Trinity College of Biblical Studies
College of Biblical Studies-Free Online Bible College
A survey of hermeneutical theory discussing how author, text, and reader work together as meaning emerges from a text. These insights will then be applied to the Bible, giving the student an interpretive strategy for exegete biblical texts and bringing their meaning into the modern world
Preaching Christian Doctrine by William J. Carl III
Chapter 1: Preaching and Theology
Preaching Christian doctrine has always been a priority in the church. Major theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Paul Tillich, and others, are known not only for their systems of thought but for their ability to bring theology to life in the Sunday sermon. They preached doctrine because they knew that an ignorant laity leads to an impotent church, and that clergy and laity need sound doctrine, preached boldly and simply, in order to live and grow in the Christian faith.
This assertion is more than an academic plea for intellectual stimulation. It recognizes that believers suffer from a theological identity crisis, and that it is the churchís role to help people discover who they are as Christians. Many church members today do not know what they believe. "All religions are alike," they will say. "It doesnít matter what you believe as long as you believe something."
This theological identity crisis is the churchís most serious problem, for it affects all other areas of the churchís life. When people do not know what they believe, they cannot be expected to worship, nurture, or go into the world ministering and acting in Christís name. Since theology is to discipleship as botany is to gardening, an understanding of what one is doing will help clarify the difference between pruning and weeding.1 Doctrine and experience always have been inextricably bound together. Practice without doctrine is often misguided. Action without belief can go astray.
Increasing secular pluralism and shrinking attendance in adult Sunday-school classes have contributed to this theological identity problem. Little wonder that believers find it hard to know what to believe. They live in a secular world. Their questions are, for the most part, not religious questions or, at least, they are not framed that way. Most Christians join the church as youngsters, and any serious learning in the faith seems to stop at that point. They go through their entire lives with only a tacit knowledge of Christian beliefs and values, often a knowledge they have received and a faith they have inherited from their parents or other significant persons in their lives. Perhaps some attend adult Sunday-school classes where one of two activities often occurs. Either they hear someone read a lesson on a Bible passage or they discuss a specific social issue, sharing and debating opinions that are uninformed by Christian doctrine.
Another reason for the identity crisis has been the pervasive lack of able doctrinal preaching in the American church for most of this century. The transformation from exegetical and theological preaching to a more topical, psychotherapeutic kind of preaching may be marked by Harry Emerson Fosdickís 1928 Harpers article, "What Is the Matter with Preaching?" People do not come to church with a burning interest in what happened to the Jebusites, Fosdick said, but with their own questions and problems. Although Fosdick was more theologically astute and responsible than many who have followed his "problem-solution approach," he was also quite neohumanistic in his answers to peopleís problems. The gospel was often accompanied by great art, music, and the highest in cultural representation as the solution to various problems. Topical preaching began to overtake exegetical and theological preaching, except in some Lutheran and Presbyterian circles. Certainly topical preaching seemed more interesting and relevant to peopleís lives.
I do not mean to imply that before 1928 people were growing in the faith more than after 1928. Fosdick was probably right: in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many people were going to church only to hear theological lectures or exegetical papers. They were either bored or did not understand, since doctrine that is not seen in the context of human life is neither comprehensible nor helpful.
Reacting to this aridity, many American preachers introduced sermons on "How to Have a Happy Family," "How to Feel Good About Yourself," and other such topics. "All the evidence goes to show that a great deal of Protestant preaching for a generation past has been on marginal things," wrote British clergyman W. E. Sangster in 1953.2 It is a safe bet that his analysis would not have changed much after thirty years. The church today, just as the early church and the church of the Reformation and the two Great Awakenings, needs clear and sound preaching on the doctrines of the faith.
What is doctrinal preaching? Let us begin with some definitions. I want to argue first that all preaching, to be authentic Christian preaching, is or at least should be grounded in Scripture. That is to say, all Christian preaching is or should either be explicitly or implicitly informed by the Bible.
At the same time, all Christian preaching is doctrinal. This latter statement is entirely descriptive, whereas the former is both descriptive and prescriptive. The preacher who delivers a sermon in the pulpit is presenting doctrine. He or she may not be aware of it, but that is what is happening. The sermon may be heresy or it may be humanism, but it is always doctrine of some kind. Doctrine is presented in the sermonís illustrative material (sometimes vividly) and through various ways that the preacher interprets Christian tradition (Scripture, creeds, and the like) and contemporary experience. The congregation may or may not be able to name the specific doctrine or doctrines being presented. But if they hear and understand what is being said, they are being shaped and molded in their views of God and the Christian life.
The way the congregation hears the message is often governed by at least two presuppositions or hidden agendas. One presupposition that should be taken into account is what the preacher is trying to do theologically with his or her sermons. What is happening in this sermon? What am I trying to do here? Is this sermon functioning as a saving word of grace? Is it a judging word? These are good questions to ask. For Martin Luther, the sermon would have been a justifying word; for John Calvin, a saving word with an instructional sense and an emphasis on the law, particularly its third use, where the saints grow in the faith in response to grace. For John Wesley, it would have been a sanctifying word. What am I trying to do here? Teach? Inspire? How am I trying to do this theologically?
The other presupposition or hidden agenda is one the congregation brings.People go to church with various expectations about what should happen in a sermon. "I want to be invited to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." "I want to be comforted in the midst of my sorrow." "I want to be challenged to act in the community." "I want new insight." Many church members do not consciously think about their presuppositions, but if asked they could verbalize them. Most people have only one presupposition, but not the same one. This plethora of presuppositions may be a blessing or a curse for the preacher. We will deal with reasons for these many presuppositions in a subsequent chapter. For now it is sufficient to note that the people who come to our churches and sit in our pews are at various stages in the Christian pilgrimage. They come implicitly asking doctrinal questions, and they expect answers.
Part of our responsibility as preachers is to identify the doctrinal hermeneutic that governs our own preaching. Some of us have a high Christology, like the Gospel of John or the epistle to the Hebrews, which tends to appear in every sermon and which dictates the way we present a biblical text or doctrine. Others of us fall on one side or the other of the world view presented in the Gospel of John. We see creation as good, or we deny the world and retreat from it. For still others, the doctrinal hermeneutic may be a repeated emphasis on sin and the cross. Whatever the case, we preachers need to identify the doctrine (and there usually is one) that colors our preaching, that gives it not only content but ethos. Moreover, we should try as much as possible to identify the doctrines or at least the questions that lurk in the congregation and in the culture.
So all Christian preaching is doctrinal and is or should be bibli-cal. The confusion over these terms usually arises when we use them separately, as if they described two distinct forms of preaching. They do not.
When we use these terms separately, we are usually talking about the starting place for preparing a sermon. Do you start with a text or with a doctrine? When people say they start with a text, they often go on to say that they are doing biblical preaching, whether they stick with that text or not. Others, starting with a doctrine, say they are doing doctrinal preaching, even though they may devote most of their sermon to an exposition of the text.
I believe there are only two types of preaching: textual and topical. Therefore, the preacher either begins with a text and lays it open for a congregation, or begins with a topic, that is, a doctrine explicitly chosen for the occasion or chosen in response to some question or statement that has been raised in the congregation or the culture. The topical starting point could also be a social issue that the preacher has decided to address as an informed interpreter of the Word. In any case, the responsible preacher does not merely present his or her own views regarding a particular doctrine or social issue, but does extensive work in the Bible and in the theological tradition on the topic in question. This usually involves more extensive study than a textual sermon, and thus should probably not be attempted every week.
In the course of research, one or possibly two texts will emerge as a ground for the sermon on the particular doctrine or issue in question. These texts are not selected so that the preacher can "baptize" an idea that has previously been thought through. No matter how tempting such a process may be, it should be resisted, for it runs the risk of preaching a doctrinal sermon that is not biblically informed.
The situation in a particular parish or congregation may dictate the preacherís choice of texts. For example, a preacher may see the need to present a sermon on law and gospel or faith and works. If the preacher chooses Pauline texts on these themes, the doctrinal sermon that emerges will offer a different message from one using Matthew or James as the starting point. This is more than a matter of doctrinal diversity in the New Testament. It involves also the pastorís relationship to a congregation and his or her reading of the culture. The pastorís own theological tradition will influence this choice as well. For example, Lutherans might look to Paul for law/gospel, faith/works emphases, whereas those within the Calvinist and Thomistic traditions might turn instead to Matthew and James. Whatever the case, biblical texts need to be examined and taken seriously in the formation of a doctrinal sermon.
For many, the texts are already selected by a lectionary. Many find this lectio selecta approach highly liberating and only diverge from it when they have a specific topic (doctrine or social issue) that needs to be addressed -- one that is not dealt with specifically in the Sunday lesson. Those following a lectio continua approach -- going pericope by pericope through a book of the Bible -- also begin with a text. Beginning with a text does not mean that you will stay with it. Many preachers begin with a text but soon leave it behind. Conversely, responsible preachers open the text for the congregation. This is usually called expository preaching. Structurally, the sermon may proceed verse by verse through the text, or it may find the text opening into two to four natural points. Expository preaching may also move around in the text with a dialogical approach, questioning and listening to the text.
In the course of exegetical work, one finds that even with a narrative passage, certain doctrines begin to emerge. It is possible, then, that what began Monday morning as an expository sermon on a specific text may find itself in the pulpit Sunday morning as a full-blown doctrinal sermon. Thus, it appears that there is a great deal of overlap between the terms "doctrinal" and "biblical" in Christian preaching.
The following diagram demonstrates the process of Christian preaching. Assuming that the primary purpose of preaching is to present the good news of Jesus Christ, we begin with the biblical witness to that fact and its doctrinal clarification. This is the ground of all preaching. With texts and topics as starting points, we then move through the process of constructing either an expository or a doctrinal sermon. Doctrinal preaching, then, is Christian preaching grounded in the biblical witness to Jesus Christ; it starts with text, doctrine, or cultural question, but tends to focus on one or more Christian doctrines regardless of its starting point.
Purpose and Plan
This book aims to help the preacher proclaim Christian doctrine cogently and effectively. Just as systematic theology attempts to organize and present theology in an orderly manner, so this book attempts to organize and present homiletics in a systematic manner. We begin with an analysis of the audience and the problems of using theological language in the pulpit (chapter 2) as the preacher presents doctrine to a socially fragmented and theologically diverse group of hearers. From here we move systematically through the three starting points for a doctrinal sermon: text, doctrine, and question or statement arising in church and culture (chapters 3, 4, and 5). Thus from exegetical theology we move to polemics, catechesis, apologetics, pastoral care, ethics, and evangelism. Such movement represents a conscious attempt to keep doctrinal preaching grounded in Scripture and to progress from a lesser to a greater degree of difficulty.
The simplest way to assure that doctrinal preaching remains grounded in Scripture is to begin with Scripture. Through the centuries Christian preaching has often begun with the biblical text. But it has not always mined the text for its doctrinal richness. Chapter 3 thus examines ways of determining biblical doctrine by exploring the fruits and faults of the biblical theology movement and the impact of form and redaction criticism on doctrinal preaching.
