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The Decline of the Text

Written by: Larsen, David L.    Posted on: 12/18/2006

Category: Ministries


"Preach the Word..." –2 Timothy 4:2
"Take thou authority to preach the Word of God" –Anglican Ordination Ritual

Pastoral leadership or the lack thereof is largely the function of the preaching and teaching ministry in the church. At the apex of priorities in the local church is surely the worship of the living God which is so inseparably wed to the proclamation of Scripture. The Bible in both testaments gives large place to the articulation of revealed truth whether through prophets or apostles. Jesus our Lord was paramountly a preacher and a teacher.

It is little wonder then that 2000 years of church history show that where preaching has been strong, the church has been strong. Conversely where preaching has been weak, the church has been weak. Other factors are certainly involved such as prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit but these are essentially conjoined to "the ministry of the Word."

The importance and prominence of preaching in the church are to be explained in relation to what the Bible is intended to be in evangelism, Christian nurture and in every aspect of the common life of the congregation. A "famine of hearing the words of the Lord" (Amos 8:11) is disastrous. Failure to "know God" and understand are grievous faults indicted by God (Isaiah 1:3, Hosea 4:6), The personal and the propositional are inseparably linked at this point. Thus a high view of Scriptural authority must give rise to a high view of preaching.

The essence of authentic preaching is then necessarily careful exegesis of the text and the application of that text in its context to life today. The preacher needs in exegetical conscience to discover what the text says and then bridge from "then to now." To be trapped in the text is not to preach. What does this text mean for us today? But every aspect of the crucial application must be governed by the meaning of the text. To preach out of a text is as unsatisfactory as preaching over a text. We are called to preach what the text says. This kind of reverent attention to the text is the requirement for Biblical preaching. The text is key.

The history of preaching makes very clear that the subsidence of the text in preaching is perilous. The recession of preaching that is devoted to the declaration of the meaning of the Biblical text for us today is surely the prelude to spiritual declension among the people of God. Thus the alarm must be sounded in our time as we see a massive move away from fidelity to the text in evangelical preaching.

The move is undeniably away from text-driven, text-derived preaching to audience-centered, need-driven, problem-solving preaching. This paradigm shift is seen also in homiletical instruction in training schools and in widely-read volumes on preaching in which we are assured that preaching the main thought of a text is truly exposition or that it is unnecessary to reproduce the pattern of the text in the sermon. New definitions of exposition downplay the necessity of correspondence between what the text says and what the sermon says.

What we are seeing is in practical fact the subordination of the text to application. The pastor understandably feels the anguish and suffering of the people in his charge. A text is read (which may serve as a kind of motto or statement of motif) but there is little or no wrestling with the text. The argument or development of thought within the text is seen as wasting time and irrelevant at this point. "Cut to the bottom line," as one preacher puts it. Get to the application, the illustrative anecdotage, the psychological analogy which are practical. This is pay dirt. Share the conclusion minus how the conclusion is derived.

Can one really preach 1 Corinthians 13 and deal only with the final outcome of inspired argument: "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love"? Must we not show in terms of the context that from God's perspective love is essential; love is expressive and love is eternal? If we only preach the conclusion we are apt to be moralistic in our preaching. We fail to show the engine force which makes the conclusion more than an adage from Aesop's Fables. Ephesians 1-3 needs to be preached before the applicatory chapters 4-6. Romans 1-11 comes before the applications of 12-16. Time is short for preaching and getting shorter. We don't have time for the exegesis.

The current marginalization of preaching and the common dichotomy between the worship and the preaching segments in the service contribute to the demotion of serious textual work. As this trend continues, the necessity for any serious exegetical study for preachers becomes more and more problematic either in seminary or in the study. This kind of impatience with what Scripture teaches is very close to what the Apostle Paul foretold when he warned of allergy to doctrine (2 Timothy 4:3). This is what James Montgomery Boice called "the new pragmatism." What is true loses out all the time to what works.

Here is where the history of preaching can be of assistance to us. It is crystal-clear as we examine church history that the subordination of the text to anything else leads inevitably to the serious devaluation of preaching and the loss of its effective edge.

1. The subordination of the text to liturgy has been catastrophic for preaching. In Eastern Orthdoxy and much of Roman Catholicism as well as any very high church expression, preaching is very short if existent at all. The great preaching of Chrysostom and the Cappadocians has never been repeated in Eastern orthodoxy. The liturgy — which may well contain the gospel — nonetheless suffocates preaching. Preaching virtually ceases to exist in some of these traditions (as in Russian orthodoxy) or is squeezed to a bare minimum. Sermons of ten or fifteen minutes cannot do any kind of justice to a natural thought unit of text.

