Forcing the Form: Subjecting Holy Scripture to Human Structures

January 7, 2014

Recently my wife pointed out the constellation Orion to our kids as we were driving home one night. Well, they were having a bit of a hard time identifying it amidst all the other stars in the sky.

So, being the techy, cool dad that I am, I pulled out my smartphone when we got home and held it up to the night sky with the help of Google Sky Map. As soon as I did Orion came into clear focus. Or did it?

Though my kids were amazed, my wife was not. She came over, saw what we were looking at, and said, “That’s not Orion. It’s over there.” And, lo and behold, she was right. Just off to the right of my Orion was the real Orion. And once I turned the phone in that direction, it recalibrated and identified the true Orion.

Boy did I feel dumb (especially when Wikipedia says “Orion is a prominent constellation located on the celestial equator and visible throughout the world. It is one of the most conspicuous and recognizable constellations in the night sky.” Ouch.)

But I learned a valuable lesson that night–beware of forcing forms.

Here’s what was so sad. Even though what I saw in the sky didn’t exactly fit what I saw on my phone, I made it fit. I naively assumed Google Sky Maps and my Samsung phone would never lead me astray. Therefore, what they were showing me trumped what I was actually seeing in the sky. Sad. There I am telling my kids, “Look. There’s Orion, right there. See that line over there? That’s his raised hand. And there’s his club. See it, guys?” “Yeah, yeah, I see it, Daddy.” Well, it wasn’t there at all. I was forcing the form and in the process distorting my kids’ view of astronomical reality.

Unfortunately what happened that night in my driveway also happens in the pulpit–preachers take a pre-constructed homiletical form and force it onto the text of Scripture and in the process distort their congregation’s view of scriptural reality.

So here’s the question I’d like to raise: are we ever guilty of forcing human structures onto holy scripture? Of taking prefabricated homiletical forms and pressing them down hard onto the text until the text comes out looking like the form?

And here’s what’s really sad–even though we might have this sense deep down that the text doesn’t fit this form, we make it fit. Because it has to fit.

One example will suffice. I was introduced early on to the key word approach to preaching. Here it is in a nutshell.

  • You establish the proposition of your sermon.
  • Then you craft a question (interrogative) that comes out of the proposition and is answered by what is called the “transition” sentence.
  • The transition sentence contains a “key word” that serves as the umbrella concept for each of the main points.

So, if I were preaching Romans 1:16-17 the key word approach might look something like this:

Proposition: We must be bold in our proclamation of the gospel.

Interrogative: Why must we be bold in our proclamation of the gospel?

Transition: We must be bold in our proclamation of the gospel for the following reasons.

Main point 1: Because the gospel is the power of God.

Main point 2: Because the gospel reveals the righteousness of God.

In this case the key word is “reasons.” And each of the main points is a reason. Now, I selected Romans 1:16-17 because I think this particular passage does fit the form rather well.  Paul says he’s not ashamed of the gospel. Then he follows up with two for’s providing the reasons for his unashamedness.

But here’s the danger. I may think to myself, “Well, that worked quite well. I like that form. It feels good to have everything so tightly and neatly structured. It’s easy to preach. It makes it easy for my listeners to follow the logic of the sermon and so on. I think I’ll use that form for my next sermon.” Okay, but what if the next sermon text isn’t Orion? What if I take the same key word approach and apply it to, let’s say, Romans 3:21-26. Well, the form may or may not fit in that case.

I’m certainly not against homiletical forms. I teach them to my students. I use them when I preach. Every sermon has some kind of form. What I am cautioning against is coming to a text of scripture and forcing a pre-constructed, predetermined form onto a passage without giving sufficient consideration to its true and actual configuration.

There are, of course, other factors involved in determining what shape your sermon should take. But that’s for another post. Here I’m simply making the point that the form of our text should heavily inform the form of our sermon. And if it does, then we will be less likely to subject holy Scripture to human structures and distort reality in the process.

Kerry McGonigal

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In Adam by birth but in Christ by grace. That's my story. Husband to one and father of three. Pastor, homiletics teacher, and passionate proponent of expository preaching. If you like what you've read and want to be notified of future posts, take a second and subscribe via RSS or email (on the right sidebar). Opinions expressed here are my own.