How much Scripture to preach on?

Posted on July 19, 2011

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It won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows me, virtually or in real life, that one of the (fairly few) things that annoy me about the contemporary, ‘soft-charismatic’ style of worship that represents the British Baptist mainstream these days is the relative lack of Scripture heard in the services. I’ve written elsewhere about my desire to return to, at least, ‘Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel’ patterns of lectionary reading as opposed to just reading the passage preached on. (We’re just back from holiday in the Lake District, which allowed us to return to the delightful little fellowship at Hawkshead Hill Baptist Church. Three passages of Scripture, read and allowed to mutually interpret, during the sermon; another read and used to shape the worship. Many fellowships could learn from that…)

I observe further a strange phenomenon, that in contemporary church life in Britain, the more a particular church/preacher trumpets their high view of Scripture, the less actual Scripture we hear read in their services.

The reason for this is rather simple: there is an recent British tradition of ‘expository’ (meaning of scare quotes will become obvious) preaching, traceable back to Martyn Lloyd-Jones, although not much further, and presently reinforced by currently-popular neo-Reformed  writings, that measures commitment to Scripture by, roughly, how slowly you preach through it. The practice of spending several years preaching through Romans or Philippians verse by verse-fragment demonstrates, it is held, a high view of Scripture because it is being taken seriously, mined slowly for all of its meaning.

I confess to being profoundly unimpressed by this argument, I take it as a theologically-necessary claim that it is impossible to mine the Scripture for all of its meaning; we might get, by such slowness, everything a particular preacher has been able to discover from Scripture, but that is a rather different, and much less interesting, body of insight. And it seems like bad, or at least lazy, preaching. The preacher’s task is to determine and proclaim God’s word for this people, in this place, at this time; to do this, she must necessarily be selective. Her text might well, for instance, be significant in offering a refutation of Melchior Hoffmann’s Christological errors, and at points in history (even British Baptist history), that might have been vital. It is not now. It should be left out, so that what is vital is not obscured in the noise.

Further, it has always seemed to me that (roughly) the less Scripture preached on, the more there is a danger of the sermon becoming thematic, rather than expository. I once had the misfortune to worship in a church where the preacher had been working desperately slowly through Colossians; the Sunday I was present (I never returned…) he had reached the injunction ‘Fathers, do not exasperate your children’ in 3:21, and was giving four Sundays to this verse, to examine ways in which we might ‘exasperate’ our children. (He had twenty. All beginning with the same letter.) None of this, of course, was exegesis of Colossians; the text had become the occasion for a thematic discourse on child-rearing. Earlier sermons in the series would, of necessity, have been thematic discourses on Christology, or sanctification. Such thematic sermons might be Biblical, instructive, or edifying (although the one I heard failed fairly badly on each of these criteria); they are not the mark of a commitment to the disciplined interpretation of Scripture as the foundation of the church. The church in question would have described itself as thoroughly committed to Scripture and to expository preaching, but their practice meant that there was no exposition of Scripture at all in their pulpit.

I take it (whilst being aware of arguments, ancient and postmodern, to the contrary) that the task of exegesis is, roughly, the determining of the meaning inherent in a chunk of text. (And the task of exposition is the restatement, illustration, defence, and application of this meaning.) Meaning inheres in texts at almost every level, from the whole down. At one extreme, we can ask ‘what does Paradise Lost mean?’ and give a reasoned and defensible answer. Indeed, such work of precis, summary, or abstract is a standard task, set by instructors to teach students the reading and writing of English (and, I presume, other languages), and routinely engaged in by journalists, academics, and other professional writers (‘In his speech he argued…’ ‘This book claims …’ or consider the endlessly popular form of the book review).

At the other extreme, how small a text-fragment may still contain meaning? The obvious answer is the sentence; after all, the grammatical function of the sentence is, roughly, to be a unit of meaning. This is not wrong (although the Greek predilection for very lengthy sentences with endless subordinate clauses, always split up into multiple sentences in English translations, already points to the artificiality of it), and I suspect that it is rarely the case that true exegesis of any sustained interest can be carried out on a sentence fragment (there are examples – I suppose that I could preach for some while on the phrase ‘who was and is and is to come’ and still be expounding the meaning of the text, rather than my own ideas about eternity – but they are rare). Often, however, a sentence is too short to be exegeted meaningfully. Narratives, for instance, must be taken at a larger scale; sometimes as complete, if brief, stories (parables…); more often as extracted segments of a larger narrative (Acts, or Judges), but segments than nonetheless have a certain completeness.

(‘But Spurgeon/Wesley/Edwards/… preached on single verses!’ Well, no, actually: they would often announce a single verse, but the practice of exegesis if you read the sermons routinely interpreted the broader text, the announced verse being chosen as one which summarised the meaning of the whole pericope.)

So, how much Scripture to preach on (assuming in preaching one is committed to a discipline of exegesis)? On the basis of the arguments above, one may meaningfully offer an exposition of the whole of Colossians – or indeed the whole of Ezekiel. Much will be missed along the way, but much will always be missed, and there is worth in the big picture, also. What of the Psalms? That depends on a judgement: is the book of Psalms a literary whole, in which case it may meaningfully be preached (in the same way that it is meaningful to talk about the unitary meaning of Housman’s Shropshire Lad, say), or is it merely a collection of disparate lyrics, in which case it has no unity, and cannot be preached as a whole (the Lyrical Ballads?). We were once, as a preaching team in St Andrews Baptist Church, asked if we could preach one sermon on the whole Bible; my initial reaction was not encouraging (I seem to recall saying ‘I’ll preach the sermon if you’ll listen to the reading…’), but I believe that the Bible, because of the Spirit’s inspiration, is a single, albeit complex, book with a single message, and so is in principle preachable. I preached the sermon, and the sermon I preached was (an attempt at) proper exposition, drawing out and applying the meaning of a text.

Probably, however, one cannot regularly preach on fewer than, say, ten verses of Scripture and still claim to be engaged in expository preaching. There are places where it can work – mostly in the epistles, of course – but they are unusual.

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