August 31, 2009

Why I Preach Expositionally, part 3: The Case for Preaching Whole Books

Continuing to consider the importance of expositional preaching for the church, we turn now to the preaching of books-as-wholes. This discipline, I fear, is not used widely in present day pulpits, though it appears to be making a comeback. It is lamentable that the preaching of whole books of scripture has fallen on hard times since, as I will argue, it is the best way to present the text in a way that is faithful to the form in which it was written and preserved.

The Bible is a collection of books the genres of which include epistolary, legal, prophetic, historical, narratival, apocalyptic, genealogical, psalmic, proverbial, and visionary literature, to name a few examples. When the triune God decided to reveal himself in written texts, he decided it would be best to do so in these various types of documents which we now commonly refer to as books. This is the form of scripture; it has come to us in books. Therefore, as preachers, we are most faithful to the form of scripture when we preach the books in their entirety. There are several reasons in favor of preaching whole books of the Bible.

First, the context of every verse of scripture is the book in which it is found, and every verse, if it is to be properly interpreted and applied, must be read in context. If we strip a verse from its context, then we have done an injustice to the text and have inclined ourselves toward the path of misinterpretation. It is unlikely that we will interpret a verse correctly and nearly impossible to plumb the depths of a passage when that passage is taken out of context. For example, in Philippians 2:19-30, Paul commends Timothy and Epaphroditus to the Philippians and outlines his plans for the two men to travel to Philippi. At first glance, the passage seems to be merely one of logistics, but when read in light of the argument, which begins in 1:27 with the command to live worthy of the gospel and runs all the way through 2:30, we see that Paul is appealing to the exemplary lives of Timothy and Epaphroditus and holding them up to the Philippians as worthy of imitation. The passage is not merely about travel plans; it is about the character of a life lived worthy of the gospel. The passage needs to be read in the context of the whole book in order to have the hortatory force that Paul intends.

Second, the preaching of books-as-wholes allows both preacher and congregation to soak themselves in the grammar, language, theology, and ethics of an entire book for an extended period of time. By the time the series is finished both have had ample time to come to grips with the message of the book in question and to reflect on its themes for an extended period of time. The words of scripture are profound and significant, and they are worthy of our extended attention.

Third, both Old and New Testaments offer precedent for the discipline of taking books-as-wholes. In Exodus 19:7, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, Moses set before the elders all the words that the Lord commanded. In Exodus 34:32, Moses spoke all that the Lord commanded to all the Israelites. In 2 Chronicles 34, Josiah commissioned the repair of the house of the Lord. During the course of this project, the book of the Law was found. When it was read to King Josiah, he tore his clothes and acknowledged the wrath of the Lord on the nation because their ancestors did not keep all that is written in the Law (19-21). In Nehemiah 8, the priest Ezra took the Law and read to to the whole assembly. These are only a few of the places where the whole Law was read to the people. The New Testament provides precedent as well. In Acts 20, Paul assembled the Ephesian elders and recounted his ministry to them saying, "I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God" (27). Apparently, Paul thought it important to include the entirety of God's message in his ministry of proclamation.

It is for these reasons that I advocate the preaching of whole books of scripture. A ministry characterized by the long term preaching of books-as-wholes across the gamut of biblical genres will yield a church that is thoroughly exposed to the God revealed in the Christian scriptures. In the end, God gave us a collection of books. He did not give us a collection of how-to manuals. That is not to discredit a preaching series on marriage, discipleship, salvation or any other biblical topic, but I would make these secondary and supplemental to a strong diet of preaching whole books of scripture. When we give an account of our preaching ministry to the very One we proclaim, let us be able to say with Paul that we did not shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God.

August 29, 2009

Why I Preach Expositionally, part 2: The Sufficiency of Scripture

Continuing to consider reasons why preaching should be done expositionally, we turn now to the doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture. Protestants have always affirmed that, "The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation." This is excerpted from Article V of the Articles of Religion which John Wesley adapted from the 39 Articles for the people called Methodists, and other Protestant confessions articulate similar understandings of this doctrine. The point that the article makes is that everything necessary for salvation has been revealed and preserved in the scriptures. Nothing exists outside the scriptures which must be believed in order to obtain eternal happiness and salvation. The Bible has everything we need to know God and experience his salvation to the utmost.

