by Robert Smith Jr.
In a conversation with British theologian Alister McGrath, former archbishop of Canterbury Donald Loggan remarked, “The journey from head to heart is one of the longest and most difficult we know.” Sometimes, the doctrinal preacher will begin with the head and move to the heart; other times the direction will be reversed. Regardless of the starting point, the end result must always be the same: the inclusivity of both.
We are experiencing a kind of “dumbing down,” a dismantling of the triumph of the mind, and people are turning to easy “believism” and naïve quick fixes to life’s problems. The mind is certainly not enough, but neither is the heart. Jesus said that we are to love God with all our hearts and minds (Matt 22:37).
At times we preach to a beheaded people. They enter into the sanctuary with hearts alone. Their chief interest is inspiration. They want to feel better. They desire a therapy session. They want to be touched and moved. However, they have little interest in the matters of the mind. At other times, though, we preach to a big-headed people who have no heart for the inspiration of the Word. They want to know more; they want the gray matter of their brains to be expanded. Their interest is in scholarship. Feeling is not on their list of expectations. It is not an either/or proposition; it is a both/and reality.
If God is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth, then preaching Bible doctrine must touch the realm of the spirit (heart) and the realm of truth (mind). Upon becoming a Christian, one is not expected to check in or drop off one’s intelligence in the vestibule. By the same token, though, Christians are not to deposit their spirit in the narthex. The whole person is to enter the sanctuary to be engaged by the whole counsel of God.
As preachers, we are called into a relationship with the Word. The Hebrew word for knowledge is yadah. It is also used relationally for lovemaking: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain” (Gen 4:1 ESV). The Greek word for knowledge is gnosis. “And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, seeing I know not a man? (Luke 1:34 KJV). These two words for “knowing” in both the Hebrew and Greek traditions involve relationships. The Hebrew term, lav, the word for heart, does not exclude but rather includes the rational sector of human existence. It is the whole center of the person. For Elie Wiesel, the study of the Torah was likened to crawling in the cranium of Yahweh. This was an exercise in cognitive knowing which was intended to result in an affective response that called one to obedience in behavior. There is no antithesis between an informed head and an inspired heart. The one who would preach doctrinally must simultaneously be operating on both tracks of the head and the heart.
The ancient prophet Jeremiah experienced divine interpenetration in both areas. He had determined to turn in his prophetic license to God and had made up his mind not to preach in the name of Yahweh anymore. But God’s Word, which he knew well, was not only in his mind but also in his heart. It was like fire shut up in his bones, and he eventually had to rescind his plan for early retirement from the ministry ( Jer 20:9).
What can the church say in its proclamation that no one else can say? What is unique about the message of doctrinal preaching? Since those who preach doctrine are not ventriloquists, what do they proclaim that is not only engaging and transformative but unique? Doctrinal preaching is about the proclamation of a fact; Jesus Christ is that fact. We must reclaim the mantle of doctrine in our preaching. It is a birthright that was given to us by our Lord. He said, “. . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19 ESV).
Doctrinal preaching happens from the overflow of one’s engagement with the Scriptures, from ministers who not only read the text, but the text has also read them. Doctrinal preaching is a marriage of the truth of biblical doctrine with the tune of the sermonic presentation. It is belief exemplified in behavior, and it is substance welded with style. Preaching has wings that fly, but it also has an anchor that holds. It turns the ink of the written word into the blood of authentic Christian living.
Doctrinal preaching is a road map that leads to Christ. It initiates the hearer into faith through proclamation; it instructs the hearer in the faith through teaching; and it inspires the hearer to keep the faith through therapy. All of this serves to usher people into the presence of God for the purpose of transformation.
Reformer Martin Luther made the clarion call to his colleagues ad fontes—to the sources. Originally it was a call to reclaim the heritage of Greek and Roman antiquity. Luther adopted this Renaissance phrase and baptized it. He was not calling for a cultural reformation; rather, he was attempting to move the church to a spiritual and biblical reformation. For him it meant going back to the fundamentals of Christianity: sola gratia, sola fides, solus Christus, and sola scriptura (grace, faith, Christ, and Scripture only).
Dr. James Cox, professor of preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, sees doctrine as the iron rods that hold the concrete of preaching together. Motorists drive over the highway every day with little or no thought of the iron rods that lie beneath the concrete surface. These rods provide connection and enable the concrete to remain intact and withstand the constant pressure of the ongoing traffic.
A key to an effective pastoral ministry is serving the congregation a regular diet that nourishes both the mind and the heart. As scaffolding helps to form the building under construction, doctrine informs the sermon. The scaffold is retired after the building is completed. Similarly, the real object of doctrine is not the doctrine itself; rather, the doctrine points beyond itself to the person of Christ.
Doctrine is like a road sign that points to a destination. Consequently, if the doctrine is preached without focusing upon the person of Christ, then it is lifeless and insipid. Martin Luther’s analogy of the swaddling clothes that contained the Christ to the Scriptures that enfold Jesus, the self-revelation of God, is picturesquely poignant.
Today biblical illiteracy abounds. Preachers who are serious about the whole counsel of God cannot depend upon the congregation’s comprehensive knowledge of the Bible. There was a time when preachers could give a portion of a biblical narrative and assume that the hearer could make the connection. They would say in passing, “You know the story.” The preacher no longer has that luxury. Church members do not necessarily know the story; we have to tell the story. There was a time when pastors could depend upon evangelists to do doctrinal preaching in their stead.
For a pastor to make this assumption today would be an abdication of the pastor’s role as resident theologian. In today’s society young people in particular are looking for something that is certain and trustworthy. They want facts but not facts divorced from experience.
Harry Emerson Fosdick said, “ The rebirth of Christian emphasis on doctrine is not first of all the Christian’s doing; our enemies have forced it on us.” Seekers in this generation are looking for the reality of experience and the experience of reality. Jesus’ words reverberate through the corridors of twenty centuries: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” ( John 8:32). He offers an experience gained by truth.
Truth is often experienced before it is comprehended. In a commentary on John 9, Helmut Thielicke, the German preacher, reminds us that the blind man had an experience with Jesus without initially comprehending the encounter. When asked about Jesus, he responded, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” ( John 9:25 ESV).
There is no question that the blind man had received his sight, but his understanding of who performed the miracle and how it took place was deficient. It was not until after he was excommunicated from the synagogue and visited by Jesus that his understanding caught up with his experience. Jesus asked him, “Do you believe in the Messiah?” He responded, “I would, if I knew who he was.” Jesus said,“I am He.”
The man believed.
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