Privilege the Text

Kuruvilla, Abraham. Privilege the Text!: A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2013.

privilegeToo often homiletics assumes hermeneutics. In our pursuit of an effective practice of preaching, we too often neglect the prior concern for accurate exegesis. It will not be helpful for us to communicate well, if the content of our communication is poorly founded.

It is to this concern that Abraham Kuruvilla has focused himself. More than just a book about interpretation, his is a study of an approach to hermeneutics that is theologically tuned to the specific task and interest of the preacher. In this he is filling a significant felt need. Kuruvilla quotes David Buttrick, who said, “The odd idea that preachers can move from text to sermon without recourse to theology by some exegetical magic or leap of homiletic imagination is obvious nonsense (p.90).” Kuruvilla wants to offer this theological move so that preachers can more readily move across the gap from the study of the text to the preaching of it.

Haddon Robinson is famous for asking the subject/complement question. The subject provides “what the text is talking about.” The complement adds “what the text is sayingabout what it is talking about.” Kuruvilla’s contribution takes things further, asking “what the text is doing with what it is saying” (about what it is talking about). This, he suggests takes things to a deeper, theological level that assumes both the intention and activity of God. God is doing things through his Word, and preaching that looks for this intention will lead the listener to responses that are congruent with God’s own action.

This approach offers a future-directedness to preaching, which means that preachers will need to look for a “trans-historical intention – a conceptual entity projected by the text that carries its thrust beyond the immediate time-space circumstances of the writing… (44).” In fact, Kuruvilla describes three “facets of meaning” – the original textual sense, the trans-historical intention, and the exemplification. He also offers two facets of application: exemplification (overlapping the two categories), and significance. He gives the following example: “no drunkenness with wine” might be the original textual sense; “no drunkenness with alcohol” would be the trans-historical intention, “no drunkenness with vodka” would be the exemplification, “cancel subscription to Wine Spectator” might be an example of a significant application (64).

Kuruvilla’s “trans-historical intention” sounds a lot like the “principlizing” championed by Walter Kaiser and others. Kuruvilla, however sees a distinction. “There is … the tacit assumption in principlizing that, once one distinguishes those elements in the text that are not time – or culture – bound, these unconstrained principles are more valuable than the text itself.” He takes direct issue with Kaiser who according to Kuruvilla, “thinks that cultural issues ‘intrude’ on the text (128).” For Kuruvilla, this is an example of what Fred Craddock described as “boiling off all the water and then preaching the stain at the bottom of the cup (128).”

Preaching, according to Kuruvilla is more pragmatic than this. “Application,” he says, “is the alignment of God’s people to God’s demand (135).” It is the divine demand that drives everything for Kuruvilla’s hermeneutic and for his preaching also. A great example of this is found in his approach to the preaching of the law. “The fundamental change between the old and new covenants, then, is not a change in law or divine demand: that remains the same always. Rather, the newness is in the Spirit-aided means of keeping divine demand, and empowerment available to every believer in this dispensation as a consequence of the work of Christ (171).” So, for example, Christians, by attending to the theology of the legal text, can obey by doing what they would have been expected to do if those laws were given in this contemporary day (186).”

Perhaps the most controversial part of Kuruvilla’s book is the challenge that he offers to the redemptive-historical approach to gospel preaching. He particularly challenges Bryan Chapell’s “fallen-condition focus” approach, which in Kuruvilla’s mind, reduces every text to the same basic message. In contrast, he offers a “Christiconic” approach which respects the integrity of OT pericopes, seeking to discover what their authors were doing with what they were saying. “What the author is doing with what he is saying points to what aspect of each character is exemplary and what is not, i.e., what is Christlike and what is not. In other words, the protagonist of all Scripture is actually Jesus Christ (266).”

This is a challenging book, both in terms of its reading level, but also for its content. Before we ever think about how we preach, we need to sort out what we are going to preach. For that, Kuruvilla is instructive.