Preaching: Taking the Scriptures Seriously

Editor’s note: Professor Glenn Nielsen is on a partial sabbatical this year, maintaining his vicarage/ internship responsibilities, but catching up on reading and writing occasional reflections on those readings. This is the fifth of these reflections.

In an earlier reflection, I made the following assertions.

Our preaching is reduced to accusatory Law and forgiving Gospel (often in that order in the sermon).  That sameness then deadens listenability by its predictableness.  It also fails to treat the text with integrity, and we are not preaching what the text has given us to preach.  Even more devastating is that Christ’s resurrection becomes secondary, little more than an afterthought, because everything important happened on Good Friday.

In the footnote that accompanied that paragraph, I said I would elaborate on those assertions in three essays through conversations with a recently published book by Edward O. Grimenstein, A Lutheran Primer for Preaching (St. Louis: Concordia, 2015).  The first, advocating a fuller use of the First Article, can be found here.

This second essay looks at how Scripture can be (mis)used in Lutheran preaching in such a way that its integrity as God’s Word suffers because it is too often reduced to just proclaiming the accusing Law and forgiving Gospel.  Now, Law and Gospel are certainly the heart of our preaching.  As I complimented Dr. Grimenstein in my earlier reflection, he does well in focusing on this center of our preaching.  Unfortunately, this focus too often leads to a loss of the whole of our preaching, particularly taking into account what God’s Word provides for our sermons with its various literary forms, moods, structures and intentions/purposes.

Here, too, I first need to compliment Grimenstein.  The Primer is clearly and unashamedly committed to the inerrancy of God’s Word.  It rightly takes to task the higher criticism that calls into question the authority and truthfulness of the Bible.  It zeroes in on those who question God’s Word to do what it says (e.g., the New Homiletic) and affirms the efficacy of the Word as the Holy Spirit works through it to accomplish its work in human life.  These quotations are representative:

As an academic tool, higher criticism provided the Church more of a scalpel than a chisel.  It tended to engage a biblical topic along the lines of tearing it apart to discover its riches, rather than allowing the structure of Scripture to stand on its own and to learn from it.  The Word of God ceased to have an element of awe, wonder and innate authority.  The Scriptures could now be taken apart and studied, rearranged into new figures and patterns depending on the will of the men who subjected them to such frustration (i.e. sinful man). (35)

In 1971 with the publication of [Fred Craddock’s] As One Without Authority, a move was made to approach preaching differently.  The reason was simple.  There was a general belief among homileticians that the Scriptures were not inerrant, as was previously assumed, and were rather culturally bound.  This meant the Bible lacked authority, and if that were the case, then the pastors who preached the Scriptures did as well. (56)

The Scriptures themselves provide preachers an unending show of convicting Law and resonating Gospel from which they can not only draw material for their sermons, but that can shape their very style of communication when it comes to the act of speaking Law and Gospel. (61)

What is ironic about this book, however, and also the Lutheran preaching it represents, is that the Scriptures are not accorded this full authority when actually used.  They can become a pretext for a sermon that has already been predetermined in terms of its basic content and structure.  That is, no matter what the text may be for a sermon, the sermon will be divided up into the second use of the Law to reveal the sinfulness of the hearers and so bring them under the Law’s condemnation, followed by the Gospel proclamation that brings forgiveness and salvation.  This accusing Law followed by redeeming Gospel, and in that order, thus becomes the template for almost every sermon.  The following quotation is representative in Grimenstein’s Primer.

When preachers read the Scriptures, especially when they are historical readings in the lectionary, they should always do so knowing that God desires to confront us in our sinfulness, recognize the state of our separation and then call us to believe that Christ fulfilled the Law for us perfectly and that salvation is truly ours.  For preachers, it is vital not only to read the Scriptures fully with this perspective, but also to read the particular biblical text, looking to see the salvation that God desires to bring through that text.  God always desires the salvation of this creation and the people within it.  God desires to save people from their sin.  This is why the Scriptures are referred to as “Good News.” [1]

Then, when the Primer details how to prepare a sermon, a proposed worksheet asks what God is doing in the text, how the passage points to Jesus for salvation for the people, and when the people are encouraged, by the Holy Spirit, to believe in the works of God and what Jesus has done for us.

