In his portrait of the ideal pastor, George Herbert today creeps into the minister’s study.
The ideal pastor should be able to illustrate his teaching in a way that their people can readily understand and grasp. So they should understand their world and their business sufficiently to be able to engage them and teach them. Yet they should not be more of an expert in modern culture than they are of “the book of books”, the Bible. Scripture contains precepts, doctrines, examples and illustrations galore, and promises to comfort people — this is the most important thing for any pastor to study.
Herbert then outlines four things that are needed to understand Scripture. First, a holy life — because being clever and having a degree from a good seminary is never enough. Second, prayer, because God must open our eyes by his grace — good preaching originates in grace alone.
Third, the pastor needs good biblical theology and good hermeneutical skills. And because all truth is consistent with itself (as the author of the Bible is consistent with himself), the pastor must be able to compare scripture with scripture, and not interpret any part of it as “repugnant” to another part (see Article 20 of The Thirty-nine Articles). The final requirement for a good teaching pastor is to have a decent working library, with plenty of biblical commentaries.
The Parsons Knowledge
The country Parson is full of all knowledge. They say it is an ill mason that refuses any stone: and there is no knowledge but, in a skilful hand, serves either positively as it is, or else to illustrate some other knowledge. He condescends even to the knowledge of tillage, and pasturage, and makes great use of them in teaching, because people by what they understand, are best led to what they understand not.
But the chief and top of his knowledge consists in the book of books, the storehouse and magazine of life and comfort, the holy Scriptures. There he sucks, and lives. In the Scriptures he finds four things: precepts for life; doctrines for knowledge; examples for illustration; and promises for comfort: These he hath digested severally.
But for the understanding of these, the means he uses are first, a holy life, remembering what his Master says, that “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God” (John 7:17); and assuring himself, that wicked men, however learned, do not know the Scriptures, because they feel them not, and because they are not understood but with the same Spirit that wrote them.
The second means is prayer, which if it be necessary even in temporal things, how much more in things of another world, where the well is deep, and we have nothing of ourselves to draw with? Wherefore he ever begins the reading of the Scripture with some short inward ejaculation such as, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18).
The third means is a diligent collation of Scripture with Scripture. For all truth being consonant to itself, and all being penned by one and the self-same Spirit, it cannot be but that an industrious and judicious comparing of place with place must be a singular help for the right understanding of the Scriptures. To this may be added the consideration of any text with the coherence thereof, touching what goes before, and what follows after, as also the scope of the Holy Ghost. When the Apostles would have called down fire from heaven, they were reproved, as ignorant of what spirit they were. For the Law required one thing, and the Gospel another: yet as diverse, not as repugnant: therefore the spirit of both is to be considered, and weighed.
The fourth means are commentators and Fathers, who have handled the places controverted, which the Parson by no means refuses. As he does not so study others as to neglect the grace of God in himself, and what the Holy Spirit teaches him, so does he assure himself, that God in all ages has had his servants, to whom he has revealed his truth, as well as to him; and that as one country does not bear all things, that there may be a commerce; so neither hath God opened, or will open all to one, that there may be a traffic in knowledge between the servants of God, for the planting both of love, and humility. Wherefore he hath one commentary at least upon every book of Scripture, and ploughing with this, and his own meditations, he enters into the secrets of God treasured in the holy Scripture.