Details, Details!

There are details, and then there are details. There are textual details in your preparation. And there are textual details in your presentation. After all, every passage is made up of lots of details. There are nouns, verbs, adjectives, names, quotations, allusions, grammatical constructions, figures of speech, and on the list goes. Whatever kind of passage you are looking at, it is built with the basic building block of details.

1. Details in Sermon Preparation. We should begin the study process with an interest in every detail. To study a text is to try to figure out why each detail is present, what it is intended to do, and how they all combine to convey a message. It might also help to notice what is not included. Exegesis is more than the study of details, but it can never be less than that.

The Bible is not written with padding to reach a word count – it wasn’t written by procrastinating students! The Bible is not a cheap paperback, overly elaborating every incidental detail to give the impression of a complex plot. The Bible is sparing in detail, precise in its writing.

Our job as Bible students is to see and interpret every element of the text. We can’t springboard off a keyword and ignore the rest of the passage. We must make sure our understanding of every detail coheres. If one detail is left untouched, we can’t be confident that we have grasped the message as a whole. So we scour the text, moving back and forth between analysis of details and synthesis of the whole passage in its broader context. We alternate between microscope and binoculars.

As we study the text we start to recognize that some details serve a more significant role in communicating the message of the text. Some details are important in making our passage unique. Other details are “load-bearing walls” in this passage. Every detail matters, but not every detail carries equal weight in a passage. It is only through careful study that we can identify which is which.

2. Details in Sermon Presentation. When it comes time to deliver our sermon we are limited by time and motivated by purpose. What is our purpose when we preach? It is not to present every avenue of inquiry that we have pursued in our study. It is not to download all of our accumulated information to our listeners. Our purpose is tied to our main idea and its application in the lives of our listeners. Therefore we select which details to highlight in order to effectively communicate this passage to these people.

This selection process involves an evaluation of the passage. In light of the study, what are the critical “load-bearing” details in the passage? It also involves evaluating our listeners. Are there details that may distract our listeners, or would our failure to pay attention to a detail come across as evading it, or as a mistake on our part? Some details can be explained quickly and easily, others take more time, but we will never have enough time to explain every detail as much as we might like.

Preaching is not as simple as following a formula. It isn’t simply study a passage, write a message and deliver it. We need to be meticulous in our study, but selective in our sermon. We need to treat every detail like the treasure that it is – an inspired word in God’s Word. And we need to preach God’s Word in a way that honours the words, but always seeing them as part of the coherent message of the passage as a whole. We need to pray for wisdom to see the passage as the original author intended, and to hear the message as our congregation will hear it presented. May we all grow in the varied skills it takes to handle all these details!

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This resource may be helpful for you or others on the subject of studying Bible passages:

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 . . .

TheologyNetwork.Org Article

A modified form of an article I wrote a while back has now been posted on theologynetwork.org . . . here’s a taste:

True exposition should not be boring, for we would not want to give the impression that God gives of Himself in self-revelation in a way that is boring.  True exposition should not be disconnected from real life, for in the incarnation we see God giving of Himself, His ultimate self-revelation, in the most relevant manner imaginable.  Perhaps if more preachers would truly grasp the need for effective hermeneutics in their sermon preparation, perhaps then we would not have so much occasion to point the finger at others and complain of dumbed-down diet sermonettes abounding in our generation.

But is improved hermeneutics enough?  The article makes a further move that I believe is critical and often overlooked.  To read the article, and then look around at the excellent resources, click here – www.theologynetwork.org

Our Posture Before the Bible

Recently, Tom Lyon wrote an article for The Banner of Truth magazine entitled “Our Posture Before the Word of God.”  As preachers who spend time studying God’s Word, it would be wise to remind ourselves of these principles.  Equally, as preachers who preach to people who also may be spending time in the Bible and may also be tempted to twist its teaching for a personal agenda, it would be wise to convey these attitudes in how we handle Scripture before them.

1.    If I find something with which I cannot agree, I am wrong.

2.    If I find something which I cannot understand, I am wrong to judge it on that account. A quote from Martyn Lloyd-Jones: “You have a very small brain and you have a very poor spirit within you; do not be surprised that you cannot understand.”

