Book Review: Preaching in the New Testament, by Jonathan I. Griffiths
Jonathan I. Griffiths, Preaching in the New Testament: An Exegetical and Biblical-Theological Study. IVP Academic, 2017. 153 pps, $22.00.
A high view of preaching, at least in some evangelical circles, is trendy nowadays. However, Jonathan I. Griffiths, the author of Preaching in the New Testament: An Exegetical and Biblical-Theological Study, has identified an awkward situation: many champions of preaching struggle to articulate a basic definition of it. His book is a step toward a remedy.
While there’s no shortage of books on preaching, as the author acknowledges, few address its exegetical and theological foundations. Griffiths, however, directly targets them. While other excellent manuals on preaching may equip preachers with practical tools, helpful techniques, and valuable methods, this book intentionally grapples with the toughest and most basic questions (1–2).
Preaching in the New Testament is primarily an inductive study of Scripture. Though arguments for the primacy of preaching can be legitimately based on history or pragmatics, Griffiths reminds us, “History has much to teach us, and pragmatic concerns are not irrelevant, but neither history nor pragmatism must be allowed to control theology. The vital question is what Scripture says about this issue” (1).
Over the course of the book, Griffiths tackles two specific questions: First, is there a distinct biblical category for preaching which is different from other word ministries like counseling or leading a Bible study (2)? Second, what’s the relationship between Old Testament Prophecy, apostolic preaching, and preaching today (3)? To answer these questions, and others, Griffiths outlines a biblical theology of the word of God, undertakes an extensive study of the Greek verbs used in the New Testament to refer to preaching, and exegetes key New Testament passages.
It’s possible that some may be tempted to bypass Preaching in the New Testament in favor of something seemingly more practical. After all, word studies may not seem immediately applicable to a Sunday-morning sermon. That would be a mistake. While aspects of Griffiths’ method seem initially esoteric, he makes a compelling case for the importance of his approach: in the midst of a changing culture, debates about gender roles in the church, and the need for faithful ministers of the gospel, preachers can’t afford to leave his questions unanswered (4).
PREACHING IS DISTINCT
In his study, Griffiths starts with the word of God: “If preaching is a ministry of the word,” he writes, “its character must be shaped fundamentally by the nature of the word itself” (9). As he takes the reader on a brief tour through Scripture, Griffiths shows that God speaks, acts, and encounters his people through his word (16). While these conclusions aren’t exclusively related to preaching, they provide a foundation for the remainder of the argument.
The backbone of Griffiths’ study is his careful analysis of three Greek verbs: euangelizomai, katangellō, and kēryssō (19). He chose these three words because their normal meaning closely resembles Griffiths’ working definition of preaching: “Preaching is a public proclamation of God’s word” (17). Following the work of another scholar, Claire Smith, Griffiths claims that they function as “semi-technical” terms for preaching (17). To prove his point, he analyzes every occurrence of these verbs in the New Testament. He helpfully lays out the evidence in tables for readers to examine (20–24).
While the three verbs aren’t synonyms and have unique characteristics, they share important commonalities: “As used in the New Testament,” Griffiths writes, “the verbs typically refer to the act of making a public proclamation; the agent is generally a person of recognized authority; and the substance of the proclamation is normally some aspect of Christ’s person and work, the implications of the gospel, or some other truth from God’s word” (33). According to Griffiths, these observations suggest that preaching is a distinct activity in the New Testament and form the foundation of a fuller definition of preaching.
Putting away the microscope, Griffiths also considers ministries of the word beyond preaching (45–49). Significantly, he argues, “Nowhere does the New Testament call or instruct believers as a whole group to ‘preach’” (49). When added to the lexical evidence, this silence loudly suggests that the New Testament authors conceptualize preaching as distinct from other ministries of the word.
