Unhelpful Preaching

John Piper has a new blog post out on how to be an unhelpful preacher. Except that he wants unhelpfulness to be a positive trait in the pastorate – apparently.

His concern is to keep speculations out of the pulpit, and while I agree this is a commendable impulse, his approach is precisely the anti-intellectual attitude that implicitly infects American Christianity. The problem with his blog post is that he is not discriminating about the different kinds of “speculations” he is talking about. His list mashes them together, even though they differ by degree and magnitude.

He lumps meditations about appearances of the pre-incarnate Christ with Q-source speculation, whether St. Paul was a widower or divorcee, whether the Red Sea exodus could be explainable naturally, and whether Mary Magdalene had a crush on Jesus.

But there are no distinctions made between these sorts of things. They are mashed together in a great big mess as if they were equally problematic and equally speculative. Certainly naturalistic explanations of the Red Sea are to be rejected outright, and the pulpit is not the place to address source-criticism. But these are different in kind from questions that pyschologize passages (“Did Magdalene have a crush on Jesus?”). The hermeneutic is completely different.

Likewise, while we can certainly agree that whether or not the pre-incarnate Jesus was present in the OT, this is generally not the point of the passages in question. But it is also unfair to characterize this discussion as “speculative.” We already know from St. John that no one ever saw the Father, even in the OT: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, He has made him known,” (John 1:18). The problem with drawing excessive attention to brief moments of the pre-incarnate Christ, it would seem, is that we don’t realize that Yahweh IS Christ, the manifestation of the Father on earth and in the Temple. It was Christ who broke the chains of Egypt and led His people out by pillars of fire and smoke, Jesus/Yahweh who descended on Sinai with thunder and earthquake and lightning, Jesus who spoke the law and Jesus who came and spoke to the prophets. “Thus says Yahweh,” in the OT is “Thus says Jesus.” This is not speculative in the slightest, though it is unfamiliar to us.

The problem with Piper’s suggestion is the implied hermeneutic of abstraction and simplicity to a fault.

My point is that people need solid food, not possible food. They need a sure word from God, not a guess from man. They need a biblical “Thus says the Lord,” not a “Maybe God said.”

A fascinating five-minute homiletic detour into what might have been going in Corinth behind this or that text is a waste of precious time. And I think it trains our people to expect interludes of historical entertainment, and to mistake it for deep insight and spiritual food.

What is really there in the text of Scripture is bottomless, and staggeringly interesting, and provocative.

This sort of claim betrays a serious and fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of context. The whole push for a “sure word from God” seems to carry Piper into dismissal of context. It doesn’t matter what St. Paul’s first-century context was, he seems to be saying, so long as you just say what’s in front of you.

The trouble with this approach is that it does not solve the problem of certainty. It remains true that you cannot know how to apply a passage until you know what St. Paul’s circumstance was. To come at the text blind and “contextless” in this way does not make our applications more sure, it makes them less certain. It matters whether Jesus was talking to Pharisees or the woman at the well. It matters whether St. Paul was addressing a church, a pagan, Gentiles, or Jews. It matters if he was referring to the cult of Delphi or Jewish/Judaizing gnosticism. Ignoring this dimension of the text simply privileges our own biases and elevates them to the level of divine inspiration. Such is the burden of simplistic claims to “expositional preaching.” Without first understanding the context, all application is by default misapplication.


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