Preaching and Application: A Review
Charles G. Dennison
Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989. ISBN: 0-80287-0360-1.$19.95 (paper).
In 1970, when Sidney Greidanus's Sola Scriptura appeared, an electric shock went through a number of us at Westminster Seminary. Here, at last, was support for what we had concluded: Preaching lies at the heart of the church's ministry, preaching must awake to redemptive-history, preaching must not descend to the level of moralism, psychologism- the mere exemplary approach. Truly, "our hearts burned within us" as Greidanus pressed a theocentric and christocentric hermeneutic and reviewed the current situation against the background of the debate in pre-WWII Holland that involved, among others, the figure of Klaas Schilder.
We grabbed hold of this book as the prosecuted grab hold of evidence proving their credibility and the plausibility of their case. We felt ourselves surrounded by the devotees of an ahistorical approach to theology, the worshipful disciples of instant cultural relevance and a rising corps of religious technicians aspiring to be masters of the practicum Greidanus arrived as genuine medicine for the soul. In some ways he seemed more valuable than others close at hand for whom the high claims of biblical theology were finally relativized in the name of theological "balance" and in whose hands the discipline had become more like an appendage, a hobby, or a personal exercise in aesthetics.
But, of course, we were students looking for a cause, damning the world around us and over-estimating ourselves and our position. Gradually, we saw clearly enough, despite the beam in our own eye, to work on whatever was in Greidanus's. We began to admit to one another the book disappointed us. We blamed its wordiness at first; it was pretty tough going in the later sections. In the end we concluded the book was seriously flawed, although we could not put our finger on the precise reason. The present review offers an opportunity to look at Greidanus in light of the progress we all have made since 1970.
Without doubt Greidanus has produced a standard work that will be set before a generation of seminary students. He has obviously mastered the art of easy communication and produced an exceptionally clear view of the homiletical and hermeneutical landscape. Complications are deftly treated; the oblique level of theological discussion is often penetrated carefully. Truly, a student's manual in the best sense of that term.
Greidanus is up-to-date. He carries through with his arguments from Sola Scriptura. Moralism and the exemplar approach are not alternatives among homiletical possibilities; rather they are unacceptable (cf. pp. 116ff., 161ff.). Also, the historical-critical method has failed as a system unsuited to its subject. The time has come to recognize this fact as fundamental to responsible exegesis (cf. pp. 25ff.).
At the same time, Greidanus carries us beyond his position of twenty years ago. We have moved "into a new world: [Biblical studies] has undergone a paradigm shift from historical to literary studies so that scholarly interest today is focused not so much on history as on genres of biblical literature- with the concomitant shift in homiletics to forms of sermons" (p. xi). Needed is analysis that helps us appropriate the significance of this shift while avoiding the pitfalls.
Greidanus steers us almost effortlessly through the last 100 years of biblical literary criticism: Source—> form—> redaction--> rhetorical—> [biblical theology]—> canon (chapter 3). He reviews for us the historical (chapter 4) and theological (chapter 5) analysis of the text. His goal is the "holistic" method that stands against atomism (p. 48) and a monodimensional assessment of Scripture. He agrees with Leander Keck that preaching biblically is to impart "a Bible-shaped word in a Bible-like way" (p. 10).
Greidanus does not attempt to be original. He collects, sorts and synthesizes. The application of his method to four biblical genre (Old Testament narrative and prophecy/New Testament gospel and epistle) in chapters nine through twelve draws together the efforts of many. He places before us a wealth of information on the structure and setting of the text. For instance, the work done over the last generation on each of the four gospels is briefly but nicely summarized (pp. 278-84).
By the book's end we may feel we have been "chiasmed" to death. Greidanus's repetitive style and system of analysis may find us scanning instead of reading. Still, much helpful information provokes us to further and deeper study. In a day when an unconfessed and even piously defended mental indolence dominates the pulpit, Greidanus will have none of it and neither should we.
As helpful as it is, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text leaves us more than uneasy. In it, to be sure, Greidanus shows himself a master of homiletical science and most likely the homiletitian to be reckoned with for some time to come. However, his strengths, the very points at which we might boast about him, expose what may prove to be his most damaging weaknesses. We have organized our reflections on the critical areas under three headings: Church and Theology, The Exile and the Kingdom; Preaching and Application.