While Griffiths strongly argues that preaching is a distinct task given to commissioned male leaders in the church, he doesn’t belittle other word ministries like counseling or leading a Bible study. Instead, he highlights the symbiotic relationship between the various word ministries of the church. He writes, “All God’s people are ministers of his word, and a healthy church will be a church where all kinds of word ministries (formal and informal) flourish and abound” (133). The priority of preaching, according to Griffiths, doesn’t disenfranchise the other word ministries of the local church; it empowers them. For this reason, Preaching in the New Testament isn’t just for preachers. It’s a book for Bible study leaders, counselors, and anyone else invested in the various word ministries of the local church.
AN EMERGING ARGUMENT
Moving to exegesis of specific New Testament passages, Griffiths isolates 2 Timothy 3–4, Romans 10, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians 2–6, 1 Thessalonians 1–2, and the book of Hebrews. While Griffiths’ selected texts vary in length, all were carefully selected for their direct relevance to preaching. After examining these passages, he draws several conclusions, which includes this one: “The New Testament presents God as speaking through preaching” (121).
Since Preaching in the New Testament is primarily an inductive study, the argument doesn’t fully emerge until the conclusion. Having put in the elbow grease, Griffiths claims, “The public proclamation of the word of God in the Christian assembly has a clear mandate from Scripture and occupies a place of central importance in the life of the local church” (133). Expanding his working definition of preaching, Griffiths concludes that preaching is public proclamation of the word of God by commissioned leaders (120).
In short, Griffiths’ book is excellent. By dealing with biblical-theological themes, lexical data, and specific New Testament passages, Griffiths fuses together a compelling argument. Beyond this, two brief excursuses—one dealing with Philippians 1:14–18, and one with the connections between Old Testament prophecy and New Testament preaching—diversify and strengthen his argument.
On the one hand, Griffiths’ conclusions are admirably modest, and readers looking for provocative claims may be disappointed. He acknowledges the limitations of word studies, the limited scope of his own research, and the need for further study. On the other hand, readers will quickly notice the dramatic and wide-ranging implications of his claims.
Importantly, Griffiths targets a diverse audience, and he reaches one. By presenting his evidence in clear tables, explaining technical terms, and simply summarizing his findings, he opens his research to many readers. Furthermore, the brevity of his book will be attractive to busy pastors who may not have time for exhaustive scholarly works.
At the same time, Griffiths doesn’t lower the bar. Marked by extensive research and careful analysis, his study will challenge and educate readers. For example, he introduces and clearly explains the concept of semantic range and wrestles with the interpretation of difficult passages. While not obnoxious, his footnotes and bibliography evidence significant work. Though academics won’t consider this work exhaustive, it nonetheless advances the conversation.
IT’S PRACTICAL, TOO
While the majority of Griffiths’ work happens in exegesis and theology, he draws conclusions for preachers and churches. At a practical level, his research directly informs and challenges Christian speech. In light of his conclusions, Christians in general, although called to minister the word to one another, are not called to preach.
Furthermore, preachers aren’t exactly prophets, although they stand in continuity with them. These conclusions helpfully challenge Christians, and particularly pastors, to think carefully about the vocabulary used to describe various word ministries.
While it offers many answers, Griffiths’ study still leaves many questions unanswered. For example, while he claims preaching should be carried out by commissioned leaders, he doesn’t describe a particular commissioning process. Curious readers may wonder whether or not the commissioning of preachers should be carried out through a formal ordination process. However, Griffiths’ goal isn’t to answer every question. Instead, he’s targeting the foundational questions beneath a commitment to preaching, and he answers those.
Considering that preaching, at least in some Christian circles, is trendy, Preaching in the New Testament is timely. For pastors already committed to the primacy of preaching, Griffiths’ research will strengthen their grip on their convictions. For thoughtful church members engaged in word ministries, it will clarify their role and its relationship to preaching. For Christians who don’t hold a high view of preaching, it will bring them face to face with Scripture’s teaching about the proclamation of the word of God. Again, the church can’t afford to leave the questions Griffiths is asking unanswered.