7 Tips For Balanced Biographical Preaching

Is the drawing of too many moral and ethical lessons from the biographies of Old Testament believers one of the greatest dangers facing today’s church? To judge by the number and volume of the voices expressing concerns, many seem to think so. Here are some of the criticisms I’ve gathered together from various places recently:

1. The biographical approach is man-centered, changing the focus of God’s word from God to man. It tends to put man and his needs in the foreground, but God and His glory in the background.

2. The biographical approach is moralistic. It turns the Old Testament into a list of “do’s and don’ts” or “be and don’t be’s,” promoting a new kind of legalism. It focuses on what we should and shouldn’t do rather than on what God has done and is doing.

3. The biographical approach is too subjective. We should simply read the text and understand it without trying to make personal application. Indeed, such “additions” to the text are harmful because it makes people seek assurance in introverted self-examination. “I’m supposed to be brave like Daniel. But I’m not. So I can’t be a Christian.”

4. The biographical approach fragments the Bible. It isolates the passage from the historical and literary context, focusing on small, individual “atoms” of Scripture rather than connecting them with the big picture. Unless we view the Bible as a single unit about the one work of God, it becomes a fragmented mosaic of different bits – theological bits, devotional bits, moral bits, historical bits, etc.

5. The biographical approach is Christ-less. When the Old Testament is detached from the sweep of redemptive history, it results in a Christ-less religion. At best, we may speak of God rather than man, but such Christ-less results would suit a Muslim or a Mormon as much as a Christian.

6. The biographical approach skips over the original meaning. It often fails to ask the intention of the original author for the original readers. It draws a straight line from the biblical character to ourselves and omits the important question, “What was the author’s message for Israel?”

7. The biographical approach is too individualistic. It emphasizes short-term personal piety to the exclusion of corporate responsibility, a biblical worldview, and an eternal perspective.

Over-reaction to legitimate concerns
These are legitimate concerns; in some biographical sermons all seven of these problems can be present (kind of a perfect imperfection). But let’s not rush to the other extreme by insisting that the biblical narratives simply teach us lessons about God, with no, or virtually no, ethical or moral significance.

For example, in The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, Sidney Greidanus urged that we “ought to employ biblical characters the way the Bible employs them, not as ethical models, not as heroes for emulation or examples for warning, but as people whose story has been taken up into the Bible in order to reveal what God is doing for and through them. Their personal history must be seen as part of the greater story of Israel’s national history, which, in turn, is part of the even greater story of redemptive history” (118).

Notice that Gredianus does not say: “We should not use the Old Testament characters only as ethical models or heroes for emulaton, etc.” He says we should not use them in that way at all.

More recently, in Chapter 2 of Reclaiming the Old Testament for Christian Preaching, Paul Kissling wrote: “To focus on the human characters is potentially to endanger the interpretative process by majoring on the minor. Another way to say this is to affirm that God is the only character in the Hebrew Bible who should be the focus of interpretation.” (31).

Kissling’s chapter has much excellent material in it, but notice again the overstatement. He does not say that God is the major character to focus interpretation on, but that He is the only  character who should be the focus of interpretation.

And within the past few weeks, Matt Chandler’s Gospel Project video has had the impact of devaluing or at least minimizing the moral or ethical lessons to be drawn from the David and Goliath narrative. Matt is not quite as negative in his comments as Greidanus and Kissling, but judging by my email Inbox, I’m afraid that his comments may further contribute to this trajectory of virtually eliminating the exemplary element of the Old Testament characters.

Balanced reaction to legitimate concerns
As I’ve already said, I’m sympathetic to the concerns of these theologians. I like the way that they are helping the church to transform biographical preaching into theological preaching, and especially into redemptive preaching. All three men give us extremely helpful methods to move us from the personal story to Israel’s story, to God’s story of redemption. However, they go too far by by eliminating altogether the moral and ethical lessons from these spiritual biographies.

The Bible does use personal biographies to teach us how to believe and act. For example, Paul highlights how the Old Testament described Abraham’s faith for our benefit (Rom. 4:22-24). Paul views the whole Old Testament as exemplary (Rom. 15:4), and the history of Israel in particular (1 Cor. 10:1, 6, 11). The Apostle James points to Job and Elijah as examples (James 5:10, 17). The writer to the Hebrews held up Christ and His Old Testament saints as examples of faith and works (Heb. 11:1-12:2). In fact the Lord Himself warned, “Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32). As John Owen said, “Old Testament examples are New Testament instructions.”

So, we need a third way, a way that values the exemplary moral and ethical principles and practice of Old Testament characters but also moves on to the theological and redemptive purposes and plans of God in Christ. Instead of biographical or theological/redemptive, we should be thinking biographical and theological/redemptive. Here are seven tips that will help us to address the seven legitimate concerns in a balanced way:

  1. While giving full weight to the human biography, keep God, not man, in the foreground.
  2. Distinguish Christian morality from mere moralism by emphasizing that we need Christ’s grace to obey any moral requirements, and His forgiveness when we fail.
  3. Avoid an unbalanced introspective subjectivism by encouraging believers to look away to Christ for grace far more than looking within for evidences of grace.
  4. Read every story in its immediate and also its redemptive context. As Bryan Chapell says in Christ-centered Preaching: “No aspect of revelation can be thoroughly understood or explained in isolation from some aspect of Christ’s redeeming work” (276).
  5. See Christ even when studying Christ’s people. He was the Savior of Old Testament saints as well, and any good they accomplished was by the power of Christ’s Spirit alone.
  6. Don’t jump straight from OT character to the 21st century Christian. Rather, pause to discern the original purpose for the original audience/readers, usually Israel, the OT Church (Acts 7:38).
  7. Include the corporate perspective, explain how the passage impacts our worldview, and project the story forward to include the endtimes/eternal unfolding of the story.

