Wednesday Questions: Steve Mathewson on Christ-Centered Preaching

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Steve Mathewson is pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Libertyville. He's author of the excellent book The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative, and teaches preaching for the doctoral programs at Denver Seminary and Western Seminary, and the Master of Divinity program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

I've learned a lot from Steve, and I appreciate his ministry. I'm pleased that he was willing to answer some questions about preaching Christ from all of Scripture.

Steve will be checking comments today. Be sure to leave a comment if you want to interact with anything that Steve says.

You talk about three approaches to preaching: man-centered, God-centered, and Christ-centered. Could you unpack these terms for us?

Yes, I'll be glad to try! A man-centered approach focuses almost exclusively on what we can learn from the human characters in a narrative. For example, we need to be more like David or less like David, more like Ruth or less like Ruth (although I can't think of anything about Ruth that is not worth emulating). At the other end of the continuum is Christ-centered preaching. This approach focuses almost solely on how a narrative points forward to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Some discussions seem to imply that these are the only options. But there is a mediating position which I call a God-centered or theological approach. It is similar to the "theocentric" approach which attributed to John Calvin by Sidney Greidanus in Preaching Christ from the Old Testament. A God-centered approach starts by asking how a particular narrative contributes to the theological message which is developing within a particular narrative book. In doing so, it will observe how a particular narrative anticipates the gospel of Jesus Christ. But it will also focus on any exhortation or "ethical thrust" (a term Greidanus used) inherent in the narrative. In the process, it may touch on how a character exemplifies a proper or improper response to God's character and commands.

There seems to be a renewed emphasis on Christ-centered (redemptive-historical) preaching. What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?

One of the great strengths of the Christ-centered or redemptive-historical approach is its focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ -- the one in whom God's revelation culminates. Christ-centered preaching helps listeners see the whole storyline in the Bible, a storyline which finds its focus and its resolution in the person and work of Christ. The weakness, I think, is such a strong over-reaction to man-centered preaching that there is no place for exemplary exhortation -- challenging listeners to imitate or reject the example of a character.

Is it sometimes okay to preach exemplary sermons, in which we highlight the positive qualities of Bible characters?

Yes, although I would prefer to say that we preach God-centered sermons will will, on occasion, include the challenge for believers to follow or reject the example of a particular character. Interestingly, D. A. Carson picked up on this in a recent interview with R. C. Sproul. Carson said that while it is good that pastors have moved away from preaching moralizing sermons to preaching sermons which reflect an awareness of biblical-theological trajectories, it's unfortunate that preachers forget the moral categories. That's my paraphrase of what he said! After all, gospel-centered preaching, I would argue, must press call God's people to live in alignment with the gospel of Christ. I see that in texts like Galatians 2:14 and Philippians 1:27. I encourage preachers to start by focusing on the theological message or even the prophetic message communicated by the narrative. This recognizes that big chunks of Old Testament narrative literature are found in the Torah (so given for our instruction) and the Former Prophets (so given to communicate a prophetic message). In some cases, the exhortation or the prophetic challenge given by the narrator will not line up with what the characters do, but sometimes it will. The Ehud story in Judges 3:12-30 is an example of the former, while the Deborah/Barak/Jael story in Judges 4 is the latter. I do not tell listeners to "be like Ehud," because I'm not convinced that the prophetic challenge aligns with his example. The story, I believe, challenges people not to be discouraged because God delivers his people in surprising, unexpected ways. However, I do tell listeners not to be like Barak but to be like Jael. It seems to me that the message of Judges 4 is something like: God wins victories (or advances his kingdom) through people who have the courage to obey his word. Ironically, Barak had a clear word from the LORD while Jael did not. Yet, despite her weak social position and the lack of a clear word from the LORD like the military general, Barak had, she was the one who received the honor in the story.

Are there some general principles you follow as you preach Christ from the Old Testament?

Yes. I always start with the theology of the text, and then bring that into the context of biblical theology. I bring the theological message of a narrative into the context of biblical theology by running it through the lens of the new covenant -- that is, all that Jesus and the apostles taught -- and by pursuing what Greidanus calls "the way of analogy." In other words, I expect that God's actions in the Old Testament are analogous with the way that he acts through Jesus the Messiah. To be honest, I haven't reflected as deeply as I should on the the six "ways" Greidanus suggests for moving from the Old Testament to Christ. But my sense is that I'm using the ways of promise-fulfillment, analogy, longitudinal themes, and contrast more than I use analogy. This goes back to a previous question, but one of the problems I see with some Christ-centered approaches to preaching Old Testament narrative is the only approach used is the way of typology. This results in trying to find "types" of Christ in characters like Ehud or Samson or Jephthah. I do not see how Samson is a type of Christ! To be sure, he is an anti-type (way of contrast), but not a real type. Again, I think the key is locating a story in the flow of redemptive-history, noting how it fits into a developing biblical theology which finds its center and its climax in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

What encourages you and discourages you about the state of preaching these days?

