Caught Up in Reckless Adventure

Systematic theology can be a helpful enterprise. A good one can help us frame biblical thought in ways to articulate what we believe with some clarity. Nevertheless it is good to ask if we tend to over emphasize our systematic theology of choice.

It is true the biblical text can feel like a reckless adventure. This is one reason we might feel the need for a systematic theology. Systematic theology makes things more predictable and helps us think we can know what happens next. On the other hand, reading the bible may have us feeling uneasy about what just happened or leave us with questions about why God acted that way. The biblical text brings surprise and leaves us with mystery.

We might feel uneasy about finding such a surprising unpredictable God. Yet this God is such a large part of the story that to tame Him with religious terms or to pretend we have Him figured out is to create an entirely different story. Still we formulate theories to explain biblical themes. While this can be full of good intention, it can come with a dangerous level of certainty. Systematic theology may bring assurance to some of us, but it does not always reflect what life looks like.

I fear our systematic theologies allow for a hermeneutic of dismissal. That is, permission to look past texts that do not support our systematic theory of choice. To gloss over any text or to force it down a particular path will only give us slivers of what the bible is actually trying to tell us. In the name of certainty and assurance we settle for slivers of God and slivers of grace and slivers of other things that matter.

Systematic theology comes with a temptation to be overly cognitive. If we can make it a thinking exercise then perhaps we will not have to behave differently. We sometimes give ourselves permission to make a verbal stand about something without demonstrating the behavior that reflects what we stand for. We can then preach holiness without being holy. We can then preach peace without being particularly interested in it. We can then preach grace as if it is something others should practice. We can then convince ourselves that to believe something and to say it out loud is more important than to change our behavior.

The bible was never intended to be a collection of proof texts to be pulled out on demand to make a case for our theories. The bible is the story of God’s mission in the world. All the text calls for is that the church will take it seriously. To become caught up in the reckless adventure that is the bible.

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Thank You Dr. Dennis Kinlaw

Dr. Dennis Kinlaw was a college president, an Old Testament professor, a chancellor, an author, the founder of a society. But many of us will remember him as a preacher. In the religious arena I was raised in, holiness preachers were giants. Dr. Kinlaw was considered a giant among giants. When he preached you were sure of two things; he was serious about the biblical text AND he loved the listener. I remember sitting in a college classroom when our professor looked out at young preachers and said “we want to shape you into preachers like Dennis Kinlaw.”

Kinlaw would not have said anything quite like that. In his Preaching in the Spirit he says “it is part of the miraculous work of God that he uses the likes of you and me, not to mention the likes of our sermons…” Kinlaw goes so far as to say “the greatest problem in preaching is not the preparation of the sermon but the preparation of the preacher.”

I once heard Kinlaw preach a sermon that included an active conversation between members of the Trinity. I am not sure how often he used that as a homiletic tool but he includes another of these conversations in Preaching. “There are some days when I know I have not acted as I ought… I can almost hear the heavenly Father ask Jesus, ‘Son, how did that Kinlaw guy do today?’ I hear the Son respond, ‘Well, Father, he did not do so well today.’ I quake as I hear the Father say, ‘Shall we give up on him?’” Kinlaw goes on, “I see Jesus lift two scarred hands to the Father and say, ‘No, Father. We have a substantial investment in him.’” Kinlaw claims to have a love affair with those scars.

Kinlaw provides excellent counsel when he says things like “I am a Wesleyan in theology, but I need to be very careful that when I read the Bible my concern is not to find what Wesley taught, but to discover the Word of God. If Wesley opens windows on the Word of God… three cheers for Wesley; but the important thing is that the Word of God comes alive for me, so that I can share it with others.”

It is holy week as I write this. I am reminded of Kinlaw’s conversation about the followers of Jesus following the crucifixion. Jesus had died and had been buried. Disciples were feeling some strong feelings. Ad then, on Sunday, some strange stories were being told. And “As the shadows lengthened into night, those who knew him best sought out one another; when they had found each other, they locked the doors…” Then “the miracle occurred… He was there, the Living Lord in their midst… Death had not really contained Him. He was alive!

Of this we can be certain; Kinlaw would want us to continue telling these strange stories.

To Be Mastered by the Whole Story

Scot McKnight is convinced we misunderstand the Kingdom story. If I understand him correctly, he is suggesting we understand some specifics but often try to apply them outside their intended context. We are trying to live out bullet points in a narrative story. Our knowledge and efforts are sometimes misdirected because we lack the overall structure that allows us to live the Kingdom story to its fullest.

