George Herbert on the pastor’s reading

Having looked at the basics which the pastor requires for their ministry, Herbert today presses further into the pastor’s study.

Not only must pastors know the Bible inside out, they should also have read the early church fathers, the medieval scholastics, and plenty of Reformation and post-Reformation writings. Indeed, a good pastor has compiled their own “body of divinity” or doctrinal confession, using these additional works as well as the Bible to expound the Church’s Catechism. Having sketched out one’s own systematic theology is always more edifying than simply reading other people’s attempts.

The Anglican Catechism basically consists of the Apostles Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and instruction on the sacraments. All baptised members of the Church were required to know and understand these elements before being confirmed, and so it was the parson’s duty to catechise his flock (which was often done on a Sunday afternoon).

If only we were always so diligent to instruct people in the basics today, where someone who can recite the Creed or list the Ten Commandments in the right order is considered a biblical expert (or nerd)!

Finally, pastors should be skilled in casuistry, or cases of conscience. They should understand how people tick and how to help them follow Christ more closely in all the tricky cases which this messy world throws up.

The Parson’s Accessary Knowledges

The country Parson has read the Fathers also, and the Schoolmen, and the later Writers, or a good portion of all, out of all which he hath compiled a book, and body of divinity, which is the storehouse of his sermons, and which he preaches all his life; but diversely clothed, illustrated, and enlarged. For though the world is full of such composures, yet every man’s own is fittest, readiest, and most savoury to him. Besides, this being to be done in his younger and preparatory times, it is an honest joy ever after to look upon his well spent hours.

This body he made by way of expounding the Church Catechism, to which all divinity may easily be reduced. For it being indifferent in itself to choose any method, that is best to be chosen, of which there is likeliest to be most use. Now catechizing being a work of singular, and admirable benefit to the Church of God, and a thing required under canonical obedience, the expounding of our catechism must needs be the most useful form. Yet hath the Parson, besides this laborious work, a slighter form of catechizing, fitter for country people; according as his audience is, so he uses one, or other; or sometimes both, if his audience be intermixed.

He greatly esteems also of cases of conscience, wherein he is much versed. And indeed, herein is the greatest ability of a Parson to lead his people exactly in the ways of truth, so that they neither decline to the right hand, nor to the left. Neither let any think this a slight thing. For every one hath not digested, when it is a sin to take something for money lent, or when not; when it is a fault to discover another’s fault, or when not; when the affections of the soul in desiring and procuring increase of means, or honour, be a sin of covetousness or ambition, and when not; when the appetites of the body in eating, drinking, sleep, and the pleasure that comes with sleep, be sins of gluttony, drunkenness, sloth, lust, and when not; and so in many circumstances of actions.

Now if a shepherd know not which grass will bane, or which not, how is he fit to be a shepherd? Wherefore the Parson hath throughly canvassed all the particulars of human actions, at least all those which he observes are most incident to his parish.


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