Catechetical and polemical preaching are not new to the church. Catechumens were often nurtured in the faith through preaching and instruction concerning the sacraments and creeds. Polemics more than apologetics remains within the arena of the church, the community of faith, and tends to concentrate on in-house questions. While polemics, like apologetics, has to do with correct thinking about the faith (orthodoxy) , its focus is more on exposing and rooting out incorrect thinking (heterodoxy) within the faith. It is unfortunate that the word "heresy" is such a red flag in our time, recalling the heresy hunts and trials that used to occur, but seldom do in the church today. In times like ours, when people believe in "doing their own thing" and certainly "thinking their own thing" (if, in fact, some are thinking at all about religion) , the mode of theological discourse called polemics is certainly in order. Doctrinal preaching, which includes polemics, is not intended to raise a homiletical lynch mob, but to help Christians understand more clearly who they are.
Certainly this has been the primary role of polemics throughout Christian history. Examples of this in the New Testament can be found in the book of Acts and in Paulís letters -- particularly Romans, I Corinthians, and Galatians. Look also at Irenaeus (Against Heresies) , Tertullian, Augustine (against the Donatists and Pelagians) , Thomas Aquinas (with his Summa Theological and the Compendium Theologiae) , Luther, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards.
The benefits of this kind of preaching are immediately obvious. Such doctrines as baptism, the Holy Spirit, the meaning of heaven and hell, and the like are so wide and varied, and create so much consternation for the individual believer and so much dissension among the churches, that clear, precise polemical preaching is sorely needed today. Chapter 4 takes up this issue in more detail.
Chapter 5 looks at doctrinal preaching that begins with the culture, that is, from the point of view of apologetics. Apologetics is that mode of theological discourse that rightly belongs in the academy, for it examines the truth of the Christian faith when held up to the light of human reason. Apologetics seeks to defend the Christian faith in the arena of the world, often finding itself employing the worldís categories for argument. The audience, therefore, is necessarily those outside the faith, but not exclusively so. Apologetics and evangelism have this in common. Sometimes the two merge, as in Acts 2, when the Jews ask about the behavior of the Christians who were filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Peter uses the occasion to clarify who the Christians are as a people distinct from the Jews (apologetics) and to tell them about Christ, while also calling on them to repent (evangelism) Often evangelism involves at least implicit apologetics.
Acts 2 is one example of apologetics in theology and preaching. Another possible text is Acts 17:16-34. This Lukan construction of Paul at Athens is an example of a carefully crafted rhetorical utterance designed not only to distinguish and defend the Christian faith but to persuade the hearers to change their point of view. Here Paul addresses the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in a form of doctrinal preaching that is both apologetic and evangelistic. At least two were convinced: Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman called Damaris. In Acts 26, Paul defends Christianity apologetically and evangelistically (see vv. 28-29)
The tradition of apologetics can be seen throughout the history of theological discourse. From Justin Martyr, with his attacks on Greco-Roman paganism and apostasy from Judaism; to Origen, with his On First Principles, for those outside the faith; to Augustine, taking on the Manicheans; to Aquinas, with his Summa Contra Gentiles; to Friedrich Schleiermacher, with his On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers; to SÝren Kierkegaard; and, finally, to the preaching and writings of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich -- we find a rich tradition of theologians who show what is distinctive about the Christian faith. Apologetics in doctrinal preaching has been used to help inform the Christian community about its own beliefs as distinguished from the beliefs of the rest of the world. It has drawn lines and given reasons for beliefs which have long been accepted tacitly. Statements like "All religions are alike" or "It doesnít matter what you believe" are perfect starting points for apologetic preaching.
In addition to exegetical theology, polemics, and apologetics, doctrinal preaching should also be informed by ethics. Traditionally, ethics as a discipline would be in the category of philosophical theology, since it relates to what is distinctively human and seeks to organize knowledge concerning "the whole human culture, not morality alone."3 For our purposes, however, we will talk of it also in the context of practical theology (or the practical side of dogmatic theology) , since doctrinal preaching will be more concerned with the moral questions of the believer than with philosophical debates in the field of ethics.4 if in apologetics and polemics the preacher is concerned with helping the believer understand what to believe, in ethics the preacher is concerned with helping the believer understand what to do. It happens again and again in the Bible; theology leads to ethics, indicative to imperative, belief to action. Consider Paulís arrangement in his letter to the Romans. Chapters 1-11 spell out the theology; chapter 12 begins the ethical instruction. The history of doctrine is a record of this pattern. Dogma leads to praxis. There are those today who move intentionally to this kind of praxis-theology quite early. I am thinking particularly of liberation theologians. But in traditional Western theologies, dogma usually precedes ethics; belief usually precedes action.
Responsible doctrinal preaching not only examines the truth of beliefs and the reasons for these beliefs in the Christian life, it also focuses on moral questions that plague the contemporary believer. Without this moral dimension to doctrinal preaching, the Christian pulpit cannot effectively bring the gospel to bear on peopleís individual lives and corporately influence or transform culture.
I have argued that one of the most serious problems confronting the church today is the theological identity crisis experienced by the Christian believer. The solution to this problem is twofold:
(1) a sound and critical adult Christian education program; and (2) responsible doctrinal preaching that will not only present the basic truth of Jesus Christ but clarify how the believer shall live under Christís lordship.
1. What is your theology of preaching? How does it operate in your interpretation of texts and in your presentation of the gospel? In order to be specific, examine various sermons you have preached.
2. What is the theology of preaching that seemed to be present in congregations to which you have belonged or served? Identify how that theology became clear in the comments or questions of church members.
3. Identify in todayís church mistaken ideas about the following themes: (a) faith and works; (b) sin and salvation; (c) the incarnation of Jesus Christ; (d) the nature and purpose of the church; (e) good and evil; (t) the work of the Holy Spirit; (g) Christianity and culture; (h) free will; (i) eschatology; and (j) prayer.
Further Reading on This Subject
Baker, Eric. Preaching Theology. London: Epworth Press, 1954.
Duke, Robert W. The Sermon as Godís Word: Theologies for Preaching. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1980: 97-112.
Ebeling, Gerhard. Theology and Proclamation: Dialogue with Bultmann. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966: 13-21.
Lischer, Richard. A Theology of Preaching. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981: 13-29.
Ott, Heinrich. Theology and Preaching. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965:17-28.
Pitt-Watson, Ian. Preaching: A Kind of Folly. Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1976: 1-35.
Sangster, W. E. Doctrinal Preaching: Its Neglect and Recovery. Birmingham, England: Berean Press, 1953: 3-13.
Stuempfle, Herman G., Jr. Preaching Law and Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978: 11-19.
Wedel, Theodore O. The Pulpit Rediscovers Theology. New York: Seabury Press, 1956: 3-31.
1. Eric Baker, Preaching Theology (London: Epworth Press. 1954) , 7.
2. W. E. Sangster, Doctrinal Preaching: Its Neglect and Recovery (Birmingham, England: Berean Press, 1953) .
3. Friedrich Schleiermacher, Brief Outline on the Study of Theology, trans. Terrence N. Tice (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1977) , 116.
4. Ibid., 79-80.
Chapter 2: Theological Language in
Responsible doctrinal preaching has always taken seriously the problem of theological language. The New Testament writers themselves offer the best evidence of this fact. The Christ event burst upon the scene in new language created by the evangelists and the writers of the epistles. New life was breathed into already existing terms. The world was renamed in the light of Christís life, death, and resurrection, never to be the same again. Terms like "justification" and "adoption" took on new meaning as they spread across the Mediterranean world. There was a new excitement generated by this language, an excitement that changed the face of the world.
Understanding the Audience
The first step in the process of correctly appropriating and preaching theology is to know the audience one is addressing. Reginald Fuller makes this clear when he provides example after example of the various approaches to Christology that existed in the New Testament churches.1 As the biblical writers sought to communicate the gospel effectively to Palestinian Jews, Hellenistic Jews, and Hellenistic Gentiles, they employed images and terms for Christ that would not only be comprehensible to their hearers but would bring them to their knees by touching the emotions and moving the will.
Who is the audience in todayís church? What are their interests, their hurts, their attitudes toward religion? What question or questions do they bring? Different theologians respond to these queries in different ways. John Calvin no doubt believed that the question the parishioner brought to church on Sunday was, What can we learn about God and ourselves and how can we glorify him?
Karl Barth believed that the people in the pew were asking humbly and sincerely. Is it true about God? Is there a meaning, a goal, a God? He believed that people were interested in the preacher answering the question about God more than any other question. Most preachers, according to Barth, beat around the bush, entertain, put people off. We should not, he believed, be fooled by a blasť exterior.2 Behind it is a deep longing to know and meet Christ, not only to hear "yes" in answer to questions, but to confront God.
Paul Tillich believed that people were asking questions about the nature of being in relation to their own lives. Questions about life and death; questions about grief, anxiety, and abandonment. Whereas pastoral counselors deal with problems of psychological anxiety, preachers deal with questions of ontological anxiety. Unlike Barth, Tillich did not always begin with the biblical text. Instead, he often began with these congregational and cultural questions.
Schubert Ogden would say that the parishionersí question is, How can we believe in God and live authentically without a sacrifice in intellect? This is the question of our technological and scientific age. It is the question of the post-Constantinian, post-Christian era.
The question that nineteenth-century liberal theology saw the people in the pew asking was, What can I do to save the world? The liberal theology of Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf von Harnack spoke of humanityís hope, forgetting that in humanity alone there is no hope. Nineteenth-century liberal theology thought it could see progress, and thus preached its own thoughts, convinced that the believer was asking how he or she could participate in the progress of humankind. According to both Barth and Niebuhr, as well as others in the so-called neo-orthodox movement, this was a faulty and misguided question. Niebuhr, for example, believed that far from being the answer, Christ becomes the problem. The parishionersí question, as he saw it, was, What shall I do, then, with this Jesus who is called the Christ? For Niebuhr this is both a moral and a theological question.
Perhaps there is some truth to all of these questions, but the fact is that congregational members today represent no single homogeneous group asking a single, specific question. In fact, there are many groups represented in the pews. Leander Keck has identified at least seven types of Christians in todayís church. (I) The superpatriots who will not stand for any criticism of the church. These are the "love it or leave it" Christians. (2) The cynical citizens who continue to support the church but sometimes wonder why. They are not sure they believe anything anymore. (3) The tourists are those who barely understand the most basic beliefs of the Christian faith. They do a little shopping once in a while, but never buy anything. They are always "just looking." (4) The resident aliens are those who believe that religion is a good thing -- after all, the Judeo-Christian tradition is what shaped our culture and its moral values. But that is as far as it goes. Jesus was a great man, no more. (5) The expatriates are those who bear the scars of earlier religious experiences but have long since moved away from the church. Once in a while they appear in church searching for something they never got. (6) The reformers are those who want to change everything about the church. This group includes social activists, some evangelicals, and charismatics. (7) The church bureaucrats are primarily clergy who believe they are indispensable. They cannot imagine the church existing without them.3
The only group missing from Keckís analysis is the faithful few in every church who believe deeply in the Christian faith. This group often represents the core of leadership in any church -- people who are active, supportive, and growing in the faith intellectually, spiritually, and morally. They may have questioned their faith at one time as the result of a college course or a crisis in their life. But they have long since decided that Christianity is for them, and their whole life is colored by Christ and his church. This group includes people like the man who still believes in God after his son has been tragically killed. It includes the woman whose final years have been blunted by cancer, but who is nevertheless faithful to the end. It includes those who rarely, if ever, gossip and are almost always positive about the church and those in it because they know how to "speak the truth in love." This group has a larger view of life and of the church than the seven groups named by Keck. Perhaps the faithful few is a good name for this group, with the emphasis on few. We might also call them the silent saints. They are the backbone of the church.