Each of these could be expounded further, but I hope these hints will at least begin to re-balance some of these recent over-emphases.

Update: Here’s a review of Chapter 1: Preaching Narratives from Reclaiming the Old Testament for Christian Preaching

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30 “I will’s” from Hosea

A couple of years ago I was asked to prepare a month of meditations on Hosea for a daily devotional. My initial thought was, “That’s impossible. I might manage 5 or 6.” But when I got started I was stunned to find so many divine “I will’s” in this little prophecy and they became the basis for my 30 meditations. Here they are (the thirtieth was this list).

  1. I will avenge (Hosea 1:4).
  2. I will hedge up your way with thorns (2:6)
  3. I will allure her (2:14)
  4. I will…bring her into the wilderness and speak comfort to her (2:14)
  5. I will give her vineyards from there, and the valley of Achor for a door of hope (2:15)
  6. I will take away the names of Baalim out of her mouth (2:17)
  7. I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field (2:18)
  8. I will betroth you to me (2:19)
  9. I will betroth you to me forever (2:19)
  10. I will betroth you to me in righteousness (2:19)
  11. I will betroth you to me…in judgment (2:19)
  12. I will betroth you to me…in lovingkindness (2:19).
  13. I will hear (2:21).
  14. I will sow her for myself in the earth (2:23)
  15. I will have mercy upon her that had not obtained mercy (2:23)
  16. I will say to them which were not my people, You are my people (2:23)
  17. Because you have rejected knowledge, I will also reject you (4:6)
  18. Therefore will I change their glory into shame (4:7)
  19. For I will be to Ephraim as a lion (5:14)
  20. I will go and return to my place till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face (5:15)
  21. I will not execute the fierceness of mine anger (11:9).
  22. I will place them in their houses (11:11)
  23. I will make you to dwell in tabernacles (12:9)
  24. I will be your king (13:10)
  25. I will ransom them from the power of the grave (13:14)
  26. O death, I will be your plagues (13:14)
  27. I will heal their backsliding (14:4)
  28. I will love them freely (14:4)
  29. I will be as the dew to Israel (14:5)

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Outreach for Introverts

As an introvert with a natural aversion to networking, Lisa Petrilli usually avoided business parties and corporate events because they made her fearful and uncomfortable. However, as she increasingly realized that such social withdrawal was damaging her career, she devised strategies that would overcome her fear of social events. She soon began to even embrace and enjoy these occasions and went on to run a $750 million dollar pharmaceutical business and to write the bestelling Introvert’s Guide to Success in Business and Leadership.

With all the attention that extroverts seek and get, especially in our over-connected media-saturated world (and church), you could be forgiven for thinking that there are few introverts left in the universe. However, statistics tell us that about 25% of people are introverts, with a further 25% having introverted tendencies depending on circumstances (I think I would put myself in this latter group). And if the church has about the same ratios, that means about 50% of us struggle to reach out with the Gospel to others just because of our personality type.

So, can we learn anything from Lisa’s strategies for Business networking and apply them to Gospel networking? I believe we can. Consider the three she summarizes in An Introvert’s Guide to Networking, over at the Harvard Business Review.

I learned to appreciate my introversion rather than repudiate it.
I have met so many introverts in business who talk about introversion as if it’s a malady that one must get over in order to be successful. This is wrong. Introversion is simply a preference for the inner world of ideas because this is where we get our energy. By understanding and accepting this preference, introverts can optimize time spent with their ideas to refine them and recharge. This allows them to be as powerful and persuasive as possible when networking situations arise.

I recognized that one-on-one conversations would be my lifeline during networking. Generally speaking, business events — and particularly networking events that require engaging with groups — are demanding for introverts. An antidote to this, I learned, is to seek out conversations with one individual at a time. When I approach events this way I have more productive conversations and form better business relationships — and I’m less drained by the experience.

I stopped being afraid to be the one to reach out.
My inner introvert used to think that making the effort to introduce myself was risky. I worried that my target would not be interested in talking with me or that I would make them uncomfortable. I learned over time that when I extended my hand with a smile and an introduction my effort would be reciprocated, even when I approached executives above my rank.

I learned to prioritize time to re-energize.
While it can be tempting to go from a networking lunch right back to work, or from a networking cocktail event right to a dinner, if you’re an introvert and you do that you won’t be able to bring your best self to your next commitment. Take the time to recharge, whether by walking from the lunch back to work, or by finding 30 minutes alone between cocktails and dinner.

Now, fellow introverts, go out into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature – albeit one at a time and with 30 minute breaks in between.