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The following is part 4 of 4 in my book review of Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Church, 3rd edition (New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 359 pp. Here I offer a few critical thoughts of my own and a conclusion. Click here for the full review in PDF, click here for the 2-part audio podcast version of my book review. Because the West is so ignorant of Eastern Orthodoxy and because Ware’s book is already a compact summary of Orthodoxy, I trust that these book reviews will be a valuable resource for those who are the slightest interested in Orthodox Christianity.
One does not need to read between the lines to see that Ware is not writing as a disinterested observer of The Orthodox Church. His book could be considered an enthusiastic and engaging commendation of Orthodox Christianity to Western Christians. At various points throughout the book, his overview of Orthodoxy comes across as apologetical in tone. I will draw out two examples and give a brief critique of them: 1) his insistence that the Orthodox Church is utterly unique from anything Western and 2) his historical representation of Patriarch Photius.
The Uniqueness of Orthodoxy
Ware wants his readers to see that “Orthodoxy is not just a kind of Roman Catholicism without the Pope,” but distinct from any Western “religious system” (2). To Ware, Protestants and Catholics both have more in common with each other than either of them do with Orthodoxy; they are “two sides of the same [Western] coin” (2). Indeed there appears to be a subtle (but noticeable) pejorative use of the word “Western,” along with the assumption that Western influence spells the degradation of Orthodoxy (see esp. 116-117).
Ware also appears to have been influenced greatly by Alexis Khomiakov (the first “original” Russian theologian) and his insistence that all Western theology “betrays the same fundamental point of view, while Orthodoxy is something entirely distinct” (123, italics added). Ware introduces his readers to Orthodox theology this way:
Christians in the west, both Roman and Reformed, generally start by asking the same questions, although they may disagree about the answers. In Orthodoxy, however, it is not merely the answers that are different—the questions themselves are not the same as in the west. (1)
Ware also emphasizes that the Orthodox Church has never undergone a Reformation or Counter-Reformation like the West, but were only affected by this upheaval in an “oblique” way (1).
As we begin to explore Orthodox theology with Ware, however, it quickly becomes clear that Ware’s claims about the absolute uniqueness of Orthodoxy are exaggerated. For example, thinking of Scripture as existing “within Tradition” and not something entirely distinct from Tradition is one of the ways Catholics have responded to the Protestant position of sola scriptura (196-97). Protestants would likely think of Ware’s argument that “it is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority” as a “Catholic” argument, along with his argument that “individual readers, however sincere, are in danger of error if they trust their own personal interpretation” (199). Ecumenical Councils are binding to both Catholics and the Orthodox, even if they disagree about what would qualify as an ecumenical council.
Ware assures his readers that Orthodoxy believes the Church should be a Scriptural Church “just as firmly” as Protestants (199). Although the Orthodox (along with Protestants) think Catholic claims of papal authority have resulted in “too great a centralization” in matters of church government, nevertheless, all Catholics and Orthodox alike share in the assumption that the church is to be governed by an authoritative hierarchy (216). The Orthodox Church may very well be much more than simply a kind of Catholic Church without a pope, but in many areas of church government they are similar enough to cause some Protestants to strain to see what major differences there would be if the pope were not in the governing equation.
Nor is this all. Orthodoxy in fact shares many assumptions and questions in common with other Christian traditions. It would appear Ware himself proves by his overview of Orthodox doctrines that much of Orthodox theology is very close (if not the same) as in other Christian traditions. If we are to take Ware as fairly representing the Orthodox position on grace and free-will, it is clear the Orthodox Church falls in the Arminian side of the Arminian-Calvinist debate, for even his way of phrasing the issue bears Arminian assumptions and leaves the “synergy” between God and man ultimately dependent upon the human, for “God knocks, but waits for us to open the door” (222). This is an Arminian notion of synergy that attributes the granting of grace to God and the acceptance of this grace to the human person, whereas Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin all wished to attribute even the acceptance of grace to God’s grace itself. That is, much of Western theology—following Augustine—has thought of the human free-will as the proper object of God’s grace, and thus one of the proper functions of grace is to effectively move the free human will to freely accept salvation. As Aquinas put it:
The justification of the ungodly is brought about by God moving man to justice. For He it is that justifieth the ungodly according to Rom. Iv. 5. Now God moves everything in its own manner, just as we see that in natural things, what is heavy and what is light are moved differently, on account of their diverse natures. Hence He moves man to justice according to the condition of his human nature. But it is man’s proper nature to have free-will. Hence in him who has the use of reason, God’s motion to justice does not take place without a movement of the free-will; but He so infuses the gift of justifying grace that at the same time He moves the free-will to accept the gift of grace.
