Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 341 pp., $12.95, paper.
The modern period has been marked by the dramatic shift of interest to hermeneutical concerns. The hermeneutical quest, long a subject of theological and exegetical concern, has now become a focus of intense debate in the academy as well as the church.
One mark of this contemporary shift has been the emergence of interest in general hermeneutics. Figures such as Paul Ricoeur, Juergen Habermas, John Thompson, and Jaques Derrida represent the intersection of philosophical hermeneutics, literary studies, and theological investigation. Hans Georg Gadamer has emerged as one of the most primary conversation partners for contemporary theologians and biblical scholars.
The preaching world has not escaped this shift in focus. Homiletics classes and discussions at seminaries and divinity schools have long incorporated the modern hermeneutical discussion in the curriculum. Most practicing preachers, however, have been left out of the circuit. This is true no longer.
Preachers seeking a solid and helpful consideration of hermeneutics in service of preaching will greet The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text with great enthusiasm. Sidney Greidanus has produced one of those rare volumes which should be read by all preachers who take the task of interpretation and proclamation with great seriousness.
Greidanus — professor of theology at The King’s College in Edmonton, Alberta — takes as his focus the merging of interest in biblical hermeneutics and homiletics. His focus is not on general philosophical hermeneutics, but on the contemporary discussion in biblical hermeneutics — a discussion shaped and influenced by the larger debate.
Greidanus addresses his book to the need for “a tool to bridge the gap between the department of biblical studies and that of homiletics.” Nevertheless, the book’s intended readership is not limited to the academy, but includes the motivated practicing preacher as well.
Preaching, suggests Greidanus, has undergone a “paradigm shift” which parallels the shift in literary studies from historical investigation to genre-based criticism — a shift which has produced the contemporary interest in forms of sermons. In his words: “These paradigm shifts open up exciting possibilities for preaching but also some precarious hazards.” Greidanus’ treatment is a responsible and balanced discussion of these issues rooted in great respect for biblical preaching.
The focus on biblical preaching keeps the volume faithful to its purpose. Greidanus’ high view of biblical authority is consistently evident, as is his ability to translate biblical authority into powerful preaching.
Contemporary preachers are, according to the author, even more dependent upon the biblical text than the prophets and apostles. Modern preachers, if they are to preach with authority, “must speak not their own word but that of their Sender.” As ministers of the Word, preachers must submit to the biblical text, and not force the text to submit to their intent or interpretation.
The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text is, by any measure, a detailed and substantial volume. Greidanus reviews the multiple forms of biblical literature and relates each to biblical hermeneutics and the homiletical task.
From this he launches into a review of the historical foundations of the hermeneutical quest, and calls for a “holistic historical-critical method.” This holistic approach would meet the biblical text on its own terms, greeting the text with confidence rather than doubt. Historical issues and hermeneutical challenges should be met with faithful investigation — but an investigation rooted in a basic confidence in the text as the Word of God.
Greidanus’ review of contemporary literary studies will be of great assistance to preachers. His holistic approach calls for the preacher “to take into account all aspects that contribute to the meaning of biblical texts.” Greidanus reviews the contributions of movements such as source criticism, redaction criticism, structuralism, and the canonical approach of Brevard Childs. This discussion indicates clearly the shift from historical to literary questions.
Nevertheless, Geidanus does not neglect historical investigation. Indeed, he suggests that historical events are “inherently meaningful” — quite a statement in this age. More important, however, is the theological interpretation of the text. Though problematic, the term focuses on God as the ultimate referent of the text. Theological interpretation “seeks to hear God’s voice in the Scriptures” by focusing on the kerygmatic content of the text and the message as revelation.
Greidanus proposes a modification of the author-oriented hermeneutic, which takes as its point of departure the intention of the human author of Scripture. Influenced by E. D. Hirsch, Greidanus seeks to avoid the pitfalls of subjectivism by recognizing the priority of the author’s intention in the text. Nevertheless, the central intention of the Bible as a canon is “to tell us about God.”
Biblical preaching is, by Greidanus’ definition, both theocentric and Christocentric. Just as the intention of the author is critical to any hermeneutic which seeks to limit subjectivism, the intention of the sermon must be central to the preacher’s concern.
Central to Greidanus’ presentation is a call to “textual-thematic preaching,” or “preaching in which the theme of the sermon is rooted in the text.” This call assumes textual preaching. Topical preaching, suggests the author, is prone to lead into “the quagmire of personal opinions.”
