A ho-hum book on the psalms

A ho-hum book on the psalms

Psalms, Psalms and Psalms!

Mark Furtado’s Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook is part of a larger series from Kregel titled “Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis.” Because, the editor proclaims, “there is no one-size-fits-all approach to interpreting Scripture,”[1] the series covers all the Old Covenant genres in different books. Paradoxically, the editor then enforced an identical six-part structure on each author, for each handbook.[2] One-size-fits-all, indeed!

Furtato explains the nature of the psalm genre, offers some suggestions for considering the psalms as a unified literary work, principles for interpretation, and instruction on how to interpret and proclaim the text, and an example of what it all looks like, in practice. The editor envisions the work as a textbook for graduate-level exegesis courses.[3]

Furtato wants you to understand Hebrew poetry to interpret it better. He wants us to “see” the psalms in their original context. He wants us to understand the different genres of psalmody, so we are not prone to wander into exegetical fantasy. He also wants us to preach “with clarity and conviction.”[4]

Is it Worth it?

Furtato’s book is ho-hum. It does its job as a graduate-level introduction the same way a Geo Metro gets you to and from work. In seminary, my professor assigned C. Hassell Bullock’s Encountering the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), which covered the same ground. I prefer Bullock, but perhaps that is just nostalgia.

Furtato sometimes spends time discussing matters that are less than helpful:

  • Parallelism. He states C.S. Lewis personifies an “old way” which sees the second cola as saying the same thing, with different words. Furtato demurs and suggests parallelism is when the second cola says “something similar … but with a difference.”[5] This is a rather underwhelming revelation.
  • Following patterns. Furtato likes patterns. He spends time discussing linear, parallel, and symmetrical patterns.[6] I have never gotten much out of these distinctions―they are about as helpful as talks on verbal aspect theory in Koine Greek. This may well be my own failing, but I do not believe these technical notes help to accurately interpret a psalm. 
  • Purpose. He claims the psalm’s purpose, as wisdom literature, is to instruct us about happiness and holiness.[7] This is a startling reductionism―Furtato has flattened the psalms into a stale pancake. What about teaching us how to lament? How to be honest with God when the world is dark? How to cry out in pain when our lives are ruined? To bear the burden of sadness, and yet still hope? As an umbrella category, “happiness” is inadequate.

Reflection and Interaction

My remarks here are a continuation of those in the preceding section. Furtato has not written a poor book. In the classic movie A Christmas Story, Ralphie’s father (“the Old Man”) sips champagne on Christmas morning and remarks to his wife, “This champagne isn’t bad! It’s not good, either …” That is Furtato’s book. It is a Kia Forte. Utilitarian. It does its job. It is not sexy.

  • Headings. He spends three pages discussing the historicity of the psalm headings, all to declare they are not meaningful.[8] This is not helpful.
  • Textual criticism. Furtato is brave to discuss textual criticism in the span of four pages.[9] He should not have tried. This is not a discipline that can help a pastor in his day-to-day activities―certainly not in preaching! Leave the textual criticism to the Old and New Testament introduction classes.

I will park at Psalm 13 for a moment, because Furtato used it to illustrate outlining.[10] He says the psalm is about “how to deal with distressing situations in your life.” His three “points” are to (1) ask your questions, (2) make your requests, and (3) affirm your intentions. Furtato butchers this psalm. He rips out its soul.

The psalm tells us David has lost hope.[11] God has forgotten him. More than that, God has deliberately turned His back on him! David is lost. He cries out, but only has his own counsel to keep. Sorrow fills his heart day and night. Enemies are exalted over him. Implicit, but not said, is that God has allowed this to happen―but why? How many of us feel that way? Neglected? Abandoned? Betrayed? Victims of injustice that God has somehow allowed to happen? Is He not good? Why, then, do I suffer? This is raw honesty. The kind of honesty that makes you, in the solitude of your drive home, ask aloud, “What the hell is going on!? Answer me, God! Please!”

How Furtato managed to smash this Psalm into his outline, I do not know. But, his practical interpretive skills are weak in this example. It is disappointing when an author marshals everything he has discussed into practical reality and the result is … a ho-hum, stale, boring three-point outline that flattens Psalm 13 into (1) ask your questions, (2) make your requests, and (3) affirm your intentions. It does not reflect well on the book.


[1] Mark Furtato, Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), p. 13.

