Andrew Purves, We Are Not Generic

Andrew PurvesAndrew Purves, Professor of Reformed Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, received his PhD in 1978 from the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland.

Dr. Purves recounts valuable learning experiences he has had in ministry and stories of people who have had an impact on his life.

Edited transcript

JMF: In your work over many years, you’ve undoubtedly had some ah-ha moments. Can you tell us about one or two of those?

AP: You mean in the classroom or…

JMF: In the classroom, or in general study on your own, or walking down the street one day.

AP: One that immediately comes to mind… (I haven’t thought about this in a long time because it was painful.) I was in pastoral ministry for four and a half years in the United States, and there was a middle-aged elderly woman in my congregation who was challenging. I was on the job a week, and I was told in no uncertain terms I had to pay a pastoral call on this woman. I was told she was difficult, so I was brand-new and very nervous and went to pay my pastoral call on her. We chatted a little while and then I got up and said goodbye, and I got out of there and, as Reinhold Niebuhr once said, I had made my pastoral call and took the rest of the afternoon off on order to get my self-respect back.

That night my clerk of session in the Presbyterian church, that’s the senior lay person, clerk of our board of management, called me up and said, “Andrew, I received a call from so-and-so. It was appreciated that you made the pastoral call, but you did not pray at the end of the pastoral call.” I said, “Did I not? I was so terrified I just ran away.” “Well, she is very upset that you didn’t pray.”

That was a tremendous learning, because all kinds of people no doubt visit this person and do good work. But one of the things I was to do as the pastor that hadn’t entered my head…I was to be the person, if nothing else, I would pray for that person. That was a major learning.

The second event that comes to mind is also somewhat painful. I was about a year and a half into pastoral ministry… I don’t recall the circum­stances, going back 30 years now…I realized I had no spiritual life. I had studied in four major European universities, around the world and in Europe and in the United States. Nobody taught me to pray. I began to realize that this was a problem. I started casting around who would teach me to pray, and I couldn’t find anybody to teach me to pray.

Eventually I discovered a group in Washington, D.C., called the Church of the Savior, an intentional formational community of discipleship led by a wonderful man, Gordon Cosby and his wife, Mary Cosby, and I went off to do a retreat. I was there four days, in D.C., the first 26 hours of which were in silence. It absolutely devastated me. I had never been silent that long in my life. We went through a program, and I came back to my little country congregation in western Pennsylvania and got up on the Sunday morning after I arrived back and said, “Folks, I’ve had a major experience. I think I’ve just been converted, and I think I realize that I’ve got to have a relationship with Jesus and I’ve got to become a man of prayer. I’m just being really candid with you.”

A group of older women from my congregation came up to me after the service and said, “Dr. Andrew, we knew something was going to happen to you, because we’ve been praying for you.” That was a real learning. I tell my students, “May you be blessed with a group of older women who sit on the back pew who will pray you into conversion as their minister.” That’s some serious learning for me.

As a seminary professor, it’s been less dramatic perhaps. But one learning I think I want to share…it’s not dramatic, but it’s serious, and that is, make sure you don’t fake it. Be honest with the people with whom you’re dealing. They will suss out a fake. Even as half-professor, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”

As I get older I hit more and more walls I can’t explain. When I hit a theological wall, I tell my students…I get a question in class and I will wander around and think out loud, and I will say, “I’ve gone so far, I need to think some more about this. But I’ll tell you what I’m thinking at the moment is, I may be hitting a theological wall that I cannot get over. But you know what I do when I hit a theological wall? I get down on my knees and I thank God for the mystery of the gospel.”

Our theology ought to drive us to our knees. It took me a while to learn that and to be comfortable with vulnerability in the classroom. That’s important in ministry in general. I’m not a person who knows all the answers, I’m not that bright. I don’t know everything. As I mentioned in another talk, I was a high-school dropout, I haven’t had a classical education, I don’t read Latin — I wish I did, and then I could intimidate my students, but I don’t. What’s the point in pretending? I’ve had a good education and I’m good at what I do. But there’s no point in pretending.

