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Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World – Part 2
CHAPTER 2 – WHY DO CHRIST-CENTERED EXPOSITION?
The first ‘aspect’ of the model is ‘Expounding Christ’ from the Scripture. This part of the course will be carried out by Ed Clowney. Here are some of my (Tim Keller) thoughts by way of overview and introduction. The ability to ‘expound Christ’ from every part of the bible is crucial. Many people resist this approach (on the ‘left’?) as hyper-orthodox or (on the ‘right’?) as not sufficiently honoring the original author’s intent. Others just avoid this approach for pragmatic reasons, claiming that it is too difficult to do week after week. Both the resistance and the despair have some merit! There are both dangers and difficulties that attend this approach.
(A) THE ESSENCE OF THE APPROACH
What does it mean to “preach Christ” from all the Scripture? Sidney Greidanus writes, “We can define ‘preaching Christ’ as preaching sermons which authentically integrate the message of the text with the climax of God’s revelation in the person, work, and teaching of Jesus Christ” (Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, Eerdmans, 1999, p. 10).
This definition assumes that every text has both a ‘micro’ and a ‘macro’ context. To understand any particular text of the Bible, we must first put it into the ‘micro’ context—its historical and linguistic setting, in order to discern the immediate intent of the human author. But every biblical text also has a ‘macro’ context—its place in the entire Bible which has as its purpose the revelation of Christ as the climax of all God’s redeeming activity in history. We must not only ask: ‘what did the human author intend to say to his historical audience?’ but also ‘why did God inscripturate this as a way of pointing to the salvation of his Son?’
THE RATIONALE FOR THE APPROACH
1. The direction of Jesus.
When Jesus met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he discovered that they were in despair because their Messiah had been crucified. He responds, “’how slow of heart to believe all the prophets have spoken!’…and beginning with Moses and all the Prophets he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-29). Later he appears to his disciples in the upper room and we are told “He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you; everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45). Jesus blames the confusion of the disciples on their inability to see that all the Old Testament is “all” about him and his salvation. Another place where Jesus makes this same assertion is John 5:31-47. Jesus says that the father has testified to him in the Scriptures (v. 39). But he confronts his hearers with how they do not understand the Scriptures’ testimony. He says, for example, that they think they follow Moses, but “Moses wrote about me.” (v. 46). The Law of Moses can only be understood as it points to Christ.
2. The example of the apostles.
The apostolic writers are famously ‘Christ-centered’ in their interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul and the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, continuously quote Psalms as the words of Christ—and not just ‘Messianic’ or ‘Royal’ Psalms where the speaker is some clearly Messianic figure. The gospel writers also quote passages from the Psalms and Prophets that clearly show they read the words of the Scriptures as being all about Jesus. Peter writes: Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.” (1 Peter 1:10-12). He shows that the ‘Spirit of Christ’ in the prophets was pointing to the person and work of Christ in their writings.
So it is not likely that Jesus or Peter are simply talking about isolated, explicit predictions of the Messiah (cf. Gen. 3:15; 49:10; Is. 9:6; 53). That would not do justice to the comprehensiveness of the language employed. Jesus says that “all the Scriptures” point to him and that each part—the Law, the Prophets, and the Wisdom literature—are about him (Luke 24:44-45). It is particularly interesting that he would say that the “Law” is about him! We might understand how he could say that the prophetic literature was about him—but the Law? What we have here is that all the major themes, major figures, major genres, and major story lines are reflective of and fulfilled in him.
“There are great stories in the Bible…but it is possible to know the Bible stories, yet miss the Bible story…The Bible has a story line. It traces an unfolding drama. The story follows the history of Israel, but it does not begin there, nor does it contain what you would expect in a national history…If we forget the story line…we cut the heart out of the Bible. Sunday school stories are then told as tamer versions of the Sunday comics, where Samson substitutes for Superman. David…becomes a Hebrew version of Jack the Giant Killer. No, David is not a brave little boy who isn’t afraid of the big bad giant. He is the Lord’s anointed…God chose David as a king after his own heart in order to prepare the way for David’s great Son, our Deliverer and Champion…” – Ed Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery
Summary: Every part of the Bible is about the historical unfolding revelation and accomplishment of the gospel – salvation through Jesus Christ. The Bible is not a collection of “Aesop’s Fables”, it is not a book of virtues. Paul shows in Galatians 3 that there is a complete unity in the Bible. There is a story within all the Bible stories. God is redeeming a people for himself by grace in the face of human rebellion and human desire for a religion of good works.
3. The problem of ‘moralism’.
The ultimate reason that we expound Christ in every passage is because that’s the truth! The whole Bible is about Christ. But there is a very practical reason we expound Christ as well. Ed Clowney points out that if we ever tell a particular Bible story without putting it into the Bible story (about Christ), we actually change the meaning of the particular event for us. It becomes a moralistic exhortation to ‘try harder’ rather than a call to live by faith in the work of Christ. There is, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: is it basically about me or basically about Jesus? In other words, is it basically about what I must do, or basically about what Jesus has done? If I read David and Goliath as basically giving me an example, then the story is really about me. I must summons up the faith and courage to fight the giants in my life. But if I read David and Goliath as basically showing me salvation through Jesus, then the story is really about him. Until I see that Jesus fought the real giants (sin, law, death) for me, I will never have the courage to be able to fight ordinary giants in life (suffering, disappointment, failure, criticism, hardship).
