I will answer the implied question in the title of this article with a series of propositions, working backward from what we mean by “pastoral” through the importance of dogmatic theology for pastoral care to Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics specifically.
Proposition 1: Pastoral care at its core involves being attentive to people’s concrete lived experience.
Whether in preaching, teaching, or one-on-one conversation, pastors are “pastoral” to the extent that they are “real,” to the degree that they home in on their parishioners’ actual experiences, their hurts, their fears and anxieties, their guilt and shame, their joys, their sorrows, and their hopes. Above all, therefore, good pastors are good listeners.
Proposition 2: People’s concrete lived experience is “human” before it is “religious” or “spiritual.”
Without getting into a debate about language (aren’t all human beings “religious”? Isn’t all of life “worship”?), my point here is that we are human before we are Christian. We are born before we are “born again.” Those who are born again are still only human. The gospel heals and renews our created humanity; it does not make us superhuman or divinize us. Good pastors are wise about human nature, both sinful and redeemed, and use all the tools available to grow in wisdom.
Proposition 3: Pastoral work brings human beings before the face of God: his will, his judgment, his love, and his grace.
The wisdom I referred to in the previous paragraph includes insights from all sorts of non-theological disciplines: art and literature, natural science, and especially social sciences such as psychology. But, pastors are not psychologists or psychotherapists, and they are not social workers; their responsibility as pastors is to help people become attentive to God. Pastors need specialized training in “God stuff.”
Proposition 4: Sound theological training is indispensable for good pastoral care.
The Christian church has existed now for nearly 2,000 years. That’s a lot of pastoral care for followers of Jesus struggling with doubts, temptations, fear, guilt, and shame. The good news here is that over this period of time the church has had a great deal of practice in pastoral care and along the way accumulated a rich treasury of pastoral wisdom. A good theological education is the essential tool for accessing this wisdom. A good pastor is a wise pastor and pastoral wisdom is a fruit and gift of the ages.
Proposition 5: Sound dogmatic (or systematic) theology is indispensable for good pastoral care.
I am not saying here that dogmatic or systematic theology is more important than biblical exegesis, church history, or homiletics, only that it is essential. A good systematic theologian is faithful to Scripture, knows how the church in her history has interpreted Scripture (dogma), and is able to communicate this in a fresh and relevant manner. But there is more. Since theology is about God and God is present to all people even apart from biblical revelation, a good systematic theologian pays attention to the universal human response to God, including the responses of the world’s religions. I, therefore, repeat an earlier conclusion: Good pastors are wise about human nature, especially about how human beings respond to God.
Proposition 6: Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics is a sound and model systematic theology.
Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics stands out in three ways. First, it is clearly based on Scripture and seeks to be faithful to biblical teaching.
Second, it is a small “c” catholic dogmatics. In other words, while marked with a clear Reformed accent, Bavinck incorporates the best of the entire history of theological reflection on Scripture and the church’s interpretation of Scripture. Augustine and other “fathers” of the church, Thomas Aquinas and other important medieval thinkers such as Bonaventure and Anselm, Luther and Melanchthon, are taken as seriously as John Calvin and orthodox Reformed theologians such as Francis Turretin. There is a historical breadth as well as biblical and philosophical depth in Bavinck’s theology.
Third, it is a “modern” theology that is not afraid to tackle the major challenges to the Christian faith that have arisen from modern thinkers since Descartes and Kant, to Feuerbach, Hegel, and Darwin. Bavinck does not engage modern theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl just to set them straight; he is not afraid to expose their errors but he also mines them for what can be learned from them. As a theologian he listens carefully before making a judgment; this is the kind of theology that pastors need to learn and to emulate.
Proposition 7: Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics is beneficial for pastoral care.
Let me make it clear now that pastoral care is not in the first place an intellectual activity, a matter of getting one’s theology correct in order to apply it to “cases.” Rather, what I have been trying to describe is a certain theological disposition characterized by, among other things, the following: a curiosity about God and his ways; a personal interest in human responses to God’s revelation; an interest in building bridges to people’s concrete experiences of God; a modesty about one’s own insights and an eager openness to learning from the great teachers of the church; a deep love for people and for the body of Christ. It would be a mistake to think that I am suggesting here that Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics is a useful reference book for pastors, to be taken off the shelf when dealing with tough theological questions. No, the benefit of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics for pastors is that, when used correctly, it fosters an attitude, a theological temperament that can open the pastor’s heart to God and to God’s people.
Let me give an example of a pastoral situation that most, if not all, Reformed pastors have faced at least once in their ministry:
You are having a pastoral conversation with someone who has serious reservations about the doctrine of predestination (election and reprobation). If salvation is a matter of God’s choosing and not our willing, how can we say that people are lost because of their own sin? They never had a chance. Isn’t it much fairer to think that God truly gives all people free choice? Doesn’t that seem much closer to the truth that God is loving and merciful?
A good, wise pastor realizes that these questions involve much more than sound, biblical, doctrinal arguments but touch the very core of how our hearts experience God. This is much more than an intellectual problem. At the same time, a pastor cannot ignore the intellectual, doctrinal dimension of the person’s anxiety. A wise pastoral response will, therefore, frame the intellectual issues with the gospel of grace, with the evangelical testimony to God’s love and mercy in Christ. To see how this is done by a master theologian with the heart of a pastor, I invite you to look at a section in Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, volume 4, “The wideness of God’s mercy,” pages 724–27.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the Credo Magazine blog and is used with permission.