3.    If I find something which would contradict the clear teaching of Scripture elsewhere, I cannot be right.

4.    If I find something which would slander the revealed character of God, I am certainly wrong.

5.    If I find something which brings up an apparent contradiction, I am wrong not to face it squarely.

6.    If I find something which leads to a summary principle, I am wrong if I do not follow it to its conclusion.

7.    If I find something which disturbs my settled convictions, I am wrong to dismiss it on that account.

8.    If I find something which calls for decisive action and I remain inert, I am fatally wrong.

9.    If I find something which I dare not follow in its practical drift, I am destructively wrong.

10.    If I find something which others blush to admit or struggle to avoid, I am unwise to follow them at that point. A quote from Calvin: “The delicacy of those who affect an appearance of greater prudence than the Holy Spirit in removing or resolving difficulties, is quite intolerable.”

11.    If I find something upon which popular religion frowns, I may presume I am on the right track. C.H. Spurgeon quote: “Be assured there is nothing new in theology except that which is false.”

12.    If I find something which would tend to humble man and glorify God, I am most probably right.

I quote the list as it is, perhaps wanting to add an extra qualifier here and there (such as #11 – not everything old is right, of course).  But I’ll leave the list as it is.

Preaching and Affective Hermeneutics

I don’t spend much time going from blog to blog.  However, one blog that I do read and appreciate is A Spreading Goodness by a good friend and major influence on my life – Dr Ron Frost. He kindly asked me to write a guest post for his site which I was delighted to do. It’s a little longer than my typical post on this site, but I hope it’s worth taking the time to read. I won’t re-post it here as I’d like to redirect you to A Spreading Goodness – you might enjoy the earlier content on there and become a regular (I particularly recommend “I’m a Sinner…” posted on December 15th).

So for today’s post, please click here: spreadinggoodness.org

What is Preaching Primarily About?

Just a short teaser of a post today, then a break tomorrow (because you really shouldn’t be reading about preaching on Christmas day!)  I’ve just been writing a longer article for another blog.  I’ll link to it once it is posted there.  But in it I address the real foundation of homiletics. While some may consider the field of homiletics to be all about communication techniques – “mere rhetoric” if you like, this is missing the point.

Preaching is a complex subject with many vital tributaries.  I would suggest that the technical stuff has to be built on a solid foundation of the hermeneutics and the spirituality of the preacher.  There are other critical foundational elements too . . . but the article is already too long!

Have a great Christmas!

Weighing Interpretation Options

Yesterday I made passing reference to the process involved in deciding between options when interpreting some aspect of a passage.  Perhaps you can think of two or three ways to take it, to understand what it means.  Perhaps two commentators differ on the interpretation and offer different sets of evidence for their view.  These kind of decisions face us all the time as we are interpreting the Bible.  So how do we evaluate the accuracy and relative weight of the various evidences used to support possible interpretations of a passage?

I still use an approach I was taught in seminary.  It is not a formula that guarantees results.  It is not something that can be put in a spreadsheet and simply crunch the numbers, but as a guideline it is very helpful.  I will list six categories of evidence.  Evidence that sits in category 1 is generally worth more than evidence in category 3.  On the other hand, multiple evidences in different categories may outweigh single evidence in a “better” category, although not always.  This is a guide, not a hard and fast rule.  Here are the categories from most valuable to least:

1. Syntactical Evidence – support found within the passage’s structure or grammar.  This is the internal contextual support for an understanding of the passage.

2. Contextual Evidence – support found in the context of the passage.  The closer the context, the higher the value (immediate context, section context, book context, same writer context, etc.)

3. Lexical Evidence – support found in specific meaning of words used.  Since meaning of a word is determined by the company it keeps, this category actually overlaps with both syntactical and contextual evidence, but a lexical argument lacking in syntactical or contextual support stands here in third place.

4. Correlational Evidence – support found in more distant biblical support where the same word or concept appears.  A different writer may be using the term in a different way.  (Remember that a distance passage that is directly influencing your passage, such as an Old Testament section that is quoted, is much more significant and may be considered as category 2 evidence.)

