It is a blessing to be a preacher in a time when many churches stream their worship services and post videos of their sermons. I find it helpful as a preacher to tune to 3-5 other sermons each week and watch and listen for things that I can incorporate to my own practice of preaching. There is a lot out there to appreciate.
But I’ve also been reminded of something well known in the church for centuries. The texts in the Bible are meant to be heard within the context of the whole Bible and within the context of an overarching theological framework. John Wesley called this “the analogy of faith.” The idea here is that although the Bible has many forms of writing and many different parts, what it reveals to us about God is not contradictory with itself.
In other words, when we interpret a particular text from the Bible, the lessons and principles we take from the text should not contradict the overall doctrinal commitments we take from our holistic reading of the entire Bible. This use of the whole to help us understand the particular is something we do all the time.
Imagine you are watching a movie. Over the course of the movie, you come to know a lot about the main character, say, perhaps, that it is a man who is clever and brave and has a strong moral compass. Now, suppose you come to a scene where this man is acting very differently. The natural response here is to suppose that something unique to the scene is causing him to respond in a certain way but that his basic character has not changed. This particular moment in the wider story does not cause us to change what we know about the character, but rather what we know about the character causes us to ask why he is acting in a way we do not expect in that particular scene.
In a rough way, that is what it means to say we let the whole Bible help us understand the particular parts of it. Sometimes, though, we preachers can get that backwards.
An example from a few years ago that is still controversial within United Methodism would be when one of our active bishops used the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28. In this message, the bishop took the story to say that Jesus was still learning and needed to be taught by the woman he encountered about the worth of all human beings and his role in the world.
By reading only that story, with no theological convictions about Jesus, you could easily come to that conclusion. But as Christians and as Methodists we have theological commitments about Jesus. As pastors we have not only been taught these things, but we have also taken vows to uphold them.
We believe the Bible reveals that Jesus Christ was the incarnate Word, the second person of the Trinity, who is infinite in power, wisdom, and goodness. In his humanity, Jesus was subject to pain and death, but his full humanity in no way eliminated his attributes as God.
The stories about God in the Bible have to be read in light of what the Bible as a whole teaches us about God.
Everything I’ve written here is not universally accepted by preachers, however. For instance, I suspect our bishop in the case above was influenced by theological commitments that emphasize the experience of women to interpret isolated texts and seek to bracket off wider doctrinal commitments in the engagement with isolated stories. There are similar interpretive strategies that foreground people marginalized in our society. There are also theological frameworks that reject some of our basic doctrinal commitments — such as the idea that God is infinite in wisdom.
All of these ways of reading Scripture may lead to interesting results, but as United Methodists, we should be careful to preserve the doctrinal core of our faith. When we interpret stories in ways that contradict what we believe to be true about God, then we are not honoring God or our vows as clergy, and we mislead the people entrusted to our care as pastors.
This last point is the one that concerns me the most. We have a lot of really talented and skillful preachers in the UMC. With passion and eloquence, they can move congregations. If the preaching itself is not grounded and anchored by what we as a church believe about God, a great many of the laity in our congregations will not be able to spot that. When preachers go outside the boundaries of our shared doctrinal commitments, they lead the laity into a false understanding of God, which is a dangerous thing for both those who hear and those who preach.
As preachers, we should do all that we can to preach faithfully and preach the faith of the church, to which we have been called to serve.