This post begins a series on preaching. I was recently asked by a congregant how I construct a sermon.I am not set in one particular homiletical school of thought, and I think there is a great amount of variety in sermons. In this series, we will look at different questions or issues concerning preaching, to aid my congregation in understanding how I prepare sermons.
[Disclaimer: As we progress through this series the reader will see that I am taking much for granted. For example, I don’t necessarily justify all my approaches with Scriptural proof-texts. Neither am I planning on discussing the place of Christ in preaching. These issues are quintessential in developing a healthy view of preaching. But these posts are constructed more with an eye to the process or the methodology by which I preach. Finally, it should be noted that every question will deal with different options. These options are not inherently opposed to each other. Neither does it help to see them as two points but rather, to see them as a spectrum. The art of preaching is found in attempting to balance all things well. And as a preacher matures and scrutinizes his approach (and is in open discussion with his session/elders) he is able to discern if he has been unbalanced in his approach. But for simplicity sake we present these as alternate options.]
Interpretation and Theology: Systematic or Historical (Biblical)?
I think it is helpful to remember that the Bible is not a homiletical text book. It is a book of history, chronology, poetry, prophecy, narratives, parables, etc. There are few examples of apostolic preaching, and even when those sermons were recorded (cf. Acts 7) it is difficult to discern if their pattern was normative. Given the many varieties of genres in the Bible, I think there are a variety of ways in which a preacher can preach. Just as there was not one normative way of communicating divine revelation to the biblical authors, I believe it is safe to say there is no normative pattern of how one ought to preach.
How one ought to preach, appears closely related to interpretation. How one interprets a particular text will influence the way in which he preaches. There are many aspects to interpretation. For example, it is necessary when interpreting different passages to understand the grammatical and syntactical contours of the text. But simply walking a congregation through a word study or grammatical analysis will be insufficient. The Scriptures are also largely theological. To do justice to any given text, a preacher must discern the different theological emphases. But simply demonstrating the grammar or theology of a text doesn’t seem to go far enough. A preacher must also endeavor to apply the text and different texts are applied differently (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16).
When it comes to the theology of the text, this is, perhaps, the most contentious point of preaching. Not because Presbyterian churches have a wide range of theological perspectives (we are confessional!), but because there are two theological approaches that are often juxtaposed to one another. The first theological approach is a systematic approach. The second is a biblical approach.
Both of these theological approaches have merit and can’t exist without the other. A very broad characterization of these approaches can be summed up in this way. A systematic approach is a flattening of the text whereby universal doctrines are extracted and linked together. When we speak of systematic theology we often speak of seven different loci. And every text in the Bible can be systematically categorized in one of these seven loci. For example, when dealing with Jesus’ birth we would have a wonderful opportunity to preach Christology (the study of Christ) and examine such doctrines as the union of the divine and human natures, or the virgin birth, or the humiliation of Christ.
A biblical approach is more of a dynamic interpretation of the text where a particular passage is set within an immediate, broader, or canonical context paying particular attention to the historical nature of the text. A biblical approach isn’t as concerned with extracting universal doctrines but rather examining particular passages in light of their contexts. For example, when studying Jesus’ birth from the book of Matthew, a biblical approach would look at the context of Matthew’s gospel within the whole New Testament. It might probe the theological center of Matthew’s gospel and see how Jesus’ birth fits or adds or embellishes that particular center. It might even choose to take a broader perspective to see how Matthew sees Jesus’ birth as the fulfillment of biblical prophecies.
So, when I come to construct a sermon, I like to try and keep both these theological approaches in mind, both are necessary. But I have a natural proclivity towards the biblical approach. I enjoy mining particular passages in great depth. Rather than flattening out the dimensions of a particular text, I enjoy examining the contours. (Much like hiking through mountain trails rather than flying overhead.) I like the rough terrain of the text and seeing how this particular text fits within the scope of the surrounding and broader contexts, while at the same time keeping an eye to the truth that a biblical approach must be reigned in by systematic considerations.
Our next post in this series will address: Analytic or Synthetic: A Question of Content or Theme