Preaching and Theology: Let the Twain Meet
“Unite the pair so long disjoined,
Knowledge and vital piety:”
Today I was privileged to spend the day listening to Bishop Will Willimon lecture on Barth & preaching. He reminded us that Barth’s own preaching was gloriously naive in technique, and unapologetically theological in content. Too often, preaching is considered a pragmatic task and theology as an academic or purely intellectual pursuit. True theology, however, is always wedded to proclamation, because it is concerned with speaking truthfully about the God revealed in Christ Jesus. As the Orthodox say, “The one who prays is a theologian, and the theologian is the one who prays.”
Similarly, preaching that is not theological will descend into mere sentimentality or utility (sermons that are either aimed at making people “feel good” or being “useful”). We have far too many theologians who have lost their vocation as teachers of the church and proclaimers of the Word made flesh, and certainly a plethora of preachers who have forgotten that the center of their preaching is a crucified Jew from Nazareth who came neither to make us feel good nor to give us useful ideas about life.
My teacher Michael Pasquarello* has a beautifully rich vision of preaching, of which I was reminded today. In his excellent Christian Preaching, he argues for a rediscovery of preaching as a theological task of the Church which is centered on the Triune God, exclusive of all other homiletic foci:
“Christian preaching, then, is theological rhetoric, a gift of the Spirit in which Christ, the incarnate Word spoken by the Father, condescended to indwell Scripture and the church, himself speaking the restoration and fulfillment of creation by confessing the praise of the Creator.” (p. 56)
Like the best preaching, that definition is beautiful, wonderfully deep, and thoroughly Trinitarian. The wall between preaching and theology has been, in many places, been erected for too long. Tear down this wall. Let the twain meet.
*By a happy accident, I was able to take preaching with Pasquarello even though I was at Duke and he teaches at Asbury. It’s a story that is longer than it is interesting, but suffice it to say he is an excellent teacher and a preacher-theologian I greatly respect.