Preaching with a Bias: Exploring the Legacy of Fundamentalist Preaching

24 Sep

Introduction

As I reflected on the recent podcast that Gary Hayes and I did on this subject of “preaching with a bias,” it made me want to go back and examine the legacy of fundamentalist, conservative evangelical preaching. This is the tradition from which I came, and was trained in the arts of biblical interpretation and preaching in the “expository” method.

What are the connections between views of Scripture, preaching, and finally the effect it has on listeners in terms of their attitudes, values and behaviors?

Become like Mr Spock!

Can we ever be completely objective about anything? Is it possible for a person to become like Mr Spock from the original Star Trek series: dispassionate, emotionless, weighing up all the angles of a decision and coming to the correct conclusions virtually every time? And even if you could become Mr Spock, devoid of emotions and relying strictly  on human reason, would that actually be a good thing at all?

In his book The Wisdom of Your Heart,[1] (and in our podcast on this subject), author Marc Alan Schelske discusses the surprising conclusions that psychologists have reached through studies of people who have lost the ability to emote due to brain injuries or tumors. In one case, a man who had suffered from a brain tumor lost his ability to connect his emotions with everyday decisions, and as a result became hopelessly unable to do the simplest of everyday tasks. He would spend hours contemplating the pros and cons of whether or not to put a file in a particular place, for example, and would accomplish nothing all day.

His life also fell apart and he ended up losing virtually everything; but he could explain every decision he’d made completely rationally. He just couldn’t connect why he did anything to why it should matter emotionally. After extensive study of this unique patient, scientists and psychologists concluded that without emotion, reason is crippled. The truth is that we need, and rely upon, our emotions when we make important decisions; and furthermore, the “ideal” of becoming a “Mr Spock-like person,” completely devoid of emotions, is not all that great of an ideal to which to aspire.

The Enlightenment myth of “total objectivity” has been demonstrated, once again, to be just that—a myth, and actually something that isn’t all that helpful in reality.

Preaching with a Bias?

That may be well and good, you may say, but what does that have to do with interpreting the Bible, and preaching of that interpretation of the text to a listening audience? Just this: that despite claims to the contrary, it is simply not possible to be 100% objective with really anything. Yes, we can attain a measure of objectivity, but we all are susceptible to subjectivity and emotion to a certain extent. In other words, when we encounter the Bible, and think we’re reading and interpreting it “objectively,” this is simply not possible—or even desirable.

We all have agendas, whether hidden or in plain sight; we are all products of a cultural and racial environment; we all have gender bias, to some extent; and we operate from within certain theological, hermeneutical, and church traditions, all of which color our views of the text and inform the ways in which we read and interpret it. Not only that, but whatever language in which we read the text of Scripture is subject to the vagaries of translational interpretation.

Even if we are proficient in biblical languages, and can delve deep into Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, we are still grasping for ancient texts that don’t exist; in other words, textual criticism can only take us so far. Out of the compendium of thousands of extant manuscript fragments, later copies of texts, and biblical versions in other languages, textual critics have attempted to reconstruct what they consider to be the “best reading” of the Bible—but there are still uncertainties when it comes to finding the “original manuscripts.”

The reality is this: we do not possess one single original manuscript of one book, or even chapter, of the entirety of the Bible. We are, plain and simple, relying on the work and scholarship of textual critics, language experts, and translators when we read the Scripture.

And yet, here’s the ultimate irony: so many preachers still believe that they’re “reading and interpreting the text objectively.” They truly believe that when they take the fruits of that study phase, and put it all together in a sermon form, that they are preaching “the unadulterated Word of God” to their listeners. They may honestly hold to the fallacy: “How I read it…is what it means.”

And those listeners, for their part, are being indoctrinated week in and week out in this social construct. Their lives, attitudes, values and behaviors are all being shaped, modified, controlled, and informed by this process we call “preaching.” But is it really as simple and direct as some would have us believe?

Dr John MacArthur: Connecting Inerrancy and Preaching

In the inaugural edition of The Master’s Seminary Journal in 1987, Dr John MacArthur wrote an article entitled “The Mandate of Biblical Inerrancy: Expository Preaching.” In it, he argued that preachers are mandated by God to preach the Bible expositorily to their hearers, since, he argues, the biblical text is both inerrant (error-free) and infallible (completely sure and trustworthy in all that it affirms, and not liable to error). In MacArthur’s model of communication, then, the preacher serves as the “transmitter” of divine communication to the listeners. His argument proceeds along the following lines. He states that:

  1. “God is.
  2. God is true.
  3. God speaks in harmony with His nature.
  4. God speaks only truth.
  5. God spoke His true Word as consistent with His true Nature to be communicated to people.”[2]

From this series of logically-related points, then, what are the implications for those tasked with preaching that inerrant and infallible Word of God? MacArthur goes on to outline what this means for preachers with the following three propositions:

  1. “God gave His true Word to be communicated entirely as He gave it; that is, the whole counsel of God is to be preached.”
  2. God gave His true Word to be communicated exactly as He gave it. It is to be dispensed precisely as it was delivered without altering the message.
  3. Only the exegetical process which yields expository proclamation will accomplish propositions 1 and 2.”[3]

Deconstructing MacArthur

MacArthur’s basic argument proceeds along a line that holds to Enlightenment theories of communication. That is, as I mentioned at the beginning, the idea that human reason is the pinnacle of achievement, and preserves the myth of objectivity. Notice in his second proposition that the preacher’s task is to “dispense” the Scriptures (like a physician doling out medicine) to the listeners, communicating the message exactly as God gave it, without “altering the message.” This is little more than wishful thinking, and ignores at least two major obstacles to this clear path of transmission of the word of God.

