The narrative approach to proclamation does not preclude using historical-critical tools in sermon preparation. It endorses the priority of the techniques of literary analysis and, in practice, it advocates the interplay of various methods.
The crucial issue is not whether to use these tools but how to use them. Form-critical tools for reconstructing the historical genesis of texts should play an ancillary role in preparing proclamation; ultimate authority must be the biblical text as it is canonically given. This consideration, the proper role for historical-critical tools, is the crucial question with which preachers must come to terms when preparing sermons.
The procedure that will now be sketched endeavors to deal with this question in some detail, with emphasis on its feasibility for parish pastors. This latter consideration responds to a grievance among many pastors that their seminary training in exegesis and homiletics was unrealistic, that the methods taught in these areas demand an inordinate amount of time for preparation in light of the routine demands on the pastor’s time.
As a parish pastor, I recognize the legitimacy of these concerns. Therefore I have eliminated unnecessary exegetical steps. My approach should not be assessed on the basis of its utility for facilitating new exegetical breakthroughs (though that possibility is not ruled out). However, I do claim that one who follows it will do enough research to prevent distorting the biblical text in question.
It will facilitate mainstream, normative, interpretive results. So defined, its program of twelve steps can now be elucidated.
1. Determine the Text’s Boundaries
It is necessary to determine where a pericope begins and ends, and how it relates to that which comes before and after it, lest our interpretation be distorted. The interpreter’s first task is to read the text, as any reader would do, in its broader literary context.
The question then becomes how the interpreter is to determine the text’s limits. Using literary analytic tools for such an initial reading of the text in the context of the book in which it appears and in the context of the entire canon is a good way to begin.
In some respects this first step converges with the next two. Step 3, the form critical work, is set in motion as soon as we begin doing literary analysis. After all, the major form critical breakthroughs of the past century, like the four-source theory of the Pentateuch, emerged as a result of careful literary analysis.1 And Step 2, the identification and translation of the most authentic manuscript, is presupposed in this initial reading of the text.
In fact, most books on exegesis or sermon preparation reverse the order of these two steps and advocate that the interpreter establish the text before determining its limits. On occasion this is an appropriate move; consideration of the Greek or Hebrew should come at the first or second preliminary reading. But a systematic commitment always to establish the text prior to reading the pericope in its literary context reflects the suppositions of the historical-critical method unchecked by the literary analytic concerns and sensitivity to Scripture as a canonical text that my proposal has endeavored to highlight.2
The danger of misunderstanding a text is acute when interpreters proceed as if textual criticism were based on a purely objective, scientific methodology that corrects errors of transmission without regard to a text’s purpose in the whole canon. If this procedure is followed, decisions may be made in favor of the most ancient version of the text, when that text in fact represents a pre-canonical version that does not convey as well as a later manuscript the continuity between the text and the themes of the book in which it appears or of the canon as a whole.
(Recent Old Testament critics have demonstrated that many textual decisions that produced variant readings in ancient manuscripts reflect a kind of midrashic exegetical activity within the Old Testament itself. The formation of the Bible as canonical literature shaped the major lines of interpretation that are often reflected in the textual developments and variations in manuscripts.)
An initial reading of the text in light of its overall literary context is no less helpful in avoiding false translations of the original language. If our translation conflicts with the overriding themes of the book in which the pericope appears, it may be necessary to rethink that particular translation.
At this stage in the exegetical process, though, sophisticated analysis is not required. We should first determine what kind of literary genre the text we are considing represents; then we can establish criteria by which to ascertain its beginning and end.
If the pericope is part of a narrative or polemical discourse, one can assume that it ends when the reported action begins to dwindle or when the scene radically changes. If the pericope is part of a letter, a parable, or an apothegm, one determines its boundary by changes in subject matter or theme. The boundaries for hymns and apocalyptic literature are more difficult to discern; it is necessary to identify patterns in the texts, to be sensitive to the way they flow. The interpreter needs to undertake a kind of structural analysis of the texts.
This kind of analysis may be illustrated with reference to Psalm 2. Verse 6 is a natural dividing point in the Psalm. The first five verses describe the literary context, the coronation of a king in the midst of chaos. Verses 6-12 are the address of Yahweh to the Lord’s people, through the mouth of the newly enthroned king.
(The last verse refers again to a purely human exhortation. It brings the Psalm back to its beginning. In this way the Psalm has moved from chaos and uproar in the initial verses to blessedness and comfort at its conclusion, all presumably effected by the address of Yahweh.)
There is a beautiful symmetry here. If it must be divided, the division can only come at the point of the actual words of Yahweh. It is at this juncture that the whole Psalm moves toward completion.3
Regardless of the kind of literature a particular text embodies, it is necessary that at an early stage of interpretation preachers must read large portions of the book in which their text appears. We can only identify where a pericope begins and ends if we know what comes before and after it. The judgment about when there is a shift in a narrative’s reported action, a letter’s content, whatever, depends upon such knowledge.
We noted earlier the indispensability of attending to a text’s literary context, the theological/personal/societal issues that are raised in the text itself. At this point in the exegesis, preachers will have gained a sense of how the text in question functions in the book as a whole. We will possess some sense of why a certain narrative action is reported. We will have unravelled the first clues to the text’s significance.
If we need more direction for determining a pericope’s literary context, we can compare its literal meaning with the dominant theological themes of the book of which it is a part. Most of us have picked up some sense of the dominant themes in most of the biblical books.
