Andrew Purves, What on Earth Is Jesus Doing?
Andrew Purves, Professor of Reformed Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, received his PhD in 1978 from the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland.
Dr. Purves discusses the primary pastoral question: What is Jesus up to that I can bear witness to?
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JMF: We appreciate you taking the time out of your schedule, which is pretty full, to be here with us. You have been a professor of theology for some time, and you’ve written a number of books that we’ll be talking about. Tell us the story of how you became a theologian and how you got into writing such books on the topics that you’ve chosen.
AP: It’s a long story, but as quickly as I can… I often get asked, when was I saved? My smart answer is, “I was elect in Jesus Christ from the foundation of the world.” It’s not just a smart answer, it’s a true answer, because that grounds me in a reality other than my own experiences. I believe that 2000 years ago, my humanity was borne by the man Jesus and born unto God through his apostolic Sonship.
When I was 19, I was a high-school dropout wandering through life in Edinburgh, Scotland, and I had an experience that drove me the next Sunday to church. The minister got into the pulpit, said, “Let us worship God,” and instantly I knew that God wanted me to preach the gospel. Then I had to go back to high school and all the rest, and then discovered I was good at this stuff, and started picking up degrees and became, by God’s good providence, a student of Tom Torrance and James Torrance. At times I scratched against them, but at the foundation of my theological formation there was this classical, orthodox, evangelical, catholic theology of the confessional church.
After all my studies were completed and I came to the United States, I married an American woman and started to preach, and realized that the gospel I was to preach was the classical faith of the church. That’s what began the process of inquiring more and more fully, “What am I to say in the sermon?” In due course I was called to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, now over 27 years ago. Then it became, “What do I teach the students who are going to preach the gospel?” That was the concern. This classical theology has been with me almost from the beginning.
JMF: You’ve done a lot of work with pastors, and about pastoral work, pastoral spirituality, and so on, and you’ve indicated in some of your recent books that pastoral work and social work seem to be overlapping in the church. Is that a good thing, or is that a bad thing?
AP: It needn’t be a bad thing, but what defines us in pastoral ministry (that is, essentially of saying the ministry of word and sacrament, and the pastoral work that flows from that), is not social science, but Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father and the power of the Spirit. That reality that undergirds, that which defines what it is ultimately that a pastor and the mission of a congregation must be about, is bearing witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ. That may lead you in social ministry, it may lead you to ministries of care and ministries of therapy, ministries of renewal, economic, health care, whatever, but Jesus Christ is Lord, and there’s no aspect of the existence of the cosmos over which he is not Lord. So, in Christ, one would expect to be taken into all corners. But that which defines the core of who we are and what we are about is not some contingent need to which we give a pragmatic response, but that Jesus Christ is Lord.
If I could put this in a simple image (I use this image often in my teaching), you walk into a situation—hospital room, classroom, you are in a conversation at the grocery store with someone, and the primary defining pastoral question is, “Has Jesus showed up?” In the freedom of his love and in the power of the Spirit, I believe he does, because that’s his choice to be with us.
The pastoral question is, “What is he up to that I can bear witness to, point to…?” Whatever the context, [you want to] proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord at this point of connection or intersection of your life. That which defines ministry is Jesus Christ, not the present pain, but Jesus Christ, who will address the present pain. A technical image: we begin with a Christological starting point—Jesus Christ, present in the power of the Spirit and in the freedom of his love, and then try to help the people make the connection between their present life experience and the Lord who is with them to be for them.
JMF: That brings up something we were talking about earlier, abstract nouns, and thinking of them in that sense as opposed to what they really mean. You mentioned an example of grace as an abstract noun, and others.
AP: Abstract nouns are wonderful things insofar as they sum up and gather, encapsulate, concentrate, some aspect of our knowledge and awareness. Words like grace, hospitality, justice, inclusivity, all kind of wonderful abstract nouns. Love, for example. The trouble is when we distance them from the concrete reality of the Lord Jesus who is the ground who gives them the content, and they become free-floating entities. Sometimes they are used and come around the back, used as weapons against the very gospel itself.
So I tell my students, grace is a good word, but remember grace has a name, his name is Jesus. Love is a good word, but love has a name, his name is Jesus. Hope is a good word, but his name is Jesus. In other words, my hope is not in hope, my trust is not in grace. I do not try to live lovingly. What does that mean? What does it mean for me to live in Christ, who is my hope? Hope and love and grace and so on become concrete and specific and not just free-floating entities where content from the culture can tend to overwhelm them.
JMF: So it isn’t just grace that we should want, in the sense of getting off the hook, it’s actually being in union with Christ. Can you talk about being in union with Christ?