[2] Ibid, p. 14. 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 17. 

[5] Ibid, p. 38. 

[6] Ibid, pp. 49-53. 

[7] Ibid, pp. 59-71. 

[8] Ibid pp. 119-122. 

[9] Ibid, pp. 125-129.

[10] Ibid, pp. 203-204. 

[11] Due to space constraints, my comments only follow the highpoints of Psalm 13:1-3.

Good book on preaching the psalms

Good book on preaching the psalms

In his splendid book, How to Preach the Psalms, Kenneth Langley’s burden is not to teach you how to interpret the psalms. Plenty of folks have already done that. Nor is it about exegesis―there are already far too many guides to what Abraham Kuruvilla maligns as a “hermeneutic of excavation.”[1] Instead, Langley’s aim is to help pastors preach the psalms as the literary treasures they are.[2]

Langley explains that, early in his ministry, he avoided preaching the psalms. They were too raw. Too emotional. Perhaps even unsuited to preaching.[3] When he tried his hand at the genre, he felt like a failure. It was flat. Stale. Cold. Something was missing. “I had been faithful to the meaning of the Psalms, but their emotion, imagination, and aesthetic appeal never quite made it into the sermon. I had not captured the poetic essence of these texts.”[4]

It is this disconnect that Langley seeks to bridge. It is a well-earned cliché that newly-minted seminary graduates will be poor preachers for several years. We may be able to discuss verbal aspect theory vs. traditional tense form. We might point with pride to our dense syntax analysis of Psalm 1. But, can we communicate truth as the psalm presents it? Or, do we deliver stale, scholastic ice for 45 minutes? “Many preachers have felt the force of this argument. We remember with embarrassment sucking the juice out of a psalm and then preaching a shriveled rind of a sermon.”[5]

Langley divides his suggestions into seven categories encompassing 14 “strategies:”

Figure 1. Langley’s strategies for preaching psalms

Buy the Book

Each strategy is very practical; there are no ivory towers here. In style and feel, this little book greatly resembles H.B. Charles’ On Preaching.[6] The chapters are short, the advice punchy, the content extraordinarily practical.

I see two reasons why Langley’s book is needed more than ever. The first is that pastors, like many people, read less than they used to. I am skeptical one can “teach” a feel for genre, style, mood, tone, or the implicit force of a text. This knowledge only comes from years of reading fiction, history, biography, prose, poetry―from reading a lot. Aside from a curious mania for Narnia and Tolkien (both massively overrated!), too many Christians read far too little. This means their interpretive abilities are often stunted. It also means pastors may give lip-service to tone and implicit feel,while happily crushing a psalm into a didactic mold. “This sucks the life out of a poem.”[7] But, if we consciously stop, think, and make the poem real to us, there is hope we can go beyond a deductive outline.

The reason why Langley’s little book is so valuable is that it teaches pastors to interpret, frame and present poetry differently. “The psalms do not open their treasures to preachers who insist on treating them like epistles or theological arguments.”[8] This is the great tragedy―because so few of us can escape this trap. We want to excuse away Job 23, and we are uncomfortable with the raw emotion of Psalm 109. We are addicted to the “audiobook commentary” style of preaching championed by John MacArthur, who not only epitomizes the “hermeneutic of excavation,” but actually built the excavator.

Using the Book

I will illustrate this book’s usefulness by relating some anecdotes from a recent sermon I did on Psalm 113. I preach through the psalms on Wednesday evenings. We meet in people’s homes, not in the building, which means this is a cozy, intimate setting―sitting in a circle on chairs and couches, with a cat or two purring in someone’s lap. These sermonettes usually last 15 minutes, give or take.

Strategy 3 tells me to follow the logic of the psalm. I followed Fred Craddock’s advice and did not declare “the point” of the psalm at the beginning and then deductively “prove it.” I quickly advanced through vv.1-3, which is a plain vanilla declaration of praise to God. I did not linger to explain why we ought to praise Him. If I had done that, I would have robbed the psalmist, because he was about to do that for me.

The setup is in vv.4-6, which emphasizes how “high” and mighty God is. Above the nations. Above the heavens. Seated on high, gazing down on little people like us, far below. If I had read Langley before 11 November 2021, I would have stressed the gulf between heaven and earth forcefully so as to make people think, “Well, He’s too important for the likes of me and my problems!”  

