Friday, April 17, 2020

Particular text, particular context

On special occasions we often reach for doctrinal preaching - it's Good Friday, let's preach on atonement; it's Easter, let's preach on resurrection - and that's all well and good, but I was reminded this past Friday of the advantage of preaching through books of the Bible.  I'd arranged it so that our series in Luke's Gospel would reach the crucifixion in Holy Week and the resurrection on Easter Sunday, and I'm glad I did.  I noticed on Good Friday particularly that preaching Luke's account in the context of the series helped me to see some things I might otherwise have missed.

For example, Luke - in common with the other Synoptic Gospels - records the three hours of darkness which accompanied Christ's execution.  Maybe it's because I've run a few Christianity Explored courses, or maybe it's just because I'm a veteran of the Substitution Wars, but I instinctively read this darkness against the backdrop of the darkness in Egypt - as an expression of the wrath of God against sin.  I think that is, in fact, in the background, but the more immediate framing in Luke's narrative is rather different, determined by the saying of Jesus to his captors, recorded in Luke 22:53.  The darkness represents, then, the (Satanic) power of the opposition to Jesus, risen to its final terrible height at the crucifixion.  To know that Christ endured the weight of all the forces of darkness in the hour of their power is actually reassuring in a different way, particularly at this hour of darkness.

Then again, preaching from a particular passage helps to avoid the danger of reductionism in doctrine.  It is very easy to get to a position where your whole understanding of a certain doctrine - or at least, your way of expressing it - depends on one particular strand of the biblical witness.  For example, the cry of dereliction easily becomes the dominant way of explaining the cross and the atonement.  But if you're preaching the cross from Luke, there is no cry of dereliction.  Rather there is an expression of faith as Jesus resigns his spirit confidently into the hands of his Father.  Of course the Gospel accounts are selective - it is entirely possible for Jesus to have said both things - and there is no contradiction.  But taking the particular perspective of this particular text in preaching the cross means that you may have to reach beyond your normal shorthand for explaining the atonement and look at it from a different angle.

There is definitely a place for synthetic doctrinal preaching - preaching that tries to give a rounded theological account of the whole witness of Holy Scripture on a particular doctrinal point.  But I am more convinced than ever that it needs to play second place to consecutive exposition of Biblical texts.

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