Theology & Preaching with John Koessler

Dr. John Koessler is Professor & Chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute. I was fortunate to have him for several classes while a student at Moody, and it was in Dr. Koessler's pastoral classes where I was more directly challenged and confronted theologically than in any of my Systematic Theology classes. It wasn't that Sys Theo was easy, but that Dr. Koessler was insightful and direct. In fact I recall one class ending with Dr. Koessler responding to an error in my thinking (that I was rather arrogantly throwing around) by pointing out that I was leaning a bit toward Deism in the practical outworking of my theology. I believe his subtle words were something like, "You are a deist!" I praise God for John's instruction, influence and friendship. And I'm happy to say I have moved away from my old deistic tendencies. John was good enough to talk to us about theology and preaching. For some of you that sounds like a holy and natural union, for others it sounds like cousins getting married. John tells us it's the former.

What place should theology have in preaching?

Preaching is inherently theological. As long as the sermon is grounded in the Scriptures, theology can't be avoided. I consider preaching to be "oral theology." In it the preacher engages in theological reflection out loud. In preaching not only do we think about the theological implications of the biblical text, we also consider the theological ramifications of the life situation of our audience. Preaching is public instruction. It is a context in which the pastor can train the congregation theologically. So for me preaching is theological through and through.

Why do you think so much of modern American preaching steers clear of doctrinal preaching?

I think there is more than one reason for this neglect. First, it is the result of a pragmatic bias. Harry Emerson Fosdick, a theological liberal who served as pastor of the historic Riverside Church in New York City wrote a landmark article in 1926 entitled "What's the Matter With Preaching?" In it Fosdick asserted that the sermon should "do" something. Fosdick believed that every sermon ought to have as its main goal the solving of some human problem. Ever since then, American preaching has been more and more focused on the human side of the equation. Fosdick was right about the need for a human focus, but the key to addressing these problems is theological. The other reason I think theological preaching is avoided is the assumption that people in the pew are not interested in it. But when you look at the questions people ask us over and over again ("Why does God allow suffering?" "Do I have a free will or not?" "Why would a loving God send people to hell?"), these are all theological questions.

What advice would you give to preachers who want to preach theologically?

First, I would say that it is important to preach to your audience, not your seminary professors. In his book A Theology of Preaching, Richard Lischer cites Walter Wink's observations that theologians are mostly talking to themselves: "The American scholarly scene is one of frenetic decadence with the publication of vast numbers of articles and books which fewer and fewer people read. Most scholars no longer address the lived experience of actual people in the churches or society. Instead they address the current questions of peers in the profesional guild." Fosdick has something to teach us here. At the same time, it is the role of theology to ask questions of the text that we would not think to ask. So, second, I would advise preachers to keep their theological resources at hand as they prepare the sermon. Consult the systematic theologies. Most of the great theologians like Luther and Calvin were also preachers. Ask how they treated the text as you study. Mostly, I would urge preachers to reclaim the theologian's mantle. The pulpit is the front line when it comes to theological reflection and the church.

Is there a wrong way to preach theologically?

Yes, I think Walter Wink says it well. The wrong way is to focus on the "current questions of peers on the professional guild." The preacher's aim is to help the congregation evaluate their life circumstances, decisions, actions and attitudes through God's word. So I need to focus on those who are actually sitting before me. Another mistake some of us make is to try to imitate our theological heroes. I think this is a besetting sin for those of us who come from the Reformed tradition. We are fighting the battles of the Reformation, imitating Luther and Calvin, and ignoring the areas where theological work needs to be done today. I also think that it is important to avoid extremes. There was a time in the church's history when we took up arms to deal with our theological differences. I am glad we no longer shed one anothers blood because of our differences over baptism. However, we are now afflicted by the opposite extreme-a kind of theological relativism. Every view is valid. Every theological position is o.k. We are afraid to say that the other view is wrong.

What resources would you recommend on the subject?

There is a lot about theology and a lot about preaching but not much that connects the two. In his book A Theology of Preaching, Richard Lischer talks about what theology does for preaching and what preaching does for theology. Thomas G. Long's books have been helpful to me in thinking theologically about preaching. Obviously some of the classic preachers like Luther, Calvin and Edwards are helpful. This may sound overly simplistic, but I would primarily recommend the Bible. The more I think biblically, the more I will be forced to think theologically.

Are there examples of men you would point to who preach theologically?

I've already mentioned a few from church history. I love the sermons Helmut Thielicke, though I don't agree with all of his theological assumptions. His series on the the Lord's Prayer is a wonderful example of audience focused preaching that is deeply theological. On the contemporary scene there are preachers like John Piper, John MacArthur, Al Mohler are a few that come to mind who have a theological perspective when they preach. I don't want to embarass you Joe, but I can tell that it is central to your sermon preparation as well.

Your next book is being published by Zondervan in 2011. What can you tell us about it?

It's about the theology of preaching. I devote a chapter to preaching as oral theology but I am really trying to do theological reflection with preaching as the focus. What is it about preaching that gives us the courage to stand before God's people each week and expect lives to be changed by mere words? What makes preaching more than a speech about the Bible? How important is the humanity of the preacher? Why does our preaching seem different from that of Christ and the apostles? These are some of the questions I try to address. I was prompted to write the book when I looked at the preaching books on my shelf and realized they were mostly about rhetoric (which is another question I address-what places does rhetoric have in the sermon). The working title is Folly, Grace & Power: The Mystery of Preaching.

John started blogging this year at A Stranger in the House of God. Be sure to check it out and subscribe to his feed.