Take a History

Eugene Peterson on pastors as historians, from Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work.

Pastors are historians, not moralists. they learn their craft at the feet of the great theological historians of Sinai and from their direct descendants, the four Gospel writers, not by collecting aphorisms in the fields of the Roman Stoics. If pastors only carry moral sayings in their pockets and go through the parish sticking them, like gummed labels, on the victims of the week, there will be no good pastoral work; they must learn how to be gospel storytellers. After the manner of the storyteller of Ruth, they must become skilled in making a story of out of the details of a particular trouble, using the plot design and vocabulary that the have assimilated from, say, the Deuteronomist. The storytelling pastor differs from the moralizing pastor in the same way that a responsible physician differs from a clerk in a drugstore. When an ill person goes to a physician, the physician “takes a history” before offering a diagnosis and writing a prescription. The presumption is that everything that a person has experienced is relevant to the illness and must be taken into account if there is to be a healing. The clerk in the drugstore simply sells a patent medicine off the shelf–one thing for headaches, another for heartburn, another for indigestion–without regard for the particular details of a person’s pain. Biblical pastoral work “takes a history” and with that raw material creates a story of salvation, like the Ruth story fashioned out of famine, widowhood, barley harvest, levirite law, God’s steadfast love, providence and peace, the town of Bethlehem and the land of of Moab.

3 Comments Take a History

  1. Rachel

    Interesting. As an historian myself I find it a bit strange view on the work of an historian.

    To me the idea of the historian as a creater of history out of the bare facts is frankly a bit scary and highly unethical. An historian is never allowed to create his own story. As A.Th.van Deursen says. An historian is bound by the words ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Writing history is doing justice to dead people. Not using the facts to create the message you might like to send out to the world. Good history shows reality – yeah I know, you can never grasp all of reality and it will always be apart of it – but it should never be the creation of the historian.

    “Biblical pastoral work “takes a history” and with that raw material creates a story of salvation,”

    I would rather argue that the task of the biblical pastoral worker should not be to CREATE a story of salvation, but to SHOW people the story of salvation that is already there. God works through history.


    ps. Hope you and your family are well! 🙂

  2. jwowen

    Hey Rachel,

    We are well and hope you are too. I agree with you and think Peterson is saying the same thing. Perhaps that’s easier to see since I had it embedded in a longer section. By “taking a history”, he means listening, thinking, putting in context of redemption. By loving his neighbor–the person right in front of him–he tells the true story, as you say, of what is already there. So he is not creating in the raw sense, but pointing out what truly happened. Joseph told the the true story to his brothers (“What you meant for evil, God meant for good.”) which they could not see. In one sense he created it; that is, told it by faith, and was probably the first to do so.

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