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Theological Interpretation and Powerful Preaching

Has the church lost the conviction that God speaks through his Word? I’ve heard far too many anemic sermons, and surely preached my share—sermons that present information, even connecting the dots of doctrine and application—but without addressing the hearers with the authority of the God who still speaks. We hear Christ speaking when the Word is faithfully preached (Rom. 10:14 οὗ … ἤκουσαν). As the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) acknowledges, preaching has authority: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God” (1.4).

Practically, recovering this sense of the power of God’s Word based on the nature of God’s Word [1] as divine address is one of the great blessings given the church today by the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS) movement. This is what has been so personally refreshing for me about reading the works of the late John Webster (1955-2016). He calls us to see Scripture’s ongoing proclamation as part of the historia salutis:

Scripture is not simply a text through which God has spoken but which is now delivered as it were inert and defenceless into our hands as raw material for our ‘use’; God speaks in Holy Scripture, and through the operation of the illuminating Spirit God orders and enables its reception. But as with inspiration, so with interpretation: the Spirit’s work does not circumvent the acts of creatures, but adopts them into his own activity, sanctifying them so that through them the Word’s rule is extended and glorified and creatures are blessed. The reception of Scripture forms part of the renewal of fellowship between God and creatures which is the end of reconciliation, a fellowship which is intellectual as well as moral. Scripture does not daze its readers, but quickens them to read, hear and keep the Word.[1] [2]

In other words, the canon may be closed, but the story of redemption goes on. And God’s Word and Spirit play a central role in that ongoing story. The kind of preaching that takes this seriously presents the Bible as God’s divine address to people today. God’s Word is living and active (Heb. 4:13)—not just an ancient text to a people long since departed. It conveys indispensable information, yes, and it is through those particular words of God that the Spirit brings encounter.

Instead of preaching that merely recounts the history of interpretation of a passage or its Sitz im Leben (various settings of the original text), as necessary as that sometimes is, we need preaching wherein the focus is on God confronting our sinful hearts with the law and the gospel. As Eugene Peterson put it, preaching is “subversive” of the world’s ways, norms, and solutions.[2] [3] Jesus himself confronted many with the truth: “immediately on the Sabbath [Jesus] entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:21-22).

This awe of God characterizes Theological Interpretation of Scripture, of which Webster was a father-figure. Kevin J. Vanhoozer captures this well in a pseudo-festschrift for Webster:

If pressed to offer a definition, I would say that theological interpretation of Scripture… is biblical interpretation that is ‘lost in wonder, love, and praise’ (Reformed theologians too can sing hymns by Charles Wesley). Wonder, because the subject matter of Scripture is God’s glorious plan and perfection; love, because we want to respond with our whole being, giving ourselves over to the obedience of this word; praise, because good theology always tends towards doxology.[3] [4]

These views hold Scripture in the highest regard; and preaching should reflect these goals—that people leave worship, by God’s grace and Spirit, “lost in wonder, love, and praise,” thinking, “Surely the LORD is in this place” (Gen. 28:16) and “God is really among you” (1 Cor. 14:25).

Scott Swain, another popularizer of TIS, likewise emphasizes serious attentiveness to the words of Scripture, “preserved from myopia and atomism because it attends to the various words of Holy Scripture under the promise of finding the Word made flesh therein.”[4] [5] Reading Scripture is no mere academic exercise, though it involves that. It is an interaction between Lord and servant. “Reading is…a living conversation between an eloquent Lord and his attentive servants,” Swain writes, “a conversation in which the reader is summoned to hear what the Spirit of Christ says to the churches (Rev. 2:7).”[5] [6] The same is true for preaching—it is an even more potent means of grace (Westminster Shorter Catechism 89 [7]). When preachers take seriously the nature of divine address and Scripture as the voice of God and means of grace, they invite response: “Speak, for your servant hears” (1 Sam. 3:9-10).