We are aware of the centrality of justification for Paul, the disciples’ ignorance of Jesus in Mark, the dialogue between Christianity and Judaism in Matthew.4 A comparison of a book’s central themes with our initial findings about a pericope’s literal meaning provides an even deeper insight into how the pericope is functioning in the book as a whole. In delimiting a pericope, we already establish preliminary intuitions about its literary context. The next steps either confirm or disconfirm these intuitions.
2. Establish the Text
As ignorance of biblical languages by American clergy increases, this step is more often ignored. Nevertheless, preachers must accept the work of translating a text and seeking out discrepancies among early manuscripts, and not rely on contemporary translations of the Bible. These translations are legion, and too many contain inaccuracies.
A consideration of even one of the better modern translations, The Jerusalem Bible, illustrates this point. Both in Paul’s discussion of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:24 and in the account of the Supper in Luke 22:19, Jesus’ words are translated, “Do this as a memorial of me.” The term memorial can connote either the image of sacrifice or of a mere symbol. The translators have overlooked the fact that the Greek term in both text is ??. It literally translates “remembrance” or “memory”; as such it connotes an active remembering as in the Old Testament.
Typically when Israel made covenant with Yahweh and so required God to be present through their recitation of Yahweh’s mighty deeds (cf. Exodus 19:36, at Sinai; Deuteronomy 29:2-9, at Moab; Joshua 24:2-13, at Shechem). Thus the concept of memory included Real Presence to the Hebrews. This dimension is totally distorted by The Jerusalem Bible’s translation of the texts.
A preacher relying solely on this translation may be tempted to expound upon the term memorial in these verses, as a way of understanding the Supper. In either case, the preacher would be distorting the text. In the Corinthians’ passage the hint of Real Presence would be forfeit; in the Lucan passage the memorial status of the Supper is not even an issue. Were it a key theme, the term would surely not have been omitted in early manuscripts.
Further backing for this conclusion is provided by taking into account the themes of Luke’s Gospel as a whole. The book’s overall preoccupation with prophecy and fulfillment (Luke 24:44ff.) emerges in the Lord’s Supper narrative at several points (VV. 8-13, 15-23, 28-30, 34). Mere recollection apart from the Real Presence of the one remembered would not so easily fit the theme of Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy.
Thus it is all the more likely that The Jerusalem Bible must be challenged at this point. (Note how the prior step of reading the passage in light of its broader literary context informs the decision about establishing the text.)
A second, more general example of why preachers must establish the text pertains to differences between the Old Testament Hebrew Masoretic text and the Greek Septuagint text. Some scholars recently argued that the Greek version of the Old Testament is preferable to the Hebrew text inasmuch as the New Testament and certain church fathers quote the Septuagint.
However, the decision of which text to use is not merely a historical one. We must decide between the version that has perhaps the most venerable use in the church (the Greek text) or the version that affirms the continuity between Christianity and Judaism (the common Hebrew text). The judgment made in establishing the text at this point is equivalent to a theological statement about Jewish-Christian relations, about the continuing indispensability of the Jewish faith and its Scripture.5
Efforts to establish the text are demanded in order to ensure accurate interpretation of a sermon text, and are important because of the theological witness that is determined by the text one selects.
3. Identify Grammatical Features
Through form criticism we identify the grammatical features and syntactical structures of biblical texts. Biblical scholars typically employ these insights for the purpose of reconstructing the genesis of a text, to ascertain its author’s sources and the historical factors that influenced him.6 A preacher’s interest in literary structures, however, is solely to facilitate understanding of the text as canonically given.
For example, a careful reading of Genesis 1-2 yields two creation stories. Form critics have engaged in redaction criticism and then sought to identify the sources of these two accounts. The first was produced by the P source, the second by the J source.
The preacher need not be interested in speculations about the date or circumstances of the construction of each strand. What is of interest is that in Genesis 2:4a the J account, with its emphasis on humanity as God’s offspring, has been subordinated to the P account’s emphasis on creation itself. This indicates that humanity must be seen in relation to creation; however, humanity must be regarded as the aim and purpose of creation.7
Only by this kind of meticulous attention to a text’s literary structures can we achieve such insights. This kind of analysis of a text’s genre and syntax engages the preacher in literary analytic work, which supports my contention that we need to develop more sophisticated literary analytic skills.
We may seek to acquire these skills particularly under the auspices of new criticism, which is fundamentally committed to the possibility of normative, presuppositionless, interpretive meaning in a pericope. These commitments make it possible to talk about the Word of God transcending human experience because the Word has meaning in itself, apart from our presuppositions.
I contend that we can only properly analyze the strange biblical accounts in terms of their “story-character” if we recognize that while these accounts, both collectively and individually, have many features that parallel other stories, they have a unique character. Their attention to chronology, their reality-transforming character, and the fact that their literal content entails as a factual implication the resurrection of Jesus, represent a conglomeration of characteristics that do not typify other stories.8 We can only identify the structural patterns of biblical texts by considering each text on its own.
One primary concern has been with the historically problematic biblical accounts, those that possess the literary genre of a realistic narrative. It is characteristic of a realistic narrative to tell a story in sequence, have rough edges, and report ordinary events.9 On this basis, we identify the narrative-like character of biblical accounts. If a text embodies these characteristics we conclude that it possesses narrative form, and so we interpret it as such.
Exactly how do we interpret a narrative? Narratives narrate action. Therefore we should be concerned to identify patterns in the action of characters in the text. If there is continuity or discontinuity in the way the characters relate, that may say something about the text’s meaning.
The interaction between Peter and Jesus in John 21:15-17 and John 18:25-27 illustrates how behavioral patterns inform a text’s meaning. Peter’s denial of Jesus in the latter text is juxtaposed to his confession of Jesus in the former. The pattern obviously witnesses to Jesus’ forgiveness of the sinner.
