“Preaching and Preachers” Episode 151: Preaching Narrative Texts

This week I welcome Dr. D.A. Carson to the podcast. Dr. Carson is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and president of The Gospel Coalition.

Guest(s): D.A. Carson



Dr. Allen:          Welcome to Preaching and Preachers, a weekly podcast devoted to those who preach into the task of preaching itself. I’m your host, Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Today I want to welcome Dr D.A. Carson to the podcast. Dr. Carson serves as emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois and is president of the Gospel Coalition. He’s authored many books and recently edited the “Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures.” He and his wife, Joy have two children. Dr. Carson, welcome to Preaching and Preachers.

Dr. Carson:       It’s my privilege to be here.

Dr. Allen:          It’s a delight to have you on the campus this week and in the studio today. You are here delivering the 2019 Spurgeon Lectures on campus and you know, it’s a personal joy to have you here.

Dr. Carson:       It’s been my privilege to get to know you and your children, let alone the school a little better.

Dr. Allen:          Well, I’ll tell you, you have spoken in numerous settings, PhD students, faculty gatherings, just fellowship settings across the dinner and lunch tables and so forth. And you really have shown up and created a tsunami of energy. And a just a sense of a keen sense of touching on different live nerves here, preaching to the Spurgeon Lectures scholarship. Great Commission passion, love for the local church, pastoral sensitivities. And a very few individuals can show up in a place and in an institutional setting and really touch all those different aspects and different dynamics of the community.

Dr. Carson:       Well, thank you. You’re very encouraging.

Dr. Allen:          And so you’re here with us. You had been preaching in chapel yesterday and today and preaching basically on how to preach narrative texts. You preached yesterday from Genesis 39. You preached today from the gospel of John chapter 20 and trying to both model that from these two texts old and new, and then also giving towards the end of the sermons some just basic pointers on preaching narrative texts.

Dr. Allen:          So we’re gonna be talking about that today. And before we get into that, I’m curious what prompted you to pick that topic itself as the topic for this year’s Spurgeon Lectures?

Dr. Carson:       Well, the Spurgeon lectures are lectures on preaching. So that means I wasn’t going to give you a couple of hours on the use of the old Testament in the new, or this is something of that order. It had to, is something to do with preaching. And in recent years, I’ve devoted quite a bit of time to preaching from different biblical genres, different forms. The Bible is not like, let’s say the Q’uran, which, which has one or two the genres that are repeated again and again and again. The Bible has narrative, proverb, apocalyptic, parable, lament, genealogies, oracles and on and on and on and on. And each of those forms, each of those genres has its own way of appealing to our hearts, to our emotions, to our thoughts, to our morals, to our wills.

Dr. Carson:       And, and so it’s part of a preacher’s responsibility to understand how those kinds of literature work. And my choice was to give a survey of the whole, which would mean that everything was treated rare, shallowness or do, um, to, to, to, to pick on one of them and offer a few observations and, and then handle a couple of biblical texts in some depth so that you could see what I mean by being sensitive to the literary form. And I chose narrative in that regard.

Dr. Allen:          So both your sermons, Genesis 39 and then John 20, today, you were very intentional to connect those narrative texts to the broader contours of biblical theology. And now we’re going to unpack that a little bit in the conversation. As long as I have been reading behind you and listening to you, you have been intentional about that biblical theology. And I’m curious for you, when did you develop your awareness of and your appreciation of, especially as it relates to the hermeneutical and the homiletical task of preaching and teaching with biblical theology in mind?

Dr. Carson:       There was no epiphany, some moment when I thought, aha, that’s what I should be doing. But because I, since my youth, because I have been committed first to exegesis and second to preaching, then inevitably the handling of biblical texts led me to asking questions about how this biblical text relates to that biblical text. And then so on. And I kept reading in the area of what systematic theology is, what biblical theology is. Gradually it became a little more a sophisticated and then also at the same time I really became interested in the use of the Old Testament and the New, if there’s one area where I’ve devoted a disproportionate amount of my study time across several decades, it’s been that topic, the use of the Old Testament and the New, and that is bound up with a lot of biblical theology. That is to say, how do themes and types and patterns and so on, repeat and grow and develop trajectories that run right through the Bible? So that became one of the inspirations to keep me working in biblical theology. And and then by temperament, I’m an integrator rather than a divider. I don’t like to see, for example, systematic theology pit against biblical theology. They are distinguishable disciplines, but I want to explore the way they ought to work together and build each other up and be grateful for each other rather than simply tear each other down and one claiming to be superior to the other. So my trajectory in this regard has been slow and, and developmental, I’m sure.

Dr. Allen:          So preaching narrative texts. Now we get into these seven reflections on preaching narrative texts. Can you say a word just broadly about narrative texts in general and what you’re looking for as you seek to interpret those?