Any exposition of a text that does not ‘get to Christ’ but just ‘explains biblical principles’ will be a ‘synagogue sermon’ that merely exhorts people to exert their wills to live according to a particular pattern. Instead of the life-giving gospel, the sermon offers just one more ethical paradigm to crush the listeners.
(C) OBJECTION TO THE APPROACH
1. The concern of allegorizing.
The main danger (and main objective) to the Christo-centric approach is the danger of allegorizing. An example that Sidney Greidanus uses from Augustine.
“The door [in the side of the ark] surely represents the wound made when the side of the crucified was pierced with the spear…This is the way of entrance for those who come to him…” (City of God 13.21).
“Allegorizing” has two very bad effects. 1) It makes for completely arbitrary interpretation. Instead of living under the authority of the Word, we can get nearly any message from a text we wish. 2) It fails to honor the meaning and message of the human author, whose conscious intent is the vehicle for God’s revelation. Modern interpreters, both of an orthodox and liberal bent, eschew allegorizing by concentrating wholly on the original intent of the human author as the only sure and certain benchmark. But there are dangers on the other extreme as well.
2. Remembering the Two Authors
Rodney A Whitacre writes that there have always been two basic emphases or approaches to biblical interpretation. The first he calls this the “Historic Approach” to Bible interpretation. This stresses the fact that each text has a very human author. This approach asks “What did the human biblical author intend to say? What did it mean to the original author and audience? To discover this, the interpreter looks at the linguistic, literary, and historical evidence. But Whitacre also speaks of the “Organic Approach” to Bible interpretation. This stresses the fact that all of Scripture has a divine author. This approach asks: “What does the divine biblical author intend for us to hear? Why did he put this in the Bible for us” To discover this, the interpreter looks at all the Bible (especially texts that are most like and most unlike it) and at Jesus Christ, who (as we have seen) the overall message of the Bible is about. (Rodney A. Whitacre, “Hearing God’s Truth: A Beginner’s Guide to Studying the Scriptures”. Available at the website of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. Http://www.tesm.edu/writings/whithear.htm.).
a. The Extreme Forms. (1) At the extreme end of an “Organic-Only” approach, we have wildly Allegorical Interpretation. Whitacre gives an example of this in a famous interpretation of Psalm 137:8-9 by the medieval church. “O daughter of Babylon…happy is he…who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” The allegorical interpretation goes like this. Jesus is the Rock. Babylon represents evil and sin. So we are being told to take even our littlest sins and most embryonic sinful thoughts and dash them on Christ. This interpretation connects to other parts of the Bible (Christ as the Rock, the need for purity and holiness) but it makes no attempt to connect to the original historic meaning of the text. (2) At the other extreme of a “Historic-Only” approach to the original “Historic-Only” approach, we have most scholarship in the world today—the Historical Critical Interpretation. It makes no attempt to align or integrate what Paul says with what Isaiah says. There is no concept of any divine authorship or divine unity. Any attempt at harmonization is scorned and disdained. The meaning of the ancient texts is locked away, therefore, in a very ancient time, and has nothing to do with us directly. Any normative or systematic theology is impossible.
b. Moderate Forms. Within the mainstream of the evangelical world these two extremes are rightly discarded. (Of course, the highly allegorical reading of the Bible is quite prevalent among lay people in all churches). But two more moderate forms of the two poles creates real confusion among orthodox students of the Bible today. (1) First, there is a moderate Evangelical-Historical approach which does allow for ‘harmonization’ with other texts for the purpose of Systematics, but is not comfortable with reading any meanings out of a text that the human author did not know of. Because this view believes in the divine authorship of the entire Bible, it will accept that an OT author was talking unwittingly about Jesus, but only when a NT author tells us that he was. (2) On the other hand, the Redemptive-Historical approach, which stresses more the organic unity of divine authorship, believes that many texts mean more than the human author intended. By the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, an OT text may tell us about Jesus Christ and we may discover this, even if no NT author tells us so.
c. Criticisms. (1) Of the “Redemptive-Historical’ approach: First, there is a real danger of allegory. If you are not ‘controlled’ in your interpretation by first establishing the human author’s intention, then your imagination can just run wild, and you can get anything out of it. Second, since you are always trying to ‘find Christ’ in the text, you may miss the very real practical applications and moral exhortations that are there. The people will get an inspiring picture of Jesus, but not get any real practical direction in how to live their lives. Third, it could be hard for your lay people to learn how to interpret the Bible with this method. When you are done, they’ll say: “My! I could never get all that out of a text.” And they’ll be right.
