Craft of Preaching

Theology and Interpretation

Working with texts and placing them within a theological framework.

An Existential Encounter with the Text

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Disassembled
(Creative Commons Image by Yannic Meyer on Flickr)


Just the thought of doing exegesis for one more sermon is enough to make some preachers want to scream. We all realize that good exegetical work is vital for good, responsible, and theologically sound preaching. Yet, we often despair at the thought of it because it requires time -- something of which we are in very short supply.

Since it is unlikely that more free time will somehow magically appear, pastors who dread exegesis are left with (at least) two choices: continue to labor in perpetual consternation or find a way to enjoy the process. Enter Rudolf Bultmann. Now you may ask at this point, “How can a twentieth century German biblical scholar and theologian, not known for his levity, possibly help us find joy in the exegetical process?” Though he would seem to be an unlikely source, Bultmann has much to say that can aid us.

In an essay he wrote after retiring from a 30-year career as a professor, Rudolf Bultmann invited his readers to have an existential encounter with the text.1 An existential encounter is one in which the preacher brings all of who she is to the text for the purpose of discovering all that she can about the world of the text.2 By advocating for existential encounters, Bultmann claimed that authenticity in preaching begins, not in sermon delivery, but in the exegetical process itself.

Bultmann understood that no preacher is a blank slate. Every one of us comes to the text with particular life experiences in particular social locations and these factors shape our perspectives and worldviews. As a result, when preachers question the text out of their own historical situations, the text comes alive for them. When these questions are formed from their experiences, the questions become significant and meaningful for the preacher -- so much so that the thought of finding the answers to the preacher’s questions generates excitement about the exegetical process itself.

These questions can then guide research in which the preacher employs his or her handy stash of interpretive tools such as knowledge of original languages and resources that reveal the social and political forces at work in the world of the text. In an existential encounter, exegeting biblical texts becomes a lively and stimulating experience.

Bultmann advocated an existential encounter because biblical texts are like treasure troves full of valuable gems and an abundance of riches that only reveal themselves to explorers who are alive with questions and embark on their quests with great expectations. As a proponent of historical criticism, Bultmann contended that though ancient texts are awash with knowledge of the past, “they speak anew to every present situation.” While the particular dates and details of events may be fixed, their meaning is not. The meaning of events that happened in the past can only be known in the future. And even that future meaning varies depending on who is doing the interpreting.

Bultmann’s invitation to an existential encounter is not without caution. While he believed preachers should bring their perspectives to the exegetical process, he also believed that they should put their prejudices in check. Prejudice is very different than perspective.

  • Prejudice pre-judges and limits interpretive possibilities. When operating with prejudice the preacher refuses to consider that some outcomes are possible.
  • Perspective focuses the interpretive lens while remaining open to possibilities. When operating from a particular perspective the preacher remains open to all of the possibilities that her particular worldview may yield.

We as preachers should learn to recognize our particular biases and prejudices so we will not taint the results of our exegetical work.

From Bultmann, we learn that authenticity in preaching begins with exegesis. Our life experiences provide us with unique worldviews that, when brought to bear in the exegetical process, illuminate who we are in a substantive ways. Answers to questions generated from our life experiences can yield meaning that will enable our faith communities to understand texts in new and uncommon ways.

Let us all seek to have existential encounters with biblical texts!


Notes:

1 Rudolf Bultmann, “Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?” in The New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1989. This essay is one of a larger collection included in this text. Some of the works such as “New Testament and Mythology” were written during Bultmann’s thirty year teaching career at the University of Marburg. Others such as “Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible” were written during his retirement (in 1951).

2 Throughout this article, Bultmann addresses his intended audience as historical interpreters, historians or exegetes. For the purpose of this essay written especially for preachers, I have changed Bultmann’s terminology to preachers. When preachers go to biblical texts on behalf of our communities, we are the historical interpreters, historians or exegetes to whom Bultmann is referring.

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