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Was Spurgeon a Pastor-Scholar?

Timothy Gatewood January 10, 2019

The role of pastor-scholar has generated considerable interest within modern theological scholarship, but proposed definitions of the term tend to vary. Some focus on the pastoral aspect, suggesting that only those committed to the pulpit qualify even if they lack scholarly accomplishments. Others stress the pursuit of scholarship, grounding the role of pastor-scholar in academic labor for the sake of the Church, even if these men have never dreamed of shepherding a local congregation. Still, others demand true pastor-scholars to live in two worlds simultaneously: the Church and the academy. The common ground, however, lies in Victorian England. When perusing the many lists of exemplary pastor-scholars, readers will almost invariably discover the name, “Charles Spurgeon.”


This prompts the question – was Charles Spurgeon a pastor-scholar? If so, in what way? Furthermore, would Spurgeon have considered himself a pastor-scholar? Is the role of pastor-scholar actually obtainable or is it a hypothetical combination of two separate roles? One blog post will not end the debate, but the conversation must begin somewhere, and we will know him better for having had the conversation.


Fortunately, a few points regarding Spurgeon’s view of the pastor-scholar may be proposed with certainty. First, his passion for the pastorate superseded his academic aspirations. If Spurgeon was both a pastor and a scholar, then he was a pastor first and a scholar second. In his younger days, Spurgeon had the opportunity to pursue higher education, but was worried that school would limit his ability to pastor. As he was deciding whether or not to attend a university, he exchanged letters with his father to explain his concern. He wanted to delay going to college because, as he said, “Providence has thrown me into a great sphere of usefulness, – a congregation of often 450, a loving and praying church, and an awakened audience.” Spurgeon did not know if he could leave his sheep behind in order to be trained as a shepherd. Furthermore, his congregation, some of whom wrote their own pleas to Charles’ father, prayed daily that Spurgeon stay with them at Waterbeach. God saw fit to do just that.


Second, Spurgeon believed that a certain level of technical competence was necessary for the pastorate. Spurgeon, despite the lack of a college or seminary education, was a master of the biblical languages and was a voracious reader. He frequently spent what little money he had on books in order to “seize every means of improvement.” By the time he was fifteen he had already published a 295 page essay earning him a cash prize which, in turn, was spent on more books. Still, Spurgeon did not believe that a pastor had to possess a passion for scholarly pursuits, but did believe that a pastor must spend time in his study. He wrote, “The man who does not make hard work of his ministry will find it very hard work to answer for his idleness at the last great day.” He believed that a “gentleman who wants an easy life should never think of occupying the Christian pulpit, he is out of place there, and when he gets there the only advice I can give him is to get out of it as soon as possible.” Referring to the scandalous Old Testament story of Jezebel, Spurgeon encouraged congregations to take a lazy pastor and to “fling him down.” Spurgeon wholeheartedly believed that, “He who has ceased to learn has ceased to teach.” Simply, “He who no longer sows in the study will no more reap in the pulpit.”


Third, Spurgeon encouraged future pastors to pursue education, but warned his pupils of the spiritual dangers associated with knowledge. An excellent student himself, Spurgeon knew firsthand the dangers of associating scholarly success with holiness. He warned his students that these two ideas were not necessarily intertwined. If someone claimed an incapability of understanding the gospel due to a lack of scholarship, Spurgeon would tell them, “My dear friend, there are many people who cannot understand the gospel just because they are scholars. They know too much to understand it; they have so much of what they think is knowledge that they are prejudiced against it.” The danger for learned men and women is that “knowledge may prejudice a person as much as ignorance.”


Ultimately, Spurgeon felt that the chief end of scholarship was to heighten a Christian’s praise of God. In this sense, he directed all of his scholarly efforts upward to God and outward to benefit his church. He believed that the relationship between knowledge and devotion is so strong that, “We must learn to praise, learn that we may praise, and praise when we have learned.” Spurgeon wrote, “God's providence is a book full of teaching, and to those whose hearts are right it is a music book, out of which they chant to Jehovah's praise.”  Since worship of God is linked to knowledge of God some mental labor is necessary, but this intellectual understanding should never take the place of heartfelt praise. Rather, as Spurgeon said, “While yet I am a scholar I will be a chorister: my upright heart shall praise thine uprightness, my purified judgment shall admire thy judgments.”


So, was Charles Spurgeon a pastor-scholar? The answer may depend on who provides the definition. What can be said for sure is that Spurgeon dedicated both his head and his heart to his pastoral ministry. He trained men to be intelligent preachers and encouraged learned men to pursue Christ before scholarship. His preaching was theologically deep and emotionally stirring, and his study habits were both rigorous and devotional. Yet, his mental labors never made him grow stale toward his true love – Christ and his Church. In the end, it may be best to describe Charles Spurgeon as a pastor who fueled his ministry through God-glorifying scholarship. In this way, Spurgeon may not meet the standards of every definition of pastor-scholar, but perhaps he could be the standard of what a pastor-scholar should be.


Timothy Gatewood is a Residency PhD student in systematic theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He also studies in the Pastoral Residency at Emmaus, KC, and serves as a Research Assistant at The Spurgeon Library.