From Story Interpretation to Sermon CraftingBy Charles R. Dickson (Wipf & Stock, 2011)

Dickson is Associate Pastor at Blomvlei Road Baptist Church, and a part-time lecturer at Cape Town Baptist Seminary. His goal is to utilize the current advances in literary interpretation of OT narratives to preaching. Essentially, Dickson’s method may be summarized thus: The text is broken down into narrative units, and a “main point” is formulated for each, after attending to the structure and repetitions in the story. These points are then integrated into one single “exegetical idea” for the whole text, following which one comes up with a “theological idea,” and then “the preaching idea is formulated using the theological idea and writing it in language that is situation specific and contemporary” (25–28, 153). The skeletal structure of this paradigm is not new: exegesis to theology to preaching has been widely accepted in homiletical circles for the last several decades, as readers of this Journal are well aware.

However, my concern with such an approach—Dickson’s or others’—is the tendency towards reductionism. A text once reduced to its exegetical idea can then be conveniently disposed of, for the preacher only has to work with that idea, converting it sequentially into theological and preaching ideas. It appears then that what is being preached is the reduced idea, not the text itself with all its power, potency, and pathos. One is reminded of Craddock’s pungent criticism of this modus operandi: “[T]he minister boils off all the water and then preaches the stain in the bottom of the cup” (Preaching, 123). The danger, of course, is the assumption that God made a mistake all along—he should just have given us these reduced ideas rather than a commodious volume of arcane poetry, sentimental narratives, and weird prophecies.

There are numerous examples of Dickson’s method in his book. However, the move from structure analysis to discerning the significance of such discoveries of structure is lacking. I kept asking, “So what?” to many of the Dickson’s astute observations of literary shaping of narrative texts. So what if Gen 25:20–26 is structured chiastically with its centerpiece being the oracle of God explaining the struggle in Rebekah’s womb? (80–81). And so what if Gen 25:19–34 is structured, this time, alternating between narration and discourse (92–94)? A third time, Gen 25:20–26 is structured a bit differently from the previous two instances (103–107), but again, so what? In a fourth iteration (147–52), Dickson provides a number of “main points,” one for each portion of the text, 25:19–21, 22–23, 24–28, and 24–34. For instance, the main point of 25:19–21 is “Isaac waited and prayed earnestly to the Lord for twenty years before sons were born to him.” So? Finally, in a fifth attempt at the same text (157–60), we have an “exegetical idea” (“The threat to the Abrahamic promissory-covenant was fulfilled”), a “theological idea” (“The promise of God to his people may at times seem under threat, but he is in control and will fulfill his promises”), and the “preaching idea” (“God is committed to your personal, and our corporate, spiritual and material wellbeing and integrity, despite the circumstances”). Does one really need “structured-repetition” to arrive at these conclusions which, to me, are merely summaries of the events behind the text, not really an expression of what the author is doing with what he is saying? “In a sense, the process involves decomposing the narrative, getting back to the basic idea which is the basis of the story” (154; emphases mine). This reverse-engineering approach, to me, is what is wrong with reductionistic biblical interpretation for preaching. One would think God should just have given us those “basic ideas,” laying aside every textual encumbrance that so easily entangles the hapless reader! (I also found Dickson’s handling of the same text five times, each time somewhat differently, rather confusing.)

All this to say, while I am in agreement that “structure is fundamental and indispensable for meaning in communication” (101), I remain unconvinced that “structured-repetition,” at least as demonstrated in this work, is a sufficient hermeneutic for OT narrative interpretation for preaching. Nonetheless, Dickson has provided a sturdy account of OT narrative structure and will surely stimulate further thought on how best one can employ these perspicacious observations to get at what the author is doing with what he is saying. This, I believe, is the right track to be on. We’re just not at the destination yet.

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 13.1 (2013): 62–64

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