A diagram of this faith continuum can help us see these various groups more clearly. At one end of the spectrum I have placed those who have never believed the Christian faith; at the other end are those who are fanatical about it.
Never believed/Once believed/Half-believef/Believe/Fanatical
expatriates faithful few
resident aliens cynical citizens superpatriots
One of the problems with theological language in the pulpit is that so many people hear it in so many different ways. When the superpatriot or the reformer hears the word "sin" on Sunday morning, he or she hears a different meaning than that heard by the resident alien, the cynical citizen, or the expatriate. For the superpatriot, sin may refer to others who are sinful, thus bolstering his or her self-righteousness. For the resident alien, the word may have no effect, or it may be heard as an interesting Christian idea. Actually, this particular word seems to carry more weight with the resident aliens than do other Christian words or doctrines. Witness the attention that Niebuhr received in the academic and political communities with his use of the word. (Even the most casual observer of humanity can readily see that sin is easier to prove than sanctification.) For the cynical citizen or the expatriate, the word "sin" may trigger a false and unnecessary guilt. Unfortunately, none of these people may understand or experience what the preacher, Scripture, or Christian doctrine really intends by use of the word.
What is the problem here? The way you answer this question depends upon whether you are talking about the more secular or the more churchly audience. With the more secular audience (the resident aliens and the tourists) , there is at least one problem and one opportunity. The problem, according to Gerhard Ebeling, Paul van Buren, and some "death of God" theologians, is that the word "God" has lost meaning in our time. Our world has lost the sense of Godís reality. As a result, the language of faith has become opaque. It has become a "ghetto language" -- only comprehensible to theologians. The secular world hears the churchly language with mild curiosity. The most the world can muster in response is a yawn.4 Perhaps this is the fault of preaching in the modern age, or perhaps it is a fact of the post-Enlightenment age in which we live. Whatever the case, theological language has little effect on resident aliens and tourists when used without some translation, explanation, or illustration. They simply do not hear it.
The opportunity offered by this group is that they do in fact want to hear more than clergy may realize. The reason is that people tend to be more religious than we think. I say this very broadly, without statistical proof, but as a statement of conviction: people are ultimately religious. All human beings need a relationship with a "Holy Other" beyond themselves. It takes hard work to be an atheist. Listen to Jacques Ellul: "Being nonreligious involves more intelligence, knowledge, practicality, and method. It calls for virtue, heroism, and greatness of soul. It takes an exceptional personal asceticism to be non-religious."5 Ellul believes that it takes a strong act of will to achieve this level of atheism. Most people do not have the fortitude to live in total independence. Most cannot live without some "soul supplement."
Ellul further challenges the idea that God has lost all meaning for people today. "Nothing is less certain than that modern man has abandoned God, and that the word God no longer has any meaning for him." The problem of God as an intellectual issue may not be high on the secular personís agenda, but Godís presence is still "just as disquieting and certain, just as vitalizing and challenging as ever." 6 Modern humanity may have "come of age," but it is no less interested in the mysterium tremendum. If this is not true, then why do young Communists look with fascination and genuine interest at the all-night Easter liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church? Why do countless unchurched people in Chicago gather every year to sing Handelís Messiah? What are they looking for?
We find these kinds of people throughout the history of the church. It may be an Augustine, that great secular rhetorician, stumbling into Ambroseís church Sunday after Sunday until it finally "took." It may be Frederick Buechner, that gifted novelist, heading to Madison Avenue Presbyterian to hear George Buttrick -- or perhaps to hear Christ -- searching for something, something not even he expected.
It may be Nathaniel, skeptical about Philipís charismatic excitement and sure that nothing good could come out of that town, but interested and curious enough to go see. It may be Cornelius, whose wealth and position would make one question his sincerity. Why does he need religion? He has everything. But Cornelius invites Peter for a private preaching mission. It may be the young bachelor physician, prominent, with a promising career. He will not join the church, but he is there every Sunday. He comes "religiously."
Perhaps Barth is right. Perhaps the question they are asking is, Is it true about God? This may not be the only question, but at the very least it is the primary and most basic question of the secular Christian. It is the question that precedes and overshadows Ogdenís, How can I believe in God and live authentically without a sacrifice of intellect?
If the language of faith is unintelligible to the secular Christian, it is not because he or she is uninterested. On the contrary, the secular Christian is quite interested, perhaps more than we think.
There are two problems and at least one opportunity with the churchly audience. One problem is that the language of faith is opaque. This is not because the hearer lacks interest, but because the doctrines are not being preached in an intelligible manner. Or perhaps the doctrines have not been preached at all. Such a situation should not be interpreted entirely as an indictment of those in the pulpit. In an attempt to avoid what might be dull, that is, doctrines, we have preached sermons based on Bible stories and an occasional parenetic pericope from Paul. We have sidestepped the great doctrines of the faith because of a few glazed eyes in the audience every time we tried. Or perhaps on occasion we preached the doctrines incorrectly -- never on purpose, of course. We preached "works" when Paul meant "grace," so much so that some found they could never live up to the demands and left the church. Some might have wanted something more than a "cheap grace," but may never have heard the obligation of a book like James or the positive use of the law. And so they finally left; the church was too easy for them.
These expatriates and these cynical citizens are, like the secular Christians, searching for something. The language of faith is also opaque to them, not because they are simply worldly, but because they have never heard it or never heard it right.
The second problem with the churchly audience is that the language of faith is too familiar. This is Fred Craddockís point in Overhearing the Gospel.7 As in Kierkegaardís nineteenth-century Denmark, so also in Fred Craddockís twentieth-century America has the language of faith lost its impact. The reason is that the cynical citizens, the superpatriots, and, yes, some of the church bureaucrats have heard it too much. The listener is too familiar with the words of faith -- not their meaning but their sound. Like Craddockís orphan, the churchly audience is not hungry enough.8 Unlike the secular Christians, they have stopped searching and long ago decided that they know what they believe. The mere recital of the key words from the pulpit will suffice. It is important that the words be said, but when they have been repeated, life can go on. The ritual recurs Sunday after Sunday.
James Fowler has located this group in what he calls the synthetic-conventional stage, that is, the third stage in the progression of faith development. Here the believer -- in addition to a possible adolescent conversion experience, where God has been reimaged in personal terms -- relies on a "tacit knowledge" of the Christian faith. The authority for those beliefs comes from parents or some other significant model. The believer has an inherited faith, knowing what the beliefs are, but not the whys, and not really interested in questioning them.9 In fact, critical reflection causes dissonance. This is reflected in the Catholic woman who says, ĎSometimes I just want the priest to tell me what I believe and not raise any doubts about it." This is the classic conformist stage. The superpatriot feels quite at home here. Religious institutions work best with this group because they do not question beliefs. This group is also the prime target for the electronic church. Only when things do not turn out the way they should, or beliefs do not hold up with human experience, do the superpatriots become cynical citizens. Cynical citizens still come to church and stand up Sunday after Sunday reciting the Apostlesí Creed, but the words no longer ring true. Perhaps they have become too familiar. They hear the children singing "Jesus Loves Me" and wonder why they do not feel it anymore. They read the Gideon Bible in the motel room, but the pages no longer come alive. God has become a long-lost friend -- a friend they once had.
The cynical citizen is right on the edge of Fowlerís stage four, the individuative-reflective stage, where some crisis, some traumatic event, has caused inconsistencies to appear in the inherited faith.10 This may happen in college or with a tragic death or a divorce. Something occurs that shakes oneís conventional moorings and causes one either to rethink the faith or leave it altogether. The cynical citizen will become either a reformer or an expatriate. At this point, the person hears the language of faith in a totally new way. He or she listens for its meaning at a deeper level than the person in Fowlerís synthetic-conventional stage. For perspective, consider Augustineís Confessions. The language of faith is not too familiar to this believer. It is usually not radical enough. Because an unbridled self-righteousness usually marks this believerís hearing, it offers the preacher real challenges for interpreting the doctrines of the faith.
The language of faith is rarely too familiar to the faithful few, for they are growing intellectually, spiritually, and morally, and are constantly trying to see new possibilities in living the Christian life. They are not sitting comfortably with an inherited faith nor are they questioning and challenging everything with a self-righteous air.11
As we seek to preach doctrine to this mixed church audience, the opportunity that lies before us as Christian preachers is three-fold: (1) to challenge those with an inherited faith to see doctrines in a new light; (2) to help those with only a critical faith to begin to heal their spiritual wounds and move on to a deeper knowledge of Christ; (3) to assist the faithful few in their continued growth in the faith.
How will we use theological language to seize this opportunity and make the most of it?
More than a Matter of Style
Theological language, like any other foreign language, is something that has to be learned. In this respect it is no different from technical language for the scientist, medical terminology for the physician, and legal jargon for the lawyer. The language of the Christian is theological language. Some people call it the language of Canaan to distinguish it from the language of Babylon, which is the way the world talks.12
The problem for the preacher, simply stated, is, How do we preach theological language? Or, more properly, How do we preach Christ with the help of Christian doctrines?
Three twentieth-century theologians have approached this problem in three different ways. Karl Barth used an approach that made no attempt to translate anything into the language of Babylon. First, Barth believed quite strongly that God was actually speaking when he preached. "Preaching is Godís own word."13 This word is not to be tampered with. "Again it must be emphasized," wrote Barth, "that preaching is not manís attempt to add something to revelation. . . ." 14 Second, Barthís disdain for natural theology turned him away from attempts to translate. In fact, he insisted the preacher should avoid personal experience from his own life as a way of translation.15 One would assume that this kind of preaching would be dull, abstract, and rote. Not so. Barth walked a narrow line. He preached the Word of God, but never as a bloodless, lifeless exercise in theological lecture. His sermons are full of the lifeblood of the gospel and the tragedy and pathos of human sin as it meets the wonderful gift of Godís grace. And Barth preached these kinds of sermons without changing one word of the Christian faith!
Listen how closely Barth walks the line as he talks about the preacherís task:
Let him speak in the way that is natural to him rather than assuming in the pulpit the cloak of an alien speech. Even the language of the Bible or of poetry as also the ringing tones of an impressive peroration are unsuited to the task he has in hand.
Let him be simple. Those who are engaged in this enterprise should follow the path on which the Bible leads them, should see things as they unfold in actual experience. This will preserve them from displays of doctrinal erudition which are of no great importance. Christian truth is always new when it is set in the context of daily life.16
Barthís own sermons are excellent examples of the method he has outlined. He may not translate the gospel by changing the language, but he certainly knows how to preach it. The unlimited grace of God sings throughout his sermons.
Paul Tillichís approach was markedly different. He sought to use language that corresponded to our more psychotherapeutic way of thinking in the twentieth century. Thus, sin became estrangement and salvation became healing. Christ, the new being, "is healing power overcoming estrangement because he himself was not estranged."17 Even a cursory perusal of Tillichís sermons in The Shaking of the Foundations, The New Being, and The Eternal Now gives the reader a sense of how well Tillich changed theological language in an effort to speak from the pulpit to modern culture. He made these changes consciously because he believed that there were many more resident aliens, tourists, cynical citizens, and expatriates in our pews than the faithful few. In his opinion, these hearers do not and will not understand theological language that is simply repeated.
