December 12, 2017

Preaching Old Testament Narratives, a review

Walton, Benjamin H. Preaching Old Testament Narratives. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016.

Reviewed by Don Johnson

The average person in the pew probably has little interest in books on preaching. The possible exception might be those who are responsible for teaching Sunday school classes, especially for junior high and older young people. Preachers should always be interested in learning something new and “honing their craft” just a little more. Being in the latter category, I looked forward to my review copy of Preaching Old Testament Narratives with anticipation. In the foreword, Jeffrey Arthurs (an old classmate) writes, “This book is a template, well-illustrated, for how to manage the relentless task of feeding your flock from the pulpit.” The author, Benjamin Walton, says, “My goal was to create a resource that you’ll want to turn to when you preach OT narratives.” Given those comments and the title, I was disposed to like the book, and it does have some value especially when it focuses on the subject announced by the title. There are flaws, however, which make the book less valuable than could be wished.

The positive contribution of this book is in describing how to understand, analyze, and interpret Old Testament narratives in preparation for preaching (or for teaching). The first chapter provides a good reminder of the difference genre makes, narratives are not epistles and we would do well to remember key distinctions when we come to their study: “OT narratives are a form of indirect communication” (33), “complete units of thought … of OT narratives tend to be one to two chapters in length” (34), and especially, “unlike NT epistles, OT narratives do a lot of describing and not a lot of prescribing.” (34, emphasis author’s) This difference is important to keep in mind, since “more than forty percent of the Bible is narrative.” (45) Walton provides a five step methodology for analyzing an OT narrative text. This begins with selecting the text. Walton emphasizes dealing with the complete unit of thought, which is singularly important for interpretation. However, I think he goes too far when he says, “In general, we need to preach an entire CUT [complete unit of thought], because OT narratives teach few theological principles and because it takes an entire CUT to convey an OTM [original theological message]. Thus, preaching partial CUTs typically results in misapplication.” (47) Sermons are not the same as hermeneutical analysis, and a sermon may deal with less than a complete unit of thought and still be a faithful exposition if it the preacher has first of all wrestled with the whole unit and doesn’t deviate from a correct understanding when preaching a shorter section. I think Walton is too dogmatic here. (The quotation also features another problem in the book that I will mention later.)

The emphasis on interpreting the complete unit of thought is welcome, as is getting a grasp of theological and historical contexts and studying the plot. Unless we are alert to the context and the plotline we will miss important insights in the text. As a model for this book, Walton uses 2 Samuel 11-12, the story of David’s sin with Bathsheba and its aftermath. His method yields this interesting insight, “In 2 Samuel 11–12, one way we can tell that its plot has little to do with adultery is by noticing that Bathsheba is a minor character, as she is named only twice. David, however, is named forty-one times, Uriah twenty-three, the LORD fourteen, and Joab thirteen.” (59) I think he is right about that, although I would hasten to say that it can’t be said the plot has nothing to do with adultery. In any case, I found his methodology, described in chapter 2, to be quite helpful. Chapter 3 is a succinct commentary on 2 Samuel 11-12, which essentially rehashes what was said in chapter 2. It is good for review of methodology, I suppose, but all of it was already said in the previous chapter.

After the opening two chapters, the book appeared to follow the law of diminishing returns. Instead of being a book about “Preaching Old Testament Narratives,” the rest of the book was mostly more general in its approach, being more about preaching itself than anything specific to Old Testament narratives. There were flashes, and moments where I would have to say it was helpful, but for the most part, I found the following chapters to be tedious. In the preface, Walton offered this in anticipation of this section, “Chapters 4–10 are a conscious attempt to apply, in my own way, Donald Sunukjian’s homiletic to the preaching of OT narratives.” (19) I am not familiar with Sunukjian, but I assume his homiletical method is what was followed for these chapters. One might be better served by just reading Sunukjian, but I saw little in the balance of this book to commend him to you either.

I would like to offer two other criticisms. First was the constant use of acronyms throughout the book for Walton’s special terms. You saw some of them in the quote above: CUT, OTM. There are also these: EI, PPA, and THT. Each of these acronyms are defined once, and there is an abbreviations page (p. 25), then throughout the rest of the book when the terms are used, the special acronym is referred to. Unless the reader is well-versed in Walton’s special terminology, the acronyms are extremely off-putting. The reader constantly either has to refer back to the abbreviations page or labor to remember what the acronym means. This puts a barrier between writer and reader that is entirely unnecessary. Why not simply say, “complete unit of thought,” or “original theological message,” or what-have-you? Would spelling out these terms (or offering intelligible English synonyms) so difficult? Does the extra ink add so much to the cost of the book that they couldn’t be used? (I’m being sarcastic, surely cost of ink has nothing to do with it!) The use of acronyms suggests a kind of elitism the author surely doesn’t mean to convey. It does nothing to forward his goals and distracts the reader from the content he is trying to communicate.

Another criticism I would make is ecclesiastical. Walton cites Tremper Longman and Peter Enns as reputable scholars for Old Testament study. These suggestions are made on p. 65. Both recommendations are extremely disappointing, to say the least. Longman doesn’t believe in a historical Adam. In addition to denying a historical Adam, Enns has numerous theological issues which led to his departure from Westminster Seminary some years ago. It is irresponsible to recommend theologically suspect teachers, in my opinion.

At best, I think I can only give this book an average rating, perhaps a C on a letter-grade grading scale.

Our readers might wonder why I would bother to write a review of this book when my review is so negative. There are several reasons for writing:

First, I was given a free copy of this book by the publisher for the purposes of review. I feel somewhat obligated by that gift to give the book a chance, so I read the whole thing, though with diminishing interest and increasingly negative commentary in my notes!

Second, the occasion does give an opportunity to fulfill our ministry of warning, which we think is important at Proclaim & Defend. We want to be positive and see the good we can in the efforts of fellow Christians, but we also must be faithful to God’s calling and point out especially ecclesiastical error and compromise. Unfortunately, this book engages to some extent in such errors, as noted above, and if we are going to comment at all, we must include the warning.

Finally, I would like to encourage young preachers to read books like this carefully and critically. It is possible to be overly critical, but it is perhaps more dangerous to be uncritical. Hopefully I have achieved balance between those two extremes in this review. There is some benefit to be had from this book, but I can’t recommend it highly and must assume there are other options out there that could be much more helpful.


Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the review.


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