AP: Yeah. Grace doesn’t save us. Jesus saves us. Christianity at its core is not a system of ideas, let alone a system of abstract nouns. It is about God choosing for all eternity to have a people of his own desire, a people who would love him, people whom he would cleave to himself and who would cleave to him. Without going through a lot of rigmarole, in the fullness of time, in order that that people of his choice would belong to him, he sent his Son, who is the incarnation of God’s love, providence, compassion, and grace, so that all of the abstract nouns have a content and a reality, namely Jesus Christ.
The purpose is that when we look into the face of Jesus Christ as he is attested to us in the Scriptures and as he is proclaimed in the preaching of the church, we apprehend not an argument or a series of propositions, but we are apprehended by, in the power of the Spirit, the living God. We meet Jesus. As we have this conversation this morning, in the freedom of his love and in the power of the Spirit, Jesus is the third person in our conversation. To the extent that that’s the case, our lives and our conversation, and as this goes out, as it’s broadcast, all of this is to the glory of the Father.
I have been professionally criticized for having too big a doctrine of Jesus Christ. Some people have said that Purves is a Christ-mystic, to which my response is, duh. That which makes us Christian is Jesus, a present, living, reigning, acting Lord who is up to God’s ministry in every aspect of the life of the cosmos. That’s what it means, that he’s Lord. He’s not just Lord back there who has given us a moral code, he is Lord now, a living Lord present in power in the freedom of his love and in the power of the Spirit.
I don’t manipulate him to be here. He chooses to be here, not now in the flesh, as he was 2000 years ago, but in his Spirit. The real question of ministry is a simple question. If he’s here, what is he up to? Because that’s what our people need in their cancer wards and their divorcing situations, with their teenage children—do we have a Lord who can be present in power to change the human reality, or is he just an idea? I want to claim that he’s present in power.
JMF: Being a believer is more than assent to a set of facts. We often hear a sinner’s prayer, for example, in a simple presentation of the gospel: “Do you believe this, do you believe that, do you believe the things Jesus did?” But it sounds like you’re saying that being a believer is a great deal more than just a certain set of facts.
AP: My paradigm story here in answer to that question is Acts 9:5, Saul of Tarsus, this brilliant persecutor of the church. He’s got the warrant from the court in his pocket, he’s en route to Damascus, he’s going to round them up, he’s going to get them, and he’s going to poof out of existence this nonsense that this Jesus who is dead is somehow raised. Paul is accosted, encountered by the ascended Lord—the only story we have of the ascended Lord appearing. All the other post-resurrection stories are of the resurrected Lord, but now in his ascended power he comes, and Saul is knocked to the ground. Paul’s question is the core theological question— “Who are you, Lord?”
It’s not just “Who are you?” It’s not a speculative, dilettante’s question, “Who are you?” We often get that—“Who are you?” But it’s “Who are you, Lord?” In other words, “Who are you, you who have so unilaterally and unconditionally staked a claim on my life and I have to recognize that?” I think the boiler-house of faith is that we are encountered by a person who establishes, from his side, our being in relationship with him, and who calls us to live our lives in terms of that claim upon us.
Because we are thinking creatures, we are then called to think about that as rightly and as faithfully as we can. That’s what theology is. We try to think about the creative act of God claiming us in, through, and as Jesus Christ. There are better ways and less better ways, and even right and wrong ways, to think about this. For example, this is a silly illustration, but not every sentence that has the word “god” in it is an accurate and faithful theological sentence. I could say, “God is a pink banana.” That’s not a faithful theological sentence. I could say, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” That is a faithful theological sentence.
We bring our minds to these experiences, to these encounters, as they are mediated to us in the Scriptures and as we encounter the living Lord in our own lives. At some point, if you wanted, I might tell you some of these encounter stories, because I know he lives and reigns because he met me.
I can’t explain it. The Bible is nowhere interested in metaphysics. The creation, how did God create? We don’t know. Va’omer Elohim, in Hebrew, and God said. That’s God’s choice. The Word became flesh—Logos sarx egeneto, the Word became flesh. No metaphysics. On the third day he was raised from the dead. How did God the Father raise the Son from the dead in the powerless world? No metaphysics. He ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father. No metaphysics. Deal with it. He’s done it. This Lord meets us along our Damascus roads.
JMF: Let’s talk about the encounters.
AP: My first transforming encounter…there had been intonations. My mother was an Irish Catholic, my father a Presbyterian of loose form, not practicing. I wasn’t brought up in the church in Edinburgh, Scotland; I was a high school dropout at 16. I was sitting in my parent’s living room one Sunday evening watching television with my mother and father (my sister wasn’t there).
We were sitting around the coal fire watching television, and this is not an allusion to John Wesley, but it was somewhere after 8:00 in the evening, and I got up to leave the living room. My lapsed Roman Catholic Irish mother was in an armchair by the fire. I stopped at her chair and said, “I’m bored with my life.” My mother looked up, “Oh,” she said, “Why don’t you go to church next Sunday?”
