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Halfway to His Own Thesis

A Review of Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work

April 12, 2014Filed under Theology#book reviews#m. div.#sebtsMarkdown source

The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Heath Thomas's Old Testament Introduction II class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, by Eugene H. Peterson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980. 241 pp. $20.


In Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Eugene Peterson advocates for a biblically grounded rather than psychologically-driven approach to pastoral work. He argues that the idea that pastors must first of all be up to date and current has things precisely backwards: the pastor’s responsibility is to lead his congregation back to timeless realities, not into the hippest fads of the day. He suggests that the Megilloth, the “five scrolls” of Songs of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, have particular lessons to teach pastors as they seek to bring “what is essential in the human condition, not what is accicental” (p. 2) down into the “idiosyncrasies of the local and the personal” (p. 5). A failure either to hold fast to the eternal word and will of God, or to bring it home to those to whom the pastor ministers, will leave the people without what they most deeply need: a shepherd through the vagaries and trials of life.

Peterson provides a substantial introduction to the book (some ten percent or so of the book’s text), in which he traces out his thesis in detail. He then divides the rest of the book into five discussions of pastoral work, grounding each in one of those “five scrolls.” In each, Peterson interacts with the psychologizing tendency of the present day, the history of the interpretation of the Biblical book in question, and how pastors might learn from and apply the lessons of the book to their own work in their own congregations. For Peterson, Song of Songs is a model for directing God’s people into richer prayer, Ruth is a picture of situating individual stories in the context of salvific history, Lamentations is a guide to walking with people through their suffering, Ecclesiastes is a help in rejecting false religion in place of the fear of God, and Esther is a pointer to the essentially communal nature of the people of God.


Curiously, the most significant problem with the book might at first appear to be one of its great strengths. Peteron’s skill as a writer is such that he can sometimes carry the reader along by sheer rhetorical effect—but this is in some sense a result antithetical to the purpose of the text. In a text explicitly and self-consciously aiming to point pastors away from technique and the tendency to mistake emotion for changed lives, the contrast with what Peterson actually does in large swaths of the book is striking and unfortunate. There are too many places where Peterson relies on the emotional impact of his words rather than on the text itself. Nearly the whole chapter on Esther falls into this trap, as do large swaths of the chapters on Ecclesiastes.

It is not so much that the points Peterson makes in these chapters are wrong: many of them are quite on target. It is that, disconnected from the text from which he purports to draw them, they become mere floating assertions about the world—assertions that, however beautifully made, we may take or leave as they strike us. There is too much technique in Peterson’s theologizing and too little of the Scripture to which he enjoins his readers to return.

Granted that Peterson makes no claim to be writing exegetical commentaries on the text, but he opens the book with the reminder that “we don’t, and we must not, lay our own foundations” (p. 11). Indeed, he (quite rightly) spends the whole introduction pleading for pastors to ground their work not in the trends of the day but in the “eternal will and word of God” (p. 5). It is a strange thing that he should then spend so much of the book on his own ruminations and not wrestling with the particulars of those texts. This is a significant loss, because when Peterson does remain more closely engaged with the text, as in his chapters on Ruth and Lamentations, and as in some parts of his treatment of Ecclesiastes, the effect is marvelous. The reader is drawn into wonder at the way God’s word guides us effectively for pastoral ministry. The pastor is reminded that the circumstances and trials he and his flock face are not things newly sprung up in the late twentieth or early twenty-first century, but the sorts of things for which God has already supplied guides and instruction in the Scriptures.

But this is no surprise: this is Peterson’s own thesis. The power of our faith, the fruitfulness of pastoral ministry (and the effectiveness of our books thereon) is not in our technique but in grappling deeply with the word of God in our own situations. The more he grapples with the Scriptures, the more his technique serves the text, the better Peterson’s book is—and vice versa. Where technique serves exposition, the reader is built up. Where exposition falls aside and rhetoric reigns, the reader may be moved emotionally, but little remains when that glow fades.

Thus, for four of the five chapters in the book, Peterson’s success in advancing his thesis may largely be measured by the extent to which he engages the text. In Ruth and Lamentations, the narrative and poetry respectively drive the discussion, and so the chapters are profoundly helpful. The discussion of Ruth helps the pastor see his peoples’ personal stories rightly—and thus, to help his people see their own stories rightly. They are not the end-all and be-all that modern psychology might make them out to be, but neither are they insignificant. Indeed, they are all the more significant precisely because they are part of something much bigger than themselves. The discussion of Lamentations helps a pastor to see the necessity both of walking through suffering and sorrow with his flock and of helping them come to resolution in the right time. Petersons’ treatment of Ecclesiastes, as a guide to saying no to false religion, seems to be an accurate analysis of the book, but Peterson veers away from the Text. He deals too little with the specific ways in which Qoheleth confronts our culture and too much in the sweeping generalizations about the value of those confrontations. Least helpful of all is his treatment of Esther, in which he rightly diagnoses severe problems in the culture around us but leaves aside almost everything in the book itself. We desperately need the kind of rebuke to individualism he suggests here. Whether Esther can support that kind of rebuke, still less offer an alternative vision of the people of God, is left aside in favor of a good but largely-unrelated discussion of Saul and Amalek and the shape of ministry.

Peterson’s treatment of the Song of Songs deserves its own analysis. The text is notoriously hard to interpret, and has been subject to countless different readings. Peterson falls squarely into the allegorical camp, though he gives the allegorical reading something of a twist. The urgency of romantic (both emotional and sexual) desire so prominent in the book he transmutes into a picture of the Christian’s right desire for communion with God. This was the chapter in which Peterson hewed most closely to the text, and so it was the chapter least susceptible to the problems outlined above. As with all treatments of the Song, though, the effectiveness of the chapter hinges on whether one finds Peterson’s interpretation accurate. (I did not.) Insofar as one grants Peterson’s interpretation, though, the chapter is an effective argument for the necessity of prayer, and especially of the pastor leading his people to pray with greater fervency.


Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work is in some ways a very good book, but in others it falls short—an especially unfortunate reality given the very real problems at which it aimed. That Peterson wants to see pastors grounding their pastoring in the Scriptures as well as their preaching and teaching is clear. Less clear is whether this book will be as effective as it could have been in accomplishing that end. Good pastoral work does not run aground only on the rocks of psychology. Rhetoric is an equally deadly reef, and it may be the more tempting to a skilled writer passionate for the recovery of Biblical pastoral work.

The chapters on Ruth and Lamentations were excellent and profoundly helpful treatments of the topics they addressed, and Peterson’s treatment of Song of Songs was at least interesting. Because he exchanged exposition for effect in his treatments of Ecclesiastes and Esther, though, the book falters. Though his words never failed to pack an emotional punch, they were too often hollowed out by their lack of a connection to the text. In this, these chapters serve as an accidental and unfortunate illustration of the necessity of Peterson’s own thesis. We need not more effective psychology, nor more powerful lnaguage, but a deeper reliance on and connection to the word of God.