Verse Plucking and Tunnel Vision
We’ve all heard preachers who are careless in handling the text of Scripture. They may pluck a verse out of context and use it as a peg on which to hang a grab bag of thoughts, stories, and illustrations. This is a failure to “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), and Paul implies that such preachers should be “ashamed.” On the other hand, there are those who react to these abuses by fixating on the immediate context of every verse or passage. Their guiding principle is, “If the original author didn’t intend to say it, or the original audience wouldn’t have understood it, it’s not a legitimate interpretation.”
The dangers of the first style of preaching are obvious: it’s reckless and leaves the congregation susceptible to the whims and imbalances of each passing preacher. But a strict grammatical-historical method of preaching, one that forgets divine authorship and its implications, can also have negative consequences. In an article on going “Beyond the Human Author’s Intended Meaning: A Case Study in Typological Reading,” I explain how this suspiciously modern approach to Scripture falls short of the way that Jesus and the apostles (as well as the premodern Christians after them) interpreted the Bible. Moreover, it tends to be stale and boring.
Stale Bread or the Bread of Life?
Since reading a 2020 article on Mere Orthodoxy “In Defense of Premodern Exegesis,” I’ve been unable to stop thinking about Brandon Smith’s comment that “the overly modernistic approach to the sensus literalis (the ‘literal’ sense) of Scripture that was handed to me tasted like stale bread while I was supposed to be feasting on the bread of life.” Perhaps one of the reasons why some Christians prefer their verse-plucking preachers to tunnel vision expositors is because at least the former are interesting and, if they have any theological grounding at all, tend to fall back on the major themes of the Bible and the Christian life.
Moreover, I’ve found that both kinds of preachers are susceptible to another problem: moralistic exhortations or applications of Scripture. Whether exhortations are drawn out of a hat or directly from a Bible verse in its grammatical-historical context, moralistic sermons fixate on what Christians need to do or not do. They may preach the gospel at times, but it’s not always clear how the good news about Christ relates to practical holiness or lifestyle change. This breeds legalism and a performance-based mentality.
Moralistic sermons may preach the gospel at times, but it’s not always clear how the good news about Christ relates to practical holiness or lifestyle change.
So here’s the question: How can we preach in a way that is careful with Scripture but doesn’t fixate on the grammatical-historical context of a passage to the neglect of the whole canon of Scripture which centers on Christ? And at the same time, how can we promote true holiness without endless moralizing?
An Ancient But Wise Method
This is where the basic concerns of the Quadriga or the fourfold method, often associated with premodern hermeneutics, can be helpful. The fourfold method is sensitive to moral/ethical applications (preaching for practical holiness) but grounds them first in the literal/historical sense (what the text meant to the original audience) and the typological/allegorical sense (what the text means in light of Scripture’s unified theology which centers on Christ), then concludes by looking at how the entire Bible is moving towards God’s renewal of all things in Christ (the eschatalogical/anagogical sense). For a further explanation of these four senses, be sure to check out the aforementioned article.
If you are burnt out on reckless or moralistic preaching, consider the concerns of the Quadriga the next time that you prepare to enter the pulpit.
The remainder of this article considers the fourfold method in terms of four questions that you can ask every time you preach. Then, we’ll look at how one might use the fourfold method to approach popular preaching passages like Noah’s Ark and David and Goliath.
Four Questions to Ask When You Preach
First, “What does this passage mean in its historical and grammatical context?” (literal/historical sense). This is a crucial question since the other senses remain tethered to a correct understanding of this sense. Modern hermeneutics, however, often acts as though the historical sense is the only sense of Scripture, asserting that if the human author didn’t intend to say something, it’s not a valid interpretation. Not even the Protestant Reformers believed this, though they gave priority to the historical sense. Premodern hermeneutics, recognizing that Scripture is a divine book with a divine author, begins but doesn’t end with the “literal” sense.
Second, “What does this passage mean in light of the unified theology of the whole canon which centers on Christ?” (the typological/allegorical sense). This is especially key when preaching from the OT. Like Jesus in Luke 24:27, we interpret in all the Scriptures, beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, the things concerning Christ. I simply reject the arbitrary claim that we can’t read the Bible this way since we aren’t inspired by the Spirit. It’s far better to take our cues from the church fathers (and many after them) who followed Jesus and the apostles in their approach to the Bible, rather than inventing their own hermeneutic.
If you’re preaching on Abraham offering Isaac on the mount, show how it corresponds to God offering his Son on Calvary. If you’re preaching Jonah in the belly of the whale, show how it corresponds to Jesus being in the belly of the earth before being “spit up” in the resurrection on the third day. If you’re preaching on Israel’s Red Sea crossing, show how it corresponds to Christian baptism into Christ (as Paul says that it does in 1 Corinthians 10:1–5). These are obvious examples, but careful study will reveal countless other correspondences in the OT. Don’t be afraid of typology. Any hermeneutic that rejects typology fails to account for divine authorship, is sub-Christian, and is bound to serve stale bread when it should be serving the bread of life.