Where in the name of heaven did that come from? My non-practicing, ex-Roman Catholic mother shattered me. I went to church. I told the story of what happened—the minister came to the pulpit, “Let us worship God,” and I got to do that. I went back home, told my mother, she was so upset with me, she did not speak to me for two weeks. There are many other stories along the way that the Lord encountered me. There is one big story that takes about three or four minutes to tell.
JMF: Well, we would need to hear it now.
AP: It’s a big story, and it’s the story that in many ways now defines my work, my life. Seven-and-a-half years ago I was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. My colleague at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Martha Robbins, who has a Harvard Ph.D. in psychology, ex-Roman Catholic nun, called me up and said, “I want to come and pray with you.” Martha’s piety and my piety are a little different, but she’s a wonderful Christian woman.
It was a Saturday night, a few days before my surgery. Martha came with a boom box to my house and said, “I need you for an hour.” Okay, so we went down to the basement. She had me lie down on the couch. She read from Romans 8, said a prayer with her hands laid over me, put on some music, and said, “Trust me. I want to take you on an imaginative prayer journey.” She did some deep breathing to get relaxed, and then said, “When you’re ready I want you to picture in your mind a great big door. When are ready, walk through that door, and you will come to a flight of stairs.”
So I relaxed and eventually I see a big door, and for some reason I saw it as a church door, a double wooden church door. I walked through that door, and to my surprise, saw a flight of stairs going down. They were stone stairs. Why? Who would have thought it? She said, “At the bottom of the stone stairs, there are a second set of doors, and when you walk through these doors you will be in a safe place.”
Now what I’m about to say took an hour, but it will just take a couple of minutes to tell. After a little while, I walked through that second set of doors, and to my astonishment, I was in the abbey on Iona off the west coast of Scotland, where I had been many times—the spiritual home of Scotland, Saint Columba’s Island, where in 563 Columba and some Irish monks had settled and from there began to evangelize the Scots. This is our holy place, although the rebuilt abbey is 11th century and Roman, nonetheless, this is the place.
I was off at one of the side transepts beside sarcophagi of dead kings or queens or some folks, and I was small, curled up in a fetal position, scared. I became aware that this ancient abbey was filled with the saints of the Scottish church. This is probably not orthodox Presbyterian theology, but they were praying for me. There were thousands of them, undifferentiated. Gradually, they maneuvered me out of my hiding place and brought me into the center of the abbey to the front of the communion table.
What I’m about to tell you is as real as looking you in the eye. There was a huge green Iona Marble communion table, and I was brought to the front of it. I don’t know if I was kneeling, lying, or sitting, but I was low down. I looked up, and standing in front of the communion table was the Lord Jesus. Absolutely real. He said to me that my cancer was the attempt of the evil one to destroy me, but I assure you, I have the victory. That was it.
Two days after my surgery, I had a pulmonary embolism and almost died. That night, lying in bed in the hospital trying to process what had happened, all the tubes and stuff from major surgery still in me, and just for a flash, a nanosecond, I realized what these words meant, because it came to me again from the Lord, I’m absolutely convinced, “Whether you live or die, you live or die unto me because I have the victory.”
That has shaped the last seven-and-a-half years of my life. I know he lives because he’s met me. The one who has met me has been tested in his meeting me, and my attempt to describe it in terms of the great theological heritage of the church. This is who God is—the Lord who loves us, who claims us, who blesses us, who will not let us go, and who in the dire circumstances upholds us from underneath of the everlasting arms.
JMF: Did that move you toward one of the books that you wrote subsequently?
AP: I was in the middle of my big academic book, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology, and the second half of that book was written during the six months of chemotherapy. Some of that is in the academics of the second half of the book. My editor wanted me to take it out, and I said no, I didn’t want it taken out because this is the context of the book, writing on the ministry of the grace of God, the ministry of the comfort of God, the ministry of the presence of God, and the ministry of the reign of God. Although the book is technical, academic, these are not just words. These chapters that I wrote during chemotherapy were…this is my life. On this I depend. This is not just writing a book for the academic guild. The two subsequent books, The Crucifixion of Ministry and The Resurrection of Ministry, were putting into a more accessible form this theology of the living Lord who encounters us.
JMF: Is there a favorite book among all this that you’ve written that you feel the most affinity with?
AP: It’s like…I have three children. How could I pick? Each book has its own story, its own context, its own reason for being written, and in the editing process, its own particular pain. But The Crucifixion of Ministry is in some ways special because over the last three years since its publication I’ve had hundreds of emails from pastors who I have never met telling me that they’ve picked it up and it has changed the ministry.
