Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature, by Sidney Greidanus (IVP: 1988), 374 pp.

In The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, Sidney Greidanus builds upon his doctoral dissertation, Sola Scriptura Problems and Principles in Preaching Historical Texts (1970). In this book he strives fill two needs: to provide a tool that bridges the gap between the departments of biblical studies and that of homiletics; to provide busy pastors and aspiring preachers access to the fruit of biblical scholarship which is so often buried away in scholarly journals and far away libraries. This books has surprising breadth: in it the author deals with issues in history, hermeneutics, homiletics, Hebrew narrative, prophecy, the Gospels and the Epistles. Despite that surprising breadth, the reader will not be disappointed by a lack of depth. This study is not superficial.

In the first chapter Greidanus explores the connection between the Bible and contemporary preaching. He emphasizes the need for expository preaching where the text is master of the sermon, rather than topical preaching.

In chapter two he discusses the radical naturalistic historical-critical methods of approaching scripture that deny the historical reliability of the Bible. His conclusion is that there is sufficient reason for approaching the biblical text with confidence, even as the very Word of God. Greidanus accepts what the Bible says about its inspiration (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:21). The Bible is trustworthy. He argues for working with a "holistic" historical-critical method that permits one to recognize historical narrative in the scriptures for what it is and to interpret it accordingly rather than to interpret it as myth, legend or mere story.

In chapter three the author presents a very helpful survey and assessment of the various forms of literary interpretation of scripture: source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, rhetorical criticism, biblical theology, and the canonical approach. He provides an analysis of how the several forms relate to preaching, and how they are either preaching's death knell or of some or much aid to the preacher.

The next chapter discuss the place of historical interpretation. The text is a historical document and must be understood in terms of its own time, place and culture. Historical interpretation seeks to answer the questions: Who wrote this text? to whom? when? where? and why? To understand what the text means, we need to seek to understand what the author meant. In this chapter Greidanus writes about the history of God's kingdom spanning creation to new creation, and works with the theme of creation, fall and redemption.

Chapter five is entitled: "Theological Interpretation." The Bible is not man-centred but has a God-centred focus: it reveals God's sovereignty and relates everything to God. The Bible requires preaching to be Christocentric. Neither the people in the Bible nor in the pew are central to the sermon; rather, Christ is central.

In the view of this reviewer, this chapter could have been strengthened if Greidanus had included a paragraph or two on confessional interpretation. A preacher preaches within a confessional context. His sermons ought not to collide with his church's confession(s). This is not to take the position that the confessions rule over the Word. This does not mean that the preacher would need to round off his sermons with footnotes to his confessions—or that his sermons would be nothing more than footnotes to his church's confessions. The message of the text must always sounds the clear tones of the Word of God. The peculiarities of a given text must be boldly pronounced. At the same time, if a preacher belongs to a confessional church, the confessions will function as he fulfills his task of preaching. The author's thoughts on this would have been appreciated.

After laying groundwork for five chapters, Greidanus gets to nitty-gritty material in chapter six, "Textual-Thematic Preaching." By this he means preaching in which the theme of the sermon is rooted in the text. A sermon must have a text, rather than just a topic. He discusses what a text is and how one delineates a text, and the difference between the theme of the text and the theme of the sermon (sometimes but not always these will be the same). The sermon must have a theme—a statement or proposition. This will help to keep the sermon on track, unified, provide necessary movement, and direct the application.

Chapter seven covers the form of the sermon. In this very interesting chapter he discusses deductive and inductive development, and didactic and narrative forms. Each has advantages and potential pitfalls. The deductive and didactic forms can be good teaching vehicles but can also lead to boredom in the pew whereas the inductive and narrative can be exciting but can also mystify a congregation which has no idea what journey the preacher has taken it on. The nature of the text needs to determine the form of the sermon. Writes Greidanus: "If the text is narrative, then the sermon ought to exhibit the characteristics of narrative; if the text is a lament, then the sermon ought to set the tone and mood conveyed by a lament; if it is teaching, then the sermon out to be didactic in character." This does not call for slavish imitation of the form of the text but for respect for the textual form so that its spirit is not violated by the sermonic form.

In chapter eight the author discuss the relevance of the sermon. The question here is: how does the preacher bridge the historical-cultural gap and show that the ancient text is relevant (not made relevant) to its modern audience? He discusses four improper methods: allegorizing, spiritualizing, imitating Bible characters, and moralizing. In discussing how properly to bridge the gap, we must begin by concentrating on the original message. What did the author intend to convey to the first audience? We need then to recognize the elements of discontinuity between the ancient pre-Christ audience and us, and at the same time recognize the overarching continuity (one faithful God and one covenant people). The preacher must realize that he is not making the text relevant but is coming with a relevant proclamation about God and his Christ. Application ought not to be tacked on to explication. Explication and application must be integrated so that the whole sermon comes across as relevant communication. The preacher needs to address the needs of his congregation, to address the whole person, use dialogue in his sermon, and make use of concrete and vivid language.

In the remaining chapters Greidanus applies the contents of the first eight chapters to preaching Hebrew narratives (ch. 9), preaching prophetic literature (ch. 10), preaching the gospels (ch. 11), and preaching the epistles (ch. 12). These chapters provide a wealth of very helpful insight that will aid a preacher in preaching almost every genre of the Bible.