Dynamics of Pastoral Care: extract 1/2 - God has spoken, in scripture, into ordinary life


This is an extract from our seminary-level module ‘Dynamics of Pastoral Care’ which can be bought for self-study here.  Faculty member Jonny Woodrow’s lectures to introduce this module have been published here.

The apologetic task

We live in an age when what it means to be a person is undergoing significant reappraisal, especially in the West. A cultural sense that we have the right to be able to “self-craft” - becoming who we want to be - along with the rise of psychological therapies, have displaced the Christian worldview with, what purports to be, a more humane approach to human life and well-being. The Christian view of humanity - fallen in Adam and in need of rescue for fellowship with God in Christ - is seen as irrelevant. Use of the Bible to address psychological problems is seen, at best, as unsophisticated, at worst, as a display of a dangerous ignorance of the cultural, psychological and relational complexities of human experience and the self. This view has infected the church; it is not uncommon to encounter the belief among Christians that the gospel deals with the spiritual aspects of life, while psychologists, psychotherapists and other experts are needed to provide a holistic approach to soul care. 

It is into this cultural context that Christians need to be equipped to announce the gospel of the Triune God’s creative, reconciling and perfecting work for the holistic good of his creatures. This is an apologetic task that has to be carried out by making a theologically-grounded assessment of the culture; while we must listen carefully to our culture, we must refuse to let the culture’s view of who we are set the grounds for engagement. When we view humanity through the work of the Triune God and the eschatological destiny of humanity, we will see that psychological approaches to the “self” miss both God and the true nature of human beings in their methods and analysis. 

This isn’t an abstract problem of philosophy; it is everyone’s problem. Beliefs about what it means to be human come with a set of ‘ought’s’: a moral framework and obligations for living well. Western culture increasingly says that a person’s identity is what they make it. If that is true, then it must be morally wrong to critique a person’s choices and call them to live in line with what another being says they must be. Increasingly, Western culture also says that the scientific method is the only way to really know anything for certain. If that is true, then the nature of humanity must be just as scientific investigation describes it. We ought to approach ourselves as a collection of scientifically manageable chemical, biological, social and psychological variables and processes. And if that’s true, then we don’t need God’s revelation or help: we ought to listen to scientific observations and ought to self-manage because science gives us the means to do so. 

We minister, live and serve in a cultural context which is sceptical about the biblical view of personhood and rejects the use of the Bible in the change process; this seeps into the pastoral context. We need to make the case for the relevance and explanatory power of the biblical view of the person. It’s not one extra view among many; God’s revelation about the nature of humanity puts all human perspectives in their place. The folks we minster to often come to us with worldly thinking about who they are and how to approach self-understanding or change. They may even be sceptical about how applicable the gospel really is to their particular set of issues. They may have real fears that a biblical approach will fail to address the whole person. In pastoral care, we may find ourselves needing to make the case for the sufficiency of scripture for the task. 

This course operates on the premise that God has spoken, in scripture, into ordinary life. The Bible is the story of the Triune God dealing with the complexities of the human experience. Scripture is God’s live address to us today; he continues to speak truth into the complexities of life. The last clause of Powlison’s definition above reminds us that the application of scripture effects transformation, by the Spirit of God, in the heart of the believer; the conversational application of biblical truth does more than impart information; in the process, people do business with God and their lives ‘will be turned upside down and inside out’. 

In this first unit, we will address the apologetic task by introducing a theological framework for understanding how to engage with secular views of the human. We will do this by, first, laying out the biblical grid references for approaching humanity (God, his plan in Christ, our purpose and destiny) before considering a theological engagement with psychological approaches to humanity. 

Tom Olyott