Walter Kaiser is one of the premier Old Testament scholars in the evangelical church today. A widely-published author and popular preacher and lecturer, Kaiser has recently become President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Preaching: Several years ago you wrote an article for Preaching dealing with the issue of preaching in the Old Testament. One of the things you observed then was that to a great extent the evangelical church seems to ignore the Old Testament. Why do you think that is true?
Kaiser: I think the reason the church has tended to ignore and walk away from the Old Testament is, first, lack of familiarity. I think that they just don’t read those sections as frequently. I think more than the lack of knowledge is the perceived lack of relevancy of the Old Testament. Most are not sure that it really is relevant to us. On the one hand some try to do a kind of replacement theology which says everything given to Israel now equals the church. But they don’t play that game consistently because they don’t take anything bad about Israel, they don’t bring that across. Only the good things they say about Israel are brought across. From my own perspective, I don’t feel that a replacement theology is the way to go.
I’m working on a book right now. Some years ago there was a volume, Are the New Testament Documents Reliable? Thirty some years have gone by and we’ve never had the companion one to the Old Testament. So, I’m doing one right now. Are the Old Testament documents reliable and relevant? How can I get relevancy out of Torah? How can I get relevancy out of wisdom literature? How can I get it out of the prophets, out of the Psalms? I find it to be a wonderful challenge to talk about that relevancy thing. Once that hurdle is overcome, then we are going to see a return to preaching from the Old Testament. So, those two things, the issue of familiarity and the issue of relevancy.
Preaching: So that we don’t have to wait until the book is out, can you give us a sneak preview or an example of some particular topic?
Kaiser: Yes, I think the hardest one most people would say is Torah. How can you have the first five books — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy — preaching to the modern day because it’s so legal? My response is that there are 189 chapters in the five books if I recall correctly. 58 of that number I am sure of, would be legal material: from Exodus 20-40, 21 chapters there; 27 chapters in Leviticus; and the first ten chapters in Numbers. So you have a total of 58 chapters out of almost 200. That leaves 129 or so that are not part of the legal materials.
I think we have given the whole of the Torah a bum rap. Torah comes from the word, to point, to direct, and that’s why the Psalmist talks about the law as a path, a light. It’s direction, it’s guidance. That’s the main thing that is to be found there. Anyway, the structure for the first five books is really a structure of belief, not of law. Genesis 15, Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness. That belief passage is there in Exodus 4 and again in Exodus 14 — it’s that Israel failed to believe God at the Exodus.
Then again in Numbers 12 and in Numbers 20. For example, Numbers 20 where, “you didn’t believe me and all that I said.” The main hook on which the whole of the first five books are hanging is that of belief. “If you love me, then keep my commandments.” That’s the same as John 15. The relevance structure is different than what we have thought. We had thought it was: don’t forget to do this, don’t forget to do that, and that was trivia. It turns out, no, these were local illustrations of how a person demonstrates that they truly were believing. So, I think that sets a whole different pattern then for preaching on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Furthermore, we generally say, “God gave promises and the people failed, and then He tried them under law and that’s the rest of it.” That’s a very, very favorite interpretation. But the very basis for what God said is: “I’m the Lord, your God that brought you out of the land of Egypt. I gave my covenant to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, therefore I’m going to bring you out of the land of Egypt.” The whole basis of the commandments, Exodus 20, is: “I’m the Lord God who redeemed you up out of the land of Egypt, therefore …”
The therefore says that the environment of the requirements of obedience is the environment of grace — it comes out of the environment of grace. So, that’s what I mean about helping God’s ministers to get a whole new orientation on it. I think we have been sold a bill of goods to say, “Well Torah is law and we are not under law but we are under grace, so that took care of that.” That is a bad use of Galatians, a bad use of Genesis through Deuteronomy.
Preaching: A certain kind of cultural translation has to go on when you are preaching from documents that were written within a Hebraic context and all that represents. We as preachers must communicate those ideas today into a contemporary western culture, and that impacts all kinds of issues. How do you as a preacher approach doing that kind of cultural, world-view translation? How do we approach, study and preach the Old Testament documents in order to present them in an understandable way to a contemporary western congregation?
Kaiser: I would argue that preachers approach Philippians in much the same way you would approach an Old Testament book. Philippians is a very preachable book. “But I beseech you Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind” (4:2). Well, now, who is Euodia and who is Syntyche? You say, they are none of my relatives so let’s go on. That verse is not for me. But that’s not what we say.
A good preacher at that point will say, “I beseech you Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind,” and then they will go to Ephesians 4:24, “Be ye tenderhearted, forgiving, kind to one another.”
They say now here you have a culturally-bound illustration. These two girls whoever they were, are not getting along. These two women had to learn the biblical principle: to be kind, to be tenderhearted, forgiving of one another. So, the practical illustration was not meant to do away with the abstract principle; rather when we got to the practical we said there is an abstract principle behind it.
I say the same thing for Old Testament. It is no different for me than work-ing in an Old Testament book where you have history. How are we to preach Romans 16? Paul has all of these bread and butter thank you letters here. Thanks to the woman that did my laundry. Thanks to the woman that gave me a meal. And we get principles out of that. I think the same holds as to the Old Testament. But we need some more models showing how to do that in the Old Testament texts.
