The Value of Systematic Theology to Pastors

Pastors are busy. I know; I was one. They hardly have time to prepare their sermons every week while at the same time visiting, counseling, planning, fixing, etc. Ask most pastors what good theology books they’ve read recently and you’ll be greeted by blank stares. Been there, done that. I often felt that I hardly had time to read my Bible most days, let alone anything else.

Yet, looking back now, I realize I was a bit short-sighted. Most of my agony over the text I was going to preach each week came from a lack of input from great minds of the past and present. I was trying to reinvent the wheel with every sermon. Sure, I was reading commentaries, but I wasn’t reading much theology that would provide the substance and nourishment of better preaching. By not reading theology, I was making my sermon prep more difficult.

I am not advocating the reading of just any theology to nourish spiritual life and preaching. There is no virtue in reading dull or poorly-written theologies. Rather, directed reading of good theologies will provide fodder for thought, clarify difficulties in the text, and sometimes even offer a pertinent illustration of the truth the preacher is trying to communicate.

Cornelius Van Til recognized the value of a pastor reading theology:

What is beneficial for the individual believer [studying systematic theology] is also beneficial for the minister and in consequence for the church as a whole. It is sometimes contended that ministers need not be trained in systematic theology if only they know their Bibles. But “Bible-trained” instead of systematically trained preachers frequently preach error. They may mean ever so well and be ever so true to the gospel on certain points; nevertheless, they often preach error…

If we carry this idea one step further, we note that a study of systematic theology will help men to preach theologically. It will help to make men proclaim the whole counsel of God. Many ministers never touch the greater part of the wealth of the revelation of God to man contained in Scripture. But systematics helps ministers to preach the whole counsel of God, and thus to make God central in their work.

The history of the church bears out the claim that God-centered preaching is most valuable to the church of Christ. When the minister has most truly proclaimed the whole counsel of God, the church has flourished spiritually.

Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed. Edited by William Edgar (P&R, 2007), 22-23.

Pastors who study theology do their congregation a great service. Generally their preaching has more substance, and their ideas are drawn from a larger pool of knowledge and exposure than one who does not read. Pastors who do not study theology tend to preach atheological sermons. They may be able to atomistically expound a text, but they will have difficulty connecting the text to the grand redemptive truths that give the texts weighty significance.

Van Til saw a definite connection between the study of systematic theology and the ability to preach the whole counsel of God. If a pastor is not well-versed in theology, he may shy away from Scriptures that his flock needs for growth in grace. Or worse, he may shy away from Scriptures his flock needs for spiritual and doctrinal protection. That will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

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The pleasures and pains of teaching

Many people have asked me how the transition has gone from teaching theology and apologetics in seminary to teaching undergraduate pastoral theology in my new job at Lancaster Bible College. My answer: Everything about the new job has been beyond my expectations, and for that I am like the proverbial kid in a candy shop. But when you ask about teaching, I have to say that it’s so much fun, I feel guilty for taking a paycheck. Teaching has always been that way for me. Usually a thrill, sometimes excruciating, but never dull.

I read something today that captures the highs and lows of teaching. I can give a hearty “amen” to this statement by Parker Palmer in his excellent book, The Courage to Teach (Jossey-Bass, 2007)He captures very vividly the feelings of so many teachers.

I am a teacher at heart, and there are moments in the classroom when I can hardly hold the joy. When my students and I discover uncharted territory to explore, when the pathway out of a thicket opens up before us, when our experience is illumined by the lightning-life of the mind–then teaching is the finest work I know.

But at other moments, the classroom is so lifeless or painful or confused–and I am so powerless to do anything about it–that my claim to be a teacher seems a transparent sham. Then the enemy is everywhere: in those students from some alien planet, in that subject I thought I knew, and in the personal pathology that keeps me earning my living this way. What a fool I was to imagine that I had mastered this occult art–harder to divine than tea leaves and impossible for mortals to do even passably well! (p. 1-2)

Preachers should be like naughty children

I think good preachers should be like bad kids. They ought to be naughty enough to tiptoe up on dozing congregations, steal their bottles of religion pills…and flush them all down the drain. The church, by and large, has drugged itself into thinking that proper human behavior is the key to its relationship with God. What preachers need to do is force it to go cold turkey with nothing but the word of the cross–and then be brave enough to stick around while [the congregation] goes through the inevitable withdrawal symptoms.

