Responding to “A Plea for Pointless Preaching” – A Guest Post by Lissa Wray Beal

On Thursday, November 1, a surprisingly large and energetic group of pastors, professors, seminary students, and college students gathered at Providence to hear and engage in conversation surrounding my paper, “A Plea for Pointless Preaching.”  The paper was an abbreviated version of an essay that I wrote for Minding the Web: Making Theological Connections.  In the essay, I suggest that the work of “two Stanleys” – the evangelical mega-church pastor Andy Stanley and the theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas – present two contrasting homiletical paths open to preachers today.  Since that volume will soon be appearing in print, I will not be reproducing the essay here.  However, my colleague Lissa Wray Beal, who served as the respondent to the paper, has graciously allowed me to publish her insightful engagement with the essay here on the blog.

A Response to “A Plea for Pointless Preaching by Dr. Robert Dean, Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics, Providence Theological Seminary

By Dr. Lissa M. Wray Beal, Professor of Old Testament; Bible and Theology Department Chair, Providence Theological Seminary

Let me begin by welcoming all who have come to hear Dr. Dean engage this important topic. I also wish to extend that welcome to Dr. Dean, for whom this is the first semester at Providence Theological Seminary. We are thankful for his presence at Providence, and the contributions he is making to the work of the Bible and Theology department. I’d also like to congratulate him on the upcoming release of his new volume, Minding the Web, which includes essays by Dr. Hauerwas, is edited by Dr. Dean, with essays and sermons contributed by him.

I’ve had the privilege of reading and digesting Dr. Dean’s thoughtful paper over this last while. I think any writing on preaching enters holy ground, for none of us who seek to proclaim the gospel do so flippantly. Rather, it is with a sense of holy calling and conviction of the gospel’s truth that we seek to feed God’s people. Dr. Dean’s challenge to us is, I believe, in the hope that we each might grow more faithful in that proclamation.

I must confess at the outset that I am substantially in agreement with Dr. Dean’s assessment of preaching. He presents to us two preachers: both desire to preach for life transformation and with connectivity to the lives of the congregants, but how they do so is strikingly contrastive. Let me first present my own understanding of that contrast as presented by Dr. Dean, provide some historical context for the approach he urges, and conclude with a couple of questions.

First, regarding the contrast between the two forms of preaching, the difference between them is fundamental. It lies in their view of the preaching task and goals, and especially in the view of the nature of scripture vis à vis the preaching task.

Stanley begins by seeking connection to a “felt need” in the congregants, and then turning to Scripture to provide a solution to such needs. Exegeting his practice, we see he understands Scripture to be Word of God – but a word that is a collection of principles. If those principles are exegeted logically, one is assured of finding the needed principle for the presented problem. Each sermon is crafted to scratch an itch, so to speak. Emphasis falls on presentation and technique (more 21st century and less 1st century), and one “makes points” by applying the found principles to answer the questions of modern people. Scripture must become relevant to our concerns.

Hauerwas also connects to his audience. Rather than surfacing a “felt need” for scripture to answer, his connection exposes not our problem, but that we are the problem. We stand in the way, blocking the reception of Scripture’s testimony of good news. The preacher’s task is thus to open up the strange new world of the Bible, thus exposing sin, beckoning entry into the story, and pointing to the Way, Truth, and Life. It is the continual renarration of the Grand Story that repositions us into right relationship with Christ who is the Truth of Scripture. Rather than reliance on oratorical technique (although it is not eschewed!), powerful preaching comes through not seeking principles to apply to problems, but resting on the truth in the narrative of God’s work with Israel and the early church. Through such preaching, Scripture makes us relevant to its concerns. It reminds me of an old library poster I’ve never forgotten, with a picture of an open book, and the reader disappearing into its pages. The caption reads: books fall open; we fall in.

Neither of these approaches arises in a vacuum. Each brings with it historical placed-ness. Interestingly, I’ve found help in understanding this placed-ness in a volume I’ve been working through: Craig Bartholomew’s Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Framework for Hearing God in Scripture.[1] I’d commend it to you. His final chapter, “Preaching the Bible for all Its Worth” provides a bit of historical background on the history of preaching and different schools of homiletics within that history.[2] Stanley’s work would fall within the school labeled, “Contemporary Traditional Homiletics,” for which a bit of history is given. It is a school particularly associated with Haddon Robinson’s influential Biblical Preaching, published in 2001 and widely used in seminaries.

