This is addressed to preachers. Especially the evangelicals: those who believe that the Bible is the written word of God.
Let’s imagine that your church were visited by an outside researcher. An alien perhaps, or an angelic being if you’re not into the alien thing.
Imagine that this researcher was trying to determine what you believe about the Bible just by examining what you do with the Bible. How would you stack up?
What should we say about scripture?
As evangelicals, we believe that ‘all scripture is breathed out by God’, and so in spite of the fact that it was written by many human authors over many centuries, there is also an overall unity because God’s mind lies behind it all. So God has communicated with the world through the scriptures that He has preserved for us.
And what is God’s book like? Is it a coherent philosophy full of universal truths? Eternal wisdom on topics of spiritual interest? No, as we know, it is a raw collection of many different types of literature, including stories, prophecies, letters, and even poems and songs. The eternal truth and wisdom that it contains emerges from the storylines of the histories and the Gospels, or from the careful argumentation of the letters to the churches.
Are these books written to the believers across the aeons? Are they equally true and accessible to all readers? Indeed, they are written for all believers, but not to all believers. Each book had its own particular audience, bound to a particular time and culture.
This is how we believe God chose to speak His word to us—through this Bible. Yet when we preach every Sunday, does our practice bear this out?
What kind of preacher are you?
When an attentive outsider observes how you preach, what conclusion would they draw about your doctrine of scripture?
1. The Medieval Roman Catholic
Imagine you are the researcher, transported back in time to a Medieval Catholic church. The service is given entirely in Latin, including the message read from a collection of sermons. You don’t understand Latin, and so you are completely baffled, but no matter—none of the people beside you in the pews understand Latin either.
How would you judge the beliefs of this church? Where would they have found ‘the word of God’? Clearly they didn’t find it in the intelligible communication of scripture. Tradition and church order was obviously more important, even if nobody (not even the preacher!) understood what was being read.
More realistic doctrinal statement: God’s word is mediated by the Church, and the Bible is a document of Church order.
2. The motivational speaker
Now imagine you’re transported into a church in which the speaker is styled as a ‘life coach’. Perhaps the preacher discusses current affairs in order to provide some wisdom or encouragement to his listeners. The preacher may use the Bible, but only to help you towards ‘a better you’.
Many churches have declared their lack of confidence in the Bible, and teach this way as a result. Others teach this way because they are attempting to be Christianised versions of Oprah. Either way, the Bible is clearly of peripheral interest and only drawn in when a verse can be found that says something of service to the topic at hand.
More realistic doctrinal statement: The Bible contains much wisdom concerning the best way to live.
3. God’s word to us today
The previous two preachers are the kind that we as evangelicals love to hate, but how do we stack up in comparison?
In a church that I know and hold in high regard for many reasons, the sermons regularly affirm an orthodox doctrine of scripture, are based on biblical texts, and show deep reverence for the Bible as God’s word. However, the church is suspicious of academic study and intellectualism, and so its preaching usually prizes openness to what the Spirit is saying to the church now. They prefer to preach freely and without notes so as not to stifle the Spirit. Neither in its sermons or its cell groups does the church work systematically through books (or even chapters) of the Bible.
What conclusion would an observer draw about their doctrine of scripture? The sermons may be helpful exhortations to love, faithfulness and good works, but they are rarely if ever sustained explanations of the Bible. Texts are separated from their contexts, and because there is no continuity week-by-week, there is never any sense of the storyline or argument of which each verse is a part. In practice, the Bible is a point of departure for a message generated from other sources.
Although messages are inspired by or based on the Bible, the preaching does not explain the message of the Bible in the terms in which it was written. The ‘word of God’ seems to be something that God ‘lays on the heart’ directly.
More realistic doctrinal statement: God speaks to His church, and this is often inspired by what is written in the Bible.
4. Direct application
A wedding sermon I heard this week (while playing ‘alien observer’ in another church) nicely exemplified the ‘direct application’ method of preaching.
The message was from Psalm 45, which speaks of the groom (seemingly the king) wielding the sword and the bow, the bride dressed in gold, and their children being princes in the land for generations. To his credit, the preacher moved through the text piece by piece, which would seemingly acknowledge that God’s word is related to the message of the text as it was written.
However, the text was assumed to be about every marriage (not the wedding of Israel’s king), and each of its details was assumed to be directly applicable to the couple being wedded that day. So allegories were constructed to account for the sword, arrows, and golden fabric, and the preacher even insinuated that it was the literal duty of the couple to have children.
Does it not matter that the psalm was written to Old Covenant Israel? That Jesus’ coming has changed things? That children played a special role in the OT that they do not in the NT? That Israel’s king and his children were theologically important in a way that does not translate any longer?
The preacher was at least explaining the text, but without the controls of literary and historical context that help to uncover what the text originally meant. He ignored the progression of time and revelation, and made no reference to differences in covenant and culture. He treated the Bible as though it were written to us, not just for us. Under those rules, I’m just pleased the message wasn’t about God’s command to be circumcised.
More realistic doctrinal statement: God supernaturally makes His word apparent to readers of the Bible (or perhaps only to specially chosen readers).
5. The topical preacher
Evangelical preachers seem most often to preach topically, that is, their sermons try to give the Bible’s view on justification, or homosexuality, or marriage etc. I have no major objection to topical preaching, but again, what would the observer deduce about our doctrine of scripture? The Bible itself is not arranged in this way. God’s word is not topical—the message emerges from material that is carefully arranged into plots and arguments, or structured as poetry. It has order, progression, context.
It is obviously helpful to distill out of these texts a theology of this or that, but should we consistently neglect how the Bible has been written in favour of a compendium of neat verses arranged around our theme for the day?
While topical preaching is often commendably biblical, it does not preach what God has said in scripture (at least not in the way that He said it); it preaches what God would probably say on a certain subject if we could ask Him.
More realistic doctrinal statement: The Bible provides enough information to allow us to uncover God’s word on various subjects.
‘What’s your point?’
I don’t mean to point fingers at other churches or to imply that my denomination (or our preaching) is more evangelical than yours. Who cares whose church is more at fault? Nor is this an attempt to provoke church members to become dissatisfied with their churches, or to suggest that the only valid preaching is exegetical preaching. Perhaps my hurried analysis of evangelical preaching is malformed and unfair. I’d welcome better suggestions concerning the relationship between our doctrine of scripture and our preaching of it.
This is merely a provocation. Our evangelical beliefs about scripture seem to be strongly worded in our doctrinal statements, but weak in practice. If we say that God has spoken in the Bible as we have it, why do so many churches neglect exegetical preaching almost entirely? The Good News is a message that is narrated by scripture. If we don’t work hard to understand that message in the terms in which it was given, we are likely to be presumptuous and to misunderstand it. And if we misunderstand the source material, our preaching can only ever be false (or, at best, true by accident). Is there any task more important than trying to attain deeper understanding of the message of the Bible?
Unless the Bible is the word of God in some mystical magical way, then the word of God is accessible to us only by exegesis. Yes, exegesis is hard and it demands painstaking study (maybe even in Greek and Hebrew). Understanding the message that was intended when it was written requires us to understand how each text connects to the next one, why a writer said what he said when he said it, and how his reader thousands of years ago would have understood it. Yes, it is somewhat academic, and yes it makes things rigid. But no, it does not limit the Spirit. It limits the spirit of the preacher, but not the Spirit of God. It is precisely the word of the Spirit that we have in scripture—why would His own words be a limitation?—and it is the minister’s duty to handle it with care (2 Timothy 2:15).
As evangelicals, we may preach that the Bible is the written word of God, but do we practice what we preach when we preach?