Dr. Carson:       It’s easiest to think about what narrative texts are if you pause and think about what they’re not. If you’re working through Proverbs for example, there’s no storyline, there’s no plot development. If you’re working through lament or an oracle from God and so on. Again, it’s not a storyline and plot whereas, some of the characteristics that common characteristics of all narrative is that there is a story that’s told with a plotline that develops. And usually with, this is some sort of characterization that is the people or figures or characters develop with time, with certain attributes and characteristics and so on. And often the plotline has a challenge or a threat. It has to be resolved in some way so that you can speak of the rising challenge of the threat and the denouement that the climax and then cleaning up the loose ends and so on. That’s just common stuff that everybody [inaudible] knows about intuitively just because we still read stories. You read the newspaper, you’re reading stories half the time. So there, there are common things that are part of virtually all narrative that whether you’re reading Screwtape Letters, or C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or you’re reading Tolkien or something of that order, or you’re reading story books for little kids or you’re reading a novel and so on. Or are you reading a biblical story? All of these things have common literary features that we have absorbed almost intuitively from just being readers and those sorts of things. I presuppose when we talk about narrative leaving concrete formulations for the step just beyond that set of assumptions.

Dr. Allen:          So you unpacked for us over the course of two days, the seven reflections on preaching narrative by way of observation, the seven principles or seven reflections were transferable.

Dr. Allen:          Old Testament, narrative, gospel narrative and both days you, you walked through now only the seven reflections but, but specifically from those texts, how they applied or how they prompted you to flesh out that passage. Reflection number one, which ought to go without saying, but nonetheless needs to be said. Make sure you tell the story.

Dr. Carson:       Yes, that’s addressed to preachers. You’re going to preach from a narrative text–first instruction–make sure you tell the story. That is to say it is possible for a preacher to read the story, to know the story and then be so focused on deriving moral lessons or theological lessons that the story itself is not told. Forgetting that there are people in the congregation who really won’t know the story and won’t have picked up on much of it even if you’ve read it in the congregation as part of your Bible reading. So sermons ought to reflect the literary genre that you’re preaching from. If you’re preaching from a passage with apocalyptic, make sure you use apocalyptic terminology and the wild hyperbole and colorful imagination. And so that’s, that’s, that’s important if you’re working through a passage like Romans 9 to 11 just to follow the texts, you’ve got to follow the logic.So, so logic and reason and induction deduction and so on are these are all really important tools for understanding the flow of the passage. And in the case of the narrative, you’ve got to tell the story. It’s got to be integrated into the sermon in some fashion or another or you’re not really doing narrative preaching.

Dr. Allen:          One often way, I see this principle broken as we’re preachers we’ll try to apply an outlined structure that that may be suitable for a Pauline epistle on a narrative, on a parable, on a story, and they will so overlayn that narrative with point and subpoints and occasionally sub sub points that they’re just mining out a bunch of little nuggets to share. But, but we are totally missing the actual storyline of the narrative.

Dr. Carson:       And thus losing the power of narrative to compel attention and evoke emotion and draw you to an alternative picture of life and health and so on. Narrative has its own ways of making its appeal and God has chosen to give us a lot of scripture in narrative form.

Dr. Allen:          Reflection number one: make sure you tell the story. Reflection. Number two: make sure you do more than tell the story.

Dr. Carson:       That’s because the preacher’s job is more than simply reading the text and doing nothing more than expanding on it. The preacher’s job is, is to produce a final sermon, however shaped it is by narrative or apocalyptic or whatever the genre is. It has a burden. It’s going somewhere. It’s not vague comments on a text. So you’re making choices of what you include, what you emphasize, what you deemphasize and so on. So there’s a burden as a clarity. There’s a focus. Snd moreover, as we’ll see in our ongoing discussion if part of the job is to relate this particular narrative text to other parts of the biblical book you’re dealing with, that’s more than just telling the story too. I’ve heard preachers who preach narrative texts and they actually do tell the story. That’s the first point. But they don’t do anything more than tell the story. They tell the story and add a few more adjectives. And anybody can do that. It’s, it doesn’t reflect profound meditation or thought or what this is contributing to the book as a whole or how this is part of the revelation of God. There’s no burden to it. It’s just storytelling. And it might be godly storytelling, might even be faithful story telling. But a sermon is more than just repeating the narrative in the text that’s at hand.

Dr. Allen:          When you were unpacking the second point, you used words like, and, and you encouraged us in ways like you recognize the focus of the narrative. Be mindful of the point or points of the narrative. Sense the direction of the narrative. Notice the shape of the narrative. See the burden of the narrative.

Dr. Carson:       Well, you’ve summarized things better than I have, well done.

Dr. Allen:          Trying to listen well. Point number three, principle number three: make sure and anchor in biblical theology.

