The ‘Technical Stuff’ Matters in Preaching (Or, Theology is Unavoidable)

Matthew Levering makes a point I’ve seen confirmed time and again in my own preaching and teaching with college students and young adults:

Most Christians contemplate God liturgically and through personal prayer and study, rather than also by developing the intellectual habits proper to speculative theology. Nonetheless, attempts to speak about God (not merely to fellow theologians, but also and perhaps especially to persons in the pews) require some understanding of “technical” issues. Anyone who has ever heard a sermon on the Trinity – Catholics will attest to the painfully awkward experience that is “Trinity Sunday” – will admit that talk about the three Persons quickly becomes horribly thin unless the preacher has some metaphysical understanding (without denying the unfathomable mystery) of how the Persons are perfectly one and yet distinct. Simply put, no one in the pews wishes to hear about three gods. There is an expectation, rooted in Christian faith and the practices of faith, that the mystery must possess some intelligibility, that scriptural and metaphysical modes of reflection cannot ultimately be opposed. There must be some way of distinguishing the three Persons from the multiple gods of polytheism, beyond simply asserting that this is “not polytheism” and that the three are “one God,” whatever that might mean.

–Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, pg. 6

Bold Theologian.

Bold Theologian.

Just the other night in Bible study with a group of young adults, working our way through Gospel of John, we had to stop and begin to parse doctrine of the Trinity in some detail. This wasn’t my own theological orientation jumping at the opportunity to explain eternal generation. We were forced by the logic of Jesus’ own words to attend to the trinitarian grammar of what Jesus was explaining to his disciples. Without a proper doctrine of the Trinity, or a working Christology, I don’t believe you can make it through half of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees, or dialogues with the disciples in that Gospel.

I mean, think about it. You can’t even make it past the most bottom-of-the-barrel proclamation represented by that guy holding up the poster of John 3:16 at the football game without encountering “the technical stuff”:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Well, okay. But what does it mean that God “gave his only Son”? God has kids? How? Where is His Wife? Why does Mrs. God get no headlines?

You see where this goes?

All that to say, at some point, for everyone, the “technical details” matter. It doesn’t matter that all you want to do, young pastor, is “preach the gospel” or “just love people.” If any of that involves more than the most shallow truisms and generalities, you’re going to have to do some theological digging. What’s more, for those who think you had all that handled in seminary, aside from the fact that there’s no way you covered all that questions you’re going to face in ministry, or that arise when worshipping an infinite God, just realize that while our basic theology may stay the same, the popular landscape is always shifting. More study is always required.

So roll up your sleeves and get to reading. We’ve got some work to do.

Soli Deo Gloria

3 thoughts on “The ‘Technical Stuff’ Matters in Preaching (Or, Theology is Unavoidable)

  1. Very much appreciate the reminder that theological vocabulary is unavoidable to discuss with any measure of depth doctrinal truths. I would be most helped if you could ‘flesh’ out how you parsed Trinitrian language and concepts in your Bible study on John.


  2. I appreciate your post above. Two good (bad, actually) examples of a failure of doing the heavy theological lifting can be seen in openness theology and emergent atonement theology and how they have gained so much ground in evangelical churches. If there was more theological effort put in by more pastors, I think these things would be seen for the errors they are. So much of what openness theology believes of the sovereignty of God and the incarnation as well as what emergent types say of the atonement (cosmic child abuse) are actually a result of really bad Trinitarian theology. If we can’t see, for example, how the Father gives himself (I and the Father are one) at the same time as sending his Son (For God so loved the world that he sent his only son…), of course we will get a warped theology of the godhead. But robust Trinitarian theology answers the admittedly thorny questions raised by proponents of both openness and detractors of penal substitutionary atonement. But the answers and the process of answering aren’t easy and don’t come quickly. That type of work can’t be done by people who view themselves primarily as religious therapists. It more resembles blister-inducing labour (like mining or stone masonry for the mind) than a nice, comfy “indoor job”.

  3. Pingback: The Inevitability of Theology - Notes from Mere O

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