Seminary is a place where the more troublesome aspects of Scripture and history lay, waiting for exposition and exploration. Issues such as pseudepigraphy, tensions in the gospels, and the various problems of inheriting tradition come to mind right off the bat.
However, I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had with friends of mine (they know who they are): how do you preach technical issues in Scripture? If a pericope or sentence is disputed, do you preach it like 1 Cor. 14:34-35? If Paul didn’t write the Pastoral Epistles, can you preach on it, based on your view of pseudepigraphy? How does pseudepigraphy relate to inspiration? If Jesus didn’t say anything in the Gospel of John, can you say with sincerity that “Jesus said…”? Its one of the many questions I have, mostly because I’ve not gone through two years of seminary and have preached on most of these issues.
I won’t pretend to solve all of this in a single post, and I invite my preacher friends—gals and guys—to comment on social media with their own perspectives on these issues. For me, I will only offer some insights I have based on my experiences.
Regarding debated portions of Scripture, last year I gave a whirlwind summary of the entirety of 1 Corinthians at my home church. I quite literally went from chapter one to chapter 16. There is a lot of complex and debated material in 1 Corinthians to cover, everything from sexual immorality in ch5-6, gender in ch11 and 14, and so on. I tackled these issues based on my own exegesis of the relevant texts and contexts, and when I came to 14:34-35 I had a bit of a dilemma:
Do I even mention there is a debate about these two verses?
So, without any real hesitation, I delved into the textual issues regarding these two verses and explained to the congregation that these verses were most likely later additions—i.e. an interpolation to the original text, and thus carried no apostolic weight. To my surprise, nobody raised a fuss, and even some people said it made sense to them, based on the rest of the Biblical witness to women in ministry (he specifically cited Junia in Rom. 16:7 as an example).
So, in this one instance, introducing disputed historical debates worked well. It even seemed to encourage the congregation, as it affirmed a basic commitment to Scripture’s integrity. A woman did come up later and ask, but I had my Greek New Testament and was able to show her some critical marks in there, and she was impressed at the veracity of the text.
This is but one situation, and not every situation is comparable. It depends on one’s community, and not every community is open or interested in such debates. To be honest, I’m not entirely certain a pastor should be preaching these issues from her pulpit, unless it is vital to her sermon.
Another instance I recall is when I preached on 1 Cor. 15 and advent. I preached on the nature of destruction, and included my view that human beings are physical creatures that are not souls. In essence, I preached a physicalist or monistic view of anthropology. This seemed to cause some discomfort, but only until I got to the portions of Scripture that talk about SOMA, and I tied this directly to the doctrine of resurrection and the goodness of creation and the body. Then, I could see that the dualistic assumptions on the part of some people washed away and they “got” it. I concluded my teaching sermon on 1 Cor. 15:26 and the destruction of death, which signifies the utter annihilation of the final enemy.
While I did not explicitly teach my view of hell, I was able to use biblical language to describe how Paul viewed the end of evil and wickedness. I then had them verbally read Psalm 110 and when I reread 1 Cor. 15:20-26, their eyes lit up.
I was moved to see their own realization of their own humanness, and some people came up to me later to ask about what “hell” it. It was a teaching moment, and I was challenged, and mentioned that the dominant language in the New Testament signifies destruction. Some of them nodded politely and moved on, and one woman asked me if this meant that nobody would be in hell ever.
I paused, and said, “evil cannot exist in God’s new creation.” That seemed to satisfy her, and the sermon, I’m told, was very well received after that.
So it depends on the context in which you preach. For me, I was able to tackle multiple issues within a very short time, and I fielded questions afterward. Sometimes it wouldn’t help people to know about ancient manuscripts. Sometimes, a Greek word could mean an entire paradigm shift on the part of your community.
Scripture is alive after all, waiting to be taught with the full authority is bears. Be sensitive to the text, and especially be sensitive to your community. When Allison and I taught through the Epistle to the Ephesians, our eyes were opened to the needs of our church, and the critical issues dropped by the side of the proverbial road. We mentioned them, but they did not entirely help our particular conclusions. Sometimes these issues don't help. Sometimes they do.
In any sense, honesty is necessary to good preaching. I was the one kid in church would, upon learning that "hell" existed, pestered my poor youth pastor with questions until he could not longer think straight. While I still harbor some resentment over being ignored and dismissed, I suspect it too was a teaching moment: sometimes the critical issues could save a person's faith. Sometimes, you could be surprised by the complexities of Scripture.