Why All the Best Preachers Are--What a Concept!--Theological
Why All the Best Preachers Are--What a Concept!--Theological
Everyone does theology. Do you do it right?
The bones and marrow of the sermon are composed of theology. Yet theological preaching is rare. Listeners fear that too much theology will make the sermon impractical. Many preachers shy away from theological content. Aware of the small window of opportunity given to capture the interest of the audience, preachers are tempted to rush to application. The result is a sermon that begins with the need of the audience, touches lightly on the biblical text, and then moves to concrete implication. In the process, the sermon skips the important step of identifying and stating theological principles upon which the practical application is based. Haddon Robinson has wryly observed: "More heresy is preached in application than in Bible exegesis."
The term theology is popularly used to refer to the content of the Bible.By this definition, everything in the Scriptures is theological. Any truth statement about the nature of God or man or salvation—such as, God is love—is theological. Defined more narrowly, however, theology is primarily a matter of doctrine. A doctrine is simply the teaching of all Scripture on a significant subject, for example, the doctrine of God, the doctrine of salvation, the doctrine of healing. Theology has been defined as "a system of beliefs," meaning that all doctrines are integrated.
Three Types of Theology
Three interrelated categories of theology contribute to the theological content of the sermon: exegetical theology, biblical theology, and systematic theology.
Exegetical theology is the theology of the biblical text itself. It is the theological product of the preacher's exegetical analysis of a passage in its context. For example, the exegetical theology of Colossians 3:12includes statements like, "Virtue is both an outcome and an obligation of God's grace." Or, "Those who have been chosen by God to experience the grace of Christ reflect God's transforming power in the way they live, fellowship, and worship." While the passage is itself application oriented, its exhortation to "put on" the virtues of the Christian life is grounded in the theology of grace and election. The Colossians are not told to do these things in order to become God's children, but because they already are "God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved" (Colossians 3:12). Timothy S. Warren defines exegetical theology as "the statement of universal theological principle that the preacher has discovered in the text through the exegetical and theological processes."
Biblical theology is also exegetical theology, but practiced on a larger scale. If exegetical theology examines a facet of a doctrine from the microscopic view of the sermon text, biblical theology takes a satellite view of the same doctrine. Biblical theology lifts itself above the text and notes the progressive unfolding of a particular doctrine throughout the Scriptures, in a portion of Scripture, or in a single biblical writer. It is the product of collective exegetical analysis.
The biblical data needed to formulate a complete theology of the Holy Spirit, for example, begins with the Book of and continues through the Book of. However, not every book refers to the Spirit and some passages merely describe his activities. At the very beginning of the Book of the Spirit is portrayed as brooding or "hovering" over the waters (Genesis 1:2). He was an agent of creation. The Old Testament prophetic books describe how the Holy Spirit empowered select believers to speak on God's behalf. The New Testament has a fuller revelation of the nature of ministry of the Spirit. It is there that he is most clearly shown to be a divine person (John 14:16-17). Paul's epistles, especially 1 Corinthians 12, describe his relationship to the church and its ministries.
Systematic theology is a study of doctrine organized by theme. Instead of looking at the progressive development of a particular doctrine, it attempts to synthesize the theological content of Scripture into a unified summary of the whole of Christian doctrine.
John Calvin's classic Institutes of the Christian Religion is a good example of a systematic study of biblical doctrine organized by theme. It is organized into four major divisions. Book one deals with the knowledge of God the creator and focuses on the nature of God and the ways he has revealed himself to mankind. Book two is concerned with the nature of redemption and highlights both the problem of sin and the work of Christ. Book three looks at the subject of applied redemption by showing how believers receive the grace of Christ. Book four discusses the nature and ministry of the church. Throughout the Institutes Calvin supports his assertions with citations from Scripture and interacts with many ancient and (in his day) contemporary theologians.