For the want of another image…and I hope this doesn’t sound self-serving or arrogant, but that book seems to have an anointing that I don’t have any control over. It seems to have a life that God has given it for the blessing of busy, tired, middle-aged, underpaid, over-stressed, over-worked, underappreciated, collapsing self-esteem pastors—it seems to have connected. I will take that for what it is. If it’s a blessing, then I am grateful.
JMF: In The Resurrection of Ministry, you quote a friend who said, “If Jesus is so big, so powerful, so victorious, why am I so unconscious of his presence so much of the time? Why, when I preach and teach the word of the Lord, are the people not bursting forth with the fruits of the Spirit? If Jesus is the reigning Lord of the universe, why are even little pastoral problems so confounding?” Is that what drove you to think about this topic and work on that book?
AP: In part. There are intractable theological problems. If God is all loving and God is all powerful, whence evil? Why does somebody like me get cancer and live while somebody with the same diagnosis gets the same cancer and dies? I can’t explain these things. They’re troubling.
When I get to heaven, I’m going to ask the Father, “Could you not have created a world without cancer?” I’m not sure I have a good answer in terms of a satisfying answer that would be acceptable to the logic of the world other than to make a confession: I believe that in the end, every tear will be wiped away and God will gather his people to himself, and there will be joy, and joy will have a name, and his name is Jesus, in whom we will be in communion.
It’s not just “whistle a happy tune whenever you feel afraid” or “a pie in the sky when you die”— it’s a question of trusting. No, that’s wrong. That puts it upon me. Let me put it this way: I have decided that sometimes experiences and problems to the contrary, the message of the New Testament is true. I’ve decided to live by that, and that Jesus reigns. While there are a ton of things I can’t explain (and at 63 there are more things I can’t explain than I could when I was 43), and theology is inherently messy with all kinds of loose ends, I have decided to trust that Jesus is a victorious Lord.
My word to pastors is, don’t point to what you can do, point your people to Jesus. Even if they experience things to the contrary, tell them, declare to them, that Jesus in the Spirit is with them. And heaven help us, pray God that the Lord will turn up in their lives. I can’t manipulate it or control it, but I’m not without resources.
A story I tell at the end of The Crucifixion of Ministry might bear repeating. It’s a story of a pastor who gets a call at 4:00 in the morning from Bill. Bill and Mary are a young couple in his congregation. They’ve been married a number of years, they’re in their mid-30s, no children, but Mary’s pregnant and in great excitement. They’re a faithful couple, they are good people, and you get this phone call at 4:00 in the morning from Bill, he’s in his car en route to the local obstetrics emergency room. Mary’s hemorrhaging.
What do you do? You throw on some clothes, you get there, you get to the hospital, 4:30, Bill’s in the room waiting. He hears your footsteps, he turns around, there’s tears running down his face. “Bill, what’s the matter?” “The baby’s dead.” He looks at his watch. “Oh, it’s just coming up for time. The nurse said we’ll get in in a minute to see Mary. Oh, and by the way, we want you to baptize the baby.”
You go, “Can I baptize a dead person? Do I have authority to do this?” You have but 30 seconds to conduct a theological colloquium in your head. The nurse comes, “You can see your wife now,” and you walk into the room. There’s Mary in a bed with sheets pulled up to her chin. Baby’s in the bassinette completely covered in a blanket. The couple meet, and they’re tentative and unsure of how to relate. You’re standing there. You can’t fix it. I’m a pastor and I can’t fix it. I can’t raise the dead. This child is dead. I can’t heal their pain.
Then you realize that Mary’s probably never held the baby. So you whisper in her husband’s ear, “Give the baby to her mother.” He goes, picks up the baby, and there’s the three of them, a cameo. “Pastor, we want you to baptize the baby.” Oh, what do I do? Then you remember that you had attended my lectures on Calvin’s doctrine of the ascension (this is not kidding), and remember that Calvin taught three things about the ministry of the ascended Lord.
1) He prays for us. So this situation of family catastrophe and of ministerial powerlessness is being prayed for by Jesus.
2) Second, he sends the Holy Spirit. This is a charismatic environment. The Holy Spirit is here.
3) The third thing Calvin says, “And he gives us to the Father.”
So you say, “Bill, Mary, let me show you what Jesus is doing right now.” You take the dead baby and you lift up the dead baby and say, “At this very minute, Jesus is giving your daughter to the Father, and for my sake he is cleaving your daughter to his bosom.” They won’t remember a word you said, but they will remember the action where you bore witness to what Jesus was doing in this tragic situation.
We have resources. We can’t fix, but we point people to what we believe the living Lord is doing. Pastors, to do that, you need to know the living Lord. To do that, pastors, you need to know your people, and you then facilitate, as it were, that conversation between the living Lord and the freedom of his love and the power of the Spirit and the lives of your people—you help them make these connections in your preaching, teaching and pastoral work. You can’t fix it. But Jesus shows up—at least that’s what I believe.