Does Your Preaching Teach People to Think and Read or Just Parrot Your Conclusions?
Solid exegesis, biblical theology, and systematic theology are necessary for preaching and teaching. We don’t exercise these skills merely for our own excellence in sermon delivery, but because the people in the pews have the ability to think, analyze arguments, read the Bible for themselves, and formulate answers to questions that we may never even address from the pulpit.
Exegesis, biblical theology, systematic theology:
Exegesis is the careful analysis of the meaning of a particular passage. Good exegesis depends on having a text that accurately presents what the author actually wrote and facility with the language the author used to compose the text. Exegetes use the whole context of the book in which the passage is found, combined with comparison of other texts the author wrote, in the attempt to arrive at what the author intended to communicate in the text.
Biblical theology is canonical exegesis. That is, biblical theology seeks to correlate the meaning of relevant texts from across the pages of Scripture. Comparing the results of the exegesis of one passage with the results of the exegesis of another passage, biblical theologians seek to understand how later biblical authors understood and interacted with earlier biblical texts that they quote, allude to, or are informed by. The goal is to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective modeled by the biblical authors, tracing connections between themes and developments across the salvation historical storyline.
Systematic theology then seeks to bring everything together for a full statement of what the whole Bible teaches on particular topics. Systematic theology combines the results of exegesis, canonical reflection and correlation of those results, and an awareness of trends in the history of philosophy and interpretation. This historical and philosophical aspect of systematic theology is necessary for understanding the extra-biblical factors that have influenced both the history of interpretation and the spirit of our own age. Awareness of the history of interpretation and the temper of our times will produce humility and keep us from being conformed to the world. Done in the church and for the church, systematic theology joins with exegesis and biblical theology in the task of discipleship for the formation of a biblical worldview as the Scripture is read, prayed, preached, sung, and seen enacted.
In Bible Study and Sermon Prep:
We should not think of this is a one, two, three step process, however, as though we “finish” our exegesis before we “start” our biblical or systematic theology. We never arrive, and the more we learn in one area influences how we think about the others. Re-reading particular passages refines our biblical and systematic theology, and it goes the other way, too, as understanding biblical theological development across the canon clarifies our reading of particular passages. So there is a constant dynamic interaction between exegesis, biblical theology, and systematic theology. And all three are necessary for preaching and teaching.
There are points, too, when we will make interpretive or applicational moves that are based on sound exegetical method or on broader biblical or systematic considerations. If we are trying to convince thinking people, trying to sharpen and spur them along, we won’t feel the need to hide our work behind the finished conclusion but will want to show the rationale for our conclusions. We can’t always say everything, but we want to help people read the Bible well, not merely train them to parrot our conclusions.
James M. Hamilton Jr. (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is author of God’s Indwelling Presence and numerous articles and essays.