One cannot argue with Tillichís strategy. While his sermons are most effective, his approach presents a problem: What happens when that more relevant language itself loses relevance or is not understood by everybody? Tillich did not change the names of any doctrines. Sin is still called "sin." At the same time, he gave us wonderful analogies for doctrines as models for doctrinal preaching.
Emil Brunner explored a middle ground between Barth and Tillich. With Barth, he wanted to maintain the theological language that had held sway through the centuries; with Tillich, he looked for a way to translate that language so that it spoke to and in the context of human experience. He did this with his famous "point of contact" -- that point where the image of God remains in sinful humanity and creates the possibility for the hearing of proclamation. Ian Pitt-Watson believes with Brunner that preachers must search the interpersonal experience and the moral consciousness of hearers in order to bring theological language alive.18 We are not to repeat the names of doctrines in explanation.
Searching the interpersonal experience of the believer sounds like a rather questionable and mystical experience for any preacher. Exegeting a congregation through regular pastoral visitation is one thing, but how does one search the interpersonal experience of another and relate that to preaching?
I believe Pitt-Watson is on the right track as long as he refers to the common experience of believers. Behind every doctrine there is a common experience of believers that has surfaced again and again and has finally been named "sin" or "sanctification" or "regeneration." Doctrines do not drop out of the sky nor do they represent the emotional euphoria of one person or one congregation or even one age, like the Reformation or the early church. Doctrines have stood the test of time.
Our responsibility as preachers involves finding ways to understand the experience behind the doctrines and helping believers relive that experience, not only intellectually but spiritually and morally. Responsible theologians have always understood this problem. Go back to Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Schleiermacher -- they always demonstrated the connection between theological ideas and human experience and brought Christian doctrine to bear upon the life of the individual believer. John Smith believes that the analogy of experience is well suited to Christianity because of Christianityís emphasis on a God who comes into history in the form of a man, never in the form of an ideology or a philosophy. Christ is not set forth in a vacuum; he is the Word made flesh who dwelled among us. Smith believes that the only way we can begin to understand the doctrines that speak to the Christ event is by finding the likenesses of it in human experience.19
Smith further argues that we cannot preach these doctrines by simply telling the hearers truths, like a scientist who supplies factual information in response to a factual question. We should, rather, "lead another to see, to understand, to apprehend the truth for himself. . . . The aim should be rather to engage the hearer, to Ďconverse withí him in the hope of creating the possibility of his seeing what the interpreter believes he has seen." 20
We are now back at our starting point. How do we share the common experience that lies behind the doctrines so that the sermon is more than a surface cognitive experience? Craddock believes we do this by indirect communication, by eliciting capability and action from within the listener, not by giving information. Like a book that gives us distance and room to relate the message to our own experience, a sermon should give us distance and room to maneuver.21 I once heard George Buttrick preach on what he might say to a Martian about Christian worship. At first I thought that he had lost his mind, but by the end of the sermon I realized that I had "overheard" a doctrinal sermon on Christian worship and had been drawn in to experience it in the process. Preaching that offers the opportunity to overhear gives people space and a chance to hear the gospel at a deeper level.
Tillich answered the question about preaching common experience that lies behind the doctrines by suggesting "identification" and "participation" on the part of the preacher. "We who must communicate the gospel must understand the other. We must somehow participate in [their] existence. . . . We can speak to people only if we participate in their concern, not by condescension but by sharing."22 A young woman says of another, "I can talk to her because she knows where I am." In preaching, knowing where another is means two things -- knowing not only what individuals in your congregation are experiencing but knowing also those universal human experiences that are often named by the doctrines of the Christian faith.
If doctrine is the churchís reflection on Godís action and our experiences of that action presented in abstract nouns, then our responsibility as preachers is to find ways to reclaim the blood of action that has been drained from these words. What picture does the preacher mean for us to have in our minds when he or she talks of atonement or grace? Edmund Steimle believes that we should translate abstraction into action. "God is active here and now." Something is done, not merely said.23 The doctrine must be brought to life. Look at the parables, the narratives. Here doctrinal abstraction is given dramatic handling. God comes to us in action, not in dogmas. He comes in a manger, not a proposition. He comes on a cross, not in a conclusion.
According to Steimle, we do not explain faith -- we evoke it! That is, through the use of metaphorical language and story that approximates the experience behind the doctrine, we present the living God to our hearers. We do not explain God. We simply offer our hearers the opportunity to meet God. Preaching involves arranging a meeting between God and people. We do not preach about faith; we evoke it.24 By our use of language, we create the opportunity for this faith encounter to occur in the listenersí consciousness.
Consider, for example, the way a book on logic might discuss the most primitive kind of definition: the ostensive, or pointing, definition, where someone first looked at an animal, pointed, and said "dog." When enough people agreed on that naming, it became a common experience. Nowadays, we still point and name common experiences, like that of listening to a Beethoven symphony and deciding that it is a masterpiece. As Merrill Abbey points out, to do this we must go back again and again -- listening to the music and recreating the common experience of that listening -- to understand fully how this Beethoven work is a masterpiece, why music theorists believe that, and what difference that makes.25
Christian doctrines, of course, are not as concrete as naming a dog or deciding that a piece of music is a great work of art. But when we preach doctrines, we do point and say, "There, now that is what the doctrine of creation is all about." Some might contend that such explicit pointing goes too far, that if you have used your metaphorical language correctly and helped people see their story in the light of the biblical story, the doctrine will emerge implicitly.
I believe, however, that a certain amount of "pointing" is necessary, particularly for those resident aliens, tourists, cynical citizens, and expatriates who often do not catch the subtleties of the well-crafted, sophisticated, narrative sermon. This pointing can occur through one of several different approaches to sermon structure. (1) It can occur with the classic point system, where the preacher says, "The doctrine for today is . . ." and then breaks it down into easily followed points. The danger here is that without effective illustrations, this system can become only explanation. (2) The pointing can occur when the preacher moves from misunderstood doctrine, and conflict resulting from that, to deeper understanding of the doctrine. To do this, the doctrine is named and illustrated in each section of the sermon. (An example is Walter Brueggemannís illustration of the incarnation in which a child cries out in the middle of the night, and the mother comes into the dark room and takes the child into her arms, saying, "Itís all right; itís all right, Iím here.") (3) The preacher can use a more metaphorical way of expressing a doctrine like justification, never giving its actual name or form until the end. This approach was once used in a sermon on Rom. 5:1-5, where the Todayís English Version translation of "being right with God" was used in place of the Revised Standard Version phrase "justified by faith." In the sermon the preacher explored the problems of saying we must "get right with God" as well as the dimensions of rightness in family, society, and in relationship with God. The preacher also discussed that people try all kinds of ways to make things right, but that what Paul is saying is that people do not have to "get right"; they already are right with God. The very last sentence of the sermon reads: "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. So that is what being justified means. Thanks be to God."
One of the best ways to do effective pointing in doctrinal preaching is to know the image that lies behind the doctrine, for that image can effectively bring the doctrine to life. Listen to David Buttrick on this point:
The theological method moves from image, metaphor, symbol, and dream, self-awareness, and all those things that have better concrete names, in the angerís flashing moments of vision to which human visions are wont. They move from method, image, metaphor, and symbol to conceptual statements. That is an act of cognitive reduction. The homiletician is a reverse theologian. He too is concerned with the relating of theological statement and nice earthy experience. He is much concerned, but he operates by a kind of process of amplification. Take a faith concept. How do I image it? What are the metaphors? Where are the symbols and the dream talk and the rhythms by which that language formed in what is already formed by lived experience? In one way, the homiletician is a reverse theologian, re-imaging faith.
How are you going to relate the doctrine of atonement to characters in the present world? You going to talk about sacrifice? You sliced any lamb throats lately? You going to talk about slavery? You bought any slaves? The fact is, the old images may not work. How are you going to determine what the new images are? How do we talk faith now? What are the images? Where are they hidden in the new language?26
The preacher is a "reverse theologian," seeking to discover new images for the doctrines that already exist. We are not changing the language but the images that express that language. The images will help us point to the experience. This is what Steimle strives toward when he talks about word pictures. A diagram of this homiletical problem might look like this:
Doctrine Atonement Providence
Theological Godís sacrificial Godís sustaining
Language love care and guidance
Images Lamb Joseph and
Experience Being given Trusting Godís
Often, familiar and powerful biblical images, such as the story of Joseph and his brothers, are still effective in attempting to reclaim the experience that lies behind the doctrine. But where are the new images that Buttrick mentions? I believe we can find them in either of two places: (I) the writings of theologians; and (2) literature, particularly poetry, plays, and novels. Some would also argue here that certain TV shows and movies would be other places. The new images behind the atonement might be found in Eugen Rosenstock-Huessyís description of the cross as reality -- the cruciform that makes sense of all the perpetual suffering of our existence.27 Hans Kung also talks of the image of suffering in his analysis of the meaning of the cross for our time.28 Perhaps it is the suffering sacrifice of the crucified God in JŁrgen Moltmannís thought.29 Or one might turn to Graham Greeneís The Power and the Glory. Numerous novels and plays handle the subject of sacrifice and its meaning for modern humanity.30
Explanation and Evocation
The different approaches to preaching doctrine can be charted on a homiletical continuum like the one that follows. At one end is the narrative sermon that attempts to explain nothing, but seeks with the use of poetic images to evoke in the hearer the experience implied in the doctrine. At the other end is the teaching sermon that attempts to explain everything. Schleiermacherís analysis of different forms of religious speech can help clarify this continuum. He distinguished between the poetic, the rhetorical, and the didactic. In the poetic form, the speaker creates "images and forms which each hearer completes for himself in his own peculiar way." Because of this the speaker has less control over the response, the actual experience that is generated in the hearer s mind and soul. The rhetorical form of speech is less descriptive, more stimulative, that is, it seeks a "particular definite result." The didactic form achieves the highest possible definiteness and is thus employed for dogmatic propositions in the instruction of believers.31
If the purpose of the didactic form is to teach the mind, and the poetic to touch the heart, and the rhetorical to move the will, and all three purposes are important in preaching, then all three should be employed in the preaching of doctrinal sermons. Certainly Edwardsís use of the Puritan plain-style approach in his preaching is the best example of this kind of combination. (We will look at Edwardsís preaching more specifically in the next chapter.)
The continuum we have been discussing looks like this. It demonstrates the different ways that theological language is used in doctrinal preaching.
Narrative Sermon Teaching Sermon
Poetic Rhetorical Didactic
The reason that responsible doctrinal preaching takes theological language so seriously is that doctrines are the words on which the Christian church has been built. As Ian Ramsey puts it, "ĎJustificationí has been something for which people have been ready to die, and many of the Reformers did."32 Without the preaching of these doctrines, there would be no spiritual quickening, no moral or spiritual-growth, for in every case the doctrines point to Christ.
I. Which of the theologians correctly identifies the question people are asking when they come to church on Sunday morning?
2. Choose a specific Christian doctrine and explore some of the ways you would use theological language in a Barthian sermon and a Tillichian sermon on that doctrine.
3. With the doctrine of sin as the focus, explore ways that you would (a) move from misunderstood notions, to conflict, to a deeper understanding of the doctrine; and (b) present the sermon without the use of the term until the end.
4. With the doctrine of creation as the focus, discuss (a) theological language and (b) old and new images that lie behind it.
