AVOIDING THE “HOMILETICAL HERMENEUTIC”

I’ve been doing some reading lately in the area of preaching OT narrative. This was prompted by my own pulpit ministry, as I am currently preaching an expositional series on the life of Joseph (Genesis 37-50). Handling the OT is, of course, very challenging to the expositor, but the narrative portions of the OT present the preacher with any number of difficulties. Sadly, many fail to clear these hurdles skillfully, opting instead to use the text as a platform for pontificating on some (unrelated?) moral theme or psychoanalyzing the main character for the benefit of propping up a model—whether positive or negative—for the listener’s consideration.

Thankfully, in breaking from that pattern, Daniel I. Block has penned a very helpful chapter in Giving the Sense, encouraging the expositor to reconsider his approach to preaching OT narrative texts. Block, in “Tell Me the Old, Old Story: Preaching the Message of Old Testament Narrative,” offers great insights into all of the considerations that must be engaged before one is ready to preach in a manner that is faithful to the author’s intended meaning. But before getting to his suggestions, Block warns against the primary pitfall facing preachers, missing the true meaning of the passage by approaching the text with a “homiletical hermeneutic.” Here’s how he defines his term:

By “homiletical hermeneutic” I mean an approach to the biblical text that is driven by the need to preach a sermon from the text, rather than a thirst for understanding its message in its original context (411).

He goes on to suggest six characteristics that evidence the employment of a “homiletical hermeneutic”:

  1. Focusing on too short a portion of text so as to obscure the overall storyline of the narrative.
  2. In the interest of time and efficiency, inadequately “wrestling” with a particular narrative text, choosing instead to quickly identify some “preaching points” before really uncovering the text’s meaning.
  3. Honing in on the text’s relevance for today’s hearer without thinking through its meaning as intended by its author.
  4. Superimposing Western ideas of sermonic structure on the narrative text as an interpretive grid, instead of considering how the particulars of the genre in which the text is recorded inform one’s interpretation.
  5. Paying too much attention to secondary literature (read: commentaries) relating to the text, rather than prolonged consideration of the text itself.
  6. An over-emphasis on “rhetorical novelty and homiletical memorability” (412).

So, how “homiletical” is your hermeneutic?

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Chris,

    I will be the first to say that I have been guilty of all these at one point or another. Thanks for this excellent reminder. I think we are seeing an awakening in certain circles for a return to OT preaching. We have talked about it here numerous times and as I chat with brothers in the ministry they tell me how they are trying to go to the OT in a more balanced fashion. Let’s hope that we will all keep this wisdom out in front as we return to that “other section”.

    BTW and hopefully not in violation of #5 what have you found useful for your study of Gen. 37-50.

  2. First, I need this…

    Second, if I may say so, everyone needs this, exegetes as well as congregants…

  3. There has been a Chris sighting on ET. It is nice to see another contributor taking some of the burden off of Paul. Keep up the good work.

  4. Posted by Andy on September 1, 2006 at 3:15 pm

    I’d be interested to know where he takes #4. I know some would see that as a warrent to change sermon style away from “traditional” expository.

  5. Points #2,3 & 4 are of particular danger since they are the greatest threat to the intended meaning.

    On point #2 – The tendency here goes beyond merely identifying “preaching points” because preachers often look for easy-to-preach theological concepts in a text at the expense of the author’s intent in raising them. While a theological sermon may not totally “miss” every theological point in a passage, it risks placing them in emphatic positions where they don’t belong. Case in point…John 6:37 & 44. These verses are often preached as if Jesus decided to give a treatise on sovereign grace. Expounding the sovereignty of God from these texts would not be missing the theological implication of Jesus’ statements, but it would overshadow the Savior’s overall contextual reasons for making them. I’ve heard many sermons on these texts which eloquently and powerfully present the doctrine of election, yet very few have emphasized their Messianic import. In the midst of Jesus’ discourse on being the “bread out of Heaven”, He is not suddenly trying to correct the crowd’s free-will theism. Contextually, the multitudes continued to denigrate His Messianic claims (vv30-31,41-42), hence Jesus’ corrective that His messianic mission cannot fail because the Father is drawing those who are receiving Him. In other words, those who reject Him are no proof that Jesus isn’t “the bread out of Heaven” as He claims, but rather the verification of who is “given” by the Father to the Son (6:64-65).