To present the issue as Ware does—that either one believes in synergy or else that God draws people by “force and violence”—demonstrates Ware’s Arminian notion of free-will (222). This gives the reader the impression that even though the Orthodox Church did not participate actively in the Reformation debates, nevertheless, she not only asks the same sort of questions that the Western traditions have asked, but answers such questions in the same way that many Western theological traditions have answered them. Furthermore, although the Orthodox Church certainly did not participate in the Reformation debates as actively as Protestants and Catholics, they were, however, forced to give their position on many of the fundamental questions that Protestant theologians were raising (see esp. 94-99).
Can we really say that Protestant and Catholic inquiry about papal authority, grace & free-will, the number and nature of the sacraments, the authority of scripture vs. tradition, etc., is fundamentally different than Orthodox inquiry? Are we not asking the same questions? If Protestants and Catholics are not generally asking the same questions asked (or answered) in Orthodox theological inquiry (as Ware claims), how can such Protestants and Catholics ever hope to find answers to their deep theological inquiries in the Orthodoxy tradition? Indeed, why have so many Protestants, for example, converted to Orthodoxy because they have found in Orthodox tradition more satisfying answers in their theological quest? Given the degree of overlap between Western and Eastern theology, Ware’s claim that Orthodoxy does not ask the same questions as other “Western religious systems” and is somehow entirely unique appears to be considerably misleading.
St. Photius The Great
Ware’s picture of Photius is much more flattering than the picture we receive of him in Western historical treatments. Rather than explain to the reader that the “schism of Nicolas” began because the rightful Patriarch of Constantinople (St. Ignatius) was forced to resign through the use of torture after he refused to give communion to the Emperor’s sexually immoral uncle, Ware chooses his words very carefully:
Soon after his accession [Photius] became involved in a dispute with Pope Nicolas I (858-67). The previous Patriarch, St Ignatius, had been exiled by the Emperor and while in exile had resigned under pressure. The supporters of Ignatius, declining to regard this resignation as valid, considered Photius a usurper. When Photius sent a letter to the Pope announcing his accession, Nicolas decided that before recognizing Photius he would look further into the quarrel between the new Patriarch and the Ignatian party. (52-53)
This account does not give consideration to why Pope Nicholas was determined to “investigate” the situation or why Ignatius’s supporters refused to recognize his resignation as valid. It therefore cleverly obscures what many historiographers consider the occasion for the schism. No matter how brilliant of a scholar Photius was (and there is no doubt about his scholarly abilities), the details surrounding his ascension as Patriarch of Constantinople are tainted with questionable politics. Ware, on the other hand, clearly is a great admirer of Photius and delights in painting a flattering picture of him as St. Photius the Great. He borrows Ostrogorsky’s word of praise that Photius was “the most distinguished thinker, the most outstanding politician, and the most skilful diplomat ever to hold office as Patriarch of Constantinople” (52). Perhaps Photius was indeed all these things, but perhaps he was also a very shrewd politician, and perhaps Photius’s to-be-expected Orthodox position on the doctrine of Papal supremacy was not the deepest matter of concern for pope Nicholas.
