Our Sermons Need the Light of the World—not the Enlightenment

The persistence of Enlightenment rationalism has resulted in the prevalence of antisupernaturalist assumptions and the de facto denial of biblical divine authorship in much contemporary scholarship. Liberal scholars embraced a historical-critical methodology that led them to reject the notion that the Bible possesses a comprehensive, divinely given theological unity of message and purpose. Conservative scholars, committed to the inerrancy and unity of the Bible in principal, critiqued the hermeneutic of the New Testament writers and substituted a modern scientific understanding of historical-grammatical interpretation.

Both Enlightenment-shaped approaches presuppose interpretive autonomy. They make the interpreter a judge of the biblical writers, and by limiting the interpretive historical context to that of the immediate human author, preclude gospel-centered readings contextualized by the entire canon. Thus, much modern evangelical interpretive methodology proceeds on liberal assumptions about getting behind the text rather than trusting the text. The shadow of Enlightenment thought has resulted in a virtual hermeneutical eclipse of Jesus in both camps. While many recognize contemporary theological liberalism’s descent from Enlightenment rationalism, few consider the Enlightenment’s impact on contemporary evangelicalism.

Under Enlightenment influence, liberals abandoned the fundamentals of the faith and used the Bible in their pulpits to promote a liberal progressive morality. They tried to retain the essence of Christianity by minimizing it to a moral code (social gospel) and abandoning the supernatural and doctrinal aspects of the faith that the modern world deemed indefensible. Conservative evangelicals retained a commitment to biblical inerrancy and the systematized fundamentals of the faith but embraced an enlightenment driven hermeneutic that reduced the meaning of biblical text to bare conservative moralistic principles abstracted from a central focus on Jesus and his kingdom.

The divine organic unity of the Bible was functionally forsaken in both liberal and conservative pulpits and often resulted in the preached biblical text being reduced to either liberal or conservative moral allegories. Dennis Johnson explains, “Thus over the last three centuries, the theological substructure of apostolic hermeneutics and homiletics has been assaulted by both the ‘hostile fire’ of Enlightenment criticism and by the ‘friendly fire’ of Bible-believing students who sought to develop an objective hermeneutic sufficient to withstand the acidic rigors of Enlightenment doubt” (Him We Proclaim, 5).

Conservative evangelical scholar Walter C. Kaiser Jr. has advocated what he calls the analogy of antecedent Scripture. He argues that interpreters must limit “our theological observations to conclusions drawn from the text and from the texts which preceded it in time” and “in no case must that later teaching be used exegetically (or any other way) to unpack the meaning . . . of the individual text which is the object of our study” (Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament, 40, 140). Kaiser rejects the possibility of a text’s possessing a canonical sensus plenior and argues that interpreting the meaning of every text in light of the fullness of New Testament revelation is “wrongheaded historically, logically, and biblically” (Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament, 26) and refers to preaching Christ in every text as an “occultic idea” (Recovering the Unity of the Bible, 217).

The Kaiser method functions, as Millard J. Erickson observes, on the faulty “assumption that the Bible was written like any other book” and functionally ignores the fact that the Bible is divinely as well as humanly authored. Further, Erickson contends that the Kaiser method moves forward on “antisupernaturalist (or at least nonsupernaturalist) assumptions” (Evangelical Interpretation, 30-31). Donald Fairbairn contrasts patristic exegesis with the modern Enlightenment-influenced evangelical approach and notes that the two approaches begin at opposite ends of the contextual spectrum. Like Erickson, Fairbairn contends, “Whether we admit it or not, we are influenced by the idea that the Bible is primarily a human book” (Life in the Trinity, 114). He writes,

The Fathers had no qualms whatsoever about reading preconceived theological ideas into a given passage, as long as they got those ideas from elsewhere in the Bible. In fact, they regarded any attempt to avoid such a reading to be un-Christian. The fathers believed that the entire Bible was a book about Christ, and therefore they were determined to read every passage of Scripture as being directly or indirectly about Christ, the Christian’s relationship to Christ or the church’s relationship to Christ (Life in the Trinity, 110).

According to Fairbairn, the church fathers began the interpretive process considering the intent of the divine author, the Holy Spirit, in the canonical whole of Scripture, asking how the passage related to God in Christ; however, modern evangelicals start with the intent of human author, asking how the passage relates to us (Life in the Trinity, 110-114). Evangelicals do not believe the Bible is a disparate collection of books that cannot be adequately harmonized in a coherent testimony, so why would we adopt an interpretive approach that precludes the uniqueness of the God-breathed Scripture?

The Bible possesses a divine unity as it progressively unfolds redemptive history, which points toward Jesus Christ, the one in whom all of the promises of God are “Yes” and “Amen” (2 Cor 1:20). In light of God’s divine disclosure in the Scriptures, human authorial intent cannot exhaust the meaning of meaning in a given text. Christ-centered expository preaching is the logical consequence of biblical inerrancy and the organic unity of God’s Word.

Ignoring the Christ-centered canonical context of Scripture is no less reductionist and problematic than ignoring the immediate context of the human author. A wooden application of the grammatical historical hermeneutic that fails to account for the fact that the Scriptures are the supernatural word of a sovereign God errs in the same way allegory does: both approaches exclude indispensible context. One excludes the context of the human author; the other excludes that of the divine author. Christocentric preaching does not mean neglecting exegesis in order to slip Christ in the sermon; it is rather the exposing of authorial intent, both human and divine.

Preaching Christ from all the Scripture is not an addition to expository preaching, neither should it be viewed as a style or type of preaching, but it is rather the way faithful expository preaching is accomplished. We must begin with Christ and end with Christ because our sermons need the Light of the World—not the Enlightenment.

By |April 14th, 2014|Categories: Blog|

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