(2) But the criticisms of the ‘Historical-Intent Only’ approach are, I believe, more trenchant. First, the New Testament writers continually interpret the Old Testament using the ‘Organic’ or ‘Redemptive-Historical’ approach. They are constantly reading Psalms and other parts of the Bible as being about Christ, even when those texts have no clear “Messianic Prophecy” in them. This was clearly a ‘model’ with which the NT writers were interpreting the OT. Why not use the model?
Second, the historical approach often speaks of the Christo-centric approach being ‘arbitrary’, but it’s own method is much more speculative than it seems to realize. We are never sure we are able to reconstruct the original condition and historical setting. We are never sure we are right about the original audience. It takes a great deal of imagination and guess-work to posit authorial intent. So the grammatico-historical exegesis is not as scientific and objective as it might first appear.
Third, we must be able to preach Christ from a text, or we have the problem of ‘synagogue’ sermons. We are preaching the same sermon that could be preached in a synagogue—“Here is the righteous law. Do it and you will live.”
Fourth, the ‘Historical-Intent Only’ approach implies that the Church was not able to interpret the Bible properly until very recently we had the historical tools to discern original settings (See Moises Silva, Has the Church Misread the Bible? Zondervan, 1984).
3. The Difference between an “Allegory” and a “Type”
The biggest practical issue that comes to us in this discussion is—how can you tell the difference between a “type” and an “allegory”? The Redemptive-Historical approach finds typos of Christ in OT texts even where a NT writer does not indicate that there is one. How can you be sure you are not allegorizing? Based on the writings of Clowney and Rod Whitacre’s paper, here is a summary of the difference.
a. Typology: (1) (Clowney) A type is based on something in the text of symbolic significance to the human author and in the Scriptures in general. There must be evidence that the author saw a feature or figure as having more significance of symbolism. For example, is the fact that the chord Rahab uses to mark and protect her home (Joshua 2) is scarlet significant to the author? Or does the color red symbolize blood or sacrifice in general in the Bible. If not (and I don’t think we can demonstrate that it does), then we cannot preach that the chord represents the blood of Christ protecting us from the justice and wrath of God—as some people have done. However, we can preach the blood on the doorposts of the Israelites that way (Exodus 12). Can we preach that God’s choice of Leah as the mother of the Messianic seed is a type of God’s salvation through weaknes and rejection (Matthew 1:1-17; 1 Cor. 1:26ff.)? We would have to demonstrate that the author of Genesis knew that Judah was the bearer of the Messianic strain and therefore it’s coming to Leah rather than Rachel was an act of grace. I believe we can (Genesis 49:10). Can we preach that Isaac represents Christ? Yes, because in the Old Testament, the first-born had redemptive significance. Every first born belonged to God, etc.
(2) (Whitacre) A type is also based on connections between macro features and figures. It sees similarities between persons (prophets, priests, kings), events (Passover, exodus), and patterns of practice (aving through rejection, weakness). For example, in 2 Kings 5, we see a type of Christ’s revelation in the exclusivity of the prophet Elisha. Naaman must go to Israel, and he must wash in the Jordan. Because the Lord’s salvation is a revealed salvation, we must submit to that revelation. On the other hand, we see a type of Christ’s salvation in the prominence of the servants. Naaman keeps going to kings, but God sends his salvation through the weak and marginal. He must go to weaker country than Syria, he learns of his salvation through a servant girl who was victimized by his military, he only avoids disaster when his own servants reason with him to listen to Elisha. Because the salvation comes through weakness and the powerless, we receive it by repentance and faith alone, and we thereafter refuse to worship at the shrine of worldly power and wealth. So types focus on ‘macro-patterns’ of revelation and salvation rather than descending to details.
b. Allegory: (1) Allegory, by contrast, seeks no basis in the author’s original intent. Of course, it reads everything as symbolic, but it makes no attempts to show through linguistic or literary analysis that the feature it fixes on was of some symbolic significance to the human author. In other words, it ignores the human nature of the Bible and treats it as if it were simply a supernatural text. (2) Secondly, allegory focuses on micro-features such as words or even numbers. It may take the two coins that the Good Samaritan left with the innkeeper as the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, left by Jesus to sustain and heal us. It may take the ‘little ones’ of Ps. 137:8-9 as our sinful thoughts or our ‘little’ white lies. Instead of seeking to identify broader patterns of salvation with Jesus’ pattern of salvation, it fixes on details.
Appendix #1 – Historic and Organic: An Outline of Positions
“I interpret the human biblical author’s original meaning without alignment with meaning of the other biblical authors.”
“What does the human author mean?”
“I interpret the human biblical author’s original meaning in alignment with other human authors. But I do not look for meanings in the text that the human author did not put there.” Typology – only if the NT tells me specifically.
“I interpret the human biblical author’s original meaning not only in alignment with other human authors. I also look for meanings that the divine author may have put there that the human author did not.” Typology – based on Symbolic significance.
“What does the divine author mean?”
“I interpret the biblical text without much regard for the human biblical author’s original meaning. I use it to confirm or illustrate other texts in the Bible.
