Generations ago biographical sermons based on biblical characters were a basic staple of the church’s preaching diet. Frederick B. Meyer is remembered best for his preaching on such Old Testament characters as Abraham, David, Joshua, and Jeremiah. Classic homiliticians such as Andrew Blackwood extolled the virtues of the biographical sermon.1
However, more recently, hermeneutical criticisms of the Old Testament biographical sermon have arisen. Perhaps most vocal in this criticism has been Calvin Seminary professor of preaching Sidney Greidanus. (see preceding article) Professor Greidanus endorses a wholesale abandonment of biographical sermons, arguing that using Bible characters as examples or models for imitation in preaching is hermeneutically flawed.2
Among his reasons are the claim that such preaching ignores the gap between biblical times and contemporary life, transforms the biblical author’s description into prescription, and shifts the Bible from being God centered to human centered.3 Inevitably, claims Greidanus, such an approach slips into allegorizing, spiritualizing, or mere moralizing.4 Thus the biographical or character sermon is “a dead-end road for true biblical preaching” that is “unable to produce genuine Christ-centered sermons.”5
Ought modern day preachers abandon biographical preaching? In light of the legitimate criticisms offered by Greidanus and others, can a sermon on an Old Testament character (or New Testament character for that matter) be a legitimate proclamation of a biblical text? Is it possible to salvage the biographical sermon in such a way that answers the criticisms leveled against it?
In answer to this question one must begin first with the biblical text itself. Geidanus is quite right to criticize adoption of biographical preaching simply because it captures attention, is relevant, or pleases the congregation. None of these are a legitimate reasons to adopt any approach to preaching. Instead, we need to inquire as to whether the Bible itself legitimizes the use of biblical characters in preaching. Moreover, the careful interpreter needs to investigate the possibility of liter-ary clues in the actual characterization of biblical figures that might suggest such that these figures are presented as models to avoid or emulate.
I. New Testament Treatment of Old Testament Characters
Exactly how the New Testament uses the Old Testament is an important issue. However, for our purposes, we are concerned with the New Testament usage of biblical characters from the Old Testament. In this respect, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:1-12 are foundational. In this section, Paul engages in a bit of spiritualizing himself as he describes Israel in the Old Testament. This generation who were “under the cloud” were “baptized in Christ” (v. 1). They “ate spiritual food” and “drank spiritual drink” coming from “that rock [which] was Christ” (v. 2).
Doubtless, to admit that the apostle spiritualizes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit does not give the modern preacher license to engage in spiritualizing of other Old Testament events. Clearly, a different dynamic is at work when we study the sacred text that limits our authority to the meaning within the text itself.
However, even with that caveat stated, Paul tells us, “These things occurred as examples, to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did” (v. 6). The word for “examples” Paul uses here is tupos. The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, edited by J. P. Louw and E. Nida, categorizes the various meanings of tupos under four semantic domains: 1) “artifact” (“image”); 2) “body, body parts, and body products” (“scar”); 3) “nature, class or example” (“model, example, archetype”) and 4) “case” (“contents”).6
The context of 1 Corinthians 10 obviously calls for the second domain of “nature, class or example,” leaving us with the following possible meanings for tupos listed under this domain: 1) “a visual form designed to be imitated or copied,” 2) “a model of behavior as an example to be imitated or avoided,” or 3) “a model or example that anticipates or precedes a later realization.”
Based on the warnings against “setting our hearts on evil things as they did” (v. 6), not becoming “idolaters, as some of them were” (v. 7), not committing “sexual immorality as some of them did” (v. 8), and not grumbling “as some of them did” (v. 9), meaning 2 within this semantic domain seems uppermost.
Later in the text Paul writes, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (v. 11). Here we find Paul choosing the term tupikos, perhaps merely as a stylistic variation from tupos. This word is used only here in the New Testament, and it means “pertaining to that which serves as a model or example.”7 In the context it seems synonymous with tupos in verse six.
Thus we have a clear biblical example of the use of Old Testament characters as examples to be avoided. In fact, one of the reasons for the writing of the Old Testament, says Paul, is to record these examples for us (v. 11).
Bridging out from this foundational text, we find other uses of Old Testament characters as “examples,” not merely to be avoided, but also to be emulated. For instance, in His Sabbath controversy with the Pharisees, Jesus appeals to 1 Samuel 21:6, where David ate the consecrated bread (Mat. 12:3). Clearly Jesus understands David’s view of the Sabbath as intended to be paradigmatic of how the people of Israel should have understood the Sabbath. Had the Pharisees emulated David’s example they would not be criticizing Jesus (the Son of David) for gleaning on the Sabbath.
Later in this same chapter, Jesus summons the men of Nineveh (12:41) and the Queen of the south (12:42) as witnesses against the religious leaders of His day for their failure to repent and listen to His wisdom. Clearly, Jesus understands the repentance of the Ninevites and the wisdom seeking impulse in the Queen of the south as paradigmatic for all of God’s people. The biting irony is that both examples are gentiles, driving home Jesus’ point with even greater force.
We find similar use of Old Testament characters elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul frequently cites the life of Abraham as the clearest Old Testament model of a life lived by faith (Rom. 4:1-3; Gal. 3:6-8). Of course, this appeal to Abraham has particular significance to the progress of redemption from the Old Testament to the new covenant. However, the text also indicates that Abraham serves as a model for a life of faith (Rom. 4:18-25).
