Preaching Application and Reductionisms

This comes from R. Scott Clark, as he responds to a common and false criticism Westminster Seminary California receives:  they don’t teach application in preaching.

He reflects on his time as a student, and I think, comes up with a helpful tool for all of us to incorporate into our study and preparation of God’s Word for God’s people.  Here’s what he had to say (remembering what some of his professors taught):

Bob Godfrey also taught a homiletics course. He used a slightly different method, which also produced three-point outlines, which was designed to drive the student back to the text. Having done the same exegetical work required by Volbeda, Kuiper, and Bergsma, Godfrey’s method was to ask a logical question of the text and to answer it from the text. Of course, this method requires one to ask a proper question, but the churches don’t ordinarily license insane people to preach and thus it shouldn’t be too difficult to do. What did Jesus say? Why did he say it? What does it teach us about sin, salvation, and service?

He goes on to say something that may be controversial (at least in some circles).  He says that the method of applying scripture through the lens of “biblical theology” – the narrative of scripture – can actually minimize the application of the scripture, leading to repeated reductionistic application (eg. “Don’t be a moralist”).  Here’s how Clark said it:

Some of us were exposed informally to a view that was more concerned about the flow of redemptive history and the unfolding revelation of the biblical eschatology (view of ultimate reality and heaven) that has roots in some modern Dutch-Reformed circles) than about the direct moral application of a passage. This view was attractive to some, especially to those who came out of moralistic backgrounds because it seemed to focus so directly on Christ and God’s grace). In retrospect it’s clear now that this movement did believe in application but in a very limited number of applications. One of the chief applications was, “Don’t be a moralist.” Sometimes this approach, particularly in the hands of a young preacher, could yield arcane sermons or sermons that were more like bible studies than sermons.

My thoughts haven’t quite formed yet, but there is something about this that I want to affirm, as well as critique.  In the meantime, you guys share your thoughts.  Is Dr. Clark right, in that preaching the text in light of the narrative often (not necessarily) leads to reductionistic application?

Anyone out there share your thoughts.  I would especially be interested in anyone out there who has been preaching in the pulpit for a few years to share with those of us who are less experienced.

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5 thoughts on “Preaching Application and Reductionisms

  1. I think it can lead to reductionistic application – i.e. pat the dude on the back and say ‘just trust Jesus’. We suffer from that in our own denomination which is heavily influenced by Goldsworthy and redemptive historical preaching – more so I think than most reformed movements around the world. At the same time though I disagree with Clark – we can’t decide that redemptive historical preaching is limited in its application just because a lot of guys out there do it badly and their sermons all sound the same. Our application MUST be driven by the very nature of scriputre and as far as I can see essentially scriputre is an unfolding narrative. Whether or not at times that allows for direct moral application that is disconnected from the narrative is debatable.

    I personally think that I’m able to make applications about plenty of moral issues and yet still remain faithfully connected to the narrative and not sound repetitive. I’m concerned that leaving the narrative behind amounts to proof-texting and can create a dualism between the moral standards of the Christian life and the Gospel of grace.

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  2. I agree wholeheartedly with Clark. The idea that the only legitimate application of a text is the application derived from its redemptive-historical reading is something that’s caused me no small amount of stress in sermon prep (and I’ve prepared THOUSANDS of sermons 🙂 I think it’s also to blame for the innumerable sedative sermons I’ve heard.

    It’s been somewhat liberating to re-read Pratt’s He Gave Us Stories and be reminded that thematic analysis is as valid an interpretive tool as literary or historical analysis, though all three need to balance one another.

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  3. Hi Guys,

    I tried to word that section very carefully. The view to which I’m responding is, as I understand it, quite extreme. I wasn’t think of Goldsworthy but of Benne Holwerda and his school and a few others.

    What I think must be avoided is arbitrary applications or what Mike Horton and others have been calling therapeutic moralistic Deism. I’ve seen some quite random applications from narrative texts. The application from narrative texts has to flow logically from the broader and closer context. It can’t be a springboard for our own opinions (a hobby horse). To pick a hard case, I think it’s fair to move from the bizarre case of Zipporah’s circumcision to the necessity of infant baptism and perhaps more broadly to not holding back from the Lord what is properly his. As I say, that’s a hard case and I’m sure that most Baptists would disagree with my application and I guess at least a few paedobaptists might disagree with me.

    Something I could have added to an already long piece is that application is more easily done by a minister among his own congregation than by visiting (e.g., student) preachers.

    Application doesn’t have to be extensive to be effective. It doesn’t have to be heated.

    There’s nothing about Biblical theology, properly conceived that is against application. BT is nothing more than telling the progressively unfolding story, accounting for the relations between heaven earth, accounting for types and shadows, accounting for the organic unity of Scripture. The writers of Scripture do this all the time and they move from narrative to application freely. I don’t see why we can’t do the same.

    One important thought that I omitted is that it we must resist the temptation to (using Willimon’s term) “translate” the text. Rather we must draw God’s people, the Spirit permitting, into the world of the text. As people identify with the text, as the Scriptures begin to re-describe them, as they get caught up in the great story (particularly in narrative texts), they can and do make application of the text to themselves. Preachers should be aware of this. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t make application, they must, but it doesn’t need to be ham-fisted to be effective.

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  4. I think Dr. Clark is right. I also appreciated his clarifications. I wonder if this does not demonstrate the importance of understanding the original intention (of the author/s) when preaching. As we understand what the context was, say of the Zipporah events as well those that originally received the narrative, it seems to me that we can then better understand how to take the same inspired text and apply it to a different context (one which we hopefully know well – not just the context but the people in that context). Understanding also that people are essentially the same today as they were then -that is we are all self justifying idolaters who are prone to do things our way as opposed to obeying the voice of God- should help us apply the most difficult texts. Application then is aimed at having our world view, and all be it slowly our hearts and actions, reshaped and reformed by the Spirit of the risen Christ as opposed to therapeutic moralism which just aims at making us feel better.

    I hope that makes sense.

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