Be honest, be vulnerable. That doesn’t mean be soppy, that doesn’t mean use vulnerability as a manipulative tool to earn the sympathy of your audience, that’s just co-dependency and manipulation… Have genuine vulnerability, because I am a person speaking to people. I have read more books than my students, but nonetheless I don’t know everything, and it’s all right to be vulnerable, and it’s even all right (in appropriate ways with appropriate boundaries) to be intense and emotional.

A student who is a friend came to me and said so-and-so is wanting to take your class on such-and-such and wanted to know what you were like as a teacher. The student, a middle-aged woman, said to me, “I was candid, and I thought you might be interested to know. I said, with Dr. Purves you take notes for half the class and then he starts to preach. Once he gets worked up, he starts to preach and then you put your notes down and listen to the sermon because he’s moved from the classroom into the sanctuary.”

I praise God for that because the borderline between theology and proclamation ought not to be that far apart. Theology and exegesis, the interpretation of Scripture, are for the proclamation of the gospel. Exegesis without proclamation is aborted process. As Calvin knew, theology is for the proclamation of the gospel. We ought to get to messing a little bit and into preaching, I think.

JMF: Tell us about some of your mentors — the key people, formative people in your life.

AP: My first book, The Search for Compassion, I dedicated to my father, an unlettered man, a barber, left school at 14, but he taught me a number of lessons that are dear. He taught me to love his wife. A man must love his wife. He loved my mother. He taught me about love for one’s wife. He taught me about honesty in one’s dealings, and he taught me about humor. My father died two days before my first child was born. I was in the United States, pastor at the time, my father was in Edinburgh in Scotland, and my mother called me the night of his death and said, “Don’t come home for the funeral, you need to be with Cathy” (my wife) because she was due two days later on her due date. Brendan was born two days later, on his due date — our oldest of the three children, and Brendan’s birth was announced to my family at my father’s funeral.

This is a very personal story. I’ve never worked out the emotions of my father’s death and my first child’s birth. But I know, and this is a metaphor, that my father and Brendan and Jesus and I will sit down together in the kingdom of God. I can’t explain that. It’s more than a metaphor; it’s a statement of expectation — that those who we have lost and loved a while, we would be with. My father…my wife Cathy.

During my cancer seven and a half years ago, I was off for eight months. She was staggering. I was in the hospital for 14 days, she was to come in the morning, and we’d read the daily office of the Episcopal Church. Why do we do that? It’s structured, we like it. So come 8:00 in the morning, we’d pray the daily office, she’d chant the canticles…nurses, doctors coming and going in there, she’s singing it to them. At the end of the day, she would sing, pray, even in prayer, and these wonderful blessings at the end of the day. I came to see that my rhythm in hospital was morning and evening prayer, and her strength and love and support have been… Nothing in my life and career would have happened without her.

Professionally and academically, James and Tom Torrance have been tremendously important to me. Their theology and more than just their published works, them personally, have been a great influence on me and have undoubtedly been the primary influences in shaping my own thinking and my own work. I’m grateful for the two of them.

I must mention my now-retired colleague at Pittsburgh Seminary, Charles Partee…a magnificent Calvin scholar, but for nearly 30 years we’ve been colleagues and friends, and he has been an amazing encourager, scolds sometimes when he told me I could do better than I, at times, believed that I could do, but I would honor him by saying that I love Charles Partee, he was a wonderful Calvin scholar and dear friend. Although he is retired now, I will be teaching a course in the fall with him on the theology of H.R. Mackintosh, the wonderful Scottish theologian who taught Tom Torrance. There are many others along the way, but these would have been the principal mentors.

JMF: You mentioned a story about the last time you saw Tom Torrance. Do you mind sharing that?

