Plain vanilla is good

Plain vanilla is good

This is a review of Rolland McCune’s doctrine of scripture and God’s self-disclosure from his text, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity.

I read Rolland McCune’s systematic years ago, and still refer to it occasionally. It is an excellent representation of scholarly, second-stage[1] Northern Baptist fundamentalism. Tellingly, it is the only meaningful work of systematic theology a latter-day Baptist fundamentalist has yet produced in America.[2] I still treasure memories of reading the second volume of his systematic theology text regarding Christology.

In the doctrine of scripture from his first volume, McCune explains that general revelation acts through creation and conscience and reveals non-verbal information about God.[3] Preservation of scripture is providential, not miraculous. “Because of this, God does not miraculously prevent mistranslations or errant transmissions.”[4] God’s word is providentially preserved in the totality of manuscripts.[5] The Spirit assures us God’s word is true and provides “an ongoing capacity to understand the significance of scripture.”[6]

Accurate interpretation of Scripture is predicated on two pillars; (1) scripture is sufficiently clear about the Gospel, and (2) it is sufficient for life and godliness.[7] “It does not wait to be sufficient until it encounters the individual nor does it cease to be sufficient when rejected or ignored by the same.”[8]

In fact, the entire debate—both about inspiration and, even, inerrancy—boils down to whether or not one accepts Scripture’s origin and, subsequently, its claims about itself. Either these are accepted or rejected; there is no middle ground.[9]

McCune has excellent discussions about Jesus and the apostles’ testimony about the inspiration of the Old and New Covenant scripture.[10] His chart of the Old Testament miracles Jesus affirms is particularly helpful.[11]

McCune holds to a concursus kind of inspiration,[12] which he curiously files under the “dictation” heading.[13] He explains, “Concursive inspiration insists on the (miraculous) participation of both man and God in the writing process.”[14] He flippantly dismisses the dynamic theory in two short paragraphs, citing Augustus Strong as a proponent, falsely claiming this view believes scripture “merely records human reflections on historical encounters with God.”[15] Strong’s extensive discussion[16] deserved better than this, and McCune errs by imputing neo-orthodoxy to him—an anachronism if ever there was one!

Scripture is the result of God’s creative power—it is God-produced, not God-animated.[17] If “all” Scripture is produced by God, “then this production must extend to its very words.”[18] McCune does not deal with problem passages. As McCune left matters, the reader must conclude God moved the biblical writers to quote the LXX rather than the Hebrew, and produced Paul’s (shall we say) … creative re-purposing of Psalm 68:18 at Ephesians 4:8-10.

McCune believes inerrancy “argues for accuracy of statement, not necessarily exactness of statement.”[19] He declares, “[w]ithout question, the Bible teaches its own inerrancy by claiming its own truthfulness.”[20] Given that McCune goes on to pursue two lines of evidence for the Bible’s truthfulness,[21] one wonders why Michael Bird’s suggestion to re-package this concept as “divine truthfulness” has not caught on with Americans.[22]

McCune then draws a parallel to Christ’s dual nature incarnation to help us understand how God and man worked together to produce inspired scripture.[23] Troublingly, Strong has an excellent discussion on this very point just beyond where McCune last cited him,[24] but McCune never credits Strong (or, indeed, any theologian) with this insight.[25]

McCune closes the selection with a helpful survey of seven ways God reveals Himself to people.[26]

McCune does not interact with those even a bit to his left in any sustained way. For example, it would have been helpful if he had addressed criticism from the center-left of evangelicalism such as that of Donald Bloesch, who labeled positions like McCune’s an “epistemic bondage to Enlightenment rationalism.”[27] Bloesch was neither a liberal or a fundamentalist, and his observations are worth the effort to engage them. For example, “[b]iblical inerrancy has become a slogan masking a not-so-hidden antipathy to the historical-critical approach to Scripture.”[28]

But, McCune stays away from this. His is a solid, conservative systematic theology advancing views rather standard among second-stage Northern Baptist fundamentalists and their heirs. It’s a beginning text. It’s a “safe” place to get the “right” answers. That is not to say McCune’s answers are wrong. He just does not interact meaningfully with opposing views. Indeed, the student reading his text may not realize there are other views that hold sway in the broader stream of evangelicalism.


[1] This is Roger Olson’s term (Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology [Louisville: WJK, 2004]pp. 36-39). He accurately distinguishes first-stage fundamentalists who were concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy from second-stage fundamentalists whose rhetorical foe became conservatives who “compromised” on doctrine. First-stage fundamentalists are the modern conservative evangelicals (e.g. the GARBC). Second-stage fundamentalists are groups like the FBFI and the ACCC, who still fight the good fight of separation from evangelicals and other conservatives.

See also Tyler Robbins, “Fundys, Evangelicals, and the Eye of a Needle …” at eccentricfundamentalist.com (15 December 2019). Retrieved from https://eccentricfundamentalist.com/2019/12/15/fundys-evangelicals-and-the-eye-of-a-needle/.

[2] One possible exception is Emery Bancroft, Christian Theology, second revised ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976). Bancroft’s work began life in 1925 and went through several editions. Bancroft died in 1944, and was a co-founder of Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, PA. I hesitate to include Bancroft because I doubt he could be considered a “fundamentalist” in the second-stage sense of the term at all.

[3] Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit: DBTS, 2006-2009), 1: 42-43.  

[4] Ibid, p. 49.  

[5] Ibid, p. 54. 

[6] Ibid, pp. 56-57.  

[7] Ibid, pp. 58-62.  

[8] Ibid, p. 61.  

[9] Ibid, p. 63.  

[10] Ibid, pp. 65-77.  

[11] Ibid, pp. 67-68.  

[12] Ibid, pp. 37-39.  

[13] Ibid, pp. 80-81.  

[14] Ibid, p. 81.  

[15] Ibid, p. 80.     

[16] Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan: Revell, 1907), 211-222. McCune’s issue with the dynamic theory seems to be that it denies God’s direct agency in the choice of words (Systematic Theology, 1:80). Strong is inconsistent on this point. At the beginning of his discussion, he argues inspiration is plenary (Systematic, 211) but then remarks, “[t]hought is possible without words, and in the order of nature precedes words. The Scripture writers appear to have been so influenced by the Holy Spirit that they perceived and felt even the new truths they were to publish, as discoveries of their own minds, and were left to the action of their own minds in the expression of these truths, with the single exception that they were supernaturally held back from the selection of wrong words, and when needful were provided with the right ones,” (Ibid, p. 216).

[17] McCune, Systematic Theology, p. 83.  

[18] Ibid, p. 87.  

[19] Ibid, p. 90.  

[20] Ibid, p. 91.  

[21] Ibid, pp. 91-93.

[22] “Rather than ‘inerrancy,’ a better categorization of Scripture’s claims for itself would be ‘veracity,’ or ‘divine truthfulness.’ Instead of stating how or in what way the Bible is not untrue—which is an odd thing to say, when you think about it—we are better off simply asserting that God’s Word is true as it correlates with God’s intent for what Scripture is to achieve, because he is faithful to his world and to his Word,” (Michael Bird, “Inerrancy is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA,” in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, ed. Stanley Gundry [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013; Kindle ed.], KL 2655).

[23] Systematic Theology, 1:102-103.  

[24] Strong, Systematic, 212-222.  

[25] See McCune, Systematic Theology, 1:102-103 at footnotes 129-131.  

[26] Ibid, pp. 171-187.  

[27] Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), 33f.

[28] Ibid, p. 32.

Revenge of the strawmen

Revenge of the strawmen

This is a review of the first seven chapters of Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice.

J. Ligon Duncan opens the book with two chapters on the regulative principle (“RP”). This is the concept that corporate worship must only be based on positive commands from scripture. Duncan presents a familiar lament about contemporary worship services. You hear this so often that one wonders if these warnings are no more than recycled, plagiarized strawmen. Duncan presents the RP as the answer. “True Christian worship is by the book,”[1] he declares, and “there must be scriptural warrant for all we do.”[2]

So, Duncan presents a representative case for the RP, using sometimes questionable hermeneutics. He cites Exodus 20:5-6 to claim God is like a wronged husband who seeks revenge against “adulterous” believers who worship Him wrongly.[3] It is unclear what the that text has to do with the RP.

