Timothy Keller continues to publish thought-provoking and (mostly) worthwhile books. While I’ve had my concerns about some of his positions, I can also appreciate some of the good contributions he makes. This book on preaching covers a lot of familiar ground, but it also makes a few insightful observations that I haven’t encountered elsewhere. Rather than review the entire book, let me just share one of the points I found to stir up the grey matter.
The first chapter includes a discussion about expository preaching. Keller notes that oftentimes such preaching is conceived of in such a way that every biblical text must have one main point and that one main point must become the theme of the sermon. However, “this assumes that every biblical text has only one big idea or main point to it” (42). This rule, while generally helpful, can be taken too far. Because, as Keller rightly observes, “In some Bible passages it is not easy to discern one central idea” (43). He then gives several examples, mostly drawn from biblical narratives. Here’s one of them:
Then there is the strange account of the the seven sons of Sceva (Acts 19:11-20) who tried to cast a demon out of a man “in the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches.” In the comical result, the demon talked back through the man to the would-be exorcisers: “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” before leaping upon and beating all seven of the sons. What was Luke trying to get across to us by including this incident in his book of Acts? I’ve heard a number of great expositions of this passage, and all of them were grounded in the text and not contradictory of one another. Nevertheless, they were not the same. Multiple valid inferences can be drawn from such narratives, from which a wise preacher can select one or two to fit the capacities and needs of his listeners. (43)
I think Keller is correct, I’ve seen it several times in my own sermon preparation over the years, although I would also add this: what is the Holy Spirit trying to get across to us? Cannot the Holy Spirit have multiple purposes in a text of Scripture? Why not?
The book is richly footnoted — nearly 50 pages of footnotes! Some of the footnotes take things a bit further in terms of discussion. This is also true with the matter above. In footnote 16 in chapter 1, Keller points out that this idea of one central proposition in a text (and therefore in a sermon) is drawn from classical rhetoric. The problem is that the Bible is not, by and large, a work of classical rhetoric. Thus, “identifying what the theme is can be fairly subjective” writes Keller. The concept of a big idea can become somewhat forced, although Keller grants again that there are some passages where the concept definitely works. His summary (summarizing a footnote!): “We must be careful of a kind of ‘expository legalism’ — in which it is assumed that there can be only one exegetically accurate sermon and sermon theme on any one passage” (250). In the next footnote, he also adds that this should not be misunderstood as saying that “the biblical text itself has multiple or indeterminate meanings.” The Bible is not a wax nose which can be turned which ever way you please.
I want to add one other element to this discussion, something which Keller unfortunately doesn’t touch on: what exactly is a text? Some of this discussion really depends on how you define a text for preaching. Consider this comment of Keller: “…there are places like Proverbs, in which it is notoriously difficult to see unifying themes in the chapters and in which often every verse provides a new ‘big idea.’ ” (250). But who would argue that a chapter in Proverbs (well, most of the chapters anyway — there are exceptions like chapters 7-9) provide a text for expository preaching? Having preached on Proverbs a few times, I think most of those verses are self-contained texts for preaching, either individually or in connection with one or more neighbouring verses. This is all the more true when you consider that chapter divisions were added to the text long after it was originally written. Many times chapter divisions are helpful in seeing some flow of thought in Scripture, but many other times they are just arbitrary and artificial additions, sometimes more a hindrance than a help. In other words, the chapters don’t necessarily define a “passage” or “text.” Because he doesn’t tackle this, there is a lack of clarity in Keller’s discussion on the definition of a “Bible passage” versus “a text.”