D. MAJOR ADVANTAGES OF THE APPROACH
1. Two Basic ‘Theological Frameworks’.
Richard Lints, in The Fabric of Theology (Eerdmans, 1993) points out that what we have been calling ‘Christ-centered’ exegesis is more than a way to interpret texts. He believes that one very significant difference among evangelicals lies between those who organize doctrines into a “redemptive historical” framework and those who organize doctrines along the lines of a “redemptive historical” framework and those who organize doctrines along the lines of a “systematic-topical” framework (See pp. 259-290). The first framework (which he connects with the names of Vos, Kline, and Gaffin) sees the basic theological structure of Scriptures as a series of historical epochs in which God progressively reveals more and more of his redemptive purposes in Christ through successive covenants (Creation, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Christ-inaugurated, Christ-consumated). The second framework (which connects with the names of Hodge, Berkhof, and Erickson) sees the basic framework of Scripture as a series of logical categories or subject headings around which the varied texts of Scriptures are organized to produce doctrines (God, Man, Christ, Justification, Sanctification, Glorification).
What is the difference? Lints argues that the redemptive-historical model (RHM) is better than the systematic-topical model (STM), and so do I. John Murray speaks of the “tendency to abstration” of the STM, the tendency to dehistoricize, and to arrive at “timeless”, topically oriented universals. (“Systematic Theology” in the New Testament Student and Theology, J.H. Skilton, ed. P&R, 1976). RHM, on the other hand focuses on God’s special revelation not primarily as ‘naked information’ but primarily as God’s activity in history. This means:
2. Theological frameworks Compared
a. The RHM gives us a dymanic view of our place in redemptive history. The RHM tells that we are now in a particular period of redemptive history (between the first and second coming of Christ). This is the period of the “already-but-not-yet” of the kingdom of God, which sets us apart from the epoch previous to and following this one. The STM model has little concept of the all-pervasiveness of the kingdom of God. It tends to see the kingdom mainly in terms of one of the traditional ‘millennial’ positions.
The massive importance of the ‘already-but-not-yet-kingdom’ for both faith and practice is largely missed by those steeped in the STM approach. It tends to think of biblical truth in a-historical categories of doctrine which we now have to “apply” to our lives today. It tends to rely mainly on “correctness” or technique (“5 principles for overcoming worry”). The RHM avoids over optimism or pessimism or legalism by focusing always on the dynamic-kingdom-epoch lifestyle we live out now. The City of God and the City of Man are present realities. Christ as died, risen, and ascended has put us in a particular, current, dynamic relationship to God, our sin, our past, the Spirit, the world, and to the assembly of heaven itself. It tells us about this new relationship and status we have now, and how to live it out as the people of God in this entire epoch. This is a far more “organic” way to think out Christianity.
John Stott, in a very interesting and easy-to-understand chapter called “The Now and Not Yet” in The Contemporary Christian (IVP, 1992) shows what a powerful effect this theological category has on our practice. This understanding of our place in RH keeps us from fundamentalism (the “not yet Christians”), Pentecostalism (the “already” Christians), and Liberalism (in some ways too “not yet” and in other ways too “already”). It keeps us from over or under-discipline, from over- or under-emphasis on evangelism or social concern, from over optimism or under-optimism about revival, and so on. A-historical (STM) understandings of the Bible lead constantly to these extremes. By the way, Jonathan Edwards noted these same three enemies of true revival—Dead orthodoxy, Enthusiasm, and Heterodoxy.
b. The RHM gives us a more biblical and less “western” framework. Harvie Conn in Eternal Word and Changing Worlds (Zondervan, 1984) points out that the highly rational, scientific approach of STM is difficult for people of non-Western cultures to enjoy or grasp. Many are now pointing out the many of the formulators of STM were unwittingly shaped and affected by the Enlightenment, its detached rationality and its mistrust of history. Harvie (and Rick) note that the RHM gives much more weight to the fact that the Bible is filled with narrative. The gospel itself is a true story, not a set of “principles” or “laws”. The STM approach has ‘de-storied’ the gospel. Harvie also points out that RHM understands that all God’s truth is covenantal truth, never abstract from history and life. (See pp. 225-234). Thus preaching and teaching from the RHM tends to be much less pietistic and abstract from life. All of this means that RHM s a vastly better vehicle for spreading the gospel through and to all people groups.
c. The RHM gives us a more corporate and less individualistic approach to ministry.
The RHM understands that the goal of salvation history is not simply a ‘right relationship’ with God and live in heaven forever. The goal of redemption is really ‘re-creation’. God’s saving purposes culminate in a new creation, not a disembodied eternal state. The gospel is not that we get to escape earth into heaven, but that heaven “comes down” to transform the earth. The church, then, is not simply an aggregation of people who help one another find God, but it is called to be in this world a sign of the coming new creation. We are to embody the ‘new humanity’ that Christ is creating.
