In many evangelical churches, the primary commitment is to expository preaching. And rightly so, because such preaching teaches God’s word in its original setting and within the context of the Bible’s own plot-line. However, I would like to argue that there is a place for preaching which gives more than usual attention to what the Bible as a whole teaches; that is to say, to doctrine.
(a) It might be argued that doctrine is unbiblical. Some scholars focus so much on the teaching of the individual authors and editors of the biblical text that there is little room left for what ‘the Bible as a whole’ teaches, and therefore little room for systematic theology. But one of our commitments as evangelicals is that we believe that Scripture, being God-breathed, is self-consistent, and that it is possible to say, “The Bible teaches…”. It is this that makes doctrinal preaching both possible and necessary.
However, the obvious point must still be made that the Bible is not a textbook of systematic theology. Accordingly, there is a danger that doctrinal preaching will flatten Scripture into a set of theological proof-texts, glossing over vital interpretative clues such as historical context, authorial intention and literary genre. Therefore, whatever we may say in favour of doctrinal preaching, it must not be isolated from the disciplines of biblical exegesis (‘What does this text actually mean?’), biblical theology (‘How does this text fit into the overall flow of biblical revelation?’), and historical theology (‘How has this text been understood in the Church?’).
Nevertheless, from its opening statement about creation to its closing promise of Christ’s return, Scripture is rich in doctrine. Paul, as is well-known, habitually ‘front-loads’ his epistles with doctrine, prior to dealing with the more practical applications of that doctrine. In the later writings of the New Testament there is a clear sense of the emergence of a ‘body’ of doctrine which was to be guarded and passed on. Note in the Pastoral Epistles the frequent references to “the truth”, “the faith”, “the tradition”, “the teaching”, and “the deposit”. Note also how in 2 Timothy 1:13f Paul urges the young preacher to keep ‘the pattern of sound teaching’. There is clear scriptural support for doctrinal preaching.
(b) It might be argued that doctrine is impractical. Such preaching deals (so it might be thought) only with the transmission of knowledge, and is therefore remote from the concerns of everyday Christian living. Of course, in the hands of a preacher whose aims and interests were merely intellectual, this objection would be completely valid. But it need not be so, and it should not be so. We have just distinguished between the doctrinal and the practical in Paul’s writings; but the distinction is by no means absolute. It has often been pointed out that for Paul doctrine is always applied just as application is always doctrinal. Paul is interested in promoting, not merely ‘teaching’, but ‘teaching which accords with godliness’ (1 Timothy 6:3; cf. Titus 1:1), and he defines wrong behaviour as that which is ‘contrary to sound doctrine’ (1 Timothy 1:10). As Wayne Grudem says, ‘theology is meant to be lived and prayed and sung!’
(c) It might be argued that doctrine is divisive; that it promotes unedifying debate and hair-splitting controversy. A slogan dating from the early years of the ecumenical movement asserted that “doctrine divides; service unites.” Many Christians today would regard historical differences between Calvinists and Arminians, or even Catholics and Protestants, in this light. It is certainly true that evangelicals have sometimes brought the gospel into disrepute by arguing and even separating over issues of secondary importance. But doctrinal controversy cannot always be avoided. Within the New Testament, it was precisely when the church was being threatened by false doctrines that the apostles insisted more strongly on the importance of being thoroughly grounded in ‘the faith’, and of ‘contend(ing) for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 3). ‘In your thinking be adults’, pleads Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:20, and mature thinking will help us to evaluate which of the various challenges to the faith are critical and which are non-critical. The Puritan Richard Baxter offers wise guidance: ‘In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.’
(d) It might be argued that doctrine is reductionist; that it reduces the mysteries of God to a set of logical propositions. When folk ask, as they sometimes do, for more ‘mystery’ in church services, we can see where they are coming from. They are right to be nervous about preachers who seem to think that they can answer every question, resolve every tension, explain every paradox. God’s ways are indeed ‘past finding out’. In any case, effective preaching can be evocative as well as didactic. It can appeal to the imagination as well as to the mind. We need only think of the psalms, or of the parables of our Lord, in order to be convinced of this. At the same time, there is plenty of logic in the teaching of Jesus (note, for example, his use of ‘if…then’ reasoning), and frequent appeals to reason in the book of Acts (note how often apostolic communication is referred to as ‘reasoning’, persuading’, ‘refuting’, ‘declaring’, ‘proving’, ‘explaining’, and so on). Let reason, then, as a God-given faculty, be given its full reign; but let us confess that human reason is limited and fallible, and sing, with Isaac Watts, ‘Where reason fails, with all her powers, there faith prevails, and love adores’.
