Editor’s Note: This post is adapted from an interview with Tony Merida and Matt Cohen.
Joe Holland: I’m here with Tony Merida and Matt Cohen to talk about Christ-centered preaching. Tony is the pastor of vision at Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, NC. Tony is a professor at Grimké Seminary, in addition also to being both the academic dean and dean of the Center for Christ-centered Preaching. Matt is the lead pastor of City Light church in Philadelphia and serves Tony as his teaching assistant. Matt, what brought you to Grimké Seminary?
Matt Cohen: Well, I mentioned to Bryan Laughlin that I was starting a D.Min. at another seminary. He replied, “Let’s talk about that because we’re planning eventually to offer a Th.D. at Grimké, and that degree might be a better fit for you.” That conversation was well-timed because I loved the work of Grimké and was just beginning my D.Min. work. And honestly, I wasn’t sure that the D.Min. was going to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish in pursuing that degree. I really wanted an opportunity to study with guys like Tony, guys who are like-minded practitioners. I also thought highly of Bryan. So studying under him really appealed to me. At a subsequent pastors’ conference, I was able to talk to Tony and hear what his focus of study was. I thought to myself, “This is the man I want to learn from.” And then, he gave me the opportunity to join him and learn from him in the capacity of a TA. So far, it’s been everything I hoped it would be.
Joe Holland: So, Tony, let’s talk about some of the reasons that Matt wanted to be your TA. You’ve earned your Ph.D. in preaching. That’s unusual in our field. Usually, a man would pursue a D.Min. in preaching since a D.Min. is a vocational degree. But you’ve done specific Ph.D.-level study on preaching, the craft of preaching, and the history of preaching. What motivated you to pursue a Ph.D. in preaching?
Tony Merida: I graduated in 2006. But when I went to seminary in 2000, I just wanted to learn the Bible. I didn’t really have any academic goals. I didn’t intend to be a professor. I wanted to understand the Bible better so I could preach. I finished my M.Div. rather quickly, in about two and a half years. I wasn’t married. I was on the youth circuit, and so had plenty of time available for study. I had some professors encourage me to continue on and earn my Ph.D. Both the Old Testament and New Testament guys were recruiting me. Then, my systematic theology professor, whom I thought highly of, wanted me to pursue a Ph.D. in theology. But I was also being mentored by the preaching professor. In the end, it was a practical decision.
“I knew I was a practitioner at heart, and I wanted to help other guys preach better if I could. ”—Tony Merida
It wasn’t that I preferred to study preaching more than the other disciplines. I actually would’ve preferred New Testament Greek if I were just picking what I’m most interested in. But, as I looked at the landscape of seminary professors, I just kept saying to myself, “Man, I think I can really make a contribution in the field of preaching. And I think my biggest strength is actually preaching, not in classroom teaching per se.” So, I decided that graduate study in preaching was the natural place for me. And it would be a good place to make an impact for the kingdom. I knew I was a practitioner at heart, and I wanted to help other guys preach better if I could.
So I dove into the whole field of preaching. I studied the theology of preaching and the history of preaching. I read a ton of books on the topic and ended up writing my dissertation on John Piper. Christ-centered preaching was a new-ish movement toward the end of my master’s degree. And that is one of the reasons I decided on preaching for my Ph.D. work. There was a gap in my own understanding there. The type of classical exposition model that was being taught lacked clear integration with biblical theology and expositional theory. I was hoping I could help provide clarity there. The Lord has given me opportunities to do that through my work, and now I get to teach that here at Grimké.
Joe Holland: We talk about how Christ-centered preaching is not new since, as you say, the Bible itself is Christ-centered exposition. So, how is it that, for some people, the concept of Christ-centered preaching is a new thing? What happens to people when they start to grasp that theme?
Tony Merida: I think several things happen. First, preachers become excited about preaching the Old Testament. They aren’t avoiding the Old Testament; instead, they’re looking forward to preaching from those books. Another thing that happens is that it gives people—preacher and congregation—a renewed affection for Christ. You are encouraged when you see Christ in all the Scriptures. You also want to find ways to make the entirety of your day about glorifying him. It also clarifies the preacher’s goal in preaching to believers and unbelievers. We want unbelievers to behold the beauty of Christ and trust him for salvation. We want the believer to behold the beauty of Christ and become more like him. Christ-centered preaching really clarifies your purpose for every single sermon.
I think through the years, we’ve fought various battles in the world of the Academy, contending with unbiblical exegetical methods adopted from German higher criticism. We had to reclaim a high view of the Bible, the inspiration of Scripture, and so on. For a while, that reclamation project included doing verse-by-verse exposition born out of a renewed belief in the inspiration of Scripture. But that method, as good as it was, could easily miss the forest for the trees. I stand on the shoulders of those guys who taught the grammatical-historical hermeneutic. But I always say that what they taught wasn’t wrong; it was just incomplete—they got us to third base. And Christ-centered preaching brings us home.