Monday, May 26, 2014

Preaching: What I try to do when I preach the Word

I'm not a great innovator. I don't come up with many original thoughts. My gifts are more that I am very good at consuming, digesting, and synthesising the thoughts of others. So there is probably nothing new in this post at all. Indeed you will find very clear elements of Edmund Clowney, of Tim Keller, and of Bryan Chapell, among others.

In what follows I outline 3 convictions and 3 dynamics that inform my preaching. Each dynamic is not necessarily directly connected to the conviction that precedes it, but each informs the others. Neither do I perfectly, or even commonly, succeed in preaching in this way or to this extent, but these are the beliefs and practices that I am striving towards in preaching Furthermore, preaching is paradigmatic for other practices: the application of the word to oneself, to the family, to the cell group, to the non-believer, to the believer, individually and corporately.

Conviction 1: All Scripture is Christocentric, and because Christocentric, Trinitarian

Luke 24 is my go-to passage on this, and Clowney is the one who convinced me. Now, to be fair, 24:44 says "everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled". It doesn't say that everything in the OT is about Jesus, but it does say that there are things about Christ in all the OT (understanding "Psalms" to stand for "the Writings"). Verse 45 reads, "Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures". Jesus teaches those two disciples on the road to Emmaus to understand the Old Testament as a Canonical collection to be a full-orbed Testament primarily about Jesus, and understood through the work of the Spirit and in light of Jesus' Death and Resurrection. In this sense, all of Scripture is connected to Jesus and the Good News of Jesus. Now, not all parts of Scripture relate to Christ and the Gospel in the same way, not all of them connect directly, and not all of them intersect obviously. But, in the end, working hard to understand texts in contexts and in canonical perspective and thematic unity, they will lead us to Christ, and a failure to do so is a failure to read Christianly.

At the same time, this Christocentricity is Trinitarian. I say this because the Trinity in eternal relation focus our attention on the Son in particular ways. Matthew 11:27 teaches us quite clearly that knowledge, and access, to God the Father is through, and only through the Son. John's Gospel likewise teaches us that the Spirit's role in the Economy is primarily directed back through Christ, and through Christ to the Father. So economically, and in relation to us, Christ is our 'contact point', and the focus of our faith. Genuinely Trinitarian faith is Christocentric, and genuine Christocentric theology is Trinitarian.

Dynamic 1: Faithful, Clear, Relevant

As a preacher I take it that my first responsibility, in this dynamic, is to be faithful to the Scriptures. Before anything else, if the Scriptures are the true word of God, then my task is to truthfully represent and transmit that. Anything less is to be found lying about God.

Not that this dynamic is necessarily a sequence, but clarity is the factor that follows fidelity. The Scriptures are, I believe, perspicuous, though not necessarily in every way and in every part in the same way. So part of my task is to explain, and make clear. Particularly as someone engaged in the study of the Scriptures, having been trained, equipped, given access to resources, I am thinking ahead to ask, "What are aspects that regular believers are going to struggle to understand? What bits are tricky? What questions will they have? What about the unchurched?"

Thirdly, I am seeking relevance. It is third, because if I haven't been faithful and clear, relevancy is irrelevant. While there might not be sequence, there is priority. Truth first, clarity second, and third I am trying to make it real, vivid, connect it to the minds and hearts of the audience in a way that relates to where they are 'at'. More on this under the second dynamic.

Conviction 2: Redemptive History as the Key to Christocentricity

How do we get from Text to Christ? My second conviction is that the primary, though not the only way, is through a solid understanding of Redemptive-Historical Theology. This should start with an understanding of the Bible as History and Story. It's a Story that runs from Creation to New Creation, a story that centres in Christ, and a story that is told through many motifs and sung in many keys. While the kind of Biblical Theology that forms the basis of Goldsworthy and Vaughan is invaluable, it is not the endpoint of doing this kind of Biblical Theology. An ability to read the Bible diachronically is fundamental for seeing how parts relate to whole.

The Scriptures don't come to us as a systematic textbook of doctrine, which is why we shouldn't read them like that. This is one of the problems of atomistic proof-text approaches to doctrine. However this isn't to say that the Systematic enterprise is invalid. Systematics must, in this view, follow from an RH reading.

