Thursday, June 19, 2008

TheTyranny of The Text?

I was speaking to a friend the other day. He is not in a (regular) preaching ministry, although he serves in a church with a strong preaching ministry.

He was lamenting good preaching, and was fired up about it. In particular, he aimed his fire at preaching that just 'adheres the the text'. He maintained that most preaching that (basically) sticks to the text is boring. Terribly boring.

And he offered two suggestions as to why preachers just adhere to the text (instead of setting the text in a more coherent theology, or a larger narrative). He suggested:

1. Concerns about Unity: He said that in lots of churches and denominations, there is so much disagreement about world view and theology, that "at least we can agree about these 10 verses". Or, on the other hand, it puts some limits on debate: "What do these 10 verses say, or not say?" Adhering to the text is a way to not rock the boat.

2. Fear of Theology: Preachers are afraid to put together, and then to stand by a coherent theology that they preach week by week. So we limit ourselves weekly to 'just saying what this chapter says'.

Further Reading:

Pic by Bethmalena.


Steve said...

A very interesting and indicting comment from your friend! While it would be dangerous to insist that preaching shouldn't stick to a text since this makes it boring, I would sadly agree that preaching which simply aims to be "faithful to the text" too often translates as preaching which is boring (and thus, ultimately, unfaithful to the text!).

When we come to read a paragraph in a letter or a chapter in a novel, we never read it without the context of the rest of the letter or book in mind. The themes, characters, historical setting, logical flow and style of the rest of the work inform, shape and constrict our understanding of the passage within the larger text. This is my understanding of what it means to read a passage in context.

So, when we come to a Biblical passage wanting to understand and explain it, it would follow that we need to have our understanding informed, shaped and constricted by this larger framework of the whole Bible.

Thus, the question of how to deal with "the tyranny of the text", is to work out what "the tyranny of the whole Bible" is: What are the major themes, ideas and purposes of the Bible which should guide the way we read any one part of the whole? In my mind, the answer to this question will help us know what "being faithful to the text" should look like.

So, what is the main topic, overarching theme and main purpose of the whole Bible? For me, this is very clear: It is the glory of God.

The Bible is primarily and unashamedly concerned with the greatness and beauty of God. Is this ever a boring topic to talk about? No, it is quite the opposite. Indeed God, in His glory, will intrigue, satisfy and bewilder us eternally.

Oh, that preaching might faithfully portray something of this wonder, awe and trembling in the meantime!

mark said...

That's an interesting couple of thoughts from your friend.

Sometimes I think I feel similarly when I hear people wanting to shy away from extra-biblical categories of doctrine. I wonder whether this suspicion of extra-biblical categories (though the trinity is one I couldn't do without!) is driven by the same fear of 'not wanting to sound like those others who've got it wrong'...?

Justin said...

Steve -- good thoughts.

For the record, I thought that the comment of my friend was a little unfair. What percentage of preachers only stick with the text in hand?

Drew said...

What your friend is actually thinking is that what we generally call "good preaching", is not good preaching.

Perhaps he's right, but what he's saying has as many implications for listeners as well as for preachers.

Josh Appa said...

I reckon people get stuck in the text when they think of and describe what they're doing in a sermon as "teaching the bible". A sermon is preaching the words of the living God! It should slap us in the face, hug us round the shoulders, bend our knees to the ground, redden our cheeks with blush, crease our eyes with a smile and stretch our minds with God's greatness. Probably not all at once. Preaching should teach the Bible (the semantic overlap of the words in the NT) which means the magician should ALWAYS reveal his tricks. You don't want people going away thinking, "I wonder how he did that?", nor "I reckon I could do that", rather "I know how to think, live, breathe and worship that".

Cameron & Alex Grey Jones said...

Is a sermon to be primarily judged on a boredom scale or one of faithfulness?

The two questions help assessing 'faithfulness'.

Perhaps we are also influenced by a cultural trend that does not attempt to integrate contradictory or contrasting ideas - eg. contentment with a different system of morality in the workplace to that which they would apply in their homes.