Duncan believes nearly every theme in scripture supports the RP.[4] The way we worship communicates how we think about God; “form impacts content.”[5] He asks, “what makes us think we can possibly fathom what would please God, apart from his telling us what to do in his word?”[6] We can only respond to what God has revealed,[7] and the Church has “derivative authority” to “administer his rule for worship, as set forth in the word.”[8]

Contra charges of legalism, “[t]he regulative principle is designed to secure the believer’s freedom from the dominion of human opinion in worship.”[9] Indeed, the Reformers “did not have the same interest in cultural accommodation as many modern evangelical worship theorists do.”[10]

Derek Thomas then weighs in with an angry article answering objections to the RP. He wastes time by arguing the Puritans did not misunderstand Calvin’s theology of worship,[11] presuming the reader will care about this burning question.

The RP is not legalistic at all—why shouldn’t God have rules? We only hate rules because of sin.[12] People who have different interpretations about the RP, Thomas warns, are likely motivated by prejudice.[13] In fact, Thomas suspects disagreement is merely a cloak for pragmaticism.[14]

Thomas dismisses John Frame’s objections by, ironically for a RP advocate, not quoting one passage of scripture![15] He acknowledges the charge that Jesus, by worshipping in a synagogue, did not practice the regulative principle.[16] Thomas never meaningfully responds to this, and again cites no scripture.[17]

Thomas likes strawmen, so much so that even at 19 years distance since its publication a fire marshal may well shut his essay down as a fire hazard. To abandon the RP, he declares, is the slippery slope to ruin.[18]

Edmund Clowney chimes in with an essay arguing corporate worship is a means of grace (ch. 5)—an issue I was not aware was in dispute. His contribution is unnecessary. Albert Mohler queues up to offer a workmanlike article on expository preaching. Like Duncan, he employs the same laments about the state of the contemporary church[19] and declares “the heart of Christian worship is the authentic preaching of the word of God.”[20]

Mark Dever offers an uninspired article about how to preach evangelistic sermons. It includes the immortal remark that an evangelistic sermon is one where the gospel is preached.[21]

Terry Johnson and Duncan team up to offer advice on reading and praying in corporate worship. They rightly call the Church back to corporate readings, but their advice can be too idealistic.[22] Johnson does not approve of non-pastors reading scripture in public but, irony of ironies for an RP man, he cannot provide scriptural support.[23] Crudely, he suggest having women read scripture in public is a sop to an egalitarian culture.[24]

All told, this is a collection of passionate essays from men who, to greater or lessor extent, minister in a very Reformed context. At times you get the feeling you’ve stumbled into the middle of a nasty family dispute, and start looking for the exit. Some essays exhibit inappropriate contempt and suspicion for those who disagree.


[1] Philip Ryken (ed.), Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship, Celebrating the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003; Kindle ed.), KL 540-541.

[2] Ibid, KL 581-582.  

[3] “In other words, God is saying in this warning: ‘My people, if you commit spiritual adultery in your worship, I will righteously respond like the most fearsome wronged husband you have ever known.’” (Ibid, KL 802-804). Because “there is a double essence to the idolatry prohibited in the second command” (Ibid, KL 1179), we need the regulative principle.

[4] “[T]he doctrine of God, the Creator-creature distinction, the idea of revelation, the unchanging character of the moral law, the nature of faith, the doctrine of carefulness, the derivative nature of the church’s authority, the doctrine of Christian freedom, the true nature of biblical piety, and the reality of the fallen human nature’s tendency to idolatry,” (Ibid, KL 1103-1105).

[5] Ibid, KL 1122.  

[6] Ibid, KL 1148-1149.

[7] Ibid, KL 1192-1193. “Where God has not revealed Himself, there can be no faithful response, so “God cannot be pleased by worship that is not an obedient response to his revelation, because it is by definition ‘un-faith-full’ worship.”

[8] Ibid, KL 1215-1216.  

[9] Ibid, KL 1222-1223.

[10] Ibid, KL 1347.  

[11] “Is it the case that the seventeenth century took the regulative principle in a direction that Calvin, for example, did not intend?” (Ibid, KL 1626).

[12] Ibid, KL 1689.  

[13] “[I]t is sometimes apparent that this response is not an objection based on principle, but on prejudice,” (Ibid, KL 1698-1699).  

[14] “One suspects that reformation in attitude to sola scriptura is needed before progress can be made in advancing the cause of biblical worship practice,” (Ibid, KL 1700-1701).

[15] Ibid, KL 1725f.  

[16] Ibid, KL 1778.  

[17] “Of interest to us here is to know whether synagogue worship contained anything in it that would be deemed contrary to the regulative principle. Did it contain an element of worship that was not warranted by the Old Testament? The answer is definitely in the negative. What did a typical synagogue worship service look like? Nothing that will give devotees of greater freedom any joy! The fact is that synagogue worship was remarkably predictable, containing a call to worship, a cycle of prayers, the singing of psalms, the recitation of portions of Scripture (the Shema in particular), reading of Scripture, and something that we would now call preaching or exposition, followed by a blessing. It all sounds very similar to a traditional worship service!” (Ibid, KL 1811-1817).

[18] “… being at the mercy of a worship leader with the Outback Steakhouse approach to Sunday morning worship— no rules! What prevents our adding a ‘Pet consecration moment’ between the singing of ‘Jesus Is All the World to Me’ and the offering? Or a section called ‘Getting in Touch with Feelings’ led by Counselor Smith in place of the sermon? Or ‘Mrs. Beattie’s Bread Board: Cooking with Jesus’ as the closing facet of worship? The answer is ‘Nothing!’ Only cultural mores and prejudice can keep worship sane if there is no distinction between the worship service and the rest of life,” (Ibid, 1834-1839).

[19] The Church has been seduced by topical preaching (Ibid, KL 2065). Therapeutic concerns set the tone in many congregations (Ibid, 2065). “The appetite for serious preaching has virtually disappeared among many Christians,” (Ibid, 2084).

[20] Ibid, KL 2044.  

[21] “One thing and one thing alone determines whether a sermon can properly be said to be evangelistic, and that is its content. Is the evangel— the good news—present?” (Ibid, KL 2365-2367).

[22] They proclaim the public scripture reading “ought to be arresting to the congregation. It ought to grab their attention. It ought sometimes to make them tremble and other times rejoice,” (Ibid, KL 2631-2632). This sounds lovely. It likely will not do that. The authors appear to have been carried off into rapturous delight in their prose.

[23] Ibid, KL 2667f.  

[24] “Sometimes it is done (one suspects) to prove to a suspicious culture that conservative evangelical churches are not knee-jerk reactionaries in their stance against women preachers, and so sometimes women are invited to lead the church in this area, if not in proclamation,” (Ibid, KL 2664-2666).

The art of tacky preaching?

The art of tacky preaching?

Steven Mathewson’s work The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative[1]is a somewhat helpful but ultimately disappointing book. Curiously, only ch. 3-6 (pp. 43-78) deal with narrative.

Mathewson’s discussion of expository preaching as “more of a philosophy than a method” is quite good (pp. 21-22). He appropriately critiques pastors who preach all genres the same way. “The analytical outline approach presses the story into a mold that often works against it, especially when the outline points are alliterated or parallel,” (p. 26).  

His review of the building blocks of a narrative plot are adequete (pp. 57-78). However, a pastor will only be a competent interpreter if he is already a reader. So, attempts to explain nuts and bolts about the narrative genre are of limited value. It would be akin to me, the investigations manager for a WA-state agency, trying to explain the basics of ERISA health benefit plans to laypeople and expecting them to do something meaningful with this information. Unless you are already “in the know,” such an explanation would be a waste of time. I fear it is here, too.  

Mathewson suggests the pastor ask himself three functional questions when considering application; (1) what does it mean?, (2) is it true?, and (3) so what? (pp. 95ff). I do these during the sermon as rhetorical questions to engage the audience so we “discover” the story together.

His application suggestions are disappointing. He suggests the pastor “build application around the contours” of the vision of God and the “fallen condition factor” (a la Bryan Chapell) of the text (p. 101). I agree with Abraham Kuruvilla that such an approach is inherently generic and can be applied to many other passages—thus implicitly denigrating the concept of plenary inspiration.[2] If the inspired author’s intent with the passage, the action he wants the audience to take, does not drive our application then we are tacitly saying the text is useless. Christlikeness predicated on the theology of the passage is the better way.  

Mathewson follows Haddon Robinson’s “big idea” approach (ch. 9), which distills the theology into a memorable saying. This approach is an error. Did God really inspire 1 Samuel 17 so Mathewson could fashion a kitsch ditty like, “when God has big business, faith always gets the contract!” (p. 105)? We can distill the application; the author’s imperative from the passage’s context, but we ought not do it to the theology of the passage.   

