Friday, October 29, 2010

Christian Preaching from the Old Testament #8

[This is the eighth in a serialisation and slight revision of an old essay of mine, in the hope of getting some interaction from others and also making it more accessible. (Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)]

The issue of relevance

Mathewson provides a sample sermon on Genesis 22:1-19.[1]  The message of his sermon is that ‘the greatest thing you can do for your kids is worship God, not your kids.’[2]  In his exegesis he is looking for a principle that can be applied to his church congregation and he certainly finds one.  In his reading of Genesis 22:1-19 Abraham is a father who has to choose between God and his son, he chooses God and God blesses him and his son for it.  The pursuit of relevance has provided a principle but the bridge paradigm itself has not done this.  To derive this principle from the text we would have to believe that the writer of Genesis was concerned with family values, a significant western evangelical obsession.  However, two significant OT obsessions should surely take interpretive priority: Israel’s national identity and God’s promises to Abraham.  The original author and readers of this text were not asking how to be better parents.  Rather, as Greidanus rightly observes, in Isaac is the whole future Israel; if he dies so does all of Israel, and so do the promises of God.[3]

Greidanus on the other hand does not exegete this passage looking for contemporary relevance but Christ.  The message of his sermon on the same passage is ‘to teach God’s people that they live only by the grace of the Lords covenant faithfulness.’[4]  Now it must be noted that, contrary to the objections of Kaiser and Mathewson to Christocentric OT interpretation,[5] Greidanus has not shoe-horned Jesus Christ into an OT text but has still produced a sermon message than cannot possibly be preached without reference to Jesus Christ.  Why?  Because Christians are only God’s people by virtue of the new covenant established in Jesus. 

Despite Mathewson’s initial impressive exegesis of Genesis 22:1-19 he produces a message that is more shaped by the felt needs of the western church that by the actual text of scripture.  At the very least this shows a deficiency in his hermeneutic.  All exegesis must have a goal whether it is for scholarly literature, personal study or preaching.  The question is not if that goal influences your hermeneutic, it does, but whether that goal is the correct one.  In a post-Christian west, where Christianity is often portrayed as out of touch and stuffy, the desire to find relevance is a defence against a world that dismisses the church for not having any.  The Bible becomes a handbook with a relevant principle for any life situation we might come across.  However, as John Wright emphaticly asserts, ‘We must not reduce our understanding of application to strategies of making the Scripture relevant for the contemporary listener’s consumption.’[6]   The Principlizing Bridge turns the OT God into a slot machine where if we can just discover the right principle and apply it our lives will improve.   One beauty of the Gospel is that in many ways it is not only irrelevant to but also uninterested in our felt needs.  Job security, family values, prosperity and respectability are manifestly not the primary concerns of the Christ who tells us to take up our cross and follow him.

The ‘whole counsel of God,’ a favourite term of Kaiser’s,[7] should not be understood, as Peterson rightly argues, as God’s advice on any given detail of our lives but the plan and purpose of God relating to the ‘big picture’ of salvation.[8]  Christian preaching’s goal must therefore be, not the relevance of the sermon to the listener, but the transformation of the listener so they become relevant to God’s purposes in Christ.

[1] Mathewson, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative,  162-170
[2] Mathewson, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative,  171
[3] Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, 302
[4] Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, 315
[5] Mathewson, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative,  175, Kaiser, Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament, 51
[6] John W. Wright, Telling God’s Story, 32
[7] e.g. Kaiser, Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament, 51
[8] Peterson, Christ and His People in the Book of Isaiah, 25


  1. "At the very least this shows a deficiency in his hermeneutic." Or rather in his practice of it. The "principle" is supposed to have been found "in" the text. No way does this text "contain", nor is it "based on" that principle. This example is NOT a good application of the Bridge Hermeneutic! It is a good example of the TV Hermeneutic a biblical text can say whatever I like as long as it is relevant (which means that the people who pay to hear me will like it).

  2. This reviewer puts a similar point well,

    And maybe i'm guilty of fighting a straw man, but mark this, this straw man won multiple awards and was one of the most popular preaching books of recent years. A lot of other people weren't able to spot the flaw either.

    The thing is that no one, not the author with his phd in OT and his succesful preaching ministry, nor all the luminaries and academics who commend the book, spot the problem. The question for me is which paradigm should be taught to pastors? What should be considered standard in our churches? One where they easily end up with a Mathewson style sermon, or one where they end up with a Greidanus style sermon? If some pastor with a phd in OT can't apply the hermeneutic correctly to one of the most well known passages in the OT what chance do the regular guys have?

    On the other hand, Did you have a problem with Greidanus' sermon idea?

  3. I don't think so, he seems to have indeed identified a principle that looks/sounds like one the author(s) and early hearers of the passage would recognise and "own", he then (and I'm only going by your very brief summary - as a sad non-reader of books) he understands the principle in the light of Christ. How could he otherwise?

    I've been arguing against "relevance" in preaching for yonks now, well before I became a grumpy old man, I wrote a rant in the Baptist against "relevance" back in 1993 or 4 ;)