All of this drastically undermines the pietistic,, individualistic, privatistic Christianity that can be a result of the STM approach. While the STM approach points us more to how we as individuals get peace with God and ‘live right’, the RHM framework calls us to live our lives out as a ‘counter-culture’, a new nation, in which our business practices, race relations, artistic expressions, family life, etc., show the world what humanity could be like under the Lordship of Christ. And the RHM emphasis on ‘new creation’ calls us to be concerned for the social and material world, since God’s ultimate salvation will not only redeem the soul but the body and the physical world as well.
d. The RHM gives a much more relevant approach to ‘post-modern’ times. This point is closely connected to the previous one. “Post-meodern” times are characterized by a rejection of the Enlightenment worship of rationality and technique, and is much more devoted to narrative and story as ways of finding meaning. Also, post-modernity rejets the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the individual and stresses the importance of community. As we have just seen, the RHM shows us all those resources in biblical theology that the STM approach has tended to overlook. It breaks the Bible into stages of a Story—the story of Jesus and his salvation—while the STM breaks the Bible into logical categories. More than that, the RHM actually puts us into the story, showing us our place and stage in the unfolding of the kingdom of God. The RHM approach also shows concern for the regeneration of human community and even the physical environment, not just individual, interior happiness. In all these ways, RHM is much more relevant to post-modern sensibilities.
e. The RHM gives us a more Christ-centered understanding of the Bible. The RHM sees each epoch of redemptive history as being the progressive revealing of Christ. God could have poured our judgment on mankind in the Garden, therefore the only reason there is any history is because God has purposed to send his Son into the world, to pour out judgment on him and thereby bring salvation. Jesus is the only reason there is human history, and therefore he is the goal of human history. Thus everything God says and does in history explain and prepare for the salvation of his Son. The STM, on the other hand, will examine the Law, the prophets, and history of Abraham, Moses, David, etc. for information about the various doctrinal topics—what we learn about how to live, what to believe. But the RHM sees every story and law and piece of wisdom literature as pointing to Christ and his work. Preaching and teaching from an STM framework tends to be much more moralistic and legalistic.
f. The RHM gives us a more organic way of reading biblical texts. The RHM works at understanding the differences between stages in redemptive history, while the STM largely ignores such study. But many disputes over the application of the Old Testament laws are really based on a lack of understanding of the role which the Mosaic regulations played in that time in redemptive history (i.e. how they helped us look to and prepare for God’s coming salvation) and of how that role is fulfilled in Christ.
Maybe even more fundamentally, the RHM really leads us to see the very purpose of each biblical passage differently. We have said that RHM understands God’s revelation never comes in the form of textbook type information, but in the form of covenant. Why? Because the purpose of God’s truth is never to merely inform, but to know God in a relationship of love and service. For example, if we read Genesis 1-2 with an STM mind-set, expecting “naked information” about how the world was created, we will see it differently than those who read with a RHM mind-set, expecting knowledge of who are Creator is and how we are to relate to him and to his creation.
Concluding Note: Do not read the above as pitting Systematic Theology per se against ‘Biblical Theology’. There have been many proponents of the RH approach that virtually deny the ability to do coherent ST at all. This is going too far by far, and such a denial ultimately undermines the concept of a single divine author of the whole Bible.
Source: Personal Notes from D.Min Course Co-Taught by Ed Clowney and Tim Keller from Reformed Theological Seminary
PREACHING THE GOSPEL IN A POST-MODERN WORLD – SESSION ONE NOTES
DR’S: EDMUND P. CLOWNEY AND TIMOTHY J. KELLER
CLASS NOTES FROM REFORMED THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY – DOCTOR OF MINISTRY CLASS
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION TO THE CHRIST-CENTERED MODEL
(A) THE GOAL OF THE SERMON
In this course we will be offering a model of preaching that can be called by several names and titles—all of which we will be using as synonyms. It is Christo-centric preaching because it calls us to “preach Christ” and his salvation from every passage in the Bible. It is Gospel-centered preaching because it never moves ‘beyond’ the finished work of Christ to supposedly more ‘advanced’ Biblical principles. It expounds the gospel as the central way to address any issue for both Christians and non-Christians. It is Redemptive-Historical preaching because it is based on a way of reading the Bible that stresses the organic unity between unfolding historical stages of God’s redemption in Christ.
Let’s put this in more ‘down to earth’ terms. Kent Hughes tells of an African-American church where there is a very elderly, female member who has a particular concern that the sermons exalt Christ and do not degenerate into mere lecturing or moralizing. If she feels that the preacher is failing in his duty, she begins to call out, “Get him up! Get…him…up!” If you want to learn Christ-centered preaching, you could simply ask her to transfer into your church. But if that is impractical, you could take the rest of this course. So there is just one goal for a sermon—lift up Christ and his salvation.
(B) THREE ‘PERSPECTIVES’ ON THIS GOAL
1. It is helpful to look at this one goal in three perspectives.
Paul on the one single purpose: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1ff.).
Paul on the three perspectives: “Him we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:28).
