The Challenge of Narratives 1: Old Testament

Note – Peter has offered a clarifying comment on this post.

I’d like to offer a series of posts on the particular challenges for interpreting the major narrative sections in the Bible.  Today, the Old Testament.  In parts 2 and 3, the Gospels.  Then in part 4, Acts.

There are many challenges when interpreting Old Testament narrative passages.  These include the greater distance between the story and today (culturally, linguistically, historically) and the simple fact that we tend to lack a broad understanding of the sweep of Old Testament history.  However, the greatest challenge I see is:

Accurately grasping the enduring theological truth of a story.

This is a major challenge.  After all, we are not preaching a story about Jacob to his twelve sons.  A lot has changed since the story was written.  We have to wrestle with matters of continuity and discontinuity:

1. There are significant elements of discontinuity between the Old Testament and now.  Early OT narratives occur pre-Sinai, or pre-exile.  All OT narratives occur before the first coming of Christ, before the cross, before the resurrection, before Pentecost, before the founding and growth of the church.  The characters had less of the Bible to know and trust, they had a different relationship to the Holy Spirit than we do, their perspective on the world and history was different.  Whatever label you put on it, some things have changed.

2. There are some critical elements of continuity too. I’d like to mention two key elements of continuity.  Having taken into account all that has changed between those times and these times, some things don’t change.  Human nature doesn’t change.  God’s character doesn’t change.  While so much may be different, we continue to face the same two paths before us as the biblical characters faced: the path of trusting God, and the path of unbelief.

All Scripture is not written directly to us, or even to people whose situation was the same as ours.  But all Scripture is useful, applicable, relevant.  It’s our challenge as preachers to figure out how.

?-Centric Preaching

There is a lot of discussion about whether preaching is anthropocentric or theocentric (man or God-centered).  Some like to get into the theocentric versus christocentric debate (God or Christ-centered).  I am not getting into that one in this post (although I will mention a helpful category I heard recently from Walter Kaiser – christocentric is one thing, but christo-exclusive is another . . . I like that helpful distinction!)

Based on the nature of Scripture, I think it is vital that we grasp the necessity of theocentric interpretation, and consequently, preaching.  Kent Edwards, in a journal article, stated:

The point of a biblical story is always a theological point.  We learn something about God and how to live in response to him when we understand a biblical story.  The narrative literature of the Bible is concretized theology.
J.Kent Edwards, JEHS 7:1, 10.

How true that is!  Even if you were to study Esther, the story in the Bible where God is textually absent, it doesn’t take long to recognize that God is very much present as the hero of the story!  Let’s be sure we don’t study Bible passages, stories in particular, and merely derive little lessons for life.  We can leave that with Aesop’s Fables.  Let’s be sure we grapple with the theological point of every story, the intersection between God and humanity.  God’s Word is all relevant and useful, so our preaching should likewise be relevant and useful to life.  But we also center our preaching on God, because the Bible is centered on Him!

Definitions Without Jesus – Christian Preaching?

John raised an important question in response to the post on key elements of an expository preaching definition.  Should it not include some reference to Jesus?  Some say yes, others say not necessarily.  Interestingly, of the six definitions I have used in my preaching course, only one includes a reference to Christ (J.I.Packer uses the term, “Christ-related”).  Anyway, two positions to ponder:

Christocentric preaching – Bryan Chappell, influenced by Edmund Clowney, teaches and models a form of preaching wherein the fallen-condition focus of the passage is resolved by moving to the person and work of Christ.  People in this line of thought have made comments that a sermon which could be preached in a synagogue, or one in which Christ is not mentioned, is essentially a non-Christian sermon.  (Interestingly, Chappell’s definition of an expository sermon, on p132 of Christ-Centered Preaching does not make any reference to Christ – “An expository sermon . . . expounds Scriptures by deriving from a specific text main points and subpoints that disclose the thought of the author, cover the scope of the passage, and are applied to the lives of listeners.”)

Theocentric preaching – I’ve heard Haddon Robinson reject the charge that a message without Christ is essentially a non-Christian sermon by stating that he preaches theocentrically, and if God plays a key role in the message, then he knows no other God but the Trinitarian God of Scripture.  In practice, Robinson does move from an Old Testament passage to Christ when it works to do so, but he does not feel obliged to do so every time.

People who question the “always bring it round to Jesus” approach are not automatically advocating anthropocentric, “seven secrets for success,” or self-help sermons.  Chappell is right to critique sub-Christian preaching of the “be like,” “be good,” or “be disciplined” variety.  However, must every sermon include Jesus in order to be considered expository?  Certainly many sermons will naturally move to Jesus, but must every sermon?  I would say not, what would you say?