Evaluation of "Pastoral Theology" by Patrick Fairbairn - by C. Matthew McMahon

A Superb Work on the Pastoral Ministry and Preaching

Patrick Fairbairn (1805-1874) was converted at young ago and was brought up in a Christian home. After his conversion he entered the university to study divinity. After attaining his degrees, he was appointed by the Crown in 1830 to the Parliamentary Parish of North Ronaldshay. He had been licensed to preach the gospel by the Presbytery of Dunse, on October 3, 1826. James Dodds said of him, “It may be truly said, that the studies which laid the foundation of Mr. Fairbairn’s theological eminence began only after he had left the Divinity Hall. About the time when he was licensed as a preacher, or looked forward to ordination as a minister in Orkney, he formed a regular plan of professional study of no slight or superficial character, but solid, laborious, and systematic; and that plan he carried out with unflinching perseverance.”[1] In 1845 he published his famous Typology of Scripture, and in 1846 his Commentary on the Psalms. In 1851 was published Ezekiel, and the Book of His Prophecy, which ranks second to his Typology. He was both a minister and a professor, teaching at Aberdeen. He died in 1874 from what seems to be either stroke or heart attack, and was unexpected.

Fairbairn’s work houses some choice pastoral ideas, though his writing style is verbose and difficult. He takes quite a long time to get to his points, and they must in turn be sifted through to glean his most important thoughts on the subject. He does, however, cover most of the important topics for Pastoral Theology. His work covers 9 chapters and runs 350 pages.


Chapter 1: The Office and Duties of a Christian Pastor

The flock of Christ [is] not a mere aggregation of units, but has by divine ordination a corporate existence, with interconnecting relationships, mutual responsibilities, and common interests.[2]  The Church in its primary and fundamental aspect is the kingdom of Christ, the spiritual society within which, as more peculiarly His own. He is acknowledged as the rightful Head, and served with a loving, loyal obedience.[3] But the Church in this higher sense exists only ideally so far as human perception or outward organization is concerned; visibly and actually it nowhere appears in the world, except as it may be in part, by successive stages, realizing itself among the members of Christian communities.[4] The internal operation and life-giving agency of the Spirit comes into effect through the external call and ministration of the word, thus, (and no otherwise) so the one spiritual body of Christ has for its necessary complement a formally constituted corporate society.[5] It follows from this relation of the visible to the invisible Church, as to character and calling, that everything in the several sections of the Church on earth should be framed and regulated so as in the most faithful and efficient manner to carry out the revealed mind of Christ.[6] Here, the church has been given pastors or shepherds to guide the church through preaching in its various administrations.[7]

In the Bible first, and generally also in the Protestant confessions, the work of our salvation is presented to our view as primarily a personal concern, a transaction which has to take place between the soul and God. thus, The visible Church ought to be the community of saints, the brotherhood of faith; so that in it, as in a mirror, men might see what the life of Christ actually is, and be ever deriving from it salutary impressions upon their hearts and consciences.[8]

Chapter 2: The Nature of the Pastoral Office and the Call to Enter Its Function

Pastoral Theology, in this manner of explanation,  has specific parts to consider. First, there is the nature of the pastoral office, with the consideration of what constitutes a valid call to its functions and employments. Secondly, the personal and social life befitting one who undertakes the responsibilities and duties of such an office. Thirdly, its proper work, comprising: (1) homiletics, or the composition and delivery of discourses; (2) the employment of subsidiary methods of instruction and counsel; (3) the devotional services of the sanctuary; (4) the administration of discipline; and (5) supplemental helps and agencies, not strictly connected with the work of the ministry, but having, in certain respects, an incidental bearing on its operations or results.[9]

