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sean du toit: is the bible always necessary?

I love expository preaching.  It’s what I feel most comfortable doing. I am not competent enough in other ways of preaching, although at times I do try – always repenting afterwards.  I don’t trust my organizational and creative skills for fear that I may supply the message with my particular selection and at worse prove unfaithful to the intentions of the passage.  So I stick close to the text, always preach through particular books. But this does not seem to be Jesus’ way of doing it, nor Paul’s for that matter. Jesus could stand up and expound a Scripture in the synagogue, and Paul could explain the Scriptures with great skill.  But when speaking to the masses with no formal training or Christian background, both of these preachers do not resort to expository preaching but rather start with the stories and experiences of their listeners.

I often meditate on Paul’s message from Athens. There are scriptural ideas, but no scripture.  Instead, God forbid, there are quotations from the Stoics and Epicurean philosophers.  And interestingly enough, why did Luke feel the need to remember this message?  Is it because Theophilus should be trained both in biblical and cultural exegesis?  Is it that the community he represents should be taught how to preach from the scriptures but also to a theologically illiterate generation?  Is that why Luke included this message in his training manual?

Through our preaching are we training people to engage with a world both hostile and indifferent to our claims? I still believe that exposition is beneficial in so many ways. But lately I feel the tug of cultural exegesis. Lately I feel Jesus and Paul, through their examples, pushing me to think about how my preaching is training Christians to engage with a society with warped perceptions and no background upon which to build an understanding of what we’re talking about. Lately, I feel the mission of God impinging on my desire to expose the meaning of the Scriptures, but also to expose the meaning of our cultural texts and artifacts by engaging with them theologically.

And this is where it gets dangerous – as well as both interesting and exciting.  Does there have to be a specific text from which to preach?  Or can we address people with a theologically faithful message, but not use a specific scripture on which to base it?  Is that possible?  Is that allowed?  My fear is that at times I’ve used a specific passage to engage a particular topic, and felt afterwards that I wasn’t entirely faithful to the intention of the passage.  So instead of engaging in eisegetical gymnastics – or worse, verbal trickery which finds a particular “translation” that supports my topic – can’t I just leave the Bible out of it? Can’t we just at times address a topic from a theological point of view, because there isn’t a specific text that suits this occasion?

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Sean du Toit is the husband of Sue, a student of Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School, a New Testament lecturer at Alpha Crucis, and more significantly, a follower of Jesus the Lord.

20 Comments

  1. Thanks Sean, thought provoking.

    Is it fair to say that context is all important? I think within our church context there is something very significant and important about gathering around the book every week from which we learn what it is to be God’s people. On the other hand hopefully church is not the only context in which you preach, so when you are speaking outside the church, or relating to those whose starting point is not “what does the Bible say?” but “what has this got to do with me?” then is is entirely appropriate to start as Paul did with other sources and to preach the gospel without explicit reference to scripture.

  2. Scott Mackay says:

    Thanks Sean, a really stimulating post, and a great exhortation to think carefully about our communication of the gospel. Great point about the tentative nature of cultural-exegesis weighted sermons, and yet their importance in a post-Christian context. I think Jonathan raises a really important dimension too. I have to confess I’m still trying to get my head around this whole topic.

    I wonder if ‘preaching’ is the right word to describe cultural reflection. If we define preaching as bringing God’s words to people, then perhaps cultural exegesis is a subsequent reflection on culture on the basis of our gospel-shaped knowledge of God? Could we say that it is a ‘derivative function’ of the preacher? I think it should always being happening anyway, including during expository preaching. But I guess I feel this distinction is important to maintain in any context, so that we’re acknowledging the uniqueness of God’s revelation in Christ and our dependence on it.

    To push back on Acts 17 – is it really accurate to call this an example of cultural exegesis? Although Paul quotes pagan authors, these don’t seem to be driving the speech. Rather than exegeting them, he subverts them, and employs them to illustrate his own (very Jewish) point – the pagan ignorance of God! The ideas and even language of specific OT texts saturate and drive the presentation (Gen 1, Gen 2:7, Gen 11, 1 Kings 8:27, Deut 4:28, Isaiah 66:1-2 c.f. Acts 7:48). As for Jesus’ preaching – the Messianic authority with which he speaks (‘you have heard it said, but I SAY to you’) is something which I take it we are not encouraged to replicate?!

