Review of Reclaiming the Old Testament for Christian Preaching
My thanks to Adrianna Wright and IVP for sending me a copy of Reclaiming the Old Testament for Christian Preaching edited by Grenville J. R. Kent, Paul J. Kissling, and Laurence A. Turner.
My expectations for this volume should be laid bare at the outset. Too much is published today that is both mediocre and/or redundant. Particularly in an area such as preaching, I would be hesitant to get caught up into reading very many books if any on the subject. A book on preaching could be compared to a book on how to play a musical instrument. Perhaps the fundamentals can be gleaned from reading a text book, but to truly master the subject one must set aside the book and practice. Preaching is an activity one must be regularly engaged in should one truly want to grow and develop. There is very little need to read more than a couple preaching books because their differences are hardly significant. I do not preoccupy myself with the various preaching theories; they are largely passing fads concerned with packaging material that is often mediocre because too little attention is being placed on content. And so with that in mind, I came to this book looking for a resource that would cover the bare essentials of making use of the Old Testament for a Christian exposition, one that was particularly focused on developing content over delivery. In my estimation, the delivers in this respect, though I found some chapters appealed to me more than others.
Each chapter is the product of a different author writing from within a Christian faith perspective. Generally speaking, each chapter contains a discussion of the topic, its relation to preaching, the relevance of a Christian faith perspective, and concludes with both an example sermon (or sermon outline) and a bibliography of some kind.
Laurence Turner begins the book with the chapter “Preaching Narrative: Plot.” This was one of the chapters I found most helpful, both because the narratives of biblical stories are too often ignored in the preaching of narrative texts and because of the quality of Turner’s treatment. He lays out the basic structure that establishes the general characteristics of plot shared by both ancient and modern literature, and he proceeds to explain how these individual characteristics are significant for understanding plot and plot development. He highlights how one can make use of these characteristics in developing a sermon without requiring that one’s sermon fit any one particular mold or structure. Complimenting the discussion of narrative was Paul Kissling’s chapter, “Preaching Narrative: Characters.” I particularly appreciated the encouragement in this chapter to diversify one’s sermon style, occasionally delivering a sermon from the perspective of the biblical character in the first person. From from encouraging an atomistic reading of biblical characters, he addresses numerous features of narrative storytelling in the Bible that highlight the significance of characters and characterization. Students who might otherwise think it appropriate to preach a “Dare to be a Daniel” sermon will learn from this chapter that there is more to reading biblical characters than the traits we are predetermined to admire in them!
Perhaps my favorite chapter of the lot was Christopher Wright’s ” Preaching from the Law.” Again, this is a topic that is easily and often abused or ignored in Christian preaching, and Wright’s lifelong work in Old Testament Law is apparent. The chapter is in many ways a condensed discussion of issues he raised in Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. He has done a fine job in presenting his basic framework of his understanding OT law and highlighting the most pertinent issues on which to elaborate. Readers interested in further discussion will find themselves redirected to the appropriate discussions in his more expansive volume. I suspect those familiar with and sympathetic to Wright and his work on OT law will be pleased to have this chapter for students to consult to capture the essence of Wright’s work, even if they are not using it in a homiletics course. Because Wright is focused on “finding the message of the law for today,” some might find his chapter less helpful in respect to the various forms or sermon structures most suitable for preaching OT law.
Federico Villanueva and David Firth tackle lament and praise poetry, respectively. Their chapters do a fine job at addressing these topics. Tremper Longman tackles wisdom literature, but leaves me wanting. I must confess that my dissatisfaction with this chapter is due to a significant difference of opinion with Longman when it comes to the text of Ecclesiastes. Longman interprets the frame narrative of the text as a corrective to all that lies within it (a substantial majority of the biblical book!). While this is a legitimate interpretive option, it is not one that persuades me. I would opt for students reading this book for a class to consult William Brown’s Interpretation commentary as a corrective. I appreciate Longman in the wisdom corpus outside Ecclesiastes, so the other aspects of the chapter I found to be worthwhile.
Grenville Kent, H. G. M. Williamson, Daniel Block each address the preaching of a single book of the Bible, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, respectively. Kent enumerates numerous negative and positive pieces of advice for preaching about a delicate topic for public discourse—sex. I can see myself measuring any future sermons on the subject should I have the occasion and comission to so preach against this chapter to ensure that I have handled to topic appropriately. Williamson discussed, among other things, how to handle preaching from a text where authorship and date may prove to be thorny issues if brought up and offered sage advice. I particularly appreciated how he handled the messianic portions of Isaiah, neither ignoring their Christ-focus nor limiting their import to it. Block demonstrated well how one approaches the task of preaching a biblical book holistically, understanding the entire structure and theological contours of the book before preaching from it. Those interested in preaching Ezekiel will find it a most helpful resource.
Earnest Lucas tackles Apocalyptic literature and does a fine job. Alison Lo addresses the Minor Prophets, and I particularly appreciate how she encourages a more holistic reading of the collection of books. For example, she writes about tracing thematic coherence across the minor prophets using “the day of the LORD” as an example. Her advice recognizes some of the interaction that occurs between the prophets, and those who read this chapter should realize that the theological significance in the ways these texts interact with one another is significant for Christian preaching. These prophetic books do not exist in a vacuum, but in a collection of mutually informing/influencing literature. While this is a basic Christian conviction regarding the entire biblical canon, it is true at another level for the collection of the minor prophets.
The final two chapters address two particularly pertinent topics on the Old Testament and Christian preaching. Gordan Wenham addresses preaching from difficult texts, and any who are familiar with Christian culture and the contents of the Old Testament should know there is plenty of challenging material in the Old Testament. Genealogies challenge attention spans; texts containing slavery and violence challenge modern moral sensibilities. These are just a few of the issues Wenham raised. Of course, one can always choose to neglect the challenging texts, but Wenham proposes engaging these texts, but with appropriate understanding and candor. Walter Moberly concludes the book with his treatment of preaching Christ from the Old Testament. Moberly engages much secondary literature on the subject, creating an excellent dialogue of scholars on the issue. The outcome is a christological perspective on the Old Testament that is neither simple nor simplistic; readers are encouraged to take seriously the context(s)of the texts to develop a frame of reference for christological interpretation.
There were some chapters I enjoyed and found more helpful than others, but the book was relatively well balanced in content. I found it odd that the bibliographies at the conclusion of each chapter were different in some respects, and identical in others. A majority included a “Further reading” list or a “Recommended further reading” list with three resources, but some had a longer list, and one had a full bibliography in place of a recommended reading list. Three of the “Further reading” lists included Ellen Davis’ book Wondrous Depth: Preaching the Old Testament. While I do not doubt Davis’ book is superb and worth consulting (I have not consulted it myself), I would have liked to see greater diversity in the recommendations, perhaps more focused on the specific topic being addressed. Most contributors represent a Western cultural perspective, and most are male. Preaching is not an exclusively masculine enterprise, so it would have been great to see more females contribute to this volume. My final evaluation is positive; this book would serve as a fine resource for a homiletics course in both undergraduate and graduate contexts, particularly a course focused on expository preaching. It covers many important topics clearly and concisely. I commend the book to those interested in the topic.