Leadership assistant editor Ed Rowell was talking on the phone with Haddon Robinson recently when Haddon made the offhand comment, "More heresy is preached in application than in Bible exegesis."
The phrase stuck in our minds. We editors had several, animated conversations about it, standing around the black file cabinets in the hall outside our offices.
We finally decided to visit Haddon in his office at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, near Boston, and press him on the implications of what he'd said.
There, amid at least three containers of jellybeans, numerous diplomas, and an academic gown still in plastic from the dry cleaners, we found the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching. Haddon authored Biblical Preaching, a text used in 120 seminaries and Bible colleges. He teaches on the daily program "Radio Bible Class" and, in a 1996 poll conducted by Baylor University, was named one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world.
Our conversation became a rich, Socratic dialogue on the delicate art of applying ancient truth to modern people.
You've said that more heresy is preached in application than in Bible exegesis. Why?
Haddon Robinson: Preachers want to be faithful to the Scriptures, and going through seminary, they have learned exegesis. But they may not have learned how to make the journey from the biblical text to the modern world. They get out of seminary and realize the preacher's question is application: How do you take this text and determine what it means for this audience?
Sometimes we apply the text in ways that might make the biblical writer say, "Wait a minute, that's the wrong use of what I said." This is the heresy of a good truth applied in the wrong way.
What does this heresy look like?
I heard someone preach a sermon from Ruth on how to deal with in-laws. Now, it's true that in Ruth you have in-laws. The problem is, Ruth was not given to solve in-law problems. The sermon had a lot of practical advice, but it didn't come from the Scriptures.
Someone might ask, "What's the problem with preaching something true and useful, even if it's not the central thrust of your text or not what the writer had in mind?"
When we preach the Bible, we preach with biblical authority. We agree with Augustine: What the Bible says, God says.
Therefore, we bring to bear on, say, this in-law problem, the full authority of God. The person hearing the sermon thinks, If I don't deal with my mother-in-law this way, I am disobedient to God. To me, that's a rape of the Bible. You're saying what God doesn't say.
How does such preaching affect a congregation?
One effect is that you undermine the Scriptures you say you are preaching. Ultimately, people come to believe that anything with a biblical flavor is what God says.
The long-term effect is that we preach a mythology. Myth has an element of truth along with a great deal of puff, and people tend to live in the puff. They live with the implications of implications, and then they discover that what they thought God promised, he didn't promise.
A week ago I talked with a young woman whose husband had left her. She said, "I have tried to be submissive. Doesn't the Bible say if a wife submits, she'll have a happy and successful marriage?"
"No," I said, "the Bible doesn't say that."
She said, "I've gone to seminars and heard that."
"What the Bible says is you have a responsibility as a wife. A husband also has a responsibility. But the best you may have is a C marriage. There is no guarantee you will have an A marriage."