But preachers can’t be that naughty or brave unless they’re free from their own need for the dope of acceptance. And they wont be free of their need until they can trust the God who has already accepted them, in advance and dead as door-nails, in Jesus. Ergo, the absolute indispensability of trust in Jesus’ passion. Unless the faith of preachers is in that alone–and not in any other person, ecclesiastical institution, theological system, moral prescription, or master recipe for human loveliness–they will be of very little use in the pulpit.

Robert Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching

Dangerous Preachers

Because the underlying theological influence of most emergent theology (even though its advocates rarely know it) is Karl Barth, the written Word of God is debased in favor of the living Christ of the Word (a false dichotomy). As a result, the sermon content of pastors influenced by the emerging movement is more dependent on psychology, sociology and other “soft sciences” than it is the Scriptures, since, supposedly, “all truth is God’s truth” (a notoriously slippery concept).

Edmund Clowney spoke of this dangerous problem:

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing if a preacher with a smattering of sociology, political science, or group dynamics begins to pontificate from the pulpit, proclaiming his amateurish notions or prejudices under the mantle of divine truth.

“Preaching the Word of the Lord: Cornelius Van Til, V. D. M.” The Van Til Lecture for 1983-84 delivered at Westminster Theological Seminary

While the soft sciences may contribute insight into life, they may only be considered helpful when subjected to the singular authority of the inspired Word of God, and interpreted through the lens of a thoroughly Christian worldview. Let us be careful that we are not deluded by plausible arguments and taken captive by philosophy built on human traditions, which are nothing more than assent to pagan elemental spirits of the world (Col. 2:1-8). Rather, let us not grow weary of grounding our preaching on Christ, who is himself, our wisdom (1 Cor. 1:24).

Change in Church and the “Religious People” Bogeyman

Demonizing opponents is (unfortunately) a common practice in churches where the leadership is making sweeping changes that are opposed by some in the congregation. Those who oppose the changes, the pastor tells the congregation, are just like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day who replaced God’s Word with their own traditions. They stand in the way of change and progress because they love their own comfort more than God’s glory. Jared Wilson calls this accusation of Pharisaism the invoking of the “religious person bogeyman.”

That is, when a pastor paints a vague picture of some unspecified group of people in the church who is against some unspecified change being made because they want to cling to some unspecified tradition, he is manipulating the congregation into siding against these unknown people (even though they don’t know why). In their natural desire to support and protect their pastor from criticism, undiscerning people may gullibly swallow whatever story they are being told. By using such tactics the pastor is practicing what Paul called cunning and underhanded tactics, in contrast to open statements of the truth (2 Cor. 4:2). Proverbs calls these tactics “devious” and likens such speech to crooked speech. Devious people do not fear God (14:2) and are an abomination to God (3:32).

Such a pastor creates in the undiscerning a disgust with and resistance to whatever tradition is being clung to by these unknown opponents of change. Because the tradition is not identified, congregants are not given the chance to judge whether or not the tradition is in conformity to Scripture and historic orthodoxy. They are not given the chance to be discerning like the Bereans who were praised for the refusal to simply accept what they were being told (Acts 17:11). The “religious person bogeyman,” in his opposition to proposed change, then, become an enemy to “progress,” even though no one can state exactly why. The effect is something akin to the “Two Minutes Hate” in George Orwell’s 1984.

Jared Wilson explains:

First of all, there are people in every church, no matter what kind of church it is, who struggle with the distinction between law and gospel, who struggle with the driving place of grace in their pursuit of holiness, so it won’t do to deny that legalism looms in our churches. Legalism lurks in every heart, actually, mine and yours. But this constant invoking of the judgmental “religious people” is very often a boogeyman. It’s an imagined threat, a scare tactic employed to both justify dumb exercises in license and arouse the self-satisfied mockery of self-identified “grace people.”

Wilson asks the question, “Why do pastors play the religious bogeyman card?” He proposes two possible answers:

We’re left with two options, really:

1. Pastors who invoke the “religious people” boogeyman are really just trying to offend people outside their church. This might be good for laughs and applause, good red meat for the congregation, good for camaraderie, but it is also profoundly stupid. If you make decisions at your church out of a desire to thumb your nose at people at other churches, you need to get a life.

2. Pastors who invoke the “religious people” boogeyman are really just bullying and dismissing sincere people in their churches who have concerns or questions about the goings-on. It’s a fantastic way to deflect all criticism, whether it’s legitimate or not. It’s a great way to insulate oneself from reflection and accountability by drowning it out with the fan club’s laughter and chest-thumping.