Certainly Robinson’s approach is not that of Stanley’s. However, both would stand within the “Contemporary Traditional Homiletics” model which, as Bartholomew’s discussion reveals, is an Enlightenment approach. The approach’s focus on logic, the exegesis of propositional truth, its pragmatic, application-focused goal for preaching, and its insistence on a central idea as the meaning of any given text “stem directly from the impact of the Enlightenment on rhetoric and homiletics.”[3] A connection to the Enlightenment’s values does not make such preaching wrong per se. But revealing such Enlightenment anchors calls us to question the Enlightenment assumptions and goals that undergird much present-day preaching. Are they truly ecclesially-oriented and scripturally-compatible? Dr. Dean argues they are not.

In the homiletical models Bartholomew explores, I would argue that Hauerwas’s model falls somewhere in what Bartholomew names New homiletics, which aims “not at applying propositional truth, but at the evocation of a Word-event experienced by the congregation,” and Postliberal homiletics, which “makes narrative central and seeks to allow the Word to absorb the world via its narrative shape”[4] – again: books fall open, we fall in. Both of these are not, I assert, wholly “new” but are in some way reclaiming pre-Enlightenment concerns in preaching.

It is not surprising to me that an approach such as Dr. Dean advocates is gaining attention at this juncture in the church’s life (that is, this side of the Enlightenment). The approach has, I believe, many of the assumptions and values that were in play in scriptural preaching prior to the Enlightenment. As the world moves beyond its reliance on what were considered the assured results of the Enlightenment (and which now are shown to be faulty at best, and deathly at worst), the church too moves to question how the Enlightenment has shaped its theology and practice.

One extremely positive way this post-Enlightenment engagement occurs is that in the church (and the believing academy) we are newly engaging scripture theologically. That is, wrestling not only (or even primarily) with its historicity, but engaging scripture theologically, within the whole canon, with an acknowledgement of mystery and the witness of the church through the ages, and with acknowledgement of the worldview-shaping power of the biblical narrative. As the church rediscovers these pre-Enlightenment realities, it is not surprising that this reengagement would shape our understanding of the preaching task, its assumptions and goals.

It seems to me that it is this Enlightenment/post-Enlightenment reality that lies at the heart of the contrast Dr. Dean brings to our attention. For me, the historical placed-ness of these two approaches to preaching is eminently helpful. It helps me understand the impetus behind each approach and what shapes each. It also reminds me to consider a long view of the church, enabling me to contextualize each approach within the convictions, assumptions, and aspirations of the church through the ages and to question how each ultimately “fits” with the church’s concerns, mission, and contexts. Such consideration also brings me to consider the lasting contribution each approach might make as we forge a path forward in the proclamation of the holy gospel.

Finally, there are many questions one might pose arising from Dr. Dean’s presentation today. Our listeners today may have several that are pressing and insightful, but let me pose mine here and leave it to Dr. Dean to choose which he may (or may not) like to engage.

  1. I do agree that the right preaching of scripture is not simply in “making points” as you state. My understanding of this is that “making points” as you use it is referring to drawing principles from scripture and applying them to modern issues, decontextualized from the narrative,. Does your antipathy toward “making points” extend to the idea of sermonic structuring? That is, do you understand it to be possible to preach with structural “points” while remaining within the second approach to preaching?
  2. If as Bernard of Chartres says, “we are dwarves, standing on the shoulder of giants,” what lasting value, if any, would you understanding Enlightenment-style preaching (as described above) brings to our ongoing work as preachers?
  3. If one is schooled in, and one’s congregation expects Enlightenment-style preaching yet the preacher wishes to move in the direction of the second approach, can you give a couple of suggestions as to how the preacher might begin this move?
  4. If the approach to preaching you propose invites listeners into a Grand Narrative that finds its culmination in Christ, what role do you see the Old Testament playing in that? That is, does the Old Testament have a revelatory role qua Old Testament, or is such revelatory role found now only in its Christological telos?

Lissa M. Wray Beal is the author of 1 & 2 Kings in the Apollos Old Testament Commentary series and of the forthcoming volume on Joshua in the Story of God Bible Commentary.

[1] Craig G. Bartholomew, Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Framework for Hearing God in Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015).

[2] Bartholomew, Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics, notes his reliance on work by A. Spears, “The Theological Hermeneutics of Homiletical Application and Ecclesiastes 7:23–29” (PhD diss., University of Liverpool, 2006). My comments particularly follow Bartholomew’s work on pp. 528–33.

[3] Bartholomew, Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics, 533.

[4] Bartholomew, Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics, 528.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *