Preaching Christian doctrine

Interview: The value of and approach to exposing biblical doctrine in the pulpit.

Marguerite Shuster, Ph.D., is a professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, United States.
Derek J. Morris, D.Min., is senior pastor at Forest Lake Church, Apopka, Florida, and author of Powerful Biblical Preaching: Practical Pointers From Master Preachers.

Derek Morris: Dr. Shuster, in both teaching and writing, you have become an advocate of preaching Christian doctrine. And yet, in your essay entitled "Preaching the Trinity," you state: "I am well aware, then, that I am swimming against a powerful tide when I plead for a rebirth of doctrinal preaching." 1 Why is there such a resistance to preaching Christian doctrine?

Marguerite Shuster: Many people are laboring under a rather stereotypical view of what doctrine is—that it is a matter of split ting hairs about material that is abstract, incomprehensible, and unconnected to daily life; and that you have to have several years of graduate education even to know what the discussion is about. So as soon as people hear that you are pleading for the rebirth of doctrinal preaching, the responses range from anxiety, to terror, to flight!

DM: You share with your students that every preacher preaches some kind of doctrine, whether they do it well or not. So how do you define the kind of doctrinal preaching that you are wanting to hear?

MS: Well, let me first of all reinforce the fact that most pastors and others do not avoid or neglect preaching doctrine because they have thought about it consciously. Every time we open our mouths, we express some kind of implicit understanding of what, let's say, our view is of human freedom over against divine sovereignty, or what the relationship of God's love is to God's wrath. Every time we say, "Trust Jesus," we're assuming that there is something particular about Jesus. Otherwise, why not trust somebody else?

So everything we say relies in the end upon doctrine. And my concern is that we not leave it all implicit, that we at least make our affirmations explicit. When I think of preaching Christian doctrine, I think of giving explicit attention to addressing the content and con sequences of some aspect of Christian belief and its meaning; and that we do it from both an intellectual and a practical point of view.

DM: Once preachers accept the challenge to preach Christian doctrine, you suggest that one major challenge they will face is that "persons in the average congregation are stunningly ignorant of Christian fundamentals."2 So how do you meet that challenge? You want to be faithful in preaching the doctrine and yet you've got biblically illiterate people in your congregation.

MS: Yes, and to make it worse, we have enormously transient congregations. So it's very hard to build from week to week. If you had people that you could count on being there over a period of time, you might actual ly be able to make some progress at the level of complexity. But that's not real life in most of our congregations.

So what I tell my students is that they need to take a bite-size piece of doctrine that counts and that they will discover that people's taste for the material will grow. All preaching needs to be the kind of preaching that is sufficiently clear, so that a person with a minimal under standing or even a child gets something from the preaching. Persons with greater comprehension will also observe that there are some depths there for them to plumb.

DM: So you've got to start with a bite-size piece, so that even a person with little back ground can take that first step of understanding.

MS: Yes, in doctrinal preaching we need to make clear to people what we are talking about, whether we use technical vocabulary or not. And if we don't throw around high flown words, but we do instead deal with substance. In this way, people can grab hold of it and say, "Aha, so that's what this is all about!"

DM: Which raises another challenge. Besides the lack of biblical knowledge in our hearers, a lot of the vocabulary we preachers use when we speak on doctrinal issues is totally foreign to the hearer.

MS: As a matter of fact, the doctrinal language is often more foreign to the preacher than the hearer! For example, when you ask a person to preach a sermon on the atonement, that person first has to know what is involved in the word and in the con cept of atonement. And I don't think there is one preacher in twenty who can articulate that intelligently. That's one reason why preachers are afraid.

DM: It sounds like you're asking for much more careful study in prepa ration for doctrinal preaching.

MS: I wish preachers valued the whole of their preparation more, including the whole of their seminary preparation in terms of their systematic theology and in terms of their biblical studies. For me, all of that should come together in the sermon. And if pastors haven't been well grounded in the loci of systematic theology, they face tremendous hurdles. They can pick up a bit from dictionaries and so on, but it will feel superficial, and such pastors will feel as if they are skating on thin ice.