Another characteristic of the realistic narrative is the irreducible identification of the characters in the narrative and their actions.10 We can only know who the characters are by what they do, so we must undertake identity analysis in our interpretation. We must determine what the characters are like, and let the reality-transforming character of the biblical narratives lead us to ask how we are like these characters.
A further supposition is that there is no hidden meaning beneath the literal accounting of the action reported. A narrative text demands to be read literally; it is distorted if interpreted allegorically, in light of one’s own presuppositions. It is likewise distorted if some other story with the same structures is told in its place (which a proponent of the story model might do).
To tell another story about other actions is to describe characters other than Jesus and the patriarchs of Scripture. There is no place for “Christ-figures,” for mere secular storytelling in an approach to preaching which respects the unique literary character of Scripture’s narrative accounts.11
A stipulation that must be reiterated at this point regards New Testament miracle stories and Old Testament narrative accounts: To commit oneself to descriptive, literalistic interpretation does not preclude reading these texts in light of a distinctively Christian, post-Easter perspective. We can only discern continuity in the Bible if its entire content points to Christ, particularly to His cross and resurrection.12 As such, we have opted to interpret them figurally.
To interpret the Old Testament and New Testament miracle accounts as figures is to say that they are fulfilled, properly understood, in relation to Jesus Christ. Yet they still are literally meaningful, and must be interpreted with regard to their literary meaning. These texts signify both themselves and Jesus Christ.13
Another kind of identifiable literature in Scripture is the letters and treatises of the New Testament. This genre is not difficult to ascertain; we all have some intuitive sense of the style and structure of a letter. Furthermore, the letters in the New Testament themselves provide identification.
To interpret these Epistles and treatises, we should attend, as with any letter, to what they say literally and to structural patterns that in turn will lead to recurring themes, for example, to the relationship between apparently conflicting themes such as faith and works in Paul.
In dealing with New Testament texts, we must note whether Old Testament Scripture is employed figurally or allegorically. This provides insights about how the Old Testament concepts in the pericope relate to the Christian concepts introduced therein. A figural use of the Old Testament as in Galatians 3:6ff. implies that the Abraham accounts must be regarded literally when interpreting Paul at this point. The concepts associated with the stories point to, are fulfilled by, characteristic Pauline themes. These concepts of covenant and the universal mission of Israel are not barriers to understanding Paul, as they might be if considered in allegorical terms.
Other genres such as parables, hymns, wisdom literature, prophetic stanzas, and apocalyptic literature are to be interpreted by penetrating beneath the literal meaning to the text’s “depth” meaning. With such literature, attention to the literary patterns and structures of the pericope is all the more important.14
Of course, the particular patterns are peculiar to each text, as intimated in the treatment of the limits of Psalm 2 in my exposition of the first step in our homiletical procedure. Patterns can be discerned by attending to the speaker or kind of action going on in a verse.
The insights of Claude Levi-Strauss on the structural characteristics of myths may prove applicable to many of these texts. Basically Levi-Strauss’ thesis is that mythological literature can be analyzed in relation to the opposition set out by a myth’s literal account. The fundamental opposition between actions or characters in the pericope brings about a secondary opposition. One of the polar terms of this secondary opposition is capable of mediating the original, primary opposition.15
A consideration of the parable of the great banquet in Luke 14:15-24 will illustrate this procedure. The first opposition is evident in verses 16-21: the master invites his honored guests to a banquet, yet they do not come. The second opposition is found in the concluding verses: the master invites the uninvited and these originally uninvited guests share in the banquet.
We can discern correlations in this way. The originally uninvited guests fulfill the master’s invitation; they are the pole of the parable’s secondary opposition which reconciles the primary opposition between the master’s invitation to his honored guests and their refusal.
A message in the parable is that the uninvited guests who are not part of the Banquet/Kingdom can reconcile the original guests to the master. The parallels between this suggestion and Paul’s vision of the relationship between Gentile Christians and Jews (Romans 11:7-16) are striking, particularly when one considers that the parable also appears in the Gospel of Matthew, which is especially concerned with Jewish-Christian relationships.
Another suggestion from this structural analysis of the parable is that a christological figure may be represented. The lowly ones, those not originally invited, are to be reconcilers of the honored guests. The parable’s structure points to God’s propensity to work through lowly things, as the lowly man Christ reconciles us. (cf. Psalm 118:22; 1 Peter 2:7).
While I have discerned christological and theology of the cross themes on the basis of my own structural analysis, I would have to concede the possibility that for this kind of text other reactions by other interpreters to the same structural scheme may differ from my own and still be valid. (Note that my presupposition of a variety of valid meanings for this pericope is not properly applied to other literary genres. With those texts, a single demonstrable normative meaning based on the text’s literal meaning must be sought.)
Thus, in effect, my literary approach to proclamation opts for an allegorical, critical correlation, or story model for preaching on the poetic or apocalyptic or similarly non-narrative, non-epistolary texts. The preacher’s aim in these cases is to evoke by means of contemporary images and stories the religious and human feelings underlying the text.
Of course, in view of the weaknesses of these models, it is imperative that they be used only selectively. Even so, preachers who dare to demonstrate sensitivity to the variety of literary genres found in Scripture will generate a variety of homiletical styles, which will be appreciated by their hearers. The people in the pews will stay interested, attentive to what comes next. In this way the variety in approaches to the sermon predicated by this proposal will enhance effective proclamation of the gospel.16
By the time preachers have reached the form-critical step, they have developed preliminary intuitions about the meaning of a text. The next three steps either confirm these intuitions or suggest other directions.
