What to Preach: It Really Matters

I’m sorry to say this, but many of the evangelical churches I’ve visited don’t appear to believe preaching is very important. I’ve found many churches happily busy with non-essentials, and meanwhile content with awful preaching. These churches, I would guess, will sooner or later either dissolve completely or rot internally and maintain only the façade of Christian ministry. No question: the former is far preferable, but the latter is more common. Sorry once again, but may the preaching improve or these churches go away.

When I say that the preaching is bad, I don’t mean that preachers lack ‘passion’ (whatever that is) or ‘relevance’ (whatever that is). As everyone knows, you can really get your audience going and draw huge crowds every time but have an unsavory or even corrosive influence. You can be a good speaker and be downright evil. What you preach makes all the difference. Bad sermons are those that miss or misrepresent the biblical gospel. And if a church should get anything right—if a church gets only one thing right—it should be faithfulness (to Scripture) in the Word preached and taught. What makes a church a true church is the proclamation of the gospel preached by the (NT) apostles according to the (OT) Scriptures.

So this is the question: What, exactly, is a good sermon? Is there a method? Or, which method is best?

Preachers Talking Shop

In this recent post, OPC pastor Shawn Mathis pushes back at those sterner advocates of biblical theology* and biblical theological preaching*. His main contention is that this method should not be presented as the only biblically faithful approach to handling the Bible for preaching. The ‘BT only’ view is indefensible, argues Mathis. Not even Geerhardus Vos, the ‘father of Reformed biblical theology’, preached the redemptive-historical*, biblical theological sermons they demand. In fact, by their standards, even John Calvin preached unbiblical sermons. But it gets worse. Pastor Mathis claims that defenders of BT preaching can’t even count Jesus among practitioners of their method. Oops.

Those arguments aside, Mathis directs his readers to this piece from 2002 in which Carl Trueman expresses concerns about the growing influence of biblical theology in evangelical preaching. Trueman appreciates the insights of BT, but he is concerned, just as Mathis appears to be, that BT may have over-corrected: first, preachers appear sometimes too free to find Christ in every nook and cranny of the biblical text, the OT in particular. Trueman’s second concern is intriguing: he believes (or anyway, in 2002 he believed) that a heavy investment in the economic (historical) compromises the ontological. By this he means that BT draws our interest toward the historical and progressive aspects of Scripture and redemption. Good. But if the historical receives all our attention, our theology may raise its anchor from the ontological triunity of God and expose orthodox, historic theology to all manner of offense, beginning with neglect. And if you don’t remember good doctrine, you are in a poor position to maintain it, much less teach it.

BT, ST, Stuff Like That—A Couple Thoughts

I appreciate Trueman’s cautionary insights, even if he made them 15 years ago. In what follows, I’d like to make a few points, for now undeveloped, on these same issues.