The mind-blowing moment is in vv.7-9, where we see that, despite His great heights, God cares. He cares enough to notice and help the most powerless, most vulnerable people in society. There is no partiality or favoritism. The God who is so high loves to stoop so low, for His people. Now, when the psalmist repeats His command to “praise the Lord,” it really means something. The psalm is precious because it shows us that the God of Isaiah 6 cares about you― especially you.

Strategy 4 tells me to re-narrative the psalm. Christians in 2021 cannot really connect with the “poor” and the “barren woman” in the way the psalmist intended. These are the most powerless people, the most vulnerable. Who are these people, in today’s society? What about that fellow in your church who works an unskilled job for a multi-billion corporation, makes little money, is in poor health, and is in debt? He is exploited by a billion-dollar juggernaut for pathetic wages, in constant fear of losing his position to other poor unskilled workers. He is disposable, and the corporation knows it. He is the product of a cultural system that has locked him into a cycle of poverty.[9] He is the powerless believer, crushed by forces he cannot understand.

Yet, God looks down from the commanding heights, raises him from the dust and sits him alongside princes. He cares about him. He really cares. Of course, the Torah does not envision crushing debt and poverty lasting longer than seven years (Deut 15:1-11), but real life is cruel. There is perhaps a subtle rebuke here to the wickedness of a society that permanently crushes its most vulnerable members. “The preventable decimation of the people is social murder.”[10]

In this fashion, Langley’s strategies can make a psalm sing. He can help you communicate reality in Psalm 113, rather than another stale lecture about providence. It is an excellent book.


[1] Abraham Kuruvilla, A Manual for Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), p. 7. “[W]e preachers are consumed with what is best labeled a ‘hermeneutic of excavation’ and have been trained to shovel up loads of dirt, boulders, potsherds, arrowheads, and fishhooks. We dump it all on our desks. Everything in the text, it seems, is equally important and crucial, and there is hardly any discriminating inference or integration that leads to an understanding of what the author is doing—the theology of the pericope. Like cows at pasture, we munch on every available blade of grass, and commentaries abundantly furnish those pieces of herbage for our consumption.”

[2] Langley observed, “It seems to me that what preachers need is more of what Tom Long did in Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Fortress, 1989) and Jeffrey Arthurs did in Preaching with Variety (Kregel, 2007). Long steered preachers in the direction of genre-sensitive preaching ‘based on the relatively simple idea that the literary dynamics of a biblical text can and should be important factors in the preacher’s navigation of the distance between text and sermon.’ His chapter on Psalms is the seed from which the present book has grown …” (Kenneth Langley, How to Preach the Psalms (Dallas: Fontes, 2021), p. 13).

[3] “I was almost prepared to agree with Donald Gowan that the psalms do not want to be preached, that they are speech directed toward God and do not adapt well to speech directed toward the church,” (Langley, Psalms, p. 15).

[4] Ibid, p. 15.  

[5] Ibid, p. 16.  

[6] H.B. Charles, Jr. On Preaching: Personal & Pastoral Insights for the Preparation & Practice of Preaching (Chicago: Moody, 2014).  

[7] Langley, Psalms, p. 46.  

[8] Ibid, p. 51.  

[9] Walter Rauschenbusch writes, “Our national optimism and conceit ought not to blind us longer to the fact. Single cases of unhappiness are inevitable in our frail human life; but when there are millions of them, all running along well-defined grooves, reducible to certain laws, then this misery is not an individual, but a social matter, due to causes in the structure of our society and curable only by social reconstruction,” (Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: MacMillan, 1907; reprint: CrossReach, n.d.), p. 63).

[10] Ibid, p. 62.  

On preaching the Psalms

On preaching the Psalms

Here’s an excerpt from Kenneth Langley, How to Preach the Psalms (Dallas: Fontes Press, 2021), p. 20:

… most of us intuitively bring this genre sensitivity to our reading of Scripture. We do not read Proverbs the same way we read the Decalogue. We do not expect narrators to argue like the book of Hebrews, or Hebrews to tell a story like Ruth. We do not interpret apocalyptic the way we do Acts, or read psalms the way we read parables. When we encounter the words, “you shall not,” or “the kingdom of God is like,” or “the word of the Lord came to me,” or “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ,” we recognize cues that what follows is to be read as legal material, parable, oracle, and epistle. And it’s a good thing, too. We could never understand what God says in the Bible unless we had learned to read different kinds of literature differently. Genre-sensitivity is an essential part of reading competence.