Connected to this, we need to learn a careful and critical use of typology in place of allegory. We rightly reject allegory, because allegory is unbounded symbolism. But the scriptures themselves teach us the pattern of type and antitype. The fundamental difference is that Types are established in scripture as events, persons, patterns in the OT are given a fixed meaning, and the NT takes up and applies that same meaning to Christ. In teaching this I always try to work from the clearest to the less clear. So the Exodus event is clearly the great OT type of salvation, matched by the Cross in the New. Hebrews provides us a clear pattern of "greater and better" Adam, Moses, Joshua, Melchizedek, etc..

There are many bad ways to get to Christ from Scripture, but the Scriptures themselves show us how to do it. And that pattern is primarily by seeing the Redemptive Historical patterns of the Scriptures themselves.

Dynamic 2: Text, Exegesis, Theology, Connection

When it comes to actually doing the work, this is theoretically what my process looks like.

1. Text

I begin with the text. This is the work of exegesis. Working hard to read the text and understand it in its historical context with accuracy and precision. In the church context I grew up in we always groaned and laughed a little at those 'easy, comprehension' questions that start of written bible studies, but as I have grown I realise that many people simply cannot pay careful attention to what is written. So often one can ask a question to which the answer is plain as day in the text, and they will answer vaguely and generically and from what they think or have heard, when if they just read the text they would know. Exegesis is, in the end, simply the art of reading, reading with careful attention and precision.

2. 'Hermeneutics'

This isn't quite the right word, but moving from understanding the text well to extrapolating, and the art of interpretation, is a second step. Here I am moving from the text in several directions. Firstly, I am theologising in the vein of Redemptive History. I am working out how my text connects to themes, motifs, types, and the grand storyline of Scripture. How does it point forward (or back) to Christ? What aspects of the Atonement does it touch upon? How does this theme or motif play out in other periods of redemptive history or other texts in Scripture?

At the same time I am trying to theologise into a Systematic key: what does it teach me about God and his character, nature, and deeds? What does it teach me about humanity? About Christian life?

These are two movements from the concrete (the original text in its original setting) to the abstract. At the same time I need to be exegeting the other concrete: the situation of my intended audience. This is also a work of study, to understand the people I am ministering among, what is their specific situation, their specific needs, their specific faults and vices and sins.

3. Connection

Chappel talks about the 'Fallen Condition Focus' - what is it about the people in the text, their sin and need for grace, that aligns with the people in the ministry situation, their sin and need for grace, that provides a contact between the two. That's the point at which I need to preach. In one sense this is the challenge of the concrete and abstract. It's easy to abstract theology from every text, and end up with one sermon that explains the Gospel and has the same application every week: read your Bible, pray, and evangelise. But to do so terribly misses the riches of the Scripture. I want to abstract as little as possible, because the power of the embedded theology of the Bible is in its concreteness and historicity, and as you 'rise up a little' from those specifics, you want to come down into the specifics of the target people, and connect with concrete life and reality.

The universality of God and Human Nature, of Sin and Grace, of Jesus and his Gospel, ensures that the Scripture is always relevant for all. But it is not always relevant in the same way at the same time from the same passages. If we get 1 and 2 'right', or perhaps 'done well', then when we get to 3 we are delivering something people really need, not just think they want or need, and delivering it with real impact: the preached Word of God in the Spirit.

What happens if these elements aren't present? Many sermons go straight from Text to Application, which flattens the hermeneutical arch/spiral, and either falsely applies things to us that aren't relevant, or else flattens the storyline of the Bible to an overly simple Law/Grace paradigm. People think the Bible is mainly about what to do and not do. Some sermons merely refer to Text in passing, and are really all about 2 and 3. In these cases we are simply preaching Ideas, and applying them to people's lives, but those ideas could come from anywhere. Why should people believe them if they are not grounded in the Scriptures? Worse yet, how will they learn to read the Bible for themselves if the Preacher doesn't use the Word in Preaching?

