Monday, May 23, 2016

The Malleability of Old Testament Narratives

Last week I wrote about a sermon I heard on audio from the Old Testament, one influenced by Keswick theology.  That message also reminded me of many I have heard from the Old Testament through the years that left me scratching my head. "Where did he get that?" I ask.  "I don't see that in the text."  "The cloud Elijah saw was the size of a man's fist.  A man's fist has five fingers.  The number five represents such and such, so the cloud is this."  All of that, versus, "The cloud was very small."

What doctrine and practice does someone cull from Old Testament narratives?  By narratives, I'm talking about the stories in the Old Testament.   A large percentage stories make up Genesis, some in Exodus, a little in the rest of the Pentateuch, gigantic amounts in the historical books, and some in the prophets.  A big chunk of the Old Testament is narrative.

When you read an Old Testament narrative, it isn't hard to figure out what is happening.  The actual story is easy to understand.   People will largely agree on what the narratives mean.  However, a lot of divergence, I've noticed, comes in the message people take from those narratives or how they apply.

Reading some deeper meaning into a narrative, making facets of the story mean something in a symbolic or figurative way, when figurative language isn't being used, allows for unlimited possibilities to spin out of a passage.  The Old Testament narratives beccome quite malleable in the hands of such allegorical interpretation -- gumby-like.  Out goes the point of the narrative and in comes convenient and desired personal opinion.

What occurs, when someone takes an Old Testament story into his own hands to form it into a unique, hidden or mysterious meaning, is that the clear impression that the preacher possesses a power above the listeners.  They can't ascertain that same meaning, because they just don't see it there.  Apparently he has tapped into an elevated condition of Holy Spirit involvement not readily or ordinarily available to the average Christian.  In Keswick thinking, he arrived at this superior spiritual state through above average desire.  He wanted it more and he paid the price.  Now he can do these things unwilling others cannot.  I like to say that he's breathing a kind of pure spiritual air.

The listeners must be conditioned to accept that such experiences occur.  Their preacher has advanced abilities, not because of study or preparation or application of the ordinary means of grammar and syntax, but because God tells him things -- not out loud, but in the "still small voice."  The same impressions also inform to build a new auditorium.  Part of why he can do this is because he's been "called," which was to him another subjective ecstatic-like experience.

Because scripture is being referenced, the sermon arrives with divine authority.  God gave him this message, even as he and others may have prayed that "God would give him the words to say."  Those applications are as good as God's Word because they came from a testimony of the Holy Spirit.  Whatever he is saying must be true because it is attached to scripture and declared as if it is in the Bible.  If the listener disobeys the preaching, he's as good as disobeying God.

IF someone can't treat the Old Testament narratives in the Keswick style, what's he supposed to do?  It seems that the preacher is limited in what he might preach. When Joshua's sun stands still, that testifies of God's faithfulness to His covenant with His people.  The world is not a closed system without supernatural, divine intervention. God works according to His will for certain eras using miracles as a confirmation of His Word.  This means, however, is not normative.  One should not expect the sun to stand still for himself.  No doubt God has power to remove mountains, but He functions for most of time according to the ordinary means of His providence.  This is not a lesser exhibition of God's work.  It brings Him equal glory to any sign or wonder performed in an age of miracles.

An important mindset for individual Old Testament narratives is to see them within the overarching biblical metanarrative, the whole story of the Bible, from creation to fall to redemption to consummation.  Also crucial are God's covenants:  Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New.  Preaching must report what God says and only what He says.  We confine ourselves to only what is in the text.  We should not make doctrinal and practical conclusions not found in the passage.

The original authors of Keswick were Protestants, who were greatly influenced by spiritualized teaching, parallel to the allegorization of their covenant theology. Adding the dimension of an extra-scriptural work of the Holy Spirit expanded the possibilities of brand new meanings and new applications.  Roman Catholicism read in amillennialism that was systematized by the Protestants, justifying their state church.  Keswick became that approach on steroids.

Unaffiliated Baptists, who take up the Protestant tradition of the Keswicks, do not embrace their heritage.