Preaching: Who are some good models of preachers who handle Old Testament texts well?
Kaiser: It is hard to find good Old Testament preaching, to tell you the truth. We have difficulty getting many who are doing expository preaching also to do expository preaching of the Old Testament. So you’ll get some of it.
I think that John Macarthur is one who would do it well. I have heard Chuck Swindoll preach Old Testament texts very, very effectively. I’ve heard him do Psalm 139, for example, and the whole concept of before I came forth from my mother’s womb God moved me — while I was being stitched together in my mother’s womb. And then to speak of the principle of the people who are really concerned about worth, and value, and dignity, he said guess what: before you even had day one, before you and I did anything, God loved us. And the love of God and the grace of God touched us before we emerged from our mother’s womb. That’s great preaching. I think that he’s had various Old Testament series when he had the church and they would put them into the radio broadcast.
Kent Hughes (pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL) I think is another great Old Testament expositor. He has done a series on Joshua for example. I just worked through that. Kent works on it very, very hard. One of the better ones more recently, is Ralph Davis, who is at Reformed Seminary in Jackson. Ralph has a whole series, Joshua, Judges, Samuel. I think he is doing one on Second Samuel now. Those are superb. They really are. And to some extent too, Cyril Barber. He has done a book on Ruth, he’s done one like Chuck Swindoll on Nehemiah. That is very, very good. He’s done one on Samuel as well.
Preaching: You have in the last year moved from a more academic role as a professor to a seminary presidency. You now have the opportunity, more than you ever have before, to give shape and direction to an institution of theological education. What do you think needs to be done, can be done perhaps within the seminary context?
Kaiser: Yes, this is one of the exciting opportunities that I think has opened up for me. One of the first things I did was to go back to the old colonial style where you had the president’s chapel each week. I thought not only the time of the president’s chapel, but to do each semester an expository series from a book in which I would make a notebook that was available. As I finished up this first year, since I teach primarily in Old Testament I thought I’d better protest and I did a series on II Corinthians to start out, which is on the ministry. What I really try to do is to model expository preaching because I want it to be caught. I wanted the students to take home a set of tapes of the whole year. A notebook full of not just the theory but the actual practice of the whole thing. I plan to continue that throughout my presidency.
I think a second thing is to go to work immediately on the practical aspects of the curriculum. We have always had extremely strong biblical and theological areas — church history, systematic theology, Old and New Testament. Those have been kind of our vanguard disciplines and the people who are better known in our faculty. But some years ago we hired Haddon Robinson to come as the chair of preaching. I would love to continue that by even raising preaching to a new level. And at this point the faculty agreed with me that we are going to put that (preaching) back into our teaching of Old Testament, New Testament. The exposition of the scriptures and the practical aspect of it becomes the business of the whole faculty.
And along with that I had thought very much that the fortunes of Christian education are just about vanquished; the educational program of the church continues to really slide. Where are we going to get the leadership for the next generation that has any biblical, theological training?
I’ve worked aggressively and strongly to strengthen the faculty and program of Christian education. We are hoping that we can make some kind of impact on the 350,000 churches in America through an aggressive program at the lay level for increasing biblical and theological knowledge. It’s not that I’m neglecting the classical disciplines and the core of Bible and theology and history. But, I think that so frequently we have defined some of these only in those terms and have sort of said, “Well, the church will straighten you out when you get there,” on the other part.
A third thing I am trying to do is relationships. I am convinced that theological education is not only a quality academic kind of training and teaching but it is a work that requires real relationships. I’m looking at the generation coming out of college right now and they are saying, “You know tuition is really an important thing but even more importantly is promise me that I can have a relationship outside the classroom, because I long for that kind of mentoring, discipling. I’m trying very aggressively — beside the academic tutoring in small groups, where the faculty meets in small groups each week — to put a faculty member in each of the living units, which has enough privacy for the family but also accessibility. So that in an additional six to seven hours a week you program opportunities for one-on-one small groups and for mentoring in a much more personal way. We are moving in that direction deliberately — of small groups, of discipling, of mentoring — because I think that is a high priority in shaping individuals for the future.
Preaching: We have talked about expository preaching, yet even within an evangelical academic community there is not always a common of definition of what that means. How do you understand or define expository preaching?
Kaiser: I want to tell you a funny story first. I led at one of our sister institutions a doctor of ministry class about four years ago. I had seventeen different denominational groups in there and I began the first lecture by saying how important this is, this is what we really need. I was trying to say that expository preaching is that form of preaching in which the text guides both the shape of the message and the content of the message. Most people say expository preaching actually is one in which the direct content ought to come out of the immediate context that you are looking at rather than sort of looking up verses all over the Bible. I’m arguing not only the content but the very shape of the message should in some way be determined by the teaching passage that we have there in front of us. I’m trying to get this across at a one-hour lecture and we broke for lunch. We went to the cafeteria and I heard a man four up from me in line — he came from another non-traditional kind of evangelical group — I heard him say quite clearly, “You know, I think I’m going to enjoy this course. This suppository preaching is something that is brand new to me.” When he said the word suppository, I said to myself, there is a man that needs a lot of preparation! It was a brand new term; he had never heard before.