Unfortunately, we do not always preach Scripture the way we read Scripture. The genre-sensitivity with which we approach the varied forms of biblical literature is shelved when we craft sermons on those forms. We make the sophomoric mistake of thinking that when you paraphrase a poem you have said the same thing in different words. What we read in the study is, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” What we say in the pulpit is, “God can be counted on to provide for his people.” And we do not realize that the sermon has not said what the text says. The affective, imaginative, and aesthetic appeal of the original line is forgotten, down the hall in our study.

What has probably happened is that we have learned to preach just one genre of sermon. We have grown comfortable with a preaching form that works well with, say, epistolary material, and then tried to make that form work for every genre of Scripture. Sermons on proverbs sound like sermons on Philippians; sermons on psalms sound like sermons on Luke. Every week it’s three main points, or problem/solution, or perhaps even a narrative structure—a welcome alternative to the older propositional preaching, but one which can all too easily become a new rut. Sunday after Sunday we cram parables and proverbs, laments and lyrics into our homiletical grinders and out comes something that tastes just like last week’s sausage. Preachers will never do justice to the psalms until we put to rest the notion that a single sermon form will fit the varied forms of biblical literature.

Preaching a new way

Preaching a new way

In this article, I’ll include excerpts from a recent sermon and share some thoughts about sermon preparation and delivery. Every pastor prepares sermons differently. My goal here is a combination of mechanics and approach―how to best capture and communicate what God is doing with what He’s saying, and to deliver shorter, more effective sermons.

All the examples which follow are from a sermon on Acts 8:2-25, titled “Peter and the Magician.”

Introductions

The introduction and conclusion are now the only portions of my sermons I script. Here is the introduction:

I use Abraham Kuruvilla’s acrostic “INTRO method,” which takes strong discipline but is well worth it (A Manual for Preaching: The Journey from Text to Sermon (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), ch. 7). I leave it to the reader to seek out his text and read the approach for yourself, but you can see it in my outline.

You begin with a striking image that grabs people’s attention, to get them to commit to listen to the sermon in those first crucial minutes. I never use books of illustrations or scour the internet. I read quite a bit and my illustrations usually come from (1) news stories I read, (2) historical anecdotes, or less often (3) stories from my law enforcement and investigations career. You must be able to make some kind of tangible leap from the illustration to the substance of the sermon.

You then pivot to ask probing questions, to get the congregation to see why they ought to listen―why they must listen. You should never tell people the application or reveal “what God is doing with what He’s saying” in the introduction. Do. Not. Do. It. You are not a lawyer, making an argument. Don’t lay out a precis of your “case,” then spend the sermon “proving” it to a jury. Just ask questions that provoke introspection, related to the application move that is implicit in the text. In this case (see above), you can see where I go with my questions.

I then switch to a general statement of the topic, usually in the form of a question to be answered. Again, do not unveil your application or the force of the passage.

Then, state the passage text and lay out a “contract” of sorts by providing the structure of the sermon―the “moves” you’ll be making, so the congregation can follow your progress. Kuruvilla sums it up well (Manual, p. 191):

The Image says: Get ready to hear this sermon.

The Need says: This is why you should hear this sermon.

The Topic says: This is what you are going to hear.

The Reference says: This is from where you are going to hear it.

The Organization says: This is how you are going to hear it.

I try to keep my introductions to four minutes. I made it with this sermon. However, this past Sunday (16 October 2021), it ran to 5:30. You can’t win them all … I did this introduction in about four and a half minutes:

Move 1―The Scattering

Here is where my newer method for preparing my notes takes form. I include virtually no notes at all. I simply highlight key things I wish to emphasize, and insert terse comments on things I want to be sure I don’t blank out on as I’m speaking:

This is where my choices for emphasis might raise some eyebrows. As I said in a previous article, I don’t think “audiobook commentary” preaching is real preaching at all. So, I don’t comment on everything in the text. I leave a lot out. I only highlight the key points that I believe God would have us “see” in the text, in light of what I believe He’s “doing with what He’s saying.”

So, this means I do not dwell on the nature or extent of the persecution. I basically let the text float me along and only make a few comments. I note Luke’s interesting word choice to describe Paul’s fanaticism, but move quickly. I cover vv.1-3 in perhaps two minutes. I believe it is a mistake to park here and chat about persecution. That is a worthy topic, but it isn’t Luke’s point in this passage. It is an appropriate topic for the confrontations with the Council at Acts 3-4.

