Hermeneutical Issues
by Paul Hazelden

Spurgeon’s College

MTh in Applied Theology

Student’s name: Paul Hazelden

College Number: 910006

Module Name: Theology and Practice of Preaching

Staff member to whom submitted: Rev. Dr. Peter K. Stevenson

Essay title: Hermeneutical Issues

I confirm that this work is the result of my own independent work/investigation and that it has not been submitted toward any other academic award at Spurgeon’s College or any other institution.



Spurgeon’s College

MTh in Applied Theology

Theology and Practice of Preaching

Hermeneutical Issues


Paul Hazelden


A 3,000 to 4,000 word essay.

Assignment 2b: Discuss the hermeneutical issues involved in the use of the Old Testament prophetic books in preaching today. Illustrate your answer with reference to one of the minor prophets, and present the outline of either a sermon or a series of sermons based on this book, showing how these issues have been taken into account.

The following are examples of some of the key ‘hermeneutical issues and decisions’ you might discuss, though you will not be able to cover them all:

  1. The nature and purpose of Scripture, and the way that it is allowed to function in the sermon.

  2. The way in which the gospel emerges from the text, and how you bring it out.

  3. The way in which historical, literary and theological concerns shape your approach to the text.

  4. The way in which the text may address aspects of the contemporary world and how you bring this out.

  5. The way in which the text may relate to issues in your congregation and how you bring this out.

  6. The way in which your reading of the text, and your preaching of it, may be shaped positively or negatively by your own experiences, insights and prejudices.

Table of Contents

1. Preaching from the Minor Prophets 5

1.1. Introduction 5

1.2. Agile Theology 6

1.3. Framework 9

2. Some Issues 10

2.1. The nature and purpose of Scripture 10

2.2. Technical correctness 11

2.3. Theological concerns 12

2.4. Addressing today’s world 13

2.5. Addressing the congregation 14

2.6. Personal experience 15

3. Sermon Outline 17

3.1. Introduction 17

3.2. Some historic perspective 18

3.3. Return to the Bible 19

3.4. God cares 19

3.5. What else does God care about? 20

3.6. Aspects of our response 21

Bibliography 22

Appendix 1: Justice and Order 24

Appendix 2: Hermeneutical Issues 25

Appendix 3: Some Thoughts on Ambiguity 27

Appendix 4: Literary Concerns 28

Hermeneutical Issues

1. Preaching from the Minor Prophets

1.1. Introduction

While reflecting on the information I have gained through studying the Theology and Practice of Preaching at Spurgeon’s College, I have come to see some similarities between the problems and challenges of preaching and the problems and challenges of software development

I have spent several years working in the field of software development. In this assignment, I shall be attempting to bring some of the concepts and lessons learned in this time to bear on the tasks of hermeneutics and homiletics.

This assignment concerns the hermeneutical issues involved in the use of the Old Testament prophetic books, and in particular with the minor prophets.

Most of the hermeneutical issues involved in the use of the minor prophets are shared in common with the issues of using any Biblical text: the gap in time, language and culture between the original writer/speaker and readers/hearers and the modern congregation, the beliefs, knowledge, assumptions, as well as the more subtle nuances of style, linguistic and cultural references and associations, social and family relationships, and so on.

The works I have consulted tend to affirm the need for a distinctive hermeneutic when dealing with prophetic literature, but when they come to the point when they directly address the question, they tend instead to concentrate on explaining how the standard hermeneutic principles apply. When they identify a distinctive issue concerning prophetic literature, the conclusion often reached is that the issue is of less importance than is generally thought.

For example, we read that “The relationship between the prose and verse utterances in the prophetic books of the Old Testament presents a perennial problem.” (McKay, in [Thompson, 1987, 205]) Here, he identifies one of the standard issues concerning prophetic literature. However, he goes on to argue persuasively that we “tend to draw too sharp lines of demarcation between prose and verse in the Hebrew prophetic books and... such distinctions can only be of limited value in discussing questions of authorship and authenticity.” [Thompson, 1987, 207]

I believe it is reasonable to conclude that the hermeneutical issues involved in the use of the minor prophets (when compared with the issues relating to the rest of the Bible) differ mainly in degree and extent, rather than type. It is probably safe to assume that most congregations hear relatively few sermons on these texts, and relatively few preachers regularly use them, so the most significant difference for both the congregation and preacher is that they are essentially unfamiliar.

Some hermeneutical issues may appear more obvious because the minor prophets are less familiar to the modern congregation than the stories of Jesus and Paul in the New Testament, or the stories of Abraham, David and Elijah in the Old. This is a two-edged sword: our familiarity with some Biblical passages can lead us to forget or ignore the gaps we should be striving to bridge.

Virkler [1981, 194-201] identifies six issues in the interpretation of prophecy and apocalyptic literature: (1) hermeneutic principles, (2) deeper sense, (3) literal versus symbolic, (4) universality, (5) conditionality, and (6) single versus multiple meaning. In the discussion of these issues, it seems clear that all but one are common to many, if not all, forms of Biblical literature. The remaining issue, conditionality, is his way of addressing the question of the purpose of the many warnings contained in prophetic literature. I briefly address this in the section on ‘Theological concerns’ below.

