How Do Preachers Arrive at the Theological Idea of a Text?

 |  October 3, 2018

“Any time you say something, you are saying it to the exclusion of something else.” As a young MDiv student, I found those words from my preaching professor, Dr. Steven Smith, to be so simple, yet profoundly important. Think about it. You can’t say two things simultaneously. As I write this post, I could be writing on a virtually infinite number of other matters. I could be writing notes on the book I am currently studying. I could be writing about Dallas Cowboys football. I could be recording my musings on the political climate in our country. But here I am writing about preaching.

You may be asking, “What does this have to do with me?” In talking with and listening to preachers over the years I have found that one of the great temptations for many of us is to preach theology. What could possibly be wrong with that? The problem is that for some of us when we preach on a particular passage of Scripture, we default to reading it and then preaching it through the lens of systematic theology. So our sermons end up being lessons on various doctrines from the traditional headings of systematic theology: Theology Proper, Christology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology, etc. More specifically, for example, we end up preaching sermons on the Trinity, the sovereignty of God, the Bible, and any other number of doctrinal topics. What is the problem with that? The problem is that while you preach, whenever you say something, you say it to the exclusion of something else. In the case of preaching, that something else may very well be the point the inspired biblical author is making. We derive systematic theology from the Bible, but God did not intend the Scripture to be a systematic theology textbook.

Before you start hunting for my email address to send me angry emails, hear me out. I am not saying that we should not preach theology.[1]Please note that I am not saying that doctrine or systematic theology has no place in the pulpit. We need to teach our people doctrine. It is important, however, that we not neglect the point the biblical author is making in doing so. In other words, don’t sacrifice the point of the text on the altar of systematic theology because there is a doctrine you want your people to see! We should. But I want to nuance what I mean by “theology” and argue that we preach the author-intended theology of the specific text we are preaching. In this post I will be using the term “theology” as Abraham Kuruvilla does in his book Privilege the Text!, meaning “what the author is doing with what he is saying.”[2]Abraham Kuruvilla, Privilege the Text!, (Chicago: Moody, 2013), 48–54. Kuruvilla has given the example elsewhere of a wife telling her husband the trash is full. At face value, it seems she is making a declaration about the condition of the trash. But what she is doing with what she is saying is to urge her husband to take out the trash.

So how do we go about finding the theological idea of the text? Entire books have been written on this subject, but below are a few brief tips on how to go about determining what an author is doing with what he is saying.

1. Determine the genre of your text

Meaning is influenced by genre. You should not expect to read and interpret an Old Testament narrative in the same way you do a New Testament epistle, nor a Psalm in the same way you do others.

According to Smith, there are nine genres in Scripture: Old Testament Narrative, Law, Psalms, Prophecy, Wisdom Literature, Gospels/Acts, Parables, Epistles, and Revelation (Apocalyptic). But these nine fall under three macro genres: Story, Poem, and Letter.[3]Steven Smith, Recapturing the Voice of God: Shaping Sermons Like Scripture, (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 28. Each merits a different interpretive approach.

2. Story: Look for repeated words or phrases

This is especially true for Old Testament narratives. Kuruvilla points to the author repeating the word “voice” in 1 Samuel 15 and the verb “sent” in 2 Samuel 11–12. In 1 Samuel 15 the author is encouraging the reader to listen to the voice of God, not the voice of anyone else.[4]Abraham Kuruvilla, A Vision for Preaching: Understanding the Heart of Pastoral Ministry, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), 79. Such repetitions are often obscured in Bible translations. If you are unable to read Greek or Hebrew, consult language helps as much as possible. In 2 Samuel 11–12 he is reminding us of who is truly the king and is calling us to faithfulness to him.[5]Kuruvilla, Privilege the Text!, 118–27. These repetitions are author-embedded clues to communicate his purpose in writing.

3. Poem: Give attention to the parallelism and imagery 

In English poetry, the defining characteristics are typically rhyme and meter. In Hebrew poetry, the defining characteristics are parallelism and imagery. Smith says of parallelism that, “The poet offers an idea, then offers a commentary on that idea.”[6]Smith, Recapturing the Voice of God, 128. So the author will present an idea in the first line and then in the second line will reinforce, explain, or contrast it.[7]Ibid. Groups of lines form strophes, and groups of strophes form stanzas. Examining the Psalm at both the macro and micro levels can help us to discern the point of the text.

The author will often use figures of speech to create images in the minds and emotions in the hearts of readers. The emotions being communicated in the text and evoked in our hearts can be clues as to what the author is aiming to accomplish. As you study a Psalm ask yourself “What does God want me to learn about himself?” and “What does God want me to know about how I should approach him?”[8]Ibid., 134. These questions can be helpful in identifying the theology of the Psalm. 

4. Letter: Examine the semantic structure 

When reading the Epistles, pay attention to the grammar. If you have studied Greek, you may need to dust off your old grammar book from class. If you haven’t, consulting an English grammar can be helpful. The author has written his letter using sentences, phrases, and clauses. The way these fit together is called semantic structure and that structure will reveal what the author is doing with what he is saying. Give significant attention to the function of clauses. Space limitations prevent me from giving examples here, but have a look at the structural outlines on Preaching Source. Dr. David Allen’s outlines of Hebrews and 1 John are particularly helpful examples of how to read the text with an eye to semantic structure.

When we preach we must remember at least two things. First, we cannot provide valid application without first understanding the theology of the text—what the author is doing with what he is saying. Second, the text is not there to serve as a springboard to launch you and your people into systematic theology. We shouldn’t step into the pulpit simply to make theological observations on the text. The point of the text should be the point of your sermon. Why? Because the point of the text is the point God is making. Whenever you say something you say it to the exclusion of something else. Teach your people theology. But be careful not to exclude or minimize the biblical author’s point as you do so.

Jeff Hampton is a PhD student in Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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