Now an emeritus professor of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Sidney Greidanus is one of the most important and influential authors today in the area of biblical preaching. His book The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text was Preaching’s 1989 Book of the Year, and in recent years he has turned his attention to the issue of preaching Christ from Old Testament texts. He visited recently with Preaching editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: One of your most recent books is Preaching Christ from the Old Testament. This is a topic that has generated much discussion over the years, as preachers wonder if every sermon must proclaim Christ no matter the text.
Greidanus: That goes back about 30 years to when I preached a series of sermons on Ecclesiastes at my second charge in Delta, British Columbia. I thought I had a pretty good sermon. Afterward a retired preacher came up and said, “I liked your sermon, Sid, but could a rabbi have preached that in a synagogue?” I had never heard that question before. And in a way I thought it was a loaded question because, of course, we share with the Jews the Old Testament. So he could have preached it in the synagogue.
But at the same time that question set me to thinking: did I do enough? Did I really have a Christian sermon if a rabbi could preach it in a synagogue, or had I just preached an Old Testament sermon? I struggled with that issue, and as I did further research in the history of preaching for this book, I noticed very quickly that the church fathers tried to preach Christ in every sermon-unfortunately they used the allegorical method for that.
I came to the conclusion-on the basis of the New Testament and other studies in church history-that there are at least seven legitimate ways to move forward from the Old Testament to Christ in the New Testament rather than using the allegorical, which reads the New Testament Christ back into the Old Testament. That was basically eisogesis, and I think most preachers are opposed to eisogesis. So we want to do exegesis and yet preach Christ from the Old Testament.
Preaching: What are some of those approaches to preaching Christ from the Old Testament?
Greidanus: The foundational way, I think, is redemptive historical progression because the Scriptures reveal God’s activity in creating the world. That’s where it starts, of course, in Genesis 1. And it works its way through the coming of Christ in the New Testament to the new creation. So there is progression in Revelation to the Coming of Christ, and to the Second Coming of Christ. In terms of hermeneutics, every text has to be explained in its context; so the context of an Old Testament passage is first of all the Old Testament but also the New Testament. And so the context is always the Coming of the Christ and/or the Second Coming of Christ. So that would be the foundational way.
Based on that, of course, we have promise fulfillment. There’s the promise of Christ in the Old Testament. As Christian preachers we don’t just stop at the promise because we live after the fulfillment. And so we would utilize promise fulfillment to preach Christ.
Or we could use typology, which was used already in the early church, in Antioch. When we have a type of Christ in our text, we move forward to the Coming of Christ. And then further you could use analogy, which I think is a little more general than typology but also an important way to move from the message in the Old Testament to the New.
Or one could use longitudinal themes, which is a technical term in biblical theology where you trace a theme from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Or contrast-because of the progression in redemptive history, there could be a contrast between the message of the Old Testament and the New. Those are six ways that I think can be backed up, should be backed up, if at all possible with New Testament references. But my theory is that if you really want to have a strong bridge to Christ in the New Testament, you have to do that along the theme-along what some people call “The Big Idea”-rather than through incidental details in the text.
Preaching: Are there certain books in the Old Testament where you find it easier to preach Christ than in other books?
Greidanus: Oh sure. The prophets would be the easiest-especially a prophet such as Isaiah because you find so many messianic promises in there, or even promises of the coming kingdom. The Book of Psalms when it speaks about the king, and the king usually is the title for the great coming King, which would be Christ. So preaching Christ from those books is not all that difficult.
Where it gets more difficult is when you get into Hebrew narrative. And the most difficult, I think, is wisdom literature. Of course, that’s where my whole problem started in Delta, British Columbia!
Preaching: As a follow-up to the first book, you wrote Preaching Christ in Genesis, which is a great contribution to the church. What are some of the insights you gained on preaching in Genesis?
Greidanus: I was looking for an important Old Testament book. Of course, all are important, but I think some are more important than others. Genesis is not only the first book in the Old Testament but also foundational for the Old Testament as well as the New and also for theology.
I was not really aware of how foundational it is until Eerdmans (the publisher) asked that I make a more detailed subject index to it once I had
finished. I put under the subject index, for example, God’s providence, God’s faithfulness, God’s grace, God’s election. It speaks totally about God-the concepts that we use in systematic theology that are further expanded on in Scripture.
So that was one thing that I learned about Genesis: how foundational it is and yet how little preachers preach it today because it confronts them with difficult issues.
For example, take Genesis 1-how do we interpret that today? Is it the young earth? Old earth? Six literal days or long periods of time? How do we interpret that? How do we bring that message today? Moreover there are some really gory details in Genesis. So many preachers think it’s the better part of wisdom to just avoid that book entirely. And so I started with Genesis. In fact I retired from full-time teaching three years ago in order to finish this book because I thought it was so important.