Dr. Carson:       Yes. An aside–I take it that systematic theology is theology that is largely ordered atemporally that is, it asks and answers largely atemporal questions. Who is God? What is sin? What does the cross achieve and so on. And it answers the questions that are atemporal with atemporal answers drawn from the whole of scripture. Biblical theology injects the element of time. That is, what does Isaiah here contribute to the doctrine of God? Or how does the, what the Bible says about the temple develop and get reshaped across the whole plot line of scripture? Or how do we move from bloody atonement under the Mosaic Covenant to the sacrifice of Christ? What are the developing lines? So it’s constantly asking developmental questions and narrative in particular needs to be anchored in the book at hand. What is it doing in the book? In the case of Genesis 39, what does Genesis 39 doing in the book of Genesis? But with it then not only what is it doing there in plot terms or something like that, but what is it contributing to the biblical theological themes that are in Genesis and then ultimately to the canonical structure? What does it contribute to the whole of the Bible? And that’s, that’s part of making sure that the text is not ripped out of its context so that it just becomes an independent story. I remember reading a few years ago, someone expounding Genesis 3 and he so insisted that Genesis 3 be treated as if Genesis 1 and 2 and 4 following were not there. That he could create a meaning for Genesis 3 that not only ignored the context, the contextual chapters, but actually flew in their face. He wanted Genesis three to become a narrative in which human beings come into their fullness because they’re rebellious and therefore therefore autonomous and this was an heroic step. Well, if you read Genesis 3 in the context of 1 and 2 and 4 and following, there’s no way you can do that. This is a catastrophic fall. It’s destruction. But once you once you abstract Genesis 3 and just tell that story abstracted from everything else, you can turn it in all kinds of directions. Well, the same is true with a lot of biblical stories, a lot of biblical narrative texts, in order to handle them faithfully, they have to be anchored in their literary context.

Dr. Allen:          So I want to press you a little bit there to unpack that a touch more. So as you preached both days, there was a sequence to what you were doing and I assume that was intentional, but I want to make sure that in the course of this conversation and packet a touch for our listeners and with that, a word of elaboration. I see two main errors in this regard. One error is to never get to the biblical theology and it’s just that isolated Genesis chapter, chapter 3 sermon. The other error is to rush so quickly to it that you really neglect unpacking the text in its more immediate context. Now as you worked both passages you developed a biblical theology in the second half of the sermon and after framing it up and it’s more immediate context. That was intentional, I presume.

Dr. Carson:       Yes. Partly because although it’s true that the biblical theology of the book shapes the interpretation of the sermon of the text at hand, yet you’ve got to spend some time on the text at hand in its own terms to develop the categories that are being developed in the texts before you show how that narrative text relates to the larger themes. So by and large, that’s the direction in which I’d go: begin with the text at hand and work outward rather than begin with the larger text and work inward. There are times and places where that might the salutary way to begin. But in both of the texts that I dealt with today and yesterday, Genesis 39 and there’s the doubting Thomas passage, John 20, 24 to the end of the chapter. I worked from the text itself and then outward to the biblical theology in which these texts are embedded.

Dr. Allen:          The fourth principle you mentioned, and you encouraged us as to make sure people see what would be lost if that text was not in the Scriptures.

Dr. Carson:       Yeah. And it’s easiest to give a couple of illustrations. Let’s take Genesis 39. It’s the temptation of Joseph and the attempted seduction by Potiphar’s wife, and so on. Well, you can just handle the passage as a text with a moral Maxim, you know, be careful, don’t get seduced by sex and, and, and so on. But when you ask what is in Genesis 38th or preceding chapter and what is in Genesis 40, the succeeding chapter, then immediately you, you see what would be left out if you lost chapter 39. Genesis 39 is a foil for Genesis 38 and 38 Judah sleeps with his step with his daughter in law. He’s in freedom. He’s wealthy, he’s well-off, but his moral life collapses. Whereas by contrast, Joseph is a slave and ultimately a prisoner slave and he’s still retaining his integrity. So each chapter contrasts the other with the other chapter and, and bring certain lessons to the fore. But 39 also sets the stage for his interpretation of dreams of the Butler and the Baker in prison in chapter 40, and that ultimately leads to Joseph interpreting the dream of Pharaoh, which leads to his becoming prime minister of Egypt, which leads to preserving many people alive because of the preparations that are made for the coming famine and that leads to the preservation of his own family and thus to the messianic line. So what starts off as a moral tale in chapter 39 suddenly becomes a way of preserving the whole messianic line, which is building then not only to the end of the book of Genesis, but to the Pentateuch and ultimately to the rest of the Bible. That’s a huge biblical theological line, the ceilings of which are all in chapter 39. And that’s a really a way of saying, a complicated way of saying that you’re reading Genesis 39 in the context of the book of Genesis and in the context of the Canon. And that enables you to see what would be left out, what would be lost irreparably if you lost the chapter.

