The pattern of emphasis dictated by the text keeps verbal meaning in its rightful and prominent position in the interpretive process. All of this is not to say that implications ought not be expounded; indeed, they should. However, implications must remain submissive to the author’s intent—and to the degree that the original author wills them. Otherwise, we comprise the sufficiency of Scripture since the biblical author’s emphases are, in fact, God’s emphases.
My previous article suggested the greatest danger in preaching, even among expositors, is not honoring the relative emphases of the biblical author. Most often, this occurs when a preacher extracts a “part” of a text and gives it more weight than did the biblical author. Sidney Greidanus calls that “part” an “atom.”
Atomistic tendencies extract an implication (or sub-meaning or sub-point) of the author and cause it to dominate the author’s single verbal meaning. The result becomes an alteration of the author’s original meaning. Greidanus calls this the “isolation of certain ‘atoms’ within the text from the inner coherence, the central thrust of the text.”
An “atom” might be a Bible personality’s attribute, experience, or behavior which the preacher extracts and expounds as the main emphasis of the message. The problem with this practice is the main thought of the passage is either ignored or reduced to secondary importance. In either case, the verbal meaning becomes different (or other) than that of the biblical author.
Should any of these “atoms” be treated independently in the sermon, the result would be atomism—making absolute that which is a dependent part—and a loss of the central thrust of the text. Should one, for the sake of a unified sermon, place one “atom” central, the central thrust is displaced by that which is not central. In either case the meaning of the text will be distorted.
Sidney Greidanus, Sola Scriptura
Greidanus claims this tendency produces sermons that become monotonous because they lose the uniqueness of the text. For example, one can preach essentially the same sermon from the “doubt” of John the Baptist (Matt. 11:1-6) and the “doubt” of Thomas (John 20:24-29); or, one could apply the “testing” of the faith of Abraham (Gen. 22) in the same way as the “testing” of the faith of the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21ff.). He rightly asserts: “[T]he ‘atom’ (doubt, testing) is lifted out of its textual (historic) environment into another realm where, though still called ‘doubt’ or ‘testing,’ it has lost its unique connections and therefore its special meaning.”
The Danger of Atomistic Tendencies
We can reduce the problem of atomistic tendencies to one basic issue: The degree of relative emphasis an implication (or sub-meaning) should receive within the sense of the larger whole. The chief concern occurs when the preacher presents an emphasis (or set of emphases) which is different than the biblical author’s, and the interpretation spawns a different meaning. Therefore, we agree with Greidanus’ argument. Further, we see no reason why we should limit it to exemplary or biographical tendencies. The argument equally is valid for those sermons which take a sub-point within the verbal meaning and cause it to dominate the central thrust of the sermon. We must never stop asking, “Who gives the preacher the authority to change the King’s emphasis? Certainly, not the King; and if not He, then who?”