All in all, Ware’s book is perhaps the most engaging and helpful introduction to Orthodoxy available for the Western world. His enthusiastic tone and apologetical stance, far from making the book less commendable, will actually help the reader better sympathize with his Orthodox perspective. Ware’s occasional explicit criticisms of his own tradition, sensitivity to Western concerns, summaries of why the Filioque could be considered heresy, frequent contrasts between Orthodox positions and Protestant or Catholic positions, all add to the value of his book and give it a delightful pungency. Although his treatment is terse by design, his last chapter, entitled “Further Readings,” conveniently lists numerous sources in topical order for those who wish to do further study. While his introduction to Orthodoxy is enlightening and elegant, much of his analysis is now outdated. One can only hope that soon, following Ware’s example, a more up-to-date treatment of Orthodoxy will replace his now classical introduction.
Bradley R. Cochran
[T h e o • p h i l o g u e]
 Summa Theologica, trans. the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols., rev. ed. (1948; repr., Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1981), I-II.113.3. Furthermore, any movement of the will toward God is “already informed with grace” because it is the result of grace. ST I-II.111.3.
 It is considered “a classical presentation of The Orthodox Church ever since it first appeared in 1963.” Edward G. Farrugia, “The Orthodox Church,” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 62, no. 2 (1996), 536.
 He mentions, for example, that due to the traditional alliance between church and state in many Slavic countries, the Slavs “have often confused the two and have made the Church serve the ends of national politics” (77). Nationalism, in Ware’s book, has been “the bane of Orthodoxy for the last ten centuries” (77).
Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church, 3rd Edition. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1993. 359 pp.
As one might expect given the centrality of The Creed in Orthodox life, the foundation of Orthodox theology is the doctrine of the Trinity. The theological definitions of Nicaea are not simply for high theologians or scholars, but have practical import for every Christian. “Our private lives, our personal relations, and all our plans of forming a Christian society depend upon a right theology of the Trinity” (208). To say God is Trinity is to say God is personal, “a perpetual movement of love” (209). Although it is an Orthodox maxim that “all true theology is mystical,” and although Eastern theology is much more apophatic than Western theology, the definitional creeds demonstrate that the “way of negation” must always be a counterpart to the “way of affirmation,” or cataphatic theology (205, 209).
The Orthodox have developed an essential distinction between two aspects of God in order to preserve and protect the mystery and transcendence of God as well as the immanent experiential dimension of God: the essence-energies distinction. God’s essence is unknowable, but his energies are ever-present in the created world. As John of Damascus put it: “That there is a God is clear; but what He is by essence and nature, this is altogether beyond our comprehension and knowledge” (209). On the other hand, God exists within creation and is “everywhere present and filling all things,” permeating the universe and “intervening directly in concrete situations” (209). God’s essence and energies are different dynamics of God himself: two sides of the same being of God. Therefore, God’s energies “are God himself,” and “we experience them in the form of deifying grace and divine light” (209). We are not able to ever experience the fullness of God’s essence, but only participate in his energies. “No single thing of all that is created has or ever will have even the slightest communion with the supreme nature or nearness to it” (209). However, in the incarnation, God has surpassed merely being present in the form of his energies; he has come to the human race as a person. “A closer union than this between God and His creation there could not be” (210).
Ware does a good job explaining why the Orthodox think the Filioque is heretical or at least dangerous. It undermines the monarchy of the Father, and therefore the distinctness of the persons of the Trinity. According to early Christian doctrine, the Father is the monarch of the Trinity—he is the only person in the Trinity whose origin is “solely in Himself and not in any other person” (211). The Orthodox uphold the monarchy of the Father as essential to Trinitarian doctrine. This is what makes him “Father.” The Son and the Spirit have their eternal being from the Father. The Son is eternally begotten from the Father and the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father. The “Double-Procession” doctrine of the West obscures this truth, for it has the Holy Spirit proceeding also from the Son. Yet this tension is apparently reconcilable if one conceives of this procession in this way: “the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son,” for then the Father is still the source (or as the East might say, then the Father is still the Father). Even then, however, the Father must be understood to be the eternal source of the Holy Spirit, and the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son must be seen as a temporal mission. Undermining the distinctions of persons in the Trinity and what makes each person unique leads inevitably to de-personalizing the doctrine of the Trinity and falling into ditheism or semi-Sabellianism (213).