1. Church and Theology. Someone has observed that theology is dead; but science in theological dress is very much alive. What they meant was that theology is no longer viewed as normative, while the technical craft employed by theologians is. Method has ascended and become the meaning of the theological enterprise.
Greidanus overwhelms us with method, something many will not find bothersome given the manual nature of the book. However, he also may be a participant in the demise of a normative theology, leaving us with his "holistic" method but not much more.
We might well ask how evident Greidanus's confessional Reformed background is from a reading of this book Here, he seems to have moved beyond the parameters of his earlier work to become well-situated in our age of ecclesial and theological anonymity. Scholarship and truth live at a level above the particulars of the community of faith in which we are raised and live.
We do think this strange in a day in which presuppositions and subjectivity are no longer supposedly the enemies they once were. We are merely asking those who know, those maybe who have pressed most for consideration of the subjectivity of, say, the biblical writers themselves, is not our ecclesiastic identity an important ingredient in the theological and hermeneutical task? Moreover, we find especially odd those who accept (as Greidanus in measure seems to do) the claims of redaction criticism with all its deference to the community that shaped the text but ignore or refuse to acknowledge the community that shapes them.
Then, again, what redaction critic has scrutinized the first century Christian communities for a normative theology? More likely, he simply sought to establish the diverse and therefore broad possibilities for what might pass for Christianity at that time. He approaches the modern situation similarly. He relativizes the many theologies and ecclesiastical contexts, while the method itself becomes common ground beneath his clairvoyant eye.
Is Greidanus totally immune to the virus? Not only is his own background camouflaged, but he quotes in common context a wide range of theologians, many of whom disagree violently about the essentials of the faith. It is as if the radical divergence between them were deliberately ignored. Are Karl Barth and Edmund Clowney keeping company these days? How about Donald Miller and Jay Adams? Maybe the unlikely pair of Borakamm and Bettler? Cullmann and Dooyeweerd?
A case in point, Greidanus quotes David Buttrick to the effect that miracle stories are to produce a "wow" (p. 19). That's nice! Yet, there is no hint of the disparity that exists between Buttrick's understanding of miracle and hopefully Greidanus's.
What is going on here? Orthodoxy and neo-orthodoxy blend, confessional Reformed theology and radicalism, the Reformed and Lutheran, the covenantal and the Baptist. All apparently meet on a common platform that seems to be constructed upon supposed neutrality and agreement, by and large, about methodology. As one person said while reading this book, "It will be hard for anyone to take exception to it since, if they are not favorably quoted, they are a disciple of somebody who is."
2. The Exile and the Kingdom. We do have exceptions, however. Excluded are Rudolf Bultmann, Norman Perrin, James Barr and the structuralists. Bultmann's exile interests us. Safe to say, he is no longer "in." No one wishes to be identified with his radical kerygmatic Christianity (p. 35), his agnostic view of history (p. 53), or his "nature and history" dualism (p. 99).
Nevertheless, Greidanus is knee-deep in the issue that preoccupied Bultmann. No, not the historical Jesus, but application. In fact, many may find themselves in bed with the exile, embracing as axiomatic the principle he so relentlessly and consistently pursued; namely, the profound distance between the biblical world and our own.
Without question this principle is the backbone of Greidanus's approach. It is assumed and regularly mentioned in chapters one through seven, argued in chapter eight and applied in chapters nine through twelve. And seemingly many, if not all, agree with him. Take John Stott, for instance; Greidanus quotes him on the preacher's task: It is to throw bridges "...across this broad and deep divide of two thousand years....[It is] to enable God's revealed truth to flow out of the Scripture into the lives of the men and women of today" (p. 159).
Do these words not have serious implications for the doctrine of Scripture? Are we not hearing the suggestion of an inherent deficiency in the word, a deficiency rendering it bound and mute until the preacher "enables" it to be effective? Somehow such language sounds disturbingly familiar.