Bill Hardecker said...

I listened to the preacher's message online. I took many good things away from it. Substantively, his message was about fighting. Keswick is anything but fighting or "struggle theology" (as they would put it). Passivity is a Keswick tenet. I know what you mean about continuationism. I agree with you that what God gave as revelatory and confirmatory gifts are no longer normative. I can assure you that the speaker isn't into continuationism, nor even, soft-continuationism (like Piper, and the New Calvinists). I also don't think that his style is performance art. He was remonstrative. His speaking form fits the message that he delivered. I do appreciate you pointing out some vital points of consideration on so many fronts: hermeneutics, homiletics, & theology. We would do well to truly labor in the Word and simply and boldy declare what God said in His Word. We need His Word. Preaching (good preaching, that is) is the manifestation of His Word.

Thomas Ross (KJB1611) said...

I would point out that Hannah Whitall Smith and Robert Pearsall Smith, the founders of the Keswick theology, were Quakers who thought that the Inner Light was equal to Scripture, and every major Keswick leader was a continuationist, so expecting extra scriptural stuff was entirely natural.

Kent Brandenburg said...


For years I have taken "many good things" away from many sermons that overall weren't very good, because I see that as the way to listen to preaching, that is, take as many good things from it as you can. That doesn't justify what happens in the sermon. The standard isn't -- since I took many good things away from it, then it's fine. I didn't give a full analysis of it. It is by far not the worst sermon I have heard -- far, far from it. You can actually take many good things away from Keswick itself. How could "victorious Christian living" sound bad, a Keswick phrase? As a modern example, could you come away with many good things from Bruce Wilkinson's Prayer of Jabez? Sure. Should we leave it alone then? I hope not. However, I think the Wilkinson view of the Prayer of Jabez is very close to what we're talking about here.

I really don't want to get into the characters, as I said, because it wasn't personal. Let me capitalize that: IT WASN'T PERSONAL. I didn't enter into listening to it with a predisposition toward finding error. And I would like to keep it to the topic at hand. I've been listening to message after message after message after message after message after message -- hundreds, thousands -- for years, and the reason it keeps going is because no one says anything, does anything. If you try to protect, you perpetuate it. This is God's Word. I do very little here. Please think about it.

I'm happy to have Thomas correct me, but Keswick, revivalism, and their fruit, has manifested itself in many different ways. It isn't a monolythic fruit. The idea of "praying through," is the struggle I'm talking about, getting alone, like Hyles did on his father's grave. That is part of the heritage of this. Everyone knows about it. Much more could be said here.

You are very narrowly defining continuationism, so that it only includes certain parts, but I know many in that circle who believe that Spirit baptism is subsequent to salvation, accompanied by certain manifestations. If it isn't baptism, then it is some kind of post-salvation unction, which confuses it, but it is the revivalist view of Spirit baptism, which is for all intents and purposes the same as continuationism, except looking for maybe less crazy miracles. But why not? Why limit God?

I said it was " a lot of yelling of the nature of performance art." I've written a lot on this here. Did you notice I didn't say it was performance art? I said "a lot of yelling of the nature of performance art." Those are a lot of extra words that differentiate from saying it is actually performance art. This is the way words get put into someone's mouth to make it like he said something he didn't. You report something I said that I didn't say. What is that?

It wasn't performance art. No. I understand that it was about fighting. What is fighting? How do we fight today? How is that fighting like the fighting we're to do? Is what he described biblical fighting? Is that what Jesus did, Paul did? How does what the Old Testament character did relate? Is what he did what Paul meant when he said "fight the good fight"? Is this what this means to us?

Should we pray for miracles?

Kent Brandenburg said...


As far as I know, all these groups forked off of Protestantism or Anglicanism, something that forked off of Roman Catholicism. I know some Baptists went for it too. I'm saying it isn't historic Christianity though, so it is forks off of something already bad. Quakers, for instance, came out of Anglicanism.

KJB1611 said...

Dear Pastor Brandenburg,

Yes, you are certainly correct in that.

