Speaking with Authority: Content

I’m doing a series on preaching because I will be giving a sermon this coming Sunday.  In my last post of this series, I talked about the issue of delivering a message with authority.  In this post, I’ll wrestle with the issue of whether or not sermons should have authoritative content.

A while back, I had an exchange with the pastor of a church that my family occasionally attended.  The pastor wrote a booklet arguing that Christians were not required to observe the annual holy days (i.e., the ones in Leviticus 23).  My religion at the time was Armstrongism, and so I believed that Christians needed to keep the annual festivals.  (If I’m not mistaken, the pastor wrote the booklet in response to a question from someone in his congregation who had flirted with Armstrongism in the past.)  I wrote the pastor a letter detailing my problems with his arguments, and he wrote me back.

I’m not going to get into what the pastor argued and what I argued when it comes to the annual holy days.  I will, however, mention something that the pastor said in his letter that stays with me to this day, and that especially comes to my mind when I think about the topic of preaching.  The pastor said that the pulpit is not a place for “I suppose so”s, for the word of God must be clear and direct.

I didn’t think much about that statement at the time, probably because I agreed with the pastor that the pulpit was not a place for “I suppose so”s.  I thought that the Bible was clear and direct, and that it promoted the doctrines in which I believed—-end of story.  In my mind, there was no “I suppose so” about it!

After spending time in academia and the pulpit, however, “I don’t know” and “I suppose so” became a greater part of my vocabulary.  For one, academia can be a place of “I suppose so”.  Granted, people there are expected to arrive at theses and to defend them rigorously, but I often got the feeling that there wasn’t a whole lot of solid ground on which I could stand.  We were told that there is a lot that we do not know, and, in writing papers, I often felt that I had to qualify practically everything I said—-so as to avoid generalizations or unmerited dogmatism, or to convey that I was aware of nuance.

Second, over time, I have learned more about debates on biblical interpretation.  Just doing my weekly quiet times and daily quiet times, and going through various commentaries, I notice that there are different ideas about what a number of biblical passages mean, and why the passages say what they say, in the way that they’re saying it.  I can pick the option that makes the most sense to me, in light of the evidence, but things are not always that clear, at least from my perspective.  I’m the sort of person who thinks that there are strengths and weaknesses to all sorts of contradictory positions.  I’m like Larry, the “foolosopher” in Eugene O’Neill’s play, “The Iceman Cometh”: I cannot be much of a political zealot for the simple reason that I see positives and negatives in different beliefs about issues.  And you know what?  In terms of my life so far, I believe that I have only scratched the surface when it comes to interpreting the Bible, for there is so much left for me to learn.  How exactly can I not “suppose so”, when that is the case?

But is the pulpit a place for “I suppose so”s?  Does a sermon have to be black-and-white, or can it recognize nuance or shades of gray?  As I think back to the sermons that I have heard, even those that acknowledged shades of gray or tensions sought to provide us with some solid ground (see here)—-we needed something to take with us when we walked out of the service, something that we could apply to our daily lives.  If a preacher muddies the waters too much, then what exactly can we walk out of the service with?

What sort of sermons do I prefer—-ones that are nuanced, or ones that are authoritative?  I think that I desire some solid ground.  There are so many “if”s, “and”s, and “but”s in the world, that I’d love for someone to give me clear direction as to what I should do.  At the same time, I tend to be repulsed by one-size-fits-all Christianity, especially when I’m being told to do something that is contrary to who I am.  In such cases, maybe I’d like a little more nuance.

In terms of my coming sermon this Sunday, there won’t be a whole lot of “I suppose so”s.  I realize that there are a lot of ways out there to interpret—-and even to translate—-the Book of Job.  It’s a hard book!  But I don’t plan on presenting the different options on how to interpret Job, and one reason is that I don’t want people walking out of the service thinking, “Well, why should we even believe in the Bible, if we don’t even know what it means?”  There are people who would criticize me here, and I would agree with them that it may be appropriate at some point to open that can of worms and to wrestle with ambiguity.  I just don’t think that my fifteen minute sermon is the time or the place to do that!  Rather, I’ll be sticking with a certain interpretation of the Book of Job, as I draw points of application from that.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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