The place of the Bible in the Virginia Seminary curriculum: Homiletics

The place of the Bible in the Virginia Seminary curriculum: Homiletics

McDaniel, Judith M

The centrality of the Bible in the course of studies at Virginia Seminary is evinced not only in the structure of the curriculum, but also in the teaching of homiletics. In homiletics classes, the Bible is the primary object of hermeneutical interpretation and homiletical reflection. While allowance is made for topical preaching on occasion, Virginia Seminary instruction emphasizes expository, exegetical sermons. The outcome of such training, however, is sermons that are incarnational in homiletical theory and practice. Because Anglican sacramental emphasis locates the word of God in human experience and creation, the question our preachers must ask themselves is how one arrives at that incarnational center. At VTS the answer would be that our trajectory begins with the Bible.

In a recent article entitled “Theological Method and Episcopal Vocation,” an American bishop wrote of his denomination, “Anglicans … tend to do theology from `below to above,’ from experience to concept to truth [and, finally,] to action.”1 He continued, “in theology our reflection on our experience of God does not constitute a fourth source of authority per se, but is [sic] a priori upon which the scripture, tradition and reason are dependent.” In other words, this author privileges experience before Scripture, tradition or reason. In his article he uses experience forty-four times as the ground for judgment of all things meaningful theologically.

Yes, God is available to us in our experience. At the very least, the doctrines of creation and incarnation compel us to affirm that God believed the created world to be good and, at a moment in time, was moved to empty himself and all goodness for it.2 God is surely present TO our experience, but is God present IN our experience? The question of the direction of incarnational flow has caused some liberal theologians to argue with Bultmann that creation and redemption are one.3 A Bultmannian incarnational preacher begins with humankind and humankind’s experience. On the other hand, one who reads Anselm would define incarnational theology as the union of humankind with the Person but not with the nature of God. That is, an individual may be in relationship with God but cannot contain God’s fullness. Therefore, an Anselmian preacher would be more prone to begin with the word of God as found in the biblical witness rather than beginning with human experience, because the latter is not only limited but also flawed.

But even beginning with the biblical text has its problems. We look at the text from a perspective. Modern hermeneutical theory implicitly recognizes the possibility of several interpretations of a single text. In part that is because there are numerous messages that can be derived from a single text. Furthermore, several interpretations of a single text are possible because there is no such thing as an unbiased stance from which to do exegesis, no such thing as an objective perspective. Each of us has a horizon from which we view the world, and that amalgam of experience and education influences what we see. We approach Scripture constrained by the cultural patterns or context of our upbringing. Our understanding of Scripture is not pure because our epistemology, our very way of knowing, is culturally conditioned. Each of us has an interpretive stance, a bias from which we exegete a text. The hermeneutical stance we take toward the biblical text determines the method we use to exegete that text, and the method we select predetermines what we will discover. “Method, understood as a preestablished set of procedures for investigating some phenomenon, in fact not only attains its object but creates its object.”4

If only since the publication of Gadamer’s Truth and Method,5 most preachers have been willing to admit that there is no such thing as an unbiased stance from which to interpret Scripture. As the aforementioned bishop wrote, “We engage the text within a given context or historical/cultural situation which shapes our appropriation and interpretation of how and what we express. . . .”6 In other words, we have to begin where we are. But to privilege our own experience as the place in which the gospel comes to life is dangerous. Humankind and humankind’s experience is not identical to divine revelation and inspiration.

The Bible is a witness to God. It is a record of a people’s response to God’s self-revelation and their subsequent inspiration. Certainly God is larger than the biblical writers’ understandings; but, likewise, God is larger than our own capacities for understanding. If the trajectory of our preaching begins from an incarnational, sacramental hermeneutical stance, the risk inherent is that we will privilege our personal experience over the biblical story and substitute anthropology for theology. And who among us wants any part of a savior who is nothing more than a projection of our own needs?

The tension between these two stories-the theological and the anthropological-has been with us for a long time. For generations the incarnational flow of preaching was deductive, the “three points and a poem” model: The preacher extracted from the text an idea. From this abstract proposition, the preacher then established three points by which he hoped to demonstrate application to human life. The deductive model is a teaching vehicle; and heaven knows, in our biblically illiterate culture, we need to teach. But the weakness of this cognitive-propositional approach is that too often the proclamation of the gospel remains an external ideal, an unattainable moralism; and in the middle of this century, homiletics, right along with the rest of social consciousness, reached a crisis.

In response, liberal theology reversed the direction of homiletical practice: Inductive preaching rejected abstract propositions in favor of experiential knowledge. Inductive sermons begin with a particular experience, and then move to a general principle. In the sermon, an event of self-recognition becomes the icon. What the listeners feel becomes the measure of received knowledge, rather than what is learned intellectually. Obviously, the antitheses between the deductive and the inductive models of preaching can be too starkly drawn. Saying that one approach is all “head” and the other, all “heart” does not do justice to the complexities of communication. But the two trajectories are clear: The deductive approach at its worst is a mere description of belief; the inductive, a simplistic explanation of how to believe. Neither can be equated with kerygmatic proclamation. As bearers of the tradition, ordained preachers often find themselves caught in the tension between theology and anthropology, caught between guarding versus boldly proclaiming an interpretation of the core story into differing circumstances, struggling to hold to the incarnational center of kerygmatic proclamation.