2. The subordination of the text to doctrine has a lethal effect. We honor the Puritans for their love of Scripture and of preaching. Few eras in church history have listened to so much preaching so long as among the Puritans. But after some exegesis, the typical Puritan sermon concentrated on the doctrinal section and its uses or application. Very little text was exposed; one great Puritan preached four years on the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). This is the phenomenon of the inverted pyramid where a tiny piece of text is used as a base for the exploration of Scripture as a whole on its doctrinal concomitant. Seldom did the Puritan preacher deal with a natural thought unit. 18 sermons on John 3:6 is not calculated to model for any hearer how Scripture is to be used. It does not expound a text at all. The approach led ultimately to downward spiral and the method has been used since by only a small number of preachers.

3. The subordination of the text to a commanding philosophic principle such as modern higher criticism's evolutionary premises will kill Bible preaching. In few places has Biblical preaching thrived as vigorously as in post-reformation Scotland. The history of the Scottish pulpit is almost without parallel in the history of preaching. Yet today Christianity is dying in Scotland. Enlightenment rationalism — which had blighted German universities and disastrously weakened preaching in Germany and on the Continent generally — sought a foothold in Scotland. The battles raged in the 19th century and while conservatives won many battles, they lost the war. If the Bible cannot be trusted, the sharp edge of conviction will not attend its preaching. Biblical supernaturalism came into eclipse as mediating and compromising minds gave up the vital ground of Scriptural integrity that must be held. Preaching was one of the inescapable casualties. The text was subordinated to a world-view foreign to Christian truth.

4. The subordination of the text to an erroneous hermeneutic can prove fatal to Biblical preaching. The Alexandrian School of Clement and Origen was brilliant but ill-advised in its over-accommodation of Greek thought in its legacy of allegorization. No matter how high a view of Scriptural authority, we can lose all benefit of the Word through a wrong-headed interpretation of the text. Allegorization takes the Word from the people and gives it to "experts" who see the hidden meanings no one else can see. The Antiochene School with its plain, simple, natural meaning of the text — literal where possible — is very close to our historical-grammatical approach to the text, which seeks to grapple seriously with the author's intention. The malaise of medieval preaching generally can be attributed to this false spiritualization of Scripture. Evangelicals have not been immune to this circus of interpretation which makes the Bible more of "an old curiosity shop" than the living vital message of God to all ages (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

5. The subordination of the text to an overmastering rhetorical expectation can kill Biblical preaching. There have been periods in the history of preaching where such an emphasis has been placed on the form of the preaching, its elegance and elocutionary perfection that the simple, clear meaning of the text is lost in an elaboration of human contrivance. The relationship between content and form is critical — neither survives without attention to the other — but when form becomes overpowering, the focus moves to the speaker rather than the messenger.

We can get in the way of the text and reduce it to an effect in the drama of human personality and artifice. Where this has happened, the message has easily been lost and the text slips out of sight.

On the basis of this brief sampling of what does, in fact, happen to preaching when the text is subordinated, I would again rise in warning and alarm. The present move away from serious work in the text of Scripture — either in the study or in the final product in the pulpit — is symptomatic of a dangerous concession to modern culture's impatience with thought process. The contemporary preference for images over ideas must be challenged at its root: images without ideas are vapid and vacuous impressions to be wrecked on the shoals of subjectivity. Even a good narrative is linear in its development. The notion that significant communication can take place without linear thinking is an illusion. John Grisham is linear as are 99% of the writers of our time. Coherence and logic are not as well-spoken of in our time of "feel-good theology" and "Christianity-lite," but they alone make significant communication possible.

No task of contextualizing the Word has ever been easy, and our task is as formidible as any missionary ever had in a foreign and alien culture. But ever "in, with and under" the Word is the Holy Spirit, its divine author. We work in collusion with Him; He stays with the text of the Word of God. The question today is - shall we also be faithful?
_______________

Note: the empirical evidence for the paradigm shift away from the text in our time is in my The Company of the Preachers: A History of Biblical Preaching From the Old Testament to the Modern Era (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1998). The imagery of "cutting to the bottom line" I have taken from my nephew, Lee Eclov, pastor of the Village Church of Lincolnshire, Illinois.


David L. Larsen, Professor Emeritus of Preaching, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois (March-April, 2003)

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