So What is Pastoral Theology Anyway?

Try looking up “Pastoral Theology” with an internet search engine and get ready for confusion.

With Google, the dictionary function gives the following definition: Christian theology that considers religious truth in relation to spiritual needs.

This definition is not horrible but every part of it is so vague that one wonders who would find it valuable.

Another one is from the Catholic Encyclopedia
Pastoral theology is the science of the care of souls.

I personally like this definition better, although I must acknowledge that it suffers from extreme vagueness as well. Still, I think it could be useful with a little exposition

Generally, there seems to be two major directions one goes towards.

  1. Pastoral Theology is the form of practical theology that addresses the office and role of the pastor. (An example of this is from where it says “Pastoral theology is the study of what the Bible says about the office of pastor/elder/bishop/overseer.” Actually the definition is not actually practical, but more like systematic theology or perhaps biblical thoelogy. Youtube videos on pastoral theology tend to follow a similar vein.)
  2. Pastoral Theology is the form of practical theology that addresses pastoral care. (Closer in line with this would be the definition used by James Lampley, “Pastoral theology is theological inquiry into the care of persons in an ecclesial context, or by ecclesial representatives outside that full context.”

While these may sound rather similar, they have little in common. For example, an aspect of pastoral theology from Definition 1 would be “What are the qualifications to be a pastor?” or “How should a pastor in a church relate functionally with members of his (or her?) congregation?” On the other hand, with Definition 2 comes completely different questions such as “How does one act as a representative of God in providing help in a secular setting or to one of a different faith?” or “How does one address issues of grief and loss in a counselee?”

In other words, there is a big difference between the office of pastor, and the pastoral function. This is hardly surprising. When one proclaims the word of God, such as in the pulpit, one may be serving in a prophetic role, while still vehemently rejecting the office of a prophet. One may share the gospel with one’s neighbor while rejecting the formal role or office of evangelist.

Additionally, over the years, certain roles have been identified as linked to a pastoral function/care. Following the somewhat classic formulation of Clebsch and Jaekle, these would include the ministries of:

  • Sustaining
  • Healing
  • Guiding
  • Reconciling

While these may be part of the activities of the office of a pastor, they would not be considered to be limited to the office of the pastor. Additionally, there are many aspects of the office of pastor that would not fit under this understanding of pastoral function. Among these are:

  • Spiritual Leadership
  • Administrative duties
  • Preaching
  • Liturgy
  • Rituals/Sacraments

For me, I definitely prefer something more like the second definition. In fact, perhaps I would like to emphasize the first sentence in Margaret Whipp’s book “Pastoral Theology.”

Pastoral theology is the study of how and why Christians care.”

But if we go in that direction, then what name should categorize addressing the practical role of the pastor? Certainly some of the questions that are often addressed under the role of the pastor, such as “What are the qualifications to be a pastor” really is not part of practical theology at all but systematic theology, within the sub-category of Ecclesiology. A theological examination of the clerical offices in practice would fit under something else. Perhaps someone else has come up with the correct term and I just somehow missed that lecture. In practice it would be an aspect of Applied Ecclessiology.

While I do actually serve in the office of a pastor of a church, this is not my focus here. This blog is on pastoral theology in the study of how and why Christians care (both within and outside of the church.)

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