Biblical interpretations in preaching

Written by Gerhard von Rad Reviewed By Walter C. Kaiser, Jr

Twenty-one homiletical meditations which first appeared in the Göttinger Predigtmeditationen between 1946 and 1966 are gathered together in this slender volume with a prefatory lecture originally delivered in the winter semester of 1965/66 to a practicum for theological students on the critical gap between exegesis and preaching. Readers of this journal will welcome von Rad’s two basic principles: (1) biblical texts must be preached and (2) biblical texts can be preached. But they will be perplexed as they trace how these Old Testament texts are preached.

Frequently von Rad appears forthrightly to deny the Old Testament text its own legitimacy apart from a New Testament reinterpretation or christological theologizing of the older passage. For example, when he handles Isaiah 61:1–3, 10–11 with his spiritualizing of the rebuilding of the ancient ruins into the same need in the contemporary congregation (p. 96), plus a word about Jesus Christ, we are left wondering the same question which finally forces itself on von Rad: ‘Why does he then preach on Isaiah 61 and not directly on Luke 4:14?’ (p. 99).

Evangelical readers (cognizant of the invincible arguments laid by E. D. Hirsch, Validity in interpretation,Yale Press, 1967, or Aims of interpretations, University of Chicago Press, 1976) will want to object strenuously to his ‘refraction of the Old Testament’s meaning’ and to a certain amount of necessary ‘metamorphosis’ of its truth (p. 105). Such devices not only widen the gap between exegesis and preaching, but eventually kill Old Testament preaching altogether and render it worthless and powerless on the contemporary scene.

A clear example of von Rad’s embarrassment over the Old Testament text’s particularism can be found in his sermon on Genesis 12:1–9. After he had courageously (also correctly, in our judgment) defended the passive meaning of ‘be blessed’ in Genesis 12:3, he choked on the reference to the ‘land’ of Canaan in Genesis 12:7. His advice to the preacher was to tell him either to avoid it or to revert to the older typological interpretation which made of it some feature of the new Christ-life! Likewise, he cautioned against proceeding with Joshua 1:1–9 until the preacher was able to see the connection with our redemption in Christ (p. 52). Yet in Genesis 16:1–16, he correctly warned the preacher to stop short of allegorizing Sarah and Hagar into the church and the natural man. The connection between the New Testament reader and the original Old Testament audience of that some word appears to be more mystical than consistently real, objective, historically or propositionally based.

Yet von Rad will at times demonstrate a valid methodology (e.g. on Genesis 22:1–19) and will label this method a new typology. No-one will object to his typological interpretation of 2 Kings 5:1–19 involving Naaman and the little maid. I, however, believe that the method as practised in that example is closer to what he calls an acceptable process of principlization based on a syntactical-theological analysis of the text as intended by the writer of Scripture.

But regardless of one’s stance, this volume will be exceedingly stimulating. May it provoke a renewed discussion of one of the most important issues of our day: ‘The crises in exegetical theology’.

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, S. Hamilton, Massachusetts