In 2 Timothy we find Paul using the negative example of Jannes and Jambres’ opposition to Moses as being akin to the false teachers stirring trouble at the church in Ephesus (3:8). God’s actions with those who oppose God’s work in the days of Moses is paradigmatic of His opposition in Timothy’s generation.
Perhaps the clearest New Testament example of the use of Old Testament characters is found in Hebrews 11:4-40. This artful listing of Old Testament saints is clearly intended to serve as an encouragement to the Church to emulate their example. This skillful use of biographical preaching8 is driven home when the author of Hebrews exhorts readers, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Heb. 12:1).
The witnesses here are not mere spectators, but “those champions of faith and perseverance of earlier generations” epitomized in the list given in chapter eleven.9
Other examples could be cited, such as James’ appeal to Abraham and Rahab as models of a living faith (Jam. 2:23-25) and Peter’s use of Sarah as a model of wifely respect (1 Pet. 3:5-6). The common thread in these examples is that the New Testament does indeed treat Old Testament characters as examples to be emulated and avoided. Such New Testament usage of the Old Testament surely gives the Christian preacher authorization to treat biblical characters in the same way, especially in light of Paul’s conviction that one of the reasons for writing the scriptures is to provide us with these examples.
II. Prescription or Description?
However, what of Greidanus’ criticism that such preaching confuses prescription with description? Undoubtedly much character preaching has twisted incidental details into significant homiletical points (e.g., Gideon’s fleece, David not fitting into Saul’s armor, etc.). However, this merely proves the point that the text itself tells us which details are incidental and which are significant.
Although the biblical authors surely did not write about characters like Abraham, Josiah, and Moses to illustrate some “universal human condition;” clearly, these accounts are intended to be more than bare history. Biblical narrative intends to prescribe as well as describe. The clues to what is being prescribed are provided by the biblical text itself.
For instance, Deuteronomy’s description of Moses “expounding the law” is designed to set up a paradigm for subsequent leaders in Israel who would sit in the “seat of Moses.” Thus preaching about Moses as an example of faithful exposition of God’s truth is not only permitted, but it is mandated by the text itself.
As the psalmist lists the great deeds of God, he concludes with the affirmation that God “chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance. And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them” (Psalm 78:70-72).
Although an obvious recital of redemptive history, David functions here as a leader exemplar for all future leaders. After David’s reign, every other king in his dynasty would be judged by this Davidic standard. Surely then, it is legitimate for the Christian preacher to look to the life of David as an example (both positive and negative) for leaders of God’s people.
Old Testament narrative is filled with such clues within the text itself. Indeed, Jewish scholars like Robert Alter have alerted us to pay closer attention to such details in order to find exactly what the biblical author is prescribing in his use of descriptive details.10
III. Human-Centered or God-Centered?
Finally, what of Greidanus’ criticism that biographical preaching is human-centered rather than God-centered? Undoubtedly, much preaching today has become reduced to good advice instead of good news.11 However, to claim that the Bible is only God-centered misses half of the biblical equation. The Bible is not simply about God as God, but it is about God as creator and redeemer of His creation. In other words, the Bible is about God in relation to humanity. This is why the Bible is not concerned with metaphysical statements of God’s being, but instead with the historical progress of redemption that culminates in Jesus.
Thus, rather than choosing between a false disjunction of either preaching God-centered or human-centered sermons, the nature of the Bible itself suggests that we preach of God’s relation to humanity. Approached from this perspective, the Old Testament stories become paradigmatic for how God deals with humanity.12 Readers have long noticed this within the Old Testament canon itself.
For instance, the original exodus from Egypt becomes a paradigm for subsequent generations so that during the exile, the Israelites envisioned their return to the land as being a “new exodus.”13 Thus, the modern preacher does not have to choose between a God-centered and a human-centered approach to preaching.
Can the Old Testament biographical sermon be salvaged in light of more recent criticisms of this genre? If we hold to Paul’s conviction that the Old Testament was written to give us “examples,” our answer must be yes. Despite a checkered history of spiritualizing, allegorizing, and moralizing, the very nature of Old Testament narrative demands biographical preaching.14
Such preaching must be sensitive to the complexities of Old Testament narrative, keen to the placement of the biblical story in the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan, and disciplined in the treatment of the text. However, with these caveats stated, biographical preaching will always find a place in genuinely Christian preaching of the Bible.
1A. Blackwood, Preaching from the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1941).
2S. Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988); and more recently S. Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).
3Greidanus, The Modern Preaching and the Ancient Text, pp. 162-63.
4Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, pp. 35-36.
5Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, p. 163; and Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, p. 36.
6J. P. Louw and E. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1989), CD Rom, 8.56; 6.96; 58.58; 58.59; 58.63; 58.25; and 90.28.
7Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon on the. New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 58.60.
8Many commentators suggest that the genre of Hebrews is best understood as early Christian preaching, thus making the listing of characters in chapter 11 an actual example of biographical preaching. See W. L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8 (Word Biblical Commentary 47A; Waco, TX: Word Books, 1991), pp. lxx-lxxiv.
9P. H. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), p. 519.
10R. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (San Francisco, CA: Basic Books, 1988).
11I am indebted to Dr. Darrell Johnson, senior minister of Glendale Presbyterian Church, for this insight.
12This point is made particularly clear by R. J. Allen and J. C. Holbert, Holy Root, Holy Branches: Christian Preaching from the Old Testament (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1995), pp. 32-38.
13F. F. Bruce, New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), pp. 32-36
14For conclusions similar to mine, see D. L. Larsen, Telling the Old, Old Story (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1995), pp. 194-96.

Share This On: