‘Framework’ preaching, part 2
“Don’t be a framework preacher” is a warning often given round these parts. I’m reflecting on it in this little series of posts. So far I’ve pointed out that everyone has frameworks and systems that they bring to Scripture, whether they acknowledge it or not.
Today I want to say that these frameworks are necessary and wonderful gifts to the preacher, and also highly dangerous for the preacher.
First, they are necessary and wonderful gifts for the preacher. A good framework allows what is really there in Scripture to be shown in its true biblical light. Most people who have read even a small amount of good theology, whether biblical or systematic, have had the experience of discovering a new theological topic which they then come to see for themselves really is there in Scripture. My two favourite examples from my own experience are the humanity of Christ and the union of the believer with Christ. Neither of these has loomed very large in the (otherwise excellent) expository preaching I’ve heard over the years. But through some theological reading I was persuaded that both actually loom pretty large in Scripture. Perhaps I sometimes get over-excited and am tempted to see them in Scripture in places they’re not really there. I must watch that. The point is, though: they are most certainly there a great deal, and it was through improving my framework that I came to see they are there. In doing so I was not imposing some alien framework on Scripture. I was listening in on the voices of previous generations of believers telling me what they saw in Scripture.
Second, frameworks are highly dangerous in the hands of a lazy preacher. The reason is simple: it’s much easier to preach what your framework says than to preach what any particular passage says. In other words, frameworks provide off-the-peg sermons for the lazy. This is the heart of our warning, “Don’t be a framework preacher”. Those who like systematic frameworks best will, if they’re lazy, usually produce sermons with headings that sound like systematic theology text-books. Those who like biblical-theological frameworks best will, if they’re lazy, produce sermons that constantly describe the patterns of salvation in the same ways.
Such preaching will often be orthodox in content. But it will often be predictable (here comes that doctrine again!) and it will often, over time, be superficial (why does he always describe that topic in exactly the same way?). It will usually fail to do the hard work of seeing the particular treasures that the Holy Spirit caused to be written in this particular text.
So my slightly wordy gloss on our framework warning is this: don’t be a lazy preacher who is content to preach those aspects of your framework that happen to come to mind when you read through the passage a few times.
‘Framework’ preaching, part 1
“Don’t be a framework preacher” is a warning often given round these parts. As with all pithy headlines, it’s important to set out clearly what we mean. I’ll try and do a bit of that in the next few posts here.
First, what do we mean by ‘framework’ in this phrase? We mean any kind of system through which Scripture is interpreted. There are two main kinds of such system. There are overarching theological systems (systematic theology), and there are models for understanding the shape of Scripture as a whole (biblical theology).
Now it’s impossible not to have both kinds of system operating in your mind every time you open the Bible. As is often pointed out, a preacher who says “I don’t have a system, I just preach the Bible” and seriously means it is fooling himself. Every time we open the Bible we interpret it through the lenses which our culture, historical location, personality, previous teaching, etc., have created for us. Anyone who can give an answer to the question “Now I’ve been converted why must I be godly?” has got some systematic theology at work, because they’ve got a view on how justification and sanctification relate. And anyone who can give a coherent answer to the question “What’s the Bible really about?” has got a biblical theology at work.
As is often said, there are two kinds of mistake we can make in this regard. The obvious and most serious mistake is consciously to have a framework which simply distorts Scripture.
Less serious, but still not good, is to deny that one has a framework that has any major effect on one’s interpretation of Scripture. What’s the danger of this? It makes it very hard to put the principle of sola Scriptura into practice. Every system must constantly be subject to correction by Scripture. And it’s very hard to have something in your head corrected by Scripture if you won’t acknowledge it’s there and then bring it out into the light of Scripture.
So point one for evangelical preachers who want to be expository: acknowledge that you’ve got interpretative systems running round everywhere in your mind. Fess up. Get them out there on display, either for confirmation or correction by God’s Word.
