From the Shepherd’s Nook: John Frye and Parable of the Bible

This post is by John Frye.

Many pastors like myself were given “tools” in seminary to help us in the craft of being a pastor. Tools of the trade are good things and, yet, can be used in a bad way. What I discovered about half way through my life as a pastor was that a lot of smart people were using the tools for doing theology and pastoral work to flatten out everything given by God in holy revelation. For a very long time my “original” work always seemed to end up with a dispensational, pre-Trib rapture, cessationist (regarding some “sign” spiritual gifts), complementarian, YEC, critical (versus majority) text slant. Theological politics controlled the text more than I could imagine.

Using our “tools,” we were taught to beat the sacred text into non-mysterious submission, find its one authorial intended meaning, interpret it “relevantly,” and offer some prefabricated “how to’s” so that people could take the text home. Like the directions that come with that new DVR, we wanted people to understand “how life works” through the Bible as God’s instruction manual. Pastors mine the ore of biblical truth, heat it in the hot coals of good commentary readings, hammer it into a five-steps-to-godly-living outline, and cool it in the light of what big name pastor so-and-so said in his or her “cool” sermon series. “…a workman that needeth not be ashamed…”

I shudder now at the pervasive arrogance and lack of reverence in the exegetical “ways” I was taught to use my tools. It was biblicism on steroids.

Eugene H. Peterson offers a parable about the Bible in his book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity in a chapter titled Gaza Notes. “Once upon a time there was an island.” EHP describes the perfection and harmony of this large island of heterogeneous peoples. “The islanders were a curious and intelligent people.” They perfected language communication and understanding. Everything in experience was named. They had excellent education, prosperous businesses, and well-honed political and social governance. “One day, down on the beach, a green bottle rode the crest of a wave and landed on the island. An islander was there and picked it up. He noticed a piece of paper inside, took it out and read, ‘Help is coming.’ … The island-world was completely and happily self-sufficient. He had never supposed that he needed help. All the same, the three-word message touched some level of awareness in him he had no name for. He was intrigued.” Soon other islanders were finding bottles with notes. One note read, “Help will arrive soon. Don’t give up.” Soon people were looking for bottles. “Help left yesterday,” another note read. Another encouraged, “Take heart, help will certainly come.” This was so absurd because these islanders did not need help and most of the people could not understand what all the excitement was about. They could not comprehend why anyone would stand around on a chilly beach hoping for a cryptic message that wasn’t about anything. Those who had the messages and found more would gather together in little communities to compare and discuss the notes. Curiosity and excitement gripped them. They marveled how words were being used in a new way—not to show what was there, but to declare what was not there. “They weren’t learning anything from the messages. They were being addressed by an unknown someone who was telling them something they didn’t know they needed. The world was larger, far larger apparently, than anything for which their language had ever provided evidence.”  EHP concludes,

“It hardly matters that the message is fragmentary.

“It hardly matters that we can’t figure out all the referents.

“It hardly matters that we can’t organize it into something systematically complete.

“What matters is that it links us with a larger world, perhaps a mainland.”

The Bible is from Someone else and from somewhere else. The Bible is intriguingly mysterious and passionately apocalyptic. To reduce the Bible to a bottle of soul pills or to a set of tedious life directions does great violence to the Bible’s breath-taking purpose and fascinating, many-textured beauty.

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  • Tom

    Thank you for passing on these nuggets from EHP. As I work on my sermon I see myself flattening the text instead of leaving the mystery. I find that there is pressure from my congregation who does not like mystery but desires a practical take-home sermon. I hope that I can bring the word of God to the people of God in a lanquage that they can understand and that also brings them to an awareness of the otherness of God.
    One professor that I had said “The Bible is living and active – our job as preachers is not to kill it.”

  • Very well said John. This too was my journey until not too long ago… welcome to the brotherhood of the mainland. 🙂

  • Tom,
    I am glad to know I am not alone. With most of us given a hermeneutical methodology forged in the scientific method, it is little wonder the sacred text gets flattened out, pinned down and “exegeted” to death. Thanks for your honest comment. –John

  • Russ #2,
    May the mysterious power and awe-inspiring beauty of the Bible be recaptured by those of us who flee the island!

  • Further evidence that EHP was missional and emergent and traditional (and…) long before any of us imagined there was any other way forward in ministry…great post! Here’s to living into the mystery of God without reduction!!!

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    John, Tom, Russ, Mike,
    Great to know there as pastor/preacher/teacher/missioners out there who are getting it and appear to be on a Spirit lead trajectory that may actually glorify God in a manner most fully resonant with the One we seek to follow.

  • Jordan Litchfield


    I’ve really enjoyed your posts and they have been quite convicting. They motivated me enough to get my first EHP book, The Contemplative Pastor, which I am finding rewarding. My ministerial training in preaching majored exclusively on expository preaching – mining the text, discovering the big idea, breaking it down into points, etc. After reading this post, I have a few questions:

    a. How do you learn to preach in this way (the way Peterson is describing)?
    b. Is what Peterson is advocating different than just narrative preaching? Unfortunately, I have no training in this area and so recently ordered a book on OT narrative preaching to get a better grasp of it.
    c. Is there a still a place for expository preaching, and if so, what does expository preaching look like that does not flatten the text? For example, I’m preaching through Colossians at the moment. Obviously, Colossians is occasional and built on an underlying story, but it is also much more propositional than something like Ruth.

    These questions might be a little juvenile, but this is all new to me so I am just trying to think it through. I can tell I’m going to have to learn to read the text in a totally different way myself before I can attempt to communicate it. Thanks for sharing with us.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Uh, that was supposed to say: “there ARE pastor/preacher/teacher/missioners…”

  • Jordan #7,
    I, too, was trained to isolate “the big idea” of the text and build the sermon around it. I was trained to preach the Bible primarily in an expository way. The thing about preaching is that various streams in the church, perhaps even theological persuasions, will stress one approach over another–expository, topical, narrative, question/answer, need/solution, sickness/cure, behavior-aimed, etc. If you are a communicator, feeling called to preach/teach the Scriptures, I’d say try a variety of ways and, over time, formulate a “style” that fits your personality, gifts, character, vision and context. What I admire about scholar-pastors who have made a deep impact on me and I never feel the text flattened out by them, is their daily personal piety, their “walk with the Lord” if you will. For example, N.T. Wright is a practicing pastor. Scot McKnight is a walking, talking, living Jesus Creeder. While I see those two probe a text with meticulous methodology, I come away with their corresponding sense of mystery about the wonder of God and God’s saving actions in Christ within history. I think there is a fine line between arrogance–“I’ve got this text pegged” and reverence–“I’ve got something to say, but I am probably only skimming the surface…” You are right to contrast genres. The Book of Ruth is so much fun to preach; Colossians can be a fierce challenge. But all the books are telling in their own ways “a Jesus story” that we know is there and want to make plain to the church. I hope these ramblings encourage you. God bless! Oh, please get a copy of EHP’s *Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work.* It’ll do a number on you.

  • Jordan L.

    Thanks for the ‘ramblings’, John. They are helpful. I’ll look forward to reading that books as well.

  • Tom

    I stumbled upon this page. I am a layperson who dreads Sundays when I sit through children sermons and pastoral sermons that are built for “take aways”. CS Lewis once warned an aspiring writer to describe what it is to be cold or to fear without giving away the emotion.

    When I hear Holy Scripture my mind and heart react to it and sometimes in church settings I feel I am being told what to think.

    Pastors would do well, I believe, to ask more questions in their sermons without providing neat answers.