Troublingly, Mathewson suggests our “purpose” for the sermon (again, following Robinson) can be different than the author’s purpose “as long as it is in line with the author’s purpose” (p. 109; emphasis added). His Father’s Day suggestion from Genesis 22 is tawdry and irrelevant.[3] Ironically, he doesn’t follow his own caveat; “Would the author be comfortable with the way I am using his story to address this particular situation?” (p. 109). Regarding Mathewson’s butchering of Genesis 22, Moses would perhaps be tempted to call down an 11th plague upon him.

He helpfully suggests pastors craft specific and measurable purpose statements, but his examples are crude and of dubious exegetical warrant (pp. 110-111). For example, applying Genesis 13 means people ought to set lunch appointments to resolve interpersonal conflicts.

Mathewson prefers an inductive, “telling the story” shape for the sermon (pp. 113-115). His discussion of outlines is fine (pp. 122-130), but I confess I have never used outlines. He provides troubling advice for “cold opens” involving first-person narrative, costumes, and triteness that veers well-nigh unto blasphemy.

  • He suggests pastors turn their backs on the congregation, then spin about and “become” the character for a brief period (p. 149).
  • Mathewson sums up Genesis 22 for an introduction by suggesting the immortal line, “There’s a story in Genesis 22 that helps us understand why God appears to eat our lunch when we’ve asked him for our daily bread,” (p. 148).
  • He also recommends pastors begin the sermon “as” the character to introduce the passage. “I always figured that the movie based on my life story would be called The Natural. But a more appropriate title would be The Jerk. My name is Samson,” (p. 150).

Mathewson’s book has some helpful but unremarkable advice recycled from better-known works by other authors. In that respect, his book is what generic Target-brand soda is to Coca-Cola. It’s not bad. It just isn’t particularly great. In addition, his rhetorical suggestions are tacky and cheap. His commendable passion to tell the biblical narrative “as story” has led him astray into irreverence.


[1] Steven D. Mathewson, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002).

[2] Abraham Kuruvilla, “Time to Kill the Big Idea? A Fresh Look at Preaching” JETS 61.4 (2018), pp. 833-834.

[3] “Fathers will write out a list of sacrifices they make for their children that steal time or money rightly belonging to God,” (109).  

Did the Apostle Peter write for Zondervan?

Did the Apostle Peter write for Zondervan?

I updated this review on 24 December 2020.

In his book, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers, Abner Chou considers how the authors wrote.[1] “Do the apostles go beyond the original meaning (or ideas) of the Old Testament writers? Or, do they make a legitimate inference (significance) based upon what was originally established?”[2] He concludes, “The Old Testament writers themselves were exegetes and theologians who understood and correlated their texts with previous revelation.”[3]

To chart this path, Chou first considers the importance of authorial intent (Ch. 1). He then notes some necessary presuppositions, such as the distinctions between meaning and significance, and the principle of intertextuality that he alleges should force us to go beyond a mere “two text” approach when considering how authors use previous revelation.[4] (Ch. 2). He then explains why the prophets were exegetes and theologians (Ch. 3), discusses later author’s use of older revelation (Ch. 4), the New Testament use of the Old (Ch. 5-6), and concludes (Ch. 7-8).

Chou repeats the lament that post-enlightenment thinking has denigrated scripture. However, his own model is itself quite rationalistic at points. The Spirit’s work in the biblical author’s writings seems to be an afterthought; a pro forma appendix to Chou’s proposal. This is illustrated by how he handles Matthew’s “fulfillment” citation (Mt 2:15) of Hosea 11:1:[5]

  • Hosea must have known his text would be applied to a future situation in a new exodus.[6]
  • God’s “son” is Israel, and it is also the Davidic King,
  • who occasionally depicts his trials in exodus-like language with expectations of deliverance for himself and his house,
  • and Hosea much earlier in his book suggested a bold “new David” would lead the people back from the coming exile,
  • so, in Hosea 11, the author must be “linking” these motifs,[7]
  • thus “Matthew chose to use Hosea (as opposed to quoting Exodus 4:22) for this reason! The apostle wanted to talk about the Exodus the way Hosea did.”[8]

However, Matthew says none of this. Nor does Hosea. Rather, Matthew explains Joseph and Mary took Jesus to Egypt “in order to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet,” (Mt 2:15).[9] Chou must thus nuance the meaning of “fulfill,” which he does by gingerly claiming it “perhaps” refers to the fruition of certain theological concepts.[10]

Matthew uses Hosea appropriately because he is an exegete, not a rote scribe, so “[a] sound application occurs when one draws a legitimate inference from the range of implications intended by the author.”[11] In fact, a New Testament author can use an Old Testament text in a way the original author would not understand, and yet still honor that author’s intent.[12] But, Chou avers, this is not sensus plenior—it is exegesis.

Indeed, Chou’s aim is to show “the prophets were exegetes and theologians.”[13] Thus, our hermeneutics textbooks largely model what the biblical authors did—historical context, genre, context, grammar, and word study. “Their hermeneutical method does not derail all that we have traditionally learned. Rather, their methodology substantiates it.”[14]

Perhaps unwittingly, Chou imputes his own context as a comfortable Western academic to the biblical authors. To him, they were great essayists and researchers—inspired exegetes doing word studies, genre analysis and historical research.[15] Does that really describe Amos, the lowly shepherd of Tekoa? Jeremiah as he wept over the Jerusalem ruins? Solomon as he composed Song of Songs? The author of Job? Does it encapsulate Hosea as he preached and wrote about his faithless wife? What about Ezekiel and his dead wife, the delight of his eyes (Ezek 24:15-27)? Were these men merely exegetes with BDAG and BDB open before them, and Logos’ FactBook glowing reassuringly on a nearby screen? Is Matthew the master intertextual exegete (2:15; cp. Hosea 11:1), or is God making the unexpected application for us?

It is the latter.

Chou’s late colleague, Robert Thomas, advocated an “inspired sensus plenior application” approach that is much simpler.[16] The biblical author, under inspiration of the Spirit, “does not eradicate the literal meaning of the Old Testament passage but simply applies the Old Testament wording to a new setting.”[17] In this way, Thomas better accounts for the incongruity of Matthew’s Hosea citation by not tacitly downplaying God’s activity in that citation by appeal to an implicit rationalism.  

Generically, Chou’s proposal is correct. The authors surely did understand previous revelation and build upon it. He errs by attempting to rescue notorious “problem passages” by tacitly downplaying the Spirit’s role and re-casting say, Peter, as an exegete par excellence instead of a good man moved by God to write what God wanted. His rejection of inspired sensus plenior application (a la Thomas) forces him to find intertextual links that seem occasionally desperate. His alleged solutions are rationalistic, I believe, in that Chou is unwilling to attribute their new application to the Spirit’s intent. Instead, Chou must always find an exegetical warrant because, to him, biblical authors are master exegetes who do word studies and genre and literary analysis. I wonder what Chou would have done with the Apostle Paul’s citation and application (Eph 4:8-10) of Psalm 68:18?

In short, Chou’s author looks suspiciously like a biblical theologian writing a tome on deadline for Zondervan.

Chou’s project is intriguing, but unacceptable at points. By claiming to “know” what Matthew intended with the Hosea citation[18] without any evidence from Matthew himself, Chou engages in the same extra-textual analysis as his “post-enlightenment” foes—the difference is his analysis is relentlessly positive. This is not always a credible way to handle “problem passages.”

Finally, I must note that in his discussion of so-called “trajectory hermeneutics,” Chou falsely suggests William Webb[19] accepts unrepentant, homosexual Christianity.[20] Ironically, this is an unfortunate error that detracts from Chou’s own standing to speak credibly about hermeneutics.  

Chou is to hermeneutics what the more passionate harmonizers[21] are to the inerrancy debate;[22] he evidences zeal for harmonization as the tool to explain away all difficulties. And sometimes Chou’s solutions are overwrought.


[1] “What was the author thinking? How did he reach his conclusion?” (Abner Chou, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers: Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2018; Kindle ed.], p. 18).

[2] Ibid, p. 131.  

[3] Ibid, p. 21.  

[4] “… figuring out the author’s logic is far from subjective. Rather, it is textually expressed by the intertextuality in Scripture,” (Ibid, p. 36). “The author could have ‘two texts’ in mind (his own and the text he alludes to). However, he also could have many more texts in view as he wrote,” (Ibid, p. 38).

