There is a Seinfeld episode where Jerry is dating a girl he describes as a sentence finisher. “It’s like dating Mad Libs,” he says. And she was always completely off-base when she tries to complete his sentence.
We’ve been using the metaphor of a human relationship to give voice to what a love for God’s Word looks like. If I love someone, I try to understand them as they are, not as I presume them to be. Likewise, when I come to Scripture, I need to determine its meaning outside of myself, and my own frame of reference, my own experience.
David Helm, pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago and author of the book Expositional Preaching talks about impressionistic preaching. He contrasts artists like Monet and Renoir with the school of realism in painting. The masters of realism would look ten times at an object and paint a single line. The impressionists would do exactly the opposite. They weren’t concerned with portraying things as they were but rather as they perceived them to be.
When we prepare to preach, we need to resist temptation at the point of “impression.” The temptation is to let my study be governed by that which will make a good impression. It is easy to look at a text, locate one aspect of it, and say, “Wooo, that’ll preach!”
Relevance and application hold sway over much preaching and teaching in evangelicalism today. There was a classic preaching book written by John Stott that, in my opinion, sparked this emphasis. His book was entitled “Between Two Worlds” and he argued that there was a chasm between our times and the ancient times. He also contended that the greatest challenge was moving from the ancient world–the world of the text–to the modern world.
With all due respect to John Stott, I disagree. I believe it is the other direction that is most difficult. Application is not hard. I know the world I live in. The challenge is knowing what was going in Corinth or Ephesus or Jerusalem, not the town where I live. The real task is determining what the text intended to communicate through its original author.
The two poles of exposition are TEXT and TODAY. We live in the tension between the two. But before we can go to TODAY, we have to deal with the TEXT and the THERE/THEN. Only at that point are we ready to go to HERE/NOW, which has to do with TODAY.
What matters is meaning outside of myself, meaning that is grounded in original authorial intent, and meaning that is governed by original context. This is the ultimate concern of those who love the Word.