4. Do Comparative Philology
For biblical studies, comparative philology is the study of Scripture in relation to similar literary texts of the same period, the aim of which is to understand the meaning of Scripture and its authenticity from among the full range of possible meanings. A working hypothesis of philology is that if a portion of Scripture resembles an extrabiblical document of that era, that pericope likely does not report a historical event, but merely indicates the author’s use of traditional material.
These conclusions may be valid, but my proposal is unwilling to make such speculations about the genesis of a text as the foundation for exegesis. Preaching is concerned with what the biblical text as we have received it says, not with historical claims the text might implicitly make. Besides, historical judgments about the genesis of a text are sufficiently uncertain that it is inadvisable to base proclamation on it.
Preachers indulge in this kind of comparative literary analysis only insofar as it provides a sense of the ordinary understandings of reality in biblical times. We reap several benefits by obtaining this sense. For one, we avoid tendencies to interpret biblical terms or phrases in an anachronistic way. Another is that we gather insights into the central themes of text.
Thus, for example, the flood accounts in Genesis have a more or less direct parallel in The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Babylonian poem of the first milennium B.C. Yet there are intriguing differences between the texts. The Gilgamesh epic is highly stylized, mythlike in its genre, giving the impression that the sole function of the flood account and the characters is to make some other spiritual point. By contrast, the biblical account is more realistic in its character. It engages us in the account, makes its characters’ uniqueness or unsubstitutability essential to understanding it.
Furthermore, the biblical account supplies one detail not included in the Babylonian epic. After the flood, Noah and Utnapishtim (his Babylonian counterpart) offer a sacrifice to Yahweh/the gods. In the Mosaic account Yahweh promises never again to destroy the earth (Genesis 8:21b), while in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods make no such universal promise, but only reward Utnapishtim and his wife (Tablet 11, 180-200). This difference quite clearly attests to the centrality of the theme of covenant and Yahweh’s faithfulness to promises in Genesis. It is a theme one might take for granted without comparing the biblical text with similar literature of the same period.
It is unreasonable to expect all preachers to be experts in the literature of the biblical and postbiblical eras. But with the help of the several excellent texts available in print which offer preachers surveys of the nonbiblical literature of those eras,17 preachers will need to spend very little actual time on this step.
5. Compare Parallel Texts
This step is essentially an extension of the techniques of the preceding one, this time with respect to parallel biblical texts. When it is an applicable step, the comparison of a pericope with its biblical parallels is most useful to help identify central themes in a text.
This consideration is especially germane with reference to the New Testament Gospels. (The use of Gospel Parallels would be a prime resource.) The omission or inclusion of certain words, phrases, or actions in a given text in comparison to similar pericopes serves to sensitize preachers to the importance of these elements for that text.
For example, only after studying the parallel resurrection accounts is the full significance of Mark’s apparent failure to provide a resurrection appearance evident. The themes of the Gospel’s surprise character and the misunderstanding of the disciples stand out in sharper relief when the text is compared with its other Synoptic equivalents.
Such comparative studies are also useful with the Prophets, the relationship between the Chronicles and the Samuel traditions, and among the various Epistles. Any reference to the Old Testament in a New Testament pericope warrants scrutiny. Such comparisons provide preachers with nothing that is not in principle already discernible in the text; they merely help focus our attention on themes we might have otherwise overlooked.
6. Investigate Key Words
In Step 5 the preacher would have identified certain terms in the text which are especially significant for its meaning. It is now advisable to research these terms in some analytic concordance to discern how they have been used elsewhere in Scripture. This procedure will also help us avoid anachronistic interpretation of the texts.
Additionally, this kind of comparative study either sensitizes preachers to the importance of a term for a text — if the term has a radically different meaning than its other biblical uses — or helps preachers not to overlook continuities between their text and the rest of Scripture.
For example, it has been common in many Protestant circles to associate the Old Testament prophetic references to the Law in terms of Luther’s negative appraisal of the Law as an enemy of God, as an agent of condemnation rather than of life.18 On these grounds, Jeremiah’s sermon in chapter 26, which exhorts the people of Israel to “walk in the Law,” may be interpreted as a further demand, a condemnation of sin.
However, a word-study of Torah elsewhere in the Old Testament reveals the Law’s positive function as an expression of Yahweh’s grace (cf. Exodus 13:9). Thus a word-study indicates that Jeremiah’s exhortation to “walk in the Law” is not merely a demand or another burden laid on Israel. It is an invitation to return to their heritage, to lay hold of Yahweh’s grace. For the brief amount of time required to consult a concordance, this step can greatly assist preachers in confirming or disconfirming their intuitions about a text.
7. Consolidate Findings
At this point, the preacher has completed exegetical work. It is time to summarize the data, ferreting out the extraneous material gained in the exegetical process. This is especially important, because there can be no true narrative happening in the sermon if it is burdened by exegetical facts. Preachers should regard form-critical insights as mere scaffolding, vehicles for gaining insight on texts.
In the sermon, we generally should not relate original Greek and Hebrew terms, Synoptic parallels, or the literary genre of the text; ordinarily, we should focus solely on the text’s content.
The preacher must consider two things in organizing the exegetical data for the sermon. First, we should be ready to identify conclusively the text’s literary context. That is, we must be able to articulate the personal, theological, and societal issues that are raised in the text itself. We should also be able to summarize the text’s proposed way of dealing with the issues.
To facilitate this summary we may use identity analysis on the text, particularly if it is a narrative. Frei has argued that only through such analysis can a theologian be grasped by Christ when exegeting Scripture.19 Identity analysis approaches a literary text with the question, “What are the characters in that text like?” It is a formal question; it does not force the text to answer in a certain way. Unlike allegory, the text’s meaning need not be limited solely to the conceptuality used in the prior question. There is room for a vast variety of content to be reflected in one’s answer to the question.
