Preaching and Biblical Theology

Seminary seems as though it belongs to a different lifetime! It’s almost 30 years since I attended Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and it is curious to look back on those days and reflect on how much they meant to me.

One thing that stands out about them is the sense of perplexity I and other students felt as to why certain courses were included in the curriculum and why certain emphases seemed to run through many of them. For me, one of the most perplexing of these was the emphasis on Biblical Theology – the technical term for that branch of theology that is not merely ‘biblical’ in that it is self-consciously drawn from Scripture; but which charts the progression in divine revelation and, more specifically, the history of Redemption.

At one level I could see its importance in the grand scheme of the discipline of theology in general and how it relates to hermeneutics. It provides a healthy and necessary connector between exegetical theology and historical theology en route to a full-blown Systematic Theology. But my problem was, ‘How does it relate to Practical Theology – especially in the realm of Homiletics?’

Westminster at that time placed a high premium on this particular theological discipline. This was hardly surprising, given the roots of Westminster theology in that of Princeton and the fact that Geerhardus Vos was such a significant figure in the development of Biblical Theology. However it seemed to some students it was an emphasis that was being pushed too far and its relationship with preaching was a case in point. The then President of the Seminary immortalized the link in his book, Preaching and Biblical Theology (P&R; Philipsburg, NJ) 1961, and it featured prominently in his preaching classes as much as in his own preaching.

The point he was making is that the grand storyline of the Bible is Salvation. From beginning to end it relates the history of God’s redemptive purpose from eternity past right through to its consummation in the world which is to come and its supreme focus is Jesus Christ. If that is indeed the case, then it calls into question any sermon that is ostensibly rooted in a text but never gets beyond mere moralizing and, worse than that, never gets to Christ.

This approach to preaching still has its own inherent weaknesses. It can become very mechanical and predictable in the way it controls a preacher’s handling of the text. It can also lead to the delivery of a sermon being like ‘constructing a house out of which the occupants cannot escape and into which those on the outside cannot enter’. (For years I thought that was a quote from John Frame, though he assures me it wasn’t, but nevertheless said he would be happy to claim it if its provenance cannot be established!)

For me, it was almost a full ten years into the ministry that the full positive significance and benefit of this dimension of preaching really began to come home. Only then did I start to appreciate that it is the key to genuinely gospel-centred preaching – addressed to believers as much as to unbelievers – that is the heartbeat of healthy preaching. More than that, it is the key to ensuring that over and above the voice of the preacher heard during a sermon, it is the voice of Christ that is heard most clearly.

Every detail of every part of Scripture flows out of the overarching message of Scripture which is all about Christ and the great salvation found in him alone. Or, as Sinclair Ferguson has noted in a number of addresses recently, ‘It is almost as though the entire message of the Bible is a footnote to Genesis 3.15!’

Learning to factor in this component to our sermon preparation and cultivating the art of doing it well will not only inject freshness into our ministry, it will also ensure that we are preaching every text in light of its most glorious horizon: the story of Redemption.

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