Yesterday I introduced and overviewed Privilege the Text: A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching by Abraham Kuruvilla (herein: AK). Let me offer two quotes to give a sense of the book:
“Application involves discovering the world projected in front of the text and aligning oneself to that world. Such an alignment restores the relationship between God and his community. A pericope, by way of its theology, thus contributes to the corporate mission of covenant renewal. I submit that what God would have is that his people be captivated by the world projected in front of the text, and that they seek to be its inhabitants, aligning themselves to its precepts, priorities, and practices. This is God’s gracious divine demand.” (p117)
“This is the crux of christiconic interpretation: in that he perfectly fulfilled divine demand, every pericope of Scripture implicitly portrays a facet of the image of Christ, the perfect Man.” (p262)
AK’s book is clearly written. While it is far more likely to appeal as a textbook than as an accessible read for the pastor in his study, it is not difficult to dip into the book and get AK’s point. He also clearly has a longing for preaching to lead to transformed lives, as well as a passion for an increase in morality – all to be commended.
I think his critique of the weaknesses of Christocentric preaching is well worth reading, and concur wholeheartedly that we should think carefully how we handle individual pericopae in order to honour the inspired texts and pursue what the authors were actually doing with the texts they wrote. While I might not phrase it this way, I do see the richness of individual texts sometimes getting “swallowed up in the capacious canvas of Redemptive-Historical interpretation.” (p240)
AK’s exegesis of Genesis 22 gives a level of engagement with the text that is fascinating to trace through. It is a shame there were not more worked examples like this one (although the book would end up being prohibitively long).
There are real strengths here, but I have to highlight some concerns with the theological assumptions evident in the book.
View of God - The persistent recurrence of “divine demand” language presented a God who seems pre-eminently concerned with conformity to behavioural standards. It was not just AK’s choice of label, but the tone and content throughout that reinforced a very limited view of God. God is presented as a Father, but with the emphasis on our “filial duty of obedience.” Twice AK stated that his view of preaching is Trinitarian (pp 267, 273), but after studying the book I remain unconvinced that the richness of intra-trinitarian relationality substantively marks this work.
View of Man (our nature, spiritual problem and solution) - At one point, AK states, “Philo was on the right track: ‘The proper end’ of man’s existence is ‘conformation to the likeness of God.’” (p261) Philo is known for offering a blend of Jewish exegesis and Stoic philosophy. Similarly, AK offers a blend of decent exegesis with an unquestioned commitment to a Stoic understanding of humanity. The approach to a so-called “divine demand” in the text supposes an autonomous self-moved moral impulse in humanity. Even accepting that the book is focused on believers who are “aided” and “empowered” by the Holy Spirit, the onus of their responsibility rests wholly on their own willingness to self-align to God’s preferred future. If AK’s vision of preaching were fulfilled, my feeling would be that believers would still be essentially distant from God – aligned to his demands, acting like Him, and living spirit-empowered moral lives, but what about union with Christ, what about being “in Christ,” what about the triune intimacy offered in the Gospel?
For instance, AK submits that “what God would have is that his people be captivated by the world projected in front of the text, and that they seek to be its inhabitants, aligning themselves to its precepts, priorities, and practices.”
I would submit that “what God would have is that his people be captivated by Christ who reveals the Father’s heart, whose love is poured out into our hearts by the Spirit, so that we are progressively transformed from the inside-out by God’s great New Covenant solution to our fallen sinful state – this sin being manifested not only in sinful behaviour, but also in autonomous obedience and religiosity. God’s goal is not simply to be served by a holy people, but to be in union with His people who are transformed into the true holiness that is the context of His own fellowship within the Trinity.”
Purpose of Old Testament - On page 253, AK quotes and then responds to Dennis Johnson’s assertion that, “the purpose of Old Testament historical narrative is not to teach moral lessons, but to trace the work of God, the Savior of his people, whose redeeming presence among them reaches its climactic expression in Christ’s incarnation.”
AK’s response is as follows: “If the purpose of the OT is only informational and historical, “to trace the work of God,” is there nothing in it that tells us what God wants of us, how God would have us live, what it means to be Christlike in specific facets of life.”
I feel it is slightly harsh to reduce Johnson’s position to being “only informational and historical” and therefore without any element of moral instruction. I want to suggest that Bible texts are not merely informational and historical, nor are they primarily moral instruction, rather they are revelatory: divine revelation. The texts of the Bible reveal God to us, and in that revelation we discover the fullness of life (including, throughout, revelation of God’s values that shape our values and transform our lives into conformity with His holiness). However, we lose the heart of Christianity when holiness, loosed from a rich and delightful intra-trinitarian fellowship, becomes the primary emphasis. There are plenty of religions offering demanding gods and moral obligations. Only Christianity has a profoundly relational holiness defined by the delightful perfection of divine fellowship.
A Strange Omission - I am perplexed at AK’s omission of John 5 in his evaluation of key Christocentric preaching texts – was Jesus not critiquing the seminarians of his day who looked for instruction, but missed the person being revealed? That seems like a passage that needs to be engaged in this discussion at some point.
Conclusion – I can commend aspects of AK’s book, but the foundational theological assumptions raise many concerns. I find the implicit portrayal of God to be very restricted. I find the presentation of how humans function to be absolutely committed to an “autonomous self-willed” anthropology that resonates with Aristotelian and Stoic commitments, but seems to lack awareness of the full impact of Genesis 3.
Sometimes it is hard to read a book and evaluate the underlying theological assumptions of the author. Sometimes it is easy to get drawn into the world as defined by the author and therefore find yourself going along with every proposal. In this case the theological assumptions were clear, and it was at this foundational level that I found myself struggling with the sometimes very helpful content.
Who is God and what is He like? What is man and what does it mean to be made in God’s image? What is sin and the extent of the sin problem? And what is grace, the solution to the sin problem? These foundational questions should always be stirring us as we engage a book.
Next time I post, I want to offer some alternatives to a Christiconic approach to preaching.