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Square Boards from Round Trees: The Challenge of Theological Preaching

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When I was a kid my father owned a small lumber mill. As he explained it, the sawyer (i.e., the person who sawed the logs) faced a challenge. The main challenge for the sawyer was deciding the best way to produce square boards out of round logs. The goal was to cut up a log in such a manner as to leave as little waste as possible. The round nature of the log wasn’t the only obstacle. In addition a log often had unique or unusual features—such as knots and curves, anomalies that told a tree’s history—that made the task of choosing the best course of action even more difficult.

A Similar Challenge

The Bible presents us with a similar challenge, theologically speaking. Theology can be defined as the attempt to discern and identify the truths taught in Scripture. Truths that answer questions such as, Who is God? Who are we? What is wrong with humanity? What is the remedy? When we try to organize these truths in a comprehensible manner the result is called systematic theology. However, the Bible reveals God, humanity, sin and salvation primarily through narrative—the story of redemption. Theology attempts to derive the square doctrinal truths that are imbedded within the round story of the Bible.

Christians have disagreed about the knotty problem of discerning the best way to go about systematizing biblical truths. These disagreements have created significant divisions. Skirmishes have broken out about the correct way to understand Christ, God, the Church and salvation. The process of organizing scriptural truths has had the effect of producing a number of major theological systems: Covenant theology, Dispensationalism and Neo-Orthodoxy, just to name a few. Entire church denominations have organized around the various systems: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Presbyterian, Baptist and Pentecostal—the list goes on. The plethora of competing systems can be daunting, maybe even discouraging. The history of the church is in many ways a history of God’s people struggling with great theological questions.

Several have looked at this history of divisions and decided that the source of the problem is the theological enterprise itself; that “doing theology” does more damage than good. Thus some have attempted to preach and minister in a “non-theological” manner. But this is like believing that the source of all arguments is talking, and therefore deciding to communicate without ever using words.

Non-theological preaching is often described as narrative preaching, which is unfortunate because it is possible to preach narrative in a way that is theologically robust. However, non-theological preaching can’t really be done, and communicates a theological viewpoint despite intentions to do otherwise. This approach inevitably reduces to telling moralistic Bible stories, often becoming a deadly variant of self-help moralism.

The good news is that—despite all the theological varieties advocated within Christendom—there is actually remarkable agreement among them. Focusing on their differences tends to obscure the fact that they all adhere to a common core—which C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” All affirm the great truths of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Consummation; that God is One Who is also Father, Son and Holy Spirit; that the Son of God became Jesus of Nazareth and saved us by his death, burial and resurrection; and that the Lord Jesus Christ will gloriously return one day to render judgment and set all things right.

Be A Wise Sawyer

Of course, theological differences are as old as the Bible itself. False teachers were a bane to the New Testament era. Paul found it necessary to instruct Timothy, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim 1:13-14 cf. 1 Tim 6:20). Later the apostle commands, “Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed” (2 Tim 3:14). There’s only one way to do that well: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). The expression “rightly handling” carries the idea of “cutting straight,” which is why some translations have it as “rightly explaining” (NRSV) and “rightly dividing” (NKJ). The faithful minister must be a wise sawyer who “cuts straight,” rightly handling the Word of truth.

Timothy had to confront the doctrinal errors of his day. To do so he had to faithfully preach the truths taught in specific texts, and he had to teach those truths in a manner that was consistent with the teaching of the whole Bible. Paul promises, “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed” (1 Tim 4:6). Let’s not kid ourselves: theological preaching is hard work and the stakes are high. But the rewards are even higher: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16).

By God’s grace we are to discern the square truths from the round narrative of Scripture, and then proclaim the whole will and purpose of God. That is the goal of theological preaching. We endeavor to be able to say with Paul, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20: 26-27).

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  • Ken Keathley
  • Preaching
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Ken Keathley

Ken Keathley is Senior Professor of Theology and the Jesse Hendley Chair of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina where he has been teaching since 2006. He also directs the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture, a center that seeks to engage culture, present and defend the Christian Faith, and explore its implications for all areas of life. He is the author of Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (B&H, January 2010), co-author of 40 Questions About Creation and Evolution (Kregel, November 2014) and co-editor of Old Earth or Evolutionary Creation?: Discussing Origins with Reasons to Believe and BioLogos (IVP, July 2017).  Ken and his wife Penny have been married since 1980, live in Wake Forest, NC and are members of North Wake Church in Wake Forest, North Carolina.  They have a son and daughter, both married, and four grandchildren.

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