Please Don’t Explain the Bible to Me
We all have pet hates. Mine include Welsh rugby fans, champion boxers who insist on referring to themselves in the third person, and the American habit of having little leather tassles on the end of shoelaces. I also have a particular theological hate: being told that a preacher is going to ‘explain the Bible’ to me. Not that I don’t need the Bible explained to me. There are parts of it that I find quite obscure, and stories that are difficult to understand, such as the passages in the Old Testament that tell of terrifying massacres commanded by God. Then there are the questions about how to relate the Old Testament to the New, how to understand the New Testament use of the Old, etc., etc. All of these things I find difficult in differing degrees and I appreciate the help available from those who can explain them to me.
This is not what irritates me, however; rather it is the description of what happens from the pulpit on Sunday as ‘explaining the Bible’. Why is this so? Put simply, because such a description privileges the didactic content of the pulpit over the proclamatory, confrontational aspect of the declaration of the Word of God. When the preacher preaches, he should, if he is any good, explain the Bible to the extent that he communicates the content of the passage to his congregation and deepens their understanding of the text; but that is where his task begins, not where it ends.
This arises from the nature of the Bible itself. The Bible is not simply a book of information. It is not the equivalent of, say, a car maintenance manual or a travel guidebook.
Sure, it contains God’s story, which is itself made up of a lot of facts, a lot of events, and a lot of material that allows us to understand ourselves and the world around us; but it also confronts us with these things, demanding a response. It is God’s story, and that is something that involves us. For example, as 1 Corinthians tells us, when the cross is proclaimed, some think it is foolishness, some find it offensive, and some find it to be the power of God to salvation. For none of these groups is it simply an item of information. Thus we cannot extract the informational content of the Bible and claim that we have truly understood it. It is not enough to know that Christ died; it is not enough to know why Christ died; it is necessary to grasp that fact by faith, to know that Christ died for me and to cling to that as if my life depended upon it (which, indeed, it does).
Martin Luther, the great Reformer, put this nicely when he said that the whole of the Bible was made up of law and gospel. The law commands us to obey God and demands a response of perfect obedience, which we can never do in and of ourselves; the gospel tells us what Christ has done on our behalf and demands a response of faith, of total trusting commitment. In other words, the Bible can never be handled simply as a collection of facts or pieces of information; it must always be understood as God’s words to men and women, confronting us with His demands, and demanding a response from us.
In light of this, Luther also understood (correctly, I believe) that the preacher was not so much a teacher as a prophet. Sure, prophets teach; but there is an existential urgency, a confrontational aspect to their teaching that demands – and elicits – a particular response. When the prophets spoke in the Old Testament, they did not so much explain God to their audiences as actually speak the Word of God to people. They were God’s heralds, confronting people with His demands. This provided the model for later preaching; not that such preaching was inspired in the same way as that of the prophets, but its purpose was to confront people with the Word of God, not simply to explain God to the people.
This has some immediate practical implications. Preaching is to be confrontational; it is to terminate in in-your-face applied doctrine that demands a response. Frankly, the use of overhead projectors, PowerPoint, etc., might be helpful in Sunday School classes, but when it comes to pulpit ministry, it is legitimate to ask what purpose these things serve. Do they facilitate the kind of prophetic confrontation that biblical preaching should embody? Or do they reflect rather an understanding of preaching which sees it primarily as explaining the Bible, as merely unlocking its informational content or teaching individuals to read the Bible better for themselves? If the purpose of preaching is seen as the latter, then we should abandon preaching immediately: there are plenty of books and CD-roms which help to explain the Bible a whole lot better than a forty-minute sermon every Sunday morning. If, however, Luther and company are right, if preaching is not ‘explaining the Bible’ but rather proclaiming the Word of God in a prophetic way that confronts men and women with God’s claim upon them and gives them no place to hide, then such innovations surely serve more to blunt the confrontation than to sharpen it. As with so many things in this world, the medium is the message.