5. Study the Robertson sermon (printed in the appendix) to determine the various images he uses to preach specific doctrines.
Further Reading on This Subject
Abbey, Merrill R. Living Doctrine in a Vital Pulpit. Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 1962: 52-70.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth. Creative Preaching. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1980: 97-103.
Blackwood, Andrew W. Doctrinal Preaching for Today. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975: 17-38, 184-96.
Ebeling, Gerhard. Introduction to a Theological Theory of Language. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973: 15-80.
Fawcett, Thomas. The Symbolic Language of Religion. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1971: 13-68.
Funk, Robert W. Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God. New York: Harper & Row, 1966: 72-122.
Pitt-Watson, Ian. Preaching: A Kind of Folly. Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1976: 51-63.
Ramsey, Ian. Religious Language. London: SCM Press, 1957:
Sleeth, Ronald E. Proclaiming the Word. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1964: 72-73, 77-81.
Smith, John. The Analogy of Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
1. Reginald Fuller, The Foundations of New Testament Christology (New York: Charles Scribnerís Sons, 1965)
2. Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, trans. Douglas Horton (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1978) , 107- 12.
3. Leander Keck imparted this information in a lecture given at Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Va., July 1977.
4. Gerhard Ebeling, God and Word (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967) , 34-35.
5. Jacques Ellul, The New Demons, trans. C. Edward Hopkin (New York: Seabury Press, 1975) , 205.
6. Ibid., 40.
7. Fred Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978)
8. Ibid., 33-34.
9. James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1981) , 151-73.
10. Ibid., 174-83.
11. Although this group would approximate Fowlerís stage five, I would describe it in a different way. I find stages five and six in Fowlerís book the most difficult to document and understand. His ambivalence at the beginning of his discussion of conjunctive faith indicates a similar difficulty. There are other places also at which Fowler can be criticized; for instance, see Craig Dykstra. Vision and Character: A Christian Educatorís Alternative to Kohlberg (Ramsey, N.J.: Paulist Press. 1981) But all in all, I believe that Fowler has offered a helpful description of the phenomenon of religious experience.
12. Ian Pitt-Watson, Preaching: A Kind of Folly (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976)
13. Karl Barth, The Preaching of the Gospel, trans. B. E. Hooke (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963) , 54.
14. Ibid., 21.
15. Karl Barth, Prayer and Preaching (London: SCM Press, 1964) , 100.
16. Barth, The Preaching of the Gospel, 52.
17. Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1972) , 212.
18. Pitt-Watson, Preaching, 37-40.
19. John Smith, The Analogy of Experience (New York: Harper & Row, 1973) , xi-xx.
21. Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel.
22. Tillich, Theology of Culture, 202, 207.
23. Edmund Steimle, "The Preached Word in Action" (Taped lecture, 1960)
25. Merrill R. Abbey, Living Doctrine in a Vital Pulpit (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1964) , 59.
26. David G. Buttrick, "Homiletics and Rhetoric" (Lecture delivered at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 16 April 1979)
27. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, The Christian Future (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) , 166.
28. Hans Kong, On Being a Christian, trans. Edward Quinn (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1976) , 576-81.
29. Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (New York: Harper & Row, 1973)
30. Robert Howard Clausen examines Arthur Millerís After the Fall and The Price, John James Osborneís Inadmissible Evidence, Edward Albeeís A Delicate Balance, Frank D. Gilroyís The Subject Was Roses, and Eugene lonescoís Exit the King in The Cross and the Cries of Human Need (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1973)
31. Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1968) 78-79.
32. Ian Ramsey, Religious Language (New York: Macmillan Co.; London: SCM Press, 1957) , 180.
Chapter 3: Doctrine and the Bible
In a lecture to a homiletics class in the 1950s, James Stewart talked about the preaching of scriptural doctrine. The class had been discussing the problems and possibilities of preaching on I Cor. 1:22-24. Stewart suggested that this text offered the preacher a wonderful opportunity to give a sermon on the doctrine of the cross. "For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles" (v. 22) Here, Stewart believed, was a text that could be used as the basis of an expository sermon which would present a great doctrine of the church.
When one of the pastors questioned this noted scholar about the preaching of doctrine, Stewart replied, "I think probably the best doctrinal sermons are those which arise in an expository fashion out of the text itself."1 This is a classic Protestant answer, and one that takes seriously the possibility of doctrinal preaching within the context of a specific scriptural text.
Two other highly respected Protestants, Donald G. Miller and Andrew Blackwood, speak in similar terms of the importance of preaching scriptural doctrine.2 Miller does so in the context of Paulís great peroration to victory in Rom. 8:28-39. Here he finds the following doctrines: (1) the love of God; (2) atonement; (3) providence; (4) the deity of Christ. They are all in the context of (5) the security of the believer. The preacher would not, of course, attempt all of these in one sermon, and would do well to preach only on one. But the point remains that preaching scriptural doctrine is a legitimate form of Christian preaching.
Doctrinal preaching with the text as a starting point is not only legitimate for many Protestants, but for some it is the only way to preach. Earlier I suggested that there are three possible starting points for sermons: text, doctrine, and issue (question or statement in church or culture) Protestant groups represented generally by those in the Calvinist, Lutheran, and Anabaptist traditions have tended to start with a text in the pulpit, especially when preaching doctrines. Roman Catholics, as well as any others who preach the creeds (like the Dutch Reformed) , have tended to begin with the doctrine itself when preaching doctrine from the pulpit. A potpourri of clergy of other denominations have found themselves beginning sermons by addressing an issue. The United Methodists and the United Church of Christ (Congregational strain) primarily comprise this category, but Presbyterians and various others are also included.
Since Vatican II, there has been a resurgence of interest in the Bible among Roman Catholics. The fine, penetrating work of scholars like Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer, and Roland Murphy, among others, coupled with the renewed emphasis on preaching the lectionary, which has become an ecumenical venture, has brought Scripture to the forefront in Catholic circles. Thus, a shift in interest has moved Catholics closer to Protestants in the area of doctrinal preaching. But traditionally preachers in the Catholic tradition have started with doctrine itself, and many still do.
By combining doctrinal preaching with the text as a starting point, I have reversed the order Brunner uses to locate the three sources of dogmatics. He begins with the polemical element, moves to the catechetical, and finally includes the exegetical, with Augustineís De doctrina Christiana and Philipp Melanchthonís Dogmatics as examples.3 Brunner puts these sources in order of their importance for dogmatics; I do so in order of their importance for preaching. By beginning with the exegetical, then moving to the catechetical and polemical, and finally to the apologetic, I have sought to describe the three ways that doctrinal preaching arises and should arise.
I begin with doctrinal preaching based on the biblical text as starting point, and I believe that pastors would do well to follow this approach for two reasons: (1) Beginning with Scripture assures the preacher of remaining close to the original witness to Godís revelation in Jesus Christ. All preaching should be grounded in this witness, and there is no better way to be grounded in it than to begin with it. And there is also no better way to avoid preaching oneís own opinions. Beginning with Scripture does not mean that the preacher will never veer off target; that happens every Sunday in some pulpits. But the likelihood of it happening is less if serious exegetical work precedes oneís preaching. (2) Beginning with Scripture is easier than beginning with a doctrine or an issue. The sheer volume of responsible homework involved in the latter two approaches is staggering, and it increases exponentially when one moves from doctrine to issue. Thus it is almost impossible to preach on doctrines and issues every week. With a text all you have to master is the text itself and the doctrine or doctrines contained therein. Not so with a doctrine or an issue.
Biblical Theology: Old and New
Talk of finding doctrine in Scripture inevitably leads to a discussion of biblical theology. One does not need to rehearse the arguments for or against various forms of biblical theology which have been heard throughout the church. People like Brevard Childs have already done that thoroughly and helpfully.4
We are already aware of the dangers and pitfalls that arise with biblical theologies that look for eternal truths -- little gems of doctrine within specific, one-verse texts -- the dubious gift of nineteenth-century liberalism. We are aware of the "doctrines of the Bible" books by people like William Evans and B. B. Warfield,5 which draw together various texts and organize them under headings according to the authorís theological bent, with minimal sensitivity to biblical criticism. These books become motif studies, with little more than proof texts for support, while being untrue to the historical and literary context of the biblical text. We know also the more sensitive biblical critics like Rudolf Bultmann, Millar Burrows, Walter Eichrodt, and Gerhard von Rad, among others, who have sought to be true to scripture while discussing its theological themes.6 While Burrows and others did not attempt to form a system which was extrabiblical, that was sometimes the result. James Barrís criticism of the biblical theology movement of the 1940s to the 1960s is well taken.7 The exponents of biblical theology were, according to Barr, taking biblical criticism seriously, but not the biblical text itself. And as Childs points out:
The Bible does not function in its role as canon to provide a collection of eternal ideas, nor is it a handbook of right doctrine, nor a mirror of manís religious aspirations.
Any sensitive reading of the Bible reveals that seldom does the Bible move within broad, abstract categories such as the doctrine of man, sin, or the "last things." Rather, the Psalms reflect on man in his glory and man in his insignificance within the world (Psalm 8)8
Childs understands the need for theological interpretation and exegesis in preaching. He recognizes the theological themes present in the Bible that find their way into the workroom of the theologian and the faith of the believer. But he believes that these themes can emerge in modern scholarship and modern preaching in a way that is true to the scriptural and churchly contexts.
Childsís model for this emergence is represented by the great theologians of the past, specifically Augustine, Luther, and Calvin.9 Look at their commentaries and sermons. The Bible was not only for the mind but for the soul, and it was a challenge to the will. These precritical exegetes and preachers may have lacked precision in biblical criticism, but their theological interpretations struck home and brought the Bible to the heart of the believer. Read Calvinís commentaries. Look at Luther on Romans. There is a richness in these writings that is hard to beat. These are the models for theological exegesis.
What Calvin and Luther and Barth were able to do so well was hold in tension the original scriptural context and the churchly, or canonical, context. Biblical theology that deals only with scriptural context is descriptive; it leaves to the dogmatician the task of constructing a theology normative for the faith. Biblical theology that is normative takes the churchly context and the faith of the believer into account, while at the same time staying close to the thought patterns and forms of Scripture.
The danger of being only descriptive in biblical theology and doctrinal preaching is that one never addresses the heart of the believer. Like an agnostic history of religions expert or master of biblical word study, one can take a text apart but never put it back together for a congregation. There is nothing more frustrating for a preacher, and subsequently for the parishioners, than to try to make sense out of a sermon informed by commentaries that reduce the living witness of Godís revelation to history, literature, and linguistic analysis.
The danger of being only normative without the descriptive grounding is that the biblical theologian and the preacher can turn their interpretations and sermons into spiritual and moral exhortations that have no connection with the biblical witness. If various forms of textual preaching that Fosdick reacted against have become the heirs of the descriptive approach to biblical theology in doctrinal preaching, then various forms of topical preaching have become the heirs of the normative approach. Responsible biblical theology and doctrinal preaching seek to employ both descriptive and normative approaches, both scriptural and churchly contexts.