Each approach has its limitations. The weakness of exegetical theology is its narrow focus. Theological reflection that is limited to what is explicitly stated in one text often results in a one-sided or distorted theology. For example, a theology of works that is based solely on James 2:14-20 will tend toward legalism and may even result in a works-based gospel. On the other hand, a theology of works that is limited to Ephesians 2:8 may not do justice to the transforming potential of the gospel.
The challenge of biblical theology is its immense scope. Few, if any, pastors have the time to do a comprehensive exegetical analysis of every passage that deals with even one of the theological ideas found in a given text.
The danger of systematic theology is it may be used in a way that drowns out the voice of the text. A theological system may incorrectly force the text into a mold it was not intended to fill. The theological system, like a child's Playdough Factory, pares away everything in the text that does not fit.
Because of these limitations, the preaching task requires attention to all three types of theology.
Poor Uses of Theology
There is more to theological preaching than adding a few proof texts to the sermon. Some preachers attempt to provide a theological rationale for the sermon by reading a portion of the biblical text, often in support of a main point or sub point, and then directing the audience's attention to some other passage to explain what has just been read. Instead of discussing the logic and theological implications of the sermon text, or showing how its reasoning fits into the bigger picture of revealed truth, the cross reference is presented as a self-evident explanation.
This approach gives the impression that the preacher's reasoning is circular, and creates the potential for bad theology by lifting the meaning of the sermon text out of its immediate historical, grammatical, and literary context. The preacher's first task is always to explain, prove, or apply the biblical author's idea in its context.
Theological preaching isn't a matter of attaching one's pet doctrine to the sermon. Like a congressman attaching special interest legislation to an unrelated bill, this approach is exemplified by the caricature of the preacher who ends every sermon, regardless of the text, by saying, "Now for a few words about believer's baptism."
Theological preaching is not an abstract theological discourse that takes no thought for the life situation or felt needs of the audience. It demands more than simply restating the great doctrines of the Christian faith. In his book Preachers and Preaching, Martyn Lloyd-Jones tells of a speaker who gave an address on the Trinity at an evangelistic meeting that targeted elderly women from the poor district of London. "Here was a man, an intelligent trained professional man whom you would have thought would have some idea of addressing people," Lloyd-Jones writes, "but he clearly had not given even a thought to that and probably had been reading an article or book on the Trinity recently." Lloyd-Jones points out that, even though it was sound theology, it was "utterly useless" to his listeners. "You do not give 'strong meat to babes,'" he explains, "you give them milk."
Theology must be applied. This is the pattern of the biblical writers, who regularly move from theological construct to concrete application. Paul's appeal in Romans 12:1 that his readers offer their bodies as living sacrifices, for example, flows out of the theological constructs that have been laid out in the first eleven chapters. It is also grounded in an understanding of the theology of sacrifice outlined in the Old Testament. Peter's first Epistle follows a similar pattern, repeatedly moving back and forth from theology to application. This same movement should be reflected in the sermon.
Analyzing the Theology of the Text
Theological preaching begins with the uncovering of the theology of the text. Fundamental questions need to be asked regarding the text, the author, and the original audience. What was the author saying and why? What assumptions about God are conveyed by the text, either explicitly or implicitly? The goal is to identify core theological principles. Once the hard work of grammatical, historical, literary exegesis is done, it is necessary to utilize the tools and techniques that enable the preacher to fit the theological principles that have been uncovered into the larger context of theological truth.
The theology of the sermon text must be informed by biblical theology. The progressive nature of divine revelation guarantees that no single biblical text will provide an exhaustive treatment of any theological theme or idea. The theology of the text must be placed within the context of the theological scope of its chapter, the Book in which it appears, and even the entire Bible.
The difference in what Paul and James say about works, for example, is the result of a difference in perspective, not different theologies. The larger context of Ephesians 2:8 reveals that Paul expected good works to be a natural outflow of the experience of God's grace (Ephesians 2:10). Likewise, James does not contrast faith and works but true faith with false faith. Both emphasize the priority of faith and both expect true faith to be reflected in behavior.