Lost art of Biblical meditation
Last week I was in the US which meant that I was up at the crack of dawn, literally. I’m not a late sleeper anyway: not for the want of trying but I simply am unable to lie in: I’m a lark not an owl. So, push me forward four hours (and thankfully it is only four hours at this time of year) and I was awake very early indeed.
I tried to use the time well: more time, in particular, to read and pray. Which got me thinking about biblical meditation. I think it’s a lost art. Our forefathers did it all the time. It’s taking a phrase or word and thinking it through from every angle; thinking of other Scriptures that inform or clarify it; praying it in; using it in prayers for others.
It is still an expository way to read the Scriptures because in order to be able to understand the word or phrase, you need to read it in context and so on. But it enables a depth that most of our Bible reading struggles to obtain. I’m not saying this should be the only kind of Bible reading and thinking, but it should certainly be in our armoury.
Take last week. As it happens, I have been using McCheyne’s reading plan which means I’m up to John 14. One phrase is astounding. “He [The Father] will give you another helper”. It is those last two words that got my mind racing: another paraclete (with all the meaning loaded into that word). What a promise! What a phrase! I spent some delightful time reflecting on it, worrying it around my mind like a dog with a bone, connecting it to other truths and understanding it in its context; praying it in and praying it for others.
I don’t think I’ve had such a sweet time for a long time. Don’t lose this art. Rediscover it. Or discover it.
Spring Senior Ministers
I’m just putting the final touches to the Spring Senior Ministers programme, looks like an exciting time with some excellent input, both from Peter Adam and from David Robertson on apologetics: stuff we really need. What’s more, we’ve planned some discussion teams for those in particular areas of ministry including turning around a non-evangelical church and keeping fresh in a long term ministry. I’ve got a privileged insight – and want to go to everything! There are still a few places. Book here for 27 to 30 April at Hothorpe Hall in Leicestershire.
Preaching through distraction
Most preachers from time to time (and some all of the time) have to preach through distractions. My old church used to be in the Heathrow flightpath and at 11.15 every morning (just as the sermon was getting underway) Concorde would take off. Boy, was I glad when they scrapped that thing. I just stopped for a minute each week and we all chuckled together. There was no way I could compete.
In some ways those kinds of distractions are easier to deal with. They’re regular and the congregation all know what is going on. It’s the one off things that hit harder: someone wanders around; someone falls ill; the PA stops working; someone dies (it does happen!).
The preacher can’t really prepare for these kinds of things. They can’t all be legislated away. Sometimes a wrong reaction from the preacher actually destroys the work of the sermon: I remember one very gentle preacher raising his voice and telling his congregation that they should be less interested in what was going on at the back and more interested in him and what he was saying. True – but the way he said it made sure that everyone turned round!
On the whole, I think being up front about what is going on is fine. People understand that. We need to react to particular situations in different ways. I have – before now – said to people we’re going to pause and pray whilst the situation gets sorted out, then got someone to come and give me an update, because I know that’s what everyone is thinking about anyway.
One of the hardest things though is that we, as preachers, can lose our stride. There is something about the preaching monologue that means, once it is interrupted, makes us lose our train of thought or expression. It’s where a good set of notes helps. But there’s more to it than that.
I wonder if what we really need is to expect interruption. At one spiritual level, Satan longs to disrupt the preaching of the word. We should expect as preachers to face all kinds of spiritual attack and should be praying against them, but also unsurprised when they happen. For there is nothing worse than a startled preacher: his people are going to be startled too.
A good judge of character, part 2
How are we supposed to assess the behaviour of characters in OT narratives? It’s not always easy, but the preacher needs to made a judgment. Here’s the second of two test cases which I’ve come across recently in teaching the Joseph narrative to Cornhill students.
Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. This is a tough chapter, seemingly sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of the story of Joseph. Let’s look at each of the two main characters.
The narrative is very clear about Judah. He has done wrong by withholding his son Shelah from Tamar (v.14). At the climax he acknowledges that he has not acted righteously in this (v.26).
What about Tamar, though? Judah says that she is more righteous than him (v.26). But wait a minute (as some Cornhill students said to me on this), surely we shouldn’t take the immoral Judah’s judgment on this. And other people says she’s immoral (v.24). Why shouldn’t we accept their judgment as the true one?
As always, the text alone must guide our judgments:
• It seems that in Hebrew narrative when a judgment is uttered at a key point in the narrative and then left hanging without further comment, it’s wise to presume that it’s likely to be the correct one, even if the person speaking isn’t entirely squeaky clean themselves. Therefore Judah in v.26 is getting it right. (For something similar, see Gen. 34:31.)
• The people’s judgment is v.24 is wrong because they don’t know how Tamar got pregnant; they’re making the wrong assumptions.
• The whole chapter is dominated by the theme of offspring being secured for Judah through his sons. We know from the covenant promises that that is a good thing. Judah doesn’t care about it, but Tamar does.
• The birth of her twin boys (vs.27-30) is presented as almost a re-run of Jacob and Esau. It was only by Tamar’s action that Judah was given such a blessing.
• Tamar’s name-check in Matthew 1:3 confirms this positive reading of her.
As one Cornhill student put it in the recent lecture on this, this wouldn’t the last time that God acted to fulfil his covenant promises and bless his people through actions which appeared to others to be scandalous (the cross), and which at the time risked accusations of sexual immorality (the virgin conception).
How we grapple with the details of the text, and the judgments that we make on these things, determine hugely the kind of applications that we will unfold to ourselves and our people. And the judgments that count are not those of our gut, but of God’s Word.
A good judge of character, part 1
How are we supposed to assess the behaviour of characters in OT narratives? It’s not always easy, but the preacher needs to made a judgment. Here’s the first of two test cases which I’ve come across recently in teaching the Joseph narrative to Cornhill students.
It’s Joseph in Genesis 37. Is he presented to us (as one commentator says, and as it’s tempting for the preacher to present him) as a spiteful tell-tale (v.2), a spoiled brat (v.3) and a braggart (vs.5-11)? It’s easy to take it that way. If we do, then in preaching ch.37 we’ll probably portray Joseph as someone who partly gets what’s coming to him, although without excusing what his brothers do to him.
The principle I want to bring forward here is this: we need to look for and accept the judgments that the text itself gives us on people and their behaviour, rather than imposing our gut-reaction on the text. Most people reading ch.37 have a gut-reaction against Joseph – especially if they had a spoilt younger brother of their own! But where is the evidence in the text itself that God intends us to see Joseph’s actions here negatively? Let’s have a look:
• Verse 2. It’s possible that the Hebrew behind the ‘bad report’ he brings about his brothers indicates that he’d invented a lie about them; the commentators debate this.
• Verse 3. Jacob is certainly unwise in favouring Joseph over the other sons; but we’re not told clearly that Joseph himself was spoilt by that.
• Verses 5-11. Is it clear from the text that Joseph should not have told his brothers and father about his dreams? I don’t think so. In fact v.11 hints that it was good for them to know, and Jacob scores more highly than his other sons in taking seriously that this might be revelation from God.
Conclusion: the evidence isn’t entirely one way. But I reckon that it is not clearly leading us to see Joseph’s behaviour as basically reprehensible.
One further bit of evidence clinches this for me, this time from the context. As soon as we encounter Joseph in ch.39, he is a model of godly self-control and trust in the Lord. This is in striking contrast to the episode when his father was effectively kicked out of town by his own family. Jacob had to (literally) wrestle with God and be humbled in order to be knocked into spiritual shape. Joseph, by contrast, seems to arrive in Egypt as basically the finished article. (We might suppose that Joseph was bad in ch.37 and that the Lord sanctified him in the Midianite caravans, but that would be pure speculation.)
What does difference all this make for the preacher? A very big one. If my take is right, then as a whole Genesis ch.37 presents Joseph as an innocent sufferer sold into slavery by his own jealous brothers. Now that is a pattern that Christ gloriously fulfils for us.
