There is an interesting discussion on Tim Bulkely’s Sansblogue about preaching. In it, one of the people who has posted comments talks about the need for expository preaching – preaching based on the text – rather than simply using the text selectively to back up personal opinions.
While I agree that it is good to base one’s sermons on a biblical text, I think there are a range of ways of doing this, and some of them are more valid than others. I am reminded of some sermons and talks at Christian conventions that I’ve attended, where the preacher/speaker takes the text serious in minute detail. He (it is always he) takes a few words from the text and expands on them, telling us how important a particular adjective or adverb is to how the text applies to the lives of the audience. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I used to find this fascinating and be quite awestruck by the depth of the speaker’s biblical understanding.
Looking back, though, this kind of speaker was rarely looking at the Greek/Hebrew text for his source, so he was basing his exposition on English synonyms and grammatical structure, which is quite often problematic. In addition, the more I look at oral transmission and the psychological literature on eyewitness testimony, the more convinced I become of the invalidity of this kind of text work. What people remember about an event they’ve witness can be so skewed by a range of factors that attributing some divine importance to one or two particular words is simply not on, unless you subscribe to the “divine secretary” theory of inspiration of Scripture (ie that the writers of the biblical texts simply took dictation from God).
I believe that we need to look at the big picture – the themes that are consistent throughout scripture – not the fine detail, for our understanding about authentic Christian lifestyles. Fine detail analysis of text is essential to ensure that we have the big picture right, but the fine detail analysis needs to be of the texts in their original languages as far as possible, and in the context in which they were written.
However, a day or three ago, Chris Tilling’s Quote for the Day over on Chrisendom was from Andrew Perriman and it reminded me of another problem with expository preaching. Perriman talks about the fact that the Bible is not a modern text and was not written to address modern circumstances and therefore should be strange and irrelevant, not immediately accessible to the modern reader/hearer. I’m not sure that I agree with the “should” but it often is and I think that one of the problems of the person who has grown up with or has extensive experience of Christianity from within the church is that they simply don’t realise just how inaccessible the Bible is to the modern reader without a church background. In your average church service, there simply isn’t the time to spend providing the background to help the congregation understand why you are saying that the big picture is what it is – at least in the churches I attend where people start fidgetting after about 15 minutes and cannot be guaranteed to come week after week so they will get all the parts of a series.
A preacher who is trying to work from the text is therefore left with no option but the “trust me – I’m ordained/have studied theology” line, and generally most members of most congregations do trust the preacher not to be making stuff up from thin air, which is quite a sobering thought, really. I mean, how many “biblical facts” have you believed for years on the basis that some preacher years ago said they were true only to find that they actually are not? Preaching is actually quite scarey if you stop to think about it for too long!
Update: Thanks to Pat McCullough of kata ta biblia for explaining how to get a direct link to the Sansblogue post. :-)