March 25, 2010

Preaching Propositions from Narratives: Is It Faithful?

Interest in narrative preaching has been on the rise as of late, and some leaders of emerging expressions of Christianity challenge the faithfulness of preaching propositionally from narratival texts.  They argue that faithfulness to a narrative in preaching means drawing that genre into the sermon.  This post aims to evaluate the strength of such a claim by looking at the question: Is propositional preaching faithful to narratival texts?

In seeking an answer to this question, we must ask how the authors of the biblical narratives (e.g., the cannonical gospels, Acts) intended them to be understood.  Did the biblical authors intend their narratives to be bare narratives or did they also intended the narrative to carrry theological meaning and significance about God and his self-revelation in Christ and the Spirit?  The obvious answer is that the biblical authors intended their narratives to bear meaning.  The historical accounts of the life of Christ do not come to us without authorial interpretation of Christ's life, death, and resurrection.  The historical accounts bear theological significance, and the narratives are intended to lead the reader or hearer to draw conclusions about the events narrated.  Certainly the conclusions can be stated in propositional form.  Thus, the narratives imply propositional truth.  Sometimes the narrators make the propositions explicit; other times they are implicit.  For example, Matthew repeatedly explains events in the life of Christ in terms of Old Testament prophecy.  The propositional implication that Matthew intends his story to make is that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah king foretold by the prophets in former times.

The task of the preacher is to aid the church in understanding the significance of the narrative and to guide the church in living in accordance with the text.  The most unambiguous way to do this is to elucidate the theological and propositional truths that flow out from the stories.  The stories bear meaning.  The question for us this: what do they mean?  This question is legitimately answered in propositional form.

In light of these considerations, we need not think we are being unfaithful to the text or the genre of the biblical narratives by preaching propositional sermons from them.  The narratives carry implicit (and sometimes explicit) propositions because history carries meaning.  This is not to say that there is not a time or place for narratival preaching. The narratival genre can certainly be used faithfully in biblical preaching.  It is to say that one can be both faithful to the narrative and preach the narrative propositionally at the same time.

3 comments:

Andrew said...

Homiletics is, of course, the domain of specialists, and the things you write about here are clearly aimed at those engaged in homiletics, nonetheless you make a point;

The task of the preacher is to aid the church in understanding the significance of the narrative and to guide the church in living in accordance with the text.

This is a teaching function, is it not?

If so Christ, as the exemplar, did not engage in monologue with his audience (save perhaps for the sermon on the mount, in the very first instance). Rather Christ engaged in dialogue, by making a point then by interacting with his audience, especially his disciples.

You make good case for propositional sermons, but doesn't Christ's example imply rather than employing a homiletic method modelled on Greek rhetoric which result in a monologue, Christ's model shouldn't be employed instead, which would result in a dialogue?

Or is employing such model just not practical given the realities of worship today?

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Andrew, thanks for your comment. Here are a few points in response:

First, I see preaching as a teaching event, even though it comes in the form of a monologue. Whether other preachers see it this way, I don't know. But you are welcome to check out my sermon podcast if you want an idea of what teach-preaching sounds like.

Second, it is hardly clear that Jesus only taught in dialogical form. The gospels themselves indicate that much of what he taught in the synagogues is unrecorded. I'm not a specialist on synagogue teaching forms, but the point is that its not a valid argument to say that Jesus only did it through dialogue. We just don't know that. Also, the gospel writers spoke of Jesus' ministry in terms of proclamation (cf. Matt. 4:23). "Proclamation" sounds more like monologue than dialogue. You might disagree.

Third, even if we knew that Jesus only taught in the form of dialogue, it would not mean that we must only do it that way too. Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world. If I were to try to do that because Jesus did it, it would constitute a denial of what Jesus did.

Fourth, there are plenty of biblical texts that provide monological models for instruction (cf. Ex 18:7, 34:32; 2 Chron 34; the speeches/sermons in Acts; the NT epistles were likely read as monologues upon delivery.

Fifth, I think dialogue is great and if the congregation were interested in sticking around for another half hour, then I would be happy to have a discussion of the sermon. I've been talking with some lately about how to encourage the congregation to form groups that meet during the week to discuss the sermons. So, don't get me wrong. I like great biblical-theological discussion (as you probably guessed from reading this blog). I think its a both/and rather than an either/or. I'm not looking to give up the Sunday sermon. God seems to have a tendency to work through those things.

Andrew said...

You raise all good points. About them, here are some observations:

1. It makes sense that preaching is (and likely always was) a teaching event.

2. If the goal is to teach and engage the elect, than it seems reasonable to point out the differences between the Greek method ( rhetoric ) and the method used in the temple (synagogues) appears to be much more interactive and community focused. Nonetheless what you say is true about Jesus specific teaching in the synagogues not being recorded. Nonetheless Jesus taught in the streets, in homes, from boats, all over the place and that was all recorded. These instances all make fine examples in their own right.

3. Jesus was the Christ. Christians are 'little Christs'. Although only Jesus could die for the sins of the world in a redemptive way (say as a kinsman redeemer), Christians are called to stand for the same things he stood for against the values of the world and will be hated by the world just as he was. Some Christian's like Jesus have been called to death, though not for the same reason.

His example, even in teaching, should be the model by which Christians teach. Remember that steel sharpens steel.

4. No one said monologues should be shunned altogether. The point is this, Jesus has perfect doctrine. His authority engaging in dialogue was the same as his authority engaging in monologue.

The same is not true of preachers today. The value of dialogue, even dialogue employed in teaching is that one's doctrine is subject to scrutiny, and is not delivered in such a way that implies false authority. Jesus' authority was authentic, but even his disciples in the community of believers was not so - unless first weighted against Jesus' words. This weighing was only done as a community process.

5. The spirit of your fifth comment is very much appreciated and imbibes the nature of the questions posed.