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Affordable Theology

January 31, 2007

We have affordable housing, which basically means people with very minimal jobs or terrible credit can own instant-entropy houses.

We have affordable health care, which basically means that professionals are compelled to donate services, or exact the difference from paying patients, in order to provide health care to people who have found a way to skirt the “those who don’t work don’t eat” ethos that binds the rest of us.

And I think I am glimpsing a phenomenon I’m going to call “affordable theology.” Affordable theology basically means reduced doctrine, and it can come about in different ways, but I’m only interested in the ones that maintain ties to orthodoxy.

Unlike some Reformed Christians, I am not an enemy of topical preaching. I think it has its place, and I think it reaches people who simply, absent coercion, would not sit through a sermon of textual preaching. I will say that I am extremely grateful to be blessed to be in a church that avers the centrality of preaching, and where the Word of God is preached faithfully and textually.

It’s expensive. I’m very tired after our two morning sermons. It takes a lot of mental effort to listen and retain what our pastor has prepared with faithful exegesis and reading and study. It’s harder than law school, actually, but much more engaging and infinitely more profitable. The preaching has habituated me to reading the Puritans, and they are hard, and not always very much fun. But the message is too compelling to escape, and I keep plodding. The Puritans had strong social consciousness, and they drew their strength for social reform from textual preaching and study. I don’t think there is an alternative source.

I have never been exposed to topical preaching, and so was curious. Several blogging friends whose orthodoxy I trust often favorably cite a particular, very popular preacher. I listened to a few of his sermons and thought his topical preaching was grounded in doctrinal orthodoxy. I’m not discussing this preacher’s ministry and influence; that’s a separate matter. I was interested only in what is represented in his topical preaching, and I think he checks out. He’s held a pulpit for a long time.

But things change that are not based solely on what does not change: the Word of God. I think this preacher is strong in the Word, but listeners who aren’t could miss that and find other things to capture their interest.

I think a logical consequence of topical preaching is that it could readily, if less capably preached than what I heard, descend into social gospel. Even what I heard seemed to approach, at points, the social gospel of early 20th-century America, which applied “Christian principles” to social problems. But the Word of God held its centrality in the messages I heard. And I can’t hold the preacher accountable for my own leaps of thought.

The social gospel movement focused on social sin as a causal problem, not on individual sin. The movement provided the oppressed with a format for self-help, and the oppressors with a way of self-sanctification. Unfortunately, this is beneath cheap theology; it is hellish. Poverty and injustice of course prevailed.

Christian principles are not the same thing as Christianity. When they are passed off as such, the application is another form of the “what would Jesus do” blather, which is not affordable theology, but something of another spirit.

I think sound topical preaching is refreshing and engaging in small, cautious doses. I think it’s too bad that many–probably most–people simply refuse to engage their minds to listen to textual preaching; but then, there are few textual preachers around these days.

So we have a form of affordable theology, available to people who can’t afford the mental energy textual preaching requires, at the cost of some doctrine. The gospel is applied to the issues of the day. Relevance exacts a tax.

Topical preaching whips doctrine into a creamy filling suitable for topping issue canapés: palatable and quite rich, but ultimately, for me at least, not sustaining food.

(Some people shouldn’t write on an empty stomach.)

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One Comment
  1. January 31, 2007 12:59 pm

    Now I’m hungry too.

    I think you’ve brought out some interesting observations on the difference between the two. There is another variant as well, the approach used by Spurgeon. He preached on a text, and did it very well, but his text often varied according to the occasions of his day. I think he was something of a topical-textual preacher.

    I’m glad we are fed solid food, even if we need the occasional digestive aid.

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