“Pharisee,” “legalist,” “religious person” is the church version of racist or Nazi. It is the rhetorical nuclear option specifically designed to shut up anyone with questions and paint them among their brothers and sisters as graceless jerks. But I think it actually works the other way around:

Employing the “religious people” boogeyman ironically indulges in what it professes to decry. It is a great way to pray along with the self-justified pharisee, “I thank you God that I’m not like those religious people.”

This is not an invective against change. Rather, it is a call to open statement of the truth and non-coercive arguments for new ideas. Pastor, if you want to bring change to your church, make a compelling argument. Don’t stoop to underhanded and devious ways by manipulating or coercing your church. If you have to manipulate your church through word games, ambiguity, coercion, and demonizing, then you have taught them to be gullible, easily led astray, and wide open to apostasy. If you can’t convince your church of a new idea through sound, biblical and compelling arguments, then maybe that religious person bogeyman is right.

Metaphor: The Language of Discovery and Invention

What is metaphor? Aristotle defined it as giving some “thing” a name that belongs to something else. The “thing” is called the metaphor’s “target” and the “something else” from which it takes a name is its “source.” Like the etymology of the word, meta (over, across, and beyond) + phero (to carry), a metaphor carries across a name from the source to the target. When it does, amazing things begin to happen.

When we lend a thing a name that belongs to something else, we lend it a complex pattern of relations and associations…A metaphor juxtaposes two different things and then skews our point of view so unexpected similarities emerge. Metaphorical thinking half discovers and half invents the likenesses it describes (James Geary, I is an Other, Harper Collins, 2011, p. 9).

Take a simple, unassuming word like shoulder. You can give someone a cold shoulder or a shoulder to cry on. You can have a chip on your shoulder or always be looking over your shoulder. You can stand on the shoulders of giants or shoulder to shoulder with friends.

Ordinary conversation is rife with metaphors because they are how we make sense of the world. Whenever we explore how one thing is like another, we are in the realm of metaphorical thinking.

Here is the challenge of using good metaphors in preaching and teaching—connecting two dissimilar things and showing how the one sheds light on the other. As Geary says above, sometimes the comparison is discovered when we discern how one familiar thing illustrates another in a way we hadn’t noticed before. Sometimes the metaphor is invented when we search for ways to illustrate an abstract idea.

Pastor Matt Chandler provides an example of the second when he wanted to illustrate how we look at our failures compared to how God looks at them. He used the metaphor of a child taking her first steps. After three steps, the child falls, but the parent can only see that the child took three steps. In the same way God focuses on our victories, not our failures.

In the next part of this series, we’ll look at the limits of metaphor and the need to know how to ride a metaphor for its usefulness, while jumping off before it crashes.

Metaphor, Part 2: The Pin-Prick of Metaphor

In his book, I is an Other, James Geary recounts the story of Édouard Claparède, a Swiss neurologist who studied patients with neurological damage who could not recall old memories. One of his patients had completely lost her short-term memory. Everyday when she arrived at his clinic, it was as though she was meeting Claparède for the first time.

Claparède wanted to see if any part of the woman’s memory remained, so one day when she arrived, he shook her hand, sticking her with a pin he had concealed in his hand. She cried out in pain and withdrew her hand. The next day when she arrived, Claparède proffered his hand, but the woman hesitated, fearing another jab. The experiement proved that at some level, the woman recalled the pain and associated it with Claparède’s handshake.

Like Claparède’s handshake, metaphor slips a pin into the mundane. “By mixing the foreign with the familiar, the marvelous with the mundane, metaphor makes the world sting and tingle. Though we encounter metaphor everyday, we typically fail to recognize it. Its influence is profound but takes place mostly outside our conscious awareness. Yet once metaphor has us in its grasp, it never lets us go, and we can never forget it.”

Geary’s book expounds on the power of metaphor in all arenas of life: politics, advertising, finance, science, and psychology to name a few. Who can forget Ronald Reagan’s 1984 Campaign commercial, “It’s morning again in America,” or George Bush, Sr.’s “a thousand points of light”? Or advertising’s “like a good neighbor” and “you’re in good hands”? Or high finance’s “bulls” and “bears”? Or science’s light “waves” and “particles,” and “the blind watchmaker.”

Geary makes a convincing case that metaphors are such a part of our thinking, writing, and speaking, it is impossible to communicate without them. Philosophers such as Hobbes, Berkeley, and Locke attempted to purge language of metaphor because they regarded it as dangerous and full of absurdities. Yet, in their very condemnation of metaphors, they used them! They couldn’t help writing without using metaphors.