A preaching text serves to preserve the biblical character of the sermon, thus insuring its authority. Greidanus is at his best in his model of textualthematic preaching. Preachers will be persuaded to focus on literary units within Scripture as preaching texts.
Every preaching text has a theme. The role of the sermon is to expound and convey this theme. Here again, we are reminded that Greidanus does not suggest that every verse of Scripture has a theme, but that every literary unit within the canon has a theocentric theme. The sermon also has a theme, which may or may not be identical with the theme of the text.
The central concern of the preacher should be that the theme of the sermon and the theme of the text not be separated. Greidanus suggests the sermon theme will function to keep the sermon on track, to ensure sermonic unity, to promote movement within the sermon, and to provide direction for the application of the theme.
The volume demonstrates familiarity with the current homiletical discussion and contemporary concerns regarding sermon forms. The debate between partisans of deductive and inductive forms finds its way into the volume in Greidanus’ creative discussion of sermonic forms. Didactic, narrative, and textual forms all receive fair and insightful consideration.
Before turning to the unique character of the various literary forms within the Bible, Greidanus discusses the challenge of bridging the gap between the ancient text and the modern congregation. Though cognizant of the discontinuity between the biblical and modern worlds, Greidanus affirms the basic “overarching continuity” which binds the text and the reader/hearer.
The remainder of the volume consists of four chapters, each considering the unique challenge of preaching from a particular unit within the canon. The Hebrew narratives, prophetic literature, the gospels, and the epistles each receive a chapter-length consideration with helpful suggestions for the preacher.
The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text fills a critical gap in the existing literature for preachers. Most preaching ministers are in need of a volume which relates the contemporary hermeneutical discussion to the preaching task. This is just that volume.
Though many readers will take issue with Greidanus at some point, all will read his volume with great profit. His call to a thematic-textual mode of preaching is a challenge to the biblical preacher. Evangelical readers will appreciate Greindanus’ conservative appropriation of literary and hermeneutical studies.
A rediscovery of biblical preaching is the hope of the contemporary church. The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text is a promising indication of the current interest in biblical proclamation. “The preacher,” suggests Greidanus, “stands at the intersection of the ancient Scriptures and the contemporary church and has a responsibility to both.” This volume will serve preachers seeking to fulfill that weighty responsibility.
Book Notes
John R. Brokhof. Preaching the Parables (Lima, Ohio: C.S.S. Publishing Co., Inc., 1988), 234 pages, $12.75.
This book parallels many of the Gospel texts currently found (through October) in the Common Lectionary. Brokhof, retired Professor of Homiletics at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, takes nineteen Lukan parables and does a masterful job of analyzing them for the preacher — including word studies, preaching insights, illustrative materials and more. Anyone planning to preach from the parables will find this volume a valuable tool.
Perry H. Biddle, Jr. Lectionary Preaching Workshop: Cycle C, Series 11 (Lima, Ohio: C.S.S. Publishing Co., Inc., 1988), 360 pp., $32.95.
In this workbook-style volume covering Cycle C of the Common Lectionary, Biddle offers a note of commentary on each text, along with a theological insight and suggested sermonic treatments. While it is no replacement for more complete study resources on the texts covered, it often provides helpful ideas. Biddle is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Old Hickory, Tennessee.
Hoyt L. Hickman. Planning Worship Each Week (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1988), 28 pp., $2.95.
Hickman is Director of Resource Development for the Section on Worship, General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church. In this small booklet, he emphasizes the need for careful planning of the worship service, and offers suggestions for ways to plan worship effectively. He includes a worksheet for planning a worship service and a too-brief list of additional reading. Hickman’s booklet is a good introduction to the topic which should encourage further investigation.
Donald F. Chatfield. Dinner with Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), 128 pp.
Any preacher considering an attempt at story sermons — or one desiring to improve his skill in this genre — would do well to read this fascinating book of story sermons by a Professor of Preaching and Worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Chatfield is a superb story teller, and he prefaces each sermon with a couple pages of background and insight into the sermon.
One insight he shares (and which every preacher needs to hear in using story): “The point of the story is not to have a ‘point,’ but to provide an opportunity for an experience. After experiencing a real story, we can make ‘points’ for ourselves.”
You’ll enjoy reading Chatfield’s small volume even if you never preach with story — but you just might try after reading it.

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