Intellectual preaching or preaching intellectualism?

Often, when one seeks to understand a portion of Scripture, a whole host of views and interpretations claim to have the definitive understanding of the passage. It is the task of the preacher to discern which view fits with a proper understanding of the rest of Scripture. Sometimes this choice boils down to taking an interpretation that fits in with the rest of Scripture or taking a view that seems utterly incongruous with it. For example, consider the miracles of Jesus.

We can either ascribe Jesus’ miracles as real, supernatural acts or; alternatively, as nothing more than natural phenomenon. The first of these two options harmonises with our understanding of who Jesus is, harmonises with the rest of Scripture and offers the most natural reading of these passages. The alternative view requires an unnatural reading of Scripture, lengthy explanations of the purpose of these miracles and a logic that would make any text meaningless. In these cases, it is not difficult to discern that the natural reading of the passage is the one that makes the most sense of not only these passages but other parts of Scripture too.

Often, however, this is not the choice presented to us in Scripture. The interpretations available, none of which obviously contradict central doctrines taught in Scripture, are equally feasible explanations of a passage but say entirely different things. For example, in Genesis 4:4-5 we are told of God accepting Abel’s offering but rejecting that of Cain. There are two popularly cited interpretations of this passage. The first suggests that Abel brought God of his best (‘Abel brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions’ Gen 4:4) while Cain merely brought some of his fruits, not his best (‘Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground.’ Gen 4:3). In this reading, Cain’s offering was rejected because of his heart – he had not brought his best to God. The alternative interpretation argues that God, in killing two animals to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness, had shown that he required a blood sacrifice in offerings from his people. Cain, in only bringing fruit, ignored God’s requirement and his sacrifice was rejected.

In this example, we see two seemingly legitimate views presented. Neither appears to obviously contradict doctrine of Scripture and both are feasible explanations of the passage. Nevertheless, the first interpretation is a straightforward reading of the passage and chimes with other parts of Scripture (Heb 11:4 states Abel offered, not an acceptable sacrifice and Cain an unacceptable one but, ‘a more acceptable sacrifice.’ We also see other parts of Scripture see God accept fruit offerings and we are not told the purpose of Cain and Abel’s offering, etc). The alternative view infers a command by God that was never expressed in Scripture before this point. It makes God appear very unfair (insisting on blood sacrifices without ever having explicitly said this is required) and does not harmonise with other parts of Scripture where God does accept non-blood offerings.

We can see a similar issue in Judges 11:30. Jephthah makes a rash promise to God that he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to meet him which subsequently turns out to be his daughter. One view suggests that Jephthah fulfils his promise and sacrifices his daughter to God. An alternative view suggests that in Jewish culture it was a terrible thing for a young woman to never marry. When Jephthah saw his daughter come out of his house, rather than physically sacrificing her, he merely sacrificed her virginity and the fact that she will never marry. The first interpretation is a natural reading of the passage and chimes with the theme in Judges (the children of Israel falling further away from God as the book progresses – Jephthah’s act being an example of how far Israel were from God). The alternative view requires an unnatural reading of the passage, insists upon an in-depth knowledge of Jewish customs and practices and does not chime with the theme of the book.

In both cases, the adoption of either view does not lead to inherent heresy. There are no central doctrinal issues necessarily affected by taking any one of the suggested interpretations above. In this sense it is not a fundamental problem for someone to take any of the aforementioned views. Perhaps, however, specifically because no central doctrine is at stake there exists an assumption that all views on the matter are legitimate or, at least, not of such great importance (that is they can be relegated to ‘secondary issues’). Therefore, to adopt any view on the passage is seen as quite legitimate and, at worst, a mere point of difference. This leads some to consciously make efforts to adopt a more academically intriguing view of a passage rather than the simpler, obvious one. It is as if some preachers feel they must have some ‘special insight’ into a passage that the ordinary church member might miss on first reading. Ultimately, this leads to the preacher adopting a very elegant view of the passage whilst missing the point entirely.

It is clearly important for us to have intellectual preaching in our churches. This means that our preaching should reach a certain intellectual standard and should be able to stand up to scrutiny. It should not be overly simplistic and should not sidestep clear and relevant issues. However, we must guard against simply preaching the most intellectually elegant interpretation and treating it, by virtue of its academic creativity, as the most sound interpretation. Where the meaning of a passage is clear we should seek to teach it clearly. An academic insight into the Bible, and a very elegant interpretation of a passage, might make us feel as though we are working on a higher intellectual plane but this does not mean we have truly grasped the meaning of a passage. We must seek to guard against merely adopting intellectual interpretations of Scripture for the sake of ego and, instead, should seek to teach that which the Bible makes clear – even if it is a bit obvious and doesn’t let us show off our intellectual capacity to understand God’s word!