Paul discerns three things that he is doing as he preaches Christ. These are not so much three different tasks as much as three perspectives or aspects of that one basic biblical goal of lifting up Christ. If you accomplished any one of the three things thoroughly, you would automatically complete the other two as well. However, since we never can be completely effective, it is wiser to consciously take up each of the three perspectives individually as you write and evaluate your message.
What are these three things?
First, biblical accuracy and Christo-centricity are the same to Paul—it is “Him” we must proclaim when we preach the Bible.
Secondly, the preaching and teaching is done with “wisdom,” which means “practical life-relatedness”. It must be aimed artfully at the hearts of people so as to produce real life changes.
Thirdly, we see that preaching was no detached, clinical exercise. There was a churning spiritual power which gave Paul an intense internal yearning as he preached—“struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” Those who heard Paul must have been impressed that the truth had already exploded with God’s transforming power inside Paul’s soul.
(Personal notes – Keller’s series on the attributes of God – from a systematic approach, i.e. – omnipotence, benevolence, omnipotence, and the like, to God as Father, Friend, Lover, King; or a series related to your feelings/emotions from the Psalms focusing on the different emotions like discouragement, depression, sadness, loneliness, joy, etc.)
In our fear of subjectivism, Reformed folk discuss preaching and teaching almost exclusively in terms of the first perspective. A sermon is to be a “success” as long as it is a true and accurate exposition of Holy Scripture. But accuracy is a means, not the goal of preaching. The goal is “changed lives”—“everyone perfect in Christ”.
2. The concept of “perspectives”
This method is based on John Frame’s tri-perspectival approach to knowledge. Consider the Trinity. God can be viewed from three perspectives. The ‘Son” contains the father and the Spirit. If we explore who the Son is deep enough, we will learn about the father and the Spirit. Yet the Son points us to things about God only he can show us. Or you can learn about the whole Godhead through the ‘door’ of the Father, and eventually come to learn about the Son and the Spirit. Of you can ‘come at’ God from the ‘door’ of the Spirit. In short, God himself requires us to look at him in ‘multiple perspectives’ in order to truly understand him.
Frame believes that all knowledge is ‘Trinitarian’ or perspectival. He speaks of the “normative”, the “situational”, and the “existential” perspectives. “Human knowledge can by understood in three ways: as knowledge of God’s norm [law], as knowledge of our situation, and as knowledge of ourselves. None can be adequately achieved without the others. Each includes the others. Each, therefore, is a ‘perspective’ on the whole of human knowledge” (John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, P&R, 1987, p. 75).
Our knowledge becomes distorted if we limit our understanding by leaving out any perspective. For example, we do not become more “biblical” when in seeking to understand a text we forget the situational and existential perspectives. Frame argues that we do not really understand the meaning of a text of Scripture unless we can use it. We must be able to apply the text to our world and ourselves or we do not really “know” the truth. Why? All revelation is covenantal revelation. Everything that is revealed is revealed by the covenant Lord to make us his servants. Obedience and knowledge are near synonyms. Thus applying this concept to ethics, he writes: “Christians should not follow non-Christian models, advocating an ‘ethics of law’ as opposed to a ‘situation ethic’ or an ‘ethic of authentic existence’. Rather, the Christian ethic should present law, situation, and ethical subject in organic unity” (Ibid, p.74).
(C) EXAMINING THE THREE ASPECTS/PERSPECTIVES OF PREACHING
1. “Prophetic” or Normative aspect.
To expound and teach the text so they understand Christ. The aim is to explain the text in its overall biblical context, which is always to ask “what does this tell me about the person/work/teaching of Jesus?” You haven’t expounded the text unless you have integrated its particular message with the climax of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. The alternative is “to expound biblical principles”—put the text in “systematic theological” context and then explain how it supports orthodox doctrine and ethics. But the text isn’t put into “redemptive-historical” context to reveal what this tells us specifically about the person and work of Christ.
2. “Kingly” or Situational aspect.
To apply and counsel with the text so that they put on Christ. The aim is to use the text on the hearers’ practical life issues and problems, which is always to ask “how am I failing to rejoice in and live as if this were true about who Jesus is and what he did?” You haven’t really solved an individual or community problem unless you have shown the solution to be Christ’s person and work. The typical alternative is “to call for moral reformation”. This approach merely exhorts people to try hard to live up to biblical principles. It usually preaches justification by Christ’s work, but it encourages sanctification by our work rather than Christ’s.
3. “Priestly” or Existential aspect.
To adore and worship with the text so that they rejoice in Christ. The aim is to experience Christ through the text as you present it, so the hearers have a true sense of God on their hearts. This is to ask: “how can I adore and rejoice in Christ from what I learned?” You haven’t really fulfilled the text’s purpose unless you aim to bring people into the presence of God through Christ. The typical alternative is simply “to provide information”. Of course, the setting for your communication is all-important. Is this a lecture or the sermon in a worship service? But regardless of the setting, the goal is not just information-transfer. Jesus is a living person, and the goal of every communication is to get the hearers to sense him as such.