The Orthodox “hawks” follow the polemical spirit of Photius and consider the Filioque heresy, whereas the Orthodox “doves” advocate “a more lenient approach to the question” that focuses more on how the language of the Filioque is understood than on the phrase itself. For the latter group, the Filioque is still “potentially misleading” and a “confused phrase” (213). Ware suggests that the West has a tendency to overemphasize the unity of the Trinity and points to Aquinas as the example of how Western conceptions of the Trinity tend to depersonalize the Trinity. According to Ware, Aquinas “went so far as to identify the persons with the relations: personae sunt ipsae relations,” which appears to turn God “into an abstract idea” (215). The “hawks” think that the Filioque has caused the West to subordinate the Spirit to the Son—“if not in theory, then at any rate in practice” (215).
That we are made in the image and likeness of God must be understood primarily in terms of the Trinity. In the Greek Fathers “image” and “likeness” are not mere synonyms. Image refers to man as an icon of God: man’s free will, reason, and sense of moral responsibility. “Likeness” on the other hand, refers to moral likeness and “depends” on each individuals moral choice and human effort (219). To become more and more like God is to become more and more deified or “assimilated to God through virtue” (219). The deified person has become a “second god” or “a god by grace” (219). As the Scripture says: “You are gods, and all of you sons of the Most High” (Psalm 82:6). Disease and death are a result of human sin. The human will is weakened and enfeebled by what Greeks call “desire” (Western theologians call this “concupiscence”), but humanity is not thereby entirely “deprived” of God’s grace. Rather, after the fall grace works on the human from “outside” rather than from the “inside” (223). The Orthodox disagree with Augustine’s belief that after the fall humans loose their “freedom” and sin by a necessity due to a “sin nature” (223). To Orthodox, this would seem to contradict human free-will and deny humanity of the “image” of God. Furthermore, babies do not inherit the “guilt” of Adam, only his mortality and corruption. Guilt is not inherited, but humans are guilty inasmuch as they imitate Adam (224).
Whereas the West tends to view the incarnation as necessary only because of The Fall, Orthodoxy believes that the incarnation is the logical outworking of God’s philanthropia: his loving desire to be united with humanity. God would still have become incarnate even if there was no fall of the human race into sin. Ware also wants to cast doubt on the common “assertion that the East concentrates on the Risen Christ, the West on Christ crucified” (227). Ware believes that “representations of the Crucifixion are no less prominent in Orthodox than in non-Orthodox churches,” but the Orthodox do not separate the glory of Christ from his crucifixion and tend to hold in contrast “His outward humiliation and His inward glory” (226-27). Even the crucified Christ is “Christ the Victor” (228). “The western worshipper, when he meditates upon the Cross, is encouraged all to often to feel an emotional sympathy with the Man of Sorrows, rather than to adore the victorious and triumphant king” (228).
The Holy Spirit
Whereas Western theology tends to have an inexcusably underdeveloped doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Eastern theology “lays great stress upon the work of the Holy Spirit” (230). In a sense, the Eastern theologians consider the sending of the Holy Spirit as the ultimate aim of the incarnation, and the entire Christian life is “nothing else than the acquisition of the Holy Spirit” (230). This acquisition is a human participation in God; it is deification; it is theosis; it is salvation; it is redemption. Christians are called to “participate in the divine nature” according to 2 Peter 1:4. “The human being does not become God by nature, but is merely a ‘created god,’ a god by grace or by status” (232). Practically speaking, this takes place to the degree that the human will is conformed to the philanthropic will of God; it takes place to the degree that the human will loves God and others (232). Our “full deification,” however, will take place at the Resurrection when our bodies too will become “deified” as the glorified body of Christ (233). The two-dimensional icons of glorified saints in the Orthodox Church depict this final glorification, and remind Orthodox Christians of the redemption of all creation (234). The Orthodox belief in cosmic redemption is what fuels their “increasing concern about the pollution of the environment” (235). The maxim of St. Silouan of Mount Athos sums this concern up this way: “The heart that has learnt to love has pity for all creation” (235).
Ware suggests six points of clarification necessary for not misunderstanding the doctrine of deification.