Wow, this is a big question! I am discouraged when I hear Christians clamoring for "inspiring messages," and then observing that what they really want are messages which simply address felt needs. This takes precedent over a serious study of the text. At the same time, I am discouraged when expositors do not help their listeners with application and instead settle for what I call a "content dump." I also get discouraged when expositors flatten out the biblical text, meaning that they are insenstive to the literary genres and forms in which God communicated Scripture. It seems to me that preaching a Bible-shaped word in a Bible-shaped way will help our people overcome the blandness and boredom that comes with hearing the same preacher say the same things the same way every week. There is wonderful variety in the literature of the Bible. But if we preach Revelation like we preach Ephesians, or Psalms like we preach Romans, or Esther like we preach 1 Peter, our listeners will miss out on the rich ways in which God communicates his word. Some people speak the language of poetry more fluently than discourse, or discourse more fluently than story. What encourages me about the state of preaching is a new generation of expositors who are committed to the gospel, to preaching, and even to preaching the Bible in a way that takes advantage of the various literary strategies used by the writers. I see creativity within the proper biblical limits. I am encouraged that we are getting better commentaries which interact with the literary and theological dimensions of the text, and I am encouraged with some of the great contributions to biblical theology which will enhance and enrich our preaching. The most recent of these is Greg Beale's A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New. All of this bodes well for the state of preaching as we move deeper into the twenty-first century.

Thanks, Steve.

Any questions or comments for Steve? Leave a comment.

Review - The Pastor: A Memoir

Eugene Peterson is known in some circles as the guy who got a little too excited about The Shack, the guy who stuck up for Rob Bell, and the guy who created The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language : Numbered Edition. In other words, three strikes against him.

But Peterson is also the guy who's written books on the pastoral vocation that stand against the current of the North American church. Books like The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, and Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity are gifts to the church and have much to teach us about the shape of pastoral ministry.

So who exactly is Eugene Peterson? The guy who endorses and produces suspicious books, or the guy who writes books that should be read by pastors everywhere?

It turns out that Eugene Peterson is both. In The Pastor: A Memoir you encounter Peterson as the man who discovers that Henry Emerson Fosdick, a renowned liberal, isn't so bad after all; who finds unity in a group of pastors who range "from Christian to Jew, from conservative to liberal, and nearly every shade in between." If you go looking, there's enough to get Peterson written up in a more than a few discernment blogs without much effort.

But you also discover Peterson as the man who has much to teach us about what it means to be a pastor. He doesn't romanticize the pastorate; quite the contrary. But he gets it, and he helps me get it better than any other contemporary writer I know.

Peterson also understands that our culture is not a hospitable place for the pastoral vocation. He is almost seduced by the desire to become a therapist to his congregation, as some pastors do. He struggles with the desire to be a pastor who makes things happen, but is given a portrait that warns him against making this choice. Peterson gets that the church has "twenty different ways to kill you." I can certainly relate to the pastor he describes why he can't find time to talk at a deep level with people about spiritual things: "Because I have to run this d*** church!"

Even as I read over my highlights from his book, I realize that this is a book that I need to read again. Peterson has helped confront some wrong ways of thinking as I take my fledgling steps towards planting a church. He's helped me identify some ways that I'm tempted to abandon the pastoral vocation for something more seductive. He offers correctives that are desperately needed, as well as sustenance for pastors who are weary and exhausted.

I needed this book. I'm grateful for what Peterson continues to each me about pastoring. If you, like me, are tired of being told how to pastor by the "sociologists and academics, the psychologists and business executives, the talk-show gurus and religious entrepreneurs," then let Peterson have a turn. You won't be sorry. I promise.

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One more thing. This week I'm changing the schedule a little. Rather than posting interviews on Friday, I'm moving them to Wednesday instead. I have an interview with Steve Mathewson (author of The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative) lined up this week on how to preach Christ from all of Scripture. It's a good one.

Thanks for reading!