AP: It’s a lovely story and it’s dear to me. I was in Edinburgh, this was six months before my cancer, and wasn’t feeling well. I knew something was up but was a little un-brave, shall we say, cowardly, about dealing with it. I called Tom and said I was in town, and he said come round to his house the next morning. So I went round at 10:00, rang the doorbell, his wife answered the door and said, “Andrew, Tom is upstairs in his study waiting to see you.” I walked up the stairs and was just about to knock on the door. He must have heard me coming, and he opened the door and greeted me with the words, “Andrew, how lovely to see you again. I pray for you every day.” I walked through the door and entered his study, an extraordinary study, and he said, “Sit down in that armchair. Karl Barth sat in that chair.” I thought, “Wow, sitting in the chair Karl Barth sat on.” We chatted for a while and after midday we went out for lunch—I remember it was a chicken sandwich. Tom got up to pay for lunch at the end of the sandwich in the bar and dropped a huge wad of pound notes. There was the great Tom Torrance, the most important English-speaking theologian of the second half of the 20th century on his knees in a bar picking up pound notes.

Then we went back to his study for a while and chatted some more. About 3:00 in the afternoon I said I had to go, and he said, “Well, what of my books don’t you have?” and I mentioned there was one that I didn’t have. He pulled it off the shelf and signed it, and then he said, “Before you go I need to pray for you.” His study was lined with stacks like in the library, not books against the wall, but stacks coming out at right angles from the wall, and round the back was a little prayer desk, way back in the corner. He took me by the arm, brought me down there, and had me kneel at the prayer desk, and laid hands on me, and prayed for me.

I felt like Elijah — that the work that he had done was being carried on — that I was charged with the theological task, part of a theological heritage that goes back through Irenaeus, through Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, through Luther and Calvin, through John McLeod Campbell, William Miller, H.R. Mackintosh, Tom Torrance…this is my heritage. These are my teachers, and my commitment has been I will not just read what Tom Torrance says about these people, but I realized a while back I had to make them my teachers too, and to go back and to read these primary texts again as being transformational for my teaching.

Now I discover my students love these people! They get so excited by Gregory of Nazianzus, Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, Irenaeus, and on it goes. “Why weren’t we taught this?” I teach Doctor of Ministry students, old guys, “Why did nobody teach us this stuff?” They come alive in the great theological heritage of the church.

JMF: You do a lot of teaching about pastoral work and your wife is a pastor. How does that work in the family dynamics?

AP: Graciously. It’s complex…there are boundary issues. You can only do so much theology in pastoral work without going nuts some­times. There are times when we’ve got to watch World Cup Soccer or go out to dinner as a couple going out to dinner after 35 years of marriage and we just want to talk about our three children and not what she’s preaching on Sunday or what book I’m writing. We are a normal couple that does normal things and enjoys doing the things that a couple of 35 years marriage enjoy — companionship and affection and gentleness. But we also talk theology. We read books in common. I should say this quietly…I’m not sure if she reads my books anymore. Sometimes I put this to her and say, “Have you read what I said?” “Oh,” she said, “I don’t so much read them, I live them when you’re writing them,” so maybe that’s the case.

I am a pastoral associate in her congregation. It’s a small urban congregation in Pittsburgh. So she’s my boss. That functionally means that when she’s not in the pulpit for one reason or another, I get to preach without being paid. The congregation loves it when we’re in the pulpit together…seems to (I don’t know) indicate something…that we are together pulling in the same direction. She’s a Calvin scholar by trade more than I am, and she’s a good theologian. Sometimes it can get intense. Can I tell you one time when it got intense?

JMF: Sure.

AP: It’s a curious story. I am a convert to the need to recover the doctrine of the ascension. I’m big on the ascension because the ascension means that Jesus is in the present tense, not in the past tense. Without the ascension, he’s not present in power. So I’m a big advocate for the recovery of the ascension — it ripples through a lot of my recent books. This past spring I asked Cathy, “Are you going to have a special service on Ascension Day Thursday?” “No, we’re going to do ascension on the Sunday before.” “You can’t do ascension on the Sunday before. You need to do it Ascension Day! We need to have ascension day parties and give ascension day presents as we have Christmas parties and Christmas presents and special services at Christmas, and celebrate communion on ascension day, because as the Lord descended incarnation day, so the Lord ascended ascension day. This is counterbalanced, equally important.”

