Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition

By Andrew Purves.
WJKP. 2001. 160 pp. Pb. $16.95.ISBN 0-664-22241-2

— reviewed by Richard Ray, Bristol, Va.

Turning this little book by Andrew Purves over, weighing it from hand to hand, I realized that I could not easily write an impersonal response to it. I knew its author too well. During the past few years in which we were colleagues at Pittsburgh Seminary we often discussed its basic themes.

We saw the impact of the growing tension that was developing between the traditional, more theological approaches to pastoral care and the clinical, therapeutic models which have been so persuasive during the past few decades. In addition, we saw the struggles of students who were trying to bring these different perspectives together.

At the heart of it, Purves had found himself caught in this same place. Combining doctoral work in pastoral care with theology, he had come face to face with the issue. He had discovered that the historic texts of such figures as Gregory of Nazianzus and Martin Bucer contained not only theology but also their personal insights into pastoral matters. They had woven doctrinal and pastoral issues together. Their theological convictions had, in fact, guided them into remarkably practical ways of dealing with pastoral issues.

The older approach, which Purves calls the “classical,” turned out to be intensely practical because the great doctrines of the faith in fact embody a singularly affective edge. Christian doctrine, as understood by these earlier pastors, had actually enabled them to deal with the personal crises of their parishioners. It took them to more profound depths of human need and to greater reliance upon the power of Christ. The remarkable thing in this discovery was that it helped Purves to see that while our more clinically oriented approach had value, it often overlooked the distinctive importance of the gospel.

Thus Purves became convinced that the recovery of the classical approach has much to say not only about our pastoral ministry but also about the integrity of the church as a whole. His study of these classic pastor theologians thus led him to write the book, which contains a deceptively sharp challenge to pastoral care as we know it.

Purves believes that this “classical” tradition can help today’s pastors in several important ways. One is that it can provoke us to think more critically about our current approach. And this in itself has more value than we may realize, because we have adopted psychologically oriented, clinical models to a far greater degree than is necessary.

A second benefit is that the classical tradition helps us to do what we have long desired, to find ways for drawing our preaching and our pastoral work closer together. While we cannot simply duplicate the older patterns, we do find that they provide valuable guidance for developing a deeper, more spiritually oriented awareness of what we are doing. Written with a compelling sense of urgency, this book is an important one for all pastors and even for many lay caregivers.

The larger implications of this approach are about as broad as one can imagine. As the assumptions about personality and community drawn from psychotherapy are challenged by this older, “classical” perspective, we may be led to rethink much that we have taken for granted about human nature. I personally would have been happy to see this book develop more of these ideas. But if it had, we should realize, it would have become twice its size and would likely have failed to do what it does so well — to fire a single shot across our bow and to say, as with the words of Richard Baxter himself, “Take heed to yourselves.” There is a great deal at stake.