Ever finish preaching a narrative section in the Old Testament and walk from the pulpit thinking your message would make any great preacher applaud with admiration (and maybe even a little bit of envy)? Well, sometimes I think we can believe we’ve preached an Old Testament story well when, in reality, we may have badly mistreated the text. Dr. Sidney Greidanus, professor emeritus of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary and a voice I’ve admired for quite some time, in his book Preaching Christ from the Old Testament highlights three errors preachers commit in preaching Old Testament stories. These are especially true of sermons which seek to preach on the character or biography of a specific individual (e.g., Moses, Daniel, Rahab). Using an example of a sermon on Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32:22-32[ref]Greidanus, Sidney. Preaching Christ from the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999, 35-36.[/ref], Greidanus says preachers may be tempted into:
“When God confronts us, it always causes a struggle.”
A unique event is turned into everyone’s event.
Problem: narrative as universal.
“We will all struggle with God in our heart as we follow him.”
A physical event is turned into a spiritual event.
Problem: narrative as allegory.
“God’s confrontation calls us to change.”
The character’s call is turned into the listener’s call.
Problem: narrative as prescription.
All of these errors are such because they overlook the narrative’s immediate context as well as the larger, meta-narrative God is writing through these unique events between he and his covenant people, which ultimately leads us to Christ.[ref]I also recommend reading Greidanus’ The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text [/ref]
If that hurts to hear or if you find yourself a little red-faced, don’t worry, most preachers I know would raise their hand and say guilty as well. I know I can. I remember preaching a sermon in my early twenties to single adults using the story in Genesis 24 of Isaac and Rebekah to demonstrate how Christians can choose the right mate. Wow?!?! (I know) Even more problematic was the good reception it was given. People loved it – it was practical, wise, and generally lined up with the rule of faith. However, although I addressed a real need, I preached the wrong text for it. Trust that, generally speaking, if you are going to preach the right texts the right way, it likely will be up to you (not your listeners) to do the right thing.
Here’s to better sermons for God’s glory and the good of his people.
6 thoughts on “Three Common Errors in Preaching Old Testament Stories”
These are great points, Yancey, and I really respect Dr. Greidanus. However, by these principles, which error is Paul guilty of in 1 Cor 10:1-13 when he preaches on the narrative of Exodus? Is he generalizing (1 Cor 10:7-10), spiritualizing (1 Cor 10:3-4), or moralizing (1 Cor 10:6, 11-13)?
While it might merit a discussion if Paul is really doing all three things you claim he does in that text (e.g., Is he spiritualizing or simply calling the food spiritual food because of its origin?), we can safely say that Paul, or any Apostle writing under the full inspiration of the Holy Spirit, commits no error in any way they interpret an OT text. But what may be good for them, may be disastrous for us. Greidanus, with the Apostles’ unique role in redemptive history in mind, warns preachers:
“Of course, even if Paul used allegorical interpretation to convince those who put stock in it, that would be no license for contemporary preachers to do so.”(p.188) Indeed, he concludes, “The NT writers did not set out to produce a textbook on biblical hermeneutics. Simply to copy their methods of interpretation in preaching on specific OT passages is to go beyond their intent.” (p.189)
I’m with Greidanus (and many others) on this one. Therefore, and maybe I should’ve written a disclaimer, but I hope my readers understand that Greidanus’ book on hermeneutics (and my blogging in general) is for non-Apostles who aren’t writing the Scripture under the full inspiration of the Holy Spirit. 😉
However, Peter, if you feel the freedom to make the interpretive assumptions with OT narratives as Paul does in 1 Cor. 10, then go for it. I’ll choose to coach my young, non-Apostlic preachers not to spiritualize, moralize, or generalize. I’m sure Jesus will be glorified either way.
Yancey, I’ve realized my prior comment was rather arrogant and argumentative. Will you please forgive me? It would have been far more helpful to discussion and pleasing to the Lord if I had written it this way:
It seems to me that when Paul examines the narrative of Exodus in 1 Cor 10, he generalizes, spiritualizes, and moralizes. What do you think? How does this fit with the suggestions from Dr. Greidanus?
Those are very helpful thoughts, Yancey. I would not want to claim Apostolic, inspired, enscripturating authority for myself or those I train. And we agree that the inspired apostles wrote without error!
That second quote from Greidanus unsettles me a bit, though. If copying the apostles’ methods of interpretation is to go beyond their intent, where does that leave us? Where else shall we go to learn how to interpret the OT? Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, but this claim sounds as though Greidanus believes the apostles are saying, “Do what I say, not what I do.”
And who today is qualified to decide which apostolic hermeneutics are worthy of imitation and which are not? Perhaps we can’t copy Paul’s use of Exodus, or Hebrews’ use of Genesis 14 (Melchizedek). Should we also not read Isaiah 7, Isaiah 53, or Psalm 110 as referring to Christ (a non-literal, non-original context, “spiritualizing” interpretation), since we’re not under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit?
I’m much more comfortable with the approach taken by Carson, Beale, et al in the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, where they see every NT quotation of the OT informing our hermeneutic in some way.
I’m in full agreement with you that we must not ignore the OT narrative’s immediate context or the meta-narrative God writes through redemptive history. But I wonder if these 3 sweeping rules give away too much. Perhaps they even over-generalize the process of hermeneutics, thus spiritualizing the process, and leaving us with a moralistic/prescriptive set of interpretive rules. 🙂
We still have protection against foolish interpretation of OT narrative, if we read it in its context (something you are rightly concerned about), identify the original author’s main points, and then make the transition from shadow to reality, connecting the text to Christ and to our experience. We see the apostles doing this over and over again in the NT. This process often necessarily involves a measure of generalizing, spiritualizing, and/or moralizing.
Peter, we’re good. I appreciate your thoughtful responses. Sorry if I sounded like I was ready to charge up a hill, firing all my bullets at any come what may.
I think you make good points. While I can’t speak for Dr. Greidanus by any stretch, my assumptions are that he is trying to create a ‘contemprary hermeneutical model’ (his language) that is christocentric, honoring of the redemptive-historical context, and repeatable for the preacher to use in almost any OT text. As in blog posts, you can’t say everything – and maybe my listing of his three errors is too simplistic – so I would recommend anyone to follow up with the bibliography listed in my blog.
Once again, sincerely appreciative of your thoughtful engagement!
Hi Yancey, I’ve been enjoying your Exodus sermons, and the ones preached by Bruce Wesley. However, I’m missing something. Bruce last week talked about how God is faithful to His promises, but not necessarily to our expectations. But what promises are actually for general people? I know that not everything in the Bible is for every person because of context, etc. So I’m just not sure what Bruce was referring to. And today, you emphasized that “when we remind ourselves that God is God, we start to live lives with God AS God.” This sounds awesome, but I must admit I just don’t know how to do this. I’ve been a Christian “forever” but I am stuck in God CAN, but he may NOT. (I’ve been through several cases of family members sick, dying, and other troubling “things” going on personally). So what DOES God promise me? Why should I stick with him when everything is awful anyways? The only thing I can think of is that I feel like Peter: John 6: 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” I need something short to cling to as I try to rebuild my faith, if I can.