Now I have no quarrel with the emphasis that our preaching needs to center in the Law/Gospel dynamic.  I teach that the Gospel needs to predominate in our sermons and be included in every sermon we preach.  The Scriptures testify to Jesus, and they are ultimately written that we may believe, and by believing have eternal life. I hold that they are inspired and authoritative for our preaching.  The Holy Spirit works through them to convict and comfort; to accuse and forgive; to show us our sin and save us from the punishment of that sin.

What I am concerned about is how the use of Scripture is boiled down to that narrowly prescribed role.  In a sense, a preacher can take any text, and fit it into those two columns, order it in the same way for every sermon, without taking seriously how the biblical text itself is structured, or what it has as its intention, or why the biblical author was inspired to write using a certain literary form, or what emotions are evident.  I try to show this to my classes by doing a demonstration.  I take out a Bible and ask for a student to pick a number between 1 and 1213 (the number of pages in the Bible in my hand).  Then I ask for left or right side on the page.  Then I’ll look at the verse numbers there and ask for a number for one verse.  I’ll read the verse and turn it into a five minute Law then Gospel homily for them.  It doesn’t matter what text it is, I can do it with most any verse.  All I need is a word or phrase to go on, show how we fail, then bring Jesus in.  For those who have been preaching a while, I suspect you could do that too.  Unfortunately, some of the students quickly recognize that this has been the type of sermons they have been listening to for much of their lives.

I don’t believe that Grimenstein is advocating such a flippant approach to the text.  But it shows just how predictable our preaching can become—and how the Scriptures are reduced to just providing the Law/Gospel heart of preaching.  It also shows how little the Scriptures themselves may actually contribute to the sermon.  In other words, once you have the Law and Gospel from the text, you can leave the rest of the text behind.

But what if we were to slow down and carefully look at the text for more instruction on how to preach a sermon from a particular passage for our people?  Well, good things happen.  Here are some activities that would allow the text to take more control of the sermon rather than coming at it with predetermined subjects, forms, and purposes.

Taking literary form or genre seriously

Thomas Long has written a helpful book on how various genres function. [2]  He includes psalms, proverbs, narratives, parables and epistles.  Besides setting forth what characterizes each form, he also demonstrates how each of them impact the readers in different ways.  A form has a function, and we weaken our preaching when we fail to take that into account.  For example, narratives work in a couple significant ways.  One is to make the readers one of the characters in the story.  The readers get caught up in the story and that enables them to say “We’re like that.”  Another is to make a claim on the reader concerning the nature of life, a claim that will require some decision in relationship to the reader’s life.  Here the readers will see that the text’s slice of life is one that needs to define their own.

Psalms work in a different way, though, as poetry.  They use imagery and emotions through evocative and skillful use of language.  They reach deep into the imagination and heart of people by the laments and joys, anger and praise, they express.  Proverbs are more homespun wisdom that require wisdom to see when the proverb applies to life and when it doesn’t – because of the covenantal relationship between God and His people.  Epistles are letters written by a pastor who is concerned for his people.  Parables vary in how they work as they can be a vessel of a truth, a code by which insiders can see what is going on or an aesthetic experience much like a narrative.

The point here is that our sermons need to take into account the form the text itself has taken and begin to see how we might bring those functions into our sermons faithfully.  The task is not to turn our sermons into poems or parables or letters, but to allow that literary variety to impact what our sermon says and does.  Long writes,

Preaching does not involve determining what the text used to mean and then devising some creative way to make that meaning pertinent to the contemporary scene.  Preaching involves a contemporary interpreter closely attending to a text, discerning the claim that text makes upon the current life of the community of faith, and announcing that discovery in the sermon. (34)

Note the irony.  Long, who follows in the train of the New Homileticians, advocates “closely attending” to the text, paying particular attention to the literary form that has been given us.  I just didn’t see the same call for such a careful study of the text in the Primer, nor even a need for it.  And this seems to be true for many Lutheran sermons that have been simply content with finding the Law and Gospel in the text and leaving it at that. [3]

