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

  • Matt F

    Hello David,
    Long-time reader, first-time commenter. Thank you for this, it’s really thought provoking.
    I wonder if, for our instruction, you could offer or point to an example of where you think someone has done this balancing well?

  • Don Bell

    This is a needful warning about not Glorifying God when preaching from OT characters. Romand 15:4 tells us how we ought to approach the OT.
    I enjoy your tips very much.


    Don Bell

  • Jeremy Walker

    Thanks for this, David. I cannot recall who it was said that our Lord’s command, “Remember Lot’s wife,” was the single most effective rebuttal of this over-reaction to mere moralising.

    I appreciated your counsels on a “third way,” and wondered if you might suggest some examples of this? Are there preachers/writers today or in the past to whom you would point as exemplars of insightful, accurate, effective, God-honouring biographical preaching?

  • David Murray

    Matt and Jeremy. You both ask for examples. Some of the men in Scotland wh are great examples of this do not have any internet presence, I’m afraid. However Joel Beeke’s sermon series on Genesis has many fine examples of the kind of balanced biographical preaching I’m speaking of here. Also my Pastor, Foppe Vanderzwaag, is doing a fine job in his series on Job. It gives full weight to the personal dimension but always seeks to connect the story of Job with God’s redemptive story climaxing in Christ.