The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text

By Sidney Greidanus
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (1988). 341 Pages.

Reviewed by
1.2 (Fall 1990) : 202-205

Sidney Greidanus is professor of theology at The King's College, Edmonton, Alberta. The present work, an outgrowth of the author's doctoral dissertation, "brings together the results of recent biblical scholarship as they pertain to preaching, and . . . links the disciplines of biblical hermeneutics and homiletics" (p. xi), a link that is badly needed today.

The present volume seeks not only to unite hermeneutics and homiletics but also, within the field of hermeneutics, to link historical and literary studies. Greidanus writes, "Biblical studies has recently entered a new world: it has undergone a paradigm shift from historical to literary studies" (p. xi). He recognizes that such a shift presents some "precarious hazards" but some "exciting possibilities" as well (p. xi). Having read the literature, the author observes that "scholarly interest today is focused not so much on history as on genres of biblical literature-with a concomitant shift in homiletics to forms of sermons" (p. xi). But he also sees the necessity of keeping historical controls in order to retain objectivity.

The author not only advocates expository preaching but also carefully defines what the expression means so as to avoid confusing it with topical preaching. To refute the commonly held conviction that topical preaching may also be called biblical preaching, the author argues, "One might say that expository preaching is preaching biblically. But `expository preaching' is more than a mere synonym for biblical preaching; it describes what is involved in biblical preaching, namely, the exposition of a biblical passage . . ." (p. 11).

Greidanus proposes an interpretive methodology that seeks to understand a passage in its historical and cultural context without ignoring the literary dimension, which was also part of the author's intention, or the canonical referents which compose the broader context of the book. Having defended his method in chapters two through four, he discusses theological interpretation–the only basis for application (p. 121). The biblical message must be "a word from God and a word about God" (p. 120). Through this theological objective the sermon achieves its purpose.

One of the most helpful discussions for pastors, and at the same time perhaps one of the most controversial, tells how to identify a literary unit in Scripture. How large a text does the nature of a passage require a preacher to take? Besides the artificial boundaries of verse, chapter, and in some instances even book divisions for textual units, what other criteria isolate a textual unit? In answering this question, the author differs with Yoder's (From Word to Life) view that the paragraph is the smallest organized unit, arguing "the Bible contains both smaller and larger thought units than paragraphs" (p. 127). On the one hand, the sentence in prose and the line in poetry are smaller textual units; on the other hand, the biblical author may deal with a single major point in a lengthy narrative.

Citing his agreement with Yoder, Greidanus concludes this section by recommending that the preacher ask questions of the text: "Is the goal of the unit reached? Is the story finished, the tension resolved, or the topic completed?" (Greidanus, p. 128, quoting Yoder, p. 57).

Other guidelines for isolating a textual unit may be the literary constructions employed by the biblical writer, such as chiasm, inclusion, or other parallel structures (p. 133). The author gives helpful hints on how to identify and use these structures.

Every preaching text (complete literary unit) has a theme –a truth that may be expressed in propositional form. A literary unit is an independent thought unit, a thematic unit. Yet not all agree that this equation covers all types of biblical texts, such as narrative, for example. The author considers the pros and cons of thematic-textual preaching and concludes with this advice: "The text's theme should be formulated from the author's viewpoint and not that of different characters in the text . . ." (p. 135).

After a discussion of the sermon's form and relevance, Greidanus suggests how one should preach from the major literary genres found in the Bible: Hebrew narratives, prophetic literature, the Gospels, and the epistles. Greidanus's work is not a "how to" text in homiletics. He does offer many helpful suggestions regarding sermon preparation, but the strength of the book is its relative breadth of research and consistent hermeneutical system.

But perhaps this strength may also be its major weakness: in spite of the 340 pages of rather small print, the breadth of issues covered may leave some readers dissatisfied. So many theoretical givens receive attention that some questionable ones are neither sufficiently explained nor critiqued. The author anticipates this criticism and responds,

One of the risks in writing on this subject is that, because of the knowledge explosion, one spreads oneself too thin. . . . What encouraged me to carry out this broad inquiry is that preachers cannot be experts in all of these areas and yet they need to be knowledgeable about them in order to preach responsibly (p. xi).

The writer defends his work by noting that he has taught courses in many of the areas and has solicited the help of "experts in history, literature, systematic theology, and Old Testament, New Testament, and homiletics, as well as some pastors and church members" (pp. xixii).

In short, this is a helpful treatise on Greidanus's method of sermon preparation. Readers will question some of the principles, but the book meets the need for a relatively comprehensive analysis of research from both hermeneutics and homiletics and from writers who have sought to bridge the gap between the two. This reviewer highly recommends the book to those who wish to evaluate some difficult hermeneutical and homiletical assumptions behind our interpretation and preaching, particularly of the OT.