Some sermons, and this is one of my failings, move from 1 to 2, but never quite reach 3. This is the danger of the theologian and the student, to preach exegesis and theology and never quite make it back to earth from the stratosphere.

Conviction 3: Preaching terminates in Worship, not only Application

This is something I learn from Keller's materials. It links back to Dynamic 2 and forward to Dynamic 3, as I will show shortly. Preaching doesn't end in "Application", it doesn't stop in telling, and better yet showing, people what to do with the Truths they have learnt. It moves beyond that. Preaching should be experiential, and should touch on the emotions and will. It shouldn't be only experiential, that's one of the faults of Pentecostalism and some (many) forms of Charismatic theology/praxis. But if we stop at simply "Here's what to go home and do now", we've missed a chance. We've taught ethics and Christian life, but we could have lead people to see, through the preached Word, the glory and beauty of God in Christ. If we do the Hermeneutics/Theologising well, and we do Connection well, then these two should help people see Who God Is, and What God Has Done, and that is beautiful, that is moving, that is God's Love in action for sinners like us. It's this that moves us from knowledge, and resolve, to adoration and worship.

Dynamic 3: A triadic pattern of applying the Gospel

Again, I'm pretty sure this is a Kellerism, though I suspect he got it from someone else anyway. If all Scripture leads us to Christ and his Gospel, and the Gospel is also the key element in 'Application', in actual gospel-centred change of life, then we ought to be trying to show that Gospel in 3 dimensions.

1. Christ dies as a substitute for my sin. (Substitution)

The first element is that of substitutionary atonement. To put it another way, Christ dies the death I ought to die. Because of my sin, I deserve death, and Christ vicariously takes that death for me. Not only this, but when it comes to preaching I want to preach and show how this applies in particular. For example, if the redemptive historical theme I am tracing through is holiness/unholiness, Christ becomes unholy in place of my unholiness.

2. Christ lives the perfection I should have lived (Exemplar)

To put it into a similar way to the first, Christ lived the life I ought to have lived. Again, as a human being I ought to have lived in perfection, according to God's perfect standards, but I did not. Christ vicariously lived that way. And in doing so, even unto death on a Cross, he both offered up a vicarious perfect life for me (point 1), but also showed me how to life perfectly. And, as with point 1, this should be transposed into the key or theme that I am expounding. Christ the Holy One lived the Holy Life that I should have, and in so doing showed me how to live as Holy.

3. Christ makes possible that I should not sin but lead a holy life. (Empowerment)

The third element emerges out of and connects with the first two. And it is the essence of gospel-centered change, in place of either legalism (2 alone) or antinomianism (1 alone). Christ, by his death and resurrection, brings forgiven sinners (together) to live under his gracious rule and blessing (this is my channeling Steve Timmis and Tim Chester). That 'living under his gracious rule and blessing' is about how Christ through his work assumes our human nature, healing and perfecting it, and through the work of the Spirit is even now transforming us into his likeness. And, again, this should be transposed into the relevant key: the Holy Christ takes my Unholiness, so that now I may live a Holy life in and through him.

When you put the three of these together, you show people how they have failed, how Christ has succeeded, and how his victory makes their change possible. It is a model, a paradigm for forgiveness, trust, and change. When you preach only 1, you leave people with a stripped-gospel, one that tells them of Christ's forgiveness but leaves them as they were, with neither pattern for change nor power for change. When you preach only 2, you are following a classic liberal model, Christ is a great example and teacher, but you have emptied the Gospel of its Purpose and its Power, so that you have both missed the main point of the Bible's Story, and leave people with nothing but their own inadequate willpower to try and emulate the superhuman Jesus. People don't usually preach 3 by itself, but when they do Christ becomes 'the Secret', a source of supernatural power for achieving one's dreams and hopes. It's "Christ is the key to a bigger yacht and endless health". I could elaborate on how preaching 2 out of 3 is also deficient, but I think you get the point.

And more

This isn't all I have to say about preaching, but it's all I have to write about at the moment. And many of my sermons "don't quite get there". It takes a lot of good, solid work in preparation and prayer and delivery to preach this way. But it grows out of my convictions about theology, about Scripture, about Christ, and about the business of preaching.

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