; it is these they must build all upon; it is these that must actuate all their graces, and build all upon; it is these that must fortify them against temptations. He that knows not these, knows nothing; he that knows them well, doth know so much as will make him happy; and he that knows them best, is the best and most understanding Christian.
Without biblical truth, Christians had nothing to “build all upon,” nothing to “fortify them against temptations.” Baxter believed there was a one-to-one relationship between knowledge and maturity.
The Puritans were not spotless shepherds. They had their foibles. Yet all their ministry was grounded in Scripture and the need, quite simply, to teach it and, in this respect, they represent a faithful model for modern pastor-theologians to follow. J. I. Packer, dean of Puritan scholars, has said of their scriptural interpretation that it shows they believed that “Scripture is a doctrinal book; it teaches us about God and created things in their relation to him.” All the Bible was “theocentric,” meaning that Puritan pastors taught their people the “God-centred standpoint of Scripture.” This meant that “whereas fallen man sees himself as the centre of the universe, the Bible shows us God as central, and depicts all creatures, man included, in their proper perspective—as existing through God, and for God.”
The Puritans, we see, took theological and intellectual dominion of the created order, setting themselves up as the chief interpreters of life and thought in this world. With the Lutheran and Reformed pastors of the Reformation period, they would have boggled at the suggestion that they, as pastors, were inadequate to act as theologians for their people. They might have asked, “Who else but the pastor is capable for these things?” For the Puritans, and for many thousands upon thousands of ministers in the church’s history, pastoral work was not an escape from theological work, but the call to instantiate truth in the life of the church. For the Puritans, theology cannot be anything but public: the people of God living to God by living out God’s truth.
So may it be for us.
This work is adapted from The Pastor as Public Theologian and is used with permission.
Owen Strachan is an associate professor of Christian Theology and the Director of the Center for Public Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. A well-established writer, Dr. Strachan has published many books and articles. He regularly speaks for churches and conferences and will be a keynote speaker at the Founders Midwest Conference 2019 in St. Louis, MO. If you would like to attend the Founders Midwest Conference in 2019 and hear Dr. Strachan speak, be sure to visit our website to register or get more information. You can also find us on Facebook.
 William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 77.
 Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed, Puritan Paperbacks (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1998), 3-4.
 Ibid, 34.
 Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, Puritan Paperbacks (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1974), 177.
 J. I. Packer, Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), 102.
 Ibid, 103.