What, then, is kerygmatic proclamation? It is stating, with Anselm, “I believe in order to understand. I believe in order to perceive. I believe in order to reorient my life.” Kerygmatic proclamation is epistemology. It is a way of knowing. It is language that shapes experience. Kerygmatic proclamation tells us how we know what we know as well as the content of that knowing. If you doubt that language shapes experience or, as Heidegger said, “Language precedes experience,” think for a moment of the scene in The Miracle Worker when Annie Sullivan holds Helen Keller’s hand under the water cascading from the outdoor pump, all the while spelling the word “water” into Helen’s outstretched palm. Until Helen Keller had a word for the sensation she was experiencing, she had no world.

At an ecumenical conference of preachers during the summer of 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, there were homiletics professors in attendance from eighteen different countries. Not all spoke English, so it was necessary to have on hand two simultaneous translators. But the Japanese did not call our language experts “translators.” They called them, more accurately, “interpreters”; for what they were doing was redescribing reality. Moving from one language to another requires a redescription of reality. It requires moving from one thought world to another, one culture to another, one context to another. Never has it been clearer to me than in Japan that language shapes, and even precedes, experience: For the first time in my life I preached a forty-five minute sermon because it took that long to interpret fifteen minutes of English into Japanese categories of thought. Interpretation reconfigures reality.

Only God creates with the Word, but the preacher’s words have the power to name the world as what it is and whose it is. To preach kerygmatically is to preach Jesus. It is to proclaim that God’s world is the only reality and that the world as many know it is to be incorporated into God’s perspective, not vice versa. The Sunday bulletin of St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Jackson, Mississippi puts it this way: “It is the continued presence of the Holy Spirit which incorporates our lives into the risen life of Christ and makes us part of his body.” 7 In other words, the Bible draws us into its world. We are to be incorporated into the biblical story, and that incorporation is a continuing process.

Preaching is always eschatological, never finished. We tell the story, not attempting to reconcile the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith as if to ask, “What did he know and when did he know it?” No, we tell the whole biblical story, whose revelatory logic and content lead us to the identity of the man known as Jesus of Nazareth, and lead us to become one with the Christ.

But is just telling the story enough? Erich Auerbach’s important book Mimesis 8 demonstrates the power of the genre “narrative” to make a claim on our lives. Drawing on Auerbach, Hans Frei-who is closely associated with the narrative theology movement-cites four important characteristics of “realistic narrative.”9 First, the narrative’s shape, including its chronological sequence, is critical to its meaning. Second, character and circumstance cannot be rendered separately. Third, realistic narrative is “history-like.” And finally, the sublime constantly mixes with the ordinary. When we listen deeply to the biblical story, we are listening not simply to the Word in Scripture but to the word at the heart of our own lives as well. So how might you and I tell the biblical story in a way that enables listeners to listen deeply and become incorporated into Scripture’s story?

The biblical story is completed with a vision of the heavenly city: It concludes, “Those who are written in the . book of life … will see the face of God and will reign with God and his Christ forever and ever.” Incredible, isn’t it? How far from our earthly cities is this vision of well-being and joy. How far from our experience. Much of the Bible’s vision is a symbolic appeal to our imaginations, but one thing at least is clear: This is the story of the ultimate triumph of God’s goodness over the evils of the present, a reversal of this world’s order. As such, it is a narrative of the dissonance between the way things are and the way things ought to be. It causes us to ponder, “Must discord and destruction dominate life on earth, or is there some other way we should interpret this story for the present age?”

In the stories we read in the Bible, prophets, priests, and kings sketch an interpretation of life, life then and life now. They move us from one thought world to another, framing all of life’s story in the Bible’s story. They remind us that the life story of each of us is incorporated in the Bible’s redescription of reality. They tell us our life’s story begins and ends in the Bible’s proclamations and promises.

To deal with the text of Matthew 10:5-22, for example, as if it were simply a history of the charge to go forth and preach good news to all nations is to miss the essence of the message. There is a prior transaction to be acknowledged, an intratextual message to be grasped; and the text does not yield that transaction through a simple recital of its language. Textual criticism and historical-critical method are entirely too limited for dealing with the Bible, for text-critical questions circumscribe the answers we can receive. The questions we ask limit the answers. A preacher approaches the Bible with more respect when he or she reflects on it as a poetic text, a transformative vehicle which makes possible an imaginative reconstruction of reality.

Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis writes of establishing such intimacy with the text that it becomes an “echo chamber,”10 reverberating with memories. By means of the echo chamber metaphor, Davis reminds us that the original recipients of the biblical message heard ancient resonances which those of us less familiar with biblical language struggle to hear. When Jesus’ disciples heard the words “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” they heard echoes of a vulnerable God speaking through the mouth of Ezekiel (34:11): “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” They heard resonances of Micah (2:12): “I will surely gather all of you, O Jacob, I will gather the survivors of Israel; I will set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture; it will resound with people.” Listening for poetic echoes enables the preacher to hear that the Matthew text is not about a heroic people commissioned to preach. This text is about a heroic God who keeps coming back to pick up the pieces.11 This passage is about a God who is vulnerable to human unfaithfulness, a God who calls others to that same vulnerability, risk, and self-disclosure. Commissioned for vulnerability, the preacher can proclaim a new reality.

Turn to the story of Paul’s healing of the lame man in Lystra, for instance (Acts 14:8ff.). Paul sees that the man had faith to be healed, and he is healed. The lame man’s faith translates his life from one realm into another. The miracle occurs not on the basis of the man’s potential or Paul’s intrinsic good will. No, the miracle occurs on the basis of God’s conception of the future, a future of wholeness, of shalom. Healthy faith caused the man to stand up for what he believed, and his life was reconfigured. With the perspective of faith, the lame man envisioned a new reality, redescribing and reinterpreting the life he once knew, incorporating it into a new Being. Most miraculous of all, this glimpse of God’s future occurred outside the boundaries of the established order, outside the protective walls of the synagogue, outside the sheltered community of Christian worship.

And what is Paul’s proclamation in that setting? What is Paul’s interpretation of this event? He preaches his first sermon to a pagan audience by redescribing their reality, giving them new categories in which to think about life: “Turn to the living God,” he says, “the one who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. … he has not left himself without a witness to goodness-giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” Paul is not trying to make the creation story from Genesis relevant to current cultural trends. He is readjusting the vision of the pagans to see the world from the Bible’s perspective. He is pulling them into the biblical story. He is making the Bible’s reality their reality.

If Paul, the earliest author in the New Testament, stands outside civilization’s establishments to tell us of our beginnings, the last author, the poet of Revelation, fairly pole-vaults over the known world to tell us our end: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty… and there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light” (Rev. 21:22 and 22:5). Here is proclamation and promise, a promise that transcends our tangible, immediate, observable, personal experience.

For our experience is that the world offers us a dwelling in which evil more and more triumphs over good, a dwelling in which cruelty conquers kindness, a dwelling in which injustice reigns over righteousness. Interpret that reality. Is this situation simply to be accepted as the status quo? How would you describe it? Does it look like the capital . . . of darkness? A city so full of corrupt practices that disgrace is a common headline in the daily papers? A city so lacking in civility that slander is everyday parlance? A city so wanting in community that the rich segregate themselves in enclaves for protection from the poor? A city in which neighbors cannot be trusted? A city in which children kill other children daily? That is the language of our experience. That is the interpretation of anguish.

Is it any wonder in such a city that parents are so uncertain of their own values that they dare not attempt to pass them on to their young? That we have spawned a generation that never had any faith to begin with, so faith cannot be lost? Should it be a surprise that in such a hedonistic miasma “Desire [is] quickly elevated to the level of need and then [those] alleged needs are further elevated to … rights”?12 It cannot be a coincidence that the books on our shelves by the interpreters of American society have such titles as The Culture of Disbelief 13 and Life After God.14

It has been said ad nauseam that we are now living in the post– Christendom era, and we all know the two prominent professors of theology at Duke Divinity School who have written that Christians must now consider themselves Resident Aliens.15 Are you satisfied with that description, or is there something new for you and me to preach?

This country, this world, desperately need a redescription of reality. If we do not find a new way to interpret which hungers are worth having, we will starve to death. Our book of life, the Bible, never provides any explanation for the reality of evil in this world. The biblical story does not explain reality. It redescribes reality. It tells us the way things are in God’s eyes and invites us to adjust our vision to see the world from the Bible’s perspective.

Preaching is involved in the process of knowing. But the process itself is cognitive, it makes connections that were not previously made; so preaching has the potential to create new knowledge, new understanding. In the process of linking thoughts to words, preaching is creative of a new reality. The content of what is revealed is significant. But the way thoughts are connected is also meaningful. Because meaning is at the core of human experience, reality redescribed and newly perceived is experienced as a genuinely new reality. Incarnational preaching that evokes a reality absorbed into the world of the biblical story will feed people, not a blue plate special, but a heavenly banquet in which the bread of the Word is broken and shared.

So tell the Christian story, preacher. Revision this world. Interpret your future to reconfigure it in God’s terms. You have a Savior who was flung down and nailed up by just such a people who thought they were in charge of the world, people of status, power, influence, wealth who thought they were in charge of their lives. Tell the story of the cross, Christian, the story of the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. For what we need to heal us is something beyond the political, something beyond the economic. We need something of the Spirit.16 Find a way to tell the world your story, Christian, the story of a cross, of a broken, crucified, self-giving people who are bound to triumph in God’s shalom. Tell the world the Christian story, preacher. Share with the world the Christian perception of reality. Redescribe reality in Christian terms for the rest of humanity. Interpret your beginning and your end. We need it, now.

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Winter 2002

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