Thursday, April 09, 2009

Reading, Preaching and Biblical Theology: Why Johnny Can't Preach

T. David Gordon has written an astute book with the title Why Johnny Can't Preach: The Media have shaped the Messengers. Scott Clark has been reviewing it and his latest installment (number six no less) is here. Dave Bish has also recently posted on it here.

The book makes some telling points about what we ought to read for, and how we should go about it. In particular Gordon trains his cross-hairs on the besetting predilection we have for reading for information. We read for content and ignore form. Gordon's observations ring true and need to be carefully weighed. Concerning the reading habits of ministers he says:
...they read the Bible the same way they read everything else: virtually speed-reading, scanning it for its most overt content. What is this passage about? they ask as they read, but they don't raise questions about how the passage is constructed. It's almost as though a version of Microsoft Word were built into their brains that causes them to see some of the words in a biblical paragraph in boldface, as the theologically, spiritually, or morally important words stand out in bold from the rest of the paragraph. (p. 46)
Although the provenance of the book is in the author's own experience of listening to preaching in conservative evangelical and Reformed churches in North America, his perception about the way in which texts are wrongly preached (because they have not been read well as texts) rings true for the UK.

The following is an apt description of a good percentage of the Reformed preaching that I have listened to:
But those not accustomed to reading texts closely just look for what they judge to be the important words, and the concepts to which they ostensibly point, and then they give a lecture on that concept--ordinarily without making any effort to explain the passage as a whole, to demonstrate how each clause contributes to some basic overall unity. (p. 48)
My only query is the extent to which, at least here in the UK, this is more representative of an older generation and less so among younger preachers. Not that it is exclusively a generational divide. It is also attributable to the kind of preaching that we value and use as a template for how we think it ought to be done.

There is certainly an approach to preaching that gravitates toward doctrinal exposition at the expense of biblical theology and careful attention to the form and structure of the text. This can lead to a flattening of the contours of revelation, and to the distinctive contribution to that revelation that particular texts make.

A good example of this is Luke's account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. The account if framed by the question of sonship. Not only are we reminded that Adam was the son of God but also that Israel (whose experience Jesus is recapitulating) was also God's son. The way that antecedent Scripture resonates here will be lost if we do not read the text carefully. It is all too easy to read Luke 3-4 as a template for our own resistance to temptation, instead of seeing it as the fulfilment of deeply embedded typological themes and as a point in the experience of Jesus where his work as our representative and substitute shines brightly. Luke is striking the note, not of "here is your example to follow," but of "here is the obedient Son obeying for you." [Take a look at David Gibson's briefing paper on preaching Luke 3-4, Three Sons and the Devil. HT: Dave Bish]

Sensitivity to the location of a text within in its immediate context, book, genre, and redemptive horizon has become a valued feature in British conservative evangelical preaching. I think that this is one of the blessings of serving God in this generation.


Unknown said... illustrated by David Gibson in Three Sons and the Devil.

Seeking to preach Luke 4 in context 3 years ago was one of the most enjoyable preaches I think I've had the pleasure to work on. So refreshing when we count the context.

Martin Downes said...

Good link. Was thinking of it whilst composing the post. Thanks Dave. Had much sleep lately?

Unknown said...

Not much sleep. That, and my sabbatical might explain my blogging being a bit unfresh at the moment, not really written much fresh content of late.

That said, last night we had over 8 hours sleep with just one interruption.