The following are further edited extracts from an email dialogue that I had recently with someone who wishes to remain anonymous. It followed a talk in which I questioned the privileged status given to sermons.
Here I’ve assembled together extracts from one particular line of argument than ran through our dialogue. It concerns the precedent set by Moses in Deuteronomy.
What did Moses actually do, on the edge of the land, to best prepare the Israelites for active immediate obedience to God’s Word? Surely if there was a better method of doing it than giving three monologues, he would have employed that method? Why did he preach then, when he so desperately wanted the Word to sink into their hearts and produce heart-obedience? …
Why is it significant that Moses preached on the edge of the land? …
1) He was the paradigmatic prophet (I think that’s one of Peter Adam’s points).
2) It’s a crucial moment in Israel’s history when Moses really wanted God’s Word to make an impact – so why didn’t they have three days of Bible study instead if that would have been a better method of helping people to internalise the Word.
3) He’s not just a paradigmatic prophet. From what evidence we can construct about what is consequently the norm in Israel, it seemed to be what the priests did (certainly in Nehemiah 8) and was the norm in synagogues (e.g. Luke 4, Acts 13).
You say Moses could have instituted a nation-wide programme of Bible study. But that’s what he did do in Deuteronomy 6:4-9! He instituted a nation-wide programme of life-on-life, ad hoc Bible conversation …
What Moses does in Deuteronomy is monologue, but it is not anything like modern day sermons. It is primarily a mixture of story-telling and law recitation.
But those issues aside, you cannot pick out the example of Moses, say that was the way to ‘best preparation’ then and is the ‘best way’ to prepare God’s people today. I could pick hundreds of other biblical examples (including Jesus himself) where people taught through dialogue, stories, Q&A, songs, aphorism and say those people thought that was the ‘best way’ to teach and it is the best way now. You cannot reason from one example to universal prescriptions …
You haven’t shown me any biblical case for privileging monologue. You have pointed to examples of monologue, but nothing to indicate that monologues should be central or primary. Examples alone will not do the job, because I can point to lots of examples of others forms of teaching. You can point to Moses; I can point to Jesus and Paul … Jesus is the prophet par excellence – the paradigmatic prophet if you like. And Jesus taught through stories, Q&A, dialogue, aphorism. So why not privilege parables? Or dialogues?
I’m not arguing for a particular style of sermon. I’m argue for the mode of delivery … Moses does do exposition, application and exhortation. He’s preaching. The style of his preaching is different to ours today, just like the style of Spurgeon or Calvin is different to ours today, but they’re still doing exposition, application and exhortation.
Your comment about Jesus highlights the difference in how we’re reading the texts. I agree that Jesus is the prophet par excellence. I do not agree that the Gospels will give you a complete – or even a clear or the best – picture of Jesus the prophet. Without the OT much of the Gospels frankly make no sense. The whole Bible reveals Christ, not just the Gospels. Moses is the paradigmatic prophet. He is that particular part of the shadow of Christ we see in the OT. Without Moses that picture of Christ as prophet would be lacking in the Bible.
I’ve been uneasy with the Deuteronomy analogy and know I realise why. It’s a false rhetorical move. By calling what Moses did in Deuteronomy three ‘sermons’ it implies a similarity with what takes place in pulpits in churches today. Moses (probably) did monologue, but it was unlike modern sermons. It was story-telling and law recitation. Some people do story-telling in pulpits (though not many in my experience). I don’t know many who do law recitation. So Deuteronomy cannot represent a case for modern sermons.
I’m not sure what the distinction between style and mode of delivery is. I do exposition, application and exhortation when I lead discussions (what else would I do!). If you’re arguing for exposition, application and exhortation then we agree 100 percent. But as I understand it you want to go further and argue that exposition, application and exhortation should ‘primarily’ take place through a particular mode of delivery or style – i.e. monologue.
Please re-read your comments about Moses and Jesus and think whether you would employ that argument in any other discussion. Offering animal sacrifices? Stoning erers? Theonomism and theocracy? Would you really say that, since we need the OT background to understand Jesus, we should therefore follow the OT pattern? Of course, we need the OT to truly understand Jesus. But that doesn’t mean the OT is our norm and Jesus isn’t. What defines prophecy is not its mode. Just think of Ezekiel cutting his hair etc. etc.! Moses employs one teaching style in Deuteronomy (not sermons, but law recitation and story-telling) and Jesus employs a variety of different teaching methods in the Gospels. You can’t seriously want to chose the pattern of Moses over the pattern of Jesus! (Incidentally, I don’t want to chose either one – I want to allow both without privileging one.)
… I agree there is discontinuity and continuity between OT and NT. But my point is that you seem to be making Moses in Deuteronomy normative and Jesus sub-normative – and that seems an extraordinary move.
Your second argument for privileging Moses at Deuteronomy is that this became the pattern in the temple and synagogues. I confess I am not well read on the practices of synagogues. There is little in the Scriptures … The point is: I would rather follow the pattern of Jesus, the apostles and the apostolic churches than the pattern for the Jewish synagogues.