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Fall 1990 · Vol. 19 No. 2 · pp. 94–99 

Preachers Are Theologians

David Ewert

There is today a widespread aversion to theology in the ranks of Mennonite Brethren. In a day when the emphasis is on experience, theologians are not highly regarded. In some circles, in fact, a sure way of condemning a person to uselessness is to call him a theologian. “It has well been said,” writes Leon Morris, “that by and large men today are more interested in what helps than in what is true . . . This is the atmosphere in which we must live out our lives, the very air we breathe. It tends to make our generation impatient of serious discussions of what is true. It is apt to dismiss such inquiries as hair-splitting and to return with relief to the more congenial task of enjoying life” (1976:45f).

To Edify
To Preserve
To Communicate

Mennonite Brethren have at times taken some pride in their claim that they are a non-creedal church, and that may have been all right as long as the members were cut from the same cloth and read their Bibles through glasses of the same color. However, today our members come from a great variety of backgrounds, and so it is important for the life and witness of our church that teachers, pastors and members share a common Confession of Faith. This article is an attempt to underscore {95} the significance of theology for the life of our church.


What James Packer says about Protestant Christians in general, applies, I fear, to Mennonite Brethren, too: “At no time, perhaps, since the Reformation have Protestant Christians, as a body, been so unsure, tentative and confused as to what they should believe and do” (1979:9).

And because we don’t take the time and put forth the effort to come to grips with the fundamental teachings of the Bible, we are often confused when it comes to practical questions in the life of the church. A former colleague and friend, Dr. E. C. Peters, often reiterated the saying: “The most practical thing in life is theory.” If we have a good understanding of the theological themes of the biblical writers, we are in a much better position to find answers to the hundreds of questions that come our way today. In view of the relativism of so much current thinking on Christian ethics and church practice, it is urgent that we recover an appreciation for sound doctrine.

Our concept of God determines very much how we live. In his booklet, Your God Is Too Small, J. B. Phillips shows what a distorted view of God some Christians have. Our view of Christ is fundamental to all Christian experience. John Newton’s words are still relevant:

What think ye of Christ, is the test
to try both your state and your scheme.
You cannot be right in the rest
unless you think rightly of Him.

The last several decades have shown us how important a full-orbed theology of the Holy Spirit is. Our view of human nature, of sin and salvation are of crucial importance. And what shall we say of our doctrine of the church, which is being severely tested today. Also, it takes no deep reflection to see how important eschatology is. Our understanding of such basic teachings turns out to be of great practical significance.

C. S. Lewis developed a metaphor that puts theology and Christian experience in perspective. An Englishman enjoys swimming in the Atlantic. He also has a map of the Atlantic Ocean. The map is a bit of colored paper, very uninteresting to look at. But it is based on the experience of hundreds of people {96} who have crossed the Atlantic. If our Englishman wants to go to America, he will find the map extremely important. Swimming is so much more fun than studying a map. But the map will be infinitely more practical when he wants to sail to America, than his experience in the waters off the English coast (1977:32f).

Theology is like a map. Thinking and learning theology may not be all that exciting, but when we need to chart a course for our frail bark, it will be very much more important than the memory of wonderful experiences swimming in the Atlantic.

People who say they have little use for theology still have ideas about the great teachings of the Bible. Unfortunately, these ideas are often muddled and even wrong. In one of G. K. Chesterton’s writings there is a remarkable priest, Father Brown. A friend says to Father Brown, “I’m a practical man; I pay little attention to theology and philosophy.” Father Brown replies: “You will never be practical until you do.”


Granted that theology is important, says a pastor, but surely it has an insignificant place in preaching. Such a comment betrays a profound misunderstanding of proclamation. If our theology cannot be preached and if we can’t proclaim it in language that ordinary Christians can understand, then we deserve the criticism of our brothers and sisters. However, if we offered our congregations more solid food, we would be surprised at how eagerly people would respond. It is unspeakably sad when a church member makes the observation: “When I go to church I feel like unscrewing my head and putting it under the pew.”

Spurgeon’s observations that one can always get the attention of an audience if one gives them something to attend to, is still true. In the words of Dorothy Sayers: “It is not true that dogma is hopelessly irrelevant to the life and thought of the average man. What is true is that ministers of the Christian religion often assert that it is, present it for consideration as though it were, and, in fact, by their faulty exposition make it so” (1973:23).

Teaching and proclamation must not be separated. Paul writes, “I was appointed a preacher . . . a teacher of the Gentiles” {97} (1 Tim. 2:7). James Denney of Scotland expressed the ideal when he said, “If evangelists were our theologians, or theologians our evangelists, we should at least be nearer the ideal church” (1975:24).


