The pastor and the intellect: Doctrine, meditation and speculation

October 31st, 2018

The ongoing process of intellectual formation which a working pastor pursues, or ought to pursue, is itself a deepening participation in Christ's dying, burial and rising. In last week's column, we explored the theological foundations of this claim, and began to get specific and practical. We discussed the way in which a pastor's ongoing self-familiarization with, and memorization of, the text of Scripture is, for a thinker like Hugh of St. Victor (12th century), a participation in the labor of Christ's dying on Good Friday. Yet Christ's Passover does not end with death on Good Friday. So, today, we take up a pastor's or Christian's continuing intellectual immersion and re-formation in Christ's transitus. The humble return to, and memorization of Scripture, is, for Hugh, like a foundation to the passage to intellectual illumination that correlates to Christ's burial and rising.

A note on the mystery of Christ's burial.

There is indeed an imponderable mystery in the resurrection. The body in the tomb disappears, it doesn't simply get up and start ambling around. When the Risen Christ appears, he doesn't appear as resuscitated — he appears and disappears, seemingly at will, on the one hand walking through closed doors and on the other hand eating fish, and he isn't always immediately recognizable even to those who knew him well. Resurrection is not merely resuscitation, then, it is transformation: Paul calls the new body a "spiritual body" — and we clearly cannot understand all that this means since it exceeds our categories and capacities of ordinary perception. And, note, that this mystery, this transformation or Passover or transitus happens in the darkness of a tomb. Buried away beneath the surface of the earth, the supernatural light appears in that darkness. In Hugh of St. Victor's theology and spirituality, Christ's burial on Holy Saturday corresponds to this mysterious passage to eschatological divine Light.

And we're called to participate in that Light intellectually. We do so by having our intellects re-formed (or renewed, cf. Rom. 12:5) in Christ — which is to say, in and by the mystery of Christ's Passover, which whisks or consummates his humanity's passage through death and into the eternal life of the Trinity. And that, in turn, is to say that a pastor's intellect participates in the Triune divine Light, in part, by being re-formed into probing habits of thought and criticism which accord with trinitarian doctrine or Christian dogma. There are two aspects of the pastor's intellectual passage that we explore today: the pastor's formation in Christian dogmatic theology and the pastor's ongoing intellectual work of meditating and speculating on the basis of that dogmatic formation. Both of these take time. They thus require a measure of "burial" in another sense: the periodic but regular burial away from the cares of life and ministry for the work of reading and thinking that this participation in Christ's burial requires.

The "second foundation": Dogmatic formation of the intellect's habits of thought

While the memorization of the text of Scripture is foundational for Christian doctrinal and theological thinking, anyone who has observed a work site prepared for construction knows that those preparing to build a building don't work with the earth as is. The earth as one finds it is frequently rocky and uneven. The literal text of Scripture can appear just this way: rocky, uneven, at times containing contradictions, etc. Hugh, like the other medieval and patristic theologians, has noticed this. He thinks that Christians need some theological training to learn how to see and interpret the coherence of Scripture. The deep narrative that unearths the coherence of all the others — and so the directionality of their right interpretation — is of course the christological one: God's once-for-all and for all act of salvation in Christ's incarnation, life, death, resurrection. (If you feel inward hesitancy about the degree to which the literal text of Scripture needs to be interpreted in light of a deeper coherence — Christ's — consider: [a] the way many Jews of Jesus' time, including seemingly many of his disciples, read the Old Testament as a seamless narrative about how a Messiah would come as a military liberator and Make Jerusalem Great Again; [b] the scandal of rival Christian positions throughout history on e.g. slavery.)

Point being, whether in medieval or modern times, the rocky foundation is smoothed or normed in some regard by the necessity of what will be built on top of it. Hugh calls this the "second foundation," and his metaphor is Parisian artisans filing and precisely ordering rows of foundation stones to get ready to build a lovely and symmetrical building on top of it — perhaps a fabulous cathedral we'd still know today. Today, we do the "second foundation" differently, but the same principle still holds: we need to wind up with something level and even and precisely the right dimensions for the sake of what we're going to build on top of it.