Jim Camp said...

If I may add my $.02, & this does relate to the basic premise of the post, even is it sounds like whining.

Over the years, fwiw, I've grown less & less willing to listen to some fellow butcher the Bible with good intentions. Coming from a Hyles background, the preaching was honestly appalling. Things with no backing whatsoever were preached with great authority, & you had better not question it. Two of the worst illustrations were 1) Jesus Christ was an antisemite 2) The arrow shot at a chance which killed King Ahab was illustrative of soul winning - This particular sermon was announced as the best sermon on soul winning preached in years.

The other issue which drove me nuts was preachers stating "I believe", or "I believe with all my heart". I would watch these fellows use this statement to prop up things that were simply not said in any text of Scripture.

Full disclosure - I look back at sermons I preached years ago & shudder. So I am far from guiltless in this.

Jeff Voegtlin said...


For me, the issue with pastors and preachers bending such "malleable" texts as Old Testament narratives boils down to authority. And it's not just with OT texts; it's with all texts.

When a preacher feels/thinks that he is the authority (and many believe this is something that the Holy Spirit gave to them personally when He called them), then the Scriptures become just a tool to help them accomplish their God-given duty. I should add that many of us in Independent Baptist, and I surmise, Unaffiliated, Independent Baptist circles were taught that this is the only way to preach effectively.

When a preacher understands that he is under the authority of Scripture (which is the Holy Spirit's Magnum Opus), he seeks to understand his instructions (the Scriptures) as clearly as possible and then to relate that truth to his audience clearly and powerfully.

I should add, many "Keswick Men" are quite humble and would not think that they were acting above Scripture. It is just totally the way we've been conditioned to think about things.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Jeff,

I think you're right. Some of what you are saying would be worth exploring further in this. You added some things I didn't say. If they are humble, they've got to want to learn. I haven't seen that with some or maybe many. You say something and then wait for the bombardment, which could include lies. It's not that it's a big deal for me, but it means things probably won't change. Hyles always just said he had more people in his bathrooms than you did in your service. There we go. Argument done.

Another one is, you're dead. You do that math style preaching, turning the Bible into a math book. Actually Jim of previous post had some of the typical comments, doubling down.

Thanks for the comment.

Terry Basham, II said...

i listened to the keswick sermon and it was pretty silly. actually sad.

because of the size of this man's church he'll be able to get other men to come and preach for him because who could pass up that invite? a new circle will grow...

he said some preacher use movie lines to support there points, he didn't that but he used illustrations from his own life to support his points and vilified his own son... not cool.

Bill Hardecker said...

I am much encouraged by your reply, Pastor Brandenburg. Thank you. I didn't think I was accusing you of labeling the preacher's style as performance art. If it came across that way, and obviously, it did with you, let me be first to apologize for that indiscretion. My intention was to simply state that I didn't think his style was performance art, or anything like it, at all. There is much to consider in these two postings. I am thankful for the fact that personalities and persons are left out of the discussion (truly, principle is what matters, and what we ought to be talking about anyway, persons/personalities notwithstanding). Concerning Spirit baptism, I agree with you. Catholic, Protestant (Reformed), Pentecostal (Wesleyan/Holiness/Methodist/Oberlin-Presbyterian/Higher Life/Keswick/Charismatic) theologies have greatly affected (influenced) evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and even Baptist circles more so than many would like to admit. Some think it is an event that takes place when a person gets saved and is added to the body of Christ (like Scofield), and others think that it is a repeatable phenomenon for an unusual dose of Spirit power after a struggle or desperation or crisis experience, a "second blessing." Both are not Biblical. I know that miracles are confined in the New Testament eras of Christ, the Apostles, and Prophets. They served a purpose (i.e., validate the person and work of Christ). Is there room to ask God to intervene in the hearts and lives of people today? Is not the conversion of a sinner a miraculous event - some kind of a small "m" miracle?

KJB1611 said...

Dear Bro Billy,

In relation to your "is regeneration a miracle?" question, Lord willing, you'll find out in Friday's post.

Grace be with you.