Over the past three years in which I have been away from the pulpit to engage in academic studies and write a dissertation (technically, a thesis in the UK), I have had the opportunity to reflect on many exegetical, theological, and philosophical topics and figure out how Scripture and orthodoxy do and don’t fit together with philosophy. In the midst of doing this, I have taken a foray through various topics of exegetical and theological significance and tried to address some of the philosophical assumptions and concepts at play.
One of those theological topics was Scriptural inspiration, which I wrote about previously, and how assumptions from both the Enlightenment and Romanticism have impacted how Scripture was understood to be used. To boil down my conclusion, the way we use Scripture to obtain ‘truth,’ an Enlightenment tendency, and to generate ‘meaningful inspiration,’ a Romantic tendency, is often times overly narrow, focusing on a singular ‘epistemic good’ that Scripture is to provide for us. By contrast, I made the point that Paul in 2 Timothy 3.16 saw Scripture serving various goals. While I didn’t expand on it there, it seems to me that the list of four things that Scriptures is inspired to do can be related to four primary tasks: (1) teaching the foundational Gospel narrative, (2) warning people about specific sins, (3) helping to correct for errors in people’s thinking, and (4) giving specific instructions and guidelines to help people seek to live righteously. On the other hand, the Scriptures were not inspired to give a any and all ‘truths’ that we could wrestle from the Scriptures nor was it intended to be a source of meaningful anecdotes that simply uplift the soul and encourage goodness.
However, now that I am returning back to the pulpit at the end of June, I am now faced with a daunting challenge, at least for me: how do I bring these tasks for which Scripture has been inspired? My own natural inclination when I was preaching was towards a “truth” conception of the Scriptures, and still can be. While I endeavored to make the “truth” understandable, I was focused on a high-grade representation of the Scripture to the church that can inform people’s faith and life lived before God. This seems to be the ambition from most of the people from my tradition, evangelical Wesleyanism. However, how now do I move away from this latent Enlightenment colonization of the Scriptures into something that still retains the concern for ‘truth,’ but recognizes the purposes of Scripture were not for the mere communication of true information, but of transformation?
This is a question I will be exploring in the coming months and years. But there are a few brief points that I think hold true.
First, the task of preaching is not to distill the truth of Scriptures to the people, but to help people understanding the Scriptures so they can see truth, along with love, justice, etc. through the Scriptures. In other words, the task of preaching is not about telling as it is unveiling and showing. This is not to be accomplish simply by an expository sermon that expounds upon the informational details of the Scripture text, but one in which narrative and imagination provide an entrance into the historical and textual worlds of the Scripture. In terms of philosophical domains, this is a move from epistemology to hermeneutic in that we go from obtaining knowledge of truth to interpreting and comprehend in light of God’s truth.
Second, preaching is not about just giving three points or even one point that people can take home with one, but about a casting a Scripture laden vision that the three points or the one point can help us to see. I am just started to read Talbot Davis’ Simplify the Message, in which he discusses his approach to sermon crafting as boiling the message down to a singular point. It reminded me of a similar that Andy Stanley brought forward in his book, Communicating for Change, soon after which I saw that Talbot acknowledges Stanley’s influence on his preaching.
While I think there is definite value to one point preaching and I have only just begun to read his book, so I can not comment on where Davis goes, one thing that always strikes me about boiling a message down to points is this: why didn’t we have this in the Scriptures? Why is it in the epistles that are the closet to what we might expect to function like a sermon, such as Romans or Ephesians or Hebrews or 1 John, we don’t see anytihng that amounts to “points,” except perhaps in the occasional rhetorical propositio at the beginning of the leter. Instead, we see sprawling yet organized discussion on various theme around Christ in relationship to Israel’s Scripture and story or to present day situations and circumstances that merit people’s careful attention. Someone might say we have different attention spans today. Certainly true, and that is to be noted, but people have a longer attention spans for political speeches of candidates that they support, and political speechs are often times a foraying into various topics, although they typically have a cohernet center they stand around. Why then must preaching be centered around points?
The answer is that political speeches grab people’s attention because effective political speeches continue to evoke important themes and significant national memories, aspirations, and values that people have adopted over the course of years. Political rhetoric is, in part, designed to constantly echo the various “texts” of share memories, narratives, values, and events of national history, which keeps their audience attention. Meanwhile, in most churches, preachers are preaching to people who are either most biblically illiterate or, even if there is bibilical literacy, they haven’t really immerse themselves into the world of the Scriptures, but more so have adopted a theology that stands as to proxy to the Scriptures. There are few, if any, significant ‘texts’ and ‘narratives’ to echo in the memory of the one’s audience, and those that are there are often highly simplified theological narratives, such “Jesus died for my forgiveness” or “when I die I will go to heaven.”
Hence, we have to use points to keep people’s minds attuned and learning. To that end, I think reducing sermons down to a singular point is important. However, what is it we are seeking to accomplish in our singular point? Are we information, telling, and declaring something from the Bible or are we pointing to, showing, and imagining from the Scriptures? With the former, we guide people’s actions and particular beliefs. With the latter, we serve as a tour guidee inviting people to participate into a broader way of thinking and living that will give us hearts to understand how to act and form specific beliefs.
Third, I would put forward that preaching and teaching people in the Scriptures can be geared more so to help people hear the leading of God in their life by being able to help them recognize what God and His will and purposes are like. Recognizing God and His will requires us to have a heart that is willing to hear and respond to God and a mind that can identify God’s type of work. As such, moral instruction isn’t simply about “getting it right,” but about guiding people in their own practice so that by putting to death the deeds of the flesh, they are open to noticing and following the leading of the Spirit. Similarly, teaching doctrine is about primarily helping people to understanding the pattern of God’s power and loving purposes.
However, this purpose of preaching would call us out of the slumber of a practical deism, in which the truth of the Scriptures are the principle way that God engages and interacts with us, asides from the occasional momentous event and when we die, to having a more robust sense of faith in God’s redemptive and resurrection purposes at work in the world even today. This purpose of preaching calls forth people to use their faith and trust muscles before they work out their muscles for truth and for meaning.
These “three points,” beyond making me feel like the good stereotypical preacher, are more so places for consideration, relfection, and engagement through the Scripture, prayer, and experiences rather than being clear road-maps towards a particular style and purpose of preaching. We will see where God leads in the coming months and how I will respond, but I am exciting, while also a bit trepidatious, about the opportunity to return back to the puplit and see where things go from here. I love academics and research and do hope to return, but I do have a heart for teaching, one way or another.