In the May-June 2000 issue of Preaching, the Rev. Timothy Peck makes a passionate plea for “Salvaging the Old Testament Biographical Sermon.”1 In a biographical sermon, typically, the character described in the preaching-text is proclaimed as a positive model for imitation or as a negative model for warning. Since Rev. Peck has designated me as “perhaps the most vocal” in criticizing this kind of preaching, I not only feel some obligation to respond but hope that my rejoinder to his article may serve to clarify some of the hermeneutical/homiletical issues and promote the cause of sound, biblical preaching.
Happily, Rev. Peck is aware of some of the hazards of this popular form of preaching. He agrees that one should not adopt biographical preaching “simply because it captures attention, is relevant, or pleases the congregation” (p. 28). He also seems to agree that preachers should do justice to the intention of the biblical author, for he acknowledges that “much character preaching has twisted incidental details into significant homiletical points” (p. 29). And he also appears to agree that moralizing should be avoided, for he writes that “much preaching today has become reduced to good advice instead of good news” (p. 30). Yet, in spite of these flaws, he wishes to salvage the biographical sermon.
The reasons why preachers seek to salvage an acknowledged hazardous form of preaching are not always transparent; they frequently have to do with unexamined presuppositions The main reason set forth in the article is that “Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:1-12 are foundational” (p. 28) in that they offer a “clear biblical example of the use of Old Testament characters as examples to be avoided” (p. 29). Paul writes, “God was not pleased with most of them [the ancient Israelites], and they were struck down in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples [tupoi] for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did…. We must not engage in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example [tupikos], and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall (1 Cor. 10:5-12).”2
A closer look at this passage will show, however, that this New Testament basis for biographical preaching is not convincing.
The New Testament Does Not Support Biographical Preaching
First, it is dangerous to base a doctrine or ecclesiastical practice on a single text,3 especially one that is not entirely clear (e.g., the meaning of “the rock was Christ” (v. 4) and of the words tupoi / tupikos in this context (vv. 6, 11)).4
Second, it is clear that Paul here does not intend to give us instructions on how to preach Old Testament narratives. Nor does Paul here have an Old Testament narrative that he develops into a sermon. Rather, his obvious intention is to warn the Corinthians not to fall from God’s grace and come under His judgment (v. 12).
Third, in this passage Paul does not give us “a clear biblical example of the use of Old Testament characters as examples to be avoided” (p. 29). Notice the repetition in verses 6 and 11: “These things occurred as examples for us” (v. 6); “these things happened to them to serve as an example” (v. 11). What are “these things?” “These things” (tauta) does not, as is frequently assumed, refer to people but to events.
Some commentators understand “these things” of verse 6 to refer to the events Paul mentions in verses 1-5: God’s provision of baptism, spiritual food and spiritual drink as well as judgment.5 If this interpretation is correct, the translation of “warning examples” for tupoi obviously cannot stand. But even if one takes “these things” to refer only to God’s judgments of Israel mentioned in verses 5-10, Paul still does not say that the Israelites are warning examples. Rather, God’s judgments of the ancient Israelites are tupoi, “types given by God as an indication of the future.”6
In other words, God’s judgments of His ancient people serve as pre-figurations (similar to Paul’s use of tupos in Rom. 5:14) of God’s judgments on the Corinthians and us “on whom the ends of the ages have come” (v. 11) if we should fall into similar sins after tasting God’s redemption. “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall” (v. 12).
Whereas biographical preaching tends to draw a simple historical equation mark between biblical characters and people in the pew, Paul acknowledges the redemptive-historical distance between the ancient Israelites and us “on whom the ends of the ages have come.” And whereas biographical preaching tends to be human-centered, Paul’s emphasis is clearly God-centered (God’s redemption and judgments).
Fourth, Luke gives many descriptions and summaries of Paul’s actual preaching and speeches in the book of Acts (e.g., 9:20; 13:16-41; 17:2-3; 17:22-31; 18:5; 19:8; 20:18-35; 22:1-21; 24:10-21; 26:2-29; 28:23-28; 28:31), but not a single one comes close to being a biographical sermon. As a matter of fact, Paul himself testifies to these same Corinthians: “We proclaim Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23), and again, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
A Better Paradigm
The New Testament is neither a textbook on biblical hermeneutics nor on homiletics, but if one is looking for a New Testament paradigm for preaching, Hebrews 11 is a clearer place to start than is 1 Corinthians 10. This is what the author of Hebrews writes: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval…. By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous…. By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death…. By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household…. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going…” (Heb. 11:1-8).