[5] “… did Hosea know his words would be applied to something future when they seem to refer to the past? Second, would Hosea ever think that his text pertains to the Messiah, since it originally talks about Israel?” (Ibid, p. 105).

[6] Ibid, pp. 105-107.  

[7] “The similar language between the passages indicates Hosea believes the new David of Hosea 3 is involved in the new Exodus of Hosea 11,” (Ibid, p. 109).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Matthew 2:15b: ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ κυρίου διὰ τοῦ προφήτου.

[10] Chou, Hermeneutics, p. 132. “Put in terms of the prophetic to apostolic hermeneutic, perhaps the apostles were not always claiming a prophecy being fulfilled but the completion or full development of the work of their prophetic predecessors. The theology has been brought to its fullest maturation,” (Ibid, p. 133).

[11] Ibid, p. 142.  

[12] “… as I have commented before, comprehensive knowledge of a future ramification is not required for a text to be used per the original author’s intent,” (Ibid).

[13] Ibid, p. 199.  

[14] Ibid, p. 201.  

[15] See Chou’s discussion at pp. 201-209.  

[16] Robert Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), pp. 241-269.  

[17] Ibid, p. 242.  

[18] “The apostle wanted to talk about the Exodus the way Hosea did,” (Ibid, p. 109).

[19] William J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001).

[20] Chou, Hermeneutics, p. 226, fn. 50.  

[21] See, for example, Harold Lindsell’s discussion of “the case of the molten sea” from 2 Chronicles 4:2 in The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 165-166.

[22] I am relying on categories from the discussion by Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), pp. 199f. 

Big ideas and the Dutch kerfuffle

Big ideas and the Dutch kerfuffle

Sidney Greidanus’ work Sola Scriptura: Problems and Principles in Preaching Historical Texts is a masterpiece—but more because of the questions it raises than its own conclusions. His aim is to consider how to preach historical texts faithfully. He does this by using a pre-war homiletical[1] kerfuffle in the Dutch church as a foil—specifically by contrasting the strategies of (1) exemplary, and (2) redemptive-historical modes of preaching.

The redemptive-historical model is predicated on biblical theology; “[w]e must, therefore, try to understand all the accounts in their relation with each other, in their coherence with the center of redemptive history, Jesus Christ.”[2] The exemplary method often uses bible persons as illustrations, mirrors and models for our own behavior. Thus, “young David was brave and trusted in God, and so must we!” etc. The champions of the exemplary method are not opposed to the idea of an over-arching redemptive framework, but “their basic motive [is] a concern for the relevance of the sermon.”[3] So, one advocate explains:[4]

… they still feel felt free to treat separately (using biblical givens) certain persons described in Scripture, to picture them psychologically, to speak of their struggles and trials, their strengths and weaknesses, and then to draw parallels between the experiences of the Bible saints and the struggles of believers today. Without hesitation our fathers held up the virtues of the biblical persons as an example to all, but also their sins and weaknesses as a warning.

The problem, Greidanus believes, is that by following this exemplary method one employs a dualistic approach to homiletics—using contrasting preaching methods that do not easily mix. So, one might preach objective facts for the sermon proper, then pivot to “imitate this guy!” for application.[5] Indeed, Greidanus even rejects the common “explain the text, then apply it” method.[6]

Greidanus embarks on a detailed survey of both approaches, which I cannot relate here. The critiques from both sides are very instructive because, despite the passage of perhaps 90 years since that kerfuffle in the Netherlands, the homiletical problem is perennial. He settles on a cautious redemptive-historical approach, but protects his flank by leveling some critiques against excesses from his side. Intellectual sermons are a problem; “conceiving of revelation as a number of theological propositions which can be fitted neatly into a dogmatic system.”[7] A sermon can degenerate into a lecture; “would reading a decent commentary at home not fill the bill?”[8] When one preaches nothing but “facts,” then “[t]his must lead to objective preaching, which is, strictly speaking, no preaching.”[9]

He concludes the book by suggesting some principles for preachers:

  1. Historical texts are proclamations of God’s acts in history. So, one must examine the text itself in proper context. All texts are theocentric, and “people have been taken up into the scriptural narrative not for their own sake but for the sake of showing what God is doing for, in, and through them.”[10] Application can only properly flow from the nature of these historical proclamations directed to specific people—we cannot add relevance that is not there.[11]
  2. Select a preaching text from one single composition. Preach a pericope, not an isolated verse from a larger passage unit. And, do not stitch a sermon together from a collection of isolated texts. Use one passage.[12]
  3. Privilege historical context. What did it mean to the original audience? But, this does not mean the redemptive-historical approach should be a dry recitation of “facts.” Do not “relativize” the message, but make application from the context of your passage.[13]
  4. The bible is one story. “The historical text must be seen in an expanding context: its immediate context, the book, the Testament, the Bible—in that order.”[14] This means one must place the text in a Christocentric framework.[15] “[I]t must be seen as a constitutive part of a larger whole.”[16] It is difficult to reconcile this with Greidanus’ previous advice about privileging context in application. What if the pericope’s place in the redemptive story is largely irrelevant to the point the biblical author is making (like, say, in Song 4)? His clarification that this overarching motif “is not so much a progression to Christ (the Incarnation) as the progression of Christ”[17] helps, but does not explain the disconnect (or, more ironically, the dualism) in Greidanus’ method.
  5. “Big idea” preaching. Greidanus anticipates Haddon Robinson here.[18] “[T]he sermon will be limited in scope: it has one focal point, one message to drive home.”[19] He recommends preachers structure their sermons to follow the flow of the narrative. However, he allows for re-arranging to suit the theme.
  6. Mind the gap. Greidanus closes by suggesting the preacher bridge the continuity gap between “then” and “now.” The application should follow the “big idea.” There is no explication then application, but rather an “applicatory explication of God’s word.”[20] This application is only possible because of a “progression in redemptive history,”[21] which is Christ.

Greidanus’ suggestions, in the end, closely anticipate both Robinson and Bryan Chapell. Each text has a context, but the preacher must situate it in the larger bible story. Yet, Greidanus does not go so far as to recommend the pastor buy a pair of “gospel glasses.”[22] Still, this disconnect results in the very dualism Greidanus is so anxious to avoid.

The “big idea” motif forces another straitjacket over top of the passage’s own organic context. God did not give us scripture as a bullet-point series of propositional statements, and a passage may well be more complicated than a single distillate.

It is difficult to see how a text can “speak” at all when it bears the weight of two different, contradictory frameworks. A sermon has one “big idea,” and each one is also about Christ’s progression through history, and each passage has a specific context one must “bridge” over to today. That is a tall order. Perhaps it is best to just let the text speak and donate the straitjackets to Goodwill?


[1] Greidanus sees this as a hermeneutical issue (Sola Scriptura [reprint; Eugene: Wipf, 2001], p. 5). I disagree and believe, at heart, it is homiletical.  

[2] Ibid, p. 41.  

[3] Ibid, p. 43.  

[4] Ibid.  

[5] “Here the two methods stand in stark contrast to each other. Though they can be combined in theory perhaps, in the practice of preaching the combination is often infelicitous because of the inherent dualism,” (Ibid, p. 47).  

[6] Ibid, pp. 91-93.  

[7] Ibid, p. 183.  

[8] Ibid, p. 189.  

[9] Ibid, p. 191.  

[10] Ibid, p. 215.  

[11] Ibid, p. 216.  

[12] Ibid, pp. 217-218.  

[13] Ibid, pp. 219-220.  

[14] Ibid, p. 222.  

[15] Ibid, pp. 223-224.  

[16] Ibid, p. 135.  

[17] Ibid, p. 143.

[18] Greidanus even refers to a poor sermon a “buckshot” (Ibid, p. 227), which is perhaps where Robinson got his infamous “a sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot” line (Biblical Preaching, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001], p. 35).

[19] Sola Scriptura, p. 227.  

[20] Ibid, pp. 230-231.  

[21] Ibid, pp. 229-230.

[22] Bryan Chapell writes, “When a text neither plainly predicts, prepares for, nor results from the Redeemer’s work, then an expositor should simply explain how the text reflects key facets of the redemptive message … A preacher who asks the following basic questions takes no inappropriate liberties with a text: What does this text reflect of God’s nature that provides redemption? What does this text reflect of human nature that requires redemption?” (in Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim (eds.), Homiletics and Hermeneutics: Four Views on Preaching Today [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018; Kindle ed.], p. 16).

1, 2, 3! Preach After Me?

1, 2, 3! Preach After Me?

