Excerpt from Charles Ryrie’s book Practical Guide to Communicating Bible Doctrine
Every minister of the gospel is called to the sobering labor of “rightly dividing the word of truth.” One of my greatest concerns as I meditate on the spiritual atmosphere of contemporary, American, evangelical, Christianity is the looseness in which many exercise this sobering labor. Frankly, the reason there is such a need for tedious training of national leadership in Ghana stems from this looseness in teaching in their culture. I want to give an excerpt from pages 60-67 of Charles Ryrie’s book Practical Guide to Communicating Bible Doctrine, to perhaps wet your appetite to consider this concise, excellent read.
“A danger exists in attempting to make the facts in a text teach something that is in reality not in the text. For instance, I heard a sermon on Genesis 14:22, just the part containing the name of God as the Most High and possessor of heaven and earth. The principle drawn from this phrase was that since God is the Sovereign Creator of heaven and earth, this lays upon us a mandate to evangelize the world. Of course, evangelizing is commanded of believers but not from this text by any stretch of exegetical imagination or machination. Obviously the speaker wanted to emphasize the duty to witness, and he said he wanted to show this was commanded throughout the entire Bible, so he had to find a text (actually a pretext) in Genesis. In his zeal to make a point about witnessing (which is important), he almost completely neglected expounding from that text an important aspect of the doctrine of God, and he totally ignored the context which shows Abraham’s humility and faith.”
“It is dangerous to approach the study and exegesis of a text with the goal of finding analogies between the original audience to whom the text was addressed and the contemporary one the speaker is addressing. Sometimes such an approach will stretch the text beyond its intent, selectively use parts of the text that “fit,” or completely misuse the text. To put it bluntly, this approach can be stated as “looking for something that will preach!”
An example: the title of the message was “How Much Does God Love the World?” The speaker used two texts. The first was Jonah 3–4 to show how much God loved the world in Old Testament times. But he never explained that the evangelism of the Ninevites was an exception; the usual way a Gentile could become right with God under the Mosaic Law involved becoming a proselyte to Judaism. He never mentioned that God on occasion commanded the destruction, not the evangelization, of Israel’s Gentile enemies. That would have spoiled his selectively extracted principle from Jonah.
His second text (in the same message) was John 3:16. In expounding this text, his points were that God loved the world so much that (1) he sent the Son, (2) sacrificed the Son, and (3) separated himself from the Son on the cross. Then the principles he derived were that (1) we are sent into the world, (2) we should live sacrificially, but he was forced to omit the third principle because believers will never be separated from God. The text declares what God did in sending his Son and our responsibility to believe. It says nothing about our being sent or sacrificial living. An important Christological and soteriological text was stripped of its doctrine.”
“To extract principles that are not there often necessarily requires spiritualizing or deliteralizing the biblical text. A guest preacher on a well-respected and long-standing radio program spoke at length of acacia or shittim wood, which he said was a picture of the brokenness God wants believers to be. The principle of brokenness is biblical but has nothing to do with acacia wood, even as an illustration. He said the wood was twisted and fit only for burning. Likewise God disciplines us so we can be broken. Then when we are broken, God will cover us with gold just as he commanded the acacia wood to be so covered in the tabernacle. His conclusion: brokenness is the way to shine for Christ.
I searched Bible dictionaries to educate myself about acacia wood. Nowhere could I find that it was twisted, though it did make good charcoal. It had a thick trunk and a spreading crown ten to eighteen feet tall. Furthermore, I searched to see when acacia wood was covered with gold and found that the ark, staves, table of bread, and pillars were but that the boards were not, and the altar was covered with bronze. So how could I be assured that if I was broken I would be covered with gold? I might end up being covered with bronze or simply be a wooden board! Of all the sermons I have heard and read, this one comes close to being the epitome of twisting (pun intended!), selectively using, and deliteralizing the meaning of the biblical text.
Another example was extracted from 2 Chronicles 12:9–10. When Shishak looted the temple of the golden shields Solomon had made, Rehoboam replaced them with shields of bronze. The principle: we should never settle for less than the best.
In another instance, Matthew 9:17, about putting new wine in old wineskins, was said to teach a principle that validates changes in the order or style of worship services.