What is expository preaching?
I asked Dick Lucas for some help on back-to-basics Monday (OK I just made that up). What is expository preaching? His answer?
There is a very straightforward answer, which is essentially this—it is preaching which takes the Bible seriously. Expository preaching takes the Bible at face value, and that’s why the preacher will want to work hard to understand what it says. The preacher starts with the premise that God must be the perfect communicator, both in content and method. Since he has chosen to communicate through the Bible, we need to work hard at understanding the Bible, so that we can understand what God is saying, because when the Bible faithfully proclaimed, God’s voice is heard. When a preacher goes off on a frolic of his own, his own voice is heard. When someone explains away the Bible, his explanation is heard. But when the Bible is faithfully expounded, God’s voice is heard, because the Bible is the word of God.
This essential point can be illustrated by an example of a preacher who did not preach the Bible, but instead gave his own interpretation, and the disastrous consequences that followed. I once went to visit a friend of mine who was mortally ill and when I arrived at his house, he was listening to a sermon on BBC radio on the feeding of the 5,000 from John 6, given by a national leader of one of the denominations in the UK. He read the story and then preached on the necessity of feeding the hungry throughout the world, claiming that is what John 6 taught. But in the course of that morning with my friend I pulled out my New Testament from my pocket and read the story, and was struck by verses 47-51, which say:
“I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
This is Jesus’ own interpretation of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus is the bread of life, so that whoever would believe in him may have everlasting life.
After I read that, my friend’s wife came in with coffee and no more was said. In fact, my friend wasn’t in the mood for talking. But his wife rang me up the following week and said what a comfort it had been for me to read those few verses. It was not that my friend was unaware of the meaning of the feeding of the 5,000, but it was just a reassurance that what we heard on the radio was not a proper interpretation of the passage. In fact, it was sheer impertinence of that radio preacher to interpret that story as he did! I wonder how many other people were listening in hospital beds that morning who needed to know that Jesus is the bread of life and that if we feed on him we will live for ever. It is sheer impertinence for us to use the Bible for our ends because it robs people of hearing God’s voice.
That is why our task as preachers is to let the Bible speak. People need to hear expository preaching, so that they can hear the voice of God.
I dare you
Today, I have a dare for you. I want you to read Exodus 20.1-21. And then, on a piece of paper (or in your head) I want you to jot down in a few sentences how you would preach it.
I’ve been preparing a sermon on this passage this week and it’s been a battle. I think it is potentially one of the hardest parts of the Old Testament to preach. And how you preach it will be governed by all manner of things: how you see the context working; how you count the commands; how you see the Law functioning within your biblical theology; how you see Christ fulfilling it (continuing it?); how you view Hebrews 12: and many, many more.
I reckon that you – if you think carefully – will discover that there are issues and ideas that you’ve still got to wrestle with. It’s why every preacher has to go on stretching himself, learning, growing, reading, studying, praying, wrestling. I’ve found it a useful exercise, therefore, to go back to basics here. You may too.
Go on. I dare you.
Increasingly I come across Christians who interpret the Scriptures through the lens of experience. No. Just, no. However, it’s quite possible to over-react, as though experiences counted for nothing. That reduces Christianity down to an intellectual assent or study, and – we must be honest – there’s plenty of that around.
No, experiences are real and must be accounted for – but they must themselves be interpreted through the lens of Scripture. We all do this, in some areas. Take the vexed question of same-sex attraction. No good Bible man or woman says, “this is what I feel, so it must be right” – and therefore we take the experience and we filter it through the lens of solid Biblical faithfulness to understand what exactly is going on.
All well and good. Except in other areas we are remarkably sloppy. Just the other day, a Christian basically argued with me on a point on which we don’t agree that “if God didn’t intend it, he would not have made it like this.” I appreciate that personal issues can be very, well, personal – but that is precisely the same argument that interprets the Bible through experience, rather than the other way around. Wrong lens, friend.
Which all leads me to ask a question of own blind heart: where am I doing exactly the same?