Next, especially when there are complex questions, the preacher will want to turn to systematic theology texts, theological dictionaries, and theological journals. Most systematic theology texts arrange their themes under main doctrinal headings and use proof texts to support their assertions. Theological dictionaries arrange their topics alphabetically and go into less depth than systematic theology texts. Theological journals publish scholarly articles that focus on a passage, verse, phrase or theme.
The result of this analysis should be a theological idea, a single sentence that synthesizes the theological principle of the passage. A theological idea based upon John 13:1-17, the account of Jesus washing the disciples' feet, might be: "True divinity is compatible with loving humility and is not afraid to act upon it." This is the theological equivalent to what has traditionally been called the sermon proposition or big idea. This statement is built upon the foundation of the exegetical idea and paves the way for the sermonic idea or proposition. A flow chart of the process might look like this:
Exegetical Proposition—Theological Proposition—Sermon Proposition
The exegetical proposition focuses on the original audience with its historical and cultural context. The sermon proposition focuses on the cultural context of the preacher's audience. The universal theological proposition provides a necessary bridge from the text to the audience that enables the preacher to combine relevance with authority.
The exegetical proposition for a sermon based upon John 13:1-17 might be, "Jesus in his divinity did not shy away from true humility because he knew who he was and who he loved." This is based upon John's summary statement in John 13:1 that "Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love."
The theological proposition, stated once again, is "True divinity is compatible with loving humility and is not afraid to act upon it."
The sermon proposition takes the theological idea and frames it with the audience in view. In this case, Jesus' humility is presented as an example for the disciples to follow. The idea might focus on the nature of the task: "The greatest thing we can do for God is usually the thing at hand." Or the proposition might focus on the compatibility between humility and greatness: "The surest path to greatness is the lowest path."
Bringing Theology to Life
The theological burden of the sermon may require repackaging for postmodern listeners, who feel that it is necessary to experience truth to "know" that it is true. When preaching to such an audience, it is often necessary to expose them to theology through the back door of analogy and illustration.
One of the best models of this kind of theological preaching can be found in sermons of the 18 century preacher Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was a theological and exegetical preacher. "His sermons," Conrad Cherry writes, "even his most revivalistic ones, were carefully constructed monuments to biblical exegesis, as they followed the tripartite scheme of clarification of biblical text, elaboration of doctrine implicit in the text, and application of text and doctrine to the lives of his hearers."
Edwards was a master of using vivid imagery and concrete analogy so that the theological truths he preached would impact listeners on an experiential level.Cherry points to Edwards' most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," as a prime example: "The pattern of the scene which Edwards paints in this sermon follows the track of typologizing: from the literal to the symbolic, from the concrete to the spiritual; from beholding an oven and touching a hot coal (common enough experiences for eighteenth-century New Englanders) to eternal consumption by flame; from enduring intense pain a minute, then several minutes, to imagining the torment of constant, unrelieved pain."
Edwards adopted this strategy as a result of his own theological convictions. The seat of true religion, according to Edwards, was not the head but the heart. The chief benefit of the sermon was derived, as Edwards himself put it, from "an impression made on the heart at the time."
It is doubtful that theological truth can be communicated completely without stating it in propositional form at some point in the sermon. Not everyone has the same learning style. Some respond to stories, others learn best with a clear outline. The preacher's own ability may be a limiting factor. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. warns of the danger of trying to imitate masters of the narrative form, noting: "Thousands of young preachers have tried to imitate such virtuosity, and without much luck." A dull but clear proposition is often better than an interesting but vague narrative.
Charles Spurgeon once observed that the young preacher is primarily concerned with matters of style while those with more experience tend to focus their attention on content. In effect, the younger preacher asks, "How shall I say it?" while the older preacher thinks, "What shall I say?" The theological preacher must ask both questions. It is by giving careful attention to the theology of the text and the need of the audience that the preacher learns what must be said about it and how to say it.