Posted by: chuckbumgardner | July 9, 2009

How to Preach a Passage When You Understand It Not to Be Historical

In preparing for a sermon, I perused an article by recently-deceased NT scholar Reginald H. Fuller:  “John 20:19-23,” Interpretation 32 (1978): 180-84.  Fuller is no conservative, denying the historicity of this passage, and in his article is concerned to discuss the proper way that a preacher may rightly preach a passage which, while having “a historical nucleus” (180), is actually “not . . . a historical report, but  . . . a pre-Gospel appearance story redacted by the Evangelist” (182).  That is (as he goes on to note), “Jesus did not really appear in the upper room on Easter Sunday evening; this is a tradition that grew up in the oral period (or as a result of the Evangelist’s redaction, as the case may be” (182).

One can understand the problem.  If one doesn’t believe that what Scripture said happened really happened, how does one preach it authoritatively to one’s congregation?  The ghost of Bultmann would frown on saying this passage relates a historical event, but, as Fuller notes, all the same, it is embarrassing to straightforwardly tell one’s congregation that the event didn’t really happen.

The solution, as Fuller sees it, is to concentrate on the “kerygmatic truth” of the passage, the “proclamation” of which the non-historical text is the vehicle (182). That is, don’t give much attention at all to the matter of what actually happened.  Don’t try to harmonize the text with other related texts.  No, instead–referencing Reinhold Niebuhr–the preacher must “be a deceiver and yet true.”  Or–referencing Paul Ricoeur–he must achieve “a second naïveté” (182).

Oh, the tangled web we weave!  I will note that Fuller does not deny the historicity of Christ’s resurrection (180).  That being said, it seems that when one picks and chooses which NT events are historical and which aren’t — when in both cases the text presents the event as historical — one finds it difficult to defend the historicity of any purportedly historical text.  And “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14).

In addition, Paul has some pretty straightforward language regarding the use of “deception” in the proclamation of the gospel message: “Our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive” (1 Thess 2:3).  Niebuhr notwithstanding, I would aver that the preacher of the gospel must not be a deceiver in any way.

Does it not become suggestive that one is on the wrong path when one must speak of the “embarrassment” (182) that one might feel in telling the congregation about the text and its lack of historicity?

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