I really think that what has helped me so much is an attempt to go through a book and say, first, what’s the main idea of this book? G. Campbell Morgan said he never preached the book until he read it through 50 times. Answer the two questions: number 1, “What is the purpose of this book?” and number 2, “Where do the divisions of the book come, where are the main sections?”
If you are going to take something apart, you have to know where the scenes are. So he would trace both purpose and the scenes. After you get the purpose and the scenes, then I ask what are the teaching blocks. Now I tend to take a larger block of text — something closer to a chapter. For expository preaching that means probably you have more like a 45-minute sermon rather than a 25 or 30-minute one. If you really have 30 minutes, then you’ve got to be highly selective and know that passage extremely well.
Then I ask for narrative passages: where are the scenes? I think each scene then becomes a major idea, which then should be listed as a major point in our message.
Preaching: Who are the outstanding models of expository preaching to whom you direct students these days?
Kaiser: On our own campus, Haddon Robinson. John Macarthur has to be up there. I think in many ways, Chuck Swindoll. Chuck would be both biographical and topical, as well. Roy Clements at Eden Baptist Church in Cambridge, England. At College Church in Wheaton, IL, Kent Hughes would be a model. I think John Stott would model that. Dick Lucas in St. Helens Church in London would be another. But it is difficult; you start running out of examples. There are not a whole lot. There are others I’m not familiar with just because I am out speaking so much and I don’t hear others.
I think Joe Stowell can do a very excellent job. He did our preaching series this past year and spoke on the 4010 window, what turns out to be Psalm 40:10. It was a wonderful message on the Psalm and was very, very expositional.
Preaching: Where do you see the church going in the early part of the 21st century in terms of worship and preaching?
Kaiser: We desperately need a doctrine of the church to be worked on. We’ve never had this. Right now we are in deep water because of several factors: one is racial, but not so much as generational. We’ve got into a huge problem of the generations. We are trying to mediate right now between the World War II GI generation and the boomer/buster generations and now the echo generation. So we’ve got four major generations playing a tug of war in four different directions: four different kinds of music, four different kinds of worship. And it’s giving us four different kinds of churches. We almost have a church that has a generational label on it. And yet the gospel is meant to bridge between that.
I think of how in the first century you could have a slave owner and Philemon, the slave that worked in his house, could also be on the board of trustees. Or one of the elders. How could you have your slave on the same church, maybe being church treasurer for the master he worked for? Because the power of the gospel is so effective. But in our day it doesn’t seem like we can bridge more than fifteen years and we are having deep trouble with that.
We have got church going in about four or five directions. We’ve got a seeker church that is leading people to the Lord with newness and joy and freshness. We have here a charismatic church that is interested in the power of the Lord and the signs of the Lord.
Then you have a Sunday church that is interested in missions and they are committed to it so much so that they are not happy until 50% of their budget is going out and people are going overseas. That tends to be a more traditional church because those that have been taught giving are coming out of the GI generation rather than the other three generations. The other three generations don’t know that there is such a thing as giving. Much like the vice president of the United States has published his giving record — $350. Now that is generational, very much generational.
So I can see a kind of seeker church, a charismatic church, a sending kind of church, and then what we call the worshiping church that has confessional statements and the reformed tradition on the sovereignty of God. We’ve got at least a four-way tug of war going on here. And yet this is all part of the body of Christ — all part of the evangelical heritage. I’ve probably left out some!
So I have great concern for the church in the years ahead and short of revival and/or a special national calamity much like the depression, I don’t think we’re going to solve our problems by ourselves. I think we are going to need the intervention of God in a dramatic way like that to really help us. I think God loves Christians in America — that if you don’t get the point through the preaching of the word of God then he will speak to us through events, through history. And what those are, I don’t know. I tease about not being a prophet and my father was not a prophet, he was a farmer. So, I’m not the son of a prophet. And I work for a “non-profit” organization! So I can’t really tell what’s out there. But I do think that we are moving either to a renewal or revival among the believing community in the church. I don’t use the word revival to speak of evangelistic meetings. I use it to speak of Christians get-ting right with the Lord. I think that we are just going to have to have a crossing of the generational lines in which grandparents are going to have to reach out to those whose organ is a guitar and somehow mediate across the gap.
Preaching: What is the great need in preaching in our day?
Kaiser: I think that we ought to get back the whole concept of the joy of preaching. I think that for many years now preaching has been a kind of tolerated necessity, or one in which some who have been recently converted — and particularly come through a seeker experience — have said, “Do you really need that? Could we have a drama instead?” I really don’t think that we will ever replace the potency of the declared word in a setting where God’s people come together. That doesn’t mean that drama and other things can’t have a wonderful supplemental aspect.
Drama can go to the lowest common denominator of what is shared by the whole group. And the lowest common denominator in the church today is a very low common denominator. It is very, very marginal and so we really need to get back to preaching.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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