Book Review: Benjamin H. Walton, Preaching Old Testament Narratives

Walton, Benjamin H. Preaching Old Testament Narratives.  Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2016. 254 pp. Pb; $18.99. Link to Kregel  

This short book is based on Walton’s 2012 D.Min thesis for Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (“Enhancing Hermeneutical Accuracy for the Preaching of Old Testament Narratives Using 2 Samuel 11-12 as a Case Study.”) The book offers a methodology for both the interpretive and practical skills necessary for preaching Old Testament narrative.

walton-preaching-narrativesThe first three chapters deal with hermeneutical concerns. First, Walton explains preaching with “biblical authority” means accurately proclaiming and applying the message of biblical preaching texts (29). This necessarily requires a proper hermeneutic for the genre. Since the genre of Old Testament narrative is quite different than a New Testament epistle, Walton argues this difference in genre requires hermeneutical steps in order to write a sermon with an appropriate application.

Second, Walton deals with the often difficult problem of selecting appropriate texts from the Old Testament to preach and making them applicable, what he calls “take home truth.” He offers five steps, beginning with identifying a complete unit of thought (CUT), the moving from the original theological message (OTM) to the take-home truth (THT). These abbreviations are used throughout the book. Although chapter 2 is a basic introduction to reading narrative, it goes beyond identifying a narrative to demonstrating how a large narrative can be captured in a short, crisp original theological statement. If that statement is clear and concise, then “crafting the take-home truth” will be easier and more accurate. I suspect pastors usually start with what they want their application to be, then drive that thought into a text whether it belongs there or not. Walton’s method starts with a serious reading of the text using all of the exegetical skills and tools available so that the final application arises from the text itself. Walton provides a short example of his method in chapter 3 using 1 Samuel 11-12.

One thing missing from Walton’s discussion is some advice on “what not to preach.” A pastor might decide to preach through a series of stories in the Old Testament, but not every paragraph needs to be read and explained. In fact, there are texts that do not make appropriate preaching texts. For example, when preaching through the life of David, it is important to illustrate Saul’s jealousy of David and the loyalty of Saul’s children to David rather than to their father. But it might not be appropriate to treat the dowry Saul demands of David in detail (1 Sam 18:24-28). I might discuss this unusual bride-price in a Sunday School class or a small group Bible Study, but most morning worship service sermons are not quite ready for this particular paragraph.

Walton indicates chapters 4-10 are a “conscious attempt to apply, in my own way, Donald Sunukijan’s homiletic to the preaching of Old Testament narratives” (19). Some of this is generic enough to be used for any text in the Bible (creating introductions and conclusions, applications as “picture painting, etc.) Where Walton excels is his principles for preaching through a text in complete units of thought, rather than verse-by-verse. He recommends summarizing texts without reading whole sections. Certainly some verses ought to be read with the congregation, but to read twenty verses of an Old Testament narrative will not engage the congregation. Another way to do this is to explain the text as it is read, so that the preacher is creating a running commentary, explaining details of the text in order to bring the focus back on the take-home truth.

In Chapter 11 Walton outlines a method for moving from the text of the Old Testament to Christ. Since evangelical pastors want to preach Christ in every sermon, they often avoid the Old Testament because it can be difficult to draw a reasonable and appropriate application from an Old Testament narrative that somehow can be tied to the Gospel. Walton uses an “old covenant to the new covenant” method, similar to apostolic preaching in Acts or Paul in the epistles. By preaching new Covenant theology or ethics, Walton asserts, we are preaching Christ (185). If the take-home truth is well-crafted and attentive to the theological meaning of the original text, then a preacher might as how Christ makes that application possible in the present, New Covenant age. Walton highly recommends the work of Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1999) as well as his Preaching Christ from Genesis (Eerdmans, 2007).

In his final chapter, Walton offers advice on developing from a good preacher to an excellent preacher. These nine sections apply to any sort of preaching, whether expository from the Old Testament or not. Two sections of this chapter stand out to me. First, he recommends fifteen hours dedicated to sermon preparation, not including practicing the sermon. I suspect most pastors would like to dedicate this much time, but few are able to do so because of other demands on their time. Walton cites his mentor Donald Sunukjian as describing sermon preparation as “the hardest and best thing we will ever do” (200). Second, he recommends writing a manuscript for the sermon, then ditching it. I almost always create a lengthy manuscript of my sermons, although I cannot quite “ditch it” when I preach; it functions like a security blanket for me, and I am OK with that. But Walton is correct that the best preachers have prepared well and should not need the safety net of a manuscript.

Walton includes several appendices demonstrating his method and offering a short overview of the story of the Old Testament.

Conclusion. With five pages of endorsements from academics and preaching experts, the book certainly comes well recommended. Walton’s book does in fact provide a useful method for preaching the narratives of the Old Testament. The value of the book is often in the form of brief advice from an experienced preacher.

Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Benjamin H. Walton, Preaching Old Testament Narratives

  1. Nice review. A little while ago I finished a series in the book of Ezra called “Rebuilding a Life with God.” Reading this review made me sort of wish I’d known about and read this book. The “Complete unit of thought” thing is something I’ve done for years (I don’t like verse by verse precisely because a verse may be an incomplete thought). I do, however, tend to read as much of the text as possible, though not genealogies, and then summarize the thought of the text, and then key off specific phrases I want to high-lite for preaching purposes. Reading the text is important in my mind, because it was important to God to have the text inspired/composed. “Faith comes by hearing…” Sounds like a good read, though.

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    • The book has only just been released (this month). Perhaps reading Donald Sunukjian or Sidney Greidanus would be better, although much more detailed than this book. You could spend a day or two with this book and get the gist.

      I think the verse-by-verse works best in the epistles, the teaching sections in the Gospels, probably parables as well. It it really quite boring to hear thirty verses read, although it does kill a good five to seven minutes of the sermon time!

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  2. Good review Phil. Looks like a good book. This is how I try and work through the OT in my posts and how McKnight frames the gospel.

    “The Story of Israel, or the Bible, is the sweep of how the Bible’s plot unfolds” (p. 35). “This story is not the same as the gospel. The gospel fits into this story, but it is not the story. Further, the gospel only makes sense in that story. Now a very important claim: without that story there is no gospel. This leads to a second claim: if we ignore that story, the gospel gets distorted, and that is just what has happened in salvation cultures.” (p. 36, McKnight, King Jesus Gospel)

    Waltons book is pretty much how Scot has encouraged me to post through the OT. http://thescripturesays.org/gospel/

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