Dr. Jonathan Greer on How Bible Backgrounds Will Strengthen Your Preaching

By Kris Rolls on February 13, 2017

One of my favorite theologians, Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer, once said, "For, when the church responds to the Word of God as it ought, the church demonstrates the love of God and the mind of Christ, in word and in deed."[1] The catch is, that in order to respond to the Word of God "as we ought," we must understand what Scripture says in the first place. Pastors and teachers must regularly wrestle with what Scripture said in its historical context, before we know what it says to our modern audiences. This tension between two worlds is why I am looking forward to this year's Talking Points conference, "Bridging Worlds: Preaching the Ancient Story." Bridging Worlds will aim to help pastors, ministry leaders and bible teachers with bridging the ancient setting of Scripture to proclamation of its message in our modern world. Join us on Tuesday, March 14 here at GRTS to engage in the conference!

In preparation for the upcoming event, I sat down with one of the conference presenters, Dr. Jonathan Greer, to ask him a few questions. Dr. Greer is associate professor of Old Testament and director of the Hesse Memorial Archaeological Laboratory at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. He will be delivering a talk on the historical backgrounds of the Old Testament and how best to utilize historical data for our sermon or Bible study prep each week.

KR: What excites you most about the upcoming conference?

JG: I get very excited about encouraging preachers and teachers to seek to understand the Bible in the ways that it was understood by its original hearers before moving to "application." As interpreters, we would be wise to frame the trajectory about how texts are understood and lived out today by beginning with the ways they were understood by their early audiences.

As the textbook saying goes, "the Bible was not written to us, but it was written for us." As modern interpreters, we often jump too quickly from the ancient world to the modern without considering the distance between the two.

KR: As an OT Scholar, and archaeologist, how has studying the "Ancient Story" of Scripture shaped your faith?

JG: In every way, shape and form! I like to say in my classes that our study of the ancient world can inform our faith in three primary ways that I call the "Three C's" of correspondence between the Bible and "backgrounds" studies.

First, engaging the ancient world can complement our view of Scripture. There are plenty of cases where ancient texts and archaeology fill out biblical narratives to root them in "history" as we know it: descriptions of real people in real places in real time.

Second, it can help to clarify certain aspects of Scripture, from what daily life was like to opening windows into worldview, as well as illuminating metaphors and idioms, among other things.

Finally, engaging the ancient world can complicate our interpretation of Scripture by highlighting problems with some of our previous assumptions—not surprisingly, this last "C" is usually left out of the picture. In fact, wrestling through some of these complexities used to keep me up at night earlier in my career.

Now, however, I have come to delight in it for two reasons: first, it reminds me to focus on the "core" of Scripture—as the core burns all the brighter, the peripheral matters are dulled. Second, it humbles me by reminding me of my place: I am after all a finite human interpreter seeking to understand the mysteries of an infinite God.

KR: Doing good historical work for sermon prep can be hard and sometimes overwhelming for a pastor wearing multiple vocational "hats" throughout the week. Why do you think it’s so important to commit to preaching the "ancient story" of Scripture?

JG: If our goal is to understand Scripture as the authors (and, ultimately, the Author behind those authors) intended, it is not only important but essential for the reasons we've just discussed.

Pastors who invest time in understanding the text in its ancient contexts will find their preaching complemented and clarified in regard to what the authors were trying to communicate. Even the "complication" can be beneficial, not only in fostering a heart attitude of humility but also in providing guidelines for what not to preach from a certain text: if there is significant ambiguity, one would be wise not to focus on that as the main point of the sermon.

KR: What is one important thing you hope pastors and ministry practitioners take away from this conference?

JG: I hope that pastors would be impressed with the rich fruit that "backgrounds" study bears—it is worth it!—and come away with some practical guidelines for engagement.

Even more so, I hope the participants will affirm the conviction that understanding the text in its ancient context is the essential starting for responsible interpretation. If we do not understand what the Bible meant then, how can we move forward with any sort of confidence as to what it means now?

The proper proclamation of the Word is one of the most important tasks of ministry. We do this so that the "church can respond to the Word of God as it ought."

Conference Registration

Join us for a time of enrichment and encouragement as we open God's Word together. Drs. Jonathan Greer and Tim Gombis will offer a deep dive into Old Testament and New Testament backgrounds; and experienced preachers will dialogue about practical ways to communicate the background of a passage and resources they have found most helpful. Register now!

 [1] Kevin Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine, (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 27.

Categories: Interviews, Theology