As noted previously, in narrative accounts we answer this question on the basis of what the characters do in the texts, for a narrative presupposes an irreducible identification of its characters with their actions.20 These “agentic” suppositions are not so easily employed when one deals with the non-narrative portions of Scripture. Yet they can pertain in the Epistles and prophetic accounts, insofar as these texts provide us some insights about the identity of the people addressed by the apostles’ letters or the prophets’ sermons. Identity analysis is also helpful in setting the stage for our application of biblical material to our contemporary situation, finding modern meanings in the text.
8. Use Systematic Confessional Materials
It may seem strange that a model for preaching proposed by a systematician would not opt for the use of systematic theological material until late in the process of sermon construction. But this feature is deliberate, self-conscious, and relates to my commitment to the authority of Scripture’s literal meaning, and my arguments against allegory.
Preachers should not yet have engaged in explicit systematic theological reflection; it is preferable if the initial summary of exegetical results is constructed without regard to either technical theological terminology or the convergence between these results and the preacher’s own denominational or confessional tradition.
At stake here is the narrative approach’s commitment to sola scriptura. In fact, faithfulness to my own Reformation tradition entails an openness to the possibility that one’s confessional tradition may be corrected by the insights of Scripture. That can most easily occur if we do not impose theological categories on our exegesis, but formulate an exegetical summary that can genuinely dialogue with the key concepts of our tradition.
It would nonetheless be a mistake to understand these commitments as an admission of the unimportance of systematic theological reflection for preaching. At this stage in sermon preparation, preachers should analyze the exegetical summary in relation to certain core theological concepts. Again, three advantages are to be gained by such a procedure.
First, theological concepts can help preachers order their material, help them see things in a text they might not otherwise have seen. For example, it might be quite easy to interpret Romans 13:8ff. as an exhortation by Paul for Christians to love. By analyzing the passage in relation to the categories of law and gospel, our attention is called back to Romans 3:28, and we recognize that Paul is not suggesting that we can save ourselves by such love.
Likewise the function of the controversy dialogue in Mark 2:18-22 is clarified when we employ the concept of eschatology in relation to the predominance of the theme of “newness” in the account. The important constructive role systematic theological reflection can play in helping preachers see things in the text they might have overlooked should be further facilitated in this stage. Reading both classical and contemporary theologians who have dealt with the text being exegeted can contribute other useful insights.
Second, systematic theological reflection, attention to one’s confessional, denominational tradition, can be helpful in ruling out improper interpretations. If one cannot identify a single theme characteristic of his or her confessional tradition in the exegetical summary, there is a good possibility that that interpretation is incorrect, even heterodox. In this sense, doctrines function as kinds of grammatic rules for speaking the language of faith.21
This does not mean that every interpretation in conflict with the preacher’s denominational heritage is incorrect. If every conflicting interpretation were rejected, we would be left with an allegorical approach. However, conflict is a warning signal for preachers. We are obligated to account for it, if we still wish to argue that our exegetical results are capturing a text’s normative, literal meaning.
What counts as a valid conflict between one’s interpretation of a pericope and one’s own confessional tradition? I suggest that these conflicts legitimately arise when there is a conflict between the literary context and the overriding context! concern of one’s confessional tradition.
For example, there is clear conflict between Reformation teaching on justification by faith and James 2:17. One rightly interprets the pericope when she or he sees this identifiable conflict. While Luther and the Reformers were principally concerned with the matter of asserting God’s grace, James is clearly concerned with exhorting Christian living in face of trials.22
When this kind of tension exists, it may be necessary to disagree implicitly with one’s confessional tradition. This of course presupposes that an analogue exists between the pericope’s literary context and the preacher’s present situation. With this consideration, the transition from theology to preaching really begins.
Third, attention to one’s confessional and denominational tradition provides a framework by which preachers can assess the overall impact of their preaching, insofar as a confessional position is understood as a summary of Scripture. Thus, for example, faithfulness to my own Luthern tradition entails that my sermons should be more about justifiation than reflect characteristic themes of James. Attention to one’s confessional tradition provides a perspective from which to assess how a particular sermon fits into the total scheme of what we seek to accomplish in our ministry. Systematic theological reflection is a particularly valuable handmaiden to preaching.
9. Apply to the Contemporary Situation
Recall that for Luther not every passage of Scripture can be deemed Word of God “for us” in our contemporary situation. There is some legitimacy to a confessional tradition’s deemphasis of certain biblical themes; my thesis has been that a biblical pericope is not the Word of God for us when its literary context has no commonalities with our contemporary situation. Given that supposition, we now have a major decision to make. We must determine whether the text we have been exegeting should in fact be our sermon text. It should not be — and we should find another — if there are no commonalities between its literary context and our contemporary situation.
Such working suppositions suggest the framework of the biblical narrative approach for dealing with problematic biblical texts concerning slavery (Exodus 21:1-11; Deuteronomy 15:12-18; Philemon; 1 Corinthians 7:20-24) and the role of women in the church (1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:8-15). A careful reading of the literary context of these passages suggests that they address situations with no analogues for us. Thus in 1 Corinthians 7:26, the text indicates that Paul’s openness to the continuation of existing institutions such as slavery is addressing a context in which the Eschaton is expected immediately. Since twentieth-century Christian proclamation is not so concerned to speak to social problems posed by an imminent End, Paul’s comments do not apply to present times.
