If ever there were a more confusing claim, I don’t know what it is. Biblical preaching. In the past few months, I have encountered people who either complain that their pastor doesn’t “preach the Bible,” or proudly boast that they have a “Biblical preacher.” (One over 2000 years old…?) But to probe what people really mean gets confusing. “Our pastor doesn’t interpret scripture, he just preaches truth,” is a favorite of mine. I have never, ever met a preacher who doesn’t interpret — though many would have us believe that their interpretation was God’s own truth. Another favorite of mine is, “our pastor preaches mercy, justice, compassion — everything but the gospel!” Okay, here is my interpretive lens, but I thought mercy, justice, and compassion were good news. Now, I have been in churches (thankfully very few United Methodist Churches) where the names “God,” and “Jesus” are never actually spoken, and that it a problem. I once interviewed some people who were leaving worship at a “hot” new UMC, and I asked them, “What did you learn about God today.” Reply after reply was something along the lines of, “You know? I don’t remember hearing anything about God in church this morning!” Not good. On the other hand, some people think they are only hearing “biblical” preaching if the preacher peppers the message with scripture bits, creating the equivalent of a platitude collage. Some folks feel that too much scholarship and study is actually bad for “biblical” preaching. One pastor told me, “the Bible was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me. He didn’t need commentaries and dictionaries and study guides. Of course, he didn’t have the New Testament either, but he made out fine.” I know another pastor who proudly boasts, “I haven’t cracked a text-book since leaving seminary. Everything one needs is right in the Bible.” This person preaches from Petersen’s, The Message.
On the other side, academic snobbery rears its head. “Preaching is a lost art. We have some of the absolute worst messages being preached, and people eat them up like candy,” a friend laments. Another holds in contempt any pastor who doesn’t preach the lectionary. Some preachers can exegete the hell out of the Bible, but they aren’t making it better. I am of a mind that the gospel doesn’t need our help — it does just fine on its own. At the same time, I believe it is the responsibility of every preacher to bring the very best thinking and scholarship to the pulpit. Preachers should never get in the way of God’s word, and all too often we do.
The sad problem is that most people I hear use the term “Biblical preaching” are merely trying to justify their own taste and preferences. Biblical preaching is, at its most basic definition for many people, “preaching I agree with.” I believe most people would actually HATE true biblical preaching, because it would demand so much more of us. Rather than validating our deeply held biases and beliefs, I think we would be challenged to change — to sacrifice and work hard and constantly grow — something many people wish to avoid. Biblical preaching would call us out from complacency and selfishness, apathy and self-indulgence. Biblical preaching would pull away the safety net and force us to actually BE like Jesus.
True biblical preaching wouldn’t be just proof-texting to support our own beliefs. Biblical preaching would apply the whole of Hebrew and Christian scriptures to our faith, and we would be forced to translate a pre-modern, primitive, non-Western, non-materialistic, pre-scientific worldview into the modern/post-modern, progressive, enlightened, consumeristic, and acquisitive culture in which we live. It is impossible to preach biblically without interpretation, because the Good Book we have wasn’t written for us. 30 C.E. Palestine and 2010 C.E. United States have very little in common.
But the Bible is our book, and preaching it with integrity should be a high value. But what passes for “biblical preaching” is subject to all the vagaries of human society. As with most things, there is no way we can ever all agree on what THE definition of “biblical preaching” should be. One more challenge for our present-day church. I think this is why it is so important that we strengthen our sense of Christian community. I don’t believe any one individual is intelligent or spiritual enough to fully embody God’s truth. In community, we test the spirits. In community, we discern together the will of God. In community, our individual preferences, tastes, and whims give way to a larger, more balanced regard. Together we are more than we are apart. Solid Christian community is synergistic — the whole greater than the sum of the parts. I guess it is never up to an individual to decide whether our preaching is biblical, but always the responsibility of the whole community to seek God’s word and Spirit in the spoken Word.