NOTE: This is a review of an assigned excerpt from Kaiser’s book for a doctoral class. You shouldn’t construe it as a review of the entire book.

Walter Kaiser’s Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament is an excellent primer for why the First Covenant is important. He published it in 2003. More recent works have made the compelling case that the situation has not improved![1]

He begins by making the case for the First Covenant. In short, it is the foundation for everything. The New Covenant cannot stand alone.

Nowhere in the New Testament can one find evidence advocating that the writers went outside the boundaries of the Old Testament text to gain their view of the Messiah, or that they just rejected outright what these texts taught about the coming one. The “story” the early church told was the story of the promise-plan of God and the line of the “seed” that would end in David’s final son, Jesus. This was the gospel they proclaimed.[2]

Indeed, Kaiser explains, this is the “master problem of theology.” His solution is to see it as the foundation for the entire bible story through his well-known “promise-plan” motif,[3] from Genesis 12:3.[4] Kaiser then remarks that expository preaching is “one of our oldest styles of preaching,”[5] but fails to note we have no examples of Jesus and the apostles employing this method. He defines expository preaching in a manner Kuruvilla would likely approve:

An expository sermon or lesson is one that takes a minimum of a full paragraph (a scene in a narrative or a strophe in poetry) and allows the biblical text to supply both the shape and the content of the message or lesson from that text itself.[6]

However, Kaiser then contradicts himself by quoting Greidanus thus: “the preacher’s task is ‘to view the whole counsel of God, with all its teachings, laws, prophecies, and visions, in the light of Jesus Christ.’”[7] If the text really determines the sermon shape and context, then Christ cannot be the center of every sermon! He then provides some tips for pastors, which are a mixed bag:

  1. Find the extent of the pericope. Don’t atomize the text—preach the whole natural episode.[8]
  2. Find the “big idea.” I am less and less sure this is a wise move.[9]
  3. Find the “key word.” Kaiser does not explain the rationale for this step, but assumes it. It is unclear what he wants.
  4. Make application relevant and contemporary.
  5. Make a final appeal.

Remarks on narrative

Kaiser devotes a chapter to understanding the building blocks of narrative text,[10] and here is where he becomes less helpful. The harsh reality is, if a pastor does not read widely, he will never interpret the scriptures competently because he will never understand literary genres. No amount of spilt ink or saved megabytes of Kindle text will change this. Thus, Kaiser’s survey of the elements of narrative are good, but not enough. Not nearly enough. Without an intuitive literary radar honed by years of reading for pleasure (fiction and non-fiction), Kaiser’s discussion of dialogue and characterization will remain stale and academic to the poor reader.

His suggested five-step process from text to sermon[11] is depressingly mechanical. His suggestion of block diagramming, identifying topic sentences in each paragraph, then keying paragraph syntax to that topic sentence[12] is unacceptably atomistic and completely at odds with his own definition of expository preaching. What happened to the text determining the shape of the sermon? Kaiser is inconsistent, here.

I generally view biblical interpretation and preaching as gifts from God. One must “have it” in embryo form; it largely cannot be taught ex nihilo. I confess I have no idea how one can “teach” people to understand how setting, plot, dialogue, and characterization interact. You only learn this by reading a lot. It becomes intuitive. It is the same with crafting a sermon. It is not a mechanical process; there is an indescribable art and “feel” at work. Perhaps it is not Kaiser’s fault he cannot adequately replicate that process on the printed page. Perhaps no teacher can.

Still, this is a helpful book that will encourage the pastor to preach from the First Covenant.


[1] See, for example, Brent Strawn, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017).

[2] Walter Kaiser, Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), pp. 24-25.  

[3] “If there is a key that unlocks this quest for an organizing center, what is it? I contend that it is to be found in the promise-plan of God,” (Ibid, p. 31). Also, “My solution is to understand the two testaments as part of one continuing, unified plan of God,” (Ibid, p. 37).

[4] “If I were to choose a text of the Old Testament that most succinctly states the divine mind and brings together all the multiplicity of themes, I would choose Genesis 12:3. It reads: ‘In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed’ (my translation). There is the organizing plan of the whole Bible,” (Ibid, p. 32).

[5] Ibid, p. 50.

[6] Ibid, p. 49.  

[7] Ibid, p. 51.  

[8] Ibid, p. 54.

[9] See, for example, Abraham Kuruvilla, “Time to Kill the Big Idea?” in JETS 61.4 (2018).

[10] “The central elements in the total package of literary devices used in narrative include: (1) scene, (2) plot, (3) point of view, (4) characterization, (5) setting, (6) dialogue, (7) leitwort, or key-wording, (8) structure, and (9) stylistic and rhetorical literary devices employed,” (Ibid, p. 64).

[11] “The process I advocate here and in Toward an Exegetical Theology includes five basic steps in preparing a text for preaching or teaching: (1) Contextual analysis, (2) Syntactical analysis, (3) Verbal analysis, (4) Theological analysis, (5) Homiletical analysis,” (Ibid, KL 3061).

[12] “Place the topic sentence all the way out to the margin that you have just drawn. Then, show how each clause, phrase, and sentence is related to that theme sentence by indenting the clause, phrase, or sentence to fit under (if it follows the theme/topic sentence in the paragraph) or above it (if it precedes the topic sentence),” (Ibid, KL 3129).

On starry eyes and cosmic temples

On starry eyes and cosmic temples

I updated this review on 09 December 2020

I first encountered T. Desmond Alexander at seminary, years ago, via his tome From Paradise to the Promised Land. It was then I first encountered the theory of “Eden as cosmic temple.” His work From Eden to the New Jerusalem features that same theme. It’s a theme that seems to fill Alexander with starry-eyed wonder.

His aim is to set the whole biblical story into a framework; a story people can understand and “see.”[1] Alexander suggests a helpful framework for seeing Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22 as bookends on the same story. Just as God originally dwelt on earth among men,[2] so the end of the story has God returning to a new and perfect creation to dwell with man once again![3] I had never considered this parallel of “God with us” before. Rather, I had always focused on the old creation/new creation motif.  

However, while he makes a promising start, Alexander is less helpful with the details of this framework. Like biblical theologians sometimes do, he falls prey to the siren song of parallel-o-mania and makes incorrect conclusions predicated on illusory evidence. One representative example is his insistence that Adam was a priest in God’s original temple sanctuary.  

Adam as a temple priest?

To paraphrase Sen. Diane Feinstein, the documentary hypothesis lives loudly within Alexander.[4] He relies on the work of authors who suggest parallels between the building of the temple and the six days of creation. He believes Genesis 1-2 “reflects matters of priestly interest.”[5] Likewise, Alexander refers the reader to monographs which purport to show parallels between Genesis 1 and dietary regulations in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.[6]

Thus, Alexander sees “a strong basis for believing that the Garden of Eden was envisaged as part of a divine sanctuary.”[7] This assumption is predicated on the idea that Genesis 1-2 was compiled by a later editor in the exilic period and crafted to reflect priestly concerns.[8] But for whom, pray tell, was Adam mediating before sin entered the world? Not to worry, Alexander assures us. “Since no one had yet sinned, there was no need for atonement sacrifices.”[9] It is fair to say this is an inadequate rejoinder!  

The Fall, Alexander declares, was when the first couple “fail[ed] to fulfil one of the main priestly responsibilities placed upon them.”[10] What is the basis for this intriguing claim? Well …[11]

  1. God orders Adam to “keep” the garden (Gen 2:15),
  2. and this verb could also be rendered as “guard,”
  3. and the Israelites were later instructed to “guard” the Sabbath (Deut 5:12)
  4. and the Levite priests were to “guard” Aaron (Num 3:7–8; 8:26; 18:5–6),[12]
  5. and so, Adam and Eve were priests.

This is not how language works. You cannot play “gotcha” by drawing a parallel between verb usage without considering context.[13] How about context? Their job was to exercise dominion over creation (Gen 1:26-30). The text says nothing about a priestly role. Yet, to Alexander, dominion (he prefers “viceroy”) is almost an afterthought.[14] The cosmic temple paradigm drives his interpretation.

Indeed, this cosmic temple motif is the prism for understanding Alexander’s project. Everything is related to God wanting a cosmic temple. Eden was a cosmic temple; a “divine sanctuary.”[15] The patriarchs created makeshift, mobile temples when they offered sacrifices.[16] The “arboreal” features in Solomon’s temple hearken back to that original, long-lost “temple” in Eden.[17] Even the colors of fabric in the temple represent the cosmos; they are a model of the cosmic temple to come.[18] On this last point, Alexander meekly admits “the case for this is not beyond dispute …”[19]  

Thus, “the fulfilment of God’s creation project requires the existence of priest-kings who will extend God’s temple-city throughout the earth.”[20] Of course, Christ is the ultimate priest-king, and Alexander ably explains this motif in later chapters.