Let us take this one step further by comparing the tasks of the biblical theologian and the dogmatic theologian. The biblical theologian engages in both descriptive and normative analysis. Some scholars tend to focus on one type of analysis more than the other; for instance, the Harvard school tends to do more descriptive philological study, while the Yale school focuses more on the normative, although Childs himself represents a good combination of both. The biblical theologian who helps the doctrinal preacher the most not only investigates Scripture in its own setting, as heard by ancient Israel and the early church, but investigates the theology that informs a certain text, for instance, the theology of Second Isaiah or the theology of Paul. The biblical theologian is not interested in speculative reasoning or a specific theological system.10 As a believing inquirer, the biblical theologian attempts to bring forth the deeper theological meaning of the text, knowing that Scripture is the grounding, the root, the starting point for most of the major doctrines of the Christian faith. The task is not to trace the doctrinesí subsequent development but to examine and understand their roots.
The dogmatic theologian, also a believing inquirer, shares the task of theology with the biblical theologian, but from a different angle, with a different agenda in mind. The biblical theologian works out from Scripture as he or she investigates the genesis of various doctrines. The dogmatic theologian starts with the doctrines of the church and looks back to the biblical witness to examine the beginnings of these well developed doctrines, indeed, the foundations of the Christian faith. Therefore, biblical and dogmatic theologians have a common meeting ground in Scripture.
Form and Redaction Criticism
Doctrinal preachers who seek to preach doctrine by starting with the text are helped in many ways by the biblical theologian. The biblical theologian helps them avoid the pitfalls of the nineteenth-century liberals (preaching eternal truths) , the Warfields (lapsing into proof texting) , and the adherents of the mid-twentieth-century biblical theology movement (forcing the Bible into various systems) Moreover, the biblical theologian does not retreat from theology into an objectively helpful but spiritually arid philological, archaeological, and historical approach, but instead reaps the fruit of form and redaction criticism, which sharpens not only textual preaching but doctrinal preaching that uses the text as starting point.
How can form criticism help doctrinal preaching? By reminding us that the Bible presents many genres in various forms of literature. Each literary type functions in a different way, often with a different theological purpose. As Donald Gowan suggests:
Law is not functioning in the same areas of life as saga, and its
Since we know that saga, historical texts, law, wisdom, and prophetic texts are all different in the Old Testament -- just as narrative, controversy-pronouncement, parable, and Pauline parenesis are different in the New Testament -- we are called to preach doctrine with an eye to these limitations and opportunities.
For example, if we realize that one of the purposes of historical texts (like the succession narratives found in 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles) is to help us see our place in the continuing history of God and Godís people, then the doctrine of providence is more in order with these texts than the doctrines of judgment, mercy, and even hope, which would tend to appear in doctrinal sermons on prophetic passages. As in every other case, each text would have to be examined for its specific doctrinal potential.
Sagas are not so easily analyzed. Sagas are shorter units of folk literature, with a more private than public nature (unlike historical texts). The story of Jacob at the Jabbok is an example of a saga. Sagas include various theological themes which do not easily work themselves into sermons on a single, specific doctrine. Jacob at the Jabbok could deal with sin, guilt, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, but all of this in one sermon would be formidable. Again, the form of a saga helps us decide. It helps us take the focus off Jacob, Esau, and ourselves, and place the focus on God. We are only players on the stage of this divine drama. Listen to von Rad:
God is everywhere the real narrative subject, so to speak, of the saga -- or rather, its inner subject; men are never important for their own sakes but always as objects of the divine activity; as those who both affirm and deny God and his command.12
The saga of Jacob at the Jabbok tells us more about God than about ourselves. God is the one who brings direction to our lives, who puts Jacob into the position of leadership despite his selfcenteredness. God is the one who calls us up short in the midst of our sin. God is the one who gives blessing. God is the one who brings about restoration. The passage is about God.
Short stories are much more freewheeling than sagas. Again, God is the focus, but there is an even stronger emphasis on our freedom within the larger divine providence. Short stories are longer than sagas and always have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Jonah is the classic example of this form. Short stories resist distillation. They want to live in their own form. They resist reduction to doctrinal points. Even in a doctrinal sermon, a retelling of the story with the tone and color of the genre in mind often does it more justice. See the sermon on Jonah in the appendix for an example. It attempts to allow theological themes to come to the fore without doing harm to the form of the short story.
The same could be said for parable as form. Parables are often thought to be devoid of theology. They are used as moral exhortations, for example, to be good soil, as in the Parable of the Sower, or to help the poor, as in the Good Samaritan,13 to forgive your errant son, as in the Prodigal Son. But in each a deeper theological point is being made. These are not little moral lessons but deeply theological statements with a twist that leaves hearers in a state of cognitive and emotive dissonance. They are about the effectual power of the seed (Godís Word) ; the healing love of the real Good Samaritan, whose love is never calculating, who finds a neighbor at every turn; the unbelievable grace of God that angers, threatens, and challenges all of us pharisaical older-brother types with a call to repentance. The parables carry rich lodes ready to be mined for doctrinal preaching. But beware -- like the short stories and sagas of the Old Testament, they too resist reduction to carefully and logically deduced points. If you do use points, give the whole sermon the flavor of parable, including especially the surprise at the end.
Doctrinal preachers who begin with a text are actually helped more by redaction criticism than by form criticism. In redaction criticism the emphasis is not so much on the preliterary genres, the separate functions of separate units of Scripture, but on the theological intention of the various editors of the Bible. One of the real dangers of some forms of biblical theology is their attempt to unify Scripture into one theological system. Redaction criticism argues that the Bible resists that process because of its many writers and thus its many theologies. A single unifying system blurs the distinctiveness of Scripture.
Attempts at forming a New Testament theology must reckon with the pluralism of theological perspectives in the New Testament. We can no longer talk of the synoptics, the Pauline, and the Johannine theologies. Matthew, Mark, and Luke-Acts must be taken separately. Authentic Pauline material must be distinguished from pseudo-Pauline writings. Early writings of Paul must be distinguished from his great letters and his captivity letters.14 Hebrews, the pastorals, I and 2 Peter, and James have their own say as separate from the Johannine writings. Each book has its own integrity. To say "The Bible says . . ." in a doctrinal sermon -- or any sermon -- becomes almost ludicrous in the light of redaction criticism findings.15
If each redactor or editor places his own theological imprint on the story of Jesus, and Paul has his say with various struggling New Testament churches, it becomes more and more difficult to talk of the New Testament doctrine of atonement. Imagine the differences as one ranges between Romans and Hebrews.
The biblical theologian could despair in the presence of such pluralism. Such apparent theological chaos seems to lead only to cacophony, as if each member of the orchestra has begun playing whatever he or she likes. Fortunately, this is not the case. The pluralism, in fact, adds richness just as the flutist, the bassoonist, and the cellist add richness to an orchestra by making different sounds and by playing different notes at different speeds and different volumes all during the same piece. Different New Testament theologies all point to Christ. Sometimes they do this in dissonance, but this adds richness to the whole. The message is many faceted.
Our responsibility as doctrinal preachers who start with a text is not to say everything there is to say about atonement (if that happens to emerge as a doctrine in the text on which we are about to preach) , but to say what the author of Hebrews has said, or what Paul has said here in the context of this particular letter. At least this makes the task a little bit easier. Now I only have to deal with one writerís theological angle on this particular doctrine in this particular text. Since we cannot hope to preach the whole gospel every Sunday, we should make no excuses for offering a good look at one side of it this Sunday. To change the musical metaphor to a more visual one, the gospel is like a great gem that cannot be appreciated completely in a single glance, but must be turned slightly, week after week. Only after a time do we begin to see it in all its brilliance.
Doctrine and the Lectionary
One way to look at this many faceted gospel is to preach the lectionary on a weekly basis. The lectionary passages present the doctrines of the gospel in all of its richness. Since 1969, when the Roman Catholic church completed its Ordo Lectionum Missae, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, and United Methodist churches have joined Catholics in one of the most ecumenical ventures ever adopted -- the weekly use of a common lectionary. This unified approach represents the most organized attempt in the history of the church to communicate the gospel to the world. Lectionary helps have abounded, each offering balanced exegetical, theological, and homiletical suggestions to the modern-day preacher. Some, like Robert Crotty, Gregory Manly, and Reginald Fuller, attempt to balance the descriptive and normative approaches to biblical theology.16 Others, like Gerard Sloyan, focus more on the former.17 The Proclamation series offer a blend by having two separate writers for most of the books.18 Thus, the modern-day preacherís desk is full of all kinds of commentaries which open the biblical text into expository and doctrinal sermons.
But not the full biblical text. The lectionary, as many have found out, is a canon within a canon. A very careful, selective process has brought together this assortment of texts. The preacher must remember that it is a selection, and the same one every three years. It is more condensed than the Readerís Digest Condensed Bible. It is more selective than the lectio continua approach of some Protestant preachers, who begin at the beginning of a book and go straight through, or the faithful laity who read the Bible from cover to cover. The lectionary is admittedly lectio selecta. It makes no apologies about that, and well it should not. The lectionary is one of the best things to happen to Christian preaching for centuries. Of course, some form of lectionary has been around since the first Jewish synagogue, but only recently have so many begun to use the lectionary, and jointly so.
The fact remains that the lectionary provides for only a selection of readings, which means that something has to be left out. Yes, whole books of the Bible are missing: Judges, Ruth, Ezra, Esther, Obadiah, Nahum, Haggai, and the Psalms in the Old Testament, and 2 and 3 John and Jude in the New Testament. When you think of the scope of the whole Bible, that is not bad. After all, it takes more than three years to read through the Bible one chapter a day. But the Psalms are missing, as well as whole sections of other books. Imagine the rich doctrinal material not being touched if a preacher stays with the lectionary alone.
While the lectionary does not cover all doctrines, it does cover most of the major ones, since theological themes coincide with seasons to direct the choice of certain passages. Some doctrines, however, have been omitted. When using the lectionary, we should ask ourselves what doctrine is included and what theological angle on that doctrine is being communicated through the lectionary by a certain Gospel or epistle writerís view. On the whole, the lectionary has done a responsible job of giving fair theological representation. Witness the great range of epistle texts during the season of Lent across all three years. There are other examples as well. But the lectionary is not without critics on this score. Sloyan finds the lectionary lacking in specific areas. "The lectionary is all but silent on the marvel of creation and the paradox of the grandeur and wretchedness of human life," he says "It uses none of the great nature psalms as a sustained reading, and from the riches of Job calls only on 7:1-4, 6-7 and 38:1, 8-11." 19 Sloyan rightly questions the meager use of Job and Ecclesiastes. There three texts in the lectionary "stand alone in representing the human wrestling with tedium, purposelessness, and frustration conveyed by those books."
The biggest problem for Sloyan is the heavily christocentric nature of the lectionary.
There is, in a word, a kind of nervousness throughout the lectionary that not every problem raised by the Hebrew scriptures may be seen as solved by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. "Christ is the answer" would seem to be the chief interpretative principle behind the selections, but with something bordering on an anticipated Parousia. One suspects that the overall performance might give a certain pleasure to St. Paul, but at sensitive points disappoint him deeply. . . . Congregations are being protected from the insoluble mystery of God by a packaged providence,a packaged morality, even a packaged mystery of Christ.20
Sloyanís analysis is trenchant and telling. Beginning with the text of the lectionary Sunday after Sunday will offer a doctrinal stance that is strongly christocentric but weak on the deep human anguish and frustration presented in the Old Testament; it is also strong on providence but weak on creation. Preachers should use the lectionary fully aware of these doctrinal limitations.
One additional note of caution. Since during the seasons of Epiphany and Pentecost the editors of the lectionary have made a conscious attempt to create a lectio continua in the epistle selections, you will not find a clear, uniform doctrinal theme across the three lessons. Do not attempt to force one.