All of Scripture is intended to help us love the Lord and love our neighbor.
Third, “What is the moral of the story when read in light of history and Christ?” (the moral/tropological sense). All of Scripture is intended to help us love the Lord and love our neighbor. If love is the fulfillment of the law, then it should guide our interpretation of the law and all Scripture. This is Augustine’s point in On Christian Teaching, his book on biblical interpretation. Augustine expounds the great commandments and concludes that “when someone has learnt that the aim of the commandment is ‘love from a pure heart, and good conscience and genuine faith’, he will be ready to relate every interpretation of the holy scriptures to these three things and may approach the task of handling these books with confidence” (1.95).
Moral applications are crucial, but they must remain tethered to the previous two senses. Smith makes an incisive point:
While my mentors would downplay the fourfold sense and want to dissect every nugget of literary and historical evidence in the text, their sermons would often reflect one long series of tropological insights. Most evangelical pastors and theologians would agree that application comes after exegesis, but many do not teach hermeneutics this way. The tropological sense, then, reminds us that application is important and dependent a serious engagement with the text first.
Finally, “What does this passage mean in light of what God is doing to make all things new in Christ by the Spirit?” (the eschatological/anagogical sense). All of Scripture is heading towards the new heavens and the new earth, where we will dwell with God and behold his beauty forever. In Christ, that new creation has already broken into our present world. Soon, the Second Adam will fully subdue the creation and establish his kingdom on earth forever.
If God has been preparing the kingdom since the foundation of the world (Mt. 25:34), then all Scripture is bent in that direction.
If God has been preparing the kingdom since the foundation of the world (Mt. 25:34), then all Scripture is bent in that direction. Even our service (moral sense) is preparing us for eternal service in Christ’s kingdom. Biblical preaching views each passage in light of the telos of creation, planned by the Father, secured by the Son, and enacted through the Spirit of Christ to the glory of God the Father.
Example 1: Preaching David and Goliath
Let’s consider how the Quadriga can transform our preaching of some favorite sermon texts. A typical sermon on David and Goliath goes something like this:
- David faced a giant in his life;
- With enough faith, you can fight the giants in your life!
Point 1 is a shallow engagement with the historical sense. Point 2 is a moralistic application. Such a sermon claims to be practical but leaves most people discouraged and wondering if they have stretched their faith muscle hard enough.
A sermon on David and Goliath that uses the fourfold method, on the other hand, might go something like this (focusing on one aspect of the story for sake of simplicity):
- Israel’s only hope was for a representative from among them to fight God’s enemies on their behalf (historical).
- Christ, the greater David, defeated Satan and all God’s enemies on our behalf, since we were like the Israelites, scared and helpless against them (typological).
- Place your faith in Christ the warrior-king, and through union with him by the Holy Spirit his victory will become your victory. Then, arise in his power to fight all that oppose you! (moral).
- The day is soon coming when Satan and the forces of evil, the principalities and powers, to whom Christ dealt a death blow on the cross, will be cast out forever, and no enemy will ever rise against God’s people or corrupt the earth (eschatological).
Example 2: Preaching Noah’s Ark
Consider one more example. A typical sermon on Noah’s ark goes something like this:
- God flooded the world because of human sin;
- If you don’t repent, God will destroy you too!
This is true enough, but it’s once again a shallow engagement with the historical sense followed by a moralistic application, and Christ is conspicuously absent. There’s no consideration of typology, unlike the Apostle Peter who says that the ark is a type of salvation by baptism through the resurrection of Christ (1 Peter 3:18–22).
A sermon on Noah’s ark that uses the fourfold method might go something like this:
- God flooded the world but saved a remnant in the ark. They passed safely through water and inherited an earth cleansed from evil (historical).
- Christ, and by extension his body the Church, is the ark of salvation (typological).
- Repent of sin and enter into Christ and his church by believing the gospel and passing safely through the waters of baptism (moral).
- The day is fast approaching when God will again judge the whole world. Those who are safe in the ark will be spared and inherit the new creation, cleansed of all evil, never again to be corrupted (eschatological).
Using the fourfold method has brought balance and beauty to my preaching. At times, I have even used these four senses as the four points of my sermon (e.g., “Jesus Delivers His Saints” on Psalm 34). The response has been affirming. People are fascinated to see Jesus unveiled in all of Scripture, and they are comforted to hear familiar texts preached in light of what God is doing to make all things new in Christ. If you are burnt out on reckless or moralistic preaching, consider the concerns of the Quadriga the next time that you prepare to enter the pulpit.