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What Ever Happened To
Habitus Practicus?

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div, M.S.A.

Number 244

"Habitus practicus." Yes, it's Latin. Yes, it's ancient. And you probably can't for the life of you remember what it means!
 
You are not alone. Not by any means! In fact, it's probably all but forgotten in many areas of the Christian church.
 
What Is It?
 
Many of us may be unable to give the meaning, let alone describe what habitus practicus is. J.T. Mueller defined it as follows.
"The theological habitude (habitus practicus), then, is the ability, divinely bestowed, to teach the pure and unadulterated Word of God, to declare the whole counsel of God unto salvation, to oppose and refute false doctrine, and to suffer for Christ's sake all the consequences which the proclamation of the Word of God entails"
(From J.T. Mueller, Christian Dogmatics, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, p. 37).
What It Means
 
The habitus practicus  lies at the heart of every calling to ministry. It is seen...
 
1) In Moses' often difficult circumstances of dealing with a grumbling, unappreciative stiff-necked generation for over 40 years in a wilderness;
 
2) In Jeremiah's physical and emotional struggles as he confronted malicious, lying and faithless prophets. Finally recognizing that his preaching of God's Word was ignored, he lamented in tears that his efforts failed;
 
3) In Jeremiah's prayer to God. "You understand, O LORD; remember me and care for me. Avenge me on my persecutors. You are long-suffering--do not take me away; think of how I suffer reproach for your sake" (Jeremiah 15:15);
 
4) In John's experience of swallowing the scroll of the Word of God in the Apocalypse. It was sweet in his mouth but sour in his stomach;
 
5) In Stephen's ministry which ended in stoning;
 
7) In Paul's oft-repeated descriptions of the sufferings which he bore for the sake of the Gospel;
 
8) In Jesus' exhortation to all His disciples that he was sending them out as "sheep among wolves" (Matthew 10:16 NIV);
 
9) In Jesus' invitation of discipleship, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me." Matthew 16:24 (NIV)
Jesus And Habitus Practicus

"From that time on Jesus began to explain to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to You!" Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." Matthew 16:21-23 (NIV)

This passage illustrates one of many instances that Jesus spoke of the habitus practicus in His ministry. He understood that His ministry was not just of proclamation. It was also a ministry which included suffering and, in His case, death.
 
Jesus appears to be quite comfortable--or at least content--with this aspect of ministry. He understood that there was no ministry without misery, no proclamation without pain, no message of renewal without the possibly of retaliation.
 
But Peter and his disciples didn't. "Never, Lord!" Peter protested. "You will never experience suffering. This will never happen to You!"
 
Jesus' stern and startling rebuke was not just a repudiation of Peter. It was a direct repudiation of Peter's satanic delusion that the ministry does not entail suffering.
 
Jesus had not succumbed to Satan's temptation to avoid the cross to dominate the kingdoms of the world. He understood and lived the habitus practicus. It was His disciples like Peter who, deceived by Satan, wanted no part of the suffering which the habitus practicus may entail.
 
What Ever Happened To Habitus Practicus?
 
Though no one really knows for sure, there are numerous possible reasons that the we have forgotten or lost the concept of habitus practicus.
 
1) We Never Learned It In The First Place.
Though included in many doctrinal texts,   habitus practicus generally only receives a perfunctory treatment in dogmatic and systematic texts. In the doctrinal writings of the Lutheran Church, for example, habitus practicus is buried amidst a rather abstract (and frankly, sometimes boring) philosophical discussion of the "Nature and Concept of Theology."
 
It's a shame to admit, but this section is one that many theologians just don't spent too much time reading. As seminarians, who of us can ever remember reading it? After all, who in their right mind would ever think that the ministry would entail suffering?
2) We Buried It In The Mire Of A "Theology of Glory."
Luther described two major groups of theologians: those who espoused the theology of the cross and those who espoused a theology of glory. Those who espoused the theology of the cross were those whose faith and ministry recognized that all we are and have in Christ is because of the cross. The theology of the cross focuses on Christ and His gracious work for us. The theology of the cross gives God all the glory.
 