Fairbairn says, “This office has to do with the oversight and care of souls, and by its very name imports that ministers of the gospel are called to exercise somewhat of the same fidelity and solicitude in behalf of these, that shepherds are expected to do in respect to their flocks.[10] “Remember them that have the rule over you,” (Heb. 13:7).[11] The pastorate necessarily included the exercise of an administrative as well as of a teaching function; yet the teaching more directly and prominently, as everything was to proceed in connection with the knowledge and belief of the truth.[12] This, in its entire compass, belongs to the ministry of the word; which is, as Martin Bucer notes, a ministerium, not a magisterium; a service, not a lordship; but a service founded on a divine commission, and holding at command a sacred authority, which it is permitted and even bound to employ whenever the interests of truth and righteousness may seem to require it. Fairbairn says, “In apostolic times its primary object of concern was the diffusion of the gospel, and the planting of churches consequent on its propagation; the oversight and government of particular churches occupied but a secondary place.”[13] It houses a ministry of reconciliation with Jesus Christ which would then accompany edification through Jesus Christ.[14] It is in all respects, a service of love.[15] In such a service there is, no doubt, a priestly element, since it requires those who would perform it aright not only to deal with men on behalf of God, but also to deal with God on behalf of men, to accompany all their ministrations of word and doctrine with intercessions at the throne of grace.[16] “The minister is then in the very height of his dignity, when from the pulpit he feeds the Lord’s flock with sacred doctrine.”[17]

Considered, first of all, as a ministry of reconciliation, and implying a commission from Heaven, the original charge of our Lord to His apostles, to go and preach the gospel to every creature, lays for it a sure and abiding foundation.[18] The Apostle Paul, speaking not in his own name merely, but in that of all who, like himself, were sincerely preaching the gospel, says, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.” And the ministry generally he calls the ministry of reconciliation, as having for its more immediate and primary object the pressing upon them of God’s message of love, the reception of which would close their alienation from God, and secure their entrance on a state of peace and fellowship.[19]

Considered more strictly, in the second place, as a cure of souls, the pastoral office involves a stewardship, a stewardship of most grave responsibility, for it has entrusted to it the oversight of treasures of inestimable value.[20] The office has still again to be considered as a work, a work of God, by means of which those naturally dead in sin are made alive to God, and carried forward on the way to glory; a work, we may say, impossible, unless divine influences come in aid of its accomplishment.[21]

What constitutes a call to the ministry? It is both internal and external. Concerning the one desiring the office of minister, the operation of divine grace upon their souls, coupled perhaps with something in the native bent of mind, has been such, so marked and peculiar, that they feel moved with decisive energy to give themselves to this sacred calling.[22] Then, the ministry of the one desiring the office is considered in the testimony it bears outwardly.[23] We make a note of Calvin on this point that sometimes a ministerial call make not be as clear as we might think. Calvin, some time after he had embraced the Reformed cause, and had published the first edition of his Institutes, had not as yet resolved to devote himself to the work of the ministry; and was on his way from Italy, where he had been on a visit to the Duchess of Ferrara, to some place in Germany suitable for the further prosecution of his studies. He took Geneva on his route, intending only to spend in it a night or two, as he has himself informed us in the Preface to his Commentary on the Psalms. He was met with Farel, who was at the time labouring in Geneva, and who burned with an incredible zeal for the propagation of the Protestant faith, that Reformer determined to secure, if possible, the co-operation of Calvin in the great work, and went to him with an earnest entreaty that he would remain where he was. Calvin endeavored to excuse himself, and said he could not yet think of attaching himself to any particular community; but was desirous of continuing his studies some time longer, yet with the intention of making himself useful to the Reformed cause, wherever he might for the time reside. On this Farel took to, as Calvin expresses it, to execration, and addressed him in the following strain: “Now I declare to you in the name of Almighty God, since you are taking your studies only for a pretext, that if you do not give us your help in this divine work, God’s curse will rest upon you, as you are seeking not so much Christ’s glory as your own.” This speech, Calvin says, struck such a terror into his soul, that he durst not carry out his original intention; he felt constrained to abide in Geneva, “as if God had by an immediate hand arrested him in his course.” And I need scarcely add, the result showed how wisely he had interpreted the leadings of Providence, and in the entreaty and remonstrance of Farel had heard the call of Heaven to undertake the responsibilities of the public ministry of the gospel.[24]

In this call, the minister should take heed to himself that he is both called and sent by God to the task of the Gospel.[25] Signs are, if the heart is filled with a single desire to the great end of the ministry — the glory of God in the salvation of men. It helps to clear a man’s call, that there has been a conscientious diligence in all the means of attaining fitness for this great work. A competent fitness for the work of the ministry is another proof of a man’s call to it. The Lord calls no man to a work for which He does not qualify him.[26]