The most significant issue, in my opinion, is the basic question of how, as a Christian, I am to understand and use the Old Testament. This is, to a large extent, the subject of the sermon itself: given the nature of the sermon, I do not intend to address this question explicitly in the rest of the assignment, or I would be spending too much space expanding on and commenting on my own work.

1.2. Agile Theology

I recently wrote a short article on ‘Agile Theology’ that attempted to bring the principles of Agile Programming to bear on the discipline of theology. It seems to me that this is a useful way to draw together some themes and concerns I need to address in this assignment. It provides a framework in which these concerns can be addressed, but each of them are addressed because they matter and they fall within the scope of this assignment, not because they can be seen as as aspect of Agile Theology or any other conceptual framework.

The traditional approach to software development is often described as the ‘waterfall’ method or model: each phase flows inevitably out of the previous one, as in a series of cascading waterfalls. It assumes that your work, if it is done correctly, will never have to be done again. In contrast, the ‘agile’ approach recognises the importance of feedback, which will sometimes require you to repeat some of the work you have already done in the light of new insights and constraints. The same approach is also possible when dealing with theology.

The ‘agile’ approach is also a response to the mechanistic nature of many textbooks: if you want to understand the Bible correctly, just follow my instructions - follow these steps, apply these principles, avoid these mistakes, and you can be confident of getting the right answer. Or, in preaching, just follow these stages in your preparation, accept my guidance in choosing an appropriate outline, and you can be (nearly) certain of preaching a good sermon.

The mechanistic approach can be seen in both the structural and theological aspects of advice concerning sermon preparation. For example, there are many dogmatic instructions concerning form and structure: “Page Two reinforces Page One and should be roughly the same length, in other words, a quarter of the sermon” [Wilson, 1999, 122] is a typical example.

Similarly, we read that “the sequence of oracles - oracles of judgement followed by oracles of salvation - forms an overall pattern that structures most prophetic books... The obvious hermeneutical implication of this pattern is that the spoken prophecies of judgement must now be read in the literary context of promised salvation.” [Greidanus, 1988, 239-240] I do not disagree with this point, but the author leaves no room for any flexibility or other approaches: the text must now be read in this way.

Similarly, in dealing with textual units, we read: “a selected preaching-text must be a complete unit... [we can] discern the textual units” [Greidanus, 1988, 127]. This ignores the possibility that the text may be multi-layered, saying different things to different people and in different contexts. God may want to use the same passage in different ways. Why then must there be one correct division into literary units? If this is the case, then the challenge we face is not a question of technical correctness, but of discernment.

The mechanistic approach even extends to the definition of what is or is not preaching and to examinations of the purpose behind the Biblical text. Schilder, in a fairly typical passage, tells us that “A sermon on a historic text is a real sermon only if it shows God’s progressing work of self-revelation unto redemption at the particular point in time described by the text, and if it establishes the connection of that one ‘point’ with the whole ‘line’ of God’s progressing work throughout the ages, throughout the Scriptures.” (Schilder, De Reformatie XI, 1931, page 374, quoted in [Greidanus, 1970, 125])

It seems to me that a mechanical approach to questions of purpose may raise even more significant concerns. We are instructed, “In order to discover the text's purpose, one ought to ask basically why the author wrote the text in the way he did.” [Greidanus, 1988, 129] This makes the assumption that the text has one purpose, which we can discover by asking the right questions.

Similarly, we read that “our preaching should do justice to the intention of the chosen preaching text” [Greidanus, 1970, 119]. Interestingly, this assertion comes at the end of a long passage in which the author provides many examples of the difficulty (maybe, even the impossibility) of establishing that intention.

“Since the author had a controlling theme which governed his selection of material and the order and manner of writing, the interpreter can gain valid understanding of the author's point only by discerning that controlling theme.” [Greidanus, 1988, 135] In other words, I have to get inside the author's head in order to understand and therefore correctly preach the text. If I disagree with another preacher, there is no way to prove which of us is right: neither of us has access to the author's head. But why does one of us have to be right? Maybe it was the Holy Spirit guiding the author, and not a controlling theme (I know the two are not exclusive)? Perhaps the text went through the hand of several authors and editors before reaching its final form? What if the author misunderstood what he was writing about? In none of these cases it is possible to get inside the author’s head, and any attempt to do so is of questionable value.

The waterfall model was a comfortable fit with the Modern mindset, with its assumption of unending and inevitable progress; the Post-modern willingness to question previous certainties can be seen to favour the agile model. Theological liberalism has always encouraged doubts and questions - at least, within certain limits - but there are signs that evangelicalism is also moving towards a more nuanced understanding of theological truth, as can be seen in the respect many evangelicals have for the works of NT Wright.

A shift from ‘waterfall’ to ‘agile’ model can also be detected in, for example, Carson’s helpful overview of recent developments in the doctrine of Scripture [1986, 24]: “if particular texts, despite evenhanded exegetical coaxing, cannot fit into the theological theory... then the theory may have to be modified, recast, reformulated”.

1.3. Framework

It is generally recognised that all theology is undertaken within a specific conceptual framework, just as language itself depends on a historical and cultural context to breath meaning into the marks of pen on paper.