    I’m really interesting in this whole discussion though. I’m currently preparing a ‘sermon’ for a series at our church which will interact theologically with several movies – definitely something out of the ordinary (and so it should be!).

    1. Scott Mackay says:

      Sorry, that last paragraph should say ‘interested’!

  3. Sean says:

    Thanks for the responses. I wasn’t entirely sure that using Acts 17 was a good example of what I’m talking about, given it’s not the usual context in which “sermons” are delivered. But then I wondered if Paul would make the distinction we make between “evangelistic” contexts and “ecclesiastical” contexts for preaching? How many times have we preached Acts 17 in non-evangelistic contexts?

    To press my point further, neither 1 Thessalonians nor Philippians contains any scriptural quotations (allusions of course, but no explicit quotations) and I am persuaded that these were “oral” performances given in the context of Christian gatherings. Thus here again we have examples of “preaching” without a specific text. But perhaps I don’t need to press that too far, as I’m still convinced that Jesus taught about who God was and what he was doing, and how people were to respond, to disciples and seekers without reference to Scripture. Not all the time, but there were occasions. [[Appealing to the Messianic authority of Jesus here seems a tad odd to me, and I’m not sure how that would speak against us using Jesus as an example to be emulated in our preaching. Perhaps you could extrapolate on that Scott.]]

    Please note, I am still thoroughly committed to preaching from Scripture and expository preaching in particular. However, as noted above, the problem is that sometimes we have a topic but not a text. Sometimes we have a message, but no particular passage that speaks directly to that message. The problem that I have experienced is that in the past, and I see many examples of this today, I have fallen prey to the temptation to slant a particular passage in order to speak to a particular issue of cultural relevance. And I’m just not convinced that’s appropriate. I’d rather preach without a passage that obscure a particular passage to make a valid theological point.

    An analogous example of this is to be found in the way systematic theology has to, at times, address contemporary issues without specific reference to a particular text, but rather responds from the well of theological reflection. For example, there is no specific text that speaks to the issue of genetic engineering in the Bible. The issue is a recent development and so a response to this issue must be made from theological reflections that derive from the bible but are not based directly on specific passages of Scripture.

    What I’m therefore suggesting is that at times preaching will be a theological response to a specific contextual and/or cultural issue that is not directly dependent on a specific text but rather draws from the well of theological reflection that is derived from a considered study of Scriptural passages.

    Except for the three references to particular chapters, an excellent example of this, although in another format, is provided by Paul Windsor in his blog post: reading nike theologically, see http://paulwindsor.blogspot.com/2010/05/reading-nike-theologically.html

    Recently I preached from Lily Allen’s song “HIM” and provided a theological response to her poignant questions about god [God?]. Throughout I referred to Jesus, and what we know about Jesus as the one who reveals God, but I didn’t expose the meaning of a particular passage but rather offered a theological reflection/response to her lyrics. This is what I see Paul doing in Acts 17, which is why I initially chose to use that as an example.

    Thoughts? Comments? Criticisms? They are all welcome.

    1. Mark Maffey says:

      An interesting conundrum. Jesus through his parables sought to speak to the people where they were at and then giving them a twist by instead of twofold, tenfold etc.. We need to meet our audience where they are at and speak into their experience whilst drawing them into the biblical text. Perhaps a more deductive approach.I am more convinced by starting with the text and exegeting and bringing into it everyday illustrations which help the audience to understand where we as preachers are going.

  4. Hi Sean, I am very sympathetic to what you are saying, and wish I could have heard your message based on Lilly Allen, but I do respectfully take issue where you suggest,

    “To press my point further, neither 1 Thessalonians nor Philippians contains any scriptural quotations (allusions of course, but no explicit quotations) and I am persuaded that these were “oral” performances given in the context of Christian gatherings. Thus here again we have examples of “preaching” without a specific text.”

    I often hear people making these sort of links, but I don’t think they are true. 1 Thess and Phil are letters, not sermons, even though they would have been read aloud to the congregation and thus have an “oral” quality. The reading and interpretation of scripture, which was a vital aspect of synagogue worship and was taken over by the Christians and which is the ancestor of our sermons, is a fundamental element of the gathered worship of a diaspora community, now as then.