Neither is this doctrine foisted upon scripture from the outside. 2 Peter 1:3 declares, "His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness" (NRSV). That is, we have been given everything we need not only to experience birth into the new life that God has for us, but also to experience the the power of salvation to cleanse us from the power of sin in order that the character of God may be manifest in godliness in all aspects of life. The question is: how do we receive such blessing? Peter's answer is that we receive it through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord (cf. 1:1-2). And where do obtain this knowledge. God has revealed himself and preserved that revelation in the writings of the Old and New Testaments. Therefore, the scriptures are sufficient to provide everything we need for the salvation that consists in eternal life and living in holiness.

By the way, it's no small thing that at the end of the letter, Peter compares Paul's letters to the "other scriptures," by which he means the Hebrew scriptures (3:16). By the early second half of the first century, the writings of the Apostles were considered to have equal authority as the Old Testament.

In light of these considerations, what can we say about preaching? Well, if the Bible contains everything necessary to life and godliness and is entirely sufficient for salvation, then the preacher ought to do the best he can to make sure that his congregation is exposed to the scriptures and the scriptures are exposed to his congregation. This is the task of expositional preaching: to expose the scriptures by explaining them clearly and applying them to the life of the church. Thus, the systematic exposition of the biblical text is the most important thing a preacher can do in ministry to his people. He serves them best by serving them the Word.

The preacher who takes it as his aim to do otherwise necessarily undermines the sufficiency of the scriptures for salvation. By introducing biblically unfounded reflection or the latest self-help psychologizing, the preacher either says that there are other things out there that can lead to life and godliness or says that he doesn't much care whether his congregation receives what they need for life and godliness.

Why do I preach expositionally? Because the scriptures are sufficient to provide everything we need to know God and the fullness of his salvation. Expositional preaching is the best way, if not the only way, to make sure that our people receive the Word of life which they so desperately need.

August 26, 2009

Why I Preach Expositionally, part 1: The Authority of Scripture

I've been thinking a lot lately about preaching and, consequently, have reflected on the method I use to choose preaching texts. I am a strong proponent of expositional preaching, which is preaching that is intended to expose the meaning of the text. Expositional preaching seeks to take the central point of the passage as the main point of the sermon. It then goes on to make application of that point to the Church, the culture, and the lives of those present to hear. Expositional preaching is also generally taken to mean the preaching of books-as-wholes. That is, a preacher begins with the opening verse of a book and preaches through the entire book, paragraph-by-paragraph and verse-by-verse.

As I've said, I am a strong proponent of expositional preaching, and I want to take the next several posts to outline the reasons why I preach expositionally...and you should too.

The first reason I preach expositionally is nothing other than a resolute commitment to the authority of scripture. Scripture comes to us as the Word of God preserved and transmitted through his providential guidance. Scripture comes to us as that through which God gives life and mediates grace.

The apostles understood scripture to be given by the very breath of God and to be authoritative, good for teaching, reproof, correction, and training (2 Tim 3:16). The Old Testament writings, the Law and the Prophets, bear witness to the revelation of God's righteousness in Christ (Rom 3:21). Paul took his message of the gospel, which he preached in many cities and preserved in his letters, to be authoritative the extent that he called down curses on other so-called gospels and those who preached them (Gal 1:8-9). For two millenia, Christians have discerned the authority of scripture for their life, belief, and behavior. The Church has always looked to the scriptures, the Word of God, for instruction and training.

So, if the scriptures are authoritative, then the preacher ought to seek to submit his preaching ministry to the authority of the scriptures. The preacher should make it his goal to help the Church come under the authority of scripture as well. What better way to do this than the systematic exposition of the biblical books? What better way to do this than to expose the meaning of scripture in its original context and apply that to the life of the Church today? If we really believe that the Bible is authoritative, then we ought never step in the pulpit except to expound the authoritative text. The preacher carries authority only insomuch as he preaches the Word of God. The preacher, then, does not have license to insert his own pet theology or psychological musings. The preacher is faithful only when he preaches the text of scripture.

