Preachers: Tell the Story of
Gregory Edward Reynolds
As Charles Dennison so aptly put it: "There are no 'modern' preachers; there are only preachers."1 With Paul and John, we are in the final, that is eschatological, epoch or world of redemptive history. However, this does not eliminate the challenges which the preacher faces in his unique cultural situation. The biblical response to that challenge is exemplified by Paul in terms of his approach to the two different audiences in the synagogue, for example at Pisidian Antioch, and the pagans in Athens (Acts 13:14-41; 17:16-31). The era of electronic communication media represents a unique challenge to the preacher in our new century. As with Paul, our situation demands that we tell the story of redemption. The centrality of narrative in the Bible cannot be overemphasized. The Covenantal structure of the entire Bible places the narrative text in the context of God's plan and work of redemption. Every other biblical genre is rooted in that covenantal narrative. Thus we should not be surprised to find New Testament preaching focusing on the story of redemption, even when it is given to an audience which has only natural revelation at its disposal. Without the Gospel-Acts narratives, for example, the epistles are meaningless.
The importance of story-telling in the ancient world has been largely overlooked by Reformed preachers. This reaction to evangelical anecdotal preaching has left a void which needs to be filled. In the more orally-aurally oriented culture of the ancient world, where personal possession of "books" was rare, story-telling was the primary means of propagating and transmitting tradition. This appears to have been the case during the millennia from Adam's fall to the Mosaic revelation. The increase of oral-aural sensibilities in the electronic age is a providential prod to call us to return to the power of the story of redemption in order to impress the souls of our hearers.
Those, like Neil Postman, who are seeking to fend off the purposelessness, atomizing, dumbing down and evacuation of public education affirm the transcendent value and necessity of the great narratives, of which Christianity is one. 2 But the church itself has atomized Scripture by quoting prooftexts and taking Scripture stories and examples and using them as if they came out of nowhere. We have eviscerated the Scripture by tearing apart the single story of redemption into little timeless pieces, used for moral lessons and successful living. The power of the Great epochal Narrative of Redemption thus disappears. With Christ at its center, every text has a location in that history. To call it a story does not imply fiction. It is a single history with a beginning and an end. It is full of characters and concrete detail, full of interest as told by the Great Raconteur, the Holy Spirit, in order to reveal the Original character and Hero, Jesus Christ. The narrative power of television as the great storyteller of our time can only be countered by the Story of Redemption in the Bible. The story line of the Bible is the structure of the whole. While the electronic media, especially television and film, narrate the stories of a lost world seeking transcendence apart from God, and thus disciple the world, the church needs to be discipling God's people in the story of salvation. God has spoken. God has entered history. The Christ of Scripture is his final Word to this present evil age.
"Biblical theology imparts a new life and freshness to the old truth by placing it in its original historic setting. The Bible is not a handbook of dogmatics: it is a historical book full of dramatic interest."3 Biblical theology represents the interface between the text of Scripture and our system of theology. It is after all God's way of accounting for his redemptive acts in history. Thus, far from being a threat to either systematic theology or supernaturalism, biblical theology lends cohesiveness and coherence to the orthodox account of truth. Without systematic theology, biblical theology will tend toward immanentism; without biblical theology, systematic theology will tend toward mere abstraction.4
Immanentism in all of its forms, including evolutionary thought, and Process Theology's idea that God is himself developing, is best answered on its own grounds: the historical. The "history of special revelation" is the divinely given account of the way in which the absolutely transcendent Creator God has acted in history through the vehicle of his covenant. Ultimately all forms of immanentism fail to find meaning and direction in history for the very reason that, in seeking concreteness in the historical, they have no reference point by which to interpret the very history they investigate. Only the Covenant Theology of the Bible presents the Absolute One and history together. It "grants us a new vision of the glory of God. As eternal, he lives above the sphere of history. He is the Being, and not the becoming one. But, since for our salvation he has condescended to work and speak in the form of time, and thus to make his work and his speech partake of the peculiar glory that belongs to all organic growth, we must also seek to know him as the One that is, that was, and that is to come, in order that our theology may adequately perform its function of glorifying God in every mode of his self-revelation to us."5
For the preacher there is no other theology which will answer his practical purposes in the church. "The knowledge of God communicated by it [the historic character of revelation] is nowhere for a purely intellectual purpose. From beginning to end it is intended to enter into the actual life of man. Hence God has interwoven his revelation with the historic life of the chosen race, so as to secure for it a practical form in all its parts. This principle has found its clearest expression in the idea of the covenant as the form of God's self-revelation to Israel. The covenant is an all-comprehensive communion of life, in which every self-disclosure is made subservient to a practical end."6
And yet at once the practicality of this historical concreteness stands as a most needed corrective of the subjectivism of our age and of the church which has taken on too much of the world's mindset in this department. "Sacred history deals with the redemptive realities created by the supernatural activity of God. Biblical theology deals with the redemptive knowledge communicated in order to interpret these realities. Revelation is designed to prepare, to accompany, and to interpret the great objective redemptive acts of God, such as the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection. It is not intended to follow the subjective appropriation of redemption in its further course."7 It is primarily by the work of the Holy Spirit through preaching that this "subjective appropriation of redemption" is carried on.
The faithful preacher will demonstrate from every text of Scripture the connection of his hearers to the history of redemption. "Practical" in this context is not to be understood as advocating the kind of "world catering" application to which many preachers give the same label. In our day "practical" often means meeting the so-called "needs" of people who are wedded to this world. In this construction the gospel becomes another program for promoting self-help and self-esteem. The practical nature of the Covenant is found in its revolutionary altering of the entire orientation and framework of the believer, who is connected by Christ to heavenly reality. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God . . ." The world's order of concerns is reversed. The source of this reversal is the present historical situation in which the Christ has come and reigns from his heavenly throne guiding history towards its consummation. The preacher will therefore avoid co-opting the gospel for a surreptitiously idolatrous agenda in the church,—an agenda which is being promoted with renewed vigor via the new electronic means.
The subject-object distinction of the Cartesian worldview tends toward logical sequential formulations in which discreet realities are abstracted from their context. The history of redemption brings subject and object together, without the relativizing tendency of postmodern alternatives of the Cartesian model. Unlike the "metalanguages" of structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and all earthbound attempts to describe the world, the narrative of redemption functions as the metanarrative by which all others are to be interpreted and judged.
Truly there are no Biblical-theological preachers, only preachers. Preachers who do not tell the story of redemption are simply not preachers in the biblical sense.
Amoskeag Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Manchester, New Hampshire
1 Charles Dennison, "Preaching and Application: A Review." Kerux: A Journal of Biblical-Theological Preaching 4/3 (December 1989): 52.
2 Neil Postman, The End of Education (New York: Knopf, 1995). Cf. also his Teaching as a Subversive Activity (New York: Dell, 1969); Teaching as a Conserving Activity (New York: Dell, 1979); The Disappearance of Childhood (London: Allen, 1983).
3 Geerhardus Vos, "The Nature and Aims of Biblical Theology." Kerux: A Journal of Biblical Theological Preaching 14/1 (May 1999): 7. Originally from The Union Seminary Magazine 13/3 (February-March 1902): 194-99.
4 It should be noted that abstraction is a necessary part of the human thought process. It is when this process, in theological reasoning, is not rooted in history that it leads to the kind of abstraction with which I am concerned.
5 Vos, "The Nature and Aims of Biblical Theology." Kerux, 8.
6 Ibid., 5.
7 Ibid., 4, 5.