Academic Dean, Lindsay Wilson reflects on the place of theology in preaching after attending the Ridley College Annual Preachers’ Conference.
At the recent Ridley Preaching conference, we were challenged by Peter Adam and Peter Jensen to make sure our preaching is theological. It sounds obvious when you say it, but why is it not happening? Do we think that members of our churches cannot cope with, or put up with, ‘theology’?
I found this marginalising of theology to be a worrying issue. If theology has no place in the churches (apart from theological colleges), what chance do we have to speak Christianly and boldly to a world in need of God’s truth for living? Perhaps we need to reframe the challenge. What the world (and the church) desperately need is good theology, not the absence of theology. Good theology consists of truths about God, presented in compelling ways, and rightly applied to God’s world. Theology is not confined to abstract propositions about God, peppered with Latin phrases and sprinkled with arcane footnotes. Theology at its best is saying true things in interesting ways.
That is why theology must find its pathway back into preaching. On the one hand we should expect from our teachers and preachers far more than a barren exegesis of a text, an explanation of Greek and Hebrew words, and an outline of the historical background to a part of scripture. On the other hand, we need more than well-told stories, pithy one-liners and visually-stunning YouTube clips. We need to engage with the ideas of the Bible books and passages we are exploring. We need to bring these ideas together with God’s other ideas in scripture, noticing the bigger, more coherent picture of all that God has done, is doing and will do. This is nothing other than theology.
Tracing through scripture an unfolding idea like God’s care for the marginalized is called ‘biblical theology’. Organising scripture’s understanding of God’s justice under concepts and sub-groups is called ‘systematic theology’. Some have compared the two disciplines to finding out about plants. One way to understand plants is to go for a bushwalk, observing where plants are found naturally, where they thrive and where they struggle, and what else is part of their ecology. Another way of understanding plants better is to go to a botanical garden, seeing various kinds of one species side by side, so that you can tell the differences and similarities. The bushwalk approach is more like biblical theology; the botanical garden option is more like systematic theology. But both are valuable, and each approach might notice some aspects more readily than the other. And both of these approaches are better than doing nothing at all—if you want to know more about plants.
Perhaps that is where the problem is. We can’t see the value in knowing more about God, his purposes and his plans. Deep down, this is a heart issue. But once we deal with the underlying problem, weaving biblical and systematic theology in preaching will only enrich and enliven the power of God’s which is ‘useful for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness’ (2 Tim 3:16).