The way a preacher preaches reveals a great deal about his understanding of scripture. If the alleged sermon begins with a verse and then proceeds never to return to the text, the preacher reveals that he is not terribly concerned with the text and is not seeking to aid the Church in living under the authority of the text. One must wonder whether the preacher believes the text is authoritative at all. Whatever the preacher preaches, that is what he takes to be authoritative. If he preaches the latest self-help book, then he takes it to be authoritative. If he preaches his own motivational thoughts, then he elevates his own ideas above the precepts of scripture. You can tell a lot about what a preacher believes by the way he preaches.

So, why do I preach expositionally? Because scripture is universally authoritative. If I really believe that the text is authoritative, then I will do the best I can to understand it, to live under it, and to help the Church live under it as well. If I really believe that the text is authoritative, then I will not usurp the authority of the text with other competing authorities. If I believe the text is authoritative, then I will preach the text.

August 13, 2009

Jesus' Blood and Righteousness: Paul's Theology of Imputation by Vickers

With the present volume, Brian Vickers offers a biblical defense of the traditional Protestant understanding of the doctrine of imputation. The topic of imputation is not without controversy, and Vickers ably engages opponents with both charity and grace.

His method is biblical-theological and seeks to develop a comprehensive understanding of imputation by synthesizing the relevant Pauline texts. Vickers readily admits that no single passage in Paul provides a comprehensive articulation of imputation. Thus, he proceeds by dealing with three central passages: Romans 4, 5:18-19, and 1 Corinthians 5:21. Each passage brings a different piece of the puzzle. Romans 4 articulates how righteousness is reckoned. Romans 5 articulates the foundation of righteousness. 1 Corinthians 5 articulates the provision of righteousness. Drawing from each of these texts, Vickers provides a "Pauline synthesis" to support the classic Protestant understanding of imputation.

Worth noting is Vicker's emphasis on union with Christ as essential to understanding imputation. If one has a basic covenantal understanding of salvation history where everyone is either "in Adam" or "in Christ," then imputation follows quite easily. If one believes that salvation is found in being joined to Christ such that the benefits of his life, death, and resurrection are communicated to the believer, then imputation is the word that describes the communication of righteous standing before God. Approaching imputation through the concept of union with Christ is extremely helpful, and, I think, is an often neglected component of attacks on imputation.

Another strength of this book comes in its combination of detailed exegesis and systematic synthesis of the biblical evidence. It has become popular to criticize systematics in contemporary scholarly and popular discourse. The criticism is generally overstated. Though, at times, some systematicians do fudge on the exegesis. Vickers provides a model for a theological approach to scripture. His combination of detailed exegesis and a synthetic reading of Paul is a model for doing theology.

A possible weakness of the book might be the author's understanding of the place of faith in imputation. Vickers takes faith to be basically instrumental as that which joins the believer to Christ. However, his presentation of the evidence could lead one to understand faith as having not merely an instrumental function but a causal function as well. It's not clear that he follows the evidence to its logical conclusion. Perhaps more on that at another time.

All in all, this book was quite enjoyable. I found it to be quite enlightening, and based on Vicker's argument I find myself comfortable with the language of imputation as the basis of a believer's right standing before God. This is, for me, a development. Not only did I read a number of criticisms of imputation before reading this book, but was taught by critics of imputation as well. So, I was a rather cautious and skeptical at the outset. However, Vickers was persuasive and served to placate my reservations about the language of imputation. I am happy to recommend this volume as a fine defense of the doctrine of imputation.

August 5, 2009

The First Amendment and the Myth of Neutrality

I recently attended a First Amendment Forum which included a presentation called "Finding Common Ground: Religious Liberty in the Public Schools" by Dr. Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. The forum was held at Milton High School in Santa Rosa County, Florida, and was attended by school administrators, teachers, and local clergy. The forum followed a recent lawsuit against the Santa Rosa County schools by the ACLU on behalf of two students who charged that teachers were forcing religion upon them. The first amendment restricts the power of Congress to make a law "respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The fourteenth amendment extends these restrictions to the states and agencies of the states. Dr. Haynes' presentation advanced a reading of the first amendment which advocated a neutral position toward religion on the part of government and government schools. He advocated moving beyond two failed models which he termed: The Sacred Public School and the Naked Public School. The so-called sacred public school is one in which religious practices are mandatory (e.g. prayer and bible readings). The naked public school is one in which there is no presence of religion at all. Instead, Dr. Haynes proposed a "civil public school" in which the school does not "inculcate nor inhibit religion" and where "religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect." According to Dr. Haynes, such a school would be neutral with regard to religion. This "shared vision for religious liberty in public schools" has been accepted by such (allegedly) diverse organizations as People for the American Way and the National Association of Evangelicals.

