The Proper Use of Biblical Theology in Preaching

The various popular approaches to biblical theology affect preaching—some for good, some for ill. I would like to discuss one danger I have noticed and to suggest a corrective to it.

The general problem is that the sermons of some who become enamored with biblical theological preaching turn out to be journeys that follow the trail of a word, metaphor, theme, or concept from Genesis to Revelation. Clever interpretations and interrelationships between the Old and New Testaments are noted and ‘deep’ insights are uncovered that the average listener would never have discovered when left to his Greek text and commentaries. These biblical-theological trips are like a one-week tour of Europe: very little time can be spent at any one location. That means that little justice is given to particular passages. The big picture is held constantly before a congregation; the emphasis is on the forest, not on the trees. Such preaching tends to by-pass the telos of these passages in favor of a few, great concerns. This sort of thing perhaps is useful to hear from time to time from a pastor or a visiting preacher, but it is hardly the fare on which to feed a congregation twice a week, year after year.

Moreover, such a use of biblical theology tends to lead to purely devotional responses to preaching. Since the great object is to find how Christ is central in all of Scripture rather than how He is involved in the particular telos (purpose) of any given passage, sermons tend to be very much alike. They all elicit the response, “Christ is wonderful! Praise Him!”

That is, of course, true. He is wonderful and we shouid praise Him. And it is important to be led into an ever growing appreciation of the Lord and His work of redemption. That is not what is wrong. The problem is that in loving and pleasing the Lord it is important not only to affirm His glory but also to glorify Him by “observing all things” that He commanded. But to do that means focusing on small, particularized passages rather than running all over the Bible in a sermon, searching out variations on a few major themes. Even when the starting place happens to be a particular passage, those who preach so globally tend to use the passage merely as a springboard for such larger concerns.

“But isn’t Christ in all of Scripture? What of Luke 24:27, 44–46, for instance?”

Of course He is.

“And do not such interrelationships between Old and New Testament passages exist?”

Yes, but probably to an appreciably lesser extent than some biblical-theological preachers think.

“Well, then, why not preach as you have described?”

For several reasons, all of which boil down to one thing: it is wrong to become a biblical-theological preacher. A preacher should be a biblical theologian just as he should be a systematic theologian. But, a systematic-theological preacher?

Let’s pursue the analogy to systematic theology for a while. Perhaps doing so will point up what I am trying to say.

I know from a systematic study of the Scripture that includes James 4:2–3; 5:15–18, etc., that there are conditions for praying effectively. So when preaching on John 14:13, “I will do whatever you ask in My Name,” I know that getting answers to prayer is not so simple as John seems to be saying. So when preaching from John, I keep in mind my systematic understanding of prayer in the whole of the Bible. This does not mean, however, that in the sermon on John 14:13 I must mention all that James and many other writers had to say on the subject. After all, John himself didn’t! Evidently the Spirit, Who moved John to write as he did, did not think it necessary to go into the whole teaching about prayer either in the gospel of John or elsewhere. And, to boot, what John wrote was a record of Christ’s own teaching in the form of an address to His disciples. In that address Jesus thought it acceptable to state the truth with relatively few qualifications in the context for the purpose for which He mentioned it.

What I must do when preparing and preaching a message from John 14:13 is keep in mind a systematic knowledge of prayer (as Jesus and John certainly did) so that what I say from that passage does not contradict or preclude what James, et al say. That means that I will preach John 14:13 in a manner that is informed and influenced by the other passages, without necessarily mentioning or referring to any one of them. If I were to try to say all there is to say about prayer when preaching from any given passage, I wouldn’t have time to concentrate on the passage before me. I’d say too little about too much to have said well any one thing. Moreover, all my sermons on prayer would tend to be alike.

Now it seems to me that the use of biblical theology in preaching is something like the use of systematic theology in preaching: the preacher must know of God’s progressive revelation and take note of where any preaching portion occurs in the history of redemption. That is important for interpretation. Moreover, to be Christian every sermon should be preached from this side of the cross in the bright light of the fullness of revelation that is ours. When preaching from any portion of Scripture, proper interrelationships between various Old and New Testament passages should be kept in mind, along with themes that persist and grow as they are enlarged with more and more revelation. But when preaching it is not necessary, and usually not desirable, to mention all of these things any more than the whole teaching on prayer when preaching from John 14:13. Biblical-theological study, then, like systematic-theological study, is primarily for the sake of the preacher.

That Christ’s death and resurrection pertain to everything else that is preached is certainly true. Any sermon that would be acceptable in a Synagogue or Unitarian church is surely sub-christian. But it is also true that sermons should not always (and probably should only rarely) recount the history of redemption. Rather they ought to be moments in which a preacher presents to a congregation some particular from that history in a focused and concentrated way in order to enable them by God’s grace to love God and their neighbor better. Christ should be central in Christian preaching, but not the history of redemption as such. The cross should be central in a sermon because it bears upon everything in the Christian life as well as provides the only means of forgiveness, not because the sermon is an historical survey of redemption.

Preaching that wrongly uses the insights of biblical theology, bringing into the pulpit what belongs in the study, can be inspiring—for a while. But it will grow old fast when every sermon sounds like the last. The task of biblical theology is to keep the preacher on track. It should keep his preaching truly Christian. But preaching is not merely tracing the past history of redemption over and over again from various perspectives and under various themes. Rather it is preaching redemptively today. It is preaching in such a way that the effects of that great redemption may be experienced by God’s people as the particulars peculiar to each passage are underscored and its truths are taught and applied for the purposes for which the Holy Spirit gave it.

 

Comments are closed.