DM: What are some of the risks that a preacher faces when preaching doctrine?

MS: One special temptation is that we want something we can nail down. We can put tremendous demands on preachers, and preachers can feel the pressure of those demands in such a way that they make everything too easy, too tidy.

There are, of course, some things about our faith that are, in some kind of fundamental way, simple. God does intend in Scripture to make Himself known. He is not playing hide and seek. We believe that an honest reader may without special education or special tools receive what they need for salvation simply by reading God's Word. But that which is sufficient is in no way exhaustive. Mystery remains.

Many of God's ways remain hidden to us; and this fact is especially pressing for people when it comes to the problems of sin and evil. There is sin in their own lives with which they cannot deal effectively and finally. There is evil around them that involves not only the suffering of the innocent but also structural evil. Such things don't mesh easily with any kind of tidy and simple moralistic approach.

The other side is simply saying, "It's all a mystery," and throwing up one's hands; or else trying to play out every aspect of it in a way that becomes so complex that a person simply bogs down, leaving nothing that one can affirm, nothing upon which one can rely.

DM: Is it acceptable, then, to raise questions that you don't have an answer for? You talk about the honest or thoughtful skeptic who might think it's a sign of failure to even ask a question. Could the preacher raise a question even if there isn't an easy answer for it?

MS: Absolutely. If preachers don't raise it, they are simply ignoring the fact that practically everybody in the congregation already has. That can make the people suppose that the preacher lives in an entirely different world where this question has never occurred.

I will almost always raise difficulties in a sermon. I would hope that there is something that one can set beside the difficulties that helps to show a way forward, but that doesn't mean that the difficulties are dis solved or cast aside. In fact, another danger is raising difficulties and then simply dismissing them as if they didn't matter. That's condescending, it's demeaning, it's undermining of a faithful person's integrity.

DM: Is there a difference between writing about Christian doctrine and preaching about it?

MS: Yes. For example, contrast Karl Earth's Dogmatics and his sermons. Even when Earth was preaching to a university crowd, as opposed to, say, when he was preaching to prisoners, the sermons have an emotive power and a basic simplicity and a fundamental affirmation of Christian hope that can be taken in on a wide variety of levels—from the most primitive perception that there is help from someone named Jesus, to fairly sophisticated nuancing if one is familiar with the sweep of Earth's theology. But the sermon itself doesn't sound anything like the Dogmatics even if one may find, as I do, that there is great devotional value in the Dogmatics.

DM: In your writings on preaching doctrine, you seem to differentiate between a thematic approach, where you try to cover everything the Bible says in 25 minutes, and the approach of taking a portion of Scripture and addressing the Christian doctrine upon which it sheds light. Can you unpack that for us?

MS: I came upon that approach when the late Paul Jewett was writing the first volume of his systematic theology and wanted to include doctrinal sermons.3 He believed that there is something wrong with doctrine that can't be preached.

He asked me to take on the task of writing certain sermons that would in some way embody doctrinal themes. I found it to be doable, challenging, and exciting. If one tries to preach a sermon on "faith," one ends up saying almost nothing. C. S. Lewis once said, "Everything is a topic on which not much can be said."

If you're trying to cover too much, there really isn't any way of bringing it down to earth. But if you take a particular passage that might have to do with somebody's faith or somebody's doubt, you can explore that slice of it in a way that the hearer will say, "Ah, that's where I live my life."

For this to work well, the preacher needs to deal primarily with that piece, but she or he must also know where the piece fits. And that's why I tell my students that, although I want them to base their sermon on the exegesis of the passage, I also want them to consult dogmatic works on the doctrine so that the broader context that informs the way they shape the sermon will also be faithful to the whole.

DM: Is it appropriate, then, to draw on other passages of Scripture or should the preacher stay with one primary text?