Acts 8:4-8 present another challenge, and another opportunity to resist audiobook preaching. How many of us are tempted to stop with Acts 8:2-8? The problem is that this is only setting the stage for the real point of the passage―Simon’s conversion and his confrontation with the Apostle Peter.

Don’t get me wrong―you can do something with Acts 8:2-8. I just don’t believe you’d be sensitive to the “connectedness” of the passage if you did. This section sets the stage; it isn’t meant to stand on its own. Don’t cut it here and make a sermon about persecution + evangelism, then conclude with a flourish with something like “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church!” What are your people supposed to do with that information? They’ll have heard a lecture, not a message aimed at transformation.

So:

  • I resisted the urge to speak on the apostolic sign gifts. I mentioned them, but didn’t park there. I emphasized they were markers of God’s kingdom power breaking into a black and white world with brilliant colors.
  • I spent more time emphasizing the “paid attention to” remark, which Luke repeats several more times. It’s critical to understanding Simon’s mindset, and his actions.

I covered vv. 4-8 in four minutes. The entire sermon is 11 minutes long, as I finish v. 8.

Move 2―The Magician Joins the Family!

Now we move to the heart of the passage, and this is where I spend most of my time:

My notes speak for themselves, so I won’t belabor the point. Notice that I have no “notes,” in the traditional sense. I’m working entirely from highlights, with some occasional cryptic notes that I want to be sure I remember to emphasize. My hermeneutical aim is to focus on the way Luke juxtaposes the allegiance shift from Simon to Phillip. This is critical. You cannot miss this in favor of speculation about the genuineness of Simon’s faith. Commentators will do this. Ignore them. It’s irrelevant to Luke, it’s irrelevant to you, and it’s irrelevant to your congregation. Luke is not interested in Simon’s salvation―he’s interested in his reaction to Peter and John when they mediate the gift of the Spirit!

It’s the allegiance shift that’s important, because it sets up Simon’s reaction at the forthcoming “Samaritan Pentecost.” Notice that the Samaritans previously “paid attention” to Simon, but now they’ve “paid attention” to Philip. Notice also how Simon encouraged people to give him quasi-worship. This should be your focus. But, again, it cannot end here. Don’t cut your sermon and tell folks to return next week―that would be awful! Move quickly to the confrontation.

I covered vv. 9-13 in five minutes:

Move 3―The Confrontation (Pentecost 2.0)

I’m still not quite at the crucial part of the sermon. Rather, we have here the final piece of the puzzle that sets up the event:

I spend little time on this―I want to hasten on. My focus is not on the theological implications of the Samaritan Pentecost, though I do mention it. Instead, my focus is on the fact that Simon, the magician who had used dark arts to deceive many, literally sees something more powerful, more awesome than anything he’s ever seen before. What would a man like Simon do, in this circumstance? He’s an immature professing believer―what will he do?

My short notes reveal I don’t tarry long, here. I do something unusual and script a list of rhetorical questions to ask the congregation, because I want to get this right. I cover vv. 14-17 in less than two minutes:

Move 4―The Confrontation (Simon and Peter)

Now, we get to it:

This is the heart of the sermon. This is where Simon’s request to Peter can be seen in a holistic light. The guy is reverting back to type; he sees a chance to obtain some of the notoriety he once had while still serving God. He’s bitter, envious, chained up by his own sin. Simon wants his social position back, and he sees a “good” way to get it.

This is more “real” than viewing Simon like a Looney Tunes character and declaring he was a heretic, or “immature.” That’s no good. He was a real person. We’re real people. We do things for the wrong reasons. We lie to ourselves. We “know better,” but we do it anyway.

Again, I script a few particularly important notes, but I basically survive with highlights and terse comments in the margin. I covered vv. 18-24 in just over seven minutes, by far the longest time I parked during the sermon:

Exhortation

I again follow Kuruvilla’s formatting, here, and use a “Tell + Show + Image + Challenge” approach. In this sermon, I ditched the last “image” and only used three elements. Again, I fully script the conclusion because it’s important to land this plane well:

Some final thoughts

My burden here is to share my new method for sermon preparation: no manuscripting, highlights for important things, terse comments in the margin for very important things, and scripted comments only for the most critical items.