Chapter 3: The Pastoral and Social Life of the Pastor

From its very nature, the pastor’s personal life is but the more peculiar embodiment and exhibition of the characteristics of the Christian community, a kind of concentrated manifestation of the views and principles, the feelings and obligations, which belong in common to the Church of Christ.[27] He is to be no mere typical Christian, but his life should be “the book of the ignorant.”[28] Fairbairn says, “religion is more peculiarly the business of the Christian minister than it is of ordinary believers.”[29] He is to have an “elevated spiritual frame,”[30] and a “higher spiritual life.”[31] He must be able to maintain this higher degree of spirituality[32] and demonstrate a higher degree of study and contemplation of divine things.[33] He should have a “command of time,”[34] and they should demonstrate a keen sense of accomplishment in both the occupations of the study and the formal duties of the pastorate.[35] Also, in respect to his domestic relations, everything in the pastor’s family should be in proper keeping with his place and calling; of incalculable importance it is that it should be so.[36]

Chapter 4: The More Special Duties of the Pastoral Office

Considering the special duties of the pastoral office, we cannot hesitate to assign the first place to the work of preaching, the preparation and delivery of discourses on the great subjects of God’s revelation to men. This forms more peculiarly the vocation of the Christian pastor; other things, though important in their proper place, are still but subsidiary in comparison of it.[37]

The dependence of successful public speaking on appropriate style, is a third point requiring careful thought and application; style, I mean, not simply with regard to the choice of words or the structure of sentences (which may admit of many varieties), but as a fitting expression of the speaker’s own cast of mind, as exercised on the class of subjects of which he discourses, and with a view to the specific end he aims at in handling them. Diligence and care in this respect is the most efficient and controlling factor in speaking rightly. There is the intimate connection between the things spoken and the action or bearing of the speaker.[38] There must be a passionate zeal for the truth, yet, even among unlearned persons, if only they are stirred by some powerful affection, words are not wanting.[39]

The fitting subjects of discourse for the pulpit are the text of the Bible which is the ground of the discourses addressed to congregations when they meet for purposes of worship.[40] Nothing may be altogether excluded from the pulpit which has an influential bearing on the Christian life, or admits of being handled in a Christian spirit. But much of which this can be said may still be unsuited to form the leading topic of a sermon. The pulpit has not been erected, as justly remarked by Vinet, “in order that everything may be there treated in a Christian manner; it has a special object, which is to introduce the Christian idea into life. I should say, then,” he adds, “that everything which does not conduce directly to edification; everything which an ordinary hearer cannot of himself convert into the bread of life, or at least which the preacher does not acknowledge to be such, should not be made a subject of his preaching.”[41] This means that preaching should take on the seriousness of its subject matter. Baxter says, “I hate that preaching which tendeth to make the hearers laugh, or to move their minds with ticklish levity, and affect them as stage-players used to do, instead of affecting them with a holy reverence of the name of God.”[42]

In the choice of a text for preaching, however, something more is needed than to consider how far it may itself be fitted to serve as the foundation of a public discourse; its suitableness also to the preacher’s powers and present or prevailing tone of mind requires to be taken into account.[43] A well-educated and experienced teacher of divine truth may have a general fitness for all topics, and yet only for some a special and peculiar adaptation.[44]

Preaching has to do as much with instruction as with persuasion.[45] The preacher must have the ability not only to teach something from the bible, but persuade men through argumentation, rightly administered, in believing it. This means there must be a thoughtful order and arrangement.[46] It is very justly said, also by Vinet on this point, that a proper arrangement, “not only throws aside that which wanders from the unity of the subject, but assists also in finding everything which is included in the subject. Many things which we had not previously seen are then discovered; many lines of thought are finished, many intervals are filled.”[47] Divisions in the pulpit should not be formally announced, but simply set in order to follow the preacher.[48]

Consider “sensible and good direction” in a sermon. The Directory for Public Worship says, “In analyzing and dividing his text, he [the minister] is to regard more the order of matter than of words; and neither to burden the memory of the hearers in the beginning with too many members of division, nor to trouble their minds with obscure terms of art. In raising doctrines from the text, his care ought to be, first, that the matter be the truth of God; secondly, that it be a truth contained in or grounded on that text, that the hearers may discern how God teacheth it from thence; thirdly, that he chiefly insist on those doctrines which are principally intended, and make most for the edification of his hearers. The doctrine is to be expressed in plain terms; or if anything in it need explanation, it is to be opened, and the consequence also from the text cleared. The parallel places of Scripture confirming the doctrine are rather to be plain and pertinent than many, and, if need be, somewhat insisted upon and applied to the purpose in hand. The arguments or reasons are to be solid, and, as much as may be, convincing. The illustrations of what kind soever ought to be full of light, and such as may convey the truth into the hearer’s heart with spiritual delight. If any doubt, obvious from Scripture, reason, or prejudice of the hearers seem to arise, it is very requisite to remove it, by reconciling the seeming differences, answering the reasons, and discovering and taking away the causes of prejudice and mistake. Otherwise, it is not fit to detain the hearers with propounding or answering vain or wicked cavils, which, as they are endless, so the propounding and answering of them doth more hinder than promote edification.”[49] Every minister in the pulpit and ministry today ought to take this heartily to mind and heart.