Unleashing the word is something about which Greidanus has much to say. Evidently, it is properly accomplished when we do full justice to the historical-cultural setting of the biblical world and of our own (p. 183). The word is released from one world by application in another. The objective is modern and relevant communication.
But was that not Bultmann's objective? Did he not build his program of demythologizing to span the chasm between then and now, believing he found a link in the common humanness of biblical and modern man?
For Greidanus, the chasm is also formidably wide. His program of application sends him in search of a link between biblical times and our own, landing him in what he calls our common "struggle for the coming of God's kingdom" (p. 100f.). Regardless of the content of that phrase, certainly a severe problem in its own right, we are left wondering what the practical difference is between him and Bultmann.
The matter, however, is not closed. Bultmann maybe smiles knowingly, confident we have capitulated and are in his corner. At the same time he proves himself our better, since he sees clearly what we are having trouble admitting. On the religious level he champions a faith that is so absolute that it refuses to accommodate itself to historical probability. We, over against him, march with Greidanus so evenly, so reasonably, as if our commitments to historical and logical probability have no impact on our faith.
Our problem, says Bultmann, is our failure to face up to the crisis of modern man who must decide for faith against all supposed guarantees and certitudes. We espouse a faith that, on the one hand, merely trails behind logical and historical constraint while, on the other, asserts its freedom from all such constraints. To the extent we are distant from the biblical world, but dependent upon its historical particulars, to that extent our faith rests only on probability, with us apparently oblivious to the inherent contradiction in our position.
This is, in fact, where Greidanus finds himself (cf. pp. 34,35). He favors a "holistic" historical-criticism and faults the traditional historical-critical method (pp. 36 47). The latter fails because it does not take into consideration all possibilities, specifically excluding the possibility of God's action in history (pp. 35f.). Such a possibility, of course, Greidanus accepts. But that is exactly what it remains, a possibility. Now Greidanus has separated faith and history, since biblical history is only probably true, while faith must be absolutely true.
3. Preaching and Application. Our review has reached a critical point. We have to back-up since earlier we criticized Greidanus for lumping together the widest range of theological opinion. However, if theology in its wide expression is uniformly committed to the program of application, then there is great unanimity in the theological enterprise. What most did not count on, however, was keeping company with Bultmann.
More pointedly, Greidanus's and Bultmann's positions are structurally the same. For both, the ancient text must be "delivered" in the interests of relevance. For both, the machinery of modern criticism is indispensable. For both, faith is an irrational factor (at least in part for Greidanus) that must assert itself against the uncertainties of logical and historical probability.
The process of "deliverance" begins in the text itself. In Bultmann's case the writings of John and Paul are especially effective in this regard. We find in them a pattern at work to demythologize the mythological construction of the biblical world. What they began, the modern theologian and preacher pursue. Put negatively, we must do for the Bible what the Bible was not able to do completely for itself. Positively, we do to the Bible what it began to do to its own mythology. In diagram form we have:
Previous Myth ® New Testament
New Testament Myth ® Modern Criticism
In other words, previous myth is to the New Testament as New Testament myth is to the modern critical program In effect, a whole new redemptive-historical setting has been created.
Although couched in much more agreeable language, Greidanus's program of application has followed the same course. According to him, the modern preacher lives in a qualitatively different age than the biblical figures. The modern preacher finds himself in a new redemptive-historical setting beyond that of the ancient text. He begins with his unique modern setting and turns to the "then" world of the text in order to deliver it from its ancient setting for application here and now.
Another way of viewing things, however, is open to us. Over against the seeming monolithic consensus about the program of application stands Geerhardus Vos. He has told us, "...we know full well that we ourselves live just as much in the New Testament as did Peter and Paul and John" (Biblical Theology, p.303).
Unfortunately, this fact does not appear to be known "full well." Few, if any, seem to work out of a herrneneutic that gives any evidence of having grasped it. And what a shame, since the Bible's point of view is so magnificently sublime. The only real "then and now" is the "then" of the old and the "now" of the new. We live now in the glorious day of salvation that spans the time from our Savior's first advent to his second, or more specifically from his resurrection to ours (cf. Vos's, The Pauline Eschatology, p. 38). There are no "modern" preachers; there are only preachers.
Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church
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