The Need for Theology in the Pulpit
The words resound in my mind to this day.
The revival preacher had opened the Bible, read the text, and began to preach. As he made his way through the body of the sermon, the people waited with anticipation for the crescendo toward which the preacher was building.
After leading the congregation to the top of a mountain of emotion, the preacher told a heart-gripping illustration of a young man and his father. The congregation wept.
Then the preacher spoke the words that still trouble me: “That may not be good theology, but it’s good preaching.”
The truth is, I do not remember the details of the illustration, I do not remember the text, and I am not sure that I remember the preacher. However, I remember the statement: “That may not be good theology, but it’s good preaching.”
As a teenager who was the guest of a friend in a church to which I did not belong, I was not sure why I was troubled. I just knew that I was. “That may not be good theology, but it’s good preaching” simply seemed to undermine the call of the pastor to preach the Word of God.
Some years later, Jeffrey Bingham, the interim president of Southwestern Seminary, emphasized to the systematic theology class in which I sat that “the most important thing that you think is what you think when you think about God.” That statement, like the first, continues to resound within my mind today, yet with a far more positive recollection.
Perhaps the difference lies in a proper definition of theology. If theology is in its basic sense “disciplined reflection upon God’s self-revelation,” then expositional preaching should not be separated from theology.Bruce Riley Ashford and Keith Whitefield, “Theological Method: An Introduction to the Task of Theology,” in A Theology for the Church, rev. ed., ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2014), 3.
That leads me to attempt to answer the question today: Why should the pastor preach theology from the pulpit?
First, theological preaching equips the congregation for member-care. The pastor knows only a modest amount of the conversations that occur within the congregation on a weekly basis. As church members are suffering with the various points of tension that life offers, they ideally turn to one another for prayer and counsel. The congregant who has sat under preaching that is intentionally theological is more able to counsel members of their church family during times of suffering.
Second, theological preaching equips the congregation to combat heresy. Most pastors are aware that they are only one of many preachers that some congregants will hear throughout a given week. Television ministries, publications, and a burgeoning podcast culture bring a multitude of preachers to the fingertips of church attenders. The preacher who provides a theological framework through the preaching ministry better equips his hearers to choose wisely to which preachers he or she will listen throughout the week. Theological preaching helps the hearers not to be “carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14).
Third, theological preaching equips believers to speak to cultural issues toward the end of sharing Jesus Christ. The cultural divisions that permeate the recent news cycle are often conversational fodder within the workplace. By learning to think theologically, the Christian is more able to address various subjects such as immigration, the value of life, sexuality, and race. If church members have been theologically equipped through the preaching ministry, they can more ably move from conversing about cultural issues to creating an opportunity to share with others the redemption offered in Jesus Christ.
Fourth, theological preaching equips believers for seasons of personal suffering. Sin has negatively impacted every aspect of our human existence. Our thoughts, deeds, and feelings are led astray by the sinful nature that resides within each of us. If we leave ourselves and our hearers to depend upon something less than a biblically derived theology, we are more prone to falter when we receive a disturbing report from the doctor, cope with the tragic loss of a loved one, or suffer the loss of employment. A theological lens through which to view these events can help when our feelings are led astray by an unforeseen tragedy.
For example, in 2 Corinthians 11:23–28, Paul details the afflictions that he had suffered. After doing so, he does not immediately turn to an existential experience. Rather, he turns to what he has come to know about God. Indeed, Paul ends this epistle with a most succinct statement of theological acumen that turns the readers’ thoughts toward the triune economy of God: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all” (2 Cor 13:14). Suffering is better endured within a theological framework that corrects us when our emotions threaten to mislead us.
Finally, theological preaching equips believers for deeper worship. By engaging the mind of the hearer to think about the glories of the triune God, or the mystery of the God-man Jesus Christ, or the beauty of the atonement, the worshiper is more apt to engage in a deeper experience of worship. Paul’s epistles demonstrate this model for us as his letters often move from theological instruction to doxological exaltation.A common referent is Romans 8-11 culminating in the doxology of Romans 11:33-36. Good theology leads to deep doxology!
The wise pastor recognizes that theology is not the enemy of good preaching, instead it provides a framework that assists biblical exposition. The pastor-theologian occupies a special place in the economy of God as the congregation is equipped “for the work of the ministry, to build up the body of Christ until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ” (Eph 4:12–13).
In the words of James Leo Garrett, “We can no more eat choice beef from a boneless cow and we can no more work safely in a skyscraper that has no structural steel than we can practice and communicate the Christian religion without clearly perceived basic Christian doctrines. Let us then by God’s grace get on with the task!”James Leo Garrett, “Why Systematic Theology?,” Criswell Theological Review 3.2 (1989): 259-81.
John B. Mann is the Pastor at La Junta Baptist Church in Springtown, Texas, and Adjunct Professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
|↑1||Bruce Riley Ashford and Keith Whitefield, “Theological Method: An Introduction to the Task of Theology,” in A Theology for the Church, rev. ed., ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2014), 3.|
|↑2||A common referent is Romans 8-11 culminating in the doxology of Romans 11:33-36.|
|↑3||James Leo Garrett, “Why Systematic Theology?,” Criswell Theological Review 3.2 (1989): 259-81.|