An Implication of Inspiration

This site is for those who care about biblical preaching, not just preaching that includes a bit of Bible.  Consequently I presume the majority of us reading this have a high view of inspiration.  The Bible tells us that ‘all Scripture is given by inspiration of God’ – it is “God-breathed.”  In a sense, inspired implies it was ex-spired from God.  It was written by humans, in their own style and wording, fully conscious, etc.  But what was written was exactly what God intended.

In discussions of this issue, we often end up focusing on the implication of “verbal plenary inspiration.”  That is, that God inspired the very words (verbal), all of ‘em (plenary).  This is critical on many levels.  But in this post I want to point out another implication:

Perhaps we could call it “form plenary inspiration” – that is, that God inspired the very forms in which the Bible is written, all of ‘em.  As Paul Borden put it in a seminar I was listening to, (I paraphrase slightly); “when God wanted letters written, he inspired a good letter writer, Paul.  But when he wanted narrative written, he inspired great narrative writers.”  I think that’s a good point.  The narrative in the Bible is there by design, God’s design.  God knows how powerful and effective narrative is, so he inspired very good narrative.

Narrative in the Bible is not there primarily to give historical account, although it is historically accurate.  The goal was not to write a school history text-book with a balanced chronology.  Accurate, yes, but balanced?  Not in the way we might expect.  Narrative in the Bible is theological writing, it is story-telling with a goal, a point.  It is designed to convey truth about God, about His dealings with humanity, about our responses.  It tells the story, but it is not “mere history.”

All this to say that we should honor the text as inspired down to the words, and down to the form it is in.  Let’s strive to handle every text in the Bible as well as we possibly can, because when God inspired it, his work was very good!

Biblical Narrative: Two Truths Together

I’m giving a lot of thought to the preaching of biblical narrative at the moment.  I have a seminar on the subject coming up this weekend and I am thoroughly enjoying preparation for that event.  Somehow, when it comes to narrative passages, there are two truths that don’t seem to sit easily together in peoples’ minds.  These are the historical accuracy of the biblical narratives, and the literary artistry in the biblical narratives.

On the one side you have some conservative preachers who treat the narratives as historically accurate, but essentially no different than any other biblical text (just dissect and deliver!)  On the other side you have other less conservative writers who may recognize the literary skill, but deny historicity (my mind goes to Robert Alter’s term “historical fiction” in reference to the Hebrew Bible).

I appreciate this definition from Jeffrey Arthurs’ excellent book, Preaching with Variety:

Biblical narrative can be defined as a historically accurate, artistically sophisticated account of persons and actions in a setting designed to reveal God and edify the reader. (Page 64)

He goes on to write, “Although biblical narrators do not make up events and characters, they do select, arrange, and depict them with skill.Historical accuracy and sophisticated literary artistry are not mutually exclusive categories.  As Leland Ryken put it in Preach the Word, “While fictionality is a common characteristic of literature, it is not a necessary feature of it.” (Page 45)

As we prepare to preach biblical narratives, let’s make sure we don’t fall into the either/or thinking.  Historical accuracy.  Literary artistry.  Two truths that sit comfortably together.

We Preach Literature – Part 2

Yesterday I noted Leland Ryken’s comment that expository preaching “keeps its focus on the announced text instead of escaping from it to other material.”  Another feature of expository preaching, in his mind, is as follows:

2. “Expository preaching interacts with the chosen text in terms of the kind of writing that it is instead of immediately extracting a series of theological propositions from it.” – Again, amen.  Too much preaching treats every passage as a 2-D series of propositions, rather than appreciating and learning from the form the text is in.  The Bible writers didn’t send post-it notes to their recipients.  They thought carefully about the most effective way to form the message they wanted to communicate.  Sometimes they chose to send a discourse in the form of a letter.  Much more, they chose to write in some form of poetry.  Even more again, many chose to communicate by means of narrative forms.  Rather than focusing purely on the “what?” (content) of a text, we also need to wrestle with the “why?” (intent), both of which are influenced by the “how?” (form).  Our general hermeneutics must also take into account the special hermeneutics related to the literary form of the text we are preaching.

Notice that Ryken resists “immediately extracting a series of theological propositions” from a text.  This does not mean that literary analysis should lead to proposition-less, truth-free or vague-subjective comments about a Bible text.  Different forms of writing allow a writer to communicate something more effectively, but the writer was still communicating something.  To put it in simple terms, any Bible text is “someone saying something about something in some way to someone” (thanks to Gordon Fee for this insightful sentence!)  The “in some way” is critical and literary analysis recognizes the influence of that in order to grasp the “saying something about something” – which in other terms is the main idea of the passage.  The problem is not with finding the proposition of a passage, but “immediately” (rushing to that rather than really understanding the passage and its form), rushing to “theological propositions” (treating the Bible as a collection of proof texts for our personal systematic theology).

May we always be sensitive to the literary skill of the Bible writers, and thereby be more accurate and effective biblical preachers.