Some Thoughts on What it Means to Preach the Bible

John Calvin was the first major modern expositor to firmly adhere to the natural, historical sense of Scripture. Calvin was so firm in his belief that the expositor must first determine the original meaning of the text that Philip Schaff would later refer to him as the “founder of historical-grammatical exegesis.”[1] To Calvin, the original, historical meaning of a passage was the meaning of the passage. He had little patience with those who read meanings, even Christological ones, into texts where they didn’t belong.

This means that the expositor must not twist Scripture to find “the Jesus part” in every passage. That is not preaching Christ either.

A passage retains its Christocentric focus, and a sermon becomes Christ-centered, not because the preacher finds a slick way of wedging a reference to Jesus’ person or work into the message but because the sermon identifies a function this particular text legitimately serves in the great drama of the Son’s crusade against the serpent.[2]

So to preach Christ one must remain faithful to the text of Scripture and not read anything into the text that is not there, but the expositor must understand that each text in the Bible reveals God to us and since God’s most perfect and complete revelation of himself is in the person and work of Jesus Christ, then in some way each text must be related to some aspect of the person and work of Christ.

Indeed, that is how many homileticians define “preaching Christ and him crucified.” For example, Sidney Greidanus defines “preaching Christ” as “preaching sermons which authentically integrate the meaning of the text with the climax of God’s revelation in the person, work, and/or teaching of Jesus Christ as revealed in the New Testament.”[3]

This definition allows much flexibility in the choice of texts (as it should) and in explaining the texts but is rigid enough to force the preacher to carefully consider whatever text he is preaching in light of Christ. This means that the preacher must work with the text to avoid resorting to shallow typology or allegory, neither of which allows the preacher to integrate the text with Christ’s work adequately.

It also means that the preacher must actually understand the text prior to preaching it rather than simply using it as a springboard to get to whatever points the preacher is trying to make. “In many sermons the biblical passage read to the congregation resembles the national anthem played at a football game – it gets things started but is not heard again during the afternoon.”[4]

Such preaching demonstrates that the Word really isn’t that significant to the Christian life. “An old Dutch preacher has sagely observed that the pulpit must not drive us to the text, but rather the text must drive us to the pulpit.”[5]

Sadly, there are fewer and fewer sermons sounding from pulpits that complete this maxim. This is perhaps why many church members are very well-versed on distinctives peculiar to their denomination, but are more than a little hazy on the fundamental truths of Christianity. These believers often lapse into legalism because they do not understand the similarities between their own and other denominations.

Likewise, many Christians are very familiar with the latest trends in end-time prophecy as popularized in several Christian novels, but lack even a basic understanding of historic doctrines such as the Trinity, or the inspiration of Scripture.

I provide here two examples that demonstrate the need for theology in preaching and the need for the study of theology by preachers (who should be educated in theology and the Bible, a proposition which, to me, falls into the category “Things you should not have to tell people”).

At the 1996 Christian Bookseller’s Association Convention, Modern Reformation magazine conducted a survey of evangelical Christians over the three-day period of the convention. When asked if they could name the Ten Commandments, only 5% of those questioned could name all ten. Most respondents could not even name half. Only 7% were at least close when asked to define justification.[6]

What is even more sad is a survey done at this year’s National Pastor’s Convention in which most respondents could not answer questions about basic Christian doctrines. Read about it here.

[1] Cited in Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 130, n. 80.
[2] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994), 293.
[3] Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 10.
[4] Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching, (Grand Rapids: Baker book House, 1980), 20.
[5] Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology, (Nutley: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1977), 19.
[6] The complete survey is available at http://www.alliancenet.org/radio/whi/whi.poll1996.html.

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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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