Bridging the continuity gap

A summary of Sidney Greidanus’ Textual-thematic preaching from The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature

I speak from experience when I say that I often end up with a confused understanding of a certain bible passage after hearing it preached in a sermon. I gather that it is perhaps because of the fact that contemporary preachers when doing an exegesis on a passage often do not have a framework on recognizing the passage’s theme and not to mention have a systematic method of formulating the passage’s theme that they’ll be delivering in a sermon –thus leading to a muddle up preaching that confuses both the preacher and the congregation that hears the sermon because the preacher failed to bridge the historical-cultural gap and show how the ancient text is relevant to its modern audience.

Sentences have classically been defined as a grammatical unit that is composed of one or more clauses. Our elementary school teachers have taught us that: every complete sentence contains two parts: a subject and a predicate. The subject is what (or whom) the sentence is about, while the predicate tells something about the subject. Hence, sentences convey concrete thoughts or ideas. In this fashion, texts in scripture also convey a unit, which composes a specific synthesis that forms a very unique place within the totality of revelation –making known to us the distinctive message of the text[1].

In a way, this is the thrust of Sidney Greidanus,’ chapter on textual-thematic preaching in his book, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature. Writing on, this topic, he explained that the theme of the sermon is rooted in the text. A sermon must have a text, rather than just a topic. He discusses what a text is and how one delineates a text, and the difference between the theme of the text and the theme of the sermon.

He also notes of the value of theme formulating as a means to engage in a meaningful dialogue between the sacred text and the contemporary context. On this chapter he challenges the readers to engage the text by discovering the theme as shown within the framework of its original milieu; and formulating the theme by providing a summary of the unifying thought that is conveyed by the text[2].

Discovering the Theme

Writing about how ancient structural patterns in the text aid the contemporary preachers, Greidanus remarks that the repetition of a word, phrase or clause are the most obvious clues that the ancient writers use to reveal the themes of their writing. He also notes that as far as structures are concerned a chiastic structure where important concepts or ideas are placed in a special symmetric order or pattern is also helpful in discerning the pivotal thought that is often located at its center, between the passages’ introduction and conclusion[3]. Lastly, he states that when it comes to discovering the theme of the text to be preached he again places the value of always formulating the theme in light of the larger whole, according to the theme of the broader contexts of paragraph, section and book[4].

Formulating the Theme

Greidanus has noted that the theme is a summary statement of the unifying thought of the text, it follows then that formulating the theme is the process to which one tries to lay hold of the dominant idea that encompasses all others. It is to hear the text’s primary affirmation that is to see the text as a number of elements recounted one after the other and then see how these various elements are combined and related to project meaning in their specific combination[5].

He notes that the theme must contain at least a subject and a predicate. A subject by itself, such as “gospel” or “power,” does not assert anything; it may indicate a topic the text deals with, but it does not say anything about the topic because it is not a complete thought[6].  For that reason it is preferable to state the theme in the form of a brief sentence[7]. Further, he writes the theme of the text ought to be formulated from the author’s viewpoint. This guideline seeks to ward off the common practice of formulating different angles[8].

I believe that the theme discovery and formulation process is important because there is a need to recognize the elements of discontinuity between the Scripture’s ancient audience and us, and at the same time recognize the overarching continuity that we have with the ancient audience. The preacher must realize that he is not making the text relevant but is coming with a relevant proclamation about God and his Christ.


[1] Greidanus, Sidney. The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grands Rapids:  Eerdmans,  1988) p.134
[2] Ibid
[3] Idem  p. 133
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid
[7] Ibid p.135
[8] Ibid
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