Wondrous Depth: Preaching the Old Testament
by Ellen F. Davis, Professor of Bible and Practical Theology
Westminster John Knox Press, 2005
Paper, 176 pages, $19.95
Reviewed by Barbara Brown Taylor
While the scarcity of Old Testament preaching in European-American churches is the presenting problem of Ellen Davis's new book, her more pervasive concern is the absence of astonishment among readers of the biblical text. Sure that they already know what the Bible says, too many Christians settle for shallow readings of Holy Scripture. This "assumption of prior knowledge" is held by liberals and conservatives alike, who too often approach Scripture as a source of illustrations about things of interest to them instead of as "an indispensable source of knowledge about the things of God."
The four essays in this book are based on Davis's Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching, delivered at Yale Divinity School in 2003. Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School since 2001, Davis is held in high regard both by her fellow exegetes and by parish clergy across the country. The gulf that so often separates the two is not only unnecessary but also unhelpful, she writes, especially when the biblical scholarship engaged by preachers is often "historical in too narrow a sense."
In Wondrous Depth, she demonstrates the value of a broader conversation, in which preachers and academics alike acknowledge that the purpose of biblical exegesis is to edify the church-and that Christian biblical interpretation has for thousands of years been done by preachers. Some of these interpreters have made use of the historical critical method of understanding Scripture, but the vast majority have not. Citing premodern expositors from John Cassian to John Donne, Davis reminds her readers that such people "lived, died, and went on to glory entirely innocent of the Documentary Hypothesis..."
Of course she does not mean to dismiss the fruits of modern critical methods. She means only to expose the poverty of a basket that holds no fruits from other periods of Christian history. Her book, she says, "is designed to be a convocation of preaching voices that stretch across the centuries," in search of "a style of reading and preaching the Old Testament that fosters development of an expansive moral vision deeply grounded in the gospel."
In chapter three, Davis develops the idea that Holy Scripture holds "an abundance of meaning." The depth of any given text is not measured by its original meaning alone, but by everything that has been discovered in it through long centuries of reading by both Christians and Jews.
"Things are never used up," she writes, quoting Gerhard von Rad, just as no single community can ever be completely and exclusively right about what a particular text means. Even if a preacher manages a satisfactory reading of the text this time, she is not done with it. The next time she visits it, she will be astonished all over again, by living words that will not lie still on the page.
Davis's strong case for "the art of astonishing" may be the most vital teaching in this book. From her own place in the company of other readers, she notes that her ancient and medieval kin never expected to exhaust the wondrous depth of Holy Scripture. Their job was not to explain the text but to increase their hearers' awe of it. "It is the privilege of the teacher," Davis writes, "to orient people toward mystery, to lead them close enough to be touched by it."
If the first commandment of biblical preaching is to listen closely to the words of the text, then the second is like unto it: Stop when you have said all that the words of Scripture and the basic grammar of Christian faith will support. (11)
In a material North American culture dominated by a scientific worldview, mystery needs all the friends it can get. In threatened churches intent on monopolizing the meaning of Scripture, wonder is an endangered virtue. No preacher can be astonishing who has not first been astonished, Davis writes, and the only "regular and fully reliable source of astonishment for the Christian preacher is Scripture itself." Some readers will argue that the world God so loves is an equally reliable source, but either way Davis's argument succeeds. The art of preaching thrives on the capacity of preachers and listeners alike to be astonished by what God has done and is doing in creation.
While Davis focuses her formidable attention on preaching from the Old Testament, the wisdom in this book applies to preaching from the New Testament as well. The author's intellectual gifts are such that readers and reviewers alike may sigh to recognize the relative merits of their own, yet anyone who makes it to the five sermons of her own with which Davis concludes this wonder-full book are guaranteed to close her book with thanksgiving.