Doodle: The Dangerous Evangelical Assumption

Preaching committed to exegesis of the Bible

It was as a teenager that I first encountered exegetical preaching. And it is significant, though not paramount, that I was converted under that model of preaching, as the Holy Spirit helped me to understand the gospel of free grace in Christ Jesus. Within a year I was teaching the youth myself, but relying heavily on commentaries and sermons preached by others. But that too would change as I received training in bible handing. I was endowed with tools to exegete biblical texts (these can be studied in painful simplicity in Dig Deeper, or the classic How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth). I was taught the methods for ascertaining what the authors meant when they wrote a particular piece of literature (Schreiner, p7 in Interpreting The Pauline Epistles). I am inexplicably and immensely grateful for the people who practiced and modeled proper exegesis for it was their efforts of interpretation – illuminated by the Spirit – that caused me to faithfully repent. But my path has undoubtedly led me to a dangerous assumption regarding biblical exegesis, made by Evangelicals.

Gospel preached by Paul at AthenThis year I have been placed in a few primary schools where I have the opportunity to preach at break times. Our church is part of a larger schools work which means I have been forced to rub shoulders with brothers and sisters of a more charismatic persuasion. These fellow servants may have never had the privilege of sitting under preaching that makes the main point of the text the main message for hearers today; they have probably never sat through classes where exegetical tools are explained and honed for working on passages; I do not think any of them have even heard of Dig Deeper, let alone the discipline known as hermeneutics. But for all that, these men and women give hours of their day to proclaim the gospel, the free grace of our Lord. And I have been shown my arrogance as a proud Evangelical. More than that, the Evangelical assumption that I inherited as a young Christian is being uprooted.

Glasses on open BibleWhat is this “assumption”, you ask, having patiently waded through two reflective paragraphs? It is this: if we work hard at our exegesis and get the passage right, the Spirit will work. I fear that this makes the Spirit a slave to our abilities of exegesis. He ceases to be the sovereign God who acts freely and despite us; and becomes bound to work as we do. Does that sound right? It doesn’t to me. Our experiences of preaching attests to the fact that God works as he pleases. The best sermons fall on deaf ears while the worst sometimes give new life and produce spiritual fruit. Praise God. Our task as preachers is first and foremost to proclaim the God’s grace, on offer in the gospel. Too many Evangelicals assume that faithfully exegeting texts will enable the work of the Spirit. Our task is to faithfully preach the gospel, praying that the Spirit will do his work of regeneration and conviction in the lives of our hearers. He does, after all, enable us to understand the Scriptures. As Evangelicals we need to relinquish our (erroneously assumed) control over the Spirit’s work, for he is not tied to our abilities and exegesis.

Graham Heslop
I have an insatiable appetite for books, occasionaly dip into theology and am presently serving full time at Christ Church Umhlanga in Durban. Most often found on the beach, a soccer field, or my couch
  • Mundy

    In good Evangelical tradition (well, my little corner of it), I’m going to try and do two things – praise you for what I think is good and helpful in this piece, and then offer what I hope is constructive criticism…Here goes:
    I am rebuked for the number of times that I have fallen into the trap you describe – relying purely on my hard work and not enough on the Lord himself to open the hearts of hearers – and being critical of those who use what I call “fluffy” preaching. Thank you.

    It is however dangerous to label this assumption we (you and I) make, as “evangelical”, as if all evangelicals assume this all the time. I feel (and think) that its unfair. You lump young upstarts like myself with the evangelical pastor who’s been preaching for 10, 20, 30, 40 years, faithfully doing his work of exegesis every week, and fervently praying that the Lord would work through/in spite of his work.

    It is obvious that many evangelicals often are arrogant, and we do think ourselves better than others. This pride is expressed in our glorying in our ability to do “better” exegesis. And so I confess that I am like you in this case…but to label all evangelicals as proud “assumers” is to – I think – fall into the trap of pride again:”Look you guys – I’ve spotted this error within me…and thus it must be within all of you. How blind you are not to see it.” And I think that is my main criticism of your piece.

