Connecting Preaching to Covenant Theology

I’ve decided to read through Hughes Oliphant Old’s entire set on the history of preaching. As I go along, I will note some of the more important insights from the set. Volume 1, interestingly enough, describes preaching in the Bible itself.

The first great insight I’ve come across so far is the very close connection there is between preaching and covenant theology. Old, depending on the work of Craigie, among others, has argued that the very nature of a covenant required the reading and the explanation of the covenant. In the ancient Near East, when a covenant was made between suzerain and vassal, the vassal was required to read the treaty regularly to his people, lest the people forget the nature of that covenant. Ancient Near Eastern treaties were always written down. The main reason for this was so that they would be read at solemn assembly to the people (p. 29). Old makes the point even more sharply when he says “Of the very essence of these treaties or covenants is that they are written down and regularly read and taught to the people in a public assembly” (p. 29, emphasis added). Old says, “If Craigie is right, then we have in the covenant theology of the Pentateuch the rationale for the reading and preaching of Scripture in worship – namely, that it is demanded by a covenantal understanding of our relationship to God and to each other” (p. 29). If the people are in a relationship with God based on a covenantal agreement, then it is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of that relationship that the terms of the covenantal agreement be regularly read and interpreted to the people.

Old goes on to describe what preaching looked like in the book of Deuteronomy. He observes three main elements in the preaching of Deuteronomy: remembrance, interpretation, and exhortation (p. 37). Retelling Israel’s story is absolutely essential, because God’s people are incredibly forgetful (see Deut. 4:9-14). A great deal of preaching should therefore be focused on helping people to remember what God has done in the past. Otherwise, our view of the future will get very dim indeed. The second element is interpretation (Deut. 1:5, for instance). This is obviously one of the main elements of any preaching. One simply has to explain the text. For the people need to hear what God means. Thirdly, there needs to be an exhortation for the people to do God’s will (Deut. 4:1, 6:4-6, 30:11,14).

I will conclude with this wonderful description of the power of God’s Spirit working through the Word (Old has the radiance on the face of Moses in the back of his mind as he writes these words):

God is a sacred fire, and to come near to him is to catch fire and glow with the same holy radiance. This begins to happen to us when we hear God’s Word. We are transformed after the image of Christ. It is through entering into that covenant that we enjoy his presence and through abiding in his presence that we are made holy (p. 25).

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What Kind of Preaching?

Hughes Oliphant Old, in volume 1 of his history on preaching, gives us five kinds of preaching that have been more or less dominant in the history of the church: expository preaching, evangelistic preaching, catechetical preaching, festal preaching, and prophetic preaching.

The definitions of these different types of preaching are helpful. Expository preaching is “the systematic explanation of Scripture done on a week-by-week, or even day-by-day, basis at the regular meeting of the congregation” (9). He argues that the lectio continua method (picking up the next week where the previous week left off) is the purest form (10), but there have been other methods, such as Spurgeon.

The second kind of preaching is evangelistic, which, “in its more proper sense announces that the time is fulfilled; the time has come. Much of the preaching of the prophets was the preaching of repentance” (11). This kind of preaching does not usually focus on a particular text. He argues that Jesus models both of the first two kinds of preaching (11).

The third kind is catechetical, which “is by its very nature systematic,” and “assumes that those to whom the preaching is addressed have made the basic commitment to follow Christ and the Christian way of life. Catechetical preaching therefore outlines basic Christian teaching, often by explaining the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments” (13).

Festal preaching is preaching based on the feast days of the church. The Reformed church mostly abandoned this form of preaching.

Prophetic preaching assumes that “God often has a particular word for a particular time and a particular place” (16). Of course, we do not wish to state that God is continuing His revelation. Think of this kind of preaching as reacting to the current situation in the world or in the community.

I believe the minister of the Word needs to be fundamentally an expository preacher with elements of most of the other kinds thrown in regularly and in some ways constantly. For example, in the weekly exposition, he will need to evangelize and to say that the time for salvation is now. Old did a great job of delineating the various kinds of preaching. However, he forgot to mention that these categories can be somewhat fluid. The expository preacher also needs to explain Christian doctrine regularly in his preaching, and also needs to address the current needs of the community and the world (which are always based on their need for the Gospel). This is not to take away from Old’s excellent taxonomy. However, we do need to realize the importance of elements from various kinds of preaching, and use everything at our disposal to preach Christ, and Him crucified.

The Holy Spirit is not limited to any one of these methods. However, we do usually tie the Holy Spirit to the Word most often in Reformed circles, and rightly so. It would therefore seem to me that the preaching of books of the Bible would be the most effective way of ministering to God’s people, recognizing that we need some of those other things also.

A Taste of a Good Book

T. David Gordon, who has written one of the best recent books on preaching, has given us now a sample of it in the latest issue of Tabletalk.

I’m going to be a bit rude here and suggest that much of what passes for preaching these days is nothing more than constipated, triviality-coma-inducing, stream-of-unconsciousness, bill-of-banality, navel-nuzzling, tritch-tratch twaddle. Someday ask me what I really think, and then I’ll tell you. Listen to Gordon and learn something. Of course, I always find it awkward to recommend a book entitled Why Johnny Can’t Preach to a preacher. However, I defy any preacher to read that book and not learn something from it.

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