Foundations: No.74 Spring 2018

Book Reviews

Some Pastors and Teachers

Sinclair B. Ferguson, Banner of Truth, 2017, 802pp, £25.18 (Amazon)

Well-known for his teaching, writing and editorial work, as well as for his contributions to reformed theological colleges and conferences, Dr Ferguson has latterly become Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, USA, commuting from Scotland, where he assists in ministry at St Peter’s Free Church of Scotland, Dundee. It has been my privilege to have been given this, his latest book, Some Pastors and Teachers, to review.

The book’s title stems from Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:11, which, in context, echo Psalm 68:18. Paul says how the ascended Christ gave certain gifts so that the church might be built up in unity and love. In the New Testament church these gifts involve various ministries of the word of God, including the foundational work of the apostles, prophets (and evangelists?) and the ongoing provision for ministry of the “pastors and teachers”. It is the ministry of these “pastor-teachers” that forms the theme, in one way or another, of this 800-page book.

The book reads superbly, gliding along with ease, interest and clarity. Its 40 or so chapters subdivide into five sections of unequal length, the first consisting of three excellent short biographies of famous reformed pastor-teachers. The author readily acknowledges the debt he owes to each of the three Johns (Calvin, Owen and Murray), who have exercised a considerable influence upon him. Each was not only a consummate theologian, but also demonstrated enduring commitment to bringing the word of God appropriately to the various audiences and congregations to which they ministered, the point being that those who minister God’s word are the more helpful the more consistent they are in their theology (which requires constant study) and the more they know their people and their needs.

The second section consists of six fine essays on John Calvin, as an example of a pastor-teacher. I found “John Calvin: Commentator for preachers” particularly helpful in preparing this year’s Good Friday and Easter sermons, and the essay on Calvin’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper shed helpful light on what is often found a perplexing subject! Whilst the long third section deals with “Puritans as Pastors and Teachers” the bulk of it concentrates on major theological themes in the writings of John Owen, including, to name but five, his doctrines of the Person of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Glory of Christ, the Priesthood of Christ and Christian Piety – and a thoughtfully-incorporated essay designed to help us read the Works of John Owen!

The fourth and fifth sections vary more in content, the fourth emphasising the Pastor in relation to “Teaching”; the fifth in relation to “Preaching”. Whilst each of the essays in the fifth section has to do pretty much overtly with preaching, those in the fourth section seem, at least superficially, more arbitrary, covering ground like Scripture, the Holy Spirit in relation to the Bible, Biblical Theology (in the Geerhardus Vos mould), the Holiness of God the Father, the meaning of Christ’s death, “by Faith Alone”, Assurance, Reformed Theology and Lifestyle, and several others. I enjoyed Dr Ferguson’s ten-point contribution to the “what is necessary for God-honouring preaching?” debate. His concluding Epilogue fittingly emphasises the doxological tendency of properly-construed Calvinism and his Introduction is a masterpiece of warm, candid and honest brevity. The honesty is important.

Some Pastors and Teachers is essentially an agglomeration of essays written by Dr Ferguson at different times and in a variety of contexts – although one never feels some of the essays to be especially deep and demanding or others to be shallow and superficial. But as Dr Ferguson says,

Many of these chapters were first published in relatively obscure places. But… [more recently] these essays seemed to self-select and rearrange themselves in my mind into a coherent whole (xi).

This means that some readers will already have come across some of these essays. And despite writing a number of them during times of busy ministry, and therefore aware that they may not be as polished as some might wish, he nevertheless hopes that “these pages will encourage other ministers to allow themselves to be stretched a little beyond their normal pulpit or lectern preparation” (xii). He urges strongly, where possible, that ministers should study beyond preparation for only their next sermon, and in so doing commends minister-readers to follow his own example: when given opportunity, to submit themselves to writing and to being stretched in the process – “Yes, you may find yourself under a little pressure; but pressure can produce diamonds!” (xii). And his hopes are modest:

These [essays] are some of the gifts that the Lord has given me for others who have an interest in and a concern for the ministry of the gospel. I know the parcels are small; but I hope there will be something inside them that will be a blessing and an encouragement to you.

They certainly are! The book is fit to grace the shelves of any church minister, to be read and reread at leisure, with pleasure, for encouragement, stimulation and guidance. At a good price this book is highly recommended.

That each chapter, or essay, is somewhat “stand-alone” means that it can be read as “complete” without reference having to be made to other chapters. This advantage carries with it the disadvantage, however, that there is a fair degree of repetition (I read of the hymn attributed to Calvin at least three times in as many chapters – although its contents perhaps stick better on the third reading; if I remember Lloyd-Jones’ preaching on 2 Peter 1:12 correctly, his statement “the art of [good] teaching is repetition” may be apposite here.)

Recognising that one has to draw the line somewhere in an 800-page volume and not answer everything [!], I was a little disappointed to find some of my lingering “pastor-teacher” questions remaining largely unanswered. One has to wade/swim potentially through 685 pages (or to make it more palatable, perhaps, 34 chapters) before getting to anything like an accurate exegesis of Ephesians 4:11. I had anticipated reading about “pastor-teachers” in relation to “elders”, or at least a discussion involving, say, John Murray’s fine essay on “Office in the Church” (Collected Writings, Vol. 2, esp., 360-361). But…! Might the principles in Some Pastors and Teachers not apply to all elders? Similarly, how is the office of the “minister” justified from the New Testament? Matters such as these seem rather to have been assumed. Though a super book, these unanswered questions left me wondering sometimes if the title was the best.

I was heartened to read that Dr Ferguson questioned the practice (685) of dividing between the pastor-preacher and the teacher-theologian, so as to create two ministries. However much we may think a preacher better fitted for teaching in a Bible college because he is so abstract, and however much we think a theologian better equipped for the pulpit because his concepts are simple, there ought to be no such dichotomy; John Owen preached his massively theological sermons on Hebrews to congregations of modest souls with limited academic ability; coherent, appropriately applied Calvinistic theology and helpful preaching amount to the same; they go together. As ministers (elders?), we do well to model ourselves and our ministries on those pastor-teachers who are also exemplary theologians.

Gareth E Williams
Pastor, Bala Evangelical Church & Lecturer in Systematic and Historical Theology, Union School of Theology

 

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