Preaching: Theological or Practical?

One of the most apparent dichotomies is that of theology vs. practicality in preaching. I love theology and have learned to see it as the very fuel of my worship; and being that I see expository exultation of God’s word as the pinnacle of communal worship, I find no means to separate theology and practicality in the sermon without inflicting serious harm to the Christian life.

In many of the Christian churches in my area, however, there is a pride in condemning the theologian who ‘lives in the clouds’. They remark that the theologian’s desire to grow in a deeper knowledge of God is combative to the Christian’s practical obedience and love to his neighbor. They ramble, “That time he spent studying is better spent loving people.” Therefore, they resolve doctrinal issues to be dealt with outside the pulpit. Nevertheless, since the pulpit drives the church, often times this resolution leads to more of a congregational neglect altogether. The congregation reasons, “If it is not important enough to be preached at the pulpit, why is it important at all?” Moreover, being that the Bible does put forth theological doctrine, preaching has become less about biblical exposition and more about novel catchphrases to rally ‘oohs and ahhs’ from the listeners. Now, I am all for ‘oohs and ahhs,’ but they ought to be resulting from an encounter with the infinite holiness and splendor of God, which are found in the theological underpinnings of Scripture.

There is a balance to be sought. By no means am I suggesting that these churches are completely wrong in what they assert. Loving people is good and commanded of by God; we ought to do it. Therefore, let us not conduct a pendulum swing and turn church service into a lecture series on theological treatises (maybe let’s do this another day during the week?). We must approach the practical and theological together, something like Kapic’s anthroposensitive theology: “a refusal to divorce theological considerations from practical human application, since theological reflections are always interwoven with anthropological concerns” (Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians, 47).

Simply put, I think that this dichotomy is resolved in Scripture. The Bible is a book of theology, but it does not permit the follower of Christ to merely fancy his brain in its teachings. For example, Paul in the book of Philippians seeks to urge believers to pursue unity through humility among the body of Christ (Phil. 1:27-2:4). But how does the apostle fortify this imperative? He motions the Philippians to glory in Christological indicatives – the truth of Christ’s humiliation, the Carmen Christi (Phil. 2:5-11). The apostle presents his practical imperatives by means of theological indicatives. The tension in our churches must be resolved by our preaching being centered on Scripture. If our preaching concentrates on expositing and exulting in Scripture, then we will not have to pick between theology and practicality; both will be presented to the congregation.


Fortunately, the second part of Kapic’s book is wholly devoted to resolving this tension between practical vs. theological. Therefore, as to promote this resolution in preaching, Kapic would simply apply those characteristics addressed in chapters 5-10 specifically to preaching. In order for preaching to promote an appropriate context for theology, it must consist in these characteristics:

  1. Preaching ought to promote a union of faith and reason, where “faith empowers rather than confines reason” (Kapic, 59).
  2. Preaching must be linked with personal experience via private communion with God; the preacher must walk his talk.
  3. Preaching must exude humility while being an “honest broker,” speaking “what is true, saying and believing hard things and living them out amid human brokenness” (Kapic, 77).
  4. Preaching must effort to give a full picture of God, His glorious grace, as to motion people to exert the same compassion to a broken world with the glory of God. It must mobilize. “Good theology is public theology” (Kapic, 89).
  5. Preaching must effort to produce relevant “gospel wisdom” through “living interaction with saints and believers” (John Owen quoted in Kapic, 101).
  6. Preaching must find its authority in the expository exultation of Scripture. Preaching is only “living and active” when it preaches the word of God (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Kapic, 114).

“If our theology does not quicken the conscience and soften the heart, it actually hardens both; if it does not encourage the commitment of faith, it reinforces the detachment of unbelief; if it fails to promote humility, it inevitably feeds pride.” (J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, 15.)


One thought on “Preaching: Theological or Practical?

  1. I am glad you are musing on this. Personally, I think the problem arises from the mindset evident in your title, “Theological or Practical?” Theology is not one or the other. It is both. Theology that does not lend to good practice either in love to God or love to neighbor is not good theology. Theology is at its essence relational and practical. We need to know God before we can relate to Him. We need to know why we need Jesus before we can repent. We need to know Jesus and what He did on the cross before we can come to Him in faith. But the point of the knowledge of God is to love Him. Theology today is defined as “the study of the knowledge of God.” It was not always that way. Jonathan Edwards defined theology as living to God by Christ. That is very different. That is right out of the thought of Peter Van Mastricht William Ames, William Perkins, and Peter Ramus Turettin said that theology was both theoretical and practical but more practical than theoretical. We would do well to get back to that thinking I think.

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