Rigor and Response

hardwork2Last week I had the opportunity to interview John Piper.  At one point we were talking about the preacher’s emotional response to the text.  I appreciated John Piper’s perspective on this.

Gordon Fee, as well as others, have pointed out that we don’t want the people in our churches having devotional engagement with the Bible that is not exegetically on target.  And that our people don’t need preachers who are exegetical without being devotional as they study the Bible.  All true biblical interpretation should be devotional as well as exegetical.

But John Piper’s perspective was helpful to me.  Absolutely, the preacher should have their heart stirred in the study.  However, he said, there will be times when the exegetical rigor is not heart-stirring.  You may be wrestling with technicalities in the Greek construction of a sentence for a couple of hours.  You may be wading through technical commentaries weighing up interpretive options.  The exegetical rigor may not be heart-stirring during the process, but the fruit of it had better be heart-stirring!

Do we make sure we are not transitioning into message preparation until we are not only thinking clearly of the passage, but also feeling deeply moved by it?

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The Four Places of Preaching

There is a journey from text to message.  A journey consists of a sequence of locations, so I’d like to lay out the four places of preaching.  Perhaps this will be helpful to someone.

Place 1 – The Study

The first place the preacher needs to go is the study.  Just the preacher, the Bible, perhaps a desk, whatever study resources may be available, and a prayerful pursuit of the meaning of the text.

What is the goal in this place?  To be able to accurately state the main idea of the passage in a single sentence summary as a result of prayerful historical, grammatical, literary study of the passage in its context, with a heart laid bare before God.

Who is involved?  This place is where the preacher is in prayerful pursuit of the meaning of the passage.  So there is a historical focus, a sense in which the preacher is seeking to go back then to the time when the human author wrote the passage.  There is a deep concern with making sense of the text as it was intended, as inspired, with the historical and written context, the inspired choice of genre, the content of the passage in terms of its details and its structure or flow, and the intent of the writer.

So the preacher is studying, exegeting, interpreting.  Yet in that quiet place of wrestling with the text, the text is also wrestling with the preacher.  This is not some sort of abstract and entirely objective study.  The preacher is there.  When the Bible speaks, God speaks, and when God speaks, lives change.  So the preacher has the privilege of being marked by the text as the Spirit of God first applies the passage to the life of the preacher.

The study is a place of deep fellowship between the preacher and God.

Why, then, the study?  Should this not be the library, after all, studying involves resources?  No, this should be a study, because a library is a place of people pursuing information for a variety of purposes.  The preacher’s study is a place where the preacher meets with God as the biblical text is studied both exegetically and profoundly devotionally.

Should this not be the office, after all, ministry is a complex business these days?  No, this should be a study (whatever the room actually is), because an office is a place of action and interaction, of incoming emails and phone calls, a place where multiple plates are kept spinning.  No great and profound preaching can come out of an office.  (If your study is too much of an office, then study elsewhere – borrow a room and leave your phone behind, study in your car in the woods, but go somewhere where you can be with the Lord in a “study”.)

Tomorrow, place 2 . . .

7 Dangers of Fanciful Interpretations

Fanciful interpretations get great feedback, but they do great damage.  Fanciful interpretations get some people very excited, but those who know their Bibles, or have been to Bible school tend to look glum in the midst of the hysteria. Is this because all who have training are killjoys?  Or is it perhaps because they see through the hype like a parent watching children getting excited about excessive amounts of sugar?

You can usually spot the indications of fanciful interpretation.  One big red flag is when people are saying, “I would never have got that from that passage, wow!”  Or even, “That was so rich, deep, original, (you choose the description)!”

But if people are so obviously blessed and encouraged, what is wrong with it?  Let me offer seven problems with fanciful interpretation:

1. Fanciful interpretation teaches listeners bad Bible study. You may have convinced yourself that that particular reference to a boat has a deeper meaning relating to postmodernism, or that the name of the valley is an anagram of a suburb of Manchester, or whatever.  But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that your clever interpretation doesn’t seem to do any harm and is motivating for the listeners on a spiritual level (perhaps a spiritual theology of David’s brothers’ names, or the significance of a geographical feature for the Christian life).  Surely no harm is done?  It is if the listeners then copy your way of handling Scripture and come up with an application you find objectionable (the cults do this all the time).

2. Fanciful interpretation offers nutritionally empty fare. Perhaps you’ve come across the notion of empty calories?  Something made with highly processed sugar and white flour and unnatural ingredients.  These things tend to taste good (temporarily), but have no nutritional value.  In fact, over time and in excess, they can do great harm to you.  The same is true of overly sweet, overly processed Bible fancies that stir excitement but offer no nutritional value.