McKnight suggests we have been somewhat effective at teaching content and beliefs and creeds. This includes the personal salvation story. However, we have not been as effective at teaching how to live together as those who have experienced salvation.

One proposal from Kingdom Conspiracy is that we become better at exposing ourselves to all the grand themes of the bible. We want to read and reread the bible “so that we will learn what it says and be reminded of what we have forgotten.” This is not about turning everyone into bible students. This is about the local church doing its job of exposing one another to the whole bible. This includes preaching the whole bible story. Too often, preachers have been guilty of treating scripture as top forty radio, replaying our favorites over and over again. McKnight would have us preach the bible, front to back, again and again, “to master that story and be mastered by that story.”

This Adventure We Call Preaching

It is still several months away but one of the things that I am looking forward to this summer is taking place on July 25.  On that day, I will be joining Dr. Mike Walters of Houghton College in conversation about this adventure we call preaching.  Dr. Walters is an excellent instructor and influencer.  I have experienced this first hand as he is responsible for introducing me to New Testament Greek and to soccer in my early years of college and I can’t shake either habit.  So do not expect anything less than being influenced significantly for years to come.

The sessions will be held in Binghamton, New York on July 25 from 9am – 3pm.  Following is an early schedule of what to expect;

9:00am – Randy Saultz – “Follow the Text: The Different Paths of the Biblical Narrative”

10:15am – Mike Walters – “Preachers and Their Bibles: How Issues in the Study Follow Us into the Pulpit”

11:30am – lunch

12:45pm – Randy Saultz – “Every Sermon Needs a Deliverer: Exodus as a Paradigm of the Human Dilemma”

2:00pm – Mike Walters – “Working the Text: Tools for the Preacher’s Toolbox”

Big Picture Preaching

It is important to become saturated with the biblical storyline.  One way to encourage this may be to preach a sermon series on the entire bible.  This would provide an opportunity to see the biblical storyline unfold in a way that may be otherwise missed.  Preaching through the bible in a short series is obviously not an easy endeavor or else it would be attempted more often.  Out of necessity it must take broad swipes at the text.  It becomes important to digest big chunks.  To look at the big picture.

There are some traps with such an effort.  It is possible that one would be tempted to simply share information, as if the preacher is giving a history lesson.  As important as the history of Israel is, we do not gather on Sundays to learn it.  It may be just as tempting to share doctrine instead of allowing the text to speak on its own.  As helpful as doctrine becomes, our presuppositions are not always the same as the biblical message.  It is also, especially in this age, a temptation to funnel the text toward certain points of application.  As practical as application can be, the text cannot be watered down to steps to take home with us.

The dangers of each of the above traps are equal.  The intent of scripture will be missed if any of these things become the purpose of preaching.  No matter how well-meaning we are in these efforts, no matter how spiritual, no matter how informative; the biblical text refuses to be watered down by modern preachers trying to make sense of it.  The biblical story should be turned loose.  Any attempts to manage or contain it will fall short.  We would do ourselves a favor to allow the text to determine what we talk about and the direction we are headed.

There are other struggles with such an undertaking.  It is possible that some parts may be overlooked as lesser parts of the larger story.  While a short series on the bible cannot spend significant time with every voice, looking over some details may leave us with something that is not the collective voice.  This becomes important because it is the collective works of the bible that gives us the whole counsel of God.

Perhaps it will be good to take special care not to neglect the “lesser” parts of the storyline while giving the “major” parts their due.  This, of course, is easier said than done.  Yet, if we look over any part of the storyline we likely miss the entire point of a series on the bible.

Despite the difficulties that a preaching series on the entire bible presents, this is a worthwhile endeavor because the individual witnesses within the story may be heard more clearly when one hears the whole story. Without a story that includes creation, fall, covenant, desert, promise, exile, Messiah, cross, and resurrection; it becomes more difficult to live as a Christian in the present.  If we are to be a people of the book, then being in conversation with the book becomes a priority.

This is a worthwhile exercise because we do not want to miss the beauty of the entire scene because of our interest in a particular detail.  This exercise will help us to see that each of the particular voices, and props, and details play an important part in the larger story – the bigger picture.  At its best, such a series may help preacher and congregation gain a perspective of the biblical storyline that might change our current, limited perspectives.  And move us toward a biblical theology that impacts the way the word is heard and spoken in the future.