And yet, the Pentateuch:

  1. says nothing about a cosmic temple
  2. says nothing about Adam and Eve being priests
  3. says nothing about Adam and Eve having any reason to mediate anything
  4. says nothing about Abraham constructing a mobile temple sanctuary
  5. identifies no “arboreal” nexus between Eden and Solomon’s temple
  6. says nothing about the temple as a model of the cosmos, and
  7. attributes no significance to the colors of the fabric in the temple

Pastors model bible study by the way they preach. Bible scholars do the same by what they write. With his “cosmic temple + Adam as a priest” motif, Alexander personifies the worst stereotypes about biblical theology, models irresponsible use of the text, and pushes an implicitly allegorical hermeneutic. His book is not recommended.


[1] “… the concluding chapters of Revelation offer a window through which the main themes of the biblical meta-story may be studied,” (T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008], p. 7).

[2] “The opening chapters of Genesis assume that the earth will be God’s dwelling place. This expectation, however, is swiftly shattered when Adam and Eve disobey God and are expelled from his presence. While people continue to live on the earth, God’s presence is associated with heaven. From there he occasionally descends to meet with selected individuals, although these encounters are always relatively brief and sometimes unexpected,” (Ibid, p. 15).

[3] “As the book of Revelation reveals, there is yet to come a time when all that is evil will finally be removed from the present earth. At that stage, when God makes all things new, his presence and glory will fill a rejuvenated earth,” (Ibid, pp. 18-19).

[4] Alexander has an extensive analysis of Pentateuchal criticism in general in From Paradise to the Promised Land, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), pp. 1-112. He declares “… it seems best to conclude that the Pentateuch as a literary whole … eventually took shape in the exilic period. Though the traditions contained within the Pentateuch clearly existed before this time and were obviously viewed both as ancient and authoritative by the final editor of the Pentateuch, it is exceptionally difficult to demonstrate that the Pentateuch itself existed in its entirety as a literary unit before the sixth century B.C.” (Promised Land, p. 109).

Conservatives will find a much more faithful ally in Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody, 2012), pp. 36-150.

[5] “Weinfeld suggests that the special interest shown in Genesis 1:14 for feast days, weeks and years, and in Genesis 2:1–3 for the Sabbath, reflects matters of priestly interest,” (Ibid, p. 24).

[6] “Blenkinsopp, picking up on the anthropological studies of Mary Douglas, sees a connection between the division of the cosmos into sky, earth and seas in Genesis 1 and the categorization of animals, birds and fish as clean or unclean in the ‘priestly’ dietary regulations of Leviticus 11:1–47 and Deuteronomy 14:3–21.27,” (Ibid).

[7] Ibid, p. 25. 

[8] See footnote 4, above. 

[9] Ibid, p. 25.

[10] Ibid, p. 26. 

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, p. 34. 

[13] It is probable that Alexander’s context is that (as I mentioned earlier) the Pentateuch is an edited document compiled during the exile and deliberately fashioned to reflect the priestly concerns of the so-called “J strand” of material.

[14] “In Genesis 1 – 2 Adam and Eve are endowed with a holy or priestly status that enables them to serve in the temple-garden and have direct access to God. In addition, the human couple are appointed as God’s viceroys to govern the earth on his behalf,” (Ibid, p. 76). Emphasis mine.

[15] Ibid, p. 25. 

[16] “While the various sacrificial sites mentioned in Genesis 12 – 50 are not viewed as permanent sanctuaries, they clearly foreshadow the tabernacle and temple,” (Ibid, p. 32).

[17] “Since the garden is a place where divinity and humanity enjoy each other’s presence, it is appropriate that it should be a prototype for later Israelite sanctuaries. This explains why many of the decorative features of the tabernacle and temple are arboreal in nature,” (Ibid, p. 25).

[18] “… this is conveyed through the use of fabrics that are blue, purple and scarlet in colour, representing the ‘variegated colors of the sky,’” (Ibid, pp. 38-39).

[19] Ibid, p. 37.  

[20] Ibid, p. 80.

Kill the lecture! A better way for preaching?

Kill the lecture! A better way for preaching?

Abraham Kuruvilla’s A Vision for Preaching is a wonderful, refreshing book. I am aware this is at odds with my lukewarm review of his contribution to Hermeneutics and Homiletics. In fact, Kuruvilla’s essay in that volume is a precis of this book. This book is much better.

Kuruvilla’s work is an exposition of one statement:[1]

Biblical preaching, by a leader of the church, in a gathering of Christians for worship, is the communication of the thrust of a pericope of Scripture discerned by theological exegesis, and of its application to that specific body of believers, that they may be conformed to the image of Christ, for the glory of God—all in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I will focus on two aspects; (1) the thrust of the passage,[2] and (2) how to apply scripture.

The sermon—bullet or buckshot?

Like many pastors, I read Haddon Robinson’s book Biblical Preaching at seminary. In that classic tone, Robinson explained his “big idea” approach to preaching:[3]

A major affirmation of our definition of expository preaching, therefore, maintains that ‘expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept.’ That affirms the obvious. A sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot. Ideally each sermon is the explanation, interpretation, or application of a single dominant idea supported by other ideas, all drawn from one passage or several passages of Scripture.

Kuruvilla is against this approach. The sermon, he argues, is not an argument in service to a particular “point” in the text. That is the “old” homiletic,[4] where “the point” drives the structure of the sermon:[5]

Craddock’s wry observation (noted earlier) in this regard is worth repeating: ‘The minister boils off all the water and then preaches the stain in the bottom of the cup.’ Thereby, sermons turn out to be ‘didactic devices,’ more about arguments to persuade listeners to buy into these propositions, and less about texts and what they (or their authors) are doing. All this may even imply that once one has gotten the distillate of the text, that is, the reduction of the text into one or more propositions, one can abandon the text itself.

This, Kuruvilla, insists is not the way. Instead, the sermon is about what the author is doing with the passage. The preacher is a tour guide, a docent,[6] and his role is to point out what the biblical author is doing with the text—not to re-package it into a “point” or “big idea” to be argued to the congregation.[7] The text is not a plain glass window the preacher points through towards some “big idea” beyond. Rather, it is a stained-glass window the reader must look at.[8]  

So, Kuruvilla argues, the author is doing something with the text. There is a layer behind the onion of the simple words. For example, pretend my wife says, “the trash is full!” She is indeed telling me the trash is full, but she really wants to move me to action—she wants me to take the trash out![9] So, Kuruvilla’s point is there is no “big idea” or “big argument” or “series of points.” There is only the preacher as tour guide, showing what the author is doing, in his context.

Application

This means, for Kuruvilla, application is always based on the theology of the passage.[10] “Specifically, the ‘theology’ in the “theological hermeneutic” proposed here is pericopal theology, not biblical or systematic theology.”[11] Each text has a message for God’s people. It might be more than one “big idea.” Whatever the passage communicates, whatever the author is doing with his message, that is the basis for application.[12]

Ironically, Kuruvilla manages his best explanation of his view (his “Big Idea,” perhaps!) in an academic article, not in this book:[13]

What is needed in the pulpit, then, is a creative exegesis of the text undertaken with a view to portraying for listeners what the author is doing—pericopal theology—enabling their experience of the text + theology.

The sermon is not a lecture; “my three points this morning are on the screen!” The sermon is where the pastor pulls back the curtain and show what he found behind it in his own study.[14] This is the great challenge—to structure sermons in an engaging, inductive way to let the congregation “see” the theology of the passage.

Kuruvilla’s book is a tour de force. It is a breath of fresh air from the redemptive-historical and other biblical theology approaches that seek to impose a framework for application into each text. Bryan Chapell recommends we use “gospel glasses” to see redemption in every text.[15] This is incorrect—some passages just are not about redemption, and to make them so will rip them out of context.


[1] Abraham Kuruvilla, A Vision for Preaching: Understanding the Heart of Pastoral Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), p. 7. 

[2] I will routinely use the phrase “passage,” whereas Kuruvilla prefers “pericope.” His definition is more expansive than normal. “Though the term is usually applied to portions of the Gospels, I use it in this work to indicate a slice of text in any genre that is utilized in Christian worship for preaching. In other words, a ‘pericope’ is simply a preaching text, regardless of genre or even size. It is through pericopes, read and exposited in congregations as the basic units of Scripture, that God’s people corporately encounter God’s word,” (Ibid, p. 116).

[3] Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), p. 35. 

[4] “The modus operandi of the ‘old’ homiletic is to put the text through a grinder and then preach, in points, the pulverized propositional products that come out of the contraption,” (Kuruvilla, Vision, pp. 95-96).

[5] Ibid, p. 99. 

[6] “… we must reconceive the role of preachers. I propose the analogy of a curator or docent guiding visitors in an art museum through a series of paintings Each text is a picture, the preacher is the curator, and the sermon is a curating of the text-picture and its thrust for the congregants, gallery visitors. A sermon is thus more a demonstration of the thrust of the text than an argument validating a proposition. A creative exegesis of the text is undertaken in the pulpit with a view to portraying for listeners what the author is doing. The sermon unveils the author’s agenda. The distillation of the text into points and propositions is thereby obviated. Instead, as Long describes, the preacher is a “witness” of the text, to the text—equivalent to my analogy of the preacher being a curator of the text-picture,” (Ibid, pp. 103-104).

[7] “Thus, for the longest time, preaching has been conducted as a forensic argument that proves the putative proposition of the text for the congregation—an act of reasoning, a parceling of information, and an appeal to the cognitive faculties of listeners to bring them to a rational conviction about that proposition,” (Ibid, pp. 100-101). 

[8] Abraham Kuruvilla, “Time to Kill the Big Idea?” in JETS 61.4 (2018), 831.  

[9] This is actually Kuruvilla’s own hypothetical example from his conversation with Hershel York on York’s Pastor Well podcast. “Episode 36: Abraham Kuruvilla discusses hermeneutics and the gift of singleness,” (19 August 2019). Retrieved from https://equip.sbts.edu/podcast/episode-36-abraham-kuruvilla-discusses-hermeneutics-gift-singleness/.

[10] “What the pericope affirms in its theology forms the basis of the subsequent move to derive application,” (Kuruvilla, Vision, p. 121).  

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, p. 122. 

[13] Kuruvilla, “Big Idea,” 842.  

[14] Ibid, 843.  

[15] “A preacher who asks the following basic questions takes no inappropriate liberties with a text: What does this text reflect of God’s nature that provides redemption? What does this text reflect of human nature that requires redemption?” (Bryan Chapell, “Redemptive-Historic View,” in Homiletics and Hermeneutics, ed. Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018], p. 16).

The pit of despair …

The pit of despair …

Homiletics and Hermeneutics, edited by Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim, is a great primer for weighing various homiletical approaches. The editors explain, “This book is about teasing out the theological presuppositions of approaches to preaching. That is, we want to explore the hermeneutic that lies behind one’s theology of preaching.”[1] The four views they present are:

  1. Redemptive-Historical (Bryan Chapell)
  2. Christiconic (Abraham Kuruvilla)
  3. Theocentric (Kenneth Langley)
  4. Law-Gospel (Paul Wilson)

This issue here is not about preaching methodology. It is about the presupposition behind the methodology. The authors disagree about the unifying theme behind scripture. Where is God going. What is He doing? What has He been doing?

  • Is the story of the bible about redemption and the Cross? Chapell explains, “Christ-centered preaching, rightly understood, does not seek to discover where Christ is mentioned in every biblical text but to disclose where every text stands in relation to Christ’s ministry.”[2]
  • What about God? Is all scripture about Him and His glory? Langley insists, “Theology proper is the preacher’s best lens for seeing and displaying the unity of the Bible. Other lenses, like covenant, law-gospel, or redemptive-historic, elucidate some texts but not all, or at least not all texts equally well.”[3]
  • Sanctification? Is that the great telos of God’s story? Then go with Kuruvilla. “Jesus Christ alone has comprehensively abided by the theology of every pericope of Scripture. Thus, each pericope of the Bible is actually portraying a characteristic of Christ (a facet of Christ’s image), showing us what it means to perfectly fulfill, as he did, the particular call of that pericope. The Bible as a whole, the collection of all its pericopes, then, portrays what a perfect human looks like, exemplified by Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the perfect Man: the plenary image of Christ.”[4]
  • What about law and Gospel? Wilson writes, “Every text already implies both law and gospel, even if every preacher has not been taught to recognize them.”[5]

The authors agree on much, and perhaps talk past each other.[6] This book’s value is in letting the pastor seehow a unifying theme may (or, may not) act as a straightjacket on the text. I propose a simple test:

  • If the interpretive grid will not let Song of Solomon 4 and Genesis 38 say what the text so plainly says, then it is invalid and ought to be discarded.

I will apply this test to Song of Solomon 4. To be blunt, the text shows us two people who are eager for their wedding night. Of course, there is something more going on here. Something for the congregation to learn. Which model handles this text responsibly?

  • Redemptive-historical. Chapell would use his “gospel glasses”[7] to see how Song 4 reflected the Gospel message. Presumably, he would do something akin to “righteousness of marital love” + “fall” + “Jesus’ love for the Church” = redemption.
  • Christiconic. Kuruvilla would seek the “world in front of the text”[8] to explain how this sexual marital bliss helps Christians become more Christlike.[9] His application would focus on God’s plan for marital love, and suggest concrete steps towards action.  
  • Law-Gospel. Wilson would look for both “trouble” and “grace,”[10] and if necessary engage in mirror reading to fill out his “four pages” scheme.[11] At the risk of sounding crass, I must insist that for the protagonists in Song 4, there is no “trouble” on the horizon. Quite the opposite, in fact.
  • Theocentric. Langley would take this marital bliss and tie it to God’s design for men and women in marriage, and close with doxology to a God who cares about His people.[12]

Kuruvilla’s model does the most justice to the text as it stands. To be sure, each author has interesting and helpful contributions. But, the Christ-iconic framework allows us to more consistently cast the hermeneutical straitjackets into the Goodwill donation bin and let the texts speak for themselves.[13] Langley warns us:[14]

Lay people learn hermeneutics from their pastors’ preaching. Whether we like it or not, they learn how to interpret Scripture from how we handle Scripture in the pulpit. So what do we teach listeners about hermeneutics when Jesus makes a surprise appearance in a sermon from Proverbs? When it turns out Song of Solomon is not really about God’s gift of married sex but about Christ’s love for his church? When redemption trumps creation as the theological underpinning of every sermon? When texts are not handled with integrity because every Sunday the preacher follows the counsel to “make a beeline to the cross.”

He continues:[15]

People have a right to expect that a sermon will say what the Bible says. But if we import Christology (or law-gospel, or kingdom, or any other theme) into texts, do we not unintentionally communicate that texts are pretexts for talking about something else?

Amen to this.


[1] Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim (eds.), Homiletics and Hermeneutics: Four Views on Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018; Kindle ed.), xi-xii.

[2] Ibid, p. 7. 

[3] Ibid, p. 89. 

[4] Ibid, p. 59. 

[5] Ibid, p. 129. 

[6] For example, Kuruvilla scolds Langley in his response: “Sermon after sermon, week after week, one is left strumming, striking, and scraping the same few strings and chords of theological themes found in Scripture. Instead, I suggest that preachers expound the concrete specificities of the pericope in question and the particulars of life change it calls for,” (Ibid, p. 111). If every one of Langley’s sermons is indeed about God, then Kuruvilla is correct. I do not know if that is the case!

[7] “When a text neither plainly predicts, prepares for, nor results from the Redeemer’s work, then an expositor should simply explain how the text reflects key facets of the redemptive message … A preacher who asks the following basic questions takes no inappropriate liberties with a text: What does this text reflect of God’s nature that provides redemption? What does this text reflect of human nature that requires redemption?” (Ibid, p. 16).

[8] “… the interpretation of Scripture cannot cease with the elucidation of its linguistic, grammatical, and syntactical elements: what the author is saying (semantics). It must proceed further to discern the world in front of the text: what the author is doing (pragmatics). And this projected world forms the intermediary between text and application, enabling one to respond validly to the text,” (Ibid, p. 54).

[9] “… each pericope of the Bible is actually portraying a characteristic of Christ,” (Ibid, p. 59).

[10] “Sometimes I opt for alternate terms like ‘trouble’ and ‘grace,’ although the law is not appropriately reduced simply to trouble. Still, trouble and grace can provide a simpler route to the preaching of the good news,” (Ibid, p. 121).

[11] “This mirroring function of law and gospel is a principle of inversion,” (Ibid, p. 131).

