Clearing the mist in the pulpit: on analytic theology for preaching

December 4th, 2015 by

In seminary I had the privilege of taking one of my preaching classes with the great homiletics expert Haddon Robinson. His book, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages is a standard textbook in many seminary courses. One day as he was lecturing on the necessity of thorough preparation for preaching, he quipped, “If its a mist in the pulpit, it’ll be a fog in the pews.” Now, I’m sure that idea isn’t revolutionary, Robison has likely said something like that hundreds of times during his many years of teaching. But it struck me as so obviously true, and so obviously important, that it has stuck with me ever since. The idea behind the slogan is if the preacher is unsure of an idea, or unclear of a concept, or fuzzy on notion, yet preaches it anyway, the congregation will have no chance of achieving understanding.

I know I have sat through sermons where the ideas the preacher was talking about were so mistily unclear, by the time the sermon was over I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. And I have certainly had the experience of, even while delivering the sermon itself, thinking, “wait, what’s my point? Why am I saying this?” And gradually a thick fog rolls in, veiling the sea of blank faces that stare back at me. Having done ministry of various kinds for 15 years, and having attended churches my whole life, I have never heard someone in a congregation say, “I just love it when the preacher is unclear, it really helps me develop a sense of confusion about the Bible” or “Isn’t it just great that we have no idea what the preacher was talking about?” But how many times have we heard a response to the question “what was the sermon about?” like, “I don’t know, I kinda got lost and starting thinking about the Patriots’ game.”

This is where, I hope, analytic theology can come into play. There are many aspects of analytic theology, but one of the virtues prized by this field is conceptual clarity. The training in logic, argumentation, and critical thinking that analytic philosophy provides gives the practitioner of the analytic way a skillset in precision and clarity. Whereas some streams of contemporary theology seem almost to prize obscurity and opacity, the analytic prizes simply “saying what you mean, and meaning what you say.” Analytics don’t want ideas lurking in the background, hidden from view but which actually do a lot of work. They want to be clear about the relationships between ideas and how those ideas are supported by interaction with Scripture, the Christian tradition, and reason.

This of course is not to say that the analytically­trained preacher will simply walk through a logical syllogism in lieu of a sermon. The preaching task remains the same, but the skill of thoroughly analyzing the notions inherent in the sermon provides a clear conceptual infrastructure that strives to aid the congregation’s understanding. In a similar way as a preacher should not walk into the pulpit without having outlined the text, understood the rhetorical context of the passage, thought deeply about the needs of the congregation, etc., so too should a preacher not approach the pulpit with mist on the brain with respect to the ideas and the relations between those ideas. Thus, my hope is that analytic theology can help preachers gain skills of conceptual clarity so that instead of producing fog, the pulpit will become a lighthouse guiding a congregation through the challenging waters of understanding God’s revelation.

James M. Arcadi is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary and a Templeton Research Fellow in the Jewish Philosophical Theology Project at the Herzl Institue. He completed his PhD in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol where he focused on a philosophical explication of the doctrine of the Eucharist.

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