The Need for Expositional Preaching (pt. 2): A Biblical and Theological Defense

job.jpegWhy is biblical exposition necessary?

The simple answer is that the health of the church depends on the regular reading and preaching of God’s Word. This claim can be supported by church history, but it can also be seen in Scripture itself. And in Scripture, expositional preaching is supported by both the doctrine of God’s Word and the practice of God’s people.

Today I will add to the blogpost from yesterday and consider the doctrine of Scripture and the practice in the Old Testament. Next week I will come back and consider the practice of Jesus and the apostles.

A Short Doctrine of Scripture

First, as to doctrine, the belief that God’s Word is powerful is seen in the way that God’s created the light by his word (Gen 1:3); he upholds the universe with his word (Heb 1:3); and he raises the dead to life with his word (Ezekiel 37; John 11). Understanding the power of God’s Word, faithful preachers must labor to expound God’s Word and not their own. The goal of preaching is not arranging Bible verses around their own words, ideas, or outlines, but highlighting what God has already spoken. Continue reading

Ten Words: Words of Life by Timothy Ward

I just finished Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God by Timothy Ward, Team Vicar at Holy Trinity Church and doctoral understudy of Kevin Vanhoozer.  Ward’s book is filled with wisdom and clarity.  In it he shows how the doctrine of Scripture arises from the story of redemptive history itself and must be understood as a vital component of God’s covenantal relationship with his redeemed people.

In what follows, I have included “ten words” from the book.  These quotes provide a taste of Words of Life. Hopefully, they encourage some to pick up and read the whole thing, and others will get glimpses of why the doctrine of Scripture must be tethered to God’s self-presentation in Scripture.

God and His Word. There is, then, a complex but real relationship between God and his actions, expressed and performed, as they are, through God’s words. In philosophical terms, there is an ontological relationship between God and his words. It seems that God’s actions, including his verbal actions, are a kind of extension of him (31).

Communication from and communion with God. More mystically minded people sometimes suppose that words by their very nature are an obstruction to the goal of a deep communion with God, but that is just not so. Instead words are necessary medium of a relationship with God. To put your trust in the words of the covenant promise God makes to you is itself to put your trust in God: the two are the same thing. Communication from God is therefore communion with God, when met with a response of trust from us (31-32).

Scripture is by its nature particular. At root, the rejection of Scripture as divine special revelation is often a side effect of the greater rejection of the particularity of Christ as God’s ultimate self-revelation in the world (41).

Particularism and universalism. Of course, the particularity of revelation in Christ leads directly to a universal offer of new life in him. The Old Testament is the story both of the expansion of God’s people, and also of the narrowing of God’s redemptive purposes, as the southern kingdom of Judah stays centre stage while the northern kingdom of Israel disappears; as the ‘faithful remnant’ emerges as more significant in God’s purposes for salvation than the nation as a whole; and as Israel’s hopes for the future become focused on the emergence of a single Messiah figure. This narrowing reaches a climax with the arrival of Christ.  He is the new Moses proclaiming a new law, and the new David establishing God’s reign on earth. Yet he is also representative of the nation of Israel as a whole, tempted by Satan in the desert, just as they were. And he is representative of the whole of the new humanity to which God is giving spiritual birth, a point Paul expounds in Romans 5 and 6 (41).

Form is the problem, not content. Evangelicals may at times have expressed and formulated their doctrine of Scripture in a form and with a content that owes too much to post-Enlightenment patterns of thought. However, it is not correct to conclude that they stumbled into their doctrine while following the siren voice of Renaissance humanism away from orthodoxy, hand in hand with liberalism (63).

God’s Word as divine action. Scripture is related to the Son in the same way the covenant promise is related to the person of the Father, as a means of his action in the world, and thereby also a kind of extension of himself into the world in relation to us (72).

Scripture and speech-acts. Our progress in this theological outline thus far might be summarized in this way. To speak of ‘Scripture’ is to speak of the speech acts performed by means of the words of Scripture. Scripture is the covenant promise of the Father in written form. Because of the unity of the Father and the Son in revelation and redemption, Scripture is at the same time the word by which the incarnate and ascended Word, the one in whom all God’s covenant promises are fulfilled, continues to act and to present himself semantically so that he may be known in the world over which he has all authority. This begins to express what we have meant by describing Scripture as an act of the triune God (78).

Scripture’s sufficiency and God’s covenant promise. Scripture is sufficient as the means by which God continues to present himself to us such that we can know him, repeating through Scripture the covenant promise he has brought to fulfillment in Jesus Christ (113).

A clear (perspicuous) Bible still needs interpretation. Moreover the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture does not claim that Scripture automatically has a power to explain itself whenever a part of it is read. A key function of good expository preaching is to explain the meaning and force of a passage when properly interpreted in the light of its different contexts: (1) the immediate literary context, (2) its context within the unfolding history of God’s revelation, and (3) the context of the Bible as a whole. Such preaching, again, assumes that doctrine of the clarity of Scripture applies primarily to Scripture as a whole, rather than to each individual paragraph. The preacher is not doing something with Scripture that the hearer by definition cannot do, which would be the case if the preacher were appealing primarily to special spiritual anointing or to his holding of an office in the church. He is doing something any Christian reader of Scripture could in principle do, if he or she had sufficient time and knowledge of Scripture (122).

