Sinclair Ferguson probably needs no introduction: he’s an evangelical theological heavyweight, up there with J I Packer in terms of heft, and passion. So when he produces a collection of essays designed to help pastors fufil their ministry calling, we should pay attention.
Some Pastors and Teachers is a collection of essays and articles written over decades, lightly edited to form a coherent whole. The organisation has been to introduce readers to the formative influence of three writers named ‘John’: Calvin, Owen, and Murray, and that clearly identifies the stable. We are in Reformed and Puritan territory, with all the richness that implies, centred on a ministry of the Word, which itself centres on preaching the cross.
This is the kind of book to take your time over – rushing the process here is pointless. You’ll want to keep it on hand for months, slowly working through and muling over the contents. There is a rough organisational structure; not so much that it forces the material unnecessarily, but clear enough that the contents should be read sequentially rather than just dipped into.
The hallmarks of Ferguson are all over this: careful reading of the biblical text, wide knowledge of the Reformers and the Puritans, thoughtful application to life – and especially to the life and work of the pastor and preacher.
You will have a richer understanding of the bible’s understanding of the bible, by the end of it, and of the spiritual power and purpose of the Christian life. You will understand the cross more, and also be in awe of what you cannot yet grasp. You will approach your sermon preparation with prayerful care.
It’s hard not to come away from it stirred, challenged, and fairly daunted. Ferguson makes us walk with giants. And the subtitle is terrifying: ‘Reflecting a biblical vision of what every minister is called to be’ – if you start think that what you ought be be is as clever as Calvin, Owen and Murray, and as widely read as Ferguson to boot, then you’ll quit immediately. I don’t think that’s what he’s saying, but he’d certainly challenge us all to be far better exegetes, theologians and preachers than we are.
And when he makes things really clear, like his ‘Preacher’s Decalogue’ at the end, it is wonderful. Although I’d just note (and this is typical): if you really want to be simple, drop the word ‘Decalogue’ and say ‘ten commandments’, or ‘ten rules for preachers’.
Because, I’ll be honest – at times, it creaks a bit. Ferguson’s style can be quite ponderous for my taste, and although others rave about him, I’m not a bit fan of the ‘five points beginning with P’ style of preaching. Some of the application looks a bit quaint and dated, which might be stylistic again, or it might be that the essays were written a while ago. And there’s bit of preaching to the Banner of Truth choir, with references to ‘much contemporary preaching’, in unflattering contrast to the Puritans or the Reformers.
So I wouldn’t say you’d find it a quick or nimble read, and there are times when you need to slow down, not because of the wonder of the truth, but just because the style is so thick. Some of these were originally sermons or lectures, and I’m afraid I’d have been needing a couple of espressos to get through them. That might because I’m too shallow, of course. Or not presbyterian enough. The jury’s out.
I’ll go further – I think the style is a bit self indulgent in its demands. The editors at Banner of Truth have done a good job of collecting and organising these essays, but my gentle suggestion would be that someone needs to be in there with a blue pencil.
Which is ironic:
One of the hidden snares in systematic biblical preaching is that we may become so taken up with the task of studying and explaining the text that we forget it addresses the contemporary world. One distinctively Reformed manifestation of this is that our love for the works of the past (coupled with their ready availability today) – our discovery, for example, of the depth of Puritan preaching by comparison with contemporary preaching – may suck us into the very language and speech patterns of a past era, that’s making us sound inauthentic to our own generation. (725)
That second sentence: 60 words, two subclauses…
The fact that it is a collection of occasional essays shows itself too: they have been kept largely intact, which means there are inevitable repetitions of ideas or illustrations. I don’t think they could have been taken out without a much more wholesale rewriting, so just go with it.
But those minor caveats aside, this is a book of wonderful treasures, and although it’s rarely tweetable, it’s certainly quotable.
More than that, it demands careful reading, and much soul searching.
Sinclair Ferguson, Some Pastors and Teachers – Reflecting a biblical vision of what every minister is called to be (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2017), buy here