Although this passage, too, is frequently used to support biographical preaching, as a matter of fact this is not biographical preaching. If this were a sermon, one would have to say that the author seeks to communicate a specific theme, namely, Faith is acting on the conviction of things not seen. And he illustrates this theme with the actions of many Old Testament characters: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Israel, Rahab — too many believers to mention (11:2-38).
This paradigm of preaching as communicating a specific theme and supporting this theme with illustrations drawn from the Old Testament better fits the New Testament givens than does the paradigm of biographical preaching with its normative examples. We can demonstrate this even with the examples offered in Rev. Peck’s article.
When the Pharisees charge Jesus’ disciples with breaking the sabbath by plucking heads of grain (Mat. 12:1-8), Jesus’ message is: Since the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath, do not condemn the guiltless. Jesus illustrates this theme with a reference to David who, when hungry, ate the consecrated bread that only priests were allowed to eat. And He adds the illustration of the priests who break the sabbath by working in the temple and yet are innocent. Jesus does not present David or the priests as normative models whose actions we should imitate. They are simply illustrations of Jesus’ point not legalistically to condemn His disciples for plucking heads of grain on the sabbath
Jesus’ message in Matthew 12:38-42 is: Without any more signs, Jesus Christ deserves a positive response from people. And He illustrates this theme with references to Jonah’s experiences and the positive response of the Ninevites to his preaching as well as the positive response of the queen of the South to the wis-dom of Solomon. “And see, something greater than Jonah is here! …and see, something greater than Solomon is here!”
In Romans 4:13-25 Paul proclaims the message: Not obedience to the law but faith in Jesus Christ is reckoned to our righteousness. And he illustrates this theme with Abraham, who believed God (v. 18) and “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness'” (vv. 20-22).
Finally, Paul in 2 Timothy 3:1-9 preaches the message that godlessness in the last days, though rampant, will not conquer all people. And he illustrates this point with Jannes and Jambres who opposed Moses but whose folly became “plain to everyone.” Paul uses Jannes and Jambres not as warning examples but as an illustration of the fact that those who oppose the truth “will not make much progress” (v. 9).
Contemporary preachers, likewise, can illustrate the themes of their sermons with Old Testament characters and events. In fact, when searching for sermon illustrations, preachers should probably give priority to biblical narratives so that the biblical stories will become better known to people in this post-Christian age.
For example, when preaching on “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14-18), preachers can certainly illustrate the importance of Paul’s injunction by briefly retelling the story of Abraham, who made his servant “swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites” (Gen. 24:3) and sends him on a 400-mile journey to find a suitable wife for Isaac. But when the narrative itself is the preaching-text (Gen. 24), preachers are duty bound to pass on the message intended by the inspired author. Unless they can make the case that the author intended to sketch Abraham here as a normative example for Israel (the prohibition against marrying Gentiles will later be stipulated in the law [Deut. 7:3]), they should keep the sermon focused on the author’s message and not shift to character-imitation preaching.
Preaching Old Testament Narratives
Unfortunately, Rev. Peck fails to give a concrete example of how biographical preaching on an Old Testament narrative can avoid the hazards of anthropocentrism, moralizing and ignoring the intention of the inspired author. To signal some of the difficulties, let us suppose we prepare a sermon on Abraham’s sending his servant on a mission to find a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24).
The story consists of four scenes, each with two main characters: Abraham and his servant (vv. 1-9), the servant and Rebekah (vv. 10-27), the servant and Rebekah’s relatives (vv. 28-61) and Isaac and Rebekah (vv. 62-66). The preacher with a predilection for character-imitation preaching will immediately zero in on the characters and ask how they exemplify proper behavior for Christians.
They may come up with the following normative examples: like Abraham, believing parents must warn their children against marrying unbelievers; or, like the servant, we must be people of prayer, set up a test, and follow the Lord’s leading; or, like Rebekah, we must be friendly, help strangers, work hard, and respond positively to the Lord’s call to go; or, like Isaac, a groom must love his bride. These applications are not unbiblical, but they have nothing to do with the point of this particular text; in fact, in the sermon these applications would obscure the point of this text.
Instead of starting on the wrong track, we should ask: How did the narrator intend Israel to hear this story? In the plot line, he has clearly laid out the track: Sarah’s tent is empty; Abraham sends the servant on an impossible mission; in answer to prayer the Lord leads him straight to Rebekah; the Lord inclines Rebekah’s heart to say, “I will go;” he inclines her relatives’ hearts to let her go with their blessing; he brings another ancestress into Sarah’s tent; and he unites Isaac and Rebekah in love. In case we missed the theme of God’s providence, the narrator manages to repeat four times the phrase that “the Lord made his journey successful” (vv. 21, 40, 42, 56).