    You also seem to (though I doubt you mean it – you are trying to make a point) state the following:
    – Exegetical preaching is different to faithfully preaching the gospel of grace. I get this from: “Our task as preachers is first and foremost to proclaim the God’s grace, on offer
    in the gospel. Too many Evangelicals assume that faithfully exegeting texts will enable the work of the Spirit. Our task is to faithfully preach the gospel, praying that the Spirit will do his work of regeneration and conviction in the lives of our hearers. ”

    If we faithfully do our work of exegesis week in and week out – and still don’t preach the gospel of grace – that’s our fault, not the tool of exegesis. What we discover as we ourselves do the work (with the Holy Spirit illuminating the text as we rely on Him) should so open our eyes further to the glory of God in Jesus; his mercy, compassion and holiness, that we preach the gospel of grace more as He would have us preach it!

    Thank you again for the rebuke – and for getting us all to think.

    • Thanks for lengthy and thoughtful response Mundy; I’m really glad that the the post was rebuking of and helpful for your own thinking. I will reply with three brief answers to what you’ve said:

      Firstly, you’re right that my own assumption in labeling this sort of thinking as ‘Evangelical’ is perhaps a little unfair, and misleading. But as – in my opinion – those who pride themselves on good biblical exegesis, I’m not sure that the attitude I’ve outlined is limited to the young. Where or who do we learn this mindset from? One of the reasons I wrote this post was the slight discomfort I felt when reading Stott’s concise and very encouraging essay on expositional preaching, in ‘The Art And Craft Of Biblical Preaching’. He gives two expectations we can have for faithful biblical exposition: (1) God’s voice will be heard and (2) God’s people will obey him. That seems to be close to what I described.

      Secondly, I’m sorry that my piece could be interpreted as haughty. I have overstated my point assuming that this is a problem with all of Evangelicalism and that’s unfortunate. Perhaps a corrective is in order: though this attitude isn’t endemic to all Evangelicals I do think that it’s the trap many of us will fall into, since we’re well trained and equipped to exegete biblical texts. We should always remember that our abilities of exegesis are gifts from God, illumination is a work of the Spirit, and preaching that bears fruit – or convicts God’s people towards obedience – is therefore nothing but God’s grace in the lives of the hearer, through the speaker.

      Lastly, I definitely wasn’t trying to argue that exegetical preaching is something other than the gospel of grace. You’re very right: careful (even ‘scientific’) exegesis will can only result in us reaching God’s underwritten and cohesive promise in Scripture, the gospel of salvation; and if we don’t preach that then it’s on our heads. My post in no way intended to belittle the tool, for I’m convinced – as you are – that with it we’re enabled to preach grace more as he would have us do it. That’s a great point. Thank you.

      • Stephen Murray

        Mundy and Graham: Will right exegesis get us to the gospel of grace every time? I’m not persuaded. Expert commentators exegete the text (by that I mean take out what is there) and end up with wonderfully helpful technical commentaries but no gospel of grace in sight. Getting to the gospel of grace for me is first a theological conviction about how we are to teach Scripture. Obviously that conviction is built the fruit of various exegetical exercises but “pure” exegesis in an of itself doesn’t get us to Jesus, it just tells us what’s in an ancient document. As a result I think there needs to be a reciprocal relationship between theology and exegesis added to a huge dose of prayer that will enable us to teach (to borrow Packer) in step with the Spirit.

        • Thanks for your comment Stephen; it’s a helpful and worthwhile point. In my opinion, to example what you said, the best exegete of Old Testament narrative at present is Robert Alter. While his mastery of the Hebrew and literary criticism vividly unlocks Old Testament, there is no gospel of grace in sight.