Although metaphors are not the only way people think, it is obvious that they constitute a significant part of how we understand virtually everything we experience. If this is true, what does this mean for preaching? What if preachers could tap into the power of metaphor to communicate more vividly and memorably?

In part 3, we’ll explore metaphor more fully.

The Place of Metaphor in Thinking, Writing, and Preaching, Part 1

I am the Good Shepherd.

I am the Door.

I am the Bread of Life.

How often would I have gathered you under my wings.

My beloved is a bouquet of flowers.

I have fought a good fight.

Metaphor is a powerful tool in communication; so powerful, in fact, that Jesus conveyed some of his most important self-revelations through the medium of metaphor. Solomon and his bride describe the depths of their love through metaphors. Paul’s best words on his ministry and the Christian life are metaphors of fighting, running, farming, educating, and shepherding.

What is metaphor? It is a literary device through which we describe one thing in terms of another. But metaphor’s significance is not in what it is, but in what it does. “Metaphor systematically disorganizes the common sense of things–jumbling together the abstract with the concrete, the physical with the psychological, the like with the unlike–and reorganizes it into uncommon combinations” (James Geary, I is an Other:The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, Harper Collins, 2011, p. 2).

In part 2, we’ll expand on metaphor’s ability to shake up our thinking to create new combinations of thought.

Preachers, Know When to Quit!

There are few things more disheartening as a congregant than hearing a forty minute preacher preach for fifty minutes, a thirty minute preacher preach for forty minutes, or a twenty minute preacher preach for thirty minutes.  Somehow, that last ten minutes can weaken and even destroy the impact of all that has been said in the sermon to that point.  There is no virtue in length for the sake of it.  I think I’ve heard two preachers in my entire life who could preach for an hour; and most preachers I know would be much better if they shaved at least five or ten minutes off their typical length.  Get up there, say what you’ve got to say as clearly as you can, and then sit down again.  That’s all that’s necessary.   As Luther says elsewhere in Table Talk (2643a), `I hate a long sermon, because the desire on the part of the congregation to listen is destroyed by them, and the preachers hurt themselves.’   And, as usual, Luther got it right.

Carl Trueman, “Luther on the Marks of a Good Preacher, II”

Is Revivalism Good for the Church? In a Word, No.

What role do revivalism, evangelists, emotional altar calls, crisis decisions, etc. have in a church dedicated to faithful preaching? According to Kevin Bauder, none. And I agree. Bauder is the president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, MN, near Minneapolis. He has made revivalism, that very familiar cultural practice in Baptist Fundamentalism, an object of study for some time. He contrasts revivalism with genuine biblical revival, and demonstrates that revivalism is a man-made phenomenon that is a detriment to the church, and often to truth as well.

Here’s Bauder:

These [characteristics of revivalism] all stem from the presupposition that the normal Christian life is one of decline, i.e., that Christian people, left to themselves, will usually just stagnate and then backslide.

(1) A belief that crisis decisions are the normal and principal

Charles Finney: The Consummate Revivalist

mechanism of sanctification and spiritual development, and that such decisions are typically manifested by “going to the altar” during the public invitation. “Evangelists” are thought of as preachers who have a special ability to produce these crises. Often a preacher is expected to have some special spiritual enduement or anointing to be able to perform the function of precipitating these crises.

(2) A failure to distinguish persuasion from manipulation in seeking to precipitate such crises, accompanied by an inability to distinguish legitimate appeals to the mind through the affections from appeals to the appetites. Tear-jerking stories, ranting, and demagoguery are the special province of revivalism.

(3) A suspicion or rejection of biblical exposition as the normal and principal mode of preaching, and the adoption of storytelling and “hard preaching,” which focuses on the invitation to salvation and the berating of God’s people for their failure to evangelize or to live up to the “standards.”

(4) The use of amusements and propaganda techniques in gathering and holding a crowd.

(5) The displacement of corporate worship by religious amusements and crowd evangelism in the public gatherings of the church.

(6) A reluctance to commit the decision-making process of the church into the hands of the members, resulting in a de facto pastoral dictatorship. Sometimes this form of spiritual contempt extends even to the private lives of church members, who are told that they should seek the pastor’s counsel before making any important decision. Very often, this philosophy of manifested in an attitude of suspicion or even contempt toward pastoral arrangements that involve a real sharing of authority and responsibility among multiple pastors.