Therefore, the intended message for Israel stated as a single sentence (theme) is something like this: In his inscrutable providence, the Lord provides another mother for Israel. As Israel later heard this story, it must have reminded them of the greatness of the Lord, “the God of heaven and earth” (v. 3), who in His covenant faithfulness provided another ancestress for Israel. It is only due to the Lord’s mysterious providence in the distant past that the nation of Israel exists. What gratitude to the all-wise, faithful covenant God Israel must have felt.
Christian preaching of Old Testament narratives begins not with the question, “How are these characters examples for us?” but with the question, “How did Israel hear and respond to this story?” The answer to the latter question must next be studied in the context of the whole of Scripture and applied to the contemporary congregation.
The Sound Motivation for Biographical Preaching
The motivation for biographical preaching is relevance. This motivation is legitimate, for without relevance there is no sermon. Every sermon as a Word from God should seek for a specific response from God’s people; every sermon should have application. With biblical narratives, in contrast to Old Testament law and New Testament exhortations, it is often difficult to discern what specific response is called for.
The place to begin is to ask, What response did the author seek from Israel? What was his goal in presenting this message to them? Sometimes that goal is to comfort Israel in difficult circumstances; sometimes it is to encourage them to trust God at all times. Sometimes that goal is to have Israel respond to God’s constant faithfulness by walking in His ways, or to praise God for His marvelous salvation. But unless preachers can make the case that the author intended to present the biblical character as a model for Israel to imitate, they should look for the application not in character imitation but in the intended response of God’s people to this particular message.
Hazards of Biographical Preaching
The main problem with biographical preaching is that it fails to do justice to the inspired author’s intention. The preacher reads a text, but instead of preaching the author’s particular message, the preacher uses the actions of the biblical characters to present a different message. To be sure, the message is not necessarily unbiblical, but it does not do justice to the text; it also compromises the preacher’s integrity, and over time it teaches the congregation a superficial way of interpreting the Scriptures.
Moreover, by focusing on the human characters, one leaves oneself wide open to the danger of turning a God-centered preaching-text into a human-centered sermon. Furthermore, by urging people to follow the good examples of biblical characters and avoid the bad examples, one falls into the trap of moralizing. And who decides what is a good example and what is bad?7 Subjectivism looms on the horizon.
Biographical preaching also faces an additional, perhaps less obvious, hazard. It tends to isolate biblical characters from their biblical context, taking information about the character from various chapters and books, sometimes even data from different authors. What have we done when we have isolated a biblical character from its biblical context? Could we have preached our sermon just as well on the basis of a contemporary character? Would Mother Teresa have made just as good a positive example of humble service for the sake of God’s kingdom? Would Hitler or Sadam Hussein have been even better warning examples against seeking to build one’s own kingdom?
It has seriously been suggested that preachers should sometimes preach sermons on the lives of hymn writers because they are such powerful Christian examples. The hazard is this: because biographical preaching tends to isolate biblical characters from their biblical context, it ultimately undermines the necessity of preaching the scriptures.
In spite of its long and frequent use, biographical preaching, like allegorical interpretation, does not stand up under scrutiny as a responsible method of interpreting and preaching Scripture. Given its deeply ingrained flaws, I am convinced that biographical preaching cannot be salvaged but should be abandoned so that homileticians and preachers can focus all their attention on producing relevant expository sermons.8
1Timothy Peck, “Salvaging the Old Testament Biographical Sermon,” Preaching 15/6 (2000): 28-30.
2All Biblical quotations taken from the NRSV.
3L. Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1950), p. 165, observes that the “evidential value and authority” of the analogy of faith depends on four factors: “(1) The number of passages that contain the same doctrine…. (2) The unanimity or correspondence of the different passages…. (3) The clearness of the passage…. (4) The distribution of the passages….”
4See the informative article by Andrew Bandstra, “Interpretation in 1 Corinthians 10:1-11,” Calvin Theological Journal 6 (1971) 5-21. See also Walter Kaiser, The Uses of the Old Testament in the New (Chicago: Moody, 1985), 111-121.
5Bandstra, ibid., p. 16, and Kaiser, ibid, p. 118.
6See William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, fourth ed. rev. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), p. 838 (tupos, meaning 6, with a reference to 1 Cor. 10:6, 11).
7Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), p. 80, observes: “Those who find only collected moral tales in the Bible are constantly embarrassed by the good deeds of patriarchs, judges and kings. Surely we cannot pattern our daily conduct on that of Samuel as he hews Agag to pieces, or Samson as he commits suicide, or Jeremiah as he preaches treason.”
8I would define an expository sermon as a sermon which is based on a biblical textual unit and which 1) exposes the author’s intended meaning, 2) as it functions in the context of the whole Bible and 3) is applied to the church here and now. Cf. Merill Unger, Principles of Expository Preaching (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1955), 33.

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