Scattered, Smothered, and Covered: How (Not) to Use Systematics in Your Sermon
Confession: I was in seminary before I knew what systematic theology was. My ignorance is a little shocking considering that I grew up in church, felt called into ministry as a senior in high school, and graduated from a Christian college with a degree in religion. Somehow, I made it all those years without even knowing the term.
You can imagine my joy when discovering systematic theology for the first time. I’ll never forget sitting in my first systematics class and reviewing the syllabus. What! People have systematized their understanding of doctrine? There’s an entire genre of books out there called systematic theology? I can have a grid for understanding the major categories of biblical teaching? I was like a cave dweller venturing outdoors into the sunshine; a newborn faun standing on wobbly legs; a boy eating a bowl of Fruity Pebbles when he’d only ever had Rice Krispies. It really is hard to overstate my feeling of wonder.
Twenty-five years, a shelf-full of systematic theologies, and thousands of sermons later, I still love systematic theology. And more than ever I see how it plays a vital role in preaching . . . but maybe not how you would guess. There are actually some not-so-helpful ways to use systematics in your sermon.
AN IMPOSSIBLE AIM
One not-so-helpful way is by disregarding systematics altogether. I get this impulse. You want to be a Bible guy, to let the text speak for itself, to preach only what’s in the passage. This motivation is noble, but the aim is impossible. Even if you give little or no thought to it, systematic theology is still exerting enormous influence on your analysis and interpretation of the preaching passage. It’s like an app that’s always running in the background.
Take Psalm 101:1 as an example: “I will sing of steadfast love and justice; to you, O Lord, I will make music.” What do you know of God’s steadfast love? Of his justice? Of the name “Lord”? Of the significance of singing and making music? You’re not even past the first verse of the psalm, and you’re already considering the attributes of God, his covenant identity, and the nature of worship—all of which are informed by your grasp of systematic theology. You can’t escape thinking this way; none of us can escape it. All of us bring our previously formed doctrine into the text we’re studying. It’s impossible not to do so.
And to be clear, this isn’t a bad thing! Far better to be aware of the doctrinal understanding you bring to the text than to imagine that you’re studying the text with infant eyes. Now your doctrine can shine its light on the text, and the text can shine its light back on your doctrine. Each clarifies the other, as they should. In this refining process you will discover, ironically, that instead of compromising your textual faithfulness, systematic theology strengthens it. It enables you to see more clearly what the text is emphasizing and what it isn’t, which will give you a more faithful line on the sermon.
Overemphasis is another not-so-helpful way of using systematics in your sermon. This problem is the opposite of the previous one, and likely the more common of the two for 9Marks’ readers like me. Instead of trying to keep systematic theology offstage, the preacher casts it in the main role, brings it centerstage, and turns the spotlight on it. Here the text itself is eclipsed by extensive, perhaps even engaging, but extraneous doctrinal explanation.
You could call this Waffle Housing the text. Waffle House is famous for its hash browns being “scattered, smothered, and covered.” The thinly sliced potatoes are scattered and fried on a hot grill, then smothered with grilled onions and covered in cheese. If they’re done right, the hash browns themselves almost become secondary. You know they’re in there somewhere amidst all those delicious onions and cheese, but who really cares.
That’s well and good for hash browns, but not for sermons. A preacher ought not order up his sermon this way—he ought not smother and cover it with systematic theology so that the text itself is obscured. Yet many of us have been guilty of this. It’s so tempting to take long doctrinal detours away from the text, especially when it takes us to either a beloved doctrine or a troublesome one. And before you know it, the point of the text becomes secondary to the sermon.
We all have certain doctrines we love, doctrines that fire us up, our so-called hobby horses we like to ride. For me, these would include union with Christ, the inclusion of the Gentiles, and the glorious new heavens and earth. When my preaching text touches on one of these beloved doctrines, it’s difficult for me to resist treating the congregation with (what I imagine to be) a riveting systematic tour de force on the topic. My sermon could be from Romans, but no worries—five other books of the Bible and twenty-five minutes later, we’ll eventually circle back around to Romans! Of course I will feel as if the excursus is justifiable. “It’s a rabbit trail worth following,” I say. “It’s relevant to the text,” I say. “The church really needs a solid grasp of this doctrine,” I say. I can always come up with good reasons. But surely this isn’t the wisest way of using systematic theology in the sermon. It may have been enjoyable, like grilled onions and cheese, but smothering and covering the text was probably not the most faithful way of handling the sermon.