1. Deification is not for certain Christians, but all Christians.
2. Deification presupposes a continual repentance (and therefore the presence of sin)
3. The methods for deification are not eccentric:
a. Go to church
b. Receive the sacraments regularly
c. Pray to God in “spirit and truth”
d. Read the Gospels
e. Follow the commandments
4. Deification is a “social process” for it involves loving one’s neighbor.
5. Love for God and neighbor must “issue in action.”
6. Deification presupposes the life of the church.
There are many similarities between Orthodox ecclesiology and Catholic ecclesiology. Orthodoxy insists on hierarchical structure, Apostolic succession, the episcopate, the priesthood, prayer to the saints and intercession for “the departed” (239). However, whereas the Catholic church believes in papal infallibility, the Orthodox “stress the infallibility of the Church as a whole” (239). Ware also adds that “to the Orthodox it often seems like Rome envisages the Church too much in terms of earthly power and organization” (239). Orthodox ecclesiology, while having “many strict and minute rules, as anyone who reads the Canons can quickly discover,” nevertheless is more mystical and thinks of the church more in terms of its relationship to God (240).
Ware summarizes the Orthodox doctrine of the church in three major points. The Church is 1) the Image of the Holy Trinity, 2) the Body of Christ, and 3) a continued Pentecost (240).
1) That the church is an “image” of the Trinity means at least two things. First, this is because the church consists of many persons united in one, yet each retaining their own unique personhood. Second, this also means that just as in the Trinity all three persons are equal, “so in the Church no one bishop can claim to wield an absolute power over all the rest; yet, just as in the Trinity the Father enjoys pre-eminence as source and fountainhead of the deity, so within the Church the Pope is ‘first among equals’” (241).
2) That the church is “the body of Christ,” means “the church is the extension of the Incarnation, the place where the incarnation perpetuates itself” (241). The Church is the “organ” of Christ’s redeeming work, prophetic utterance, priestly ministry, and kingly power (241). Christ has promised his “perpetual presence” in the Church. In Orthodox ecclesiology, this is especially the case in the sacraments. The Church exists “in its fullness” wherever the Eucharist is celebrated (242). “The Church must be thought of primarily in sacramental terms,” that is, “it’s outward organization, however important, is secondary to its sacramental life” (242).
3) The Church is a continual Pentecost because the Spirit continues to give himself to the Church. Irenaeus wrote “where the Church is, there is the Spirit, and where the Spirit is, there is the Church” (242). The gift of the Spirit is given to the church, but also “appropriated by each in her or his own way,” making the gift of the Holy Spirit very personal (242). The Church is therefore a place of diversity and variety, yet a precisely because it is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, it is also unified. The Church is the true Holy University (my words, not Ware’s)—united by the Holy Spirit, yet diversely gifted by the Holy Spirit.
This Church is also both invisible and visible, divine and human. It is invisible because it includes all the saints of history and the angels. It is visible because it consists of specific congregations worshipping on earth. It is human and its members are sinners; yet it is divine for it is the Body of Christ (243). While the West has grown accustomed to distinguishing between the visible and invisible church, the Orthodox does not separate these two, “for the two make up a single and continuous reality” (243). The visible church and the invisible church are the very same church. Finally, in Orthodox theology, one can say that individual members of the Church are sinners, but one cannot therefore say that The Church sins, for it is the sinless Body of Christ.
Human sin cannot affect the essential nature of the Church. We must not say that because Christians on earth sin and are imperfect, therefore the Church sins and is imperfect; for the Church, even on earth, is a thing of heaven, and cannot sin. … St. Ephraim of Syria rightly spoke … ‘The mystery of the Church consists in the very fact that together sinners become something different from what they are as individuals; this ‘something different’ is the Body of Christ.’ (244).
The Orthodox believe that the unity of the Church “follows of necessity from the unity of God” (245). “There is only one Christ, and so there can be only one Body of Christ. Nor is this unity merely ideal and invisible” because, as we have seen, for the Orthodox the visible and invisible church are the same church. The “undivided church” is not something that existed only at the early stages of Christianity and something we hope to attain in the future. It is a present reality in the here and now. On earth, it exists in a “visible community” (245). Therefore, the Orthodox Church admits of no schism within the church, only schisms from the Church.