3. Fanciful interpretation may cause listeners to give up on their Bibles. After all, if they can’t see how you got there, maybe instead of copying your approach, perhaps they’ll just feel inadequate and give up on their Bibles.  They may look forward to hearing you again (which is the motivation for some speakers), but their Bibles will gain dust in the meantime.

The rest of the list tomorrow . . .

Abort Sermon! Abort Sermon?

On one level it is a feeling that can come for any reason.  A little moment of doubt.  An unexpected event, or listener, or conversation, or comment . . . and suddenly the temptation is there to give up on the planned message.  Some may have this feeling every time they preach.  Others may never get it at all.  But is there a genuine reason to abort the message and switch to something else?

In his excellent chapter on Charles Simeon in Preach the Word, J.I. Packer states the following:

Simeon would go on to remind us that expository preaching should be textual in character.  The preacher’s task, according to him, was not imposition, giving texts meaning the do not bear; nor was it juxtaposition, using texts merely as pegs on which to hand general reflections imported from elsewhere (“preachments of this kind are extremely disgustful”); it was, precisely, exposition, bringing out of teh texts what God had put in them  “I never preach,” said Simeon, “unless I feel satisfied that I have the mind of God as regards the sense of the passage.” (Preach the Word, 147)

There may be more than one reason to abort a sermon, but this one alone is worth pondering.  If we are not satisfied that we have the mind of God as regards the sense of a passage . . . we should not preach it!  Better to preach an unprepared sermon at a moment’s notice on a text we do understand, than to preach a prepared sermon built on shaking exegesis.  If you really don’t get, don’t preach it.  Abort sermon!

Limit, No Limit

When it comes to preaching there are fewer rules than people might think.  Some like to impose significant amounts of structure on the preaching event, but in reality there are few limits involved.  There may be some limits imposed by the culture and heritage of a church – congregational traditions – and it is wise to think carefully before smashing through those expectations in an attempt to be creative.  However, these limits vary from place to place and it is possible, once trust is established, to carefully adjust such expectations.

However, putting aside the idiosyncracies of specific congregations (and the key change monitors who might take it on themselves to preserve order!), the whole issue of limits seems to come down to two principles:

1. To have integrity as a biblical preacher, I must be constrained by the true meaning of the passage I am preaching. This is the one limit that must be in place.  We commit to preaching the true meaning of the text.  To the best of our ability we must strive to understand what was intended in the preaching text.  We cannot preach on anything from anywhere in the Bible.  Sometimes the pursuit of being “interesting” and “relevant” undermines the exegetical integrity of our ministry.  We need this limit firmly in place.

2. To be effective as a biblical preacher, I have freedom in the formation of the sermon and its delivery during preaching. What shape should a sermon take?  What style of delivery should be used?  Matters of form are matters of freedom for the preacher.  Different texts, different circumstances, different occasions, even different listeners, can all prompt different sermon shape and delivery style.  At this level our goal is effectiveness in communication.  We do not need unnecessary limits in place to hinder our effectiveness.

Sadly too many preachers settle into a predictable pattern where there is freedom – in form and delivery.  And too many choose freedom where there is a limit – in the meaning of the text.  Let’s be sure to get our limit and our no limits the right way around!

Exegesis Homiletics

I am currently preparing a course that I will be teaching at the end of October – Hermeneutics for Preaching.  I came across this very important reminder in Grant Osborne’s Hermeneutical Spiral (p343):

“The hermeneutical process culminates not in the results of exegesis (centering on the original meaning of the text) but in the homiletical process (centering on the significance of the Word for the life of the Christian today).”

To some of us it is obvious that there must be a direct link between exegesis and homiletics, but we all need the reminder.  C.R.Wells, in Interpreting the New Testament (edited by Black and Dockery, pp506-523), writes the final chapter on interpretation and its connection to preaching.  He warns of some critical approaches that will produce “tempting” content for sermons, but content that should not be included.  However, critical methods that deal with the “text-as-is” have great potential as tools of the preacher.  According to Wells, “Every preacher should and must be a critic, but no preacher should ever forget that critical study serves homiletics.”

Accurate interpretation governs expository preaching.  So two simple implications:

1. Don’t allow interpretation and exegesis to be an end in itself. Study in God’s Word must run its course, not only to personal application, but to communication for corporate application.  If you have opportunity and ability to preach the Word, do it.  If you don’t, then find another way to share the truth and its implications with others.

2. If you ever preach, then be an ever-improving interpreter and exegete of God’s Word. Don’t try to preach without the foundation of biblical interpretation under your efforts.  Preaching is more than sharing the fruit of exegetical work out loud, but it cannot be less.  Skill in communication, relevance in content, personal spirituality and prayerful preparation are all important, but without effective biblical interpretation undergirding your messages, don’t call it preaching.