Taking mood or emotion seriously

Some biblical texts do not have much emotional quality to them.  Others are steeped in emotion.  Compare Gal. 1:6-10 with 1 Peter 1:3-9.  Paul is angry at the Galatians.  He is also deeply concerned that they are losing the Gospel.  You can almost feel the raised voice as he talks about another Gospel which is no Gospel at all.  The “let him be accursed” is spat out, bits of saliva flying through the air.  On the other hand, Peter is encouraging the people.  They need to endure some testing to their faith.  He is hopeful because of the resurrection.  A note of triumph rings out from his words.  Sermons on these two passages need to sound and feel different.  They need different amounts and types of Law preached.  They have much different Gospel goals in the lives of the people.  Mike Graves writes,

It is important to note, however, that biblical texts often have mood swings within them.  The somberness of Lazarus’s death gives way to the glorious splendor of resurrection.  The sermon must respect this mood swing.  Some texts demonstrate several moods.  At the crucifixion Jesus feels betrayed, his disciples forlorn, the Pharisees feel relieved, a centurion feels betrayed.  The language, the delivery, the images, and the supporting material must all be sensitive to the mood(s) of the biblical text. [4]

Again, note the close attention to the text itself going on here.  In too many Lutheran sermons I hear the same type of Law, in much the same way delivered, and for the purpose of making us feel guilty and in need of forgiveness.  Then the Gospel ends up sounding the same week after week.  One reason for this is that the mood(s) of the text have been flattened out because what the Law and Gospel are to do have already been decided without respect for what is going on in the text itself.

Taking structure seriously

Texts move along.  They display a progression of moves, a sequence of ideas, a development of action, a shifting of moods.  This movement may or may not correspond to the verses in a passage.  But you can flow along with the movement of a text.  Romans 12 begins with an appeal to the mercies of God so that we are transformed by renewed minds, not conformed to this world.  We present our bodies because of God’s mercies.  Then we hear that we are not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, but with sober judgement.  According to the measure of our faith, we, who are all part of this body called the church, are called to use our varied gifts according to God’s grace given to us.

Note that Paul is not dividing this passage into neat sections of Law and Gospel.  He is moving from mercy to exhortation to warning to instruction back to exhortation connected to God’s grace.  Why does he create this particular structure?  How does his theology come to the surface when his thought progression jumps from one action to another?  What does this say about how the sanctified life looks like when it is connected more organically than systematically to the mercies of God?  And then, practically speaking, how does this textual structure impact the sermon I will preach?  Perhaps this sermon starts with a clear proclamation of God’s mercy in Jesus.  Then the people will hear what that mercy leads us to do with our bodies in terms of the way we live in this world.  At this point some law appears about how we can be too confident about how we are doing in terms of not being conformed to the world.  Finally, the picture of the church comes into view, with God’s grace emphasizing the gifts we each have and give for one another and the world we live in.  This structure is different from a simple Law-then-Gospel or the five worksheet pages from the Primer.  In this case it reflects the text itself.

Now, I am not calling for every sermon to use a textual structure.  A multitude of structures are available to be used in the preaching task.  My colleague David Schmitt has helpfully categorized a wide range of sermonic structures at our disposal. [5]  What I am claiming is that the structure of the text needs to influence which structure will be used rather than a predetermined form being used in each and every sermon.  Bryan Chapell writes,

. . . the Bible enhances propositional statements with experiential data, identifiable examples, and memorable images.  Now the question is whether sermons that ignore the structure of Scripture are truly on the same path as their inspired guide.  Is only the content of Scripture normative, or is not the form of Scripture itself instructive?  Those who would follow Scripture in practice as well as in content should take note of both its patterns and methods of reasoning.  The result will be sermons that reflect a greater respect for the wisdom of Scripture’s structure and a greater loyalty to Scripture’s form. [6]

Taking intention/purpose seriously

I plan to deal with this one more fully in the next reflection.  It’s about doing what the text is doing.  Suffice it to say here, in a helpful book by Richard Eslinger, he summarizes a number of the authors who led the way in the New Homiletic since the 1970s.  He writes:

For Fred Craddock, what a text does reveals its intentionality—e.g., does a passage of scripture reprove, encourage, mistrust, correct?  An awareness of the scripture’s context, of course, is vital for obtaining discernment.