In stressing the importance of theology in our proclamation we are not thinking of the propagation of new-fangled ideas. We are concerned about feeding God’s flock. Using a parable of our Lord, Klaus Bockmuhl of Regent College compares theologians to the different kinds of servants in the parable. The one kind is forgetful of his absent master. He eats and drinks and beats his fellow-servants. Some theologians, says Bockmuhl, also get drunk with foreign ideas and then beat God’s children over the head with them. There is, however, another kind of theologian, lovable and learned, who would not think of beating fellow Christians with his ideas. But he doesn’t feed them either. For him theology is like “art for art’s sake,” and so theology is mistakenly considered totally irrelevant. But, to return to the parable, there is also a servant of the absent master who gives his fellow servants their food at the proper time. That is a true theologian (1976:45-46).

An observation of C. S. Lewis may be apropos: “Jesus said to Peter, ‘Feed my sheep.’ He did not say, ‘Make experiments on my rats; nor, teach my performing dog new tricks’ ” The duty of every preacher-theologian is to feed God’s people (1964).

John Mackay writes, “Because of the current confusion in Christian circles, a theology that is true to the changeless, and sensitive to the changing, is a major imperative as never before in history. But such a theology . . . must be instrumental in character. Doctrine must not claim to be itself the reality, but to be a true and necessary instrument by which reality is discerned, defined and embraced. In a word, Christian theology, while not by itself a constitutive part of Christian reality, is its inseparable adjunct” (1969:37).

And so we need Confessions of Faith, and these Confessions need to be proclaimed and taught. I was greatly encouraged when one of our pastors informed me that he was preaching a series on the doctrines spelled out in our Confession of Faith.

There are, of course, dangers in all theological formulations. {98} Some systems are “logically tighter” than the Bible. Evangelicals have at times suffered from what Paul Homer calls a “tidying up complex.” Besides the danger of becoming overly precise in our doctrinal formulations, there is the hidden danger that creeds become a substitute for a living faith. John Mackay warns: “Woe to the worldwide Christian community when ideas about God take the place of God himself, when allegiance to ideas about him take the place of allegiance to him. When that happens a new form of idolatry emerges in Christian tradition” (1969/37).

Correct doctrine must never be allowed to supersede faith and life as the focal point of Christianity. But let us not minimize the significance of theology for the Christian life.


Dorothy Sayers makes bold to say: “We are constantly assured that churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—dull dogma, as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It’s the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination—and the dogma is the drama” (1973:22, p.22).

Without theology the church’s preaching and practice goes unexamined and uncorrected. Without a Confession of Faith the church falls prey to subjectivism and to strong personalities and current fads. Unless the members of the church know what they believe they will not be able to answer those who ask questions about the hope that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15). Without theology the church will have a hard time passing on its spiritual heritage to the next generation. Parents cannot transmit the faith to their children by procreation, but they can teach them the great truths of redemption. And that’s theology.

Clark Pinnock, writing in Christianity Today, bemoans the fact that believers are finding theology unnecessary, because they associate it with abstract speculations of an academic elite. But, says Pinnock, Christianity is a missionary religion, and if we are going to get the message out, we better get it right. He then lists three obvious functions of theology: a) It edifies the church which is founded on and lives by the Word of God. Theology helps to keep the church’s memory {99} fresh with regard to God’s revelation in the Scriptures. b) Theology also helps the church to preserve the truth. The church is always in danger of losing it and so vigilance is required. c) Theology is the art of communicating the gospel in all its richness. It is a form of translation in which we convey the original message, given in the idiom of an ancient day, into the language of our own time and place. Mindlessly repeating the original message without attempting to translate it into our contemporary setting is not what theology is about. (1981:68-69).

True theology seeks seriously, with the help of the Spirit of God, to be faithful to the original message and text of Scriptures. But it also looks for new ways of translating the old gospel for contemporary hearers, so that they capture the great truths by which the saints of the past have lived, labored and died.

May all of our preachers become true theologians, and all our theologians become the bearers of good news, for the growth of the church and the glory of God.


  • Bockmuhl, Klaus. “Theology as Servant,” Christianity Today 20, (Feb. 27, 1976), 45-46.
  • Hunter, A. M. Gleanings from the New Testament. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975.
  • Lewis, C. S. Letters to Malcolm. New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1964.
  • Lewis, C. S. The Joyful Christian. New York: Macmillan, 1977.
  • Mackay, John. Christian Reality and its Appearance. Richmond: John Knox Press, 1969.
  • Morris, Leon. I Believe in Revelation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.
  • Packer, J. I. God Hath Spoken. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1979.
  • Phillips, J. B. Your God is Too Small. Yew York: Macmillan.
  • Pinnock, Clark, “Why do We Need Theology?” Christianity Today 25 (March 27, 1951): 68-69.
  • Sayers, Dorothy. A Matter of Eternity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973.
David Ewert is President Emeritus of Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is currently visiting Professor at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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