The following is an excerpt from Steven W. Smith’s recently released volume, Recapturing the Voice of God: Shaping Sermons Like Scripture. In Chapter 3 on “Preaching and the Genre of Scripture,” Smith discusses three critical features of genre: 1) genres are limited; 2) genres are situational; and 3) genres are moving. The excerpt below addresses the second point, that genres are situational.
Humanly speaking, the use of literary genres emerges from the needs of specific situations. The situation of angst and complaint calls for a psalm. The situation of a struggling church calls for an epistle. The situation of the grand movement of God calls for a narrative. Clearly understanding the situation to which, or from which, a text is written helps us understand its meaning. When Paul understood how far the young Galatian believers were from Christ, he did not sing a song or give them a law. Rather, he gave them a stinging rebuke in the form of a letter (Gal 1:6–10). The situation drove the genre. The situation of the writing of the text is helpful to understanding its meaning.
However, the knowledge of the situation can also be a distraction away from its meaning. This is because the knowledge of the situation can produce the latent temptation to preach the situation and not the text.
This temptation to preach the situation and not the text is especially acute in the Psalms. Take for example David’s psalm of contrition in Psalm 51. The psalmist is lamenting his sin. His contrition is deep (“for I know my transgressions,” v. 3) and wide (“and my sin is ever before me,” v. 3). The poem is the perfect medium for David’s loathing. The strophe structure allows the heartache and pain to seep through his porous soul in waves of theologically nuanced suffering. The medium is perfectly situated for the message. And herein lies the problem. The temptation in such a psalm is to reach back to the story and preach the story and not the psalm. The narrative of 2 Samuel 11–12 is fascinating, provocative, and heartbreaking. The natural temptation is to take as one’s text Psalm 51, but use most of the time preaching the narrative of the sin and ignore the psalm. In other words, instead of preaching the meaning of the text to the immediate audience, we preach the situation of the text. Instead of preaching the text and its implications for today, the bulk of the sermon is what is behind the text.
While this temptation is especially acute in the Psalms, the temptation can be equally as great while preaching the words of Paul to the people of Galatia, the Sermon on the Mount from Jesus to the people, or the Revelation to John from Jesus to the seven churches. All of these texts are situational, and the situations are fascinating (at least to the inner nerd within every Bible student). The situation is in fact helpful. However, it is helpful as an interpretive guide to the text at hand. The preacher wants to avoid preaching the text that is behind the text (the situation) instead of preaching the text itself.
This is our theology of Scripture. We are not preaching the situations; we are preaching texts. Preaching the situation that is behind the text to the exclusion of the text at hand misrepresents the nature of Scripture. The message of Scripture “trans-historically” transcends time and speaks to our situation. While we must pay attention to the situation in which it was originally given, a sermon that deals too much with the historical situation moves the preacher further from dealing with the situation in which people find themselves: the need to be aware of sin. This is the most important aspect of the situational nature of the genre: it is situational in an anticipatory way. The genres exist not just to facilitate the ancient situation, but as facility for our situations. The point is not that the genres capture the limited numbers of ways God chose to communicate, rather that the genres speak to the unlimited number of situations of all believers of all time. Genres are situational, but in a trans-historical way. In order to allow the text to meet the current situation, we must preach it in a way that addresses immediate needs.
Tending to a study of individual genres should make us more sensitive to present needs, not desensitized against present needs while being sensitive to the ancient situation. Understanding the ancient situation is an aid to understanding the text, a text that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is able to speak to the present situation.
This then leads to a question. Why exactly are the genres able to meet the current situation? Or more precisely, what makes an ancient text relevant in our situation today? After all, this deference to ancient literature as absolutely trustworthy has little modern equivalent. In a day when baccalaureate science textbooks go out of date by the time they are printed and reach the market, it is a significant challenge for the evangelical to present an ancient text as the answer for contemporary problems. However, the reason that they are able to meet current needs is because they themselves have never been static, but have always been moving.
About the Author:
Steven W. Smith (PhD Regent University) is vice president of Student Services and Communications and professor of preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Dying to Preach (Kregel, 2009).
Watch an interview with Steven W. Smith here.
Download Introduction and Chapter One here.