The problem with this "shared vision" is that there is no such thing as neutrality with regard to religion. The central claim of the biblical and historical Christian religion is nothing less than the declaration that Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Lord over everything including the Church, the governing authorities, the public schools, and every constituent of every religion in the world. Jesus is Lord over all people and every institution. The fact that many people and institutions do not acknowledge his lordship does not actually negate or alter his lordship. Jesus is Lord no matter what anyone thinks. That Jesus is Lord all the time and everywhere necessarily means that there is no such thing as neutrality with regard to him. He requires faith and obedience. Not to render faith and obedience is nothing other than disobedience and rebellion against his universal claim to universal lordship. Neutrality is a myth; there is no such thing.

In my view, Dr. Haynes’ proposal really advances a new civil religion. This new state religion which is being foisted upon our children is pluralistic acknowledging many deities and giving them all fair (?) hearing. The gods of this new state religion form a pantheon of pagan-like demigods which are merely projections of our own damaged and sinful human image. In attempting to combine all religions into one common meeting place where all are seen with equal validity misunderstands them all. Jesus Christ expects total and unqualified allegiance from everyone. The problem is that so do other deities, but only one can reign. If Dr. Haynes’ interpretation of the first amendment is correct (and it may not be), then it cannot be reconciled with the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Christians must not be persuaded by the myth of neutrality. That Christian groups like the National Association of Evangelicals have signed off on Dr. Haynes’ vision for public education only demonstrates that they do not actually understand the evangel itself. The gospel includes the news that Jesus is Lord over all, and we must understand that Jesus’ claims to lordship are total. To place him alongside other gods is to patronize him. Every institution which claims neutrality towards him is actually antagonistic to him. Christians should not be satisfied with simply gaining a hearing or getting a place at the table. We should only be satisfied when the Lordship of Christ is acknowledged at the table. If it is not, perhaps we should abandon the table. Jesus is Lord! We look forward to the day when this is the confession of every tongue.

August 4, 2009

An Introduction to the Study of Paul by David G. Horrell

The aim of this volume by David Horrell is to not to answer questions but to raise them. Horrell, Reader in New Testament Studies at the University of Exeter, UK, provides a very brief survey of the major questions and debates in the scholarly study of Paul, his life, and his letters. He introduces briefly the three overlapping worlds in which Paul found himself - Roman, Hellenistic, and Jewish. The chapters deal with such matters as whether Paul was converted or called, the central elements in Paul's gospel, and Paul's understanding of the Jewish Law. He devotes some time to the extensive debate over whether the Greek phrase pistis Christou means "faith in Christ" or "faithfulness of Christ." And, of course, he devotes considerable time to the issue of "righteousness" language and the so-called New Perspective on Paul. Horrell even includes a chapter on some of the newer and influential approaches to Paul including: social-scientific, political, and feminist interpretations.

Horrell's central focus is to introduce interested readers to the major critical questions in the study of Paul, not to provide his own reading of Paul, though his views do find their way into the discussions at times. He is quite sympathetic to those readings of Paul which resist portraying Judaism as inferior to Christianity, a common trend in post-World War Two scholarship. Also, newcomers should be prepared for a book that does not take Paul to be the author of the disputed Paulines (Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus).

Overall, the book is well written and provides a decent survey of important matters in Pauline studies. Readers familiar with the discipline will immediately realize, though, that the debates are much more complex than the present book has room to address. Such readers will find little new information. The book would serve well as a college text book. It's primary strength lies in the fact that most introductions to Paul are really theologies of Paul as understood by the authors. This book is more interested in introducing the issues. The bibliographies and suggestions for further reading are quite valuable. Unfortunately, the author and publishers decided to place all the notes at the end of each chapter. This is somewhat frustrating especially in a work that intends to point the reader beyond itself to the books it discusses.

I recommend this book to anyone planning to do work in Paul as a volume that provides a nice glimpse at the lay of the scholarly land. I will certainly keep it around as a reference for who said what and where to find it.