A Classic Contrast Revisited

In Between Two Worlds (I Believe in Preaching), John Stott contrasted the typical weakness in more liberal churches from the weakness in the preaching in more conservative churches.  One connected with the audience, but had no rooting in Scripture.  The other started with Scripture and built straight up to heaven, without ever touching down.  Timothy Ward’s book Words of Life revisits this contrast.  Allow me to paraphrase:

Some churches aim to give hope and inspire faith, but do so by proclaiming a Christ different from the Christ presented in the New Testament.  This is achieved by honouring the purpose of a text without being shaped fully by the content.  (Incidentally, this also happens in more conservative churches where a particularly elevated value is given to passion and emotion.)

On the other hand, some churches are driven by content, but seemingly unaware of the purpose for which that content was communicated.  In the more conservative churches there is a tendency to see the preacher as primarily a “Bible teacher.”  True biblical preaching should neither by-pass, nor settle for, faithful exegetical and doctrinal instruction.

Let me quote Ward’s conclusion to the section: “Properly faithful biblical preaching involves the preacher deliberately seeking to fashion every verbal (and indeed physical) aspect of his preaching in such a way that the Spirit may act through his words in the lives of his hearers, ministering the content of Scripture in accordance with the purpose of Scripture.” (p165)

Without wanting to critique Stott’s great book in any way, I have to admit I am really excited by what Ward has done here.  Scripture is not just a repository of truth which the preacher must purposefully land in the lives of the listeners.  The preacher’s task includes sensitivity to the original author’s purpose (or intent) as well as content, which must be effectively and sensitively communicated to the contemporary listeners.  What Stott would probably affirm (and I’m not checking the book, so he may overtly state this), Ward does overtly state.  Preacher, in your passage study, be sure to recognize the author’s intent as well as content.  Then preach so as to appropriately do what the passage did, as well as saying what the passage said.

“The Spirit is again graciously present in the preached message, if what is preached now is faithful in purpose and content to what he once inspired.” (p.165, italics original)

The Theology Bridge

When we think through the expositional process, we are really concerned about three stages.  The first stage is understanding the text (exegetical).  The final stage is producing the sermon (homiletical).  The link between the two is the bridge in John Stott’s metaphor (in Between Two Worlds).  The bridge is the theological abstraction process.  In Haddon Robinson’s book you’ll find reference to the exegetical idea, the theological idea and the homiletical idea.  You could equally refer to the “at that time” – “timeless” – “at this time” progression of the stages.  This basic concept is important to grasp.  In order to accurately preach the message a passage today, we have to first consider the timeless theological abstraction of the main idea.  Here are a couple of questions to consider as you move from the exegetical to the theological stages of the process:

1. What does this passage say about God? Whether God is mentioned directly or not, every passage should be considered and preached theocentrically.  The Bible is God’s self-revelation, and since He doesn’t change, the timeless truth of a passage will relate to God in some respect.  This does not mean that the passage is stripped of human interest, but that God is recognized as the key character, whether or not He is mentioned in those specific verses.

2. What does this passage say about humanity in relation to God? Throughout the Bible we see humanity interacting with God.  Some respond with faith, others with self-trust.  Some love Him, some hate Him.  Bryan Chappell refers to the Fallen Condition Focus that can be observed in each text.  In respect to a fallen humanity’s response to God, contemporary listeners will always have a point of connection.

3. Where does the teaching of the passage fit in the flow of progressive revelation? It is always worth thinking through where the passage sits chronologically and progressively in God’s plan of self-revelation.  Technically I suppose that asking this question in the exegetical stage of the process might lead to presenting the meaning of a text in a way that the original readers could not have understood it.  Nevertheless, contemporary readers have to understand a passage in light of the whole canon.  Whether the broader understanding needs to be emphasized will depend on the particular passage and audience.

We study the text to understand what the author meant at that time (exegetical idea).  We abstract the timeless theological truth of that idea (theological idea).  Then we shape our presentation of that idea for our particular listeners at this time (homiletical idea).