Likewise Paul prefaces his remarks concerning women in the church in 1 Corinthians 11 by indicating his concern not to offend Jews or Gentiles (1 Corinthians 10:32). But in twentieth-century Western culture we do not encounter cultural inhibitions concerning women’s attire and participation in public assemblies which might be a barrier for evangelism. Thus the directives from the Pauline letters have no place in our cultural context.
Of course, over the years historical criticism has sought at times to diminish the literal sense of certain biblical passages by arguing that these texts emerged from a historical context with no analogies to our own. My approach differs, however, from historical-critical procedures in two senses. First, it does not undermine the authority of these problematic passages; they are Word of God for the occasions they addressed, but not “for us.”
Also unlike historical-critical approaches, no efforts have been made to get “behind the text” and speculate about these texts’ historical contexts. Rather, the basis for judgments about the texts’ contexts is their “literary contexts.” In this way the authority of the canonical text is affirmed, though a particular pericope may be judged inappropriate for our circumstances.
With the biblical narrative approach, judgments of appropriateness are based on what Scripture says, not on historical speculations. This kind of inquiry, however, is not just to be carried out for purposes of eliminating texts. One discerns a text’s modern meaning by finding and describing analogues between its literary context and our own context.
The identification of such analogues need not be executed in any elaborate detail. The reality-transforming character of the biblical narrative leads us to it. Insofar as we are drawn into the “world” of these accounts, it is quite likely that we will discern some commonalities between that world and the one in which we routinely live.
Although this kind of identification with the biblical “world” is only structurally characteristic of the narratives, it is a normal outcome of a close reading of most of the other literary genres in Scripture. When we read one of the letters, James’s sermon, or even the apocalyptic literature, it is quite appropriate that we come to identify ourselves with its original readers, to treat the text as if it were written to us. In like manner, it is proper to identify our own experience with the experience of the authors of poetic texts.
In effect this means of discerning analogues between a text’s literary context and our contemporary situation draws upon the techniques of identity analysis. By identifying the text’s literary context with reference to the question, “Who are the characters?”, we have set the stage for the next logical question, “How are we like these characters?” To establish a normative interpretation of the text, though, we must differentiate these two questions. If we do not, then we are employing the presuppositions of the story model. In that case, the affirmation of divine transcendence, which is upheld by my narrative approach, is forfeit.
In the language of much story preaching, correlation between the preacher’s story and the gospel’s story does not occur. On the contrary, preachers/Bible readers only learn who they are, are only able to articulate their own story in light of the Bible’s story. That story is what creates the analogues to human experience. They simply come by a realistic, figural reading of the texts.
At this stage of sermon preparation we should concisely identify the precise issue that creates an analogue between the text’s literal context and our present situation. Accomplishing that, however, is not an end in itself.
10. Concretize the Analogues
The biblical narrative sermon will be reduced to a lecture if all the preacher does is tell people about the analogue between the biblical text and the contemporary situation. It is preferable to illustrate these analogues by narrating the text’s action or by telling stories.
On occasion, this procedure becomes easier if preachers try to recall vignettes from their own experience, from contemporary literature, or from current events paralleling the life-issues with which the biblical accounts deal. Doing so sheds light on what contemporary questions the text of the sermon addresses.
We now confront the issue: how best to provide hearers with entree into the biblical world. We identify a variety of means. The analysis of classic theologians of the past who used the biblical narrative approach, of how they related biblical texts to their contemporary situations, is useful for nurturing our creativity in this regard. It is again evident that systematic theology has much to offer the preaching task.
We saw previously that one means of helping hearers identify with a text is simply to assert to a congregation that a given text is really a story about them. The preacher would then proceed to narrate the account with constant reminders to the congregation that they are the characters in the account or the people addressed by it. Luther’s procedure served as a useful paradigm.23
Anachronistic, mythical characters who embody the hopes and fears verbalized to preachers by their hearers may be employed as participants in the biblical accounts in order to facilitate the hearer’s identification. For me, another useful procedure has been to relate an event in my own life (better yet, an event in the collective life of the community I am addressing) in such a way that it is bounded by the biblical text. My own story functions as a kind of “figure” that is not really understandable apart from the biblical account, and as such is fulfilled by the pericope.
If one uses one’s own life story, the story of another, or a vignette from contemporary literature, it is preferable to do so after the biblical account or its main theme has been fully articulated. We must make it clear that our own stories are not equal partners with the text in the sermon. Extrabiblical, secular material must be presented in such a way that it has its meaning and reality only insofar as it is a reflection of the biblical text being proclaimed. Subsequent commentary on both text and the extrabiblical material may then be employed to clarify the text’s modern meaning, if necessary.
An example of how this approach functions can be illustrated with reference to Ezekiel 37, the story of the prophet’s encounter with the dry bones. The preacher might claim to have had a similar dream, which he or she would relate only after examining the text’s account, in which the dry bones were the bones of the members of the community in which the sermon is delivered. The preacher would of course subordinate this story to the biblical account.
There is no one way of connecting one’s hearers with the world of the biblical texts. As we must identify uniquely with different literary structures when exegeting each text, so we will need to find different ways of concretizing analogues between text and modern context in each different situation for each different text. In fact, although each narrative text has only one normative meaning, there is a variety of images or stories available to preachers for depicting its conceptual meaning for purposes of facilitating the text’s existential appropriation by its hearers.24
One helpful guideline is always to aim to retain a format in the sermon which continues to reflect and relate the biblical narrative or nonnarrative text in a “storied” or realistic, figural way. In some manner, perhaps by asking formal questions that help one’s audience to evaluate or respond to the reactions of the biblical characters in the text, the hearers should be identified with the biblical characters, or the biblical author, or his audience. At these points the preacher should aim to interweave the theological insights of the text with the world or story that that text portrays.25 Ultimately this is the best means for witnessing to the authority of the text’s original conceptuality in such a way that it has existential meaning for us today.
