Systematic Theology and Preaching

Systematic Theology and Preaching

Tom Ascol

“Our pastor is not a theologian, he’s a preacher.” If ever a sentiment betrayed the roots of modern indifference to doctrine, this one does. Doctrinal ignorance in the pew is the result of theological apathy in the pulpit.

The conviction that theological understanding is integral to pastoral ministry–especially preaching–was commonplace among our Protestant forebears. For them it was axiomatic that without the former one dare not enter the latter. Today, by contrast, it is not only possible, but highly probable, that a ministerial student will graduate from seminary with as little as one tenth of his classwork consisting of formal theological studies. With as few as eight credits in theology such a student can be awarded a “Master of Divinity” degree.

The division of the “pastor-theologian” into two separate, unrelated roles has not occurred without dire consequences for the Church. On the one hand preaching has become increasingly void of doctrinal content. On the other, contemporary theology has become increasingly esoteric. God’s sheep are left sick and malnourished and “theology” (as well as the theologian) is maligned as irrelevant.

What is needed is a return to the older, more biblical understanding that theology must be preached, and preaching must be theological. This mind-set is clearly demonstrated in the great Reformers of the sixteenth century. Calvin (and to a lesser degree), Luther, and Zwingli are remembered today as influential theologians. Yet, each viewed himself in and actually fulfilled the role of pastor-teacher.[1] For these men, theology resulted from and was given expression in expository preaching.

This heritage was passed down to the Puritans of the seventeenth century[2] and to many of our Baptist forefathers after them. John Bunyan, John Gill, Andrew Fuller, Charles Spurgeon, and B. H. Carroll are representative of historic Baptist pastors whose sermons bulge with doctrinal content. Such men regarded both theology that does not preach and preaching that is not theological as being unworthy of their respective names.

The Demise of Systematic Theology

The near extinction of doctrinal preaching today strictly correlates to the modern disenchantment with systematic theology–the discipline which seeks to arrange in an orderly and coherent (i.e. “systematic”) fashion the revealed truth concerning God in His various relationships.[3] Quite obviously such an attempt is valid only if there is an inherent unity in the Scriptures. If there is no overall unity in the Bible, no coherence in all its parts, then the systematic theologian is on a fool’s errand.

This is precisely the conclusion of much of the modern theological world. By accepting the “assumptions of the literary and historical criticism which rejects the Bible’s own representations” many contemporary theologians are compelled to find genuine inconsistencies, contradictions, and errors in the text of the Scriptures.[4] Once such discrepancies are assumed, any notion of theological unity within the Bible must fall.

An error-ridden Bible cannot be expected to teach a system of truth. One would be foolish, therefore, to attempt a systematization of its teachings. Further, instead of talking about biblical theology, one should now speak of biblical theologies (plural).

At the same time that systematic theology was falling into disfavor the study of Pauline, Petrine, Johannine, etc. theologies was growing in popularity.[5] Thus this kind of “biblical” theology has been heralded as the proper domain of the legitimate theologian and the study of systematics has been relegated to the realm of philosophy (where “systems” are acceptable).

Such conclusions can stand only when their presuppositions are left unchallenged. For if the Bible is without genuine discrepancy, inconsistency, or error, then the analytical search of its text for a system of truth is not only legitimate, it is mandatory. If God has consistently, albeit progressively, revealed His truth to us in the Scriptures, then it is incumbent that we analyze the whole Bible when seeking to know His mind on any particular point.

It is specious to argue that “biblical” theology is by definition more concerned with the Bible than is “systematic” theology. Both are concerned with the text of Scripture. It is the comprehensive, coherent teaching of that text which concerns the latter. Careful exegesis is no more valued by one than the other and neither can be slighted in any thorough study of God’s Word.

Systematic theology is a necessary discipline in the pursuit of both knowing and proclaiming the whole counsel of God.[6] It will curb careless exegesis which results in fanciful, contradictory expositions of various texts. Where it is depreciated doctrinal instability prevails, and God’s people are robbed of Christian vitality.

The Need for Expository Preaching

If the Bible has an inherent unity and coheres in all of its constituent parts, then it follows that any attempt to preach a part of its message must, at some point, be concerned with the whole of its message; In other words, the proper interpretation of any passage partially depends upon its comparative analysis by the rest of the Bible. This long esteemed principle of hermeneutics is known as the “analogy of Scripture.” It is given expression in the Second London Confession of Faith in the following words:

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture it self [sic]: And therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold but one) it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.[7]

This statement assumes the overall unity and consistency of the Bible. To apply this principle requires that the interpreter venture into the region of systematic theology.

For example, what exactly does John 3:16 teach about the power of man’s will? Does this verse teach that fallen man has the innate moral ability to believe in Christ? Does not the phrase, “whoever believes in Him should not perish” indicate that anyone can believe?[8]

The question centers upon man’s ability. In order to gain the “true and full sense” other passages which speak to this issue must be investigated. John 6:44 & 65 state unequivocally that no man can come to Jesus unless he is drawn by God. This is corroborated by Rom. 8:7-8, which state that sinners cannot comply with God’s law, neither do they have the ability to please God.

These and other passages which must be incorporated into a systematic construction of the biblical doctrine of man restrain the honest interpreter from claiming too much about man’s will from John 3:16. Further, such an approach to interpretation will help save the expositor from the embarrassing prospect of contradicting last week’s sermon with this week’s lesson.

Where this principle is ignored or violated, expository preaching greatly suffers. Sometimes there is an effort to redefine the art altogether in exclusive terms of detailed grammatical, syntactical, and etymological considerations. Sermons are then filled with references to tense, mode, case, and gender. While this method may teach much about individual trees, it completely misses the forest.

The pastor who conscientiously applies the analogy of Scripture will be forced to reason theologically in his sermons. He will inevitably become more doctrinal in his preaching with the various points of his sermons being informed by the systematic teachings of all the Bible. He will find himself constantly challenged to add both breadth and depth to his biblical knowledge as his own theological convictions come under scriptural review. In short, he will find himself doing the work of a theologian, because his chief pastoral duty requires it.[9]

The people who receive such a ministry have the opportunity for great spiritual benefit. If the first profit of Scripture is doctrine, then doctrinal preaching is an essential ingredient for the growth and thorough equipping of Christian men and women (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Under such preaching believers are compelled to confront the biblical teachings on any and every matter. When God’s people have confidence in the unity and coherence of the Bible, their fellowship is characterized by a Berean spirit. They will receive the message with all readiness and then search the Scriptures to find out if what they are hearing is true (Acts 17:11).

How can God’s undershepherds settle for anything less?