  1. We all operate from within a sphere of subjectivity when it comes to the interpretation of any text. The postmodern project has demonstrated clearly that 100% objectivity is a myth; every one of us is subject to our own worldviews, agendas, educational levels, cultural backgrounds, and more. No two people can read and interpret the same text alike; it simply is not possible. How does MacArthur explain variant interpretations of the same biblical passages, I wonder, by trained biblical scholars and theologians?
  2. How can anyone possibly know for certain “what God intended” in the Bible? MacArthur takes for granted that the preacher would somehow have access to the very mind of God, through the meaning ascertained in the interpretation phase of the sermon. Later in the article, he argues that only “grammatico-historical exegesis” will enable the preacher to uncover the true meaning of the text, and that expository preaching (virtually a running commentary on the text) is the only approved way to communicate that meaning clearly to a listening audience.

An Inerrant Text?

MacArthur’s model of communication begins in the mind of God—the same God who cannot lie, and who always communicates the truth to humanity. The words of Scripture were transmitted from the mind of God, via the agency of the Spirit to the human writers of Scripture. They in turn wrote it down exactly as God intended it—thus preserving its error-free quality. MacArthur remarks that Scripture was “received as Scriptura inerrantis by the prophets and apostles, i.e., without wandering from Scripture’s original formulation in the mind of God. Inerrancy then expresses the quality with which the writers of our canon received the text we call Scripture.”[4]

One almost gets the impression of a “dictation model” of communication here: Scripture existed in the mind of God first; second, that message was communicated by the Spirit to the mind of the biblical authors; then third, they wrote that message down entirely and exactly as intended by God in the first place, thus preserving biblical inerrancy. Therefore, the words on the page after the text was written were exactly the same as the ones that existed in the mind of God originally.

Human expression seems to be completely taken out of the equation, and in this model, the authors were little more than robots or ghost-writers, who weren’t even necessarily aware that they were writing Scripture at the time for later generations to enshrine as an “inerrant text”. And besides: what would happen if an error, or a contradiction, were to be found within the Bible?

Furthermore, surely his model must fly in the face of such passages found in the book of Psalms, for example, where human authors (like David and others) cried out to God in their anguish and pain. As David wrestled with the injustices of life, and observed how the wicked seemed to get away with everything, he asked: where is God in all of this? Surely this sentiment did not originate “in the mind of God” but are a reflection of David’s own thoughts and inner personal torment–as a human being who wrote it down for later generations to read, and ponder for themselves.

Preaching: an Inerrantist’s View

How does MacArthur put all the pieces together for the preacher, in this model? He advocates that the preacher—as an interpreter of this inerrant text—utilize approved exegetical methods, the original languages, and the “true text of Scripture” (as compiled by textual critics). In this way, he argues, the preacher will be able to serve as the conduit of the message originally intended by a truth-telling God.

MacArthur argues that the entire communication model ends up with a sermon that communicates truth, and applies it to the listener. He states (and by the way, note the gender bias: only men preach, apparently): “As a result of this exegetical process that began with a commitment to inerrancy, the expositor is equipped with a true message, with true intent and with true application. It gives his preaching perspective historically, theologically, contextually, literarily, synoptically and culturally. His message is God’s intended message.”[5]

Conclusion

Interacting with MacArthur’s argument in terms of both the model of inspiration of an inerrant text, and his communication model, it strikes me that his argument is completely airtight. And therein lies the problem—if you accept his premises, then you are straightjacketed into a rigid system of delivering “truth” to the listeners according to acceptable “rules of interpretation.” There is no wiggle room; no admission of subjectivity, theological or hermeneutical bias on the part of the interpreter; no possibility that the Scripture may contain even a single, tiny mistake.

For scholars like MacArthur, their theological commitments to a position like biblical inerrancy virtually demands such a communication model—and MacArthur basically argues that preachers are mandated to interpret the text, and preach it, in prescribed ways. Prescribed, that is, by people such as himself—an “expert” who sits in the exalted position of arbiter and judge over others.

If you are a preacher, are you able to examine your own agendas and motives in light of what MacArthur argues? There are, quite simply, so many issues that MacArthur avoids by making dogmatic and assertive statements that works only in his theological and interpretative system. He doesn’t have to deal with other competing viewpoints at all, because in his arrogance, he can simply dismiss them out of hand as “the legacy of liberalism” that has crept into the church and destroyed true, biblical, “accurate preaching.”

Despite the fact that his article was written in 1987, in terms of his own legacy, I suspect that many preachers even today are being taught similar methods of interpretation and proclamation in Bible colleges and seminaries even today. MacArthur’s dogmatic and arrogant assertions, and of those like his, still resonate through the decades and impact current preaching, as well as the hearers of such sermons. Those who hold to such methods are actually operating under the delusion that they are interpreting the “true text” with “approved methods,” and are dispensing that message the truth-telling God intended in his mind first, and was written down by all-too fallible humans.

It’s no wonder, then, that preachers and listeners even today are operating from within an attitude that claims to have “the truth,” and being right about your own pet interpretations and doctrines trumps loving and accepting others who may well disagree with us.

Footnotes

[1] Schelske, Marc Alan. The Wisdom of Your Heart: Discovering the God-Given Purpose and Power of Your Emotions. David C. Cook: September 2017.

[2] MacArthur, John. “The Mandate of Biblical Inerrancy: Expository Preaching.” The Master’s Seminary Journal, 1987: (6).

[3] MacArthur, “The Mandate of Biblical Inerrancy,” 6-7 (emphasis his).

[4] MacArthur, “The Mandate of Biblical Inerrancy,” 8.

[5] MacArthur, “The Mandate of Biblical Inerrancy,” 10.

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