The Preacher as Theologian: Why Theology is Needed for Text-Driven Preaching

 |  January 17, 2017

“Sure, I learned lots of theology in seminary… Lots of answers to questions that nobody is asking!”

My friend’s words made my stomach lurch. Not because I’m a systematic theology professor, but because like him, I’m also a preacher.

If you think of theology as an instrument for torturing young preachers with excruciatingly subtle distinctions and overly-complex arguments from the dark ages, then it’s easy to understand why inserting random paragraphs from your old systematic theology textbook would not sound like exciting preaching. If theology can only be done after exegeting the text, then who has prep time to waste researching debates about trinitarianism or divine providence?  Endless quarrels will not enhance engaging exposition! Yet these are not definitions of theology, they are caricatures.

One of the oldest descriptions of theology is “faith seeking understanding.”  Far from being a pathetic plea for empathy, this phrase implies a mandate. Since the Bible alone is God’s Word, it alone is the inerrant statement of the faith God has called us to believe and obey. Our mission is to seek to understand, and help others to understand, the faith “once and for all delivered to the saints.”

Understanding what Scripture says is a task that embraces everything from the exegesis of sentences to probing how each text affects the interpretation of every other text… especially the ones that challenge and refine our interpretation of next Sunday’s text.  Theology, wrapping our minds around what the entire Bible teaches, helps us to avoid betraying the whole while merely appearing to be faithful to isolated parts.  But understanding entails more than analytical knowledge.  The sinner on death row who hears the Gospel with apathy has not understood either his situation or the salvation being offered!  True understanding moves us to respond rightly.  Good theology – “faith seeking understanding” – fosters preaching that is text-driven in the fullest sense.

How does “faith seeking understanding” intersect preaching? Take as an example the phrase, “God would never command us to do anything we are incapable of doing.”  This principle has guided the application and exhortation of many a preacher’s sermon. But when Pelagius advanced this logic and used it to apply the texts “you shall be holy as I am holy,” and “pursue holiness without which no one shall see God,” he proclaimed that moral perfection was within our power, and was necessary to enter heaven.  Pelagius was preaching salvation by works, rather than salvation by grace.  Augustine realized the error and remembered that there were other important passages that needed to shape a preacher’s understanding of these texts. God had also said, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you both to will and accomplish His good pleasure.”  Augustine wrote that the good things we do always have their origin and efficacy in God’s gracious working within us.  We conclude that God always calls us to things that we cannot do on our own so that we might learn to depend on His grace and find that, “My grace is sufficient for you, for strength is perfected in weakness.”

Instead of using one verse to deny another, Augustine engaged the whole in order to faithfully interpret the parts.  More than that, Augustine was also articulating a far more powerful motivation for sanctification than Pelagius offered. Being ordered to do something that you know in your soul is impossible for you is intensely discouraging. Why even try? But if God is already at work to accomplish what He has commanded, then we can work with confidence and hope, knowing that neither our abilities nor our failures are the final word. That is “understanding the faith,” or put another way… “That’ll preach!”

Another example arises from the insights of Martin Luther.  After years of wrestling with Scripture and his own acute sense of God’s wrath, Luther concluded that the expressions of God’s wrath in the Bible are where God’s love can be most clearly seen and deeply felt. When God declared His intent to judge Israel for worshipping the golden calf, God provoked Moses to Christ-like intercession.  He spurred Nineveh to repentance when He ordered Jonah to preach, “Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed.”  But most of all, the holy wrath He displayed at the cross provided the context in which a tortuous execution became the supreme expression of God’s love for humanity.  Luther realized that the texts which warned of or described God’s wrath were not to be avoided by those who want to proclaim God’s love.  These seemingly difficult texts are not problems to be overcome, let alone ignored!  Instead, they should be proclaimed simply and powerfully. For when preached faithfully, they help us see how great is the love of God that it could overcome such seemingly implacable anger.  Again… “That’ll preach!”

Augustine and Luther are but two of the many theologians who thought deeply about the faith Scripture calls us to believe and obey.  Just as their attempts to “understand the faith” can help us understand more deeply, and preach more faithfully, so can the work of other great theologians God has given through the years.  Among the church fathers, we find the likes of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Basil the Great, Athanasius, and Ambrose.  The Middle Ages give us figures such as Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Venerable Bede.  The theological giants of the Reformation, of course, were Martin Luther and John Calvin, but one might also think of Zwingli, Knox, and Baxter.  Edwards, Wesley, and Fuller are just a few of the influential theologians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Each of these men, and many more, were significant theologians in their own day.  Most are names we still recognize.  Their works are still read with profit by those who take them up.  Yet this list hints one last time at the value of theology in the pulpit, for these theologians all held one other thing in common…

… they were all preachers.


About: Dr. Benjamin Phillips serves as the Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Director of the Darrington Extension, and Associate Dean of the J. Dalton Havard School for Theological Studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Houston Campus. His doctoral dissertation focused on the doctrine of creation (particularly the God-world relationship) and the implications of the doctrine for ecological ethics.  His primary areas of research are the doctrine of creation and theology of preaching.

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