In contrast, a theology of glory is one which elevates and ascribes to man the ability and recognition for all things related to faith from conversion to sanctification. Centered on man's pursuit of self-glorification, those espousing a theology of glory looked to successes as the standard of ministry.
 
Since suffering, pain or difficulty which might appear as failure would mitigate the experience of personal power and glory, these things must be escaped, denied, and avoided. Besides, how can God love anyone who can't give himself (or herself) glory?
3) It Has Been Drowned By Shouts Of Proud Bravado.
More than they care to admit, many ministers are in it for the recognition, the accomplishments, and the personal honor. Indeed, how many professions give you instant public access and the prerogative to control entire organizations? The ministry offers so many opportunities to be proud of ourselves, to do better than the next guy, and to show how invaluable we are, and how much better we are than anyone else.
 
"Look at me! Look at me!" The words are seldom spoken. But the desire for the attention always is. If there's a choice between recognition, strokes, and acceptance or suffering, difficulty, discouragement and rejection, it can sometimes be too easy a choice for the wrong reasons to turn away from the habitus practicus option.
4) It Has Been Crowded Out By A Theological Education Centering On Accreditation, Achievements, Goals and Accomplishments.
There is no doubt seminaries have a nearly impossible job to train, shape and mold the character of individuals. In a few short years they are to produce the "perfect" pastor.
 
Certainly many of them excel toward excellence in this endeavor. Teaching doctrine, biblical content and background, church history and practical theology are already crammed in. Academic curricula in many institutions are shaped and directed by various forces and accrediting agencies which may frown on the practical side of the ministry.
 
On the practical side, students pursuing academic studies are encouraged toward academic excellence, attaining personal goals, and successfully completing the requirements for certification.
 
Given the rigors of the four major academic disciplines of seminary training, how can anyone find time to study the practical ministry? Besides, who among the students wants to hear the down side of the so-called "glorious" ministry? After all, we don't want to scare them!
5) It Has Suffocated Among A Myriad Of Cultural Expectations For "Success" As The Key Measure Of Ministry.
What is a "successful" ministry? What does it mean to be a "faithful servant of God?" What are the marks of an "effective" pastor? Answers to each of these questions can vary widely. Seminary professors may each give their own answer. Denominational executives another. Ministry specialists another. Pastors and peers may generate other expectations. Of course, ministry expectations by congregations and others also have different expectations for pastors.
 
What's the result? Individuals can become confused relative to the expectations of ministry. Not finding clear answers from the church, they may resort to the business world and seek those standards of success. Unfortunately, such pursuits often play-down or ignore those things which are indigenous to the calling to ministry, including habitus practicus.
6) Pastors Lack An Understanding Of What Discipleship Means In Their Ministry.
In many ways Western ministry has lost the real essence of the call to discipleship. Though the disciples left all and Jesus had no place to lay his head, Western discipleship is frankly relatively comfortable. Most ministers have adequate shelter or even a comfortable place to live, a car, a family, heated and air-conditioned offices, computers, phones, Internet access, three piece suits, and compensation of some sort (however minimal).
 
This is not to deny that today's ministry does not entail great sacrifice. Long hours, exposure to politically vulnerable circumstances, substandard wages, lack of benefits, et al are all very real sacrifices of the ministry.
 
Yet, all things considered, much of what is called "sacrifice" in our discipleship doesn't really come close to that of the disciples. How many of us would go, as they did day after day, from town to town not knowing whether anyone would respond to their message? How many of us would ministry as they did not knowing where they would stay or where their next meal would come from? How many of us would minister the Gospel of Jesus Christ if we didn't know if we'd be able to get out from any given town alive?
7) Pastors Avoid Preaching Habitus Practicus.
Christian pulpits, especially in Western society, may avoid preaching habitus practicus. After all, who wants to preach a religion of suffering? What will happen to our outreach if we tell people that Christians suffer? How will we ever recruit and encourage people to enter the ministry and become Christian leaders if we mention the suffering and pain of the habitus practicus? The immediate practical needs seem to have the day. We'll just deal with the suffering, pain and agony of ministry if and when we need to deal with it.
8) The "Jesus-Make-Me-Happy" Type Of Christianity Has Triumphed.  