Christ the Key to the Model: The “Christo-centric” focus is not added to the other factors. Christ-centeredness suffuses the whole and is the key. It is only as you show how the text reveals Christ that you truly expound its meaning. It is only as you solve problems with Christ that you change lives. It is only as you point to the ultimate reference in Christ that the presentation jumps from being a “Sunday School lesson” into an act of worship.
(D) ALTERNATIVE PREACHING MODELS
Without all three aspects, we are left with something inadequate. Some examples:
1. “Doctrinal”. When preaching concentrates too much on expounding and too little on the other aspects, it ‘hits’ the intellect rather than the heart and the result is more of a ‘lecture’. It is neither life-converting nor does it lead the hearers to corporate worship. Many approaches to preaching now being emphasized in the Reformed evangelical world fall under this category, for fear of the excesses of pietism and emotionalism. In my estimation, much that is called ‘Redemptive-Historical’ and ‘Expository’ preaching fits in this category, though I would insist that the model we are presenting has strong claim to those terms.
2. “Practical”. When preaching concentrates too much on applying, it ‘hits’ the will rather than the heart and the result is more of a ‘how-to talk’. It does not challenge the mind and (again) it does not lead the hearers to corporate worship on the spot. Several forms of this have been popular in our century. In the church growth movement, there has been an emphasis ‘user-friendly’ motivational sermons that focus on setting priorities, handling stress, raising out families, and so on. In the mainline church, liberal activist preaching starts with commentary on current social injustice and then moves to practical action plans to deal with it. In many fundamentalist churches, sermons are little more than moralistic exhortations to “live right”.
3. “Devotional”. When preaching concentrates too much on arousing feelings of devotion and too little on the other aspects, it ‘hits’ the emotions rather than the heart. While this may provide sentiment at the moment, the understanding has not been renewed and converted and therefore the life remains unchanged. In the last decade, there has been a major emphasis on what is loosely called ‘narrative preaching.’ Often one or more lengthy stories, taken from the Bible or elsewhere, are re-told in a dramatic and gripping way. As we will see, Christ-centered preaching does something similar, but much narrative preaching uses the story to work on feelings only.
E. EVALUATING OUR PREACHING
Though this model is not a practicum, it should lead to much better evaluation of your own preaching. Here are some evaluation questions for a sermon based on this model.
Truth – Was it sound? What was the point—was it clear? Was Jesus preached as the climax or was he added on or missing?
Life – Was it fresh? What difference will it make—was it practical? Was Jesus preached as the solution or were people told to try harder?
Power – Was there a sense of God? What was the central metaphor—was it gripping? Was Jesus made visible or only taught about?
A Longer Evaluation Form
Truth – Is it biblical? Are the assertions validly rooted in the text? Do they convincingly arise from the text? Do they square with the analogy of faith—the whole of Scripture? Are the assertions validly rooted to the redemptive/historical context? Was the central theme solved or illustrated by Christ? Was it really about Jesus?
Truth – Is it clear? Was it obvious what the speaker was driving at during the talk? Was the progression traceable? When it was over, did you know what the main point was? Was it persuasive to the hearers, using lines of argument they could follow?
Life – Is it insightful? Was it clear that the speaker understood the hearers ‘reality’—their very hopes, fears, problems, concerns? Did it leave out non-Christians or Christians? Were the assertions put in a fresh, wise, and striking way, or was it rather boring or cliché-ridden?
Life – Is it practical? Were instructions given on how to implement and practice concretes in behavior? Was Christ and his finished work applied as the practical solution to any problem? Was moralizing or psychologizing avoided and distinguished from the gospel?
Power – is it vivid? Were there some central metaphors used so the basic concepts are given in concrete form? Were the five senses appealed to? Was the imagination engaged? Was Christ presented in some concrete aspect of his person or work? Were one of the biblical metaphors for him invoked? Did he become ‘visible’?
Power – is there transcendence? Was there a goal to merely instruct, or to get people face to face with God? Did the speaker seem aware of God or just aware of his sermon and audience? Was there a balance of warmth, love, and humility on the one hand, and force, power, authority on the other?
A PERSONAL NOTE (From Tim Keller)
Though I learned about ‘Christo-centric’ preaching from Ed Clowney and about the Reformed doctrine of ‘sanctification by faith’ from Roger Nicole when in seminary, and though there I also learned about the difference between mere ‘notional knowledge’ and heart-affections from Richard Lovelace, it took at least 15 years for these concepts to really filter down and begin to effect my preaching. My preaching for many years was basically Puritan-preaching (doctrine, application) with Christ tacked on at the end. All during that time, I would have certainly professed to be doing “Christo-centric” preaching, but really, in general, I was lifting Jesus up as an example and urging people to live like him.
(Note: Ed Clowney, “Often we treat the Bible as a text rather than the Word of the living God”).
Owen Strachan with Tim Keller
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Manhattan pastor Tim Keller for Christianity Today. The interview was about Keller’s new book Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions (Dutton, Nov. 2013). It’s a book that would be marvelous to read whether for one’s own edification or for the purposes of discipleship or evangelism. If you’re in college ministry, and in particular ministry to thoughtful students on a secular college campus, this book will be very valuable.