This style requires a certain comfort with extemporaneous speaking, within limits. It also takes ruthless message discipline―a quest to go beyond exegesis to synthesis, a sensitivity for genre, an eye for natural thought-units, and an ability to sift the considerable chaff out of the commentaries. It also demands a relentless focus on application―on practical sanctification. How will God’s implicit movement to action in this passage make our congregation more like Christ, corporately and individually? What does God want us to do with what He’s saying? Concretely, exactly, not abstractly?

I’ve found this new style is working for me. The sermons are shorter, tighter, more focused, more direct, more helpful. They take much less time to prepare. It may not work for you. But, then again, perhaps my thoughts here can be helpful to you.

Thoughts on preaching

Thoughts on preaching

I’ve been intentionally experimenting with my preaching over the past few years. I am grateful for the expository preaching model I was handed at seminary. It’s a good model. It’s the best model. But, there are different flavors within that broad framework. The past few Sundays, I’ve tried something radical for my sermon preparation. It is radical for me, but perhaps not for you. I shall share it, anon.

But, first some observations about expository preaching, as it is sometimes practiced―as I used to practice it!

Against audiobook commentary preaching

I have grown increasingly disappointed with a style of preaching I shall call “audiobook commentary.” This is where the pastor is basically an Audible version of an introductory bible commentary. Abraham Kuruvilla, whom I consider to be the ablest preaching teacher working in North America today, summarizes this pretty well:

This I call the hermeneutic of excavation—the exegetical turning over of tons of earth, debris, rock, boulders, and gravel: a style of interpretation that yields an overload of biblical and Bible-related information, most of it unfortunately not of any particular use for one seeking to preach a relevant message from a specific text.

Abraham Kuruvilla, A Vision for Preaching: Understanding the Heart of Pastoral Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), p. 13.

Last year, my wife and I attended a conference where we were subjected to this very approach. During a time while we waiting to be “refreshed,” I dutifully listened to a pastor (with both an earned DMin and a PhD) explain the alleged Latin etymology for the English word “sword.” This pastor was a disciple of John MacArthur, and preached just like him. Indeed, MacArthur personifies this audiobook commentary style of preaching. He is a faithful expositor and a steadfast shepherd, but I don’t believe he is the best preacher. This observation is heretical in some circles, but here I stand. I understand if you disagree.

Exegesis is not preaching. It’s a waypoint on the road to preaching.

You don’t need more commentaries

You don’t need another commentary. There is nothing new to say. I promise. I swear. I just read C.K. Barrett’s remarks on John 4:23 (The Gospel According to St. John (London: SPCK, 1958), pp. 198-199), then cracked open D.A. Carson (The Gospel According to John, in PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 224). He appears to have copied Barrett, down to the choice of specific phrases, without citing him. At the very least, Carson echoes Barrett to an eyebrow-raising degree. I’ve no idea if he did it deliberately, nor do I care. My point is there is likely nothing new to be said.

You want an exegetical commentary? The language work has been done. It really has. You hopefully had language training yourself, too. Barrett will do you fine. So will Calvin. If you get yourself a small, trustworthy stock of exegetical commentaries, you won’t need to buy anymore.

Most commentaries have little value for preachers, because they specialize in hermeneutical excavation. They don’t help you understand the passage as a passage. As literature. As a composition. As a pericope that God is doing something with. Instead, they often major on grammatical observations, syntactical nuances. They summarize oodles of scholarly literature, then sometimes forget to make observations of their own. They’re good for technical reference, perhaps, but you probably have enough of those.

Their interpretive filters are too often cardboard. I just read R.C.H. Lenski declare Peter uttered an imprecatory curse at Acts 8:20. This is unlikely. Maybe … (and call me crazy) … just maybe Peter utters an angry exclamation! Maybe there’s no theological weight behind his short statement, which I translate colloquially as “you and your money can go to hell!” (cf. Phillips’ translation).

Here’s another example.

If you’re preaching on Stephen’s sermon before the Council (Acts 6:8 – 8:1), a discussion on whether Stephen properly applied Amos at Acts 7:42-43 is useless to you. It means nothing. It does not help you communicate God’s message to your congregation. It might interest you. It might intrigue you. It might pique your interest for an article. It does nothing to help you preach the passage. That’s why most commentaries are unhelpful homiletical aids.

