[I wrote this over-impassioned post for something else a little while ago, and just amended it slightly in honour of my 1000th post... I had in mind both preaching and small group study]
God inspired both the form and the content of the Bible. The Bible is a work of literature, a symphony or a work of art. The Bible’s content is words and concepts, even truths, but this content is always presented in the form of a collection of books of law, history, poetry and more. Only when the Biblical content is put in the Biblical form do we meet Christ.
If I want to read Shakespeare I could learn Elizabethan English, or study the sonnet form, but still never hear Shakespeare’s voice. I could read a library of literary critics telling me what Shakespeare is trying to communicate, but I won’t hear him say it without reading his words.
If I want to hear Beethoven’s fifth I could memorise the rhythm of the opening five bars, practice the C minor scale or even read a biography of his life. None, by themselves, will allow me to hear Beethoven.
Doctrines are sometimes understood as the grammar of the Christian faith. George Linbeck describes the historic creeds as “the grammar of religion”. The Reformation Catechisms can be understood in a similar way. They help us understand what is already being told in the Bible. They are introductions intended to make guide us to listen to the Bible, not to distract from it. That is partly why they are so short compared to the length of the Bible. They’re not meant to compete with God’s voice, but to open our ears to all that he’s saying.
I am often jealous of musically trained people who can enjoy a piece of music at a level I can never reach. But, I also remember how my uncle recalled being envied by his brother who felt he had lost the ability to enjoy music through over-criticism. There is a line to tread, but the key is to understand which has the priority. Gerhard Forde has a book entitled “Theology is for Proclamation” because he thought theology’s role was as a servant of proclamation. I agree. Theological study, at whatever level, is the servant of proclaiming Christ in the Bible.
When Calvin sat down to write the Institutes he intended it as an introduction to the study of Scriptures, with his commentaries and exegetical sermons as his major life’s work (Letter to the Reader 1539). I believe that this is a model we should follow. Thematic teaching, and Bible study skills have their place as aids, but the moment they crowd out God speaking in the form and content he chose as his revelation, we’ve made a big mistake. Biblical teaching shouldn't be an exercise in archaeology: digging through the muck, extracting the doctrines/applications and putting them in a glass box. Biblical teaching is proclaiming to someone what you’ve just heard God announce in the text. In doing this you become God’s mouthpiece, introducing the listeners to the same Jesus you saw, tasted and touched as God spoke to you by his Spirit.
We cannot explain sin better than David in Psalm 51. Theories of the atonement will not sing like the Passion narrative. Exhortations to evangelism will not encourage like hearing Paul ask for prayer that the door to the message be opened even as he sits in prison for the Gospel (Col 4). The incarnation won’t make sense until Jesus’ miracles make any other option nonsensical.
Similarly, “the one who does these things will live by them” (Lev 18) taken out of the melody line of the dialectic between law and Gospel, will lead you away from God to hell. As part of the melody it will lead you to Jesus and resurrection life, against which there is no law.
Thematic teaching will indirectly help people hear God, but they are less likely to directly hear God through it than through expositional Bible teaching. I think we should be going where the action is; where God meets us...his Word. The primary reason Christians assemble together to hear God speak, whether it is round the feet of Sinai (the original ecclesia in the Greek Old Testament) or the shore of Galilee. It should be the same for the church.
I also think that the Bible will always be more exciting than anything else. We never wanted to spend long doing football skills at school, we always just wanted to play games. Playing scales was always boring in comparison to playing a tune. Spelling was annoying, but Tolkien was engrossing. The former things are all good for enjoying the latter more, but they must play the supporting role for the main event. In the same way, having done some thematic/systematic teaching, lets go where the Father speaks in his own voice to his children.
I can’t finish without quoting Luther, who in the Preface to the German edition of his collected works, disparaged the volumes of his own writing, saying: “It was also our intention and hope, when we ourselves began to translate the Bible into German, that there should be less writing, and instead more studying and reading of the Scriptures. For all other writing is to lead the way into and point toward the Scriptures, as John the Baptist did toward Christ, saying, "He must increase, but I must decrease" [John 3:30], in order that each person may drink of the fresh spring himself.”