Greidanus provides one common example of a conceptual framework in his discussion [1970, 124-131] of the familiar belief that there is a discernible and consistent progress in redemptive history - “in and through the one history God comes ever closer to his goal” [1970, 124].

This framework is as much philosophical as theological. I suspect that theologians often underestimate the importance of philosophy. For example, much of the theological debate about predestination is argued from within a philosophical framework that contains a specific understanding of concepts such as causality and determinism, and the argument frequently moves from a given philosophical position to explain how to interpret the key scriptural texts in the light of that position. If, as seems likely, “the philosophical foundations for liberal hermeneutics were laid down by Kant” [Gruenler, 1991, 47], then in order to do justice to the theological issues raised within that tradition, we need to consider the philosophy of Kant as well as the theologians who built their work on him.

There is not enough space here to describe my own conceptual framework beyond observing that NT Wright is the writer who most closely articulates a framework (critical realism) that I can recognise and identify with [Wright, 1992, 31-46].

One further specific piece of background should be supplied: I do not see the primary job of the preacher as one who interprets and applies the text to his hearers. Using an incarnational model, I follow the priorities described by von Rad: I aim to understand the text, to encounter it, in preparation for the “great discovery which all of you must make in preaching is that the texts themselves actually speak” [von Rad, 1997, 17]. I believe that my most important task is to allow the text to speak to me, and then through me to the congregation.

Since my priority is in allowing the text to speak, my habit of asking questions in the sermon may seem counter-productive. However, I believe that in most circumstances, the most effective form of speaking is dialogue, and that questions engage the congregation more than statements.

2. Some Issues

2.1. The nature and purpose of Scripture

The nature and purpose of Scripture, and the way that it is allowed to function in the sermon.”

Traditional evangelical theology is clear on the nature of Scripture: it is ‘God breathed’ (2 Timothy 3:16). It is also clear that the texts we have are considered to be scripture because they are God-breathed, and not the other way round. However, it is less clear on how the current canon of Scripture came about. The fact that Martin Luther was arguing about which books should be included is a clear demonstration that the process was a great deal longer and more complicated than is generally recognised.

It seems likely that the more one emphasises the authority of Scripture, and the necessity of preaching from a Scriptural text, the harder it is to pay much attention to the process by which the text became Scripture. Craddock is not unusual in providing a simple passing reference: “When these documents were canonised and therefore made authoritative, interpretation became an essential ingredient in all preaching.” [1985, 28] Not only is the reference oblique, it is also misleading: the reading of Paul’s letter to the Philippians to the original recipients in Philippi was not preaching according to the criteria that Craddock himself identifies in this section (pages 22-30), and - more importantly - the necessity of interpretation came about when the letter was used (as a sermon text or otherwise) outside its original context, not when it became part of the canon.

For the present sermon, I made the usual choice of ignoring all such questions, and accepted the Bible in the pew as a given and as Scripture.

In preaching from the Minor Prophets, it is important to understand the nature of prophetic literature. “The point of prophecy is not to foretell the future, but to tell people how to live today: to summon, to encourage, to motivate the people to respond today” [Greidanus, 1988, 232] As Craddock reminds us, we have to bear in mind what the text is doing, as well as what it is saying [1985, 122] and I therefore structured the sermon with the intention of allowing God to speak through it in a way that paralleled, as closely as I could manage, the way in which He spoke through the original text.

2.2. Technical correctness

The way in which historical and literary concerns shape your approach to the text.”

Since truth matters a great deal to God, it follows that truth should also matter to the preacher. If the modern paraphrase of the Hippocratic Oath begins with “First, do no harm”, the equivalent principle for the Christian teacher and preacher must surely be: “first, do not deceive.”

I desire to encourage and inspire my hearers; I aim to entertain and inform them; I intend to be relevant and helpful theologically; but all of this counts for nothing if I am factually incorrect. The congregation must be able to trust what I say, even if they don’t agree with it.

It would follow that the essential starting point for any sermon must be that it is correct in matters of fact: the preacher must not mix up the different Herods, or present the Revelation of St John as if it were a history book written in advance.

However, my personal experience that this is not always the case. Over the years, I have heard many inaccuracies in sermons. Sometimes, it appears to be a simple slip of the tongue, as when the apostle Paul is credited with the vision of the unclean animals, the command to ‘take and eat’ and the visit to Cornelius; on other occasions, it seems to be a genuine confusion or ignorance about historic facts or the content of parallel passages. On one memorable occasion, the preacher used one account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to preach a sermon in which his main point was explicitly contradicted by one of the other synoptic accounts of that event.

I used to make a point of questioning the basis of such factual inaccuracies in sermons directly with the preacher. I always attempted to do so in a way that was sensitive, respectful and private. Occasionally, the preacher would note the point, thank me for listening, and promise to check the details so that he would not make the same mistake again. Once, the preacher made a public correction in his sermon the following week. But what usually happened is that I would be told that I may be right, but it didn’t matter: a minor inaccuracy or two is irrelevant as long as the congregation hears God’s Word proclaimed, or even that factual inaccuracy can be justified if it results in a ‘better; sermon.

I am not aware of any research on this subject, and it is impossible to tell from the small sample how many preachers adopt such an approach, but this seems to me to be an important issue that is rarely touched upon.

2.3. Theological concerns

The way in which theological concerns shape your approach to the text.”

I cannot help but approach the text with theological questions and concerns, both my own and those of the wider community. However, unless the aim of the sermon is to directly address one of these concerns, then I must hold lightly to them, allowing for the possibility that God may speak about them through the text, but not distorting the meaning or balance of the passage simply because a subject is on my mind as I prepare.

On the other hand, in preparing a sermon in the context of a regular preaching slot to a familiar congregation, the question of providing a ‘balanced diet’ must be faced: the need to address all the important issues on a regular basis, to talk about difficult subjects as well as easy and popular ones, to challenge as well as console. Most texts can be used in a variety of ways, and the specific choice of subject and emphasis must depend on a wider strategy to achieve this balance as well as on the specifics of the text and context.

When preaching on the prophets, one key theological issue to be addressed is whether the judgements being announced are conditional or unconditional. A distinction is often made between the earlier and latter prophets: according to Gowan, what distinguished the earlier prophets from the latter ones was “this unconditional threat of unconditional doom... The prophets did not call for reform, for they knew it was too late; the end of the present order was near and could not be averted.” (Reclaiming the OT, pages 156-126, quoted in [Greidanus, 1988, 233]).

In brief, we have to answer the question: why does the prophet announce judgement? Greidanus has a helpful discussion of this question [1988, 232-234], describing three basic options: explanation (you are going to be punished, and this is the reason); implementation (the punishment is somehow brought about by its prophetic announcement); and warning (the punishment can be avoided by the right response).

While there can be discussion about the function of individual passages, I agree with Greidanus that the normal way to understand the prophetic announcement of judgement is as a warning: this is clear in passages such Jeremiah 18:7-8 and Jonah 3:4, and even if we conclude that “the evidence in Amos points to the inevitability of God’s judgement, one must remember that the inevitability is rooted not in God’s word of judgement but in the obstinacy of the people who fail to mend their ways [Greidanus, 1988, 234].

It is this conviction that permits me to preach from Amos, and to do so without making the announcement of judgement a major part of the message, and without intentionally distorting the meaning of the text.

One other point needs to be made: a key question I am attempting to wrestle with in the sermon is what we are to do with the Biblical concern for justice within society. The sermons I have read from previous generations have tended to speak from a position of power and influence, and when such matters were touched on, it was often the duty of the ruler to provide, impose and ensure justice that was the chief application.

The contemporary sermons I have heard and read, where they touch on the area of social justice, have mainly seen it as a branch of individual morality: if we each act in a kind and loving way, society will be transformed. This seems to ignore the reality and power of structural sin. A part of my intention in preparing this sermon was to avoid these two standard (and, to my mind, inadequate) approaches to a vital Biblical theme.

2.4. Addressing today’s world

The way in which the text may address aspects of the contemporary world and how you bring this out.”

I distinguish in broad terms between aspects of the contemporary world that would be familiar to the Biblical authors and those that would be novel. Most of the important issues we face have not changed significantly in the last three thousand years: family conflicts, law and order, education, healthcare, and so on.

The detailed application of these issues will, of course, have changed over the years with medical, scientific and technological advances. But the changing date at which an unborn child is potentially viable does not substantially affect the debate concerning the ethics and the social consequences of abortion.

It is sometimes suggested that the only new factor to arise in the past three thousand years is the new-found ability of the human race to completely destroy itself, along with all life on earth. This is a subject that has concerned me for some years, and one which I probably avoid too much out of fear of using the sermon to ride a personal hobby-horse.

Where the text addresses contemporary concerns in these areas, I would normally aim to point that out and make the connection, helping the congregation understand the relevance of the ancient text to ‘modern’ questions.

On the subject of topical sermons, I am aware that many agree with Barth when he says that “preaching must be exposition of holy scripture” [1991, 49], but in practice, many preachers do preach topical sermons, and these are sometimes on contemporary issues. While I believe that God has an opinion on the prescribing of heroin to drug addicts or the building of new nuclear power stations, I cannot with integrity tell the congregation that David or Isaiah had a view on such things, or imply that I know what their view would have been had they lived today. It seems to me there is less scope for confusion if such contemporary subjects are addressed directly, and not in passing in the context of an expository sermon.

Completely avoiding any reference to topical issues is one error; presenting the Biblical text as speaking about them directly is another. It is generally the case that such subjects should be handled with humility and caution: it is often appropriate to proclaim the resurrection, or any other basic Christian truth, with confidence and certainly, but when addressing difficult contemporary issues, it is more often appropriate to suggest relevant principles and ways of exploring relevant texts than to proclaim with certainty a given position.

2.5. Addressing the congregation

The way in which the text may relate to issues in your congregation and how you bring this out.”

I would make a similar distinction between the perennial issues facing a congregation (those arising from the history, traditions, environment, community, and so on) and current issues such as how to rearrange the homegroups, whether to add an extra service or when to plant a new congregation.

The perennial issues need to be addressed as appropriate in the sermon: “there must... be openness to the real situation of the congregation” [Barth, 1991, 84] - this is who we are, and this is how we can celebrate the life we have in Christ and use the opportunities we have been given. But where the congregation needs to make a decision, I feel it is wrong to use the sermon to argue your position, or to suggest that the Apostle Peter agrees with your view.

Greidanus describes a healthy balance: “peaching-texts ought to be chosen with an eye to the needs of the congregation; once chosen, however, the texts must be allowed to speak for themselves lest present needs distort he actual meaning of the texts” [1988, 125].

This sermon was preached to a small congregation I have visited some three of four times previously. On my previous visit, there was very real fear for the future of the church, given a slow but steady decline in membership. On this occasion, some new and comparatively young leadership had been working in the church for several months, and there was a much higher level of confidence and evidence of growth. The church seemed ready to start looking out, into a comparatively needy community, and this consideration played a major part in shaping the message

2.6. Personal experience

The way in which your reading of the text, and your preaching of it, may be shaped positively or negatively by your own experiences, insights and prejudices.”

The obvious way in which my own experiences shape my reading and preaching of the text lies in the fact that I work as a Christian but outside the traditional church structures.

Many sermons I hear function to encourage the congregation to attend church events, and to undertake religious activities more frequently: Bible reading, prayer and worship being the most frequent examples. By way of contrast, I generally encourage people to take part in activities outside the church building, with people who are not already Christians, and to engage in projects that are not religious in nature.

One way of expressing this distinction is that most sermons have their centre of gravity in the Church, while I aim to locate the centre of gravity, for most of my sermons, in the Kingdom of God and how it is - or can be - changing the world.

There is an obvious difficulty with this approach when preaching from the Old Testament, where the vast majority of passages deal with matters within the people of God.

For many centuries, it seemed obvious to many preachers that the situation in much of the Old Testament was a direct parallel to the contemporary framework of Christendom: you have a nation under a King or some other leader, and both the leader and people are, at least nominally, following God. As I indicate in the sermon (section 3.3 below), I believe this parallel to be based on a misunderstanding. To be specific, while the Old Testament is a record of God’s unfolding plan of salvation, the development of Christendom is not, in my understanding, a part of God’s plan, but rather a side-track away from that plan. I do not deny the similarity of circumstance, but I do deny much of the theological content which flows from the belief that the similarity is theologically significant because it is divinely intended.

Of course, lessons from the Old Testament may apply to the circumstances of Christendom because of the parallels, whether or not Christendom was part of God’s plan. But God’s word and will concerning the political systems and structures of the day will vary according to whether those structures are established and upheld by Him, or established and upheld in direct contradiction to His command and character.

Murray provides numerous examples of the ways in which these different perspectives on the historic reality of Christendom will affect Biblical interpretation: for example, do we approach the text from the perspective of the powerful or the powerless? Less familiar to me was the question of whether we are guided by a ‘hermeneutic of justice’, or a ‘hermeneutic of order’ [2004, 175].

This distinction helped me by providing an important part of the conceptual framework and background to the sermon. In many passages of the Old Testament, we see clashes between the civil authority and a prophet, both appointed by God. In seeking to determine God’s will, the King typically applies a hermeneutic of order, the prophet applies a hermeneutic of justice, and the Biblical account ‘sides’ with the prophet (see appendix 1 for a brief justification of this claim). Social order and justice are both important; but when they come into conflict, it seems that God’s priority is for justice to be done.

I am aware of a potential difficulty here: my theological interpretation at this point is very much in line with my personal experience, and a significant portion of my ministry is tied up in such issues. While it is good and right that my personal experience should feed and inform my theological interpretation, there is a danger that my interpretation is based on my experience rather than God’s revelation.

In discussing this concern with others, two main points arise: firstly, being aware of the danger is the first step towards addressing and countering it; and, secondly, in all our theology we must simultaneously hold onto our current belief and understanding, while at the same time allowing for the possibility that we may be mistaken and that God may wish to correct or deepen our understanding. It seems to me that this is another deep question, which lies outside the scope of this assignment.

Possibly the most important personal experience that I brought to the preparation and preaching of the sermon is my own experience of hearing God speak to me from the Old Testament prophetic books, on many occasions, of the practical ways in which my life and priorities need to be modified in order to conform to His Kingdom and His character as revealed in the Old and New Testaments. This is the experience I sought to share with the congregation.

3. Sermon Outline

Subject: “Hearing God speak to us through the Old Testament”.

3.1. Introduction

When I was a young Christian, I belonged to a church that identified itself as Bible-believing. We had clear, repeated and consistent teaching on how to hear God speak to us through the Bible.

We were taught that the Bible is God’s eternal and unchanging Word; our job is to discover the eternal and unchanging principles contained in that Word, to understand them correctly, and then apply them to our own situation.

Over the years, and in many different places, I have heard very similar teaching on the subject.

I would like to suggest that this is true, as far as it goes, but it’s not enough. Quite simply, it is not working. Perhaps as individuals, we can keep going with what we have, but the church desperately needs to hear God speak: it needs to hear something different.

