Preaching and Hermeneutics

In Telling God’s Story: Narrative Preaching for Christian Formation, John W. Wright is concerned that many North American sermons simply affirm the narratives that already shape the lives of North Americans. I fear that he is right. Too many sermons resemble more the language of individualistic, therapeutic, and personal fulfillment than the corporate concerns of the biblical narrative. Too many sermons presuppose that the way things are is the only way things can be. Part of the problem as he sees it, is the separation of hermeneutics from homiletics.

His book devotes a chapter to the topic “Homiletics as Biblical Hermeneutics.” There Wright talks about the distance that some have placed between preaching and “the intellectually rigorous realms of academic biblical interpretation, church history, and theology.” He goes on to share his experience that “only trained specialists have the expertise to determine the meaning of a biblical text.” If those things are true, then all that is left for preachers is to “artfully supply the rhetorical packaging of the specialist’s previous work.”

I cannot claim to share this experience. Perhaps this is determined by who introduces one to biblical interpretation and proclamation. (A thank you to those who introduced me to these disciplines). Yet, I am glad that he addresses the issue and am glad for his effort to place preaching in the discussion with hermeneutics. This makes perfect sense to me as I can’t help but see a connection between the two disciplines. Certainly, it is accurate to say that they are compatible and even necessary for one another. Yet, the fact remains, in some circles preaching is viewed as a lesser discipline than hermeneutics and exegesis.

Wright rightly claims that this has not always been this way. He credits the separation to the last three centuries of Western history. (If you are interested in his review of that history involving Schleiermacher, Heidegger, and Gadamer read chapter one of the book). To illustrate how things were not always this way, he includes the example that John Wesley’s sermons were used as the doctrinal standards of the early Methodist societies.

Wright insists that “Homiletics is not the poor country cousin of academic biblical interpretation. Homiletics is professional biblical scholarships older sibling, opening the biblical text to its hearers afresh and anew.” He claims that preaching is “the most concrete practice of theological hermeneutics” and that “interpretation happens when a text breaks into the history of an individual or group. A text is always heard within a specific, concrete situation.” Statements like these insert preaching right into the middle of the hermeneutical conversation.

The proposal that “preaching represents interpretation par excellence” sparks my interest. The fact is, things like exegesis, hermeneutics and homiletics should be working together. In a real sense, preachers are on the front line of biblical interpretation. Interpretation should be encouraging homiletics. Preaching should be connected with hermeneutics. Hermeneuts are us.

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Gaza Road Hermeneutics

Eugene Peterson, in Working the Angles, emphasizes scripture as an essential angle in pastoral ministry.  Although this is not a work on preaching per say, Peterson becomes pastor of preachers and says some significant things about reading scripture and interpretation.  He chooses a text from Acts chapter eight and introduces us to Gaza hermeneutics while demonstrating what he calls contemplative exegesis.

Acts chapter eight takes us to the Gaza road where we meet an Ethiopian eunuch who meets a deacon named Philip.  Here, we can find a focus for hermeneutical work.  The Ethiopian reading scripture and not understanding.  Philip guiding him into comprehension.  Two men with nothing in common coming together to understand an obscure passage from a book that is over five hundred years old.

Peterson uses the four questions that are asked in that episode to discuss how hermeneutics work.  Hermeneutics begins with a question; “do you understand what you are reading?”  Peterson admits that we know much.  But what we know is just “a lid over the bottomless pit of our ignorance.”  He goes on “we ride along in uncomprehending familiarity with the biblical text for years, in devout travel to and from Jerusalem, and then a well-timed question stops the chariot.”

The question is answered with a question, “how could I, unless someone guides me?  The African invites Philip to accompany him as a guide.  Philip has a choice to make.  Will he stand alongside the chariot, answering questions and providing information?  Or will he involve himself in a spiritual quest with a stranger?  Peterson likens it to a “shopkeeper who sells maps of the wilderness and the person who goes with you into it, risking the dangers, helping to cook the meals, and sharing the weather.”  Philip climbs into the chariot and joins the journey.

The third question “of whom pray does the prophet say this? Of himself or of someone else?”  Acts says that Philip responds by preaching about Jesus.  Peterson suggests that Philip was simply awake to the obvious.  If scripture is God’s word and if Jesus is God’s word, then the two “are congruent with each other.”  This became the hermeneutical principle for not only Philip, but the apostles and at least one other deacon.

The final question “What prevents me from being baptized?” reminds us that hermeneutics is not a tidy, administrative process.  It meanders and detours.  It is patient.  There may be climbing in and out of the chariot and you may have to get wet.  It is not a search for information but for new life.  Gaza hermeneutics aims to change us.

Peterson claims to spend much of his own life along the Gaza road.  “Sometimes I am running alongside the chariot, asking one question: sometimes, riding in the chariot, I am asking another – interpreting and interpreted by the Isaiah scroll.”  He would not have us forget that we are sometimes asking, sometimes listening, always part of the quest.  We are guiding and being guided, following the detours, risking the dangers, sharing the weather, willing to be changed.

Reading scripture is not an individual activity.  At least if Acts has anything to say about it.  The solitary reader in the chariot on the Gaza road is interrupted by the Spirit-led Philip.  The Spirit brings people together over scripture.  And we might be reminded of something that Jesus once said “I am there in their midst.”