          Where your comment was potentially misleading was on the theological conviction with which we read the Scriptures. The character of our approach to Scripture is both presuppositional and located within the context of perspicuity. The first characteristic is that a Christian worldview presupposes coherence of revelation since we believe that God is the single author behind Scripture (D.A. Carson). The Reformed doctrine of analogia fidei is utterly dependent on that coherence. Yet, and this is the second characteristic, exegesis of Scripture yields its perspicuous message: the gospel. I assume that this is what you meant when you said our conviction, reaching the gospel of grace as we exegete Scripture, is the fruit of various exegetical exercises. It is the result of carefully reading all of Scripture, what we might call biblical theology, which leads us to ask how a certain passage is enmeshed with the gospel of grace.

          And so, to adapt something Karl Barth: we are not compelled to choose between scientific, historical-critical methods of exegesis and our doctrine of Scripture. The former can and does supplement the latter. Therein, I believe, lies a healthy relationship between theology and exegesis. And perhaps a better way to state it is how John Webster does: “dogmatics is that delightful activity in which the Church praises God by ordering its thinking towards the gospel of Christ” (p8, Holiness); to which we might add: the gospel is clearly revealed in Scripture, the church’s norm and judge.

  • To add to what Mundy said, I was also concerned by the assumption that evangelicals preach expositions. I think another pitfall our generation bails into is to assume that people outside of our little camp are not evangelical.

    I agree with your warning though, I regularly find myself reliant on my own abilities rather than the work of the Spirit.

    • It seems that most of my posts come under fire for making broad generalisations. In my defense, the post reflected on my own experience of and interaction with those outside of our camp, locally. Though their churches would claim the title of Evangelical – and rightly so since they believe and preach the message of Scripture: God’s gracious salvation offered in Christ – I have heard little to nothing in the realm of exposition from them. What does that mean? I don’t know.

  • Lisa

    This is a great article that challenged my motives in the hard work of exegesis!

    At first glance I was challenged by your post because I struggle to separate the work of the Spirit and exegesis. If the Spirit does indeed illumine the scriptures for us, leading to a good understanding the truth e.g. John 15:26 and 16:13-14, is not the truth bound up in the author’s intent, and thus exegesis?

    Then I realised that your argument is about the Spirit’s involvement in the application of the teacher’s exegesis to the hearers. I was/am struggling with another distinction. If exegesis is to find out what the author meant for the people when the text was written, and the ultimate author of the Bible is the Holy Spirit (2 Tim 3:16), is he not involved in exegesis? If then, the Spirit has been involved in successful exegesis, is he absent when the exegesis is preached? I suppose he will need to apply the preached exegesis to individual minds for it to be understood, and for the individual to be “illumined”. But can the work of the Spirit be so easily distinguished between the original exegesis and it’s application to hearers? Is there some working of the Spirit in the very declaration of the truth/sound exegesis? I suppose I need a better doctrine of the Holy Spirit to work out my understanding of how He works through his word? Do more educated theologians have any insights? 🙂

    • Hey Lisa, thanks for your (many!) questions. I think the key to remember in answering the first is this: the same Spirit inspires and illuminates Scripture. So prayerful exegesis takes us beyond the limits of historical-critical exegesis – which can and does yield authorial intent – to the divine intention, God the author’s meaning. I’ll risk an illustration: it’s like reading a novel with the author alongside you helping you to understand what she meant when she penned what’s before you. Here’s a helpful quote from Robert Letham: “In short, the Bible has to be interpreted; it needs a human interpreter and the divine illuminator.”

      The second, and longer question, is slightly outside the scope of what I wrote though not beyond the reaches of the comments section. It isn’t hard to extend some of what we were thinking about in answering it. If good (and by “good” I mean prayerful and theologically informed) exegesis results in the reader/preacher ascertaining the meaningful application of Scripture that does not necessarily mean the hearer will respond to that truth, Scripture. The Spirit must be at work in the person hearing Scripture in order for them to heed its summons to Christ’s lordship, the call to repentance, and understand salvation by grace alone.

      An extreme example might be useful in making the point: a preacher may work hard at understanding Scripture in his study, applying the tools gained at seminary to the text, and this will cause him to preach the gospel of grace – see my next post on Scripture – but there is no guarantee that he will himself respond to the volitional aspect of Scripture. Without illumination there is no conversion.