PERICOPAL THEOLOGY

WHY SHOULD WE PREACH UNITS OF THOUGHT?
By David Christensen
 
Homiletics professor Ken Langley tells a story about a pastor giving a children’s sermon.

“I’m thinking of one of our forest friends,” he says. “Does anyone want to guess who it might be?”  No one ventures a guess, so he continues, “This friend is small and gray and has a bushy tail. Now do you know who I mean?” No answer. “This forest friend is shy and scampers up a tree when you get too close.”  Still no guesses from the silent children. “This friend likes to bury nuts in the ground. Surely you know who I’m talking about now!” Finally, one kid pipes up, “I know you want us to say ‘Jesus,’ but it sounds like a squirrel to me.”[1]

When we neglect pericopal theology, sermons become predictable. We ignore the exegetical thrust of the passage to get to Jesus. We make a beeline to the cross while neglecting what God wants to teach us in that unit of thought. As the saying goes, “Ten thousand are their texts, but all their sermons one.”[2] Pericopal theology protects preaching from becoming predictable.

What is a pericope? Conrad Mbewe calls it an “expository unit.”[3] Haddon Robinson calls it “a literary unit of biblical thought.”[4] Abraham Kuruvilla has done the most extensive work on the subject of pericopes in recent days. He defines a pericope as “a portion of the biblical text that is of manageable size for homiletical use … in other words a preaching text.”[5] Depending on the biblical genre, the human author puts words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, stanzas, or stories. Each of these grammatical groupings is a unit of thought because the author has formed each one to communicate an idea. In exposition, we don’t have the right to play with the words or break off sentences or phrases from the unit of thought.[6]

DIAGNOSTIC QUESTIONS

How do we determine a unit of thought? Unit of thought preaching is not preaching verse by verse despite its popularity. A phrase or even a sentence is not usually a preachable unit of thought. Unless we derive a topic from the thrust of a passage, topical preaching is not unit of thought preaching. The original author’s intention defines the unit of thought, so the boundaries of a pericope should be determined by authorial intent. Therefore, we ask ourselves five diagnostic questions to determine a unit of thought.

  1. Does the passage contain one big idea?
  2. Can the passage stand alone as an independent thought?
  3. Does the passage have a beginning and an ending?
  4. Does your translation identify your passage as a paragraph, stanza, or story?
  5. Can the passage be broken into smaller ideas?

Pericopal preaching is how the average Christian experiences the biblical text in a worship service. Whenever we, as preachers, select the text we will use to preach in church, we implicitly tell our congregation that this is a segment of Scripture that can stand on its own, is a complete idea, and has something to say to us today.[7] A pericope is a unit of thought. The unit of thought has one main idea with an identifiable beginning and end. In the epistles, that unit of thought is usually a paragraph. In narrative literature, the unit of thought is a story. In poetry, it is a stanza. Expository preaching is unit of thought preaching.

Every unit of thought has a pragmatic thrust.[8] Every biblical author intends to do something by what he is saying. Every Scripture passage is, on some level, a call to action. We usually think of biblical texts in terms of semantics or word meanings. We need to think of biblical texts in terms of pragmatics. Pragmatics is the study of what the author is doing by what he is saying. God is seeking to bring us into a right relationship with Him through the revelation of His Word, and God uses human authors to drive us to Himself. These human authors intended what they wrote to impact the lives of the people to whom they wrote and, by extension, because it is God’s Word, on our lives long in the future. This is the world in front of the text as opposed to the world behind the text. Each pericope has a pragmatic thrust. God wants to change us in some way through this little sliver of Scripture.

STAINED GLASS OR PLAIN GLASS

Kuruvilla uses the analogy borrowed from Sidney Greidanus of the difference between a plain glass window and a stained glass window. We use a plain glass window to look through, to see what is behind the window. We use a stained glass window to look at, to see the picture the artist created in the window. The authors of the Bible were creating stained glass windows, not plain glass windows. The writers were expressing theology. They were not just telling us something about their world but were selectively using the information to communicate a theological message to our world.[9] For this reason, Matthew’s gospel is different than John’s gospel. The writers were trying to do something with what they said. We need to look at the biblical text as a stained glass window, not a plain glass window. What is behind the biblical text has value, but the thrust of the biblical text is the point. We must always ask the text: what is the thrust of this unit of thought?