Why does this matter? Because this is one of the few key issues which shape the church, and the church in Britain is in such a dire state.

There are congregations closing down every week, and whole denominations that will no longer exist in 20 or 30 years time on current trends.

Perhaps we don’t hear what God is saying because we don’t expect Him to be saying it. Perhaps the Bible is a lot more relevant to us than we generally realise.

It would be nice - and, by ‘nice’, I mean convenient for us - if the Bible was full of abstract principles, and all we had to do was to understand and apply those principles. But God doesn’t work that way. When God speaks, He speaks to specific people at a specific place and time. There are abstract principles dotted around, but even those need to be understood and applied in context.

3.2. Some historic perspective

If we are to understand what God is saying to us and requiring of us, we have to place His message into its historic perspective.

In the Western world, the church was powerful for over a thousand years. All the rulers and most of the population was at least culturally Christians: not only was the church involved in all the important points in peoples’ lives, at birth, marriage and death; but most respectable people actually attended on a regular basis.

There were all kinds of laws and rules that assumed the people were Christians, or required them to be. In a court of law, you are asked to swear on the Bible. Until quite recently, if you wanted to be a Member of Parliament, you had to be a Christian; if you wanted to study at a university, you had to be a Protestant Christian.

But, today, these assumptions no longer hold true. Just in a single lifetime, we have seen a profound change take place. While people may still write ‘Christian’ on the census form, in practice they only go into a church building for a baptism, wedding or funeral, and even for these events there are non-Christian alternatives, which become more popular every year.

I know that, as Baptists, you are unlikely to regret the falling number of infant baptisms taking place each year, but many Christians I talk to, Christians from all the denominations, tell me they feel unsettled by this new world we live in.

It seems we are being squeezed by rampant secularism on the one hand, and by adherents of other faiths on the other. Standing up for Biblical morality is increasingly seen as ‘discriminatory’ and risks prosecution; more and more businesses don’t mention ‘Christmas’ on their Christmas cards, but instead wish you a happy ‘Winter Festival’ or something similar. The church is shrinking, and the culture of our society is growing further away from us every year.

Many Christians seem to be in a state of denial about this. They believe that if we keep doing what we have always done and stay faithful, God will honour our faithfulness and bring growth.

I am all in favour of staying faithful, but many churches are closing down because ‘business as usual’ has not worked for them.

The world has changed. We can no longer assume that people understand the words we use, identify with our vision and approve of our values. When we stand up for Biblical morality, we are more likely to be regarded as narrow-minded bigots than applauded for our ethical stance.

3.3. Return to the Bible

Much of what we used to do no longer works. I believe this is a wonderful opportunity for the Church to go back to the Bible and to discover afresh what God is saying to this generation - to discover how God wants His people to live and to work when we are no longer a majority, but as a minority that is misunderstood and sometimes persecuted for what we believe.

In the New Testament, God’s people are a minority group. They are misunderstood and sometimes persecuted. They are caught between two opposing ideologies. There is much in this that we can identify with.

A harder task for us is to understand what we should make of the sections of the Old Testament in which God’s people are in control.

In the past, the temptation was to take these parts of the Bible and use them to tell us how Christendom should be run. I would argue, if we had time, that this was a deeply misguided exercise. Instead, I would like to offer some pointers to how we can use Old Testament passages to hear God speak to us today.

3.4. God cares

From Genesis, we learn that God cares about the world we live in, and about His creation. In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth. He is interested in material realities. If people are hungry, it matters to him. If they are in pain, it matters to Him. We have decided that the Church should be interested in the spiritual realm, but God shows Himself over and over again to be deeply concerned with the physical and the material.

There are two basic messages we can take from the Minor Prophets: the importance of a relationship with God, and the importance of personal morality and integrity.

These messages can be seen in the book of Amos. Two quick examples - on the importance of a relationship with God, he says “seek me that you may live” (Amos 5:4); and on the importance of personal morality and integrity he says “they have rejected the law and lied” (Amos 2:4).

God is a person, an individual with Whom we can interact, and Who has His own purposes, agenda and priorities. Since this is the case, instead of asking God to bless our agenda, maybe we should think about adopting His agenda?

In other words, perhaps the most important thing we can do as Christians is for us to seek to understand the things that matter to God, and then allow those things to matter to us also.

3.5. What else does God care about?

We know that He is deeply concerned about justice. In Amos chapter 5, verses 10, 15, 23 and 24 are all about justice.

We know that God cares about the poor, the weak and the powerless. There are many references, such as 4:1, 5:11 and 8:6.

But God also cares about business practices. For example, in Amos 5:11 he says: “you impose heavy rent on the poor”.

From Amos 8:5, we learn that God is interested in trading standards - in this case, false weights.

God is interested in the way we live together as a society. That means He is interested in politics.

In the past, Christians were responsible for the abolition of slavery, for prison reform, and for much else that we take for granted. More recently, Christians were at the heart of the Jubilee Campaign, and Make Poverty History. We are now a year on from the G8 meeting, and we need to keep up the fight for justice in world trade.

If we are to engage effectively, we have to educate ourselves. What are the important issues for today? And as we read and research, we need to listen for what God is speaking about here, what He is saying today.