For Catholicism, the Pope is the “unifying principle” of the Church, but for Orthodoxy, the unifying principle is sacramental communion (246). “The act of communion therefore forms the criterion for membership of the Church” (246). In case the reader has not figured it out by this point, Ware explicitly spells out the implication of this aspect of Orthodox ecclesiology: “Orthodoxy, believing that the Church on earth has remained and must remain visibly one, naturally also believes itself to be that one visible Church” (246). The Orthodox Church, according to Orthodox ecclesiology, is not just the “real” Church or the “right” church—it’s the only Church. Ware speaks with a tone of disapproval for Orthodox theologians who “sometimes speak as if they accepted the ‘Branch Theory’” that allows for different branches of the Church (e.g. Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, etc.). Therefore, it is visibly one and there are no divisions within the Church. Ware’s comment that this will probably seem a bit “arrogant” is a humorous and delicate understatement.
Nor is this all. “Orthodoxy also teaches that outside the Church there is no salvation (Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus). For Orthodoxy this statement is redundant; a tautology. Ware explains: “Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church” (247). Does this mean Catholics and Protestants are outside salvation? Ware answers this question as if the answer were obvious, but he gives a surprising answer: “Of course not” (247). This takes some careful explaining:
As Augustine wisely remarked, “How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!” While there is no division between a “visible” and an “indivisible Church,” yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say.
But Ware’s attempt to explain his surprising answer does not resolve the obvious tension. If the Orthodox Church is the only church, and the unity of the Church is visible, then the question of how one can be considered a member of the Orthodox Church who does not belong to this visible Church (i.e. those who do not have sacramental communion in an Orthodox Church) is indeed a grand mystery. Furthermore, whoever the Orthodox think these secret members of the Church are, they must certainly not be Catholics or Protestants, for the Orthodox believe that if they alone convened a general council (excluding Catholics and Protestants), it would be a true Ecumenical Council with the same authority of the first seven Councils.
The following is a thoughtful response by Brad Bigney (pastor of fast growing Grace Fellowship in Florence, KY) to the exegetical dogmatism of many Reformed Christians who think exegetical preaching is the kind of preaching that is most faithful to the Bible itself (e.g. Mark Dever includes exegetical preaching as one of the marks of a healthy church and trains other pastors after this standard). After sitting under Brad’s preaching for 3 months, I’m starting to think that a good measure of topical preaching is actually a mark of a healthy church.
Why Do You Preach More Topical Sermons than Exegetical (Verse by verse through books of the Bible)?
From time to time people will ask me why I do so many topical sermon series instead of picking a book of the Bible and preaching through it verse by verse.
Here are some of the reasons why I preach the way I do here at Grace Fellowship:
1. Jesus preached topical sermons – if Jesus thought it was effective… so do I! Seriously… when you read through the Gospels you don’t see Jesus gathering a crowd and then starting to preach or teach verse by verse through one of the Old Testament books of the Bible they had at that time. He used visual illustrations, and He met the people right where they were and taught using just a verse or two for the basis of His teaching. It was hard hitting, and did not compromise God’s truth, but it was not an in depth explanation verse by verse through a book of the Bible.
2. There is no biblical record of the Apostle Paul or any other disciples ever preaching exegetically, verse by verse, sermons from a book of the Bible. You can see examples of this with Paul’s sermons in the book of Acts (on Mars Hill and other places).
3. There is no command in the New Testament instructing pastors to preach or teach verse by verse through books of the Bible. In Paul’s letters to Timothy, he doesn’t take time to exhort him to preach in a certain manner. He simply says to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2).
4. Many times the emphasis on preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible is driven by a belief that Bible information is the key to changing lives. Paul tells us that knowledge alone puffs up, but love edifies (cf. 1 Cor. 8:1). Not always, but many times the preachers and churches that are characterized by verse by verse preaching through books of the Bible are heavy on information or Bible facts, and much lighter on how those Bible truths apply to your life. I think that Bible application is the key to changing lives. Sheer volume of Bible information is not what changes lives. In-depth Greek or Hebrew word studies is not what changes lives. Understanding how to apply God’s Word practically in our everyday lives is what produces a love and passion for changing & growing.