MS: I do believe it's possible to use supporting texts in a responsible way. However, most of the time when I hear people do it, they get engaged in proof-texting. They don't take into account the actual context of the supporting pieces they're using. Or if they do, they start running off on rabbit tracks and preaching the other texts.

I would rather that they be aware that the other texts exist and that they not speak in a way that would embarrass them in the light of the other texts. Sometimes referring to other texts will simply be a way of the preacher raising in his or her own mind the kinds of questions and objections that an engaged group of hearers will have in their minds with out necessarily running to a direct exploration of those passages.

DM: That's very practical counsel. Do you see the need for illustrative material in doctrinal preaching?

MS: It's absolutely critical. You don't have a sermon unless you have material that connects with both heart and head. Of course, the pro portions may be different in different kinds of sermons. But any sermon that doesn't make a contemporary connection hasn't done most of what a sermon needs to accomplish.

Now, when I say "illustration," I don't necessarily mean an anecdote. There are lots of ways to provide the supporting material that will make plain the contemporary relevance of the piece. I'm not leaving out anecdotes. I just do not want to limit the ways in which we illustrate.

DM: How important is the task of writing a manuscript when preparing for doctrinal preaching?

MS: Karl Earth believed that writing out a manuscript was simply part of the discipline of preaching. You didn't necessarily bring it into the pulpit but it was part of the discipline. And many others, like Martin Marty, have said that at least for the first ten years of their ministry, they considered that writing out a manuscript was essential to the piece having coherence, integrity, and all of those other things that we want. But careful preparation does not necessarily dictate what one brings into the pulpit. Different preachers will make different choices in that regard.

DM: What are your recommendations regarding the specifics of sermon design when the pastor accepts the challenge of preaching doctrine?

MS: I counsel variety. If every time you preach a doctrinal sermon you've got three points and a poem or you pull out the overhead and put up something incomprehensible or hand out an outline for people to fill in, you send the signal that this is a head trip. So I counsel variety of form for all preachers.

I have three underlying rules for a sermon: it needs to be biblical, it needs to be interesting, and it needs to make sense. If it's not biblical, I don't think it's a sermon. If it's not interesting, I won't listen. And if it doesn't make sense, I can't follow it.

DM: How would you respond to the criticism that postmodern secular people just aren't interested in Christian doctrine?

MS: Well, first the preacher had better believe it's relevant. Then, the preacher needs to show in very con crete ways, how what we believe addresses, challenges, and subverts ordinary assumptions about human life; how it confronts us in our deepest distress as human beings; how it eases our darkest fears; how it adds new fears and concerns that maybe we hadn't known we ought to be anxious about.

Preaching may raise anxieties, of course, as well as alleviate them. Suppose we're saying that Jesus has something to offer. Why Jesus? You cannot answer that question without doctrine. So how do you express what you believe about Jesus in a way that does indeed connect with people's deepest needs?

Somebody who is threatened by drought may not be experiencing the same need as somebody who is wor ried about drive-by shootings. So the way you shape matters obviously depends on your context. But if we believe that Jesus Christ is good news for all people, then it seems utterly incumbent upon us to find ways of talking about Him that are real for the real people we address.

1 Marguerite Shuster. "Preaching the Trinity: A Preliminary Investigation," in The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity. Edited by Stephen T Davis, Daniei Kendall, Gerald O'Collins. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 372.

2 Ibid., 358.

3 Paul K. Jewett, God, Creation, and Revelation: A Neo-Evangelical Theology: with sermons by Marguerite Shuster (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991). See also Paul K. Jewett, Who We Are: Oar Dignity As Human: A Neo-Evangelical Theology; edited, completed, and with sermons by Marguerite Shuster (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. 1996).

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Marguerite Shuster, Ph.D., is a professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, United States.
Derek J. Morris, D.Min., is senior pastor at Forest Lake Church, Apopka, Florida, and author of Powerful Biblical Preaching: Practical Pointers From Master Preachers.

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