Doctors of the Soul: Tested Cures for Today’s Counselors

The Puritans are often referred to as “physicians of the soul.”

Christ does not need a “vicar” (substitute) on earth over his church because he is himself present and active among his people. The way Jesus has chosen to shepherd each congregation is “through the ministry of his word, which he does outwardly and tangibly through his ministers and instruments” — namely, elders who preach, deacons who serve, and believers who steward God’s “varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). This distinctly Protestant understanding of Christ present and active in his church gives great hope to believers called, in Paul Tripp’s phrase, to be instruments in the Redeemer’s hands.

 

Church history is a mighty resource for Christian ministry. This is true, in the first place, because of the way it teaches us to read. Reading history with integrity requires us to reckon with an objective reality that is outside of ourselves. People in the past — even our heroes — did not act as we do, and it does not help to pretend that they did. As novelist L.P. Hartley recognized, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” This means we can’t read events of fifty years ago — much less fifteen hundred — and expect to find dim images of ourselves.

But it is precisely by forcing us to acknowledge this otherness that church history equips us to face contemporary challenges. Reading an unfamiliar history requires us to read patiently, carefully, inquisitively, sympathetically, and above all humbly. As we do, we are being freed from our innate self-absorption and formed into sensitive listeners, skilled in hearing and helping others. Reading church history well is a spiritual discipline for reshaping the self-centered soul.

Second, once we acknowledge this difference of the past, we are ready to hear what it has to say. And what we discover is that the branches of the previous centuries are heavy with the fruit of good answers to ongoing questions. To take one example, providing Christlike help to another person has been an enduring challenge. The following four examples offer a taste of the way our forebears in the faith recognized the complexity of the biblical call to care for one another as well as sample some of the strategies they put in place to address it. All four are still in print or available online.

Gregory of Nazianzus, Reflections on the Priesthood (AD 362)

Gregory compared the vocation of a pastor (though it applies as well to a fellow disciple) with that of a doctor.

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