Stories help hearers identify with the proclamation. Actual biblical conceptuality, its literal meaning, does not require so much modern explanation (as in allegory) once I find myself and my experience in the account.
11. Outline the Sermon
The sermon has begun to assume its form. Nevertheless, the preacher is still not adequately prepared at this point. I contend that unless preachers go into the pulpit knowing exactly what they are going to say, all exegesis is worthless. Preaching becomes little more than the momentary ruminations of the preacher, an exercise in telling “What the Text Means to Me.”
The biblical narrative approach to proclamation, with all its strengths, is forfeit unless the delivery is concise and communicates the literary structures of the text. It will not be so unless preachers have carefully thought through all they will say, especially the introductions and conclusions of each of the sermon’s major segments.
The step for the preacher to take now is either to prepare a sermon outline that sketches the preceding ruminations or construct a full sermon manuscript. While many homileticians would disagree, I prefer the manuscript.
To be sure, one must safeguard against its being abused. The manuscript can be a barrier to effective proclamation if it is merely read in the pulpit, so it should be memorized. A second danger is that the use of a manuscript can lead to very stylized artificial rhetoric, so preachers must learn to create prose that is written to be spoken, not read. In short, the manuscript is best written if its author is first thinking out loud.
These considerations raise the question of what form the actual sermon outline/manuscript should take. It must reflect the characteristics of the narrative mode of proclamation which have governed the sermon’s preparation thus far, or it will not produce the positive impact this approach is capable of providing. One may do accurate literary exegesis, avoid all noteworthy problematic trends in contemporary society, but “the medium is the message.” The sermon’s actual presentation and structure, not its mode of preparation, ultimately determine its strengths and impact.
We may reflect now on what advantages are afforded by a sermon structured in accord with the biblical narrative approach. Again, these advantages are: (1) Christian faith’s viability is not called into question by historical inquiry or the contemporary psychologized consciousness; (2) Scripture can provide its own criteria for interpretation; (3) the transcendence of the Word and its uniqueness is more sharply presented; and (4) this kind of proclamation can more readily shape unique Christian piety.
As long as the sermon makes no explicit historical claims it cannot be called into question by historical criteria. Precision in one’s choice of words is essential. With regard to this matter, the preacher’s job is simply to report the biblical accounts, not to insist that the strange stories happened. The problem of their truths will take care of itself in the lives of the faithful as they come to live their lives as interpreted by these accounts.
The ability of this approach to rebuff the challenge of our contemporary, psychologized, narcissist consciousness is related to its other noteworthy strengths. Allowing the literal meaning of Scripture’s strange stories (and the Epistles) to reflect in the sermon gives witness to the fact that their meaning is not a mere human creation. The accounts have an integrity of their own, and thus transcend human experience.
All this is lost, however, if the sermon is not a relating of these texts’ literal meaning. Portraying them by a more or less systematic reliance on some other more relevant conceptuality, as in allegory, implies that the meaning of the Word of God depends upon human experience. The transcendent dimension of Christian faith, its uniqueness, is compromised.
In short, if all these strengths are actually to be reflected in the sermon, the sermon must take the form of an actual recitation (anamnesis) of the narrative accounts of Scripture, a restating of the actual conceptuality used in the biblical treatises and Epistles. We may talk all we want about a story approach to preaching. Unless the sermon actually takes a narrative form, rather than that of a mere commentary on the account (or worse yet, in the case of the Epistles, a commentary about the commentary), all the advantages gained by this literary approach to exegesis are forfeit.
This consideration suggests one more element to consider in outlining the sermon. Rebuffing the psychologized consciousness and its correlate Western cultural relativism is also dependent upon Scripture being able to interpret itself. If it does not have normative meaning, then its meaning must be relative to the hearer’s experience. In that way the transcendence of the Word is compromised.
The exegetical techniques of this approach, with its reliance upon American new criticism, are open to this kind of normative meaning. However, our hearers will not be provided with a witness to transcendence unless it is reflected in what we say to them. If a sermon is presented tentatively — if we preface our remarks with a phrase like, “This is one way to look at it” — then we implicitly deny the normativeness of our interpretation. (This kind of perspectival presentation of a text is only appropriate when preaching on the parables, prophetic stanzas, and hymns, in which cases story, critical correlation, or allegorical approaches are appropriate.)
The analogue between preaching and storytelling may be pressed further at this point. Well-told stories are told with authority, in an engaging way. This is the tone our interpretation of the text should transmit to the sermon. We must write the outline/manuscript with the mind-set that we are telling our people what the text says, not what we think it says.
This does not deny the humanity of the preacher; good storytellers are engaged in their stories. We have observed that this is a characteristic of a biblical narrative.26 Good stories engage us with titillating introductions and powerful conclusions. Thus preachers need to work hard at creating the same.
Three stylistic nuances with theological implications that should be present in the sermon if it is to witness to the strengths of this approach are: (1) the preference that it not purport the factuality of its claims; (2) the inclusion of some element of the text’s literal meaning — for narrative texts it should take the form of a story; and (3) the requirement that it be told with authority, with minimal reference to one’s own perspective. Sensitivity to these nuances in the actual proclamation of the sermon is impossible without a carefully worked-out plan of what one will say in the pulpit. Biblical narrative proclamation will probably not really happen if this step is omitted.