The intention of every biblical unit of thought is theological. Every writer is telling us about God’s ways and God’s works and calling us to align ourselves with God’s will. Therefore, there is a theological intent to every pericope.[10] The God-breathed unit of thought is intended to be transformative through the preached word (2 Tim. 3:16-17). God wants to change us in some way through the preaching of each unit of thought in His Word. The transformation process is gradual, as we shape the thinking of our people week after week. Each pericope intends to align us to the values, character, and plan of God, but each pericope focuses only on a narrow sliver of that big picture, a small piece of the whole biblical pie. Our job is to discern the theological intent of each pericope and translate that thrust into the lives of the people in our congregation. We take the biblical writer’s thrust and apply it to the circumstances and situations we face in our place and time.[11]

Pericopal theology protects preaching from becoming predictable because the thrust of each unit of thought is uniquely flavored by the context. Each pericope is one part of a big whole – the Bible. Each part focuses uniquely on some aspect of the big picture, so when we preach each part, we focus on the unique aspect of that part. Taken together, week after week, we would see the variegated whole of the Bible, but each week we preach each part. We avoid reading the whole back into the part. We should read the Bible forward, not backward.[12] The end of God’s book should not be read back into the middle or beginning unless there is a solid exegetical reason to do so.

OUR OBJECTIVE

Our objective in pericopal preaching is that our people will grow into alignment with the will of God for their lives over time. Our overall goal in preaching is that people become more Christlike, and each pericope teaches some aspect of what it means to be Christlike (Col. 1:28; 2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 8:29; 1 John 3:2). The process is gradual and sequential as we preach each pericope.[13] As we preach sequentially through the Bible, we will be declaring the “whole purpose of God” for the lives of our people (Acts 20:27). God is in no rush to transform our lives by His Word. He re-makes us in Christ’s image one pericope at a time.

Kenneth Langley writes, “Let’s be sure that when we preach Jonah, we really preach Jonah, not John; when we preach Ruth, let’s preach Ruth, not Revelation.”[14] Why? Because Jonah has something to teach us in a way that John does not. Ruth teaches us truths in ways that Revelation does not. We need all of Scripture, not selected portions of Scripture, to understand the purpose of God for our lives.

For this reason, I believe strongly in sequential preaching through the books of the Bible. We don’t pick and choose cafeteria-style, what we want to feed people. We don’t skip sections of the Bible because we think they are irrelevant or controversial. The early church practiced lectio continua more than lectio selectiva, meaning that they followed the pattern of the synagogue to preach the Scriptures sequentially rather than selectively. Sequential preaching, pericope by pericope, is the best way to align our congregation with the full will and ways of God. We gradually grow into His character as we study His Word piece by piece. The sequential preaching of the Bible transforms our people into the image of Christ one pericope at a time.

[1] Langley, “When Christ Replaces God at the Center of Preaching,” 73.

[2] Langley, “When Christ Replaces God at the Center of Preaching,” 71.

[3] Mbewe, Pastoral Preaching, 134.

[4] Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 30.

[5] Kuruvilla, Privilege the Text! 91.

[6] Kaiser, Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament, 54.

[7] Randal E. Pelton, Preaching with Accuracy: Finding Christ-Centered Big Ideas for Biblical Preaching, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2014, 47.

[8] Kuruvilla, Privilege the Text! 48-54, 101-105.

[9] Kuruvilla, Privilege the Text! 105.

[10] Davis, The Word Became Fresh, 31.

[11] Kuruvilla, Privilege the Text! 96, 145.

[12] Kaiser, Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament, 51.

[13] Kuruvilla, Privilege the Text! 91, 111.

[14] Langley, “When Christ Replaces God at the Center of Preaching,” 76.