Fed up with a false dichotomy
This week I’ve read yet another round of social media posts about Old Testament preaching. The complaint goes something like this: our OT preaching shouldn’t be entirely redemptive-historical. There needs to be moral objectivity too, for this is how the Apostles preached. “These things were written for us.”
I’ve got some sympathy with this if the kind of redemptive-historical preaching is Flat-Stanley one-dimensional, “Hey presto, it’s all about Jesus, don’t y’know!” preaching. There’s certainly too much of that.
But – and this is one of the most important things I believe about OT preaching – most complaints of this sort set up a false dichotomy between the OT being the Book of the Lamb and whether Christian preachers can draw moral lessons or not. The two are not in opposition. They must never be. For being people of the Spirit places us under an obligation to live according to the Spirit and not the flesh. An Old Testament sermon devoid of any imperatives would be a strange sermon indeed.
Moreover, Paul does not divorce the two. Yes, “these things were written for us”. But why? For the Israelites who wandered in the desert “all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10.4).
Many years ago, Ed Clowney (writing in 1961) prophetically saw that this non-tension might become an issue and lead to divorcing Christ from the OT in a desire to recover some ground in biblical theology. His comments are prescient:
“The redemptive historical approach necessarily yields ethical application, which is an essential part of preaching of the Word. Whenever we are confronted with the saving work of God culminating in Christ, we are faced with ethical demands. A religious response of faith and obedience is required…. The solution [to the apparent tension] is the organic relationship that exists in God’s great work of redemption and revelation.” (Ed Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology, 80-81).
I think if anyone ever asked me to say just one thing about preaching, it might well be this. There is no tension between the proclaiming of Christ and the moral obligations of the covenant. Those who see one and miss one or the other are missing the riches of the Scripture. I’m fed up with this false dichotomy.
EMA 2015: Tim Keller – humanity and preaching (2)
All this week, we’re having an EMA fest. It’s reading week at Cornhill and what better time to catch up with some good content from this year’s EMA. This second session from Tim Keller allowed for some interaction and challenge – and a rather bizarre set of Frozen links. Don’t worry – we know who is to blame….
EMA 2015: Tim Keller – humanity and preaching (1)
All this week, we’re having an EMA fest. It’s reading week at Cornhill and what better time to catch up with some good content from this year’s EMA. This, the first of Tim Keller’s two sessions, was immensely helpful. Tim at his best, I think.
EMA 2015: Christ glorified
All this week, we’re having an EMA fest. It’s reading week at Cornhill and what better time to catch up with some good content from this year’s EMA. Vaughan’s closing exposition gave us a really good finish. Come, Lord Jesus!
EMA 2015: Beginning and end of life
All this week, we’re having an EMA fest. It’s reading week at Cornhill and what better time to catch up with some good content from this year’s EMA. John Wyatt’s one off session was one of this year’s highlights. You can read the edited version in this month’s EN. But the real thing is better! A PDF of the Powerpoint slides can be found here.
EMA 2015: Christ Incarnate
All this week, we’re having an EMA fest. It’s reading week at Cornhill and what better time to catch up with some good content from this year’s EMA. I found Reuben’s exposition of Philippians 2 a really helpful challenge. I hope you do too.
Knocking holes in the boat
I’ve been reading GK’s essays on divorce (The superstition of divorce). Interesting stuff. From another era, obviously and many of the arguments he was challenging seem hopelessly outdated. But his line of attack interests me greatly. He is especially keen that in focusing on divorce the proponents of a loosened law (in his time) were missing the point of what marriage was for! It’s not an unfamiliar issue today – whether it is the argument for same sex marriage or egalitarianism (I’m not saying these are equivalent issues, they just happen to be two I’ve been thinking about). It is very easy to argue your case without thinking or engaging with the bigger issues at stake.
Here he is.
“There is perhaps no worse advice, nine times out of ten, than the advice to do the work that’s nearest. It is especially bad when it means, as it generally does, removing the obstacle that’s nearest. It means that men are not to behave like men but like mice; who nibble at the thing that’s nearest. The man, like the mouse, undermines what he cannot understand. Because he himself bumps into a thing, he calls it the nearest obstacle; though the obstacle may happen to be the pillar that holds up the whole roof over his head. He industriously removes the obstacle; and in return, the obstacle removes him, and much more valuable things than he…
“The chief thing to say about such reformers of marriage is that they cannot make head or tail of it. They do not know what it is, or what it is meant to be, or what its supporters suppose it to be; they never look at it, even when they are inside it. They do the work that’s nearest; which is poking holes in the bottom of a boat under the impression that they are digging in a garden. This question of what a thing is, and whether it is a garden or a boat, appears to them abstract and academic. They have no notion of how large is the idea they attack; or how relatively small appear the holes that they pick in it.”