Back in Amos day, the poor were oppressed by false weights and measures. Today, that is rarely a problem. But perhaps God is interested today in the exorbitant rates of interest the poor are forced to pay on loans. Perhaps He is interested in the poverty trap, which prevents hundreds of thousands of people from working to earn a living. Perhaps He is interested in our prisons acting as universities of crime.

Perhaps He is still asking His people to stand up and do something about these issues. Perhaps, if we understood how much these things matter to Him, they might touch our hearts a little more deeply.

3.6. Aspects of our response

So what response is God calling us to make?

We need to educate ourselves. We need to learn how to discern the voice of God in the issues and the priorities and the choices we face.

We need to campaign for justice, especially justice for the poor and the dispossessed.

And we need to do something practical. We can care about saving the whales and the starving children in Africa, but the people sleeping on our doorsteps and park benches, the lonely people in our streets, the hurting people in our shops and offices - we need to be there for them.

Amos described something of what it means to be God’s people, to the people of his day. We need to discover what it means for us today.

Only God’s people can show God’s love to a hurting world. There are a million and one ways to do it. I don’t think God will mind if we don’t get it exactly right. But I am absolutely convinced that if we try to show His love in practical ways, and if we are willing to be guided by Him, then He will take what we do and use it to His glory, far beyond anything we can imagine.


Brueggemann, Walter, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982)

Barth, Karl, Homiletics (Louisville: Westminster / John Knox Press, 1991)

Beukema, John, ‘The Sermon that Got My Goat’ in Leadership (Vol. XXV Number 3, Summer 2004) pp. 61-63

Brown, Colin (Ed.), The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Volume 3 (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1978)

Carson, D A, ‘Recent Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture’ in D A Carson and John D Woodbridge (eds), Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986)

Craddock, Fred B, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985)

Eslinger, Richard L, The Web of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)

Goldingay, John, Models for Interpretation of Scripture (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995)

Greidanus, Sidney, Sola Scriptura (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1970)

Greidanus, Sidney, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Leicester: IVP, 1988)

Gruenler, Royce Gordon, ‘Meaning and Understanding: the philosophical framework for Biblical interpretation’ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1991)

Hazelden, Paul, Agile Theology (2006) Available from http://www.hazelden.org.uk/pt05/art_pt200_agile_theology.htm [accessed 30 October 2006]

Long, Thomas G, The Witness of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989)

Lowry, Eugene L, The Homiletical Plot (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980)

Murray, Stuart, Post-Christendom (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2004)

Murray, Stuart, Interactive Preaching (Unpublished paper available from London: Spurgeon’s College, 2004?)

Searle, JR, ‘What is a Speech Act?’ in The Philosophy of Language, ed. Searle, JR (London: Oxford University Press, 1971)

Stott, John, I Believe in Preaching (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1982)

McKay, John W, “The Old Testament and Christian Charismatic / Prophetic Literature” in Thompson, Barry P, Scripture: Meaning and Method (Hull University Press, Hull, 1987)

Ulmer, Ken, ‘My Words in Your Mouth’ in Leadership (Vol. XXIV Number 1, Winter 2003) pp. 85-88

Virkler, Henry A, Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1981)

von Rad, Gerhard, Biblical Interpretations in Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1977)

Wilson, Paul Scott, The Four Pages of the Sermon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999)

Woodruff, Mike and Moore, Steve, ‘An Honest Sermon’ in Leadership (Vol. XXIV Number 1, Winter 2003) pp. 32-36

Wright, NT, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992)

Appendix 1: Justice and Order

I suggest in the main body of the assignment that much of the conflict between rulers and prophets in the Bible can be seen as an example of the conflict between an ‘hermeneutic of order’ and an ‘hermeneutic of justice’.

I am aware, and note in the sermon, that the prophets were interested in much more than social justice. Also, the many conflicts between kings and prophets cannot all be understood as a conflict between order and justice. But, still, I believe that this is a valid way to characterise much of that conflict.

Firstly, a concern for order must surely push the person with that concern towards a ‘hermeneutic of order’: if you believe that it matters, you must also believe that it matters to God, and this will influence your interpretation of His commands and actions.

Secondly, justice and morality are deeply connected. In any social situation where one person has more power than another, then justice largely depends on morality: the strong do not oppress the weak because it is wrong to do so.

Those with power will tend to have a concern for order: as Machiavelli observed, they benefit from the present system, and have little incentive to see it changed. And it is a human characteristic to use power to get your own way, which is where justice and morality are required to act as a counter-balance.

We see the conflict between order and justice in passages such as John the Baptist confronting Herod about the immorality of his marriage to his brother’s wife (Mark 6:18), Nathan confronting David (2 Samuel 12:7) over Uriah and Bathsheba, and Elijah pronouncing judgement on Ahab for Naboth’s murder (1 Kings 21:20).

The conflict is also evident in passages such as the King of Israel seeking to kill the Syrian army, while Elisha ensures that they are fed and sent away safely (2 Kings 6:23).