And I put myself in the place of a pastor who wants to preach a series of sermons on Genesis. Usually I recommend not to extend a series like Calvin did-he would sometimes go two years on a book-but I think variety is the spice of life. So if you preach five or six sermons from Genesis and then move to another book-maybe in the New Testament-then you can come back to Genesis. So I set it up as a series of four sections in Genesis: the prehistorical section, the Abraham cycle, the Jacob cycle and the Joseph cycle. So I had four sections, and I decided to do five or six narratives from each. So I came up with a total of 23 narratives; and I just tried to do the work that preachers do in their studies, but I had more time than the pressure cooker of the ministry.
In this book I tried to develop, first of all, what is the textural unit because many commentators are not in agreement on that. What is the narrative unit? And then I look at particularly the literary features in that unit; then I draw for each narrative the plot line, which is very important to get the point of the passage and also to retell it later in the sermon. From there I move to what is the point of the author, the theme, the big idea? And then I raise the question, “Why did he write it to Israel at that time? What’s the goal: To encourage them? To teach them something? To comfort them?”
Then we move on to a section where I go through those seven ways to Christ that we mentioned earlier. And I try to figure out how we can use those ways and which are the best ones to use. Then I state the sermon theme-because it may be somewhat different from the textual theme from time to time-and the sermon goal. Then I have a section on sermon exposition that’s basically homiletical commentary; I called it sermon exposition, showing what are some of the important ideas in that narrative, how it develops and at which points I would move to Christ in the New Testament.
But those are only suggestions-in their study pastors can often be inspired to move at different points. But I would like to emphasize that they should not move off to Christ on incidental details in the text but rather the main message. I find if you do that then the application comes very easily, too. It’s usually through the Christocentric move that you get to the application of the passage.
Preaching: In your own preaching, is there a particular area in Genesis that you have enjoyed preaching more than others?
Greidanus: Well, I don’t know if there’s any particular passage that I enjoyed more than others. Some are more challenging than others for preaching, particularly Genesis 1, the creation narrative. And I do sense that it’s a narrative, though not nearly as clearly so as other narratives. But in making a sermon on that myself, I thought a narrative form would get me stuck in the 10 times “God said … God said … God said.” And so I developed that sermon deductively with three main points. So that is a more challenging passage to preach in the narrative form.
With the others I usually follow the narrative form. In the appendix I have a sermon model-an expository sermon model-that explains where you can start with the introduction, what you do in the body and how you come to the conclusion. I followed that in my own sermons, and I’ve taught that to my students. I’ve found that very helpful.
Preaching: So you’ve done Preaching Christ from Genesis, and you were telling me earlier the next one that you’re working on now will be Preaching Christ in Ecclesiastes. You mentioned that the wisdom literature may be the toughest area for making some of those connections. Are you far enough along in that process now to be seeing some of the particular challenges that you’ll be facing?
Greidanus: I realized the challenges of preaching Christ from wisdom literature already when I wrote Preaching Christ from the Old Testament. At that time I brought in the definition of preaching Christ. The traditional definition is preaching the person and/or works of Christ. We may focus on the person of Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah, or focus on the works of Christ-the fact that He worked atonement, that He worked miracles and so on. That is OK, but with wisdom literature you don’t get too far that way. So I stress that part of the work of Christ is the teaching of Christ. With wisdom literature I realized that we have to usually look at Christ as the wise rabbi who taught in mashal, which is parables or proverbs.
Preaching: You’ve been teaching preachers for many years now. How have you seen preaching change over those years? And where do you see preaching in the years to come?
Greidanus: When I was trained in preaching 40 years ago, we were taught to look for the theme of the passage; but we were not taught to look for the goal of the passage. And I think it’s extremely important to catch the relevance of the passage when you look for the author’s goal in that historical situation. Once you have the goal, you have the relevance of the text. Every biblical text is relevant when you read it historically. We don’t have to make it relevant. We just have to look for its relevance and then pass that on to the congregation today in terms of where they are today. So that would be one change I have seen.
Another change that I was not taught was to write the sermon in an oral style. But I soon realized when I started preaching that at certain points in the sermon I would lose the attention of the congregation. And checking later, I realized that this was usually where I had very long sentences and difficult words. So I’ve been trying to impress that on my students, to write in oral style.
Craddock with his inductive approach-that’s another change that has come about since I started. Now, I don’t think that we can say the inductive approach or the narrative form is a new form-Jesus used it, so it’s not all that new. But you cannot make the narrative form or the inductive development a “one size fits all” either. It depends on the text.
I’ve been trying to teach my students to allow the text and the form of the text to shape the form of the sermon so that expository preaching is not only to expose the message of the text but also to expose how the text brings the message.
And I feel that in the future there will be more experimentation one way or the other, but most of those do not live very long. So I’ve preferred to focus on searching the Word, understanding the text in its context. How was it relevant at that time? And then bring that message through Jesus Christ in the New Testament to the people today and how it is relevant for them. What does God expect from us as a response to that Word?