Thursday, August 23, 2012

Preaching Romans Backwards

While I was at theological college a comment was made somewhere that you could expect to be an awful preacher until you've gotten past the 200 Sermon mark.  At the time I didn't think I was THAT bad.  It is only now, having been out in the Real World for 20 months where the usual practice has been to preach twice on a Sunday, that I have started to appreciate my limitations, take comfort from my progress, and acknowledge how far I have to go.  Nevertheless, I am still treating every Sunday that I am not treated to a hailstorm of rotting fruit as something of a bonus.

I don't think that I've learned as much about what it means to be a Preacher as I have from doing Romans this year.  I remember being shocked when told that many new ministers in recent years have avoided Romans like the plague, fearful no doubt of the controversial issues over which much ink has been spilled.  Perhaps the reason for my own enthusiasm has been because I've been Preaching Romans Backwards.

Now, this doesn't mean that I've started from chapter 16 and have been regressing through to chapter 1.  Rather, my approach to the text has been the reverse of that which has been modeled to me and which is in evidence in many commentaries.  When preparing a sermon there are always a number of questions that the preacher must ask of the text.  What I've tried to do is to ask these questions in the reverse order and see where this takes me.  Specifically, I've been asking the Pastoral questions first and leaving the Textual ones until last.  And I believe my preaching has been better for it.

Romans is a classic book with which to judge the traditional method.  I'm no expert on the critical history of Paul's most famous letter, but it is safe to say that in the Protestant Reformed tradition our exegesis has taken direction from the giants of Luther and Calvin.  However, the reality is that these two fine scholars and preachers were restricted by the dominant considerations of their social context, which was Doctrinal.  Calvin in his introduction to his Romans commentary, for example, states that the primary theme of the letter is "justification by faith".  In other words, Calvin saw the point of Paul's writing as theological.  In my opinion, while JBF is an extremely important pillar of Paul's argument in Romans it is a long way from being the REASON for the letter to the Romans being written.  Paul didn't sit down one day to convince a church he had never visited that they needed to trust in JBF.  Rather, he spends time convincing the Roman church that justification is by Faith and not Works Of The Law because he wants the life of the church to be shaped by this value.

As a result, the questions that have been paramount in my mind as I've been doing my exegesis have been, "What does Paul expect will be the practical implications of what he is telling them?" or "What sort of church does Paul want to see in Rome?"  These may seem like simple questions, but I found as I went though the epistle that my preaching flowed much easier, and where previously I would have bogged myself and my congregations in Word Studies or Theological Nitpicking I was able to drill right to the heart of the matter.

Let's take the second half of Romans 7 as a test case.  The arguments over whether Paul here is talking primarily about his Pre-Conversion or Post-Conversion experience, or indeed who the "I" in the passage really is, has been particularly acute.  If I was to ask the exegetical questions first, in the manner to which I have been instructed and by which the commentaries are organised, it would be highly unlikely that I could make sense of the passage.  Proponents of both the Pre and Post positions have mustered theological and grammatical points in favour of their position without any scoring a knockout punch.  However, if I decide to leave the textual and doctrinal questions to one side for a moment and look at what Paul's point is pastorally, the whole passage becomes remarkably simple to understand.  Paul is, after all, trying to demonstrate what the foundations of an obedient Christian life should be.  In response to the accusations that Paul was proposing a Keep On Sinning lifestyle, he had to show that this was not the case by outlining a viable alternate model.  So in Romans 7 he makes it quite clear that obedience by the Law will only lead back into the cycle of Sin and Condemnation.  However, Romans 8 proposes that obedience by the Spirit is a much better path to follow (he will outline the details in chapters 12-15).  If the preacher starts with textual questions then he will ask "Where does this fit chronologically in Paul's experience?"  If doctrinal questions are up front then it is "What does this passage tell us about Sin in the Christian Life?"  Both of these questions, while appropriate in their own way, are FAR removed from Paul's motivations.  Instead, if we ask the pastoral question of "Is this a model of obedience that is going to benefit you and others while you await Christ's return?", we will be asking a much better question.

Perhaps I've just been a bit slow in picking this up, but I've come to realise that the order in which you ask the questions can help you to know what are the right questions to ask.

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