In this, preachers today must also retrieve the biblical focus on Christ as the chief subject matter of Scripture: “Him we proclaim” (Col. 1:28). Vanhoozer’s definition above touches on the importance of “the subject matter of Scripture.” The Bible speaks of many things—of ants and sluggards, of idols and worship, of parenting and dying well—but proclaiming what the Bible teaches about these things without relating each topic to who God is and what he has done in Christ will fall flat and feed moralism. Preaching that confronts sinners in their particular sins of lust, greed, idolatry, and pride will do so powerfully precisely because it puts the thrice-holy Triune God before us. We are to be confronted by a holy God and then comforted in a loving Savior. This relates our behavior to God—sin is against him (Ps. 51:4), and our fruits of the Spirit are for him and by him.

If we want preaching that truly confronts sin and spurs on love and good works, let us pray for and strive for the kind that Paul describes in Galatians 3:1: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” In the preaching Christ was “publicly placarded,” set out as on a billboard before their eyes.[6] [8] The NLT translation is more explanatory: “For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross.” Luther comments, “So vividly had he described Christ to them that they could almost see and handle Him. As if Paul were to say: ‘No artist with all his colors could have pictured Christ to you as vividly as I have pictured Him to you by my preaching.’”[7] [9]

If preachers desire that sinners be confronted by God’s holiness and grace, every sermon must portray the person and work of Jesus Christ as revealed in the particular contours of that sermon’s biblical text. As John Owen wrote, “Christ alone is to be preached absolutely, and all other truths as they begin, end, and centre in him. To propose the Lord Christ as amiable, desirable, useful, and every way worthy of acceptation, is the greatest duty of the dispensers of the gospel.”[8] [10]

Webster would go even further: Scripture’s task “is to astonish us; it doesn’t say to us what we want to hear, but says to us what must be said if we are to hear and respond to the truth of the gospel.”[9] [11] Though he was an academic theologian, Webster’s sermons, available in Confronted by Grace [12] and Christ Our Salvation [13], accessibly practice the principles of his scholarly work. They confront human sinfulness in a serious but winsome way and bring to the fore the key address of God to man and the questions a text makes us ask ourselves today. These sermons also often draw out things about the text that are true to life in terms of our experience. For example, most people do find Mark 9:2-10’s account of the transfiguration strange; “it’s all too fantastic.”[10] [14] Webster explains,

what Mark is pointing us to isn’t an odd little incident in the story of Jesus. He is trying to tell us about something quite basic: Jesus shares in the glory of God…Faced with the transcendent glory of God in Jesus, what’s required isn’t talk or religious business. What’s required is silence…what we are told is, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him’ (9:7). We’re commanded to listen.[11] [15]

May the church consistently hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in preaching and cry, “Glory!” (Ps. 29:9).

Andrew J. Miller [16] is the pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church (O.P.C.) [17] in Fredericksburg, VA. He is a graduate of Grove City College and Westminster Seminary California.


[1] [18] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason [19], 20.

[2] [20] Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor [21], 27-38.

[3] [22] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “‘EXEGESIS I KNOW, AND THEOLOGY I KNOW, BUT WHO ARE YOU?’ ACTS 19 AND THE THEOLOGICAL INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE,” in Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster [23], 290. Vanhoozer explains that for Webster, TIS is “interpretation characterized by a theological description of the origin, nature and purpose of the biblical texts, the living and acting word of God (Heb. 4:12), as well as their reception. It is important to acknowledge TIS as a proposal that concerns not only biblical texts but also their readers, original and contemporary.”

[4] [24] Scott R. Swain, The Trinity and the Bible: On Theological Interpretation [25], 61.

[5] [26] Swain, Trinity and the Bible, 62.

[6] [27] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians (The New International Greek Testament Commentary) [28], 147-8.

[7] [29] Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians [30].

[8] [31] John Owen, Commentary on Hebrews [32].

[9] [33] John Webster, Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian [12], 93.

[10] [34] Webster, Confronted by Grace, 93.

[11] [35] Webster, Confronted by Grace, 95-96.