Just this week my sister and I were talking about some different authors and their approach to biblical interpretation. We discussed some books in particular that demonstrated what felt like two extremes: one, making definitive claims about God’s activity in a specific passage and its meaning for us (one could say a moralistic approach), and the other, leaving the story un-interpreted, so to speak, and simply presenting the narrative of what God has done in a particular time and place (what my sister observed as the dominant trend in post-modernity).
As a preacher, I thought about what kinds of choices we make in the pulpit that take us in one direction or the other. It was timely, then, to stumble across a recent post on Wesley on William Willimon’s blog last night that spoke to this issue. The entire lecture (delivered at Christ College, Cambridge) is completely worth reading (or listening to–podcasts are now available!–and if you have never heard Willimon preach I recommend you do so), but I quote here in part:
God is not an idea, an abstraction, a source of meaning, a wholly other, a general concept, or a technique to help us make it through the day; God is the One who presently, directly speaks, creates, intrudes, convicts, enlightens, demands, commands, passionately loves, continually transforms. Wesleyâ€™s biblical interpretation is a sort of anti-interpretation in which he assumes that God speaks through scripture, every word of it. Rather than assume that the task of the interpreter is to make the text more meaningful to sophisticated, modern people who drive Volvos, Wesley seems to assume that the task of the text is to make the interpretersâ€™ lives more difficult.
He goes on to later describe listening to a collection of recent sermons preached by pastors under his supervision and care:
One sermon began well enough, the Second Sunday of Christmas, Luke 2, young Jesus putting the temple elders through their paces, abandoned by Mom and Dad. After reading the text, and noting Jesusâ€™ amazing ability to stupefy professional scholars, the preacher then sailed off into a veritable shopping list of things we needed to do. We were told that we must resolve, in the coming year, to be more proficient in study of Godâ€™s word. We should strive to â€œincrease in wisdom and in statue.â€ We ought to spend more time with our families (despite Jesusâ€™ abandonment of his own family).
Note how quickly, how effortlessly, and predictably the preacher disposed of a story about Jesus and transformed it into a moralistic diatribe about us. Moving from a text that simply declares what Jesus did and, by implication, who Jesus is, the preacher moved to a moralistic rant on all the things that we need to do if we (lacking a living, active God) are to take charge of our lives and the world.
This is what Barth condemned as â€œreligion,â€ defined in Romans as â€œa vigorous and extensive attempt to humanize the divine, to make it a practical â€˜somethingâ€™, for the benefit of those who cannot live with the Living God, and yet cannot live without Godâ€¦.â€
Of course, most congregations that I know love such moralistic Deism. The subtext is always, You are gods unto yourselves. Through this insight, this set of principles, this well applied idea you can save yourselves by yourselves. Whether preached by an alleged theological conservative or would be liberal, weâ€™re all Schliermachians now. Theology is reduced to anthropology because unlike Wesley, weâ€™re obsessed with ourselves rather than God. God is humanity spoken in a resonate, upbeat voice backed up with power-point presentation.
Dr. Willimon is scheduled to teach a course in preaching for Fuller’s Doctor of Ministry program. I have already notified Doug that I will become a total nuisance while he is there, finding regular excuses to visit my husband at work and lurk outside of the classroom where Willimon is teaching.