12. Rehearse the Delivery
Even if a full sermon manuscript has been written, it still remains to be spoken. Delivery is as important as preparation for effective preaching, so even good public speakers should spend some time practicing each sermon after it has been written. A sermon is like a performance. Nuances, gestures, facial expressions, and pace of the delivery have roles in effective communication, and should be used deliberately.
I cannot fail to note the problems of American Christianity in public speaking. They are not related to a lack of competence in the clergy, but to the clergy’s discomfort in the pulpit. We need to overcome this if our homiletical option is to succeed.
Earlier I noted that the strengths of this biblical narrative approach, the reality-transforming character of the biblical accounts, only pertain to our preaching when the telling of these accounts captures their narrative character. We need to practice that technique. Good storytellers can tell stories in a compelling way and engage their hearers. We cannot help but participate. We hang on to every word. We become a part of the acount.
This kind of participation is similar to the reality-transforming dynamic of the biblical accounts. By participating in the strange world depicted by Scripture, the believer’s entire perception of reality is changed. Thus, if the preacher’s speaking style in the sermon is that of a storyteller (rather than a lecturer), there is much more of a chance that hearers will truly participate in the same relationship with our Lord that the biblical texts depict. Good storytellers make their characters — even the reality of God — come alive.
It takes practice. We must put aside our inhibitions, become actors in relating these accounts, learn how to weave a story. The model for proclamation which I have proposed implies a systematic commitment to storytelling both in preparing and in delivering sermons. By telling stories with passion and animation we make ourselves part of the action as is characteristic of the narrator’s role in narrative literature.
All the necessary preparatory steps for preaching have been outlined. However, the preacher is not ready to climb into the pulpit without noting one other consideration. I am not claiming that proper techniques guarantee good preaching. I must add a word of both humility and comfort.
The exegesis may be impeccable, the investment of time and energy laudatory. Yet despite all the efforts, preachers can never make what emerges from their mouths to be the Word of God; we cannot guarantee that our words will shape people’s lives. We must always remember that that depends upon the work of the Spirit (cf. 2 Samuel 23:2-3).
Reprinted from The Integrity of Biblical Narrative by Mark Ellingsen, copyright (c) 1990 Augsburg Fortress. Used by permission of Augsburg Fortress.
1. Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 112-13. For a good example of the usual manner in which homileticians order these steps, see Craddock, Preaching, 99-124.
2. My thoughts on the matter have been directly influenced by Child’s reflections in OTS, 95.
3. This conclusion about the proper beginning and ending of the Psalm is confirmed by scholars who worked on the three-year lectionary, as it appears in the Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978), 17. Psalm 2:6-13 is designated as a Psalm for Transfiguration Sunday.
4. Childs, OTS, and Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction, are good texts for refreshing one’s memory about the dominant themes of the books of the Bible.
5. I am indebted to Childs, OTS, 664-65, for this point.
6. Rudolf Bultmann (History of the Synoptic Tradition, trans. John Marsh [New York: Harper & Row, 1972], 3-4) has insisted that form criticism must include this attention to the origin and history of the early Christian tradition.
7. This exegesis is basically reflected in Childs, OTS, 148-50.
8. This point is made in a similar way by Childs, OTS, 289-99, and Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ, 58-73.
9. See above, pp. 20-21.
10. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, 13-15.
11. This point reflects both the commitment of new criticism to the uniqueness of each individual text, and my dependence upon Frei, who issues a critique against the theological use of “Christ-figures,” in IJC, 58-73.
12. See above, pp. 21, 38-39.
13. See pp. 38-39 and chap. 2, n. 55.
14. See above, p. 35.
15. Claude Levi-Strauss, “Structural Study of Myth,” in Structural Anthropology, 202-28. A good exposition of this technique and its applicability to biblical studies is offered by Patte, What Is Structural Exegesis?, 53ff.
16. Jensen (Telling the Story, 9-10) and Keck (Bible in the Pulpit, 110) also opt for a variety of approaches to preaching. In fact at one point, Keck (153) appears to opt for the legitimacy of a kind of biblical narrative approach. But ultimately he continues to insist (133-34) that the earlier stages in the formation of the canon serve as a critical norm in determining a text’s meaning and in so doing seriously delimits variety in preaching by foreclosing the biblical narrative model as a legitimate alternative.
Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible, provides a useful detailed description of how to deal with nonnarrative biblical texts, and in so doing also urges the use of a variety of approaches to preaching.
17. For extrabiblical literature that emerged from the Old Testament period, cf. James B. Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958). For a similar anthology of documents of the New Testament period, cf. C. K. Barrett, ed., The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (New York: Harper & Row, 1961).
18. Lectures on Galatians (1535), in Luther’s Works 26:330-31; ibid., 10-11.
19. Frei, 1JC, 86ff.
20. See above, pp. 29-30, for a more detailed discussion of this characteristic of the biblical narrative.
21. This manner of construing the function of doctrine is indebted to Lindbeck, Nature of Doctrine, esp. 17-18, 73,80-81.
22. Luther, Lectures on Galatians (1535), 66. James 1:2 and the use of the imperative mood throughout the sermon bespeaks its context.
23. See above, pp. 49-50.
24. For the notion of a text’s appropriation as distinct from its normative meaning, see above, pp. 35-36.
25. For this reminder about the need to interweave theological insights with the actual recital of the world or story that the biblical text portrays, I am indebted to Buttrick, Homiletic, 341.
26. See above, p. 21.
Designing the Biblical Narrative Sermon
The narrative approach to proclamation does not preclude using historical-critical tools in sermon preparation. It endorses the priority of the techniques of literary analysis and, in practice, it advocates the interplay of various methods.