So many Christians are captive to a simplicity of thinking that being a Christian means everything is happy and wonderful. By association, they suppose that if Christians have great happiness, then ministers must have even greater happiness and immunity to suffering. When they experience anything other than the "happy" fruits of faith such as "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" they get disappointed and disillusioned.

9) The Church And Culture Has Perpetuated A Denial Of The Ministerial "Soul."
Scott Peck in his book, Denial of the Soul, makes that case that Western society has lost its "soul." The propagation and legalization of euthanasia as means to eliminate suffering and pain is one of his key evidences.
 
There's something about pain, Peck says, which forces individuals to look at the value of life and to consider the existential meaning of their existence. It forces them to have to look deep in the spirit and resource the hope and comfort of religious belief.
 
When God's servants shun and flee from pain and when they avoid suffering at all costs, they turn away from the experience of seeing the joy and transformation that suffering brings. They flee from learning what dependence on God really means. In denying the pain of ministry they also deny its "soul."
10) We Have Promoted And Perpetuated A Shallow Understanding Of The Relationship Between Suffering And The Gospel.
Apart from the suffering which characterizes the habitus practicus, there is no real understanding of the fullness of the comfort and essential core of the Gospel. Wasn't that part of the reason the Emmaus disciples had trouble recognizing their Lord?
 
They thought Jesus had failed because He suffered. What they didn't understand was that the suffering of Jesus was an integral element of the Gospel of Salvation.

"[Jesus] said to them, "How foolish [i.e. "void of understanding"] you are, and how slow ["dull"] of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter His glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself. (Luke 24:24-26 NIV)

One of the reasons the disciples' recognition of the risen Christ was occluded was because they were so foolish and so slow to understand the absolute, essential necessity for Jesus to suffer. Having explained how the habitus practicus applied to His life in the Scriptures, the Emmaus disciples finally understood that Christ's suffering was integral to His ministry of salvation. After dining with Jesus, Luke records their new-found understanding of Christ and His ministry for them.

"They asked each other, 'Were not our hearts burning within us while He
talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?'" Luke 24:32 (NIV)

Given the Emmaus disciples' experience, one is tempted to ask, "Would a fuller understanding and incorporation of habitus practicus also warm our hearts and open up a deeper appreciation of the Gospel in our ministries?
The Practice Of Habitus Practicus
 
Though there are undoubtedly many aspects of the habitus practicus, the practice of habitus practicus in daily ministry is a constant reminder that whenever and wherever the Gospel is preached, the Gospel--and the one who preaches and proclaims it--risks suffering, rejection and sometimes death.
 
J.T. Mueller in his Christian Dogmatics wrote,
"Unwillingness to suffer for the Gospel's sake leads to compromises with error, to the denial of divine truth, and in the end to apostasy from divine grace. II Timothy 2:12 [declares]: 'If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us.'
 
Unless the Christian, and above all the Christian theologian, is ready for Christ's sake to renounce ease and friendship, to take upon himself loss of honor and property, and even to lay down his life for the sake of divine truth, he cannot serve his Master as this is required of him" (p. 37).
Habitus practicus is, above all things, the ability, desire, capacity and commitment to embrace the ability to suffer for the sake of Christ and His Word. Considered "foolishness" to the world, the Word of God incites the hearts of people.
 
As ministers proclaim the condemnation of the Law, antagonism is almost certain to erupt. Dysfunctionalities will arise. Evil-doers will attack. Demonic powers of the darkness will work in the hearts of sinners in manifold ways all designed to tear down the church and its ministers.
 
The proclamation of the Gospel, intended to convey the awesome and amazing grace of God, is often scorned and blasphemed. When they "just don't get it" often the ministers can be the ones who "get it" in a painful backlash. Told "You don't have to die on the cross, Jesus did that," some pastors may escape a situation too soon or simply avoid any potential for congregational conflict of any kinds to avoid the pain or suffering of the habitus practicus.
Practical Applications Of Habitus Practicus
 
The vast and various literature on Christian leadership attitudes such as persistence, patience, Christian character, holding to a vision, et al are symptomatic of a number of things.
 