    I write many emails which contain exhortation and advice on Christian theology and practice to students and others but I tend not to liberally sprinkle those emails with textual references or quotes because I am not intending them to fulfill the function of a sermon, but merely to continue a dialogue in which the other side is also involved. I know these people get sermons at church and in writing emails I am trying to do something different than what a regular preaching ministry should do. I wouldn’t want my emails to be taken as representative of my preaching, so why would I do that with Paul’s letters? Further, those NT documents that are most like sermons, e.g. Romans or Hebrews, are also those most laden with explicit references and deliberate interpretation of the OT. If we are going to use the letters of the NT as paradigmatic for our preaching, then we should use those that are actually functinoing as sermons rather than occasional dispatches. Or is that a bit circular?

  5. Scott Mackay says:

    Hi Sean,

    Yes, to clarify, I think there’s something unique in the way the Lord Jesus speaks the words of God. He has unique authority as the Son of Man, and he places his own teaching on par with the Law of Moses (e.g. Matt 5:21-48). Actually I think it’s remarkable the degree to which Jesus did expound and refer to the OT. But when he doesn’t, I’d hesitate before simply treating it as a model to follow.

    But back to the discussion about theological reflection vs biblical exposition: I can’t imagine anyone is saying we shouldn’t do the former. After all, we are constantly ‘doing’ theological reflection – as those who are ‘in Christ’ and yet called to missional engagement with the world. Isn’t the real issue how closely our theological reflection is tied to the theology of the Bible? And couldn’t theological reflection apart from Bible simply become the wisdom of the world? (Perhaps even helpful and true wisdom! but not the wisdom of Christ a la 1 Cor 1-2). Thoughts?

    1. Sean says:

      Hi Scott

      Again, I would wish to clearly state that I am not suggesting an either/or dichotomy here. I’m not even suggesting that preaching without reference to specific texts becomes the norm. I’m merely suggesting that preaching a message (that is theologically valid and justified) that engages with a particular cultural or societal issue does not necessitate that we have a specific text from which to preach.

      I think if Jesus didn’t want us to emulate his example in preaching through stories and parables (that echo but do not cite Scripture) he would have made that clear. So I do see Jesus as an example that we should follow. Of course Jesus was indebted to the Hebrew scriptures, and of course we should be as well (both Testaments!). But there may be occassions when, instead of misusing the text to suit a message, we just leave the Scriptures aside for that message and then return to our usual M.O.

      1. Scott Mackay says:

        Sorry Sean, I wasn’t saying story-based preaching is somehow illegitimate. I was just raising the complications of drawing a straight line from Jesus to us when it comes to method, because of his unique authority – I’m sorry if that was unclear.

    2. Sean says:

      So you would be happy preaching a narrative sermon that wasn’t based on a specific biblical text?

  6. Sean says:

    Hi Jonathan

    Thank you for your response. I sense that we may end up agreeing to disagree here, and get sidetracked by other, very interesting, but non-essential issues relating to my main point.

    Contrary to what you state above, I would note that there is an entire field of New Testament scholarship devoted to the socio-rhetorical nature of the new testament documents, and E. Randolf Richards (Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, building on the work of Botha and others) notes the function of letter carriers and their role in “performing” these letters. One would be hard-pressed to build any distinction between such a performance and “preaching,” since these “letters” were seen as a substitute for the apostle’s voice to the community, i.e., what Paul or an author would have said had he been there. Then, I do not see any connection between modern day email writing and first century letter writing, since modern day emails are not usually orally performed or constructed with the various rhetorical strategies and structures that many New Testament letters contain. If you allow Romans to be seen as a sermon, why not Philippians or 1 Thessalonians? What distinction could you make? If you see Hebrews as a sermon, then I would suggest James as well, which does not build on any specific text.

    I also sense that you are assuming far more than we can demonstrate about the nature of early Christian gatherings, and preaching in particular. Yes, the synagogue was used as “a” model for early Christian gatherings, but there were other models employed as well, and we have little or no information about the structure of early Christian gatherings. Our information dates to much later sources which may or may not be accurate (compare Pliny and Justin Martyr for starters). Furthermore, there is then the question of unity and diversity. Just because they followed one particular model in say, Jerusalem, does not therefore necessitate that that was the only model followed, or that that is the model that should always be followed. See Burtchaell, From Synagogue to Church, Harland, Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations, and then Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community for the various ways of understanding what shaped early Christian gatherings and what elements they employed.

