It Can’t All Be “We”

Cultures shift.  In the west we are living in an age when people no longer respect authority, including the authority of a preacher.  People may like the preacher, and listen to the preacher, but there is some resistance to the concept of a preacher speaking with authority.  Consequently, many preachers will try to use “we” throughout the sermon.  In effect, preaching as a fellow observer and recipient of the text.  This may be a good idea, but there are limits.

The notion of preaching without authority came to the fore in the 1970’s, with books like As One Without Authority by Fred Craddock.  This hugely influential book placed the “New Homiletic” into the consciousness of many.  Much of what Craddock wrote is well worth taking onboard, but there is an underlying issue we need to recognize.  The New Homiletic, even in its more conservative forms, is strongly influenced by the New Hermeneutic.  Here we find strong emphasis on a reader-response approach to the text, but the author seems to have been lost along the way.

If we hold to the importance of authorial intent in our hermeneutics, then a total “we” approach seems inappropriate.  As preachers, we study the text, hopefully with some degree of skill, in order to determine the author’s meaning.  Consequently, there should be a humble but authoritative explanation of the meaning of the text for the benefit of our listeners.  This “humble but authoritative explanation” may not require a “you” approach in contrast to “we,” but it does carry some authority.

Meaning is not determined by a primarily subjective response to the text in us all as readers.  In one sense there is a mutuality as we, God’s people, discover the meaning of the text.  However, that discovery must be the meaning of the text, not a meaning we discover subjectively in experiencing the text.

Nevertheless, in the applicational features of a sermon, and there should be many, perhaps “we” should be prevalent.  We all stand under the authority of the text.  We all should be responding to what we read.  Let the “we” feature in the shared need for the message of the text (introduce appropriate vulnerability and connection early).  Let the “we” feature carefully in application throughout the message.  However, let us be careful what we might imply with “we” in the explanation of the text. Let us strive to understand and communicate the meaning of the text as those with humble authority, but let us take our position amongst the ranks of God’s people responding to His Word.

2 thoughts on “It Can’t All Be “We”

  1. The problem with saying there is only one meaning to a text is that our own interpretations of it depend on our own particular social locations. A white Anglo westerner reads the parable of the lost sons one way while a native west African reads it another. What most of us (in the west) mean by “meaning of the text” is arrived at through the use of historical-critical tools that were developed by 19th century white German scholars. Certainly, there’s much to the New Hermeneutic that evangelicals will find unacceptable, but there’s no sense in throwing the baby out with the bath water, so to speak.

  2. Thanks for the comment Steve. Over the past two centuries there has been a shift in focus in determining meaning. The 19th century was focused primarily on the author. The first part of the 20th century saw the focus shift to the text itself. The later part of the 20th century saw the focus shift to the reader. I’m excited to see the resurgence of the author in our generation, especially a more rounded approach that recognizes our presuppositions as readers and the nature and form of the text too. However, if the author is left out, then there is no hope of any objective standard of measure when it comes to the meaning of a text.

    So it is important to be aware of our own cultural presuppositions when we read a story like Luke 15. But I also think we have the capability to study the text using a plain, grammatical, contextual and historical hermeneutic. We can study the historical cultural setting of the text to help determine the meaning of the text. Our concern should not be seeking a “white westerner” or a “native west African” understanding, but a “first century middle eastern” understanding. While accepting that our own “lenses” will influence our study, we have the responsibility to pursue that study to the best of our ability so that we can present the meaning of the text. As I wrote in the post, this should lead to a “humble but authoritative” presentation of the meaning. Authoritative because we have employed good hermeneutical skill in the process, and humble because we recognize our limitations and biases more than others.

    As you’ll notice in my earlier review of Lowry’s book, I am in no way throwing the baby out with the bath water when it comes to the New Homiletic or the New Hermeneutic. I recognize a lot of value in these streams of thought, but I would suggest that a purely subjective interpretational approach to the text is the bath water that can be helpfully drained away.

    I’d be interested to hear other comments on this.

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