Can this damage our expressed doctrine of God? Can we find ourselves speaking as if there were multiple Gods - one for each issue, or text?

mt said...

Your friend make some important points.

Ultimately it's not possible to "teach the bible" in a vacuum. We all do it with systematic presuppositions. If your system is strong and faithful and full of conviction then you will preach the text faithfully. If not then you will probably be groping in the dark, will dish up a cold exegesis, will probably be very boring and will struggle to integrate what you are teaching with the rest of the truth of God's word and ultimately your listener's lives.

It is a bit rich to claim the ground of biblical faithfulness if this is what you are doing. Unfortunately I have sat through many such sermons.

In the end it is not expository preaching, or the tyranny of the text that is the problem. It is lack of conviction in the preacher. There is nothing worse than a preacher who is afraid to teach doctrine in the context of expository sermons because he is not sure if he will be right or *even worse* he cannot even see the doctrinal implications of the text. Such preachers end up resorting to reading back to you what they read in their commentaries during the week. They get up on Sunday because they have to say something - not because they have anything to say.

We need to pray that our theological colleges will be turning out men of conviction with a thoroughly reformed and integrated world view and a passion for God's glory. Such men are never boring!!

mandy m said...

is there a difference between "teaching" and "preaching"
would that contribute in any way to the forming of those ideas by your friend?

Steve said...

i would agree with mt that conviction in the preacher is what is the necessary ingredient in keeping faithful teaching from being boring.

Tenega said...

Yes, Mandy, there IS a big difference between teaching and preaching. About all you hear on Sunday mornings is teaching. Not really preaching. And most of it is bad.

Teaching is to edify believers with a better grounding in the faith. That's fine. We need all we can get. If we can get it.

Preaching, however, should specifically aim to bring both non-believers and belivers to repentance and commitment. However the speaker is led to do that, whether from scripture alone or by appeals to reason or sentiment, ought to be fair game. Certainly the OT prophets were called to use some stunningly graphic and at times offensive means to call Israel to repentance.

Most modern "preachers" are too squeamish about that. They treat the task as an intellectual exercise; a school lesson. They lack the fire and courage to reach into hearts and minds and confront people with their sinfulness and the need for forgiveness.

Repentance is a daily need. Without it, the Holy Spirit just can't do much with us. He CAN, of course. But He WON'T. It is the Spirit which wants to work through preachers to convict people of sin.

When Jesus sent out his desciples, he told them to preach repentance. That's because it is the necessary prerequisite for faith.

Sadly, there's just not enough damn preachers. Thank God for Justin M.

Justin said...

About all you hear on Sunday mornings is teaching. Not really preaching. And most of it is bad.

Strong words, Tenega. Are you saying that you know what Mandy in particular is hearing on any given Sunday. How do you know she goes in the AM?

Have we met TEnega?

Tenega said...

Yes, you know me well. Don't know about Mandy, but I've listened to a lot of 'preachers' in my days and not many measure up. Myself included. Your own work is a refreshing exception. I'd rate you a very good teacher.

Louisa said...

I remember hearing Don Carson say that it's only when a preacher speaks from the word of God that he can say with any confidence "thus says the Lord". It really stayed with me. I kind of understand what your friend means but I really struggle when preachers stand up to give a sermon that has nothing to do with the text that they claim to be preaching from. That said, if a preacher is doing a great exegetical sermon they can't leave off the application which has been a tendancy I have witnessed (& can be very boring and theoretical).

When a preacher is exegetical and also thinks carefully about how to apply the passage to the context and people they are preaching too - watch out! Lives will be changed! Justin, you were always great at this - praise God for the gifts He has given you and the discipline you excercise in using them.

We heard a cracker sermon on Sunday that was preached like this. The minister was able to say hard things because he said them in the name of Jesus, as a direct application from the passage which he preached faithfully. Had he not preached Jesus then his hard words would just have been his opinion and would have been offensive not challenging. Praise God for faithful Bible teachers!!