    On point #3 – Many preachers would agree with Block’s point here because they already believe they “think through” the author’s intended “meaning” before considering contemporary relevance. We must, however, go beyond the original author’s meaning to the “up shot” of his teaching for the original audience. As I’ve stated before in other comments, I believe we can avoid this tendency by identifying the theological & practical implications for the original audience BEFORE we think about its import for us. How is this done? Below is a simple list of questions I’ve tried to work through at the end of the interpretive process, so as to know exactly what the original hearers would’ve concluded, understood, and applied.
    (1) What new understanding of God, man, sin, redemption, the world, the heavens, & eternity did this teach the original recipients? How did they change under this new understanding?
    (2) What errant convictions, unholy motivations, and idolatrous affections were being exposed at the time? How did they respond and why?
    (3) How did these truths confront their worldview?

    On point #4 – It’s difficult to know what “western ideas of sermonic structure” are, but it is common for preachers to extract principles from non-epistolary texts as though the points emerge verse-by-verse in descending order as in didactic portions of the NT. However, we must also avoid the opposite conclusion that all other genre’s (even narrative) present truth in scattered fashion. Moreover, whatever the pathology of principlizing a text, one may package the points in a different order than they appear in the text, so long as the author’s fullest intent is not sacrificed.

  6. Gold Jerry, thanks.

  7. Posted by Chris Pixley on September 2, 2006 at 12:41 am

    Good thoughts, guys. Thanks for the feedback.

    PSL…

    From an exegetical perspective, I’ve benefitted from both Hamilton (NICOT) and Wenham (WBC). Briefer, but still very profitable is Joyce Baldwin (BST). Though not a traditional commentary, but more of a structural analysis, I’ve gleaned some excellent insights fromRobert Longacre’s Joseph: A Story of Divine Providence. He’s really helpful in seeing how the details of the story fit the macro-structure. Form a more expositional standpoint, I’ve enjoyed both James Montgomery Boice (Vol. 3 in his Genesis series) and Kent Hughes (the Genesis volume in his Preaching the Word series). A good all-around resource (exegetical and expositional) is Allen P. Ross in Creation & Blessing. Finally, an eminently quotable resource is F.B. Meyer’s Joseph: Exalted Through Trials. Hope this helps a little.

    Even so…

    I agree. What better way to help our people understand the need for prolonged hours of study on the part of the pastor if he is to deal with the text adequately. Too often our congregants are tempted to think our study is intended to accomplish nothing more than the formulation of a Sunday sermon. Thanks for drawing out that helpful implication.

    Andy…

    See Jery’s comments on #4 above. Also, while I understand your concerns, I would caution against the idea that expository preaching is best defined by a particular style or form. Richard Mayhue sounds this reminder when he notes, “Exposition is not so much defined by the form of the message as it is by the source and process through which the message was formed” [Redicovering Expository Preaching,” in Rediscovering Expository Preaching, ed. John MacArthur Jr. (Dallas: Word, 1992), 11.] We do well to remind our people of this important distinction.

    Jerry…

    Excellent amplification of Block’s thoughts. We always need to be thinking in practical terms with respect to our own pulpit ministries. Your engagement always helps us to do that.

  8. Posted by Caleb on September 4, 2006 at 11:56 pm

    Thanks for this! This has been very insightful and practical.

    Caleb

  9. Posted by Robert Talley on September 15, 2006 at 2:38 am

    Enjoyed your points, especially since I finished up today a sermon for this Sunday from a two month series on the Holy Spirit entitled “The Creative Power of the Holy Spirit and You” (I know, rotten title, trust the sermon preaches better). I was originally going to preach from Genesis 1:2 but as I began to study I’ve ended up changing my “official text” to Job 25 although I’m basically surveying 25-42 (with some backtracking). The sermon basically applies the use of the doctrine of creation in the practical life of Job by Bildad, Job, and God. Obviously, God’s useage is the best and Job’s response is the response to which I’m calling my congregation. I just couldn’t find a way to deal meaningfully with the subject from a short passage. But then, that’s why Job has so many chapters. If I were preaching verse-by-verse through Job my thoughts would have been in a different vein and a different sermon would have come forth. Today was my first time to visit your site. Hope to see you again sometime.

    Robert

  10. Posted by Chris Pixley on September 15, 2006 at 11:33 am

    Robert-

    Thanks for stopping by. We love meeting new preachers and thinking together about this great task to which we’ve been called. Please come back often!

  11. Pixley,

    I saw an article for an upcoming conference at your church! Looks pretty big time man. Let us know how it goes.

    Caleb

  12. Posted by Chris Pixley on September 15, 2006 at 1:49 pm

    CK-

    Where did you see the conference adverstised? We’re pretty excited about this year’s conference-we’ve invited some top caliber speakers (Phil Johnson and Dr. Robert Reymond). Come on down, Brother, we’ve got a spot for you!

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