Discovering what a text does, moreover, is intimately related to sermon preparation, especially if the sermon is intended to do what the text does. [7]

But more of this next time.

Once again, what I find ironic is that the authors Grimenstein chastises for their view of Scripture in the New Homiletic actually attend to the Scriptures better than he does in his book. [8]  Yes, I find their sermons often woefully inadequate in that the Gospel is missing or understated.  But I do not find them neglecting the careful study of the Scriptures needed to lead to the sermon itself.  In fact, the sermons they have published display a remarkable ability to bring the Scriptures to life and into life.  They treat the Scriptures with a seriousness that gives a fuller expression to not only what is said but how it is said and why.  And if we were to do the same with our Lutheran preaching, combined with the essential emphasis on the Law/Gospel dynamic within each sermon, well, as I said earlier, good things would happen.

Endnotes

[1] Page 57.  Similar statements can be read on pp. 69, 70 and 79, and in the sermon preparation worksheets that appear at the end of the book.  The structure advocated is a five-part variation of Paul Scott Wilson’s The Four Pages of the Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999).  The structure is: 1. Law in the text; 2. Law in the people’s lives; 3. Gospel – Jesus proclaimed; 4. Gospel in the text; and 5. Gospel in the people’s lives.  Grimenstein adds the third part to make sure the Gospel predominates.  By the way, in reference to the last sentence in the above quotation, typically we refer to the Gospel within the Scriptures as “Good News,” not the Scriptures themselves, as the Scriptures contain much varied material, including Law.  The Law would not be labeled Good News/Gospel in the narrow sense of the word.

[2] Thomas Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989).

[3] In addition to the missing acknowledgement of literary forms, I found Grimenstein’s characterization of various rhetorical forms unsettling.  On page 38, he reduces extended metaphors, similes, and well-formed arguments to tomfoolery and contemporary tricks.  On page 56, narrative and storytelling are disparaged as rhetorical means to reach people.  The context for these statements is that, since the New Homileticians have lost their confidence in the Scriptures to do what they say (a claim that is not substantiated in the Primer nor by careful reading of their work of the New homileticians themselves), they are relying on human rhetorical devices to accomplish what we say the Holy Spirit does through the Word.  I wanted to see more explanation about why these forms and means are downplayed since the Scriptures themselves make much use of them to reach their hearers.  Moreover, Lutheran preaching has always appreciated the use of rhetoric forms such as metaphor, narrative and many, many others in service of the Gospel  (ministerial use).

[4] Mike Graves, The Sermon as Symphony (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1997), 13.

[5] See also Thomas Long, The Witness of Preaching, 2nd edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 165-168.

[6] Bryan Chapell, Using Illustrations to Preach with Power (Wheaton: Crossways, 2001), 46-47.

[7] Richard Eslinger, A New Hearing (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987), 109.

[8] Eslinger, when summarizing Craddock’s work, says Craddock “has not wavered in his insistence that preaching be biblical preaching.  Responsible exegesis of the text is not an option” and that he insisted on an “attentive listening to the text” (122).

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1 Comment

  1. Joel Dieterichs January 19, 2017
    Reply

    Excellent, Dr. Nielsen! Thanks for this. You put into words what I have felt but not been able to say about preaching over my 13 years behind the pulpit.

    On my, more simple level, I have found that trying new structures such as “inclusio” (starting with a story or theme, then coming back to it for the end of the sermon) has been a good way for me to honor the text and speak its gravitas into the present. Then I find that my Law and Gospel becomes more like G / LG / LG / LL / GG… that is, not along the predictable LG route that you mention here.

    People respond to that preaching; they have much more to say about it than “Nice sermon, pastor! blah blah ”

    Blessings on your sabbatical!

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