Theology is impractical, irrelevant, and inaccessible to real people with real problems who live in the real world. Studying the doctrine of the incarnation is not going to help me pay my bills and overcome my addictions. An exploration of the relationships within the Trinity can’t possible help me with marriage and parenting.
I have both heard and, admittedly, said statements like the ones above. Preachers often boast about how we avoid theology in order to proclaim “relevant messages that really connect.” The arrogant assumption is that theological doctrines, such as the Incarnation and Trinity, are less relevant and, therefore, less important than the concerns that surface in “our world.”
The reflective preacher realizes, however, that theology, “words about God,” will always be relevant. The doctrine of Christ’s Incarnation is God’s way of reminding the human race that we are relevant, at least to Him. Trinitarian theology highlights that God’s fundamental essence is loving relationality between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and, therefore, that the way we humans get to know and experience God is through, you guessed it, loving relationality. Could there be anything more relevant to our lives?
My recently adopted conviction is that the sermon, while it must certainly be directed toward the needs and struggles of the human race, should reveal something about the nature and will of God. If it does not, then the preacher simply becomes a therapist or self-help guru instead of a pastoral theologian who proclaims the Triune God and the Incarnate Christ to a hope-needy human race.
There are two habits that can help the preacher develop and deliver sermons that proclaim the eternally relevant God. These habits involve the asking of theological questions and the reading of theological works. Here are six theological questions that impact preaching, followed by six recommended theological books.
Six Theological Questions for Preacher:
• What does the overall story, or meta-narrative, of the Bible reveal about the nature of God?
• How can the sermon be faithful to what the biblical story reveals about God?
• What does God seem to be doing in and through the biblical text?
• How can the preacher align the sermon with the purposes of God through the text?
• Does the sermon say anything about the Father, the Son, and/or the Holy Spirit?
• Does the sermon present the Gospel by presenting both the problem of sin and the grace in Christ?
Six Theological Books for Preachers:
• On the Incarnation by Athanasius (4th Century): This work will compel the preacher to reflect upon the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, without ignoring either. Who is Jesus, is the primary question with which the preacher will wrestle while reading this work.
• On Christian Doctrine by Augustine of Hippo (late 4th/early 5th Century): Book IV of this important work deals specifically with “The Christian Orator.” As you read this section of the book you may be surprised by its contemporary import.
• Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas (13th Century): You probably won’t be able to read entirely this massive work, but there are several sections in this Summa (“summary”) that are well worth the preachers time including “Treatise on Gratuitous Graces.”
• Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin (16th Century): Like the Summa, this is an exhaustive theological work. The preacher will want to jump around but be sure to read Book Four: Chapter 3 which is focused on “teachers and ministers.”
• A Plain Account of Christian Perfection by John Wesley (18th Century): Don’t let the title scare you away from this important read. Wesley emphasizes the two loves, love for God and love for people. The preacher who embodies these two loves will proclaim the Gospel with greater impact.
• Church Dogmatics by Karl Barth (20th Century): Barth is not the easiest theologian to read, but Chapter IV “The Proclamation of the Church” is a gem worth reading and rereading. This chapter will, at the very least, guide preachers in formulating theological thoughts concerning what they believe happens in the preaching of God’s Word.
Most of these theological resources can be accessed for free on the internet. As you read these works, be sure to reflect on them in light of the ministry of preaching. Additionally, recognize that all of the theologians above worked out their “words about God” in the context of pastoral ministry.
Theological wisdom can and should shape the mind and heart of the pastor for substantial preaching. When we read theologians who come from outside of our tradition we deepen our thoughts about God and appreciate our own particular theological tradition even more. Asking theological questions and reading theological classics does not only cultivate better preaching but, more importantly, better preachers.
As you prepare your next sermon, reflect on the six theological questions above and respond to each question with no more than two sentences.
Read one of the theologians above each week in chronological order until you have read them all. As you read, look for preaching wisdom from these classic works.