Yesterday I discovered the published version of Gerald Bray’s 1998 John Wenham lecture, and had a riotously good time reading it. Gerald Bray is one of the few theologians I know who can write with hilarity and profundity at the same time. Here’s some gems from Gerald Bray, “Rescuing Theology From the Theologians,” Themelios 24.2 (February 1999): 48-57.
The first qualification for any true theologian is a personal encounter with the living God, which can only come as his Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, points us to the righteousness which has been won for us by Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and assures us that the prince of this world has been judged by the Father’s acceptance of that atonement. Once we are clear about that, we can go on to the rest, but only once we are clear, because the rest is really no more than an elaboration and application to different areas of life of the great themes of the gospel.
The subtlety, and therefore the great danger, of heresy is not that it is so palpably false that no well-meaning person would ever go near it. On the contrary, heresy is usually made up of half-digested truths, juxtaposed in ways which lead to the wrong conclusions.
One of the main tasks of the preacher, and one of the main reasons why a preacher should have the best theological training available, is that they are supposed to be able to unpack abstract theology in a way which will mean something to the person sitting in the pew. That this classical understanding of the preacher’s role now sounds strange to many people is a sign of just how far we have departed from the traditional Reformed understanding of the professional ministry.
Any form of address which is not the exposition of a Biblical text is not really preaching at all… any sermon which does not open up to us a portion of God’s Word has no right to the name, however true or uplifting it may be in other ways. As a nineteenth-century wit put it, congregations come to hear the ministry of the Word, not the words of the minister…
Christian doctrine is the systematic exposition of Scripture, and its importance for preaching is that it provides the framework within which the particular passage and sermon being preached must be placed… the true minister of the Word will always have their theological framework in the background to challenge the reading of the text in preparation for the message… We do not often realise it, but the real effect of any sermon will lie in the degree to which it is theologically grounded, and theologically coherent. It is because so few preachers today have any real notion of these things that so much preaching is ineffective, even if it manages to be entertaining, erudite and encouraging… [the sermon’s] effectiveness… can only be measured by the substance of the message, in other words, by its theology.
I do not for a minute wish to suggest that, after getting a good theological education, a preacher has a licence to blind the congregation with erudition. This is the common failing of young theological college graduates… The trick, however, is so to absorb this material that it becomes second nature, that it gets transposed in heart and mind into something which is genuinely believed, and can therefore be expressed with conviction in the preacher’s own words.
An incomprehensible theologian is a contradiction in terms, because his theology is unpreachable ― nobody will understand it. I have to read more than my fair share of it, and if ever I get a chance ― in a book review, for example ― I always condemn it unreservedly, even if I happen to agree with what the author is trying to say. Indeed, perhaps I condemn it more severely in such cases, because there can be nothing more distressing than to find that the words of eternal life are being hidden behind a veil of obfuscation so thick that no-one can gain access to them.
[T]he third element in a good sermon is application. If you have good exegesis and excellent theology but cannot apply it to the needs and concerns of your hearers, then you are not only wasting your time, you are confirming your congregation’s worst fears ― that theology and everything to do with it is basically irrelevant to everyday life.
An ability to communicate is essential to any good preacher, and it is the ultimate test of any theology. Is this, or is this not changing my life? If the answer is no, then forget it ― it is not the real thing… True preaching must be a challenge ― not a destructive, iconoclastic harangue which does nothing but reinforce the preacher’s sense of spiritual superiority in their own eyes, and give the people the unspoken conviction that he or she is really a hypocrite, but a penetrating and positive analysis of the human heart which is primarily designed to heal and restore, not to uproot and condemn. This can only be achieved if the preacher is conscious that in the first instance preaching is always preaching to oneself, because the preacher needs to hear the word of grace every bit as much as those who come to listen do. Being convicted by their own words is the ultimate test both of truth and of communicability, for what will come across more than anything else is the sense that here we are dealing with a person of a humble and a contrite heart.