We’ve all had those brilliant ideas that didn’t work out in real life. As a pastor, I often find obscure historical or theological facts fascinating and seemingly vital during my times of sermon preparation. However, I occasionally have to be reminded that others might not be as excited about some nuance of the Persian Empire or the erroneous hermeneutics of the Spanish Inquisition. Still, this does not mean that pastors cannot teach historical theology in the church for the good of the Kingdom. Here are some practical tips that I employ as content filters:
- Is it Relevant?
While an amusing anecdote can be fun and informative, the amount of time you have to disciple your congregation is limited. Using the minutes wisely and effectively demands any teaching on historical theology needs to be relevant to the Biblical teaching you are doing. Does a story offer background that supports the focus of the message and theological theme of the passage? Does it tell us how believers of the past have understood this same text? If so, it just might make the cut! Otherwise, beware of letting your latest research hobby wreak eisegetical havoc on the weekly sermon.
- Is it “For the Sake of the Gospel”?
If the goal of the church is to equip the believers, you have no business dispensing something that doesn’t help further this task. While the historians among us might rightly agree that all historical theology can be used for the sake of the Gospel, your role as teacher and preacher is to build the case for why. If you cannot construct a bridge for your listeners between a historical reference and the Gospel, why should we expect them to be able to build it for themselves? Beware of the desire for people to leave a service remembering your ingenious story instead of the story of Christ alone!
- Is it Engaging?
If you aren’t already, become a good storyteller. I recently watched an episode of the Andy Griffith Show with my kids. In the show, Andy told his version of the story of Paul Revere and the beginnings of the American Revolution to a group of school kids. Despite the black and white image, my own children were as riveted as Opie and his friends because Andy Griffith was a storyteller. Just like many people have been damaged by church or religion in their past, many people have also been damaged by audaciously boring history teachers. Pastor-Historians run the unfortunate risk of merging two of humanity’s worst nightmares into a flat historical reference that makes 5 minutes of a sermon seem like 50. Tell the story you would want to listen to.
Just like any illustration, don’t dwell too long on the finer points, but focus on the greater narrative. Give people just enough information to get the general idea and then tell those who are more interested where to find the rest of the story. Like a good house guest, it is always better to leave people wanting more rather than wishing they had less.
In the right hands, historical theology breathes life into the everyday truths of our beliefs. It stretches human skin onto abstract doctrines and warns of errors long passed. But without the proper filter, the historically-minded theologian waits like a nineteenth century Roman brigand among shadowy ruins flush with their crusty bag of anecdotes. The unsuspecting sermon that does pass by doesn’t stand a chance as the words of God are forced to fit into a clever, human narrative. Historical theology is a scalpel: both dangerous and vital.