In the course of my free-ranging conversation with Keller, we touched on some matters that were not directly related to the book and thus weren’t included in the CT interview. I was helped and heartened by Keller’s characteristically winsome, gracious, and convictional thoughts on these topics, and I’m glad to share them.
Keller on quoting cultural authorities in his preaching to “bring people along”:
The only reason to do so is if you’re in an Acts 17 setting. In Acts 13, Paul goes to a synagogue and expounds the Bible. But these are people who trust the Bible…so Paul does a very simple exposition. In Acts 17, Paul’s talking to people with no faith. There’s disagreement over how much he’s quoting, but he quotes poets and pagan authors and makes a more common appeal to natural reason, as it were.
What I try to do since I have people in a spectrum—people who don’t trust the Bible at all or people who trust it a lot—so what I do is expound Scripture, and then I add sources where people agree. I’m not basing my authority on Dylan Thomas, but when I’m able to bring in someone that the broader culture really trusts, it helps the people who doubt biblical authority to see how the Bible is true.
If I was speaking in a Mars Hill situation, I might give a topical talk like Paul did. So most of my preaching is somewhere in the middle. I’m supplementing my points to make it a little easier for the skeptic to accept my point. I’m trying to bring people along; I want the person to come with me. In the earlier parts of my sermon I’m trying to fortify—this psychologist says that, and so on. But at the end, I’m bringing in Jesus as the solution to the problem, and I’m not using those sources anymore.
Keller on how the church should speak to the issue of homosexuality:
You always want to speak in the most disarming way, but still be very truthful. Both disarming and truthful. I’m not sure most of us speak in that way—trying to be both. Ed Clowney, former President of Westminster Theological Seminary, said this many years ago: We tend to say we preach the Bible, but you tend to preach the answers to the questions you’ve posed to the Bible. Whether you know it or not, you read the Bible with certain questions. A Korean might have a question in mind when he reads that an African wouldn’t have. Right now our culture asks certain questions and we can’t help but respond to them. We do that in the most disarming way, but to some degree we can’t ignore the culture’s questions. We need to give biblical answers to the culture’s questions. You don’t give them the answers they want, you give them the answers they need. You can’t be a responsible pastor if you don’t.
If we are going to shepherd and teach, we must give the most disarming and truthful answers.
Keller on how the church should handle the shift to transgender identity in the broader culture:
Jerome Kagan in The Atlantic has talked about how we’re all wired—there are three basic ways to deal with threats. Some run, some fight, some stop and get philosophical. You find this insight in neurochemistry—across 36 cultures, these instincts are wired into us. These are very much who we are. In only a small percentage of the threatening situations is our habitual approach the right one. The worst thing parents can do is listen to the culture when it says, “Let your child be who that child is. Don’t try to change him.” Kagan says that’s the worst thing you can do. Children need to be pulled out of their natural instincts. Parents need to intervene and not let their natures run them. Doing so is a form of child neglect.
I’ve never forgotten that with the transgender question. We’re told we can only affirm [this identity] today. The lack of wisdom in this response will become more evident over time. We’re now a radical individualistic culture. If you do anything against it, you’re sacrilegious. I think we’ll see 20 years of mistakes, and then we’ll realize it wasn’t a good idea.
Keller on the state of the complementarian movement:
The arguments are pretty well made now. At this point, complementarians need to get our own house in order and show that our families and churches are thriving places. That’s more important than anything right now….Kathy and I are very committed to saying that Christians are committed to complementarianism.
Read more: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thoughtlife/2014/06/tim-keller-on-mars-hill-preaching-homosexuality-and-transgender-identity/#ixzz34R1n4Myf
Notes from a Tim Keller Lecture
In order to prepare a good sermon the preacher should be asking:
What does this text tell me about the person and work of Jesus?
In preaching the preacher should be asking the people:
How am I failing to rejoice in and live as if this text is true about who Jesus is?
The preacher should be showing that people are poor due to their lack of faith in Christ.
The aim of every sermon is to experience Christ through the text. You need to get people to adore and enjoy Christ through the text. We shouldn’t preach principles or examples to live up to but re-assure people that living a holy life is derived from faith in Christ.
In a lecture the aim is to transfer information.
In a sermon the aim is to be get the listener to worship on the spot.
Three types of questions to evaluate a sermon:
1) Was it a sound sermon? Was Jesus the climax of the text?
2) Was it practical? Was Jesus presented as the solution to spiritual problems?
3) Was there a sense of God? Was Jesus made visible or only talked about?
Three types of emphases in preaching:
1) Doctrinal Preaching
Too much expounding
Hits the intellect and not the heart
Doesn’t lead the hearers to worship
2) Practical Preaching
Hits the will
Doesn’t challenge the mind
It majors on application
The sermon acts like a manual on how to live
Little theology and passion
3) Devotional Preaching (Narrative Preaching)
Goes straight to the emotions
Misses the mind
Lack of theology