While attending a pentecostal Bible college, I received a subscription offer for The Reformed Journal, a theological magazine from the Reformed Church of America. Little did I know that this magazine would have such an impact on me. This review for the book “The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text,” found in the September 1989 issue inspired me to purchase the book. Fortunately, the book was published durably as my copy is well worn from use. It exposed me to ideas about the Bible that I would not have found in my faith tradition. It became the bedrock upon which my view of the Bible and preaching were founded and its impact can be felt in every sermon I preach.
How not to pervert the pulpit by John Vriend
Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text; Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989,374 pp., $19.95 (paper).
On May 14 of this year, the Sunday on which the celebration of Pentecost and of Mother’s Day coincided, I happened to be attending a church away from home. Since I was not totally unfamiliar with its liturgical tendencies, I dared not expect but could not keep myself from hoping that Pentecost would at least have the edge. To my utter chagrin, it was not even mentioned. Only the bulletin cover carried the emblem of the descending Dove. Instead, the pastor gushingly referred to Mother’s Day as “this day of days” on the church calendar.
The sermon was without theme or structure, introduced with anecdotal material that related to nothing in particular, and vaguely oriented to “family values” -a birds hot spray of advice of the do-the-best-you-can variety. Motherhood was elevated to mythical heights; children were told to be obedient. In a little excursus in defense of infant baptism, the pastor allowed himself the fervent exclamation that “nothing is too good for these innocent babes!” A miscellany of oblique references to Scripture concluded the performance.
Angry words came to my mind as I listened. “This domeheaded man in clerical gown is perverting the pulpit,” I fumed. How can these people stand it month after weary month? In truth, the majority seemed glad to meander with the pastor in this swamp of mindless sentiment. God the Holy Spirit was totally out of the picture.
The next day, still a bit hung over from the Mother’s Day fiasco, I began to read Sidney Greidanus’s The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, sensing from the outset that I was entering a very different climate of thought. I was not disappointed. Here, on Monday, I found the cure for the malaise engendered by the perversion of preaching I had endured the day before.
Greidanus addresses himself, as his subtitle indicates, to the task of outlining the principles of interpreting and preaching “biblical literature.” The choice of that phrase is no accident. Whereas in earlier ages the Bible was usually mined for theological “truths,” and whereas after the Enlightenment it was primarily researched for the historical “data” it contained, in recent years the focus of studies has been of a more literary nature. Not that Greidanus wants to settle for any atomistic approach. That would isolate the literary and the historical dimensions from the theological; his whole point is that the divine message of the Bible can be clearly apprehended only through a careful study of the literary and historical dimensions of Scripture. “Holistic” is the word he favors as a description of his method.
This brings him to a consideration of the literary genres and conventions present in the Bible. Why is “genre” important? It is important, negatively, because failing to correctly identify the genre of a given segment of Scripture leads to all sorts of misunderstanding. Take apocalyptic literature-parts of Daniel, parts of the Gospels, and Revelation-and consider what restricted lifestyles and skewed political views have come about as a result of taking apocalyptic writings as literal previews of future events! Genre is important, positively, because it legitimates certain expectations from what one is reading and determines the questions one can appropriately ask of the text. For example, one no longer seeks to extract from the Song of Solomon a theology of the church; rather, one looks in it for the music and madness of connubial courtship in a covenant setting.
But if genre is that important, then preachers who ignore it are being less than completely literate. The outcome of this illiteracy is the practice of pouring the diverse contents of the several genres into a single homiletical mold. Clearly, the Holy Spirit fitted the several cartridges of literary form to the bullets of kerygma he wanted to deliver. If the preacher, armed only with archery skills, views each text as only a plain old arrow, the resulting loss of effectiveness is costly to the church. Accordingly, Greidanus’s thesis is that homiletical style ought to conform to the genre of the preaching text.
Curiously, Greidanus identifies seven major genres but treats only four: narrative, prophecy, gospel, and epistle. I could not find any explanation of why the remaining three-wisdom, psalms, and apocalypse-were left untreated. Perhaps the author will before long surprise us with a sequel.
Particularly illuminating is the section on Hebrew narrative. On the one hand, in those narratives in which the intent is to relate historical events, the author stresses the importance of historicity. One cannot speak of God’s covenant faithfulness if God has not been a covenant-maker in actual history. In accordance with the form of ancient Near Eastern treaties, the treaty-making king must preface the covenant proper with a list of his achievements in history for the covenant-receiving vassal to know himself in a position of obligation. On the other hand, history writing in the Bible is a far’ cry from the 19th-century ideal of “objective” history with its refined standards of accuracy. “Ancient standards allowed biblical authors much more freedom and flexibility to mould and shape the material in order to drive home their specific messages” (p. 191). So they freely rearranged the chronological order, highlighted certain facts while ignoring others, and offered highly condensed material in one place while elaborating in much detail elsewhere.
In this connection-that of historicity and the freedom to shape it artistically-the author has interesting things to say, for example, about Genesis 1. The creation account is clearly unique because it cannot possibly be an eyewitness account. Its structure (eight creative acts distributed in parallel fashion over two sets of three days) is highly stylized. Yet for the validity of its message, this narrative too requires its historical referent. In order for the message to be valid “one needs to accept as historical that God created the sun, moon, and stars. When and how God created them is a secondary issue which the author does not intend to answer … ” (p. 196; see also p. 64).
In this context the author emphatically asserts that “no historical narrative is a transparent windowpane for viewing the facts beyond; historical narratives are more like stained-glass windows which artistically reveal the significance of certain facts from a specific faith perspective” (p. 196). One is called to preach texts, not bare facts.
Pastors will find this work a splendid help and possibly a corrective for what has become a monochrome treatment of the colorful preaching contents of Scripture. At times they may find the author a bit too left-brained to lead them into a more imaginative mode of reading Scripture. He correctly deplores “spiritualizing,” for instance, and as an example offers “Jacob’s physical struggle at Peniel becoming our spiritual struggle … ” (p. 161). But this leaves my mind stuck in a spiderweb of sticky questions. Was Jacob’s struggle primarily physical? Is not this a naming, and therefore a transformational, story? Is it not the story of the Tricky Dickie of his generation, assailed by fear from within and an unfamiliar but powerful antagonist from without, being transformed into a prince called Israel and ending up a crippled victor in the bargain? Is not this the story of faithful Israel, past and present, as well as a paradigm in the lives of embattled saints? Sometimes I felt overdosed on criticism and left groping for alternatives.
Whatever my strictures, however, the book continues to evoke in me the feelings of profound gratitude I mentioned in the beginning. It is a great cure for the unbearable mindlessness that still afflicts too many pulpits in the land and restores to biblical exegesis and preaching the joy of significant discovery.