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What Theology Looks Like in a Sermon (part 2)

Everyone does theology. Do you do it right?

This article is part two of a two-part series. To read part one, click here.

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:

It is often necessary to expose theology through the back door of analogy and illustration.

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 18th 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.

John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

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