Once you have selected a passage to preach, either through the lectionary, through lectio continua, or through your own time-tested method, you need to proceed to the exegesis and construction of the sermon. You have done some of the exegetical homework, and, as with Acts 2, have found at least one theological theme (and perhaps many more) It is now time to begin answering specific questions that will lead to a doctrinal sermon. These ten questions are not exhaustive; still they move us in the right direction as we seek to do responsible doctrinal preaching while retaining the integrity of the biblical witness.
To bring these questions into focus, let us use them to examine a specific text: "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God" (Rom. 8:26-27)
1. What doctrines appear in this text? Several, to be sure. In general, we would name the following: Spirit, sin ("in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought") , prayer, omniscience ("he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit") , the immanence and transcendence of God, and the will of God, or providence.
2. How do these doctrines fit into the context of this book of the Bible? Sandwiched between Paulís song of hope and his ringing peroration on victory, "No in all these things we are more than conquerors. . ." comes this peculiar statement on prayer. It helps bring to a close Paulís resonating theological masterpiece, as chapters 9-11 deal with Godís chosen people, and chapter 12 begins the ethical section. The "groaning," or "sighing," continues from the previous passage (8:22-23), which caused Sangster to preach on the "three groans": creation, ourselves, and God.
The Spirit here in these verses is functioning in only one way. At other places in Romans (particularly in other places in chapter 8) , we find that the Spirit makes us free from the law of sin and death, dwells in us, quickens our mortal bodies, enables us to control the flesh, and makes us children of God -- heirs. But here the Spirit intercedes for us in prayer.
3. How do these doctrines fit into the context of the whole canon? Widening the scope in this way brings the larger picture of the Spirit before us. We know from Paul and other writers that the Spirit convicts us, justifies us, regenerates and sanctifies us, and makes real our prayer privileges. This last function is the focus of our text. Thus, a doctrinal sermon on this text need not cover all the dimensions of the meaning of "Spirit." Neither should it attempt to bring in the Johannine concepts of the Spirit as teacher and as comforter.
In the same way, the doctrine of prayer being discussed here is not the same as that in the Gospels when the disciples say, "Lord, teach us to pray." Here the emphasis is more on our weakness, our deep hurt, longing, and need, than on our desire to learn how to pray.
A much more important theological point is brought to light, however, when trying to discover the real reason behind these doctrines of Spirit and prayer. Why does God help us this way in our weakness? Because it is the nature of our God to come to us, to assist us. It has been so from the beginning, when God called Abraham and lifted him up, when God brought Israel out of Egypt and delivered the people from exile in Babylon. It is Godís nature to come in human form among us, the "Word made flesh," and to give us Jesusí life on our behalf. The doctrines in this passage are held together by this one biblical word of grace -- it is Godís nature to come to us.
4. Does the form of Scripture affect our interpretation of these doctrines? Up to now, we have been making redaction-critical assessments. This question pushes us to consider the form of Scripture in Paul. Since the New Testament form-criticism of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann deal primarily with the forms found in the Gospels, this question is not as crucial for the Pauline material. Paulís writings fall into one of four categories: (1) theological assessment, as in Romans; (2) correction and challenge, as in Corinthians and Galatians; (3) pastoral comfort, as in I Thessalonians; and (4) love letter, as in Philippians (which includes a Christ hymn, 2:1-1l) Some would add a fifth category of high christological grandeur, depending on their view of Paulís authorship of Ephesians and Colossians.
It is clear that we have here the form of theological assessment, but it is also clear that the text we are analyzing participates in the crescendo of Romans 8 which begins, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." The form may not affect our interpretation, but it should influence our presentation.
5. What is the major theological thrust of this passage? We have already answered that question in part. God comes to us with help in prayer through the Spirit. This is another ringing word about Godís prevenient and unmerited grace.
6. Which doctrines in this passage are more directly related to the theological thrust of the passage and which are more peripheral? The Spirit, in its limited function of helping us with prayer, certainly relates directly. Dealing extensively with the Spirit beyond this scope moves away from the theological thrust. Sin, demonstrated by our weakness and our inability to pray as we ought, is only peripherally related to the main thrust. The omniscience of God is not the main doctrine either. A sermon on that would be off target. The will of God is only significant in understanding the meaning of right prayer. God chooses for us what is best. "According to the will of God" should not end up as a sermon on providence. Certainly vv. 28-30 point to that doctrine explicitly. But the key here is staying with the main theological thrust of the passage in consideration.
7. What questions would your congregation or culture ask about this passage? Where are the pressure points, the conflict (s) ? This passage does not answer the question, Why do we need to pray in the first place? It assumes that those reading it or hearing it are Christians who are already struggling with the meaning of existence and the meaning of right prayer. We come hurting, searching for some help. We have already looked into ourselves too much. We have tried jogging, meditation, success. All fall short. Looking into ourselves has not brought deep happiness -- only the surface variety. We come to church, and the preacher tells us to look to God in prayer. That seems an odd thing to do. We have tried from childhood by the bedside, but gave up long ago out of weakness; we just do not know how to do it. Paul says that the Spirit helps. But how does the Spirit help? It all sounds very mysterious. Why does God help?
8. Which doctrines tend to fit those pressure points best? There are, of course, other possible questions and pressure points, but these will suffice for this example. The doctrine of sin is looming larger than it was earlier as an entry point in our consideration of this passage. We do not know how to pray as we ought. We are a people in need of help -- help beyond ourselves. God brings this help in the Spirit, the answer to our problem. But why does God do so? Why would God care for me? Back to the theological thrust: it is Godís nature to do so. Sin and grace become the doctrines that deal with the pressure points best. How the Spirit helps must be answered with the consideration of images.
9. What image is used to bring this doctrine into focus, and what is the modern analogy for this image? The action in this passage comes with the Spirit interceding for us with "sighs too deep for words." There is actually no image presented in this passage to bring the concept of intercession to life for the hearer. Therefore, an image needs to be constructed that will get close to the thought of the passage and the doctrine of Godís prevenient love through the Spirit in the act of prayer. For example, think of a lawyer pleading your case before the jury. Like the Spirit, the lawyer knows what you want to say better than you do. Another image that could be considered is the presidential aide who gives you access to the president so that you may report to him or her the nature and extent of the flooding in your home town, and the extent of the help needed immediately.
Perhaps this next image comes even closer. The head of a major American denomination was speaking in Egypt with the help of an interpreter. At one point the interpreter went on and on, obviously saying much more than the church leader had said. When the interpreter stopped, the church leader asked, "What did you say?" The interpreter replied, "You were talking about Godís love and Godís care, but what you were saying wasnít very helpful, so I used Psalm 23 to explain. I believe I got the point across a lot better than you."
Whatever image you use, the idea of Rom. 8:26-27 is that we do not really know how to pray or what to pray for. We pray much too selfishly and on too small a scale. As Luther suggests, we ask for silver when God wants to give us gold. In prayer we mutter and mumble, sometimes in sighs too deep for words, but the Spirit gets the point across a lot better than we do. Thanks be to God for that!
10. What structure will you use to preach the doctrine in this passage? The sensitive preacher will always keep in mind the form of Scripture itself. Does it offer signals as to how best to preach the doctrine? Aside from that consideration, many structural approaches always present themselves.
On this text, one could preach two large points. (1) We do not know how to pray as we ought (giving the evidence and the reason for this) (2) The Spirit helps us by interceding with God (offering examples of how this happens)
Another approach might be a more dialogical structure which would present several arguments, rebuttals, and doctrinal statements using a problem-reason-solution motif. The outline would follow this pattern:
Problem: We are miserable (give examples)
Reason: We look into ourselves too much.
Solution: We look to God.
Problem: Looking to God does not work because we cannot
Reason: We are weak in the flesh.
Solution: The Spirit helps us (show how with an image)
Reason: It is the nature of our God to come to us with help
Whatever system you employ, be sure that it moves, that it is not static. Make sure it proceeds from one place to another. For some that may mean going from known to unknown, from present experience to gospel reality, which is often in conflict with present experience. For others it may mean progressing through the text. Make it dynamic -- that is the key. In addition, whatever structure you employ, make sure it is clear and simple. Be sure that it makes the Bible passageís main doctrine and theological thrust come alive in the sermon. Since structure is often a place where sermons make it or break it, we turn now to four approaches to preaching doctrine from a text which have stood the test of time.
Four Structural Approaches:
Barth, Calvin, Edwards, and Stewart
For years pastors, seminary students, and laity have read the writings of theologians for their theology. But how many have read these same theologiansí sermons to see how they present their theology to the person in the pew? Tillich may be hard to manage in his Systematic Theology, but what happens when he preaches? What happens when you turn from Barthís Church Dogmatics to his sermons delivered in Basel prison?
My experience has been that the great theologians preach with clarity, simplicity, profundity, and pastoral sensitivity. This is especially true of the theologians I have chosen in this chapter to illustrate four approaches to preaching doctrine with Scripture as a starting point.
I begin with Karl Barth, because in some senses he offers the simplest system. Barth loved to preach. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he was torn between pulpit and podium, between sanctuary and classroom. It is well known that his theological writings grew out of his preaching -- its anguish, challenge, and joy.
When he preached, Barth always attempted to go deep into the pain of the human experience and deep into the wells of the gospel. He sought "an answer to the cry of the soul not for truths but for the Truth, not for solutions but for the solver. . . ." 21 Barth aimed for encounter between believer and God. To give his congregation anything less was to leave them shortchanged, to send them away empty-handed when they had come with great hunger.
Barth attempted to create this encounter as simply as he could. He did so by preaching one-verse texts, building the sermon by taking one word or phrase at a time. H. Grady Davis has summarized this sequential structure by giving the outline of Barthís sermon "Repentance," based on Matt. 11:28, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden" (KJV)
1. Jesus calls us to turn to him, to God, to our own hidden, unknown center and source. Repentance is this turning. "Come unto me."
2. Jesusí call must be distinguished from all other calls, including the churchís call. "Unto me."
3. Jesus alone is for all men. "All ye."
4. Jesus alone seeks us at the point of labor, burdens, failures, wrongness, death. "That labour and are heavy laden."
5. Jesus alone asks of us nothing but to come. "Come unto me."22
Notice how Barth stays close to the text, how he allows the text to give him not only content but structure. In addition, notice how he preaches on repentance, but only touches one side of it. As Davis points out, Barth feels no compulsion to examine repentance from every angle. His doctrinal sermon stays within the confines of this text.
Barthís sermon on the text "Nevertheless I am continually with thee; -- thou dost hold my right hand" (Ps. 73:23, KJV) moves through that verse in a similar way. The sermon deals with the doctrines of humankind and God. Barthís theological anthropology is brought into contact with the richness of Godís grace as he brings the text to life word by word, phrase by phrase.
John Calvin was an extemporaneous preacher who nevertheless engaged in careful mental preparation before he preached. Like Barth, he believed in the power of preaching and its importance. Also like Barth, he preached through a text phrase by phrase, but he often used whole pericopes instead of one-verse texts. With Calvin there was little distinction between doctrinal and expository preaching. Every sermon was both. Calvin placed each sermon within its canonical context. As he opened the text, he brought the pertinent doctrines to bear on the needs of the congregation. His preaching was never merely an intellectual exercise.