Next week is the Cornhill reading week. We encourage the students to read all the time but this is the week we are them to particularly focus on one of three titles. You may be interested to know what they’re up to – you even want to read along.
Christopher Ash’s Job commentary (the longer Crossway one) is perhaps one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, certainly one of the best commentaries. I think this is Christopher at his best, and you will be greatly helped to read Job in ways you never have before. Because of the nature of Job and the struggle with suffering, this is a must for every minister of the gospel.
Don Carson’s Memoirs of an ordinary pastor is an immensely moving book about his father’s ministry. It is the main reason we’ve asked Don to come to the EMA next year, where our topic will be keeping going. It’s an insight into a different age, but more than that, it’s an insight into perseverance in an age of giving up.
Carson’s Jesus: the Son of God will be a more stretching read, but important nonetheless. Carson argues that much of the theological implication of this amazing truth has been lost. Carson ends the book with application for how Christians think, speak and act, so it is not just a seminary lecture.
Why not read along with us?
‘Bible handling’ is a phrase often heard around these parts: preachers need to be good ‘Bible handlers’. Unfortunately for me (and this says more about me, I readily acknowledge, than it does about anything else) the phrase most easily brings to mind a bizarre image of a preacher as a lion-tamer, holding a stick out to fend off a big book that’s trying to bite him. If I dwell on this too long I also picture that vicious book with sharp teeth in Harry Potter that needed a firm strap round it to stop it attacking you.
However of course (as I need to remind myself, in order to erase those images from my mind) it is a biblical phrase. Do your best, says Paul to Timothy, to present yourself to God as someone ‘who correctly handles the word of truth’ (2 Tim 2.15).
So what is correct ‘handling’ of the word of truth? The immediate context is our best guide. And in that context we have a number of elements packed tightly together:
• direct application of the truth: an instruction to Timothy to warn the people ‘against quarrelling about words’ (v.14);
• the teaching of sound truth about Christ and us: an instruction to Timothy to remind God’s people of these things (vs.11-14a);
• the preacher’s own godliness and soundness: instructions to Timothy to flee evil desires, pursue godliness and avoid ‘stupid arguments’ (vs.16-26).
Teaching sound truth; applying it pointedly where it’s needed; guarding one’s own soundness of teaching and life.
It looks, in context, as if I need to have a firm eye on all three if I am to qualify as one who ‘correctly handles the word of truth’.
What we’re talking about when we talk about preaching
On the second page of his new book on sermon application (Cutting to the Heart, IVP) Chris Green says something that you might think ought to shock us. He says that, in his experience of training young preachers, they found far more resources to help them with text-work than with sermon application. He concludes: ‘I noticed that it wasn’t just their pastoral inexperience that made them dry and unapplied – they actually had an assumption that being dry and unapplied was what they were supposed to be doing.’
It’s worth reading that quote again (the italics are his, by the way). Not many of these young preachers will have been explicitly taught ‘your job is to be dry and unapplied’. Although a few teachers have in fact sometimes been heard to say something like that about application, the argument hasn’t been hugely influential. Yet somewhere along the line a large number of the men whom Chris has trained have imbibed the notion. How did that happen?
There’ll be a number of answers to that, but Chris points us to one: they’ve been given far more training resources on exegesis than they have on application. And of course any diligent disciple will naturally assume that what his teachers and mentors talk about most is what they really value, and what they don’t talk about much doesn’t really matter. Perhaps a generation of preachers who are now old enough to be looked up to by younger men assumed that good application is vital, but didn’t talk about it much. And of course, as we know from other areas, what one generation assumes, the next often denies.
These older preachers may well be terrific appliers of Scripture in their own sermons, but if that’s not something they talk excitedly about at length when they talk about preaching, the younger men are not likely to notice it. (Someone said to me when I came to Cornhill: Don’t forget that the things the students will remember most about your teaching are the things they see you get excited about. Wise advice.)
So a question for all of those old enough to be training young preachers, including those who pastor smaller churches and have maybe just one young man they’re trying to bring on as a preacher… Those we train will draw equally strong conclusions from what we don’t talk about as from what we do. You don’t have to deny something outright to be heard to do it down.
Is it vital to bash your head against a text for as long as it takes to discern what it says, not what your framework says? Of course it is, a thousand times over. But if that’s what I talk about most of the time when I talk to younger preachers, if that’s the only thing about preaching I’m heard to get excited about, the preachers I turn out won’t be what they should be.