Dr. Allen:          Fifth reflection. The sermon outline does not have to follow the narrative of the text. You said it may, but it does not have to follow the narrative of the text.

Dr. Carson:       Yes. You want to make sure that the narrative itself comes across. It does not necessarily have to come across in the outline. That’s the point I’m making. Now in the second sermon I’m on Genesis on John 20:24 and following the outline followed the development of the text itself. The skeptic, Thomas in all of his misery, what causes his doubt and so on. A portrait of a discouraged skeptic and then the portrait of an adoring skeptic when he really sees who Jesus is. And then finally, the portrait of the service of a skeptic when, when he’s converted and, and his, his job is to make Christ known to many people who will believe through his name and his writings and his, his concerns and on. So the outline followed the flow of the narrative and, and that makes perfect sense. But in the case of the Genesis 39 sermon, I began with the center of the story that is the attempted seduction. And in Joseph’s beating it off before I dealt with the structure of the chapter that has a beginning and an end, both of which are similar to each other form a literary inclusion that draws attention to itself in certain ways. And I would say that both approaches are acceptable, provided if people can see what the storyline is all about. And yet, in terms of what you’re emphasizing in a sermon outline, you may have slightly different priorities decide what things will lend best towards integrating the story to the rest of the and to the theology of scripture and so on. There’s some flexibility there. You don’t have to follow the storyline in your outline.

Dr. Allen:          Reflection number six: the sermon introduction may begin by just plunging into the narrative as opposed to some additional word of introduction.

Dr. Carson:       Yes, that’s partly because narratives are intrinsically interesting. There’s some topics that you really need a deduction to grab people’s interest, but you start telling a story and people are interested in. You have to be really boring to turn people off a story, a story starts and you want to find out what happens next. So that means that it’s quite possible in narrative preaching, preaching from narrative just to plunge into the story and start going from there. On the other hand, that does not rule out the possibility of introducing the story by unpacking some of the elements that go into it. In the second case, the case of, of Thomas, doubting Thomas, we call him, it was worth taking five minutes to unpack different kinds of doubt and recognize that he’s different kinds of doubt, most of them occur within the Bible itself. And the kinds of answers that the Bible gives for these different kinds of doubt are different. And so one must ask what kind of doubt Thomas is experiencing and he’s experiencing, as it turns out, the kind of doubt that is afraid of confusing faith and gullibility and so the passage answers that kind of doubt really well. It does not necessarily answer the doubt of the philosophical materialist or a person who was doubting because he’s busy he sleeping with his secretary or something. These things are all addressed somewhere in principle in Scripture. But one, one I cannot rightly suppose that every time a generic sin is mentioned, it’s being addressed exhaustedly by the one text. So in this case, an introduction to outline some of those things and make a setup for understanding the story a little more sharply using a scalpel with a story instead of a sledgehammer is in my view called for and really helpful for understanding the text more closely.

Dr. Allen:          And your seventh and final reflection is this: never forget you’re preaching a sermon, not an art form.

Dr. Carson:       That could be teased out it a lot of ways. I did a little with it in the chapel addresses for want of time. But it’s possible so to focus on the constraints of homiletics that your goal is to preach a perfect sermon and that is judged by the outline and the introduction and how gripping it is and the vocabulary and the tone and the presentation and so on and so on, in which case you start thinking more about the art form nature of the sermon, the art and, and science of preaching. And you are about the people to whom you are speaking. And you always have to remember that as a preacher in the household of God, your concern is to convey God’s message to God’s people. And care in homiletics should be part of the discipline of doing that better. But if the discipline itself becomes the focus, there’s a danger of it becoming idolatrous. You don’t want people at the door to say something like, “That was a brilliant sermon this morning, pastor.” Or you don’t want them to say, “Boy, that was really impressive. I never could have gotten all that stuff out of the text.” You never want them to say, “Boy, you sure turned up the vocabulary this week, pastor.” You want them to say something like, “God really spoke to me today. Thank you.” Or, “Everything you said about the text was really right there. I should’ve seen it myself, shouldn’t I?” That’s what you want. So that the sermon is a vehicle for the communication of God Almighty, by his word, to speak to his people. That’s your job as a pastor. And to transmute that into building an art form that people can admire is a form of idolatry.

Dr. Allen:          Well, Dr. Carson, we will end on that note, but I want to wrap this up by thanking you for your ministry here in Kansas City. Your ministry more broadly to the Church at large and for the gift of your time even for this podcast. Thank you for joining me on preaching and preachers.

Dr. Carson:       My privilege. Thank you so much.

Dr. Allen:          Thank you for being with us today and for listening to Preaching and Preachers. For more information, go to my website, jasonkallen.com.


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