Perhaps the core of the problem is that, without an understanding of habitus practicus, leaders become lost, disoriented and troubled when the various expectations discussed in these literature don't materialize. The ensuing and consequent sense of failure, ineptitude, and disappointment may all too easily translate into a burdensome sense of spiritual failure.
 
Certainly, we cannot stop failures, disappointments, rejection, mistakes, persecution, and other painful events from happening. But we can do better than utilizing a "bandage" approach or heaping on positive thinking. The habitus practicus is the most direct, Scriptural means to emphasize the healing, comfort and joy of the Gospel in all circumstances.
 
When it is studied, recovered, and placed at the core of our ministry "soul," the ministry takes on a different meaning, a different focus, and a greater resiliency to Satan's many methods against us. Indeed, the habitus practicus is the prerequisite attitude for spiritual battle before, during and after putting on the "full armor of God" (Ephesians 6:10). Without it we may be most vulnerable to Satan's attacks regardless of the external armor we wear and the spiritual weaponry we deploy.
The Blessing Of The Habitus Practicus
 
For all that the habitus practicus can entail it sure doesn't immediately strike us as good news. The recognition and affirmation that suffering can--and does--happen in ministry somehow takes away the glitz and glitter from the calling. It somehow can make one feel rather discouraged to think that pastors will suffer and that not every experience in the Kingdom is a welcome, happy one!
 
The habitus practicus a message of blessing. It's a message focused on some of the most powerful and memorable Gospel statements ever given. Its message is perhaps most closely associated with the words which undoubtedly expressed the core of St. Paul's habitus practicus faith.

"Those He called, He also justified; those He justified, He also glorified. What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all--how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?

Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: 'For Your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.'

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.                    Romans 8:30-39 (NIV; italics added for emphasis).

The Habitus Practicus In Your Ministry
 
In what ways can a habitus practicus attitude affect your ministry? Here's four things it can affirm in your ministry of grace.
 
1) Confidence In God's Grace For Us.
By grace we "have all things" in Christ. Whatever the suffering or disappointment, God really is for us. If we fail the God who sent His Son to justify us certainly will not condemn us, will He? And, if we doubt God's own Son, Jesus Christ prays, begs and intercedes for strength, forgiveness, stamina, persistence, patience, renewal and faith for us.
2) Unshakable Confidence in Christ's Strength For Our Ministry.
An understanding of the habitus practicus means that we have a special "soul" attitude. It means we have a special no-holds-barred confidence in Christ, His Word, His promises, His saving message, and His strength in all circumstances.
3) Unparalleled Strength And Resources To Persevere.
Paul's ministry was beset by many opportunities to give up. Shipwreck, repeated arrests, long trips, rejection by his own people, harassment by religious and civic leaders, ridicule and the threat of death by whatever means were on his mind every day.
 
Most of us, amid such pressures, would go into full-time tent making. Paul, however, persisted. How? By his recognition that the habitus practicus was an integral core of his ministry. Without this understanding, how else would Paul be able to persevere and grow in faith amid so many hardships and even death?
4) Affirmation of Victory
This confidence of the greatness of God's grace for us in every circumstance and trial enables us to face death, demons, destructive powers and all kinds of things which threaten to separate us from Christ. They may threaten. But they cannot prevail. The habitus practicus Christian knows, as Luther did, that "they cannot overpower us."
The Promise Of Habitus Practicus
 
But make no mistake. The habitus practicus may entail suffering. But the end promise of the habitus practicus is always God's power and presence beside us each day in whatever circumstances of ministry we face. Most importantly, the habitus practicus is a reminder that God's love is so great that in His grace nothing can separate us from Him and His powerful and protecting love for us.
 
Next time you lose your hope just ask, "What ever happened to my habitus practicus? Recalling it may help clarify the reasons for your suffering and grief. More importantly, it will point you to a suffering Christ who, by His resurrection, overcame and conquered all suffering and death.
 
Now that's power! Now that power is yours, too. Let's make a habit of a habitus practicus!
 
Thomas F. Fischer

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