Saturday, January 17, 2015

Review of the Book "The Reformed Pastor" by Richard Baxter

Richard Baxter's book is considered a classic by many, but I found it a bit long winded for the content and on the side of moralistic teaching.  The book does not fit our modern disposition for techniques and effectiveness.  It is my understanding that Richard Baxter was quite the effective pastor however, he begins with and dwells for quite some time on the topic of self-examination of the pastor.  This self-examination does not let up but he makes sure that one has sensed one's sin as a pastor.  While it may appear heavy handed by modern measurements, it would be a mistake to dismiss the book.  His point of view from where he sits in church history is instructive to those of us in 2015 and beyond.  Basically, his advice is simple:

1.  Walk with the Lord God yourself
2.  Be diligent in seeking the Lord God
3.  Work hard as a pastor to study
4.  Work hard as a pastor to teach everyone in your care with personal instruction
5.  Do not think the office of the pastor is a job to keep one from hard work
6.  Teach a good catechism to your people

It may not have come in that order, but that is about the gist of it.  The emphasis on self-examination dwells and stays there for quite sometime so that if one completes that book, one cannot escape the emotional impact of his call.  The emphasis is addresses issues of the heart than any particular technique to be used for action.  Where he does talk about technique is on the area of pastoral visitation.  He emphasizes that one should do personal visitation of each and every member under pastoral care.  I was anxious to receive his instruction on this, however, the instruction is quite light in comparison with the challenge to examine one's self.  I read the whole thing to get to some fairly light things said about how to conduct visitation in the home.  Baxter had his cleric arrange the times to visit.  He wanted to talk with all in the home but focus on the heads of the household.  He encourages a proper tone and attitude with whom one speaks.

A benefit of Baxter's book to me personally was his brief discussion of the use of the catechism.  I was raised some of my youth in the Cumberland Presbyterian (CP) church.  While that denomination has many fond memories for me, and I studied diligently the teachings of the CP church, I did not observe anyone teach the catechism of the CP church.  We did study the Confession of Faith, but never the catechism.  As a middle aged adult I have found a denominational home in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).  I identify more closely with the PCA's fondness for Bible believing academics and rigorous teaching of the Bible.  However, I have found the only examples of catechism teaching in the PCA is that of self-study of those who are preparing for ministry or one example of a man raised in a pastor's home who dearly loves the teaching of Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms.  Outside of that, I've wondered how to properly employ the catechisms.  What are their places in our teaching, doctrinal understanding and Christian Education?  Baxter's work helped me to understand the right use of a catechism.  Baxter uses it as a basic Christian Education curriculum.  Baxter does not so much want one to use "THE" catechism so much as use "a" catechism.  He says that the main questions in a catechism should be focused on the most crucial and basic questions.  This was helpful to me to view the catechism as a focused Christian Education curriculum.  This view of the catechism helps me understand how I would use it.  I am hesitant to ask people to memorize anything but Bible verses. I want as many Bible verses memorized as possible and I'm concerned that if I ask people to memorize the catechism they will not get to the Bible memory discipline.  I'm also concerned that we might consider memorization of the catechism would replace constant searching out of the Scriptures in an in depth fashion, that pat answers could replace a deep devotional reading and rigorous study of the Bible.  However, seeing that a catechism as a Christian Education resource helps me.  I have become frustrated with curriculum that is build more for its selling value than for a richer understanding of God's Word and a walk with him.  Topics chosen are often suited for answering modern temporal concerns than answering transcendent questions that are timeless.  The catechisms I've read do a good job of focusing on the major issues in the Christian life.  Baxter's discussion of the catechism helped me place the catechism in a place that has less tensions for me.  I do question how we make the catechism teachable, but its place in our Christian community is more clear for me.

Overall, I would only recommend the book for those who need stirred to do the work of the ministry. I've heard it said that pastors tend to either overwork themselves or toward laziness.  This is a book to urge those who make constant soft choices to push themselves toward deep devotional life, a self-examined life, and invest themselves into the lives of their flock.  The overworked might better look elsewhere for their balance to their disposition.