There is a scene in a Peter De-Vries novel where a lecturer is giving a dull and boring address on, of all things, humor. One of his listeners rises mischievously from the crowd, walks up to the podium, and hits the learned one in the face — with a recipe for custard pie.
This to me is funny. It is also insightful, for it shows how easy it is to destroy the life of an activity by analyzing it. But most people — and certainly the people I told it to on one occasion — don’t think this is knee-slapping stuff. After observing my comical failure, Jim Somerville commented that maybe the humor was a bit too abstract. Soon thereafter he asked me to write on preaching to the left brain. I guess he figured that anybody who thought he could get away with such a story as that might also actually believe theology was preachable.
Well, he was right.
The Need for Theological Preaching
The first reason why preaching with solid theological content is needed is that you can’t have a church without theology, and in our churches preaching is the central worship event. Let me break that down left-brain fashion into two parts.
Christian churches, at least since the middle of the first century, have felt the need for an explicit intellectual framework to structure faith and practice. We need look no further than the New Testament for proof. The earliest and most numerous New Testament writings are not stories but Paul’s theological letters. Through debate with opponents inside and outside the Christian camp, Paul develops a theology of cross and resurrection meant to chart the way to faithful living and names some of the ways one may lose that track. As a canon of Scripture emerged, the nucleus of the New Testament was these letters, not the Gospels. Almost from the beginning then, the church has needed a discursive discourse to articulate what it means to call Jesus Lord.
To briefly treat one example, Paul in Galatians objects to the claims of the Judaizers on the grounds that Jesus’ death and resurrection have freed Christians from the law. Here a principle — Christian freedom — is drawn as an implication from the gospel, and used as a norm for the church’s life and thought. You can’t require circumcision and be faithful to what God has done in Christ. It is wrong to refuse table fellowship to Gentile Christians. This is theology in action.
But of course the Gospels, too, are theological documents. It is common now to speak of each Gospel having its own theme, and of competing theologies. In the earliest versions we have of them, the stories that Jesus told are not allowed to stand alone. Parables, for example, are followed by editorial comment that ensure the reader gets the point. Preaching that is bibilical is also theological. Stories are not enough. For some vital functions such as cultivating faith and building a coherent worldview, we need to come to firm conclusions. And we should acknowledge that the Bible’s coherence is not “built in,” if by that phrase we mean obvious to any intelligent reader. The Holy Spirit as it acts through communities of faith holds together what often seem contradictory messages. This is another way of saying that the unity of Scripture is a theological unity supplied through the church, and week to week supplied by preaching.
Without articulated convictions that can be used to say what we are and what we aren’t about, I don’t see how we could think of ourselves as Christians at all. Christians worship in certain ways, tell particular stories, and also believe certain things. When the need arises to make distinctions, belief comes to the fore. In our pluralistic age it is at least as important as it was in Paul’s time to be able to say what makes the Christian faith different from the many other isms there are. Sense of identity, guide for Christian living, means of explaining ourselves to the world — these perennial needs are filled by theology.
In most churches, preaching is the principal forum for this theological work. For most Protestants, preaching is the central worship event. It is the closest thing to a sacrament we have — the Word of God becomes live and spirit-filled and efficacious as it penetrates the heart through the ear and moves us to enact our salvation.
Preaching is also suited to theology because, at least theoretically, our pulpits are free. That is, within the constraints of his or her calling and Scripture, the preacher is expected to speak without regard for the consequences — not through a committee or after an outside reader has approved the sermon — in precisely the manner of Paul’s letters.
Preaching is also the place for theology by default. It rarely is done elsewhere in our church life. When it comes to theology, Sunday school is hit or miss and mostly miss. We don’t have catechism class and new member’s classes are usually somebody’s afterthought.
The need is great and preaching is the natural place for us to meet it. Why then does theology have such a bad name?
Why Theology Has a Bad Name
These are not good times for theology; the reasons are cultural, sociological, and even theological. Culturally, ours is an era when intellectual life in general is under threat. We intellectuals have been good at contaminating our own drinking water: specialization and the reign of the expert have brought fragmentation. We can’t talk to one another any more. We don’t have universities; we have multi-versities. Academic theology has followed the lead of other disciplines and developed its own array of conferences, societies, jargon, and closed-shop mentality. Theology has always had its esoteric branches; now it also has the full weight of modern professionalism pushing it away from the uninitiated.
One result of the general phenomena of fragmentation is we don’t like to think more than we have to. Figuring out the new computer system at work is enough trouble without having to puzzle over what difference the Resurrection makes for granny in the hospital on life support. At the even more practical level, how often do you find a Sunday school class where a majority of the members have actually read a substantial lesson beforehand? Doing what we must to navigate our way through an increasingly complex society takes all the brain power we can muster.
Of course we also have an array of stimulating entertainment options. We have become a visceral and impatient people; we are discriminating consumers who change the channel if we are not titillated. Even second-hand quality entertainment gets attention. One preacher got more press from claiming the kid’s show Barney was idolatrous than any of you will ever get talking about the Trinity.
