Propositional Preaching?

I’ve been doing some reading on canon this morning in preparation for a lecture of text and canon for my OT class. Working through Stephen B. Chapman’s article “Reclaiming Inspiration for the Bible” in Canon and Biblical Interpretation, I found interesting his discussion of an evangelical tendency toward “propositional revelation” as an answer to the question of the autographs of the text and later manuscripts in relationship to the canon. That is, concepts and doctrines remain intact, even through the text may suffer at the hands of later transmitters. In contrast, he argues that the Bible does more than convey concepts and doctrines; rather, the text also (1) “gives its hearers and readers a narrative world to live in” and (2) gives “phrases and rhythms” that “linger in the mind” and stories that “often provoke questions more than they provide answers” (p. 178). His point is that “[t]he literary features of the Bible cannot simply be peeled away in the search for propositional formulations” (p. 179). It’s at this point that he footnotes the following observation:

Sadly, the isolation and extraction of ‘principles’ from the biblical text is precisely what passes for theological interpretation in much current evangelical teaching and preaching.

I find this interesting and worthy of more thought, for if you are like me, that’s the primary way you were taught to approach the text when developing a sermon. The questions I have at first response:

  1. How do I adequately convey the literary features of the text in my preaching?
  2. Are preaching propositionally and preaching toward the significance of the text one and the same thing? [I already tend away from thinking about the text’s meaning and then turning to things about application. I think significance handles this turn toward the appropriation of the text to the modern audience better.]
  3. How does his statement square with the various types of literature within the text? That is, does propositional preaching excel in the epistles of the NT but flounder in OT narrative texts?
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Author: Randy McKinion

Besides being a husband and father, I teach at Cedarville University in Cedarville, OH.

1 thought on “Propositional Preaching?”

  1. I’m finally catching up on my Google Reader, so I apologize for interacting with this a month later. I don’t claim to have answers to your questions, but I do think that an over-emphasis on propositions is what leads one to preach 1 Samuel 17 as overcoming the giants in your life and exhortations to “Dare to be a Daniel.”

    I’m not sure that those are entirely wrong as the OT narrative gives us positive and negative examples. But I think that they sell the text short if they don’t point us to the big picture. Surely the book of Judges shows us what happens left to our own devices. But if we stop there it’s like saying that “Empire Strikes Back” tells the full story of Star Wars. Sure, they are complete stories in their own rights, but they definitely lose a lot of meaning if they aren’t connected to the big story.

    I preached on Psalm 146 a few weeks ago and it basically came down to saying, “You’re not going to get 7 principles for changing your life out of this. But you are going to see the importance of praising God and why we should do it.” I think sometimes the “application” is more about changing how we think about God than an imperative to go and do something.

    The Reformed folks I listen to continually harp on the indicative/imperative dichotomy. So much of what we call “propositional preaching” is really just heaping more law on people because we present imperatives without the indicatives. As you know, I come from a world that is obsessed with being “relevant” and “practical.” But when I come to church I want to hear more about who God is. What could be more relevant?

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