Troublesome texts tempt us similarly. You can’t just gloss over God changing his mind—Doesn’t God know the future? Or God sending an evil spirit to torment Saul—God isn’t the author of evil, is he? Or Peter commanding people to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins—Isn’t that works-based salvation? Or the author of Hebrews warning against apostasy—Can we lose our salvation?
When we encounter speed bumps like these in our preaching text, it’s hard not to take the church on a rambling doctrinal detour in which we seek to dispel every apparent contradiction and answer every question. But by the time we’re done, we likely haven’t preached the text as we should. Hard questions need to be answered, but we must take care not to smother and cover the text in the process.
HOW SHOULD WE THEN PREACH
So, how should systematics be used in the sermon? Let me offer two simple recommendations.
First, instead of ignoring it, let systematic theology responsibly inform your sermon preparation.
If systematics is impossible to avoid (and it is), then don’t even try. Rather, acknowledge that you’ve always analyzed and interpreted the text in light of your doctrinal understanding of Scripture. Be unapologetic about it. And, above all, begin doing it as thoughtfully and carefully as you can. Which means, among other things, that (a) you should be constantly seeking greater comprehensive familiarity with Scripture, (b) you should take some time to read sound doctrine written by respected teachers, and (c) you should never forget that the parts make the whole. That is, you may often find that the text is sharpening your systematics rather than the other way around. That’s as it should be. All our theology—biblical and systematic—should grow out of sound exegesis.
In short, you’re using systematics whether you mean to or not, so do it as responsibly as you can. Have a well-studied theological system; and when the text offers up refinements, don’t be afraid to tweak your system.
Second, instead of bringing it centerstage, let systematic theology play a supporting role in the sermon.
I’m thinking particularly of how to handle both the hobby horses and the speed bumps in the preaching text. Should you take a moment to develop that important and beautiful doctrine you love? Yes! Should you take a moment to answer that perplexing doctrinal statement in the text? Definitely! The question isn’t so much whether you should spend time on these matters but how you go about doing so.
Of course, there’s no hard and fast rule. Each of us must work this out with the Spirit’s help, remembering that “in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:17). But my suggestion would be to minimize any lengthy systematic excursion away from the preaching text. It’s my sense that when we detour—especially if we ask the congregation to follow us by looking up multiple other Scriptures—we tend to make it more challenging for people to focus on the point of the text itself. It seems more effective, in my opinion, to camp out in the preaching text as much as possible. And when doctrinal elaboration is needed, instead of leaving camp, (a) quote or allude to relevant cross-references, (b) offer a succinct and carefully thought-out explanation of the doctrine in question, and (c) get back into the flow of the preaching text as quickly as you can.
In other words, don’t put systematic theology on centerstage in the sermon. Let it play a supporting role instead. Or, if you prefer, don’t Waffle House your preaching text.
NO PLACE FOR A DEEP DIVE
What about those vital doctrinal issues that need to be systematically unpacked? Is there is no place for the church to do a deep dive into theology?
If your church is like most, you will have other venues than the sermon to dive deeply into systematics. A number of years ago I preached through the book of Revelation. When I got to the hotly contested passage about the millennium, I did what every wise preacher knows to do: I skipped it. Just kidding! I acknowledged the doctrinal debate about the millennium, announced a Wednesday night class in which I would unpack the major millennial views, then went right back to preaching the hope believers have in sharing the resurrection of Christ.
If you feel led to use the sermon as a systematic theology lesson, go for it in faith. But I believe you’ll find that more interactive environments such as Sunday School classes, or Wednesday night Bible studies, or seminars are better suited for a deep dive into doctrine. Those venues are where the smothering and covering happen best.