That's the metaphor. What Hugh has in mind is that his students need to read the greatest of the Church fathers on the main Christian doctrines in order to be able to interpret Scripture well, coherently, and elegantly in relation to the main Christian doctrines. A good dogmatic formation of mind actually frees one to see the beauty in, and inside, Scripture's text. The ultimate norm here, for Hugh and us, will be christological: just as the NT (and OT) bears witness to Christ, who is prior to and transcends it, so Christ himself, the norm of Christian proclamation and doctrine, norms our (to some degree allegorical) interpretations of the Bible. On the basis of Christ, we see past the surface of Scripture, and into the divine doctrinal depths. From the letter to the Spirit.

And, by reading enough Christian doctrine on the main doctrinal topics, we form good dogmatic habits of thought and criticism.

Here are the main doctrinal topics a pastor should read up on: God's existence, attributes, and Trinity; Creation; Human as imago dei; Fall and Evil; Israel; Jesus Christ; the Holy Spirit; Providence; Church and Sacraments; Spirituality, Mysticism and Charismata; Eschatology. The Church has a lot of official dogma on some of these doctrinal loci, and almost none on others.

Here's an incomplete but helpful list of authors through the 20th century that are especially good for forming this "second foundation": Irenaeus of Lyons; Origen of Alexandria; Athanasius; Augustine; Gregory of Nyssa; the writer known as Dionysius the Areopagite; Maximus the Confessor; Anselm of Canterbury; Hugh of St. Victor; Richard of St. Victor; Thomas Aquinas; Bonaventure; Julian of Norwich; Teresa of Avila; John of the Cross; Luther; Calvin; William Burt Pope; Karl Barth; Sergius Bulgakov, Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Like all such lists, mine's inevitably to some degree idiosyncratic. Notice that the above authors don't all agree on all points. Yet the dogmatic formation of a pastor comes, in part, through these tensions, resulting either in synthesis or through adopting one view of a given topic at the expense of others. (This is the work of meditation described below.) Some, but not all, of this dogmatic intellectual formation is ordinarily accomplished in seminary or divinity school. It can also be — and perhaps in the Church in the USA will in the near future often need to be — accomplished outside of ordinary seminary curricula. But, whatever the means of one's initial formation, the work of getting the second foundation right, like the work of familiarity with Scripture, continues.

Doctrinal meditation and speculation

Having achieved a degree of familiarity with Scripture and a generally coherent grasp of the main doctrinal loci, the elegant edifice of a pastor's doctrine may be constructed. Hugh is now thinking metaphorically of the finely measured structural elegance of the building, be it ancient biblical temple, 12th century cathedral, or what have you. So, in our time, there is indeed a marvelous work of intellectual construction going on in the pastor's study (or home office, or kitchen table, as the occasion of her/his solitude may have it). Doctrinal meditation is a species of philosophical and intellectual soul-formation. One constructs one's interpretation of Christian doctrine — passing interiorly, hidden in Christ, from darkness to light — through the work of meditation (meditatio): rigorous, scrutinizing, penetrating, coherence-seeking thinking. One does the work of such thinking on the basis (or foundation) of Scripture as seen in its doctrinal/dogmatic coherence (or "second foundation").

On the one hand, such meditation results in the further and structural internalization of the dogmatic heritage of Christian thought (described above) in a particular form. Yet, doctrinal meditation also properly goes beyond what has been thought and agreed upon before: there is an aspect and an open door to speculation. The pastor's duty isn't only, or primarily, to the past. The pastor's duty is to Christ, who is always also the One who is to come. Our participation in Christ's transitus terminates in his — and our — resurrection, which is to say in the spiritualization and restoration of the cosmos and all things (Acts 3:21). So the pastor and Christian — even if not professionally an academic theologian — has to reflect and preach in the present moment looking forward to Christ's return — and so is summoned not to let her or his thought rest in the well established, but to think beyond, to live and argue in the present, to take up rival positions in order to oppose them and deepen one's own position, etc. This is to say, the intellectual vocation of a pastor is at once radically conservative and radically liberal. It inclines always to preserve and to reach the fullness of Christ. It aspires to know that which surpasses knowledge — the love of Christ (Eph. 3:19).

It is by seeking to intellectually reach, and hand on, this knowledge — knowledge beyond knowledge, knowledge of the love of Christ — that the pastor passes intellectually, again and again, from the domain of Holy Saturday's tomb into the Light, and Love, of the Risen One.

About the Author

Clifton Stringer

Clifton Stringer is based in Austin, Texas and holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Boston College. He previously read more…
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