(7) A belief that the spiritual effectiveness of ministers and ministries can be gauged (ceteris paribus) by the number of crisis decisions that are being made. Soul-winning covers a multitude of sins.

“Now, this is a short description, and it is therefore incomplete. Still, to the degree that a ministry is characterized by the above, then it can fairly be called revivalistic. Of course, non-revivalists also favor revival (or, as we prefer to call it, “awakening”–and there is a good reason for this). In contrast to revivalism, biblical Christianity assumes that spiritual growth is the default state for true believers. The corollaries work out as follows.”

(1) A belief that spiritual decisions are being made constantly and that they are not normally crisis decisions. Over time, small decisions add up to big growth. When crisis decisions are necessary (and they sometimes are), then they should be made in the right ways and for the right reasons.

(2) Refusal to bypass the mind when appealing to the emotions, but recognition that the emotions (in the form of Christian affections) are extremely important. Loving God rightly is the most important thing that we can ever do, and this right love (orthopathy) must undergird every attempt to serve and obey Him.

(3) An insistence upon biblical exposition as the normal and vital pattern of preaching and the focal point of worship. As the Scriptures are carefully interpreted, explained, and applied, the lives of God’s people will be transformed. They will see Christ in His beauty, love Him for Himself, and live out that love increasingly in their daily conduct.

(4) The recognition that the most important presence in the assembly of the Church is God Himself, leading to the utter rejection of any attempt to convert Christianity into a system of amusement for the religiously inclined.

(5) A commitment to worship as the central activity of the assembled church, and a recognition that all other activities must be grounded in this. Evangelism (outreach) and fellowship (inreach) must both stem from a vital worship (upreach) or they will be shallow, perfunctory, and contrived. Christians have no higher duty or greater delight than to exult in the presence of the Mighty God, the merciful Savior, and the eternal Spirit. Where His holiness strikes us with awe, it also fills us with longing and joy. No church can offer any higher inducement for attendance at any meeting than the presence of God Himself.

(6) Rejoicing in the priesthood of believers and its implication that spiritual wisdom is available to all of God’s people. Baptists understand this to imply congregational polity and to permit–perhaps even encourage–shared pastoral authority. Presbyterians also affirm the vital role of the congregation in the selection of ruling elders, which elders constitute the voice of the “laity” in church decisions. Spiritual leadership is understood primarily as a matter of exposition and example rather than as the exercise of fiat authority.

(7) Radical commitment to the notion that the success of the church must be measured by the degree to which it achieves the unity of the faith and of the full knowledge of the Son of God, unto a mature man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

I think Bauder’s description here is exceptional for its brevity and clarity. Having grown up in Baptist Fundamentalism with revivalism as an essential part of the experience, I have seen the long-term destructive influence of this approach. The most compelling influences in the lives of my classmates in high school toward godliness were certainly not evangelists, Christian camps and Christian school chapels. Each of those had some spiritual value in our lives, but this was true in spite of revivalism, not because of it. No, the influences to godliness were the daily examples set by our teachers and youth pastors who lacked the polish of the one-week wonders and who rejected their manipulative methods.

In addition, it was the culture of revivalism that I finger as the main culprit in the majority of Christian teens who walked away from God in my high school years. They found their crisis decisions lasted fewer and fewer days and hours over time, like the diminishing returns of drugs or pornography. Unless something harder and more extreme was sought, eventually no emotion could be stirred by that kind of preaching and hearts grew cold. Kids stopped going to camp because they knew it would cost too much money to buy new cassettes of their favorite rock music a week after they broke them upon returning from camp. Other teens accepted the challenge to just try harder and attended more extreme schools such as Hyles-Anderson and Fairhaven and either drank the Kool-Aid (the equivalent of a spiritual lobotomy) or disappeared entirely from the spiritual radar once they were completely burned out. Few exceptions to these generalizations exist.

Adults were affected too. Two week revival meetings became one week meetings, and now most churches have a hard time mustering the excitement necessary to sustain a Sunday-Wednesday meeting. This occasionally results in the clamor for old-fashioned endurance, and when pastors fall for it and schedule a week-long meeting, they find that those who shouted the loudest don’t bother to attend what they demanded in the first place.

Nothing more needs to be added to this post. Bauder’s description says it all more than adequately. When churches stop swallowing the unbiblical culture of revivalism, they will see, over time, a repair and restoration of souls as the centrality of Scripture is restored to lives and the church.