Biblical theology and expository preaching


Gavin Ortlund:

How does a preacher “know nothing but Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) when preaching through Leviticus or Lamentations? What does it mean to be “gospel-centered” when you’re leading a Bible study on the locusts of Joel, or the false teachers of Jude?

We all want to be Christ-centered in our teaching and preaching. But it’s not always obvious how each particular text of Scripture gets us to Christ. One of the most helpful tools for connecting the dots—and simultaneously one of the most neglected—is biblical theology, which (in evangelical circles) refers to the art of reading thematically across the entire Bible as one story.

To learn more about biblical theology, and its relevance for expository preaching, I corresponded with Graeme Goldsworthy, former lecturer at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia, and author of numerous helpful books on biblical theology, including Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching (Eerdmans, 2000) and Christ-Centered Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical Foundations and Principles (IVP Academic, 2012).

What is biblical theology, and what difference does it make in expository preaching?

For an evangelical who believes in the inspiration, authority, and reliability of Scripture, biblical theology is the study of the progressively revealed plan of God for his kingdom. It sets out to uncover the nature of the one narrative—with all its diversity—of God’s redemptive plan in salvation history. It acknowledges the centrality of the person and work of Jesus Christ in his gospel and seeks to understand the way in which he is revealed as the interpretive principle of all reality.

Biblical theology is not only helpful to expository preaching; it is essential. Preaching won’t be truly expository if it stops within the boundaries of the text with which the sermon is dealing. Preaching needs biblical theology to show how any text relates to the whole Bible, to Christ, and thus to the Christian.

How can biblical theology help preachers offer Christ-centered messages that reflect the underlying unity of the biblical story?

The unity of the Bible is not always apparent to readers. But it is clearly asserted by Jesus and the apostles (e.g., Luke 24:27). Biblical theology examines the nature of the Bible’s unity, its structure and its dynamics. It therefore helps the reader of Scripture map out the legitimate path from each text to Christ, particularly when dealing with Old Testament texts.

While researching for Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, I was astonished to find that most books on preaching—including those by evangelicals—didn’t even acknowledge the role of biblical theology. I think that may be changing, but we have a long way to go. Until all Reformed and evangelical seminaries and colleges make biblical theology a basic core course, I fear the changes will not be sustained. And biblical theology cannot be left to the biblical studies departments, because they typically divide Old Testament from New Testament.

When and how should we hold up biblical characters as examples of faith to emulate?

It’s important not to overreact to exemplary preaching; the Bible is full of examples. But the Christian is primarily exhorted to grow to be like Christ, not to be like Abraham or Moses or whomever. Other biblical characters can be appealed to as exemplars of faith when it’s clear from their relationship to Christ in what way they are. For instance, Hebrews 11 clearly portrays Old Testament heroes as models of faith and courage, but it also makes the source of our faith “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (12:2). Ultimately, the writer sees the heroes of faith as pointing us to Christ: we are to imitate their example, but the power to do so only comes by looking to Jesus.

What is typology and when should a preacher use it? Can you give examples?

Typology is the technical term that relates to the way the Old Testament narratives, institutions, events, and persons foreshadow in various ways the person and work of Christ. It is generated by the testimony of Jesus and the New Testament writers that God’s unfolding plan in the historical experience of God’s people in the Old Testament is a shadow of the reality revealed in Christ. The type is often explicitly confirmed in the prophetic promise of the future. The New Testament shows in what various ways Christ is the antitype or fulfilment.

Preachers should refer to typology when moving from the Old Testament to Christ. They can include the occasional series (say, six or eight sermons) exploring a biblical-theological theme, like law or temple or priesthood or kindgom. The typology should be based on the scriptural evidence, and not on the preacher’s imagination or on the association of ideas.

All the major dimensions of kingdom revelation in Old Testament history are typological: creation, covenant, exile and exodus, promised land, tabernacle/temple, dominion/kingship, and of course prophet, priest, king, and wise man.

Suppose you’re preaching or teaching on David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. How would an understanding of biblical theology affect how you interpreted and applied this story to God’s people?

David is the anointed king of God’s people who does for them what they can’t do for themselves. Biblical theology alerts us to the direct line that runs from David through to Jesus. He is the savior of Israel, the shadow of the anointed one (the Christ). He stands in their place and wins the victory for them. Biblical theology doesn’t prevent us from appreciating and aiming to emulate David’s courage and faith in this passage, but it also directs us to the larger themes running throughout the entire Old Testament, centered on the expectation of a coming Messiah who would redeem God’s people from their sins.

Thus a preacher approaching this text from the standpoint of biblical theology would more naturally encourage his listeners to identify themselves, not with David, but with the frightened Israelites whom David saves. Attempts to make David merely an example of faith runs the risk of sending the message that, given enough faith, we can save ourselves.

Following Donald Robinson, you offer a three-stage approach to biblical theology that places special emphasis on the kingship of David. How does this differ from other approaches to biblical theology?

Among those who write from a Reformed evangelical position there’s a fair amount of agreement over some kind of epochal structure to revelation. I’ve examined some of the differences between Robinson (and me) and men like Geerhardus Vos and Edmund Clowney. They make the period from Moses to Christ a single epoch, which I think clouds the transition within this period from kingdom history to prophecy. Additionally, those who follow the “drama” model for Scripture seem to find the non-narrative sections (wisdom, psalms, prophetic oracles) problematic. The three-stage structure, I maintain, provides a better understanding of the relationships within redemptive history. It attaches greater significance to the importance of David within redemptive history, and the transitional role he plays within Old Testament eschatology. As I put it in Christ-Centered Biblical Theology, “Nothing happens after Solomon in the history of Israel to improve the glorious pattern of the revealed kingdom and the way of salvation” (148).

Our differences from the vast number of biblical theologians who operate under a hermeneutic of suspicion, doubting the authority of the Bible, are generated by the radical differences in our understanding of the Bible as a God-inspired unity.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s