Sometimes Calvin would focus on one doctrine, as in his sermon "The Privilege of Prayer" on I Tim. 2:8. Often he would attack heretical positions in polemical fashion, as in "Pure Preaching of the Word" on 2 Timothy 2:16-18. Occasionally many doctrines would surface to serve a larger theological thrust, as in "The Deity of Jesus Christ" on John 1:1- 5, where in addition to the incarnation we hear about the Trinity, creation, providence, humankind, and sin. Time kept Calvin from mentioning others. Toward the end of that sermon he himself says, "That is what the Gospel writer wished to indicate. I omit other things because time does not permit us to speak of them further, and already I have spoken too long." 23
Here, at least, is an honest preacher. And yet his tendency to attempt too many doctrines at once caused his sermons on occasion to sound too large for one hearing. In this respect, Calvin is not a good model for doctrinal preachers. Despite the fact that he sometimes uses too many doctrines, it must be said that he does draw the doctrines from the text at hand. "For we are sure that such as seek Godís honour and their own salvation will perceive in reading the sermons that their author had no other doctrine than is contained in the Epistle. . . ."24 One thing is clear: Calvinís sermons are not theological lectures for the erudite. They are sermons that teach the believer and comfort the troubled soul, and they do so with scriptural doctrine.
Jonathan Edwards was a man of his age. Historically, he brought together the appeal to the intellect represented by the Puritans and the rationalists, like Charles Chauncey of Boston, and the appeal to the heart represented by Charles and John Wesley, Philipp Spener, August Francke, and James Davenport. This combination of order and ardor in Edwards demonstrated his support for the validity of religious experience and the need for that experience to be tied to understanding.
Epistemologically, Edwards follows John Locke, who believed that there were no innate ideas and that understanding depended on sensation or experience. To have the idea of seven, you have to have had the experience of counting to seven. But Edwards goes beyond Locke by distinguishing between people as they are by nature and spiritual people. We acquire certain notions naturally: color, sound, warmth, guilt, misery, and sin. But only an extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit brings about the sense of the loveliness and sweetness of Godís grace. To talk to people in their natural state about these things is to talk nonsense. Without the experience of grace, you cannot have the idea of grace. Only God can bring this about by the Spirit.
Edwardsís thinking led him to a religion of the heart which anticipated that of Kierkegaard. An idea was not only for the head but for the heart, which meant that the sermon must touch the emotions of the believer in order for the truth of doctrines to be transmitted. Language, then, was very important to Edwards, and he used it very carefully; he also knew its limitations. Only the Spirit of God could really bring about a religious experience. The preacherís words merely created a proper environment the Spiritís work.
Rhetorically, Edwards was influenced indirectly by Peter Ramus, who had reordered Aristotelian rhetoric, and William Perkins, who, following Ramus, wrote "The Art of Prophesying" and thereby influenced what was to be called the Puritan plain style approach to preaching. Here sermons looked 1ike lawyersí briefs. The beginning opened the biblical text in short exposition; the middle section was laid out in a series of reasons and proofs; the final section was application. The sermons of Edwardsís time followed this pattern slavishly. Exposition-doctrine-application or text-doctrine-use.
Theologically, Edwards followed Calvin. The sovereignty of God was set alongside humanityís dependence. Despite the bad press that "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" has gotten, Edwards did not use doctrine to scare "the hell" out of people. He always preached the unlimited power of Godís grace. Doctrine was preached as a corrective for two sins -- pride and despair.
Edwardsís sermon "The Excellency of Christ" is a classic example of the Puritan plain-style approach which takes a text, in this case Rev. 5:5 - 6, and opens it through exposition-doctrine-application25 In reading this sermon, one notices immediately the Ramist method of dichotomy in the doctrinal section as Edwards talks of the person of Christ as infinite glory and lowest humility, infinite majesty and transcendent meekness, and the like. One also notices the number of doctrines he brings forth from this text. His Christology includes incarnation, atonement, love, justice, and holiness. There is no attempt to change the language, but the images of lion and lamb do make the doctrines come alive amid Edwardsís eloquence.
Some still preach with the Puritan plain-style approach. Its strength lies in its simplicity and clarity. Its weakness comes with its predictability and potential dullness. Edwards may have been predictable, but he was never dull. Despite his apparently tedious, monotonous style of delivery, with no eye contact, his preaching kept his congregation spellbound. There is a quiet passion and vigor that breathes through his sermons as he opens the biblical texts into doctrines that helped his hearers not only know who they were as Christians, but live the Christian life.
We began this chapter with James Stewart, and we will close it with him. Stewart was a great preacher; that is a fact. There was more to his greatness than his Scottish accent. Some have tried to get by on accent or affect alone, and have only made fools of themselves. There was more to Stewartís greatness than his New Testament scholarship. Certainly that helped. Stewart saw the big picture when he preached. He saw the broad strokes of the gospel next to the bloodstained face of the world. He saw Calvaryís pain and Easterís victory. Read his sermons and you will see.
Stewartís approach to structure was eclectic. Sometimes he followed the pattern of Barth and Calvin and simply let the text unfold naturally. Other times he imposed points on a text, but only those that the text in a canonical context suggested. On occasion he employed a dialogical approach which found him wrestling with a text and with the congregationís questions and conflicts as well. His sermon "The Power of His Resurrection" follows this pattern.26 Here is its basic outline, although the sermon resists this kind of distillation.
Sermon: The Power of His Resurrection
I. Introduction. Resurrection is the symbol for Christianity. There is no darkness that it does not illuminate. Test and see. (He gives examples.)
II. Scripture Reading
A. It was God who resurrected Christ; he will raise us up, too.
I. We donít believe it, do we?
2. The early Christians did. They turned the world upside down.
3. We are still slow to take it in.
4. The New Testament writers will not accept that denial.
B. Before resurrection can happen for us, we are called to surrender.
This is the final example of a preacher who begins with a text but preaches doctrine in the pulpit. The purpose of this chapter has been to explore the problems and possibilities of preaching Christian doctrine while starting with a biblical text. I have argued that this is the best way to begin a doctrinal sermon as long as one avoids the pitfalls of older approaches to biblical theology and takes advantage of the benefits of form and redaction criticism. Doctrinal preaching that begins with a text and sticks with it is assured of being grounded in the biblical witness to Jesus Christ.
I. Choose a text from the lectionary and answer the following questions:
a. What doctrines appear in this text?
b. How do these doctrines fit into the context of this
c. How do these doctrines fit into the context of the whole canon?
d. Does the form of Scripture affect your interpretation of
e. What is the major theological thrust of this passage?
f. Which doctrines in this passage are more directly related to the
2. Having answered these questions, determine what questions your congregation or culture would ask about the passage (keeping in mind the various audiences we address, as discussed in chapter 2) , where the pressure points occur, and how the doctine or doctrines relate to those questions and points of conflict.
3. Determine what image is used to bring this doctrine into focus, what the modern analogy is for this image, and how, as a reverse theologian, you will employ it.
4. Determine what structure you will use to preach the doctrine in this passage. Choose from the following possibilities:
a. A simple, straightforward point system.
b. A Barthian or Calvinist approach which takes one or two
c. A Puritan plain-style approach like that used by
d. A dialogical moving approach which allows the congregationís questions to emerge, similar to the Jonah sermon in the appendix. Stewartís sermon is a combination of point and dialogue systems.
Further Reading on This Subject
Blackwood, Andrew W. Doctrinal Preaching for Today. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975: 125-37.
Carl, William J., III. "Planning Your Preaching: A Look at the Lectionary," Journal for Preachers 4,3 (Easter 1981) : 13-17.
Childs, Brevard. Biblical Theology in Crisis. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970.
Clowney, Edmund P. Preaching and Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids: Win. B. Eerdmans, 1961.
Gowan, Donald E. Reclaiming the Old Testament for the Christian Pulpit. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980.
Hamngton, Wilfrid J. The Path of Biblical Theology. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1973: 349-403.
Keck, Leander E. The Bible in the Pulpit. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978: 69-99.
McKnight, Edgar V. What Is Form Criticism? Philadelphia: For
tress Press, 1969.
Miller, Donald G. The Way to Biblical Preaching. Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 1957: 53-75.
Penn, Norman. What Is Redaction Criticism? Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969.
Sloyan, Gerard F. "The Lectionary as a Context for Interpretation," interpretation 31,2 (April 1977) : 131--38.
Wedel, Theodore O. The Pulpit Rediscovers Theology. New York: Seabury Press, 1956: 63-105.
1. James S. Stewart, "Expository Preaching," Preaching from Doctrine (Lecture delivered at Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Va., August 1955)
2. Andrew W. Blackwood, Doctrinal Preaching for Today (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975) , 125, and Donald O. Miller, The Way to Biblical Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1957) 72-75.
3. Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1950) , 1:93-96.
4. Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970)
5. William Evans, The Great Doctrines of the Bible (Chicago: The Bible Institute Colportage Association, 1912) and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, Biblical Doctrines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1929)
6. Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, trans. Kendrick Grobel (New York: Charles Scribnerís Sons, 1970) ; Millar Burrows, An Outline of Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956) ; Walter Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press; London: SCM Press, 1961, 1967) ; Edmond Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament (New York: Harper & Row. 1958) ; Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 2 vols. (New York: Harper & Row; Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1962, 1965)
7. James Barr, Old and New in Interpretation: A Study of the Two Testaments (London: SCM Press, 1966)
8. Childs, Biblical Theology, 101, 114.
9. Ibid., 143, 146.
10. Wilfrid J. Harrington, The Path of Biblical Theology (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1973) , 380-82.
11. Donald E. Gowan, Reclaiming the Old Testament for the Christian Pulpit (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980)
12. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John H. Marks (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961) , 34-35.
13. Theodore O. Wedel, The Pulpit Rediscovers Theology (New York: Seabury Press, 1956) , 95-100.
14. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Pauline Theology (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966) , 1-4.
15. Fred B. Craddock, The Gospels (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981) , 16. Robert Crotty and Gregory Manly, Commentaries on the Readings of the Lectionary (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1975) ; Reginald H. Fuller, Preaching the New Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1974)
17. Gerard F. Sloyan, A Commentary on the New Lectionary (Ramsey, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1975).
18. Both Proclamation I and Proclamation 2 consist of twenty-four volumes in three series designated A, B, and C which correspond to the cycles of the three-year lectionary. Proclamation I has two volumes covering the lesser festivals; Proclamation 2 has four. Proclamation 3, which has only one author per volume, is currently being produced. All are published by Fortress Press.
19. Gerard F. Sloyan, "The Lectionary as a Context for Interpretation," Interpretation 31,2 (April 1977) : 137.
20. Ibid., 137-38.
21. Joseph Ford Newton, Come, Holy Spirit: Sermons by Karl Barth and Eduard Thurneysen, trans. George W. Richards (New York: Round Table Press, 1934) , xiv.
22. H. Grady Davis, Design for Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973) , 63.
23. John Calvin, The Deity of Christ and Other Sermons, trans. Leroy Nixon (Grand Rapids: Win. B. Eerdmans, 1950) , 32.
24. Publisherís introduction, John Calvinís Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trusts, 1975) , 2.
25. The Works of President Edwards (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1879) , 4:179-201.
26. Clyde E. Fant, Jr. and William M. Pinson, Jr., ed., Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1971) , 11:198-202.
Trinity College of Biblical Studies