Vinet says, “that while art in a sense is one, it is not so in all senses; it multiplies itself with individuals; it individualizes itself in each. The question which will one day place itself before you will not be, What ought one to do? but, What ought I to do? In this preparatory period oratorical discourse may appear to you as the object; in the active labours of the ministry, it will only be one means of attaining an actual object on occasions which will actually resemble no other.”[50] And, “the ambition merely to speak well, in proportion as it obtains an ascendancy over the minister, degrades the ministry…a good style is necessary, but a good style does not come by itself. The style is not superadded to all the rest; it is a labour of the mind and of the soul which has only to be carried out.’ Precisely here, indeed, lies the distinction between the true orator and the mere rhetorician, who may charm by his language, and delight the ear as by the music of sweet.”[51] Montaigne says, “When I see these excellent ways of speaking, I do not say that they are well written, but that they are well thought.”[52] Thus, simplicity should have its place,[53] and plainness should accompany it.[54]

The pulpit should also show strength and energy. These are, indeed, qualities which every preacher may be said almost necessarily to aim at, if he has success in his work really at heart.[55] To have these qualities is to be able to impress the truth onto the souls of men. They should be accompanies by a natural manner, not forced, a pleasant tone,[56] a free and easy conversational demeanor,[57] and having a well-prepared mind for the discourse at hand.[58] Let no one dissuade you from the painstaking and careful preparation of your discourses.[59] Robert Hall, said, “Preparation is everything. If I were asked what is the chief requisite for eloquence, I should reply, preparation; and what the second, preparation; and what the third, preparation.” Then, with a sigh, “If I had prepared more for the pulpit, I should have been a much better preacher.”[60]

Chapter 5: Different Kinds of Discourses

Expository sermons are the best sermons to deliver. They are useful in an “evangelical ministry, animated by a just desire to have the people brought to an intelligent acquaintance with the word of God.”[61] We should ever remember exposition is to explain the meaning of the words where any explanation is needed, to render clear and intelligible to all the mind of the Spirit conveyed in them, to explicate difficulties, and bring out with due prominence the principles of truth and duty involved, this must be taken as the more direct and primary object of the discourse.[62] Consideration should also be given to doctrinal discourses, such as have it for their more prominent and leading object to set forth some important truth or doctrine of the Bible, to commend it to men’s intelligent convictions, and work it into their settled and conscientious belief.[63] The exposition in one aspect or another of saving truth must form the staple of his ministrations. But the precise form under which this is to be done may be infinitely varied, and must to a certain extent be modified by the circumstances of time and place. Even in the cast and structure of discourses which may, in a somewhat peculiar sense, be designated doctrinal, there may be a considerable variety; and, in particular, they may be made to assume sometimes more of a controversial and again more of a simply didactic character, according as the special object maybe to vindicate and defend, or to explain and enforce the truth.[64]

Whatever the particular doctrine may be which is to form the theme of the sermon, care should be taken to have a text that is sufficiently clear and broad to bear the superstructure which is going to be reared on it.[65] Some discrimination also should be made between doctrines, not for the purpose of exempting any from discussion in the pulpit which have a place in the revelation of God, for it is the part of a minister to declare the whole counsel of God.[66] Yet, the preacher must have a sense of the importance of the doctrine being handled, for if they do not have this sense, neither will the hearers.[67]

Expository sermons may be doctrinal, and yet also experimental. Experimental preaching may justly enough be treated as a distinct class, although in the general run of pulpit discourses the experimental element should not be lacking, and should rather appear in the tone and spirit pervading the whole, than as something existing apart.[68] Preachers require here to walk softly, and with a prudent step. It is one thing to set before a Christian audience a sort of picture, an ideal representation of the manner in which they should desire and feel on spiritual things, but another thing to make them properly sensible of the characteristics of a gracious work, to give them to know these as things which have been known in their real character, appreciated and felt.[69]