5. Theological Evidence – support found in theology, rather than elsewhere in the Bible.  This is like correlation, but with a theological creed or system.

6. Verificational Evidence – support found in “experts” (ie.commentators, etc.)  Simply because a big name agrees is of minimal value.  Much better to integrate their arguments into the five categories above, then using the commentary adds much greater value to your study.

Remember, this is a guideline, but I think it is helpful.  It pushes us to look for understanding within the text itself and within the context.  Many people seem to lean heavily on distant unrelated, but familiar, passages.  They tend to rely on their system of theology and having an expert or two on side in an interpretive decision.  Much better to have the better evidence to support an interpretation too!

A Life’s Work

As preachers we have the privilege of intensive Bible study. Most believers have the privilege of Bible study, but few have the added pressure of having to communicate it to others. However, it is easy to fall into the trap of simply meeting the next deadline and preparing the next sermon. This way of functioning can easily get us trapped in a “micro” approach to God’s Word. Instead, I’d like to encourage us all to be “macro” students of the Word.

Bible study requires both micro and macro views. My first professor of hermeneutics used to refer to the analysis-synthesis interchange. This speaks of the moving back and forth between analyzing the details and synthesizing the passage as a whole in its larger context. Details, like words, can only be truly understood in their context or setting.

Three things push us toward micro Bible study. The first thing is preaching itself. We tend to need details that “will preach” in order to make the sermon sound biblical and interesting. The second thing is personal preference. Some of us are more micro-inclined, while apparently fewer are more macro-inclined. Third, Bible school training has traditionally given more micro tools and approaches, leaving many students unsure how to pursue “bigger picture” study.

We need to master the Book, book by book. As we study a book in order to preach it (or for personal growth – imagine!), let’s try to be aware of the whole. How does the argument flow throughout, how do the pieces fit together? Keep a document that is all about the big picture of the book. As one writer puts it, “Begin to build up a living understanding of Colossians, or of Genesis, or of Mark’s Gospel – whatever – as a whole. Make it your life’s work, and take your time. Let yourself enjoy it.”

I agree. We can never truly master the Book, but let’s spend our lives trying, book-by-book.

Hermeneutics for Preaching – It Can’t All Be We, part 2

Following the post on Saturday, “It Can’t All Be We,” Steve submitted an important comment.  I hope he doesn’t mind the extra exposure for the comment by including it here, but I think this is a very important issue for us to wrestle with as preachers.

Steve wrote: The problem with saying there is only one meaning to a text is that our own interpretations of it depend on our own particular social locations. A white Anglo westerner reads the parable of the lost sons one way while a native west African reads it another. What most of us (in the west) mean by “meaning of the text” is arrived at through the use of historical-critical tools that were developed by 19th century white German scholars. Certainly, there’s much to the New Hermeneutic that evangelicals will find unacceptable, but there’s no sense in throwing the baby out with the bath water, so to speak.

My response: Thanks for the comment Steve. Over the past two centuries there has been a shift in focus in determining meaning. The 19th century was focused primarily on the author. The first part of the 20th century saw the focus shift to the text itself. The later part of the 20th century saw the focus shift to the reader. I’m excited to see the resurgence of the author in our generation, especially a more rounded approach that recognizes our presuppositions as readers and the nature and form of the text too. However, if the author is left out, then there is no hope of any objective standard of measure when it comes to the meaning of a text.

So it is important to be aware of our own cultural presuppositions when we read a story like Luke 15. But I also think we have the capability to study the text using a plain, grammatical, contextual and historical hermeneutic. We can study the historical cultural setting of the text to help determine the meaning of the text. Our concern should not be seeking a “white westerner” or a “native west African” understanding, but a “first century middle eastern” understanding. While accepting that our own “lenses” will influence our study, we have the responsibility to pursue that study to the best of our ability so that we can present the meaning of the text. As I wrote in the post, this should lead to a “humble but authoritative” presentation of the meaning. Authoritative because we have employed good hermeneutical skill in the process, and humble because we recognize our own limitations and biases more than others do.

As you’ll notice in my earlier review of Lowry’s book, I am in no way throwing the baby out with the bath water when it comes to the New Homiletic or the New Hermