This fall I assigned sermons to read for several weeks of my Foundations in Systematic Theology course, a tactic I learned from the great Geoffrey Wainwright. Karl Barth argued that doctrine and proclamation belong together, always, but preaching doctrine is not as sexy as a sermon series on the gospel in Harry Potter. A friend recently confessed that he was wrestling with a class on the Trinity in part because he had never heard a pastor speak about it. When he said this, I realized the only sermons on the Trinity I can remember having heard in a church (as opposed to a seminary chapel) are my own. Assigning students sermons is one of my attempts to prevent future experiences like my friend’s and mine.
One of my favorite of these sermons is “Our God Is Able,” by Martin Luther King Jr. King demonstrates, perhaps as only he could, one way to preach doctrine. From its title on, the sermon depends on a sound doctrine of God and, in particular, an affirmation of God’s omnipotence. Right off the bat, King identifies and endorses this doctrine. It is always possible — indeed, it is always necessary — that good preaching be done doctrinally. That is, good preaching must always be coherent with sound doctrine. King’s sermon, however, is a prime example of doing more than that, of preaching on doctrine as well as preaching doctrinally. In “Our God Is Able,” the doctrine of God serves as the ground of hope for difficult times.
Sometimes, though, doctrine can be explored and expounded in sermons for its own sake. Fleming Rutledge’s “Does God Need a Name?” is a fine meditation on the relationship between the disclosure of the tetragrammaton in Exod 3 and the Christian use of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Rutledge weaves together the narrative of Scripture, divine identity, and soteriology to show how essential the Trinity is to Christian faith. In From Theology to Theological Thinking (University of Virginia Press, 2014), theologian Jean-Yves Lacoste encourages preachers to see sermons as opportunities to think through, theologically, the Christian faith and not just relay it. Rutledge demonstrates one way to achieve that goal.
Identifying opportune moments for preaching doctrine can be as important as learning different homiletical methods. Fortunately, the calendar is an excellent aid in this respect. For those who follow the Revised Common Lectionary or something similar, the liturgical calendar has built-in opportunities for preaching doctrine, but the biggest and best opportunities are not lectionary-dependent. Instead of preaching about Christmas this year, why not preach on the Incarnation? The prologue to John has the poetry and energy to drive preaching that may be fresher and more faithful than the annual mashup of Matthew, Luke, and the Protoevangelion of James. Preaching on John 1 may also breathe new life into sermons on the overly familiar nativity story from Luke 2.
Or, if your congregation celebrates Epiphany, perhaps offer a sermon on divine revelation, rather than one on the magi and their gifts. What does God manifest in Jesus Christ? The manifestation, or revelation, of God is also a great driver of sermons for Christ’s baptism, which is the Sunday following Epiphany in many calendars. Looking further into the year, Easter and Pentecost invite preaching on the missions, or sending, of the Son and the Holy Spirit into the world, in addition to the obvious themes of resurrection, new life, and salvation.
For Methodists and Wesleyans, it might seem that we have few models to guide our preaching of doctrine. We may believe that John Wesley preaches doctrinally but he does not often preach doctrine, or that sermons like “On the Trinity” are more the exception than the rule. In this Wesley deserves another look. Consider the following selected titles: “The Image of God”; “Justification by Faith”; “The Great Assize”; “Christian Perfection”; “Original Sin”; “The New Creation”; “Of the Church”; “On Faith”; or “On the Omnipresence of God.” Scholars like Randy Maddox and Kenneth Collins have done much to help us appreciate Wesley the theologian, but we also need Wesley the theological preacher (see Michael Pasquarello III, John Wesley: A Preaching Life [Abingdon, 2010]).
What great preachers of doctrine, whether King or Rutledge or Wesley, have in common is this: at their best, their sermons are exercises in building up. Preaching doctrine is not about sowing division within the church or exalting the doctrinal superiority of one faction over another. Preaching doctrine is about building up hope, like King, or understanding, like Rutledge. It is, like Wesley, uniting “knowledge and vital piety,” as his brother Charles once pleaded of God. And this building up, we must understand, is essential, so that “all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13 NRSV). Doctrine and proclamation belong together. Harry Potter can wait.