  • First, yes, it’s too much to demand RH-BT preaching. The freshness of RH-BT is enough evidence there—if the church has survived and sometimes thrived for so long without it, it can’t be imperative. Augustine, for goodness sakes, hadn’t read Vos, so we can’t seriously insist upon it.
  • But on this point, Mathis seems to argue that a sermon does not have to include “the saving work of Christ.” I think a sermon absolutely must, and I think even if a particular biblical text doesn’t appear to get us there, it is the preacher’s responsibility to get us there. That’s just the nature of Scripture as I understand it. Honestly, I don’t think “should the gospel be in every sermon?” should even be an open question. Perhaps we may ask: “must we use RH-BT to get the gospel out of a text, or may we use another method?” I think that’s an worthwhile inquiry. But whether a sermon should be about the Christian gospel to me is an odd question.
  • I have to say: Vos’s sermons are richer than Mathis seems to give him credit for, and I do mean RH-BT richer. Admittedly, I too have been somewhat baffled that on several occasions Vos does not move from a given OT passage to historical accomplishment in Christ as such. But his exegesis of OT texts is so chock-full of fulfillment (BT) insights that to say his sermons are ‘not redemptive historical’ oversimplifies and maybe mispresents him.
  • Vos’s BT is more than literary thematic evolution. His contribution is in my view a theology of the Bible as redemptive and historical, not the trite trick that any old image or keyword is an evolving Christocentric key. I refer the reader to his essay, “Christian Faith and the Truthfulness of Bible History” (available here or in the edited volume Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation), or to his well known inaugural address from 1894 (also included in the same volume). Vos’s biblical theology is a theology of history, Christian supernaturalism come to its own. And then this theology of history is the broader framework for understanding what sort of thing Scripture is, how it is structured and related to historical redemption, and thus how it should be interpreted and preached. Vos’s project is not exegetical acrobatics. His main task is to wrest historical truth from the jaws of modernism by drawing our attention to the magnitude of biblical supernaturalism. Bad preaching and over-eager Christological interpretation (the first of Trueman’s worries) cannot be charged to his account. Even Mathis accuses Vos of reluctance to make explicit Christological connections. So Vos is not finding a cross in every tree or piece of wood, etc., even if some later BT preachers do.
  • Trueman’s second warning is an important one: we cannot reduce the Christian faith to the historical work of the economic Trinity. BT needs to be balanced with historical and systematic theology. Trueman predicts modalism and all sorts of other problems if imbalance takes hold. I don’t know whether things have actually gone this way in Evangelicalism, but I definitely see it in theory. Perhaps Grudem and Ware, and their defense of eternal subordination, represent one example. Open theism is obviously a theological offense of this kind.
  • So I agree with Trueman’s call for balance. But here is my contribution: BT and (historically rich) ST shouldn’t be measured in separate but equal portions; biblical and theological organism should be sought. The question is this: what is the connection between good BT and good, historically informed ST? I think the answer is covenant theology. No doubt some will argue that covenant theology is unjustly restrictive. Angst sustained. But I submit for consideration the basic insight that ‘before God’, as all creation always is, essential means ‘in covenant with God’. The biblical covenantal terms are not parochial; they are not reducible to custom, convention, or culture. The destiny of all human beings was at stake in the garden, and for a single, concentrated moment, was focused on the tree in the middle of the garden and the requirement of perfect, personal obedience. All people everywhere sinned in Adam. But the gift is not like the trespass. The elect receive in Christ not a return to the mutable state of the first man, but the imperishable righteousness and life of the resurrected second Adam. ST ought to take its terms and concepts, its entire vocabulary, from the covenantal order reflected upon in Scripture.

What does all that mean for preaching? Quite a lot, I think. Too much for one day. So, to be continued . . .

*Biblical theology is the study of the organic (unified) progress of biblical revelation. BT studies the way that various teachings of Scripture are revealed in subtle, vague, or seed form, and then develop and come to full growth in Christ and the New Testament. Vos will say that the entire reality is contained in the seed, and that the principle of progress is unfolding from within, not aggregation from without. This is important. I think that Vos’s BT is somewhat broader than most contemporary stuff, because as I mention above he attempts to develop a theology of the Bible itself in terms of Scripture’s relationship to redemption and history. So he does more than demonstrate the progressive organism of Scripture by tracing themes from the early pages of Scripture to the later ones. He reflects on the nature of Scripture as progressive, organic redemptive revelation, and he does so within a developed covenantal theology. Actually Vos says that his own work was a natural development of the covenantal theology of the early Reformers.

*Biblical theological preaching says that the gospel—the saving death and resurrection and promised return of Christ—should be the thesis of every sermon, because that gospel is the essence of every passage of Scripture. Some defenders of biblical theological preaching will say that a sermon in which the gospel does not feature, or even one in which the gospel is not very obviously the point of the sermon, is inadequate. (I am pretty sympathetic to something like this.)

*Redemptive-history is the history of redemption; but it’s more than that. The idea is that redemption is historical, and that since Christian redemption is one (one faith, one Lord, one baptism), then so is redemptive-history: all of the history of God’s redemptive and revelatory works, as we find them in the Bible, have their point and center in Christ, and take all their meaning from Christ. The end of redemptive history is not a mere conclusion to redemptive-history; it is the fulfillment of it. Ever since the ascension of the risen Christ (or perhaps since the resurrection), we are in what is called the ‘already-not-yet’ period of redemptive history.

*Systematic theology is, as I tell my students, the non-speculative topical organization of the data of Scripture. I have grown suspicious of the ahistorical tone of this definition, but for the now the point is that the method of ST is topical or analytical, rather than historical-progressive as in BT.

*BT-ST. The relationship between BT and ST needs attention. They are often treated as separate disciplines, and practitioners often accuse each other of mutual neglect. Long story short, generally speaking BT needs more ST, and ST needs more BT. That’s my view, anyway.