I suggest in the assignment that “Social order and justice are both important; but when they come into conflict, it seems that God’s priority is for justice to be done.” On the other hand, it could be that those in power are often not able to distinguish between God’s plan for social order being maintained and their own interests and desires being fulfilled. The prophet must be outside the system because of the inevitable difficulty experienced by those within the system of telling the boss he has got it wrong.

The obvious example of a ruler acting to preserve the social order is when Saul performs the fatal sacrifice (1 Samuel 13:9) because ‘the people were scattering’: breaking the Lord’s command cannot be justified by reference to (calling on???) the public good.

Appendix 2: Hermeneutical Issues

According to Virkler, Hermeneutics is the “science and art of biblical interpretation” (1981, 16). He identifies the role of hermeneutics within the following context: Study of the Canon (leads to) Textual Criticism (leads to) Historical Criticism (leads to) Hermeneutics (leads to both) Biblical Theology (and) Systematic Theology.

While I agree with his definition, my own conceptual framework is somewhat different. I reject the ‘waterfall’ model, since our understanding of a relevant factor can influence not only our interpretation of the ‘downstream’ issues but also our understanding of the ‘upstream’ ones. In Virkler’s terms, our Theology influences our Hermeneutics, Historical Criticism can also influence Textual Criticism, and so on. Thus, it seems to me that we bring our understanding of all the following factors to bear when we attempt to determine the meaning of a passage of scripture.


The nature of scripture: fully human in origin, but also fully Divine in origin.

The creation of scripture: inspiration and revelation, and how the individuals concerned understood what was happening at the time.

The establishment of scripture: the historical processes, arguments, personalities and politics involved in establishing the canon of scripture.

The structure of scripture: identification of the main units and themes of scripture and the relationships between them. These include the existence and role of dispensations, the continuity or discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, the Lutheran distinction between law and grace and the relationship between Israel and the Church.


The text: the most accurate reconstruction, along with any variant readings or issues relating to the text.

The language: words, idioms, grammatical constructions and literary techniques (simile, metaphor, proverb, parable and allegory); connotation as well as denotation.

The literary genre: poetry, prose (letter, narrative, etc.) and apocalypse.

The literary construction: units, themes, arguments and applications.

Original Context

The historical context: politics, economics, customs, culture, geography.

The social context: for each passage, as well as each work, is the text being directed to a master, a servant or an equal; are the speaker and recipient(s) male or female, slave or free; is there an assumed debt or obligation?

The human context: what did the people involved value, hope and fear?

The philosophical context: how did the people involved understand themselves, the world they lived in, and the nature of fundamental concepts such as reality, truth, freedom, etc.?

The theological context: what did people believe when the text was set and when it was written?

The literary context: who wrote it; when, where and why was it written; who was it written for; what do we know of the sources, composition and compilation process?

Historic Interpretation

The meaning of the text for the original author(s) and/or editor(s).

The meaning of the text for the original hearers and/or recipients.

The meaning of the text for previous generations of Christians.

Contemporary Context

Contemporary society, and in particular the society in which I and my readers and/or hearers live. But there also needs to be some awareness of the other social settings in which people will be hearing and interpreting the Bible: while I may wish to proclaim the meaning of this text for the Church today, perhaps I am only able to proclaim the meaning for (for example) a white, middle-class congregation in a rich Western democracy.

Contemporary theology, and in particular those aspects of it embraced by my readers and/or hearers and myself.

Contemporary controversies, including theological ones.

Contemporary Interpretation

Sitting behind all these questions is the unanswerable but fundamental question: what did and does God intend the text to mean?

All these factors come together in enabling us to identify a meaning or range of meanings of the text for us today, in our particular sub-culture and theological niche, that not only makes sufficient sense but also has integrity when viewed on a wider historical and cultural canvas.

Appendix 3: Some Thoughts on Ambiguity

Many Biblical passages are ambiguous. It can be argued that ambiguity is inherent in any narrative, but some passages are more problematic than others. Some of the more obvious examples include:

Most preachers will have views on each of these questions, so they rarely cause difficulty in practice unless you share your pulpit, and someone else confidently asserts that God’s unchanging Word tells us the opposite of what you said the previous week.

The reality is that, even as a preacher, I don't have all the answers. I don't understand everything about the text. I'm not even entirely sure what in the passage is important, or why. Handling such situations in an honest and helpful way is a challenge similar to the one concerning the appropriate level of self-disclosure the preacher should provide in a sermon.

I don't have to pretend to omniscience, but neither do I need to flag up my ignorance as something the congregation needs to know.

Appendix 4: Literary Concerns

Greidanus reminds us that the main bulk of prophetic literature is recorded preaching [1988, 228]. however, this does not mean that faithfulness to the text in this context results in the preacher merely re-working the original sermon.

If the preacher is following a methodology in which it is important to correctly identify the literary unit on which to preach, this task is rendered more difficult in a large part of prophetic literature by the paucity of explicit identification of literary units. Also, the literary units in prophetic literature tend to stand on their own more than in the case of narrative texts, in which you can often assume not only that there is a connection between adjacent passages within the overall plot, but also that the latter passage is later in chronological terms unless the text suggests otherwise.

This difficulty contributed to my decision to avoid attempting an expository sermon that would have necessitated the identification and selection of literary units.

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