Too often the goal of exegetical preaching is simply “What?” “What does the Bible say?” Our goal at Grace Fellowship is not just “What?” but “So what?” and “How?” “How does that apply to your life today?” “How would you start doing what God’s Word says to do in that verse?” “What needs to happen for you to start obeying what is being taught there?”
The clear and practical application of God’s Word to a person’s life, in the power of the Holy Spirit, is what changes lives. As a communicator I certainly benefit from word studies, but I rarely choose to pass all the details of my study on to my listeners. Believe it or not… my goal is not the preaching or teaching itself… my goal is changed lives. I want to connect real people to a real God, through His life-changing Word.
5. Be sure you understand what I’m not saying. I’m not saying it’s wrong to preach verse by verse through books of the Bible, but I am saying if you choose to do that, be careful. Make sure you don’t get caught up in your exegesis, and the details of your word studies, and lose sight of the main thing… communicating for changed lives.
6. There seems to be an arrogance among Christians who prefer exegetical verse by verse teaching of the Bible… as if they’ve got the corner on the market… they love God more… and they honor God’s Word more. This isn’t true of everyone, but I run into it frequently when this question of preaching style comes up. I rarely hear any topical preachers criticizing exegetical preachers, but I do hear quite a bit of criticism from exegetical preachers, and Christians who prefer that format, towards preachers who preach more topical or expositional sermons.
7. Look at the end result. I can’t speak for every other pastor who’s chosen to preach topical sermon series, but God has been very good to us here at Grace Fellowship. People are changing and growing because of what they’re learning from God’s Word. So if changed lives for the glory of God is the final goal, then look at the fruit of our ministry. Are people being saved? Is the Gospel being preached? Is Christ being exalted? Is the cross central in the preaching and teaching? Rather than backing away or watering it down, do we preach and teach the whole counsel of God’s Word – even the hard places? Are believers being fed and grounded in God’s Word to know how to handle life effectively by handling God’s Word accurately? Are people more devoted followers of Christ? Is the Bible our source of authority for making decisions and setting direction in our church? Is sin being exposed?
If all of that is happening effectively, I see no reason for alarm or concern. The comment I hear more than any other at our church from new people is “I’ve never grown this much in my life at any other church.” If changing and growing more and more into the image of Christ is the goal (see Roman 8:29) then it appears that God in His mercy has been pleased to use both topical and exegetical sermons to get us there.
8. It could be that this question regarding the style or format of preaching is centered around a personal preference more than it is the issue of “right” or “wrong.” It is the same as people who want to argue hymns versus choruses. I’m aware of people that leave our church for this and other matters of personal preference, and they are not wrong to do so. However, God has been using the topical or expositional style of preaching here at Grace Fellowship to bring people to Christ and root them in His Word and His grace.
9. Preaching and teaching topical messages does not mean it’s lighter in theology or preparation time. My first priority is the sermon preparation; I spend more time each week preparing my sermon than anything else I do. Preaching a topical message does not mean that it was just thrown together at the last minute. Also, preachers who preach topical sermons are not more liberal in their theology, and they are not less committed to the authority of God’s Word. God has graciously used people to communicate His Word who have been more topical or expositional rather than exegetical. Charles Spurgeon was certainly not liberal in his theology or uncommitted to God’s Word, yet he rarely preached an exegetical sermon. However, he always preached a biblical sermon that was anchored by a verse or verses that he was driving home to the hearts of the people. He preached for changed lives, and God blessed.
10. Format or style of preaching is no indication of the level of love for God’s Word. I hope that my love for God’s Word and my submission to its authority is equal to any exegetical preacher. While my messages are not usually rooted in one passage that is being unpacked verse by verse they are rooted in the truth of God’s Word, and each point is anchored by a biblical truth or verse that from Scripture.
HT :: Grace Fellowship Sermons