[12] “Preachers may take up a variety of texts and topics, but they should take them up (and their hearers with them) all the way into the presence of God, so that listeners are instructed by the Word of God, convinced of the value of God, captivated by the holiness, grace, kingship, wisdom, and beauty of God. Preaching is all about and all for God,” (Ibid, pp. 81-82).

[13] Langley observed, “We may appreciate, for example, the kingdom lens, but find that it works better in the Synoptic Gospels than in large swaths of Scripture where the kingdom theme is not prominent. Or we may appreciate a traditional Lutheran lens, but discover that law and gospel are not present in every text,” (Ibid, p. 89).

[14] Ibid, pp. 96-97. 

[15] Ibid, p. 97. 

Dangerous Calling? Yes.

Dangerous Calling? Yes.

Paul Tripp’s book Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry is an invitation to pastors to examine their hearts, and it is excellent. It is what Richard Baxter wished he could he done, had he not been such a self-righteous bore. Tripp has a counseling ministry and travels regularly, seeing churches and leadership teams up close and personal nearly 40 weeks per year. Before he wrote this book, Tripp often taught these same themes at pre-conference events for pastors. He explains the genesis of this book:[1]

When I finished and came off the platform, a long line of concerned and broken pastors formed in front of me. About five pastors down the line stood a man who wept his way toward me. I think I could have set up a counseling office for two weeks, full-time, and still not have ministered to all the needs that stood before me. It was at this conference that I determined that I would speak to these issues and do all that I could to minister to my fellow pastors. This book is the result of that clear moment of calling.

Tripp’s book falls neatly into three sections; (1) pastoral culture generally, (2) forgetting who God is, and (3) forgetting who you are. He explains what he wants the book to achieve:[2]

This is a diagnostic book. It is written to help you take an honest look at yourself in the heart- and life-exposing mirror of the Word of God—to see things that are wrong and need correcting and to help you place yourself once again under the healing and transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Throughout, Tripp offers personal anecdotes of failure and doubt to emphasize that he is not standing above the fray, sniping at busy pastors. He has been there. He has seen it. He has experienced it. He has failed. This is why his message is effective. Tripp empathizes and encourages you to be better.

This book is written to confront the issue of the often unhealthy shape of pastoral culture and to put on the table the temptations that are either unique to or intensified by pastoral ministry. This is a book of warning that calls you to humble self-reflection and change. It is written to make you uncomfortable, to motivate you toward change.[3]

Indeed, Tripp’s work is essentially a modern-day The Reformed Pastor, only his work is actually helpful. Baxter, on the other hand, sneers at you, grinds your face into the mud with a polished jackboot, then screams at you about Christ (see my review of Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor here).

This review will focus on two particularly great chapters from Tripp, and one problem that is perhaps not his fault, but still a bit jarring.

His third chapter, titled “Big Theological Brains and Heart Disease,” is outstanding. Tripp discusses people he calls “theologeeks.” These are academic pastors who have little patience to deal with real people, and prefer to revel in scholasticism. “They love the academy and would unwittingly drag the academy into the local church and preach sermons that are more theological lectures than gospel meditations.”[4]

Tripp recounts what happened during one of his practical theology courses at Westminster Theological Seminary:[5]

I was recounting my own heart struggle, when I had been asked yet again to visit a man who had already eaten up much of my pastoral time and energy, when one of my students raised his hand and blurted out, “All right, Professor Tripp, we know that we will have these projects in our churches. Tell us what to do with them so we can get back to the work of the ministry!”

There are many things to pay attention to in his statement, but notice this: he didn’t even call the struggling people, to whom we are all called to bring the gospel, “people.” To him they were projects, that is, obstructions in the way of his definition of ministry. Now, if these people are not the focus and object of ministry, then what is ministry? There was no love for people in this student’s statement, and if there was no love for people in his vision of ministry, then it is safe to conclude that there was little operational love for Christ either. He was like many other idea, technology-of-theology guys who populated so many of my classes.

This is astonishing behavior. One wonders how a young man could ever ask such a question. One immediately wonders if this man is connected to local church ministry in any meaningful way. No person who is “in the trenches” could ever dismiss real people so flippantly as “projects” who detract from “real ministry.”

Tripp goes on to lament the “systemic”[6] problem he sees in seminary training, which is an icy intellectualism. “Have we accomplished our training task if we produce generations of graduates who have big theological brains but tragically diseased hearts? Must we not hold together theological training and personal transformation?”[7]

Seminary professors used to be experienced churchmen, Tripp writes, but increasingly they are now academic specialists who beget more people just like them. “So the energy in the classroom was not cloning a new generation of pastors but cloning experts in apologetics, ethics, systematics, church history, and biblical languages. It has been a subtle but seismic change in the culture of the seminary and the kind of results it produces.”[8]

I have seen this in myself. This is actually the thing I fear most about myself; an icy intellectualism that freezes out joy. I am naturally a nerdy person, and am currently reading Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics at bedtime for fun. I think of sermons I preached years ago, and shudder. I look at sermon notes from those days, and recoil in horror. They are running commentaries, not sermons.

I also fear I compensate too much by going in the opposite direction, by not going deep enough in my preaching. I had a recent conversation with another pastor. The man spoke with joy about the chiastic structure in a psalm he would preach for an upcoming mid-week service and how Hebrew wordplay reminded him of something from Exodus. I thought of the people in the congregation where I serve and thought, “People are in debt. People have bad marriages. People are tired. On Wednesday evenings, they don’t need to care about chiastic structure. They just need God’s word to help them get through the week.” Am I wrong? Have I become subtly anti-intellectual?  

In his 12th chapter, “Self-Glory,” Tripp asks us to think about whether we are subtly worshipping ourselves. He presents a hypothetical pastor and writes:[9]

He was convinced that most of the strategic things that needed to be done would be best done by him. Fewer and fewer people were commissioned to do ministry tasks. No, fellow leaders were more and more tasked with support duties because the larger ministry duties were all done by him.

This was particularly hard hitting, because I tend to be a perfectionist. Am I this way because I think I am better than anyone else? Tripp asks, “Where do you attempt to control things that you don’t need to control? Where do you find it hard to delegate ministry to others?”[10] This introspection of mine demonstrates just how well Tripp succeeded in penning a diagnostic book for pastors.

The one grouse I have with Tripp is that he ministers in larger and wealthier context than most pastors will ever see. He exists in the realm of the megachurch, or at least the very large church. This makes his attempts to “relate” strained and artificial at times. For example, Tripp rightly criticizes pastors for phoning in mediocre sermons, then writes:[11]

… I can’t have a fresh encounter with the truths I am to communicate from a particular portion of Scripture on the week that they are to be preached. A week does not give me enough content and communication time. I work ahead to prepare to preach wherever I am called. This means that when I prepare the content of a message, it is the message that I’ll be preaching in three or four weeks. This gives time for truths to marinate in my own heart and become more deeply and practically understood. On the week that the sermon is to be preached, I preach it aloud to myself some fifteen or twenty times. As I do this, both my understanding of the passage and the creative ways it can be communicated deepen and develop.

This is a world the ordinary pastor will never experience. Tripp has apparently never had to preach or teach several times per week, help troubleshoot problems in the soundbooth, field questions about Zoom issues and work a day job … all at the same time. Tripp clearly has time on his hands, so his anecdote here is not helpful.

In another section, he introduces a hypothetical burned out pastor. Solemnly, Tripp writes “[t]he door to his office was shut more now than it had been, and he delegated more of his duties to his executive pastor.”[12]

An executive pastor? Any shepherd of a smaller, ordinary church will surely laugh out loud. Where can I find one of these “executive pastors” to whom I can delegate work!?

These quibbles aside, Tripp’s book is excellent. It fulfills its quest to be a diagnostic tool for busy pastors. It makes you think. It makes you examine your heart. It encourages. It is refreshing. Sadly, perhaps the best recommendation for this book is that James MacDonald, Joshua Harris, and Tullian Tchividjian are among the seven pastors who penned jacket endorsements. Each crashed, burned, and left his ministry since Tripp’s work was published.  


[1] Paul Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 32. 

[2] Ibid, p. 11. 

[3] Ibid, pp. 11-12. 

[4] Ibid, p. 44. 

[5] Ibid.  

[6] Ibid, p. 46. 

[7] Ibid, p. 52. 

[8] Ibid, p. 53. 

[9] Ibid, p. 169. 

[10] Ibid, p. 170. 

[11] Ibid, p. 149. Emphasis mine.

[12] Ibid, p. 125.