    None of this, however, detracts from my main point which is that Jesus used a variety of methods and sources to instruct and teach people about God. Obviously Scripture is our priority and primary source of teaching. But Jesus and Paul did not feel bound to this, and by their examples demonstrate a willingness to engage with people in “preaching/teaching” settings using other sources, which is my main point.

  7. OK , a few wires getting crossed here.

    My point was the function of an exhortation from an individual is significantly different within the context of commmunity worship than that same community gathering around the scripture for reading and interpreting it. Both preaching and sermon could potentially cover a wide domain. I guess I am using sermon to describe a single a sustained flow of thought rather than the multiple and sometimes disjointed topics of a letter. And yes, no letter fits neatly into either category, but some lean more one way or another.

    Also I wasn’t suggesting we should do it because they did, or that they did it in uniformity, but that the same reasons for them doing it then still apply now. We are a scattered people who need to gather regularly for the sake of reorienting our identity around the word of God, rather than all those others words in the world which constantly batter us.

    And I think this does relate to your main point, which is to answer your question, can we do without the Bible in preaching, I would say, yes, but not for your regular church worship gathering.

    As a side note, James contains multiple citations/allusions of Jesus’ teaching, the Pentateuch, Proverbs and Isaiah and also appears to use Chronicles, and Joshua. So yes it is a lot like a sermon!

    Enjoying the discussion 🙂

    1. Sean says:

      Hoping to uncross some wires 🙂

      Again, I agree that regular worship gatherings should include the preaching of Scripture, I’m just not convinced that this is necessary every single time. Thus, I’m suggesting that in the context of worship, it is appropriate to address a particular topic without reference to Scripture. Of course it will be based on theological reflection which derives from Scripture, but no particular or specific text will be read and expounded from.

      My point about Paul’s letters as oral communications is that they are taken and understood in the same way a sermon would, thus I see no significant difference. It matters little if his letter addresses multiple topics, as sermons often do the same. What matters, for my argument above, is that Paul’s letters are received in exactly the same way a sermon would have been: Oral communications (preaching/teaching) given in the context of the Christian gathering. And thus, in 1 Thess and Phil, Paul exhorts, teaches and preaches to those communities without reference to a specific text. Of course in the background there are many scriptural ideas [I would even argue that there is a narrative sub-structure of the Christ-story ala Richard Hays], but there is not a single Scripture FROM which he [Paul] preaches/teaches. And therefore, I don’t see it as a necessity to do so on every single occassion when I am privileged to preach, but I do see it as necessary to usually preach and teach from Scripture.

      I’m merely advocating the freedom to at times depart from the norm, which I take to be biblical preaching, in favour of theological preaching [engaging culture], which may or may not have a specific Scriptural text. And I feel the freedom to do so because two of my favourite preachers, namely Jesus and Paul, did it – and I am instructed to follow their example, for the well-being and benefit of the Christian community. 😉

  8. Ali says:

    A quick thought: Could it be that Paul and Jesus were far freer to give “addresses” that didn’t specifically reference Scripture because the people they were addressing had an excellent knowledge of the Scripture already and didn’t need the connections spelled out?

    In Jesus’ case the Jews of the day were well versed in Scipture.

    In Paul’s case, when he addressed people evangelistically, in synagogues he proved that Jesus is the Christ from the Scipture, and when talking to Gentiles he was less explicit. But – with no foundation other than an assertion made by Brian Walsh – new Christians tend to eat up Scripture (Maori did in the 19th century, anyway) and so might it be that the Churches he was addressing had a good grasp on Scipture already? It could be argued that even where Paul references the Law (Rom 2:15, 1 Cor 9, 14 – like that!) he assumes a fimiliarity with it that cannot be assumed today.

    Like I say, just a thought.

    1. Sean says:

      Hi Ali

      Good question. However, it is unlikely that the Christians at Thessalonica had any grasp of Scripture. By generous calculations, most scholars agree that by the time Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians, the Christian community was about six months old. That is not nearly enough time to establish a familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures, especially since most people in the ancient world are illiterate, and copies/collections of the Hebrew scriptures are rare. While we cannot be sure of the Christians at Philippi, I would suggest the same is true for them.

