The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative

Mathewson, Steven D. The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 2002. 279 pp. $26.00

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In The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative, Steven Mathewson (instructor in preaching and Old Testament at Montana Bible College) strives, “to help preachers excel at preaching Old Testament narrative texts” (14). Heavily dependent upon Haddon Robinson for a methodology of sermon preparation, Mathewson states that the main goal of studying the text is to, “determine the author’s intent and to describe this intent in a single sentence” (34). [1] The task of preaching, then, is to “craft a sermon that exposes the meaning of the text and [apply] that meaning to [the] hearers” (27).

Mathewson is convinced that to preach narrative texts well, the preacher must strive to become a good storyteller. Communication and proclamation, from his vantage, are of little value when preaching a narrative text. Instead, faithfully preaching story demands that, in Mathewson’s view, “the preacher’s primary tactic will be telling the story well” (132).

Critique

Mathewson’s description of various approaches to preaching – inductive, deductive, inductive-deductive, semi-inductive, and first-person narrative – is extremely helpful to the inexperienced preacher who approaches every text in search for three points. However, one might counter that any sermon that strives to allow the text to determine the sermon shape, will naturally develop into any of these categories (other than first-person narrative) without requiring the approach or model to be artificially introduced or thrust upon the text. His reminder that, “the dramatic action that makes your point comes at the end of each section,” rather than the beginning in inductive sermons will free a preacher from the shackles of points followed by sub-points (124). However even these golden nuggets are not worth slogging through his other instructions.

Mathewson’s approach begins with the assumption that the most faithful method of communicating narrative texts is to become a storyteller – or more generously, to become a story re-teller. But is that the preacher’s call? Or, is the responsibility of the preacher to faithfully and accurately communicate the story that the Divine Author has told? If we are to be storytellers, then creativity is to be encouraged. However, if we are proclaimers of the story, we do not dare put ourselves in that role. We do not need to “dream up catchy statements,” like Mathewson describes (105). We do not have the right to impose our words upon God’s Word. Our task is to proclaim and communicate faithfully, articulately, and accurately. Creativity is simply not in our job description.

Mathewson suggests preachers, “think about replacing the physical pulpit with a music stand or a smaller lectern that you can move off to one side when you preach” (155). In doing so, the preacher is granted more room to move around and an easier, more natural connection with the congregation. But he misses the very purpose of the pulpit. The pulpit highlights the Word of God as the centerpiece of Christian worship. The pulpit elevates the Scriptures as the most important, most emphatic thing in the believer’s life. The pulpit figuratively hides the preacher behind the Word because the preacher has no authority that is not stemmed directly from the Word.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Mathewson’s treatment of the text is that he consciously moralizes the texts used as examples. For Mathewson, every text becomes about a general principle about what believers can do or should do, rather than a specific example about what God has done.

Mathewson defends this use of Old Testament narratives by arguing, “Paul recognized the validity of looking at Old Testament narratives for examples of how or how not to live (1 Cor. 10:6,11)” (100). In similar fashion, he argues for the use of props, stating that God instructed such prophets as Ezekiel and Jeremiah to do so (120). However, his argument fails on the account that neither Mathewson nor his students have that mandate. They are not actors in the stories. They are called to faithfully communicate those stories, but are not themselves a part of them. There is a distinct difference in communicating God’s actions or commands and using those same actions or commands to justify our own creative impulses.

Mathewson, in storyteller fashion, wants his hearers to find themselves in the story. He wants them to smell, hear, taste, and experience the story as though the story was really about them. Lost in the discussion is the reality that it simply is not.

Old Testament narratives have the tremendous capability of causing the reader to fall to their knees in the acknowledgment of God’s majesty and glory. They cause worshipers to marvel at the loving-patience of the God who redeems a people, rather than destroy them for their rebellion. They speak of God’s sovereign hand at work behind the scenes, even in the lives of those who refuse to submit themselves to Him. These are not tales of how we are supposed to live. These are tales told to bolster our faith. This is why we must preach Old Testament narratives. But we must do better than to preach them in this way.

Steven D. Mathewson, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative


1. Click here for my review of Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching.

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