Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Review: Greidanus - The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text

Note: I have been doing some part-time theological study with the Northern Training Institute since September. It is fantastic. I hope to publish some of the fruits of my studies

The stated purpose of MPAT is “to set forth a responsible, contemporary method of biblical interpretation and preaching.” (xii) Greidanus’ method is to interact heavily with recent biblical scholarship with the aim of drawing out that which is useful for preaching; in other words, he seeks to bridge the gap between hermeneutics and homiletics. (xi) This method is, in turn, rooted in the author’s convictions about what preaching is. (chapter 1) Preaching itself bridges a gap: “the preacher stands at the intersection of the ancient Scriptures and the contemporary congregation and has a responsibility to both.” (341) Preaching is God speaking and acting: it is through preaching that God’s Word in the past (the Scriptures) becomes God’s Word in the present and is applied to church and world. But “since the Bible is the normative source of revelation for contemporary preachers, they must bind themselves to the Scriptures if they would preach the word of God.” (9) And in order to do that, it is essential that the Bible be interpreted responsibly. MPAT therefore is something of a detailed handbook of hermeneutical and homiletical principles that sets out to help the preacher apply the Word of God properly to his congregation.

This approach is developed through the following stages:

  • the construction of a “holistic historical-critical method” against a “naturalistic historical-critical method” which destroys confidence in the historical reliability of the Bible, with devastating effects on preaching (chapter 2)

  • the development of a holistic framework for interpretation, drawing together literary, historical and theological aspects (chapters 3-5)

  • a definition of good preaching as “textual-thematic preaching”, that is, preaching that “is based on a biblical text and expounds the message of that text”, doing so by focussing on the theme of that text. (chapter 6)

  • discussion of the relative merits of the narrative and didactic sermon forms and how the gap between form ancient text and modern congregation can successfully be bridged (chapters 7-8)

  • focussing all the preceding discussion onto preaching from four specific biblical genres, namely Hebrew narrative, prophecy, gospel and epistle. (chapters 9-12)[1]

The main strength of MPAT is in its strong commitment to preaching as the proper goal of biblical study. Of course preaching merely in itself is not the ultimate goal, but given that it is a, if not the, principle means for God’s work in church and world, it is vital that that means be constructed soundly. And good preaching – preaching that does responsibly bridge the gap between ancient text and modern world – is constantly in view for Greidanus. Thus he not only argues that good preaching is an exposition of a text, and is based on the theme of that text, but he also shows how that can be done. He shows, using a range of hermeneutical tools, how an appropriate text can be selected, how the text’s theme can be discerned, and how a sermon that is both responsible and relevant can be shaped.

A second significant feature of MPAT is Greidanus’ substantial engagement with recent biblical scholarship (although not so recent now, given it was published nearly 20 years ago), while retaining a high view of Scripture. Two of the potential dangers of biblical scholarship are those of (a) creating a chasm between academy and church and (b) allowing the academy to dictate to the church. I think that through his commitment to preaching, Greidanus helpfully brings some of the fruits of biblical scholarship in service to the preacher. A book on preaching or hermeneutics by no means needs to engage all the scholarly issues Greidanus does but it is useful to have at least one book that does.

One set of questions related to the status of other forms of communicating or ministering God’s Word besides preaching, which are not discussed at all in MPAT.[2] How do the hermeneutical & homilitical principles elucidated in MPAT apply in small group Bible study, one-to-one discipleship, personal witness, personal bible study etc.? Does God speak today through preaching in ways in which he doesn’t through these other forms?

It is also suggestive to set MPAT alongside a book such as Dig Deeper (Beynon & Sach) whose aim is to make available for the ordinary Christian a range of tools for interpreting the Bible, many of which are simplified versions of those found in MPAT. But if the aim of a book like Dig Deeper is to demistify interpretation and enable the ordinary Christian to do what the preacher can do, what is the role of a book like MPAT which seeks to provide a preacher with a deeper, more technical set of tools, beyond the reach of the average Christian? What is the value of the expertise of the preacher?

These issues lead to questions about spiritual gifts, the priesthood of all believers and the role of pastor in the church etc. which are beyond the scope of this review, other than to comment that both the responsibility of each believer to understand and obey the Scriptures and the higher responsibility of the pastor/preacher to teach the church must be affirmed.

Here are a few points that have impressed me as being important in my own preaching:

  • the huge responsibility that comes from the conviction that “God speaks through contemporary preachers” with the concomitant responsibility to work extremely hard to interpret and apply the Bible rightly

  • the importance of working hard at the form of the sermon, not just the content. The form can vary, and should be an appropriate vehicle, rather than a hindrance, to the effective communication of the message of the text.

  • that it is crucial to discover the theme of the text, but the theme of the sermon is not always identical to the theme of the text, although it is derived from it. E.g. “When the preaching text is from the Old Testament, the theme of the text must be traced through God’s progressive revelation from the Old Testament to the New Testament.” (138)[3]

  • The importance of being responsible in deriving application from a text. Greidanus critiques “improper ways of bridging the gap” (159), namely allegorising, spiritualising, moralising and imitating Bible characters, and helpfully shows how application can properly be made. So, for instance, the hermeneutical principle of authorial intent can be used to discern when we are meant to identify ourselves with certain biblical characters. Likewise, rather than comparing Bible characters with people today, we should be asking “how did the original recipients understand this passage?” (171) We can then draw lines to ourselves because of the continuity of God’s covenant people (recognising discontinuity too)

In conclusion, MPAT is a helpful resource for aspiring preachers. Its principles are to be appropriated and worked into one’s preaching over a period of time. As a book on preaching it is valuable, but also as limited as any other book on preaching, because one can only truly learn to preach through practice.

[1] NB I had not read these chapters at the time of writing this assignment.
[2] Apart from this brief comment: “Although the Spirit’s speaking is by no means limited to preachers (think of parents, teachers, friends, and neighbours through whom the Spirit speaks today), contemporary preachers have a special responsibility to proclaim the word of the Lord.” (8)
[3] This point seems to be a little different from Mark Dever’s definition of expositional preaching: “taking as the point of the message the point of the passage”

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