(e) But now, more positively: doctrine aids exegesis. Although each text of Scripture must be read, first and foremost, in its own right, it should also be read in the light of the rest of Scripture. The interpretation of any particular text is guided by the ‘analogy of faith’. This is both possible and desirable because God does not contradict himself; his truth is self-consistent. For example, if we have decided, on the basis of good exegesis of the relevant biblical texts, that the human soul is immortal, then this will inform our understanding of a text that seems to contradict this, such as Psalm 6:5 (‘No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave?’). Similarly, our understanding of 2 Corinthians 5:21 (‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us’) will be guided by the consistent witness of the rest of Scripture to the sinlessness of Christ.
To be sure, systematic theology is provisional in the sense that it must be constantly reviewed, refined and (if necessary) corrected by further study of scripture. Therefore, what is needed is a constant conversation between exegetical theology and systematic theology. Systematic theology goes to biblical exegesis for its primary data; but biblical exegesis goes back to systematic theology and checks, ‘How does the data of this text fit in with the witness of Scripture as a whole?’
Systematic theology doesn’t only protect exegesis from unbiblical conclusions; it also equips the expositor to observe what is in the text. Suppose two people are gazing at the night sky. One is an astronomer, while the other is not. It is the astronomer who will notice more of what is there and will appreciate the significance of what is seen, compared with the non-astronomer. So it is with biblical exposition: prior knowledge of theology will help the preacher to observe what is there and estimate its significance. Thus the expositor learns how to handle each text ‘in its scriptural relations and proportions’ (R.L. Dabney’s phrase).
(f) And lastly: doctrine is inescapable: even if it were absent from the pulpit, it would be present in our hymns and songs, in our prayers and meditations, and in our discussions and conversations. Even though God has not caused the biblical text to be arranged systematically, he has constituted us as rational beings, with minds that seek to make sense of our beliefs and experiences. Accordingly, every Christian is a theologian of sorts: when a person either affirms or denies the three-in-oneness of God, or the inspiration of Scripture, or the saving work of Christ, that person is expressing their understanding of doctrine. When someone asks, “What does the Bible teach about…?” then they are asking us to respond with a doctrinal answer, one which attempts to summarise the teaching of Scripture as a whole. People in the pews are asking doctrinal questions; part of the role of the preacher is to offer some doctrinal answers.
None of the above is intended to suggest that systematic theology should be taught regularly from the pulpit. As a general rule, we should preach expositorily, allowing the text itself, and not a doctrinal system, to determine the contours of the sermon. What the points discussed above do indicate, however, is that expository preaching should be informed and guided by systematic theology. Moreover, it suggests that there will be occasions when it will be right to bring particular doctrines to the fore within an expository message. Thus, although a variety of truths and applications may legitimately be brought out of Genesis 2:15-3:6, say, or Genesis 3:17-24, or Isaiah 59:1-21, or Ruth 4:1-22, or Ephesians 1:3-14, or Acts 13:26-49, or 2 Corinthians 5:14-6:2, or John 3:1-18, it will be equally legitimate to focus, once in a while, on the statement, explanation, illustration and application of the doctrines of creation, destruction, salvation, redemption, election, resurrection, reconciliation, and regeneration respectively, as taught in those passages.
Take Ephesians 1:3-14 as an example. This passage passes under rapid review, in a context of praise, some of the many spiritual blessings that God has bestowed on us in Christ. The work of the Father (vv4-6), Son (vv7-11) and Spirit (12-14) are celebrated. An expository sermon might explain and apply each of these in turn. A doctrinal message, on the other hand, might limit the time spent on overall explanation of the passage in order to focus more tightly on the doctrine of election. More effort than usual might be expended on taking account of the overall teaching of Scripture on this doctrine, connecting it with other aspects of the wider doctrine of salvation, while also maintaining the controls the passage itself exerts (including that fact that Paul’s motivation in mentioning it at all is praise and wonder, not love of controversy).
[Note: ‘The Message of…‘ books, in ‘The Bible Speaks Today’ series, model an approach which, although still expository, focuses on specific doctrines, such as salvation, mission, prayer, creation, etc.]