At least three ramifications result by this kind of mishandling of the text. First, it demeans the text itself. Second, it gives the impression that the principle has the same authority as the biblical text; and, third, it makes the hearer think that since he could never find such wonderful insights from the text, studying the Bible on his own is not much use. The response to such messages is often, “Wasn’t that wonderful? I never saw that in that passage.” The truth is that it wasn’t wonderful, and you didn’t see it simply because it wasn’t there in the text.”
“Unsubstantiated principles can offer false promises when used without the restraints in the text itself. One evangelical pastor/evangelist said on TV that if God can find ten righteous people in a neighborhood today he will spare that neighborhood from hoodlums and various crimes. Then he went on to suggest this principle could be expanded to more neighborhoods and then to a city, etc. This “promise” on which he based this principle was Abraham’s pleading with God in Genesis 18:32 where God said he would spare Sodom and Gomorrah if he could find ten righteous people in these cities. To find ten righteous people in any neighborhood is a worthy goal, but to attach a promise that guarantees sparing neighborhoods totally lacks biblical support. Indeed, there must be hundreds of examples where God did not spare areas wherein there were more than ten righteous people.
Another favorite promise passage used over and over is 2 Chronicles 7:14. The clear context of the promise relates to the dedication of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. After Solomon’s magnificent prayer and the offering of the multitude of sacrifices, God appeared to Solomon at night and reiterated the necessity of walking with God and punishment if he did not do so. While one may use verse 14 as a general principle of the requirements for blessing being humility, prayer, devotion, and repentance, the specific blessing promised in this verse is the healing of the land of Israel when “My people”—that is, Israel—repents. To stretch this promise to assure blessing on any nation whose citizens repent is simply that—a stretch, though admittedly an appealing one. Too often this verse serves as a call to God’s people (Christians) to repent in order to heal (that is, preserve) our land (America). As far as I can discern, there is no promise in the Bible that America will be preserved even if the population were 100 percent believers. To be sure, this verse contains an important principle: repentance on the part of God’s people brings individual blessing, but it does not contain a promise that the blessing will extend to the nation of those people. An individual and specific promise has undergone a metamorphosis into a general principle supposedly applicable to many other nations. It would be better to use Proverbs 14:34: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.”
“Always ask if there is a solid exegetical base in the text for the principle. If not, do not yield to the temptation to invent one or to proceed on a shaky base. While there are analogies between physical and spiritual blindness in John 9, the text does not introduce the subject of spiritual blindness until verse 39. The first part of the chapter teaches important truths about the doctrine of sickness (which is certainly relevant). It is always best and safest to stick to the text.
A message I heard on the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37) had these three alliterated points: the hurting world, the hesitant church, and the healing stranger. Exegetically, the purpose of the parable was to answer the lawyer’s question, Who is my neighbor? This was not addressed in the message.
Guard any legitimate principle not only by the text from which it comes but the context, immediate and wider. Sometimes we try to encourage someone who is going through a difficult time by quoting Genesis 50:20: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” That may be applicable in some cases, but we must also remember the many instances cited in Hebrews 11:36–37 that had different, even opposite, outcomes in the will of God.
Be careful about taking commands or illustrations from the way God has worked in the past and using them as commands or illustrations for this time. For example, the food prohibitions in the Mosaic Law (Deut. 14:1–21) have been thankfully superceded by the permission of 1 Timothy 4:3. Yet in my lifetime books advocating the Mosaic guidelines about food have appeared promising good health if they are followed.
One homiletical paradigm goes like this.
Exegesis (the basis in the ancient biblical text)
Timeless theological principles (the bridge)
Preaching application (to the contemporary time and audience)
But the weaknesses in the paradigm are the unanswered questions that relate to those “timeless theological principles.” Are you sure the principles come from the exegesis? Are they really timeless? How can one be sure these are correct principles?
If I have seemed to come on too strong in this chapter, it is only because I feel that too much Bible study and preaching, while not necessarily unbiblical, is based on weak, shaky, selective, or deliteralized handling of biblical texts. Such mishandling or shallow handling of the Word of our Lord dishonors both the Word and the Lord.”