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The Dire Need for Doctrine (part 2)

Preaching a theology that sustains our hearers

In part one of this two-part series, Shaw examined the importance of preaching doctrine. In part two, he continues with helpful suggestions concerning the mechanics of doctrinal preaching.

Preaching Today: Are there any strategic points throughout the year for doctrinal preaching?     

Wayne Shaw: The Christian year is the first thing that comes to my mind. I recently heard a sermon on Easter Sunday that didn't say anything about the Resurrection. It was a good sermon, but it didn't say a word about Christ and the empty tomb. I thought to myself, What a lost opportunity!

The doctrines are there if your sensitizers are geared for them.

Beyond the Christian year, there are some things that are always true of every Christian, in any era, at any time. There are others that are so specific to our cultural setting that they dare not be ignored, either. Biblical doctrines can be applied in both situations.

Your last point reminds me of the recent Virginia Tech tragedy. There were numerous opportunities to preach doctrine in light of those events.

Right. Here you've got the ultimate questions of life that many people never think about for months and years at a time. The tragedy is so real. It stains their cheeks with tears. It stirs their fears. It causes them to wonder about the meaning of life and what they're doing and shouldn't be doing. Those events are opportunities for a positive treatment of what our faith offers.

You hinted at this already in our time together, but I want to go a little deeper with it. Scholars Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart argue that half the battle in Bible study is simply asking the right questions. Let's apply that to preaching doctrine. What are the right questions to ask as you prepare a doctrinal message?

Be sure to ask, "What major doctrines are stated or implied in the text or its context?" Eugene Lowery advises even if a doctrine is not stated in the text, back up and look at what comes before it. I would even check out what follows your particular text.

Here is an important question to ask if you choose to preach a Christian doctrine in a more topical manner: "What scriptural support will you choose for this?"

James Forbes taught us to ask two questions of a text: "What's the good news and what's the bad news?"

A question that has come to me far late in my ministry is, "Where's the tension in the text?" If there's no tension, you may have a logical lecture, but you don't have a sermon.

A few other questions come to mind: "What is the biblical writer trying to say to his readers, both then and now? What is the writer communicating with the language he uses historically, grammatically, rhetorically, and literarily? I put "rhetorically" in deliberately, because most of the time, literary criticism carries the day. But the literature of the Bible rose out of rhetorical situations, and it has to be translated rhetorically into the life of the congregation.

Finally, "What will this mean to the people I'm preaching to?" John Wesley asked this question as part of his standard practice. He would sit his charwoman down and go through his sermon with her. If there was a word or an idea that she didn't understand, he scrapped it and got one that she would. We want to communicate to someone and not just get it out of our heads!

What are some of the study resources that you have found to be most helpful in preparing doctrine-heavy sermons?

Bible dictionaries are a place to start. Theological dictionaries are helpful resources, too. I'm particularly partial to Colin Brown's "Theological Dictionary of the New Testament" series. His work offers good background information for a word or a term. I also get a lot out of Frank Stagg and Donald Guthrie's "New Testament Theologies." They're trustworthy and illuminating.

The formal study of theology has some real benefit to it, as well—biblical theology, historical theology, systematic theology, and contemporary theology. At its core, theology relates the Bible to current issues, questions, and challenges. It's a living and growing thing, and there's always more to learn.

When preaching doctrine, would you emphasize a more in-depth, expositional approach, focusing almost exclusively on one or two texts, or a more systematic approach, looking at a particular topic from multiple angles and multiple texts?

I'd say both. I most often land on the more exegetical, expository look at doctrine. For a number of years now, I've advocated the preacher spending half their time working through a major section of Scripture that will lift out the Word of God itself—either a Bible book or a major section like the Sermon on the Mount or the first eleven chapters of Genesis. The rest of the time can be given to other approaches. Well-done topical preaching allows you to directly address what people are asking, but you may get at it just as easily by making it a minor point in an expository message on a passage. I would say much of the time, you simply let the Bible raise these issues as they come along.

Let me add an important note, though: If you're not aware of the doctrinal categories, you'll miss them. The same text that James S. Stewart would use to hold up Christology or the kingdom of God, other people would just pass over and talk about the historical background of the text or the Christian duty that's implied. The doctrines are there if your sensitizers are geared for them. Balance is the tough thing here. One homiletician used to say, "If you don't get God or Christ or the Holy Spirit into the introduction or the first main heading, it's increasingly harder as time goes on." That's true with doctrine as a whole.

How can preachers bring lofty, difficult ideas to the heart of the listener? Craft some masterful illustrations or metaphors? Dream up powerful refrains? Create tight, memorable definitions? Help us discover a few ways you've found to tackle difficult truths for the listener.

I'd say using all the ingredients you list, but it's still more a conviction to preach doctrinally so that it comes out your pores!

I'd suggest you look carefully at the historical, concrete situation out of which the abstraction grew, or look at another situation where it has been applied. The Bible itself illustrates this. Look at the Exodus. When you first read about it in the Old Testament, it's an event or circumstance. When you read about it in Deuteronomy, it's recaptured to instruct the Israelites. When you read about it in the prophets or in the Psalms, it's used to meet another specific need. When you turn to the Book of Hebrews, the Exodus is seen in yet a newer and better light. It's the same Exodus, but it is applied out of its historical situation into another situation.

The abstract quality of a doctrine makes it portable, so that we can carry it from one situation to another. Doctrine, if it's genuine doctrine and not just our prejudices, is transcultural. It arises out of a culture, and it has to be applied into our culture.

Simply put, you need to have one finger on the major biblical, theological categories and another on the questions, problems, and issues that your listeners are facing. That's what Karl Barth meant when he said, "You have the Bible in one hand and the morning newspaper in the other." Maybe if he were writing today, he would say "a finger on the computer key."

Since a lot of learning comes by way of observing or listening, who are the preachers—either past or present—that you would point us to as masterful preachers of doctrine?

Every major movement in Christianity in the last 20 centuries has been marked by capable, charismatic doctrinal preachers. I'm thinking of all the French Catholic preachers who used to preach before the French court. Their sermons were couched in doctrine. I'm thinking of the Reformation—Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Zinzendorf. The Wesleyan revival in Britain—that was doctrinal to the core. Read about major people in "20 Centuries of Great Preaching," and far and away, most of them will be doctrinal preachers. Every major movement in Christian history has had strong doctrinal preaching as a part of it.

So do you think one of the crucial elements to some kind of revival or redemptive outbreak within the world is going to come by way of capable, charismatic doctrinal preachers?

I think so. The Christian community is not of the world. It's in the world, but not of it. I don't know how that tension can be kept without high doctrine.

When R. W. Dale first arrived at Carr's Lane in Birmingham, England, the leaders cautioned him that he must not preach doctrine, because the congregation wouldn't stand for it. R. W. Dale replied, "They'll have to stand for it." And before he was there very long, they loved him for it.

Or consider what Dorothy Sayers, who gave up writing mysteries to write theology, said: "We may call it revelation, or we may call it rubbish, but if we call it dull, then words have no meaning at all."

Dr. Wayne Shaw is Dean Emeritus for Lincoln Christian Seminary in Lincoln, Illinois, and author of Designing the Sermon (National Bicentennial Committee, 1975).

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