      Christopher Stanley, Arguing with Scripture: The Rhetoric of Quotations in the Letters of Paul, 68-69 proposes three types of audiences to whom Paul may have written: (1) an “informed audience” refers to those “who know the original context of every one of Paul’s quotations and is willing to engage in critical dialogue with Paul about his handling of the biblical text” (2) a “competent audience” refers to a hypothetical [audience] who knows just enough of the Jewish Scriptures to grasp the point of Paul’s quotations in their current rhetorical context” ; and (3) a ‘minimal audience’ who are “aware of the high degree of respect given to the Scriptures in Christian circles. As a result, they would have been inclined to take seriously any argument that claimed to be grounded in the biblical text. But their ability to follow the argument of a passage laced with quotations would have been limited.”

      I’m of the view that the Christians at Thessalonica and Philippi were probably “minimal” audiences. There is no reason to suggest they were familiar with the Jewish scriptures, and there are no quotations in either of these writings. There are many “echoes” of biblical ideas and themes, but nothing specifically named.

      Does that help answer your question?

      1. Ali says:

        G’day Sean,

        I’m no expert in these things by any means, but I think we need to be careful assuming that just because an audience was illiterate they were unable to pick up things quickly. John Dickson uses the imperfect but useful analogy of how songs stick in our minds when talking about how illiterate societies are able to make better use of their memories than a literate society. I’m not sure it’s necessarily the case, therefore, that you couldn’t get one heck of a lot of Scripture in you in 6 months.

        But I’m not going to die on a hill for that view. 🙂

    2. Sean says:

      Hi Ali

      I’m not questioning their ability to remember what they’v learnt, I’m merely asking what reason do we have to believe that they knew the Hebrew scriptures? If the church had only existed for about 3-6 months, then I very much doubt a) that there was time to learn those Scriptures, even if they were meeting more than once a week, and b) how do we know that they had access to those Scriptures? Therefore, due to the lack of evidence for them knowing those Scriptures, I question any view that says they did. That’s why I think a minimal audience for Thessalonica and Philippi is more likely. But let’s suppose for a moment, hyopthetically, that they were well trained in Scripture. Wouldn’t an appeal to those Scriptures by Paul then seem more likely than none whatsoever?

      Another thing, I’m not sure how well “versed” in Scripture many of Jesus’ audiences were (tax-collectors, prostitutes, sinners?). I’m sure many knew the stories and teachings, but sometimes the echoes or allusions in the parables and teachings are quite distant or general and I imagine that many of the scribes/pharisees would have picked up on these allusions, but many others would not, unless of course they are major one’s like the return from exile (ala Tom Wright). And even then, it tood us a few decades or research to see that one clearly 🙂

  9. Eddie Fearon says:

    I think the suggestion that Sean is making is helpful. We should feel free to preach sermons that do not appeal to one or more specific texts, because the Scriptures do not directly address the full array of issues we are faced with in the 21st century. As he says, believing that we must always have a specific text to shape our approach to an issue or to back up our message may lead to our misuse of a passage by directing it towards an issue which is too far from its purview.

    This raises important questions about how scriptural texts may “apply” to differing situations or issues than they were intended to address. But his basic suggestion is something we all must consider, can we not sometimes preach on the basis of a biblical thoelogy rather than a particular biblical text?

  10. MIchael Frost says:

    I’ll leave the technical discussion on New Testament audiences to the biblical geniuses among us…

    So I’ll just add that surely the scriptural narrative provides us with powerful themes and shapes our understanding of meaning and purpose in such a way that we can talk ‘biblically’ without being strictly exegetical from one particular passage.

    Of course, I might say that given my area is systematics – but if its not the case than it means there will be certain issues we can simply never address with our congregations because its not the predominant message of a specific text. I might want to preach on the implications of the Trinity for daily life – and if I was to do so, exegetical exposition would not be my method.

    And given that, I don’t believe it means we avoid scripture entirely either – but I have preached a number of messages that refer to themes in the scriptures much more than specific scriptures themselves… and I think God might actually be ok with that 🙂

    1. Joseph says:

      Well said.

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