Chapter 6: Supplementary Methods, and Miscellaneous

The pastor should have personal conversations with his people.[70] Visiting, then, is exceedingly important.[71] Friendly intercourse with our people often effects more than all the reasons, demonstrations, and sermons in the world.[72] In such a setting he will find special cases with which he must deal,[73] and, is able to employ catechistical instruction.[74] Times of sickness and bereavement, it should further be remembered, are fraught with solemn lessons to the other members of the family beside those more immediately affected.[75]

Chapter 7: Public Prayer

The pastor is in charge of public prayer, being a part of his office (the preaching and prayer of Acts 6:4), and should pray as if he was a man that lives by the throne of grace.[76] The leading defect in Christian ministers is a lack of a solid quiet time and devotional habit consisting of bible reading, prayer and godly meditation.[77]

Chapter 8: the Administration of Discipline

The pastoral office, being worked among fallen men, is filled with difficulty, trouble and perplexity. In this the elders of the church must exercise proper church discipline.[78] Considered merely as a means of spiritual instruction, an ordinance for impressing the minds of a people with right views of things, for leading them to distinguish between what may and what should not be tolerated in Christian communities, — for this end alone a well-regulated discipline is of no small importance.[79] Pastoral visitation is often a means to find out sins that need to be corrected.[80] If corrected well, discipline is not formally ensued.

Chapter 9: Subsidiary Means and Agencies

Under this chapter Fairbairn talks about how to begin and cultivate a religious sense of education among the church. There must be a promotion of “instruction reading.”[81] Sunday School and a congregational library are among those aspects which should be considered.[82]

[1] Fairbairn, Patrick, Pastoral Theology, (Audubon, NJ: Old Paths Publications, 1992) xiv.

[2] Page 1.

[3] Page 2.

[4] Page 3.

[5] Page 4.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See pages 15-20.

[8] Page 27.

[9] Page 39.

[10] Page 39.

[11] See Matthew 20:28; 1 Cor. 3:5; 1 Tim. 1:12 and 2 Cor. 6:3 for other designations.

[12] Page 42.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Page 45.

[15] Page 46.

[16] Page 49.

[17] Page 50. This is a quote from Erasmus, of all people, in Eccles. L. 1.

[18] Page 56.

[19] Page 57. 2 Cor. 5:20.

[20] Page 59.

[21] Ibid. See Luke 12:42-43; Matthew 13:52; 1 Cor. 4:1; 2 Cor. 4:7; Matthew 28:18-20.

[22] Page 62.

[23] Page 63.

[24] Page 71.

[25] Page 73.

[26] Page 74.

[27] Page 79.

[28] Page 81.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Page 89.

[31] Page 90.

[32] Page 97.

[33] Page 100.

[34] Page 105.

[35] Page 110.

[36] Page 114.

[37] Page 121.

[38] Page 126.

[39] Page 128.

[40] Page 131.

[41] Page 133. Vinet, Homeletics p. 51.

[42] Page 134.

[43] Page 140.

[44] Page 141.

[45] Page 144.

[46] Page 150.

[47] Page 157. Vinet, Homiletics, p. 234.

[48] Page 160.

[49] Page 161.

[50] Page 171. Vinet, Homiletics, p. 25.

[51] Page 178. Vinet, Homiletics, p. 320.

[52] Page 179.

[53] Page 180.

[54] Page 181.

[55] Page 191.

[56] Page 210.

[57] Page 213.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Page 235.

[60] Page 236. See Greene’s Reminiscences of Robert Hall, page 138.

[61] Page 239.

[62] Page 247.

[63] Page 251.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Page 252.

[66] Page 253.

[67] Page 255.

[68] Page 258.

[69] Page 259.

[70] Page 272.

[71] Page 275.

[72] Ibid. Quoting Bengel, in Life of Bengal, by Burke, page 127.

[73] Page 289.

[74] Page 297.

[75] Page 306.

[76] Page 313.

[77] Page 315.

[78] Page 326.

[79] Page 333.

[80] Page 336.

[81] Page 346.

[82] Page 349.

Bible Verse:

"...pray without ceasing," (1 Thess. 5:17).

APM Newsletter

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!