Preaching as Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Patrick Willson’s excellent reflections on preaching as theological interpretation of Scripture raise questions for me about the role of the historical-critical method for theological preaching:

The stimulating academic conversations regarding the theological interpretation of Scripture notwithstanding, theological interpretation occurs regularly in the ‘retail market’ of local congregations as the Scriptures are preached and taught. . . .

Preachers may have been the canaries in the exegetical coal mines gasping for breath well before Walter Wink announced “the bankruptcy” of the historical critical method. Perhaps they were too shy to say anything or were fearful no one would listen or they were embarrassed that they were not able to make the method produce the promised results. Pastors doing serious exegesis could determine with some accuracy “what the text meant” but struggled to discover preachable meanings. When understanding preaching as interpretation of Scripture seemed so unprofitable, homileticians helpfully provided alternatives – e.g. the volumes of therapeutic preaching and the “preaching as” books (“preaching as story-telling,” “preaching as poetry,” “preaching as performance art,” etc.). Recovering the notion of preaching as theological interpretation of Scripture promises nothing less than a renewal of vocation for preachers. (“A View from the Retail Market: The Promise of Theological Interpretation of Scripture for Preaching” in Journal of Theological Interpretation 2.2 (2008) 213-229.

One of the questions it raises (to me at least) is How do preachers go about learning to preach theologically, and when I say “theologically” I mean preaching that is drawing upon and intentionally in conversation with Christian doctrine (something nowadays found antithetical to preaching funded by the historical-critical method). Recent commentary series such as Eerdmans’ The Church’s Bible and IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture suggest one approach to answering the “how” question: apprenticeship to the Christian Tradition’s great theologian/preachers such as Chrysostom, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Barth, and Wesley.

Does anyone resonate with this?


6 thoughts on “Preaching as Theological Interpretation of Scripture

  1. Kent,

    thoughtful topic for conversation, as always.

    You state, “when I say “theologically” I mean preaching that is drawing upon and intentionally in conversation with Christian doctrine (something nowadays found antithetical to preaching funded by the historical-critical method).” Does this statement imply a mode of preaching that:
    1.Sets aside the historical-critical method [Origen]
    2.Subordinates the historical-critical method to broader theological focus [Calvin]
    3.Facilitates a dialogs between history and theology [Childs]

    I am sure attaching names to each of these will draw some fire. Origen, Calvin and Childs might not fit exactly, but their works point towards categories that I set up for you here.

    • Bacho, I tend toward seeing the historical critical method as an ad hoc contribution to studying the Scriptures as text but not as controlling – as the end of the story you might say – the process of interpreting and proclaiming the message(s) of the text. This sounds like number 2 in your list. Getting there is the tricky bit, and I am increasingly thinking that interpreting Scripture according to a “rule of faith” would facilitate such a move.

      Doing so ensures that interpreters of Holy Scripture read them not only as text but as the text set apart (sanctified) for the work of the triune God in redeeming and restoring broken creation.

  2. Hi Kent,

    I read your blog periodically and find your writing and references to other writers stimulating. In response to your question, yes Patrick Wilson’s comments resonate with me.

    The historical-critical method seeks to read the Scriptures as an objective outside observer rather than reading the Scriptures as one who is a participant in the story of the Scriptures. And if I am reading story of the Scriptures as an outside observer, the story is someone’s other than our own.
    Any thoughts?

    Thanks for the references to great theologians/preachers through the last two millennia. I am slowing seeing look back will provide great insight for reflecting upon the many theological and preaching questions which I have.

    As a recent M. Div. grad I enjoy reading your blog as one who is a fellow-participant in God’s wonderful story.

  3. I do think that preachers can profit from reading the sermons of Augustine, Calvin and others including the recently published books of sermons of contemporary theologians, Stanley Hauerwas, Oliver Donovan, Rowan Williams and Fleming Rutledge. I also think Willomon’s recent book on preaching and Barth is an excellent guide to the how of preaching.

    Most of all I think preachers who read serious theology on a regular basis alongside careful reading of scripture can’t help but preach sermons that are theological interpretation of scripture.

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