Scripture and tradition. Scripture is the only source of revelation needed for Christian faith and life, but it is not the only thing needed for Christian faith and life. We need the Rule of Faith, as well as the historic creeds of the church, which are a fuller form of the Rule. We need the traditions and practices of the church’s interpretation of Scripture in order to help us to walk faithfully in our understanding of and obedience to Scripture. The Reformers’ conviction of sola scriptura is the conviction that Scripture is the only infallible authority, the only supreme authority. Yet it is not the only authority, for the creeds and the church’s teaching function as important subordinate authorities, under the authority of Scripture (147).

Now that you have heard some of the highlights, let me encourage you to pick up Timothy Ward’s Words of Life.  It will strengthen your confidence in the power and perfection of God’s word and give you a great place to understand how the classical attributes of God (necessity, sufficiency, authority, inerrancy, etc.) fit into the larger redemptive purpose of God, in making covenant with fallen humanity.  It engages church history (esp. Calvin, Turretin, Bavinck, and Warfield) and provides an accessible defense the orthodox doctrine of Scripture.  Tolle Lege.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss 


Irenaeus Upholds Sola Scriptura [3]

Irenaeus3 Long before Paul Tillich, men like Valentinus were engaging in theological accommodation and “methods of correlation.”[1] David Dockery says of Valentinus, “His hermeneutical approach was more sophisticated than Marcion, beginning with a simple literal interpretation of the biblical passages and moving to a more esoteric instruction on ethical and spiritual truth.”[2] In response, Irenaeus excoriates Valentinus, saying, “They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures,” and then use their wicked schema to tie biblical phrases together to come up with another system of doctrine.[3]

Irenaeus, on the other hand, from first to last is explicitly biblical. He outlines his method as one completely derived from the Bible, and he rejects Gnosticism on the basis that they corrupt the perfect word of God. Concerning the veracity of God’s word, he declares:

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, and no lie is in Him. As also David says, prophesying His birth from a virgin, and the resurrection from the dead, “Truth has sprung out of the earth.” The apostles likewise, being disciples of the truth, are above all falsehood; for a lie has no fellowship with the truth, just as darkness has none with light.[4]

Earlier Irenaeus affirms divine inspiration, biblical inerrancy, and the apostolic authority of the Scriptures, writing, “the Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit.”[5] Congruently, Irenaeus holds to the unity and clarity of the Scriptures when he says, “the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all.”[6] In short, though centuries before the Reformation and the publication of systematic treatments of doctrine, this second century divine is firmly evangelical. He argues for Scripture’s inspiration, inerrancy, authority, sufficiency, necessity, and clarity.

Though some have argued that Irenaeus’ regula fidei, which appealed to apostolic tradition to defend Scripture, led to “a precedent for setting up church traditions as being of equal authority with Scripture,”[7] it can be equally discerned from his writings that the ultimate authority is the Bible itself. Contending against the Gnostics, whose fallacious doctrines had no historical warrant, he appealed to the church because the church is the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). In reading Against Heresies, it does not appear that Irenaeus himself is elevating tradition to the level of authoritative Scripture, but rather that he exhorts people to flee to the church because it is the church that possesses the life-giving Word of God.[8]

[1] The “method of correlation” was coined by Paul Tillich and encourages a dialetic approach to the Scripture where philosophy asks the question and the Bible supplies the answer. It is a twentieth century version of what the heretics have always done, comingle biblical truth with worldly philosophies (cf. Colossians 2:8). See Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson, Twentieth-Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 114-29.

[2] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now: Contemporary Hermeneutics in the Light of the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1992), 60.

[3] Irenaeus employs one of his most colorful quotations to illustrate what these false teachers are doing. He writes, “Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist our of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of a man all to pieces, should re-arrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed” (Irenaeus Adversus haereses 1.8.1).

[4] Irenaeus Adversus haereses 3.5.1.

[5]Uniting inerrancy, inspiration, and authority together in one sentence, Irenaeus avows, “; but we, inasmuch as we are inferior to, and later in existence than the Word of God and His Spirit, are on that very account destiture of the knowledge of His mysteries” (Irenaeus Adversus haereses 2.28.2).

[6] Irenaeus Adversus haereses 2.27.2. He continues in 2.28.3, “all Scripture, which has been given to us God, shall be found by us perfectly consistent; and the parables shall harmonize with those passages which are perfectly plain; and those statements the meaning of which is clear, shall serve to explain the parables; and through the many diversified utterances [of Scripture] there shall be heard one harmonious melody in us, praising in hymns that God who created all things.”

[7] Michael Haykin, Defence of the Truth (Webster, NY: Evangelical Press, 2004), 39; see also David Dockery’s appraisal in Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, 71-73.

[8] See Irenaeus Adversus haereses 3.1-5 for a detailed section of his appeal to the “rule of faith” and the historical importance of the church to arbitrate right doctrine. Irenaeus Adversus haereses 5.20.1-2 gives an interpretive key for Irenaeus’ reasoning for appeals to the Church.