Some of the blame must also go to preachers, I fear. Too few preachers like to read serious books and, of those, not many read theology. Often they simply don’t like the subject. I’m not thinking here of weighty tomes in multi-volumes; I have in mind books like Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian, or Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son, or C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, or George Lindbeck on The Nature of Christian Doctrine, or Rahner on anonymous Christianity, or Walter Brueggemann on Old Testament theology. I have mentioned books more or less at random across a range of confessional stances, simply to indicate that there is good theology out there which is directly engaged with issues pastors face continually in their ministries.
I would like to see the return of the pastor-theologian. The greatest American theologian, Jonathan Edwards, was a pastor and missionary. Things being what they are for us, I don’t expect to see any Dissertation on the End for which God Created the World emerging from a pastor’s study today but I do see hope for more theological preaching. What it will take to accomplish that goal is pastors who make time to read and who believe that serious thought on theological subjects actually improves their ministries. Churches must come around to this way of thinking too, of course; I think they will once they see that time in the study with a book is not simply used for the pastor’s personal enrichment but, like prayer, is a necessary part of the whole armor of God.
I want to stress that the reluctance to be theological in our preaching is not from dislike of abstract thought. Church talk is filled with left-brain thinking; it’s just not very theological. Preaching often rides on a conceptual horse supplied by therapy, for example. “Self-esteem” is no less abstract than “sin.” What happens when we banish theology from our preaching is that some other “ology” replaces it. As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor argues, we must have some kind of larger (even metaphysical) worldview in which to peg our moral claims, even if it is a vision about which we are inarticulate. I am arguing that we need to be more articulate and critical about that larger conceptual framework.
One of the things that now worries me about American Christianity is that liberals and conservatives will meet in the middle. The reason for my dismay is not cantankerousness or an unecumenical spirit, but fear that the middle where we meet will be the insipid consumerism which drives the society as a whole. The stereotype is that liberals are cultural accommodationists who have lost touch with biblical and theological roots, while conservatives are hardnosed Scripture-quoting dogmatists. To me, it seems that increasingly conservatives are becoming liberals in this regard. I don’t mean they want to compromise in denominational politics, just that they are becoming cultural accommodationists with shallow roots in the Bible and theology.
Let me supply examples. First from personal experience: a few years ago I heard an up-and-coming young fundamentalist preacher deliver his sermon. His tag-line for Christian witness was, “Don’t be a bad ad for your heavenly dad.” Witness = advertising. Now I ask you, is this not a case of market-thinking swallowing a theological notion? Here’s another from my own town of Wingate. An independent charismatic storefront church had this message on its billboard: “This blood’s for you.” In case you’ve forgotten, Budweiser’s ad campaign from that period was “This Bud’s for you.” In this case there is a clearer effort to separate the slogan from its original meaning, but ad strategy is the same — here’s something manufactured with your desires in mind; please allow us to serve you.
Lest I be accused of idiosyncratic crankiness, let me cite a couple of sources, one evangelical and one mainline. David Wells of Gordon-Conwell has recently published a book, No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? From the title you can see that it is a critique of evangelicals, and its thesis is that conservatives have sold their souls to what he calls — in contrast to “secular humanism” — “secular evangelicalism.”
George Lindbeck of Yale University measures the paucity of Bible knowledge against the decline of Billy Graham’s popularity:
He presupposed greater biblical knowledge and was less casual about what the Bible actually says than are the Bible-thumping television evangelists who have succeeded him. Playing fast and loose with the Bible needed a liberal audience in the days of Norman Vincent Peale, but now … professed conservatives eat it up. (Christian Century, Feb. 2-9, ’94, p. 105).
I want to point out that neither Lindbeck nor Wells (nor I) is dismissing the charge of accommodation against liberals. We are simply adding that conservatives are no longer any different.
It seems to me one way to resist this tide is to be more theological. Second-order reflection can never replace faith, but it can protect and develop faith. One way it does so is by giving us critical distance. Another is by allowing us to be systematic or holistic. Mere conceptual coherence is not enough to keep a church going, but it can keep one out of many a thorny thicket.
How Can We Preach Theologically?
So far I have said little about the nitty gritty of developing an actual sermon. Nearly all of you know more about this general topic than I, so I will not attempt to be thorough, only suggestive.
1. Choose a theological theme and preach a series of sermons on it. I have nothing in principle against lectionary preaching. It does force one to deal with the whole canon. But as an antidote to what I think is a dangerous anti-theological climate, preaching a series of sermons on sin, redemption, law and gospel, the person and work of Christ, or even the Trinity is worth a try.
2. Go back to the classics. In addition to Bible study, read catechisms, creeds, and statements of faith. These theological documents are short and comprehensive.
3. Teach in your church in addition to preaching. You’re more likely to get immediate feedback when you teach. It is truly astounding what people actually believe. I had a church member once ask me why she should take what Paul said any more seriously than what Alice Walker said. Anyway, she was going to listen and make up her mind. Another older and generally more conventional lady who had been a Baptist for sixty years believed in reincarnation.
4. Look at the events of your own life theologically. I am convinced few of us do this consistently. When something goes wrong in my life, the last thing I think of is that God’s judgment against my sin may be manifest here. Since I’m nearly always right and am doing the best I can, whatever it is must be somebody else’s fault, or at most bad luck.

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