You probably don’t need more commentaries.

Preach by passage, not by verse

How many sermons would you use to preach Stephen’s speech before the Council (Acts 6:8 – 8:1)? Six years ago, I did it in four sermons. A few weeks ago, I did it in one sermon that totaled 50 minutes … and I think it was 10 minutes too long.

I almost titled this section “read the bible as literature,” but thought better of it. However, it’s true. You should try to capture the bible’s flow of thought pericope by pericope, or passage by passage. We express thoughts in paragraphs, in sections. We don’t do it in sentences. Sentences are pieces of a whole. But, that’s too often the way we preach. I just saw a pastor announce on social media that he planned to wrap up his series on Jude, by preaching vv. 20-25. This means he cut his last sermon at v. 19. Why would you do that?

We’ll do one sermon covering Stephen’s false arrest (Acts 6:8-15). Another on God’s promises to Abraham (Acts 7:1-16), where we bring in some Genesis tidbits and wax eloquent about the Abrahamic Covenant. Then, we’ll discuss Moses’ origin story, praise the Hebrew midwives who refused to bow to Pharaoh, etc. (Acts 7:17-23). If we’re adventurous, we’ll fold Moses’ flight to the desert into that sermon (Acts 7:23-29). And so it goes, until we finally dispatch Stephen into Jesus arms by mercifully concluding the miniseries at Acts 8:1.

The problem is that’s not what Stephen did. He selected and deliberately framed (and re-framed) key incidents from Israel’s past in order to make a powerful accusation to the Council. The shape of his sermon should be ours. It was one sermon. One message. It had rhetorical force because of that shape.

“But,” we object, “it would take two hours to preach Acts 6:8 – 8:1 verse by verse!” Yes, it would. That’s why you don’t preach it verse by verse. You preach the passage. You hit key points paragraph by paragraph, discerning and following the shape of Stephen’s argument.

To borrow another insight from Kuruvilla, scripture isn’t a window we point through towards an object inside. It’s a stained-glass window we point at, like a curator at a museum. We show it to people. We describe it. We explain it. Then, we show them what this beautiful picture has to do with their lives, so they can be more like Christ.

It would be criminal to cut Stephen off, to atomize his speech into a miniseries. To turn his denunciation into a sermon about Moses in Egypt. To spend five minutes explaining why Stephen correctly applied Amos 5:25-27. Leave that bit to MacArthur.

Shorter sermons

I believe that if you go over 40 minutes, you’re going on too long. I know the objections. I understand that, if people consume all sorts of awful content the other six days of the week, they ought to be able to listen to a 50 or 60 minute sermon. I agree. But …

I suspect that, like me, you really don’t have 50 minutes of content. I think you could have made your point better by cutting some stuff out. I’m willing to bet 10-15 minutes of your sermon was unnecessary; the debris from all that excavating. I suspect you “feel” your sermons are better when they’re shorter. If that’s your experience, I don’t believe it’s an accident you feel that way. It’s because they are better when they’re shorter.

Maybe this is all just me. Maybe I’m not gifted enough to fill 50 minutes with dynamic content. Maybe you are. Maybe your pastor is. Maybe you’re awesome, and I’m just ordinary. It’s possible. But, maybe we’re both just ordinary people, and neither of us should really be preaching for 50 minutes?

My goal is 35 minutes. I rarely make it. But for the past three weeks, driven by a quest to be more efficient with my time as a bi-vocational pastor, I’ve changed my approach to sermon prep. This approach has yielded shorter, better sermons (31, 38, and 35 minutes, respectively). They’re tighter, more focused, and more direct. I ruthlessly ditch rabbit-trails that are unnecessary to the author’s point in that passage. In the latest sermon, on 10 October 2021, my notes ran to a mere 866 words―506 of which were the scripted introduction + conclusion. My notes for the body of the sermon ran to 360 words (this is not an outline, but notes regarding the text). I also finished my prep on Thursday, which is unusual for me because I’m bi-vocational.

In the next article, I’ll share a sermon manuscript and how I now prepare my notes. I’ll also embed the video of a sermon.

For now, I’ll leave you with this sermonic gem from Abraham Kuruvilla from a recent chapel session at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he lately took up residence as Professor of Christian Preaching. The content is good, but note particularly the homiletical technique he uses. I’ll explain more, later. For now, behold his sermon:

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).  

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).

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.