She said, “I can tell you’re a seminary professor and don’t have to deal with real people with busy lives. I wouldn’t get away with having an Ascension Day party.” “Oh, you’ve got to have an Ascension Day party!” We got kind of testy at each other. Maybe next year she’ll have an Ascension Day service, I don’t know. But when we push the ascension off to the edges of our pastoral and liturgical consciousness, something gets lost. That is, Jesus not just as a past Lord, but as a present Lord, so that we speak of him in the present tense.

Now and then we’ll get into a… she’ll say, “What did you think of that sermon?” and I only comment on the good ones. They’re mostly good. But now and then I won’t make a comment. She’ll say, “Why didn’t you like it?” I’ll say, “You used ‘ought’ too many times” or, “You talked about the gospel as an offer. It’s more than offer — it’s here, it’s yours!” She said, “But I was…” So sometimes we can get into little tussles.

JMF: God does not deal with everyone in the same way.

AP: Right, we’re free.

JMF: Why is that important to know?

AP: Because we are not generic. We are not particular instances of the genus humankind. There’s you, and me. We are specific, particular, actual, real human beings with real autobiographies and histories, and we are complex people. We are people, and people’s lives are different. Our histories are complex. There are things we share in common, and much that’s different. I speak of God with a Scottish accent (I hope I still do), and my sense of things is actually European…31 years I lived my life in Edinburgh in Scotland. I’m not American, I’m different…so, different heritages and different family dynamics.

It seems to me that one person needs (thinking biblically here) a demon cast out. Another needs to be told, “You’re forgiven.” Another needs to be said, “Get off your pallet and walk.” Another needs to be told, “Sell what you have and give it to the poor.” Another needs to be told, “Climb down from the tree because I’m going to come and eat dinner at your house today.” The knack, the trick, the discernment in pastoral work is to know which aspect of the Lord’s work is the word of gospel grace for a particular person on a particular day. A parishioner with whom one might speak is not a generic person for whom is a cookie-cutter response, but it’s personal and particular, it’s situationally connected. I’m not arguing for situational ethics, that’s all relative. What I am arguing is that it’s particular and personal.

I learned this lesson when I wrote my book Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition and I read the great classical texts of the church. At the end of Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule, he has, I think it is 72 case studies, each a paragraph. Pastoral care of a tall person may be different from pastoral care of smaller person. Pastoral care of a man may be different from pastoral care of a woman. Pastoral care of a poor man may be different from pastoral care of a…just instances, all kind of instances about pastoral work…the gospel is brought to you in your context specifically, not generically. That’s both the challenge but what makes pastoral work interesting, because you never know what you’re going to confront with the myriad of interruptions that makes the pastor’s day, because pastoral work is about being interrupted.

As I’ve often said, you know the Lord, you know your people, and you must know your people. We cannot sit in an office all day. We cannot just run the shop all day. My friend Judy Peterson is great in this. We’re not shopkeepers. You’ve got to know your people. You’ve got to know them in their workplaces, in their family places, in their play places, and the grocery store. You know your people and you make these connections. Absolutely critical. The good pastor, the faithful pastor is the person with a heart for that kind of dual connectedness.

JMF: As we come to a close here, let me ask, if there was one thing that you want people to know about God, what would that be?

AP: You belong to him because he loves you, because in Jesus Christ he has elected you to be his son, his daughter, and that nothing in this world, not even your foolishness and your silliness, can separate you from what God has chosen for you. You belong to God, and you are unilaterally and unconditionally loved. Now therefore, live in terms of that freedom. Live in terms of that good news. Honor what it means that you are loved and will remain loved because…I’m going to put it very specifically…in the freedom of his love and in the power of the Spirit, Jesus knows you by name.GCS offers online master's degrees.

Last modified: Saturday, February 16, 2019, 1:37 PM