Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

14 Jan 2012

Moralism or Allegory? Are These the Only Options?


I am a pastor who wants to preach God’s Word faithfully. I also happen to teach preaching to seminary students who also want to preach God’s Word faithfully. I want, by God’s grace, to teach them well and help them “rightly divide the Word of truth” for God’s glory. I spend, therefore, a lot of time studying hermeneutics and homiletics. I am very thankful for the influences in my life that shepherded me toward expositional preaching by example and training. I am also very thankful that we live in a day with a renewed emphasis on expositional preaching, and that this emphasis is not satisfied with technical accuracy, but longs for Christ-honoring exposition of the sacred text. We live in a great day to learn how to preach.

One important discussion about preaching which is happening in our day is about how we read the Bible. In an over-simplified way, that discussion focuses on whether we read the Bible as being about us or whether we read it as being about Christ. I say over-simplified because I think that framing the discussion like this is an unhelpful false dichotomy. Is it about Christ? Absolutely, it is. Is it about us? Absolutely, it is. It is not about Christ to the exclusion of us, nor about us to the exclusion of Christ.

I completely agree with the critique of some preaching that it ends up being not much more than moralistic self-help. I don’t think, however, that the proper answer to this is to swing the hermeneutical pendulum toward spiritualization and allegorization. There is New Testament warrant for seeing, for instance, Old Testament texts as addressing the kind of life believers should live (cf. 1 Cor 10:6 “so that we would not crave” and 1 Cor 9:10 “for our sakes it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope”). And there is clear, direct statement in the New Testament that the “Scripture is inspired by God and profitable…so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).

This post is prompted by a video done by Matt Chandler promoting the Gospel Project. Now, I’m not familiar enough with that project to opine on its value, so don’t read this post as making comment on it. The video is what caught my attention and evokes my concern. In it, Chandler sets up the kind of false dichotomy that is becoming much too common and popular, even choosing to illustrate it with the same biblical account that is used by Timothy Keller and others—David and Goliath. In a nutshell, Chandler’s point is that we aren’t David, Jesus is. Goliath isn’t the problems in your life, he represents sin and death. IOW, you can either read the Bible as being about you or about Jesus.

What Chandler does, though, is leave us with only moralism or allegory as the options, neither of which is an acceptable approach to the Scriptures. It isn’t about how we can kill the giants in our lives, but it also isn’t an allegory about Jesus and sin. (Chandler’s appeal to the shadows mentioned in Colossian 2 misses the mark considerably since v. 16 tells us what things were shadows—food, drink, festivals, new moons, Sabbath days.) Read in its literary context, the account of David and Goliath is showing us why David was chosen by God to be the next king and precisely where Saul failed so badly. God called David “a man after [His] own heart” (1 Sam 13:14) because David was confident in the Lord’s promises and committed to the Lord’s glory. Saul, on the other hand, did not trust the Lord and was committed to his own safety and kingdom more than God’s. The trajectories for the two men are going opposite directions and cross paths in 1 Samuel 17.

Does reading the text this way result in moralism? Not at all, because the center of the story is God—the battle is the Lord’s! David provides a pattern of trusting God, not self-effort or works. God uses people who trust Him enough to risk their lives for His glory. God’s leaders should be that kind of person because He is that kind of God. Does reading the text this way exclude Christ? Not necessarily. Setting the text within its larger contexts will lead us to Christ—the historical books leave us longing for a better King than any we find in them; the ultimate victory will be provided for by God because the battle is His. Is Christ sometimes ignored? Sadly, yes. In fact, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this. The answer, though, is not to position Christ as the allegorical key to interpreting the Scriptures. That shifts the authority away from the text of Scripture to the creative thinking of the interpreter, and that kind of shift is neither proper nor profitable.

P.S. I recently preached on 1 Samuel 17 in a college chapel, so perhaps it can serve as a test case for those wishing to examine this further. I don’t think I reduced the text to moralism, but perhaps those of you more attuned to that will differ with me. If you think so, I’d welcome your critique to help me see where I’m mistaken on this. As I said above, I am a preacher and I teach preaching, so this is not a theoretical discussion to me. I want to handle the Word properly and help others do so as well. If I’m mistaken, I want to change. I don’t think I am, but I’m open to challenge on it.

Addendum: After I had written the post above I received two emails with a link to a post by Mike Riccardi addressing the same video and subject. Mike says many of the same things I do plus more. I’d encourage you to read it.

2 Responses

  1. I think this comment from Trevin Wax in the comments following Matt’s video sheds some light on the issue at hand. I do agree that the first meaning of the text here is what we should focus on first, especially in study. But c’mon, there is plenty of justification for the occassional allegorical or ethical teaching from such a great picture as a little kid beating the giant.

    “Just to clarify,

    We asked Matt to provide a quick snapshot of a Christ-directed approach to David and Goliath versus a moralistic approach. We didn’t ask him to lay out all the implications and applications that come from a passage like this.

    I can’t speak for Matt, but knowing his overall hermeneutic and his approach to the Scriptures, I am sure that neither he (nor we, for that matter) are saying that there are no moral applications to be found in the story of David and Goliath or that the historical context should be minimized.

    At the same time, one must wonder how Jesus would have approached this story with his disciples on the road to Emmaus. Since He paralleled His own death and resurrection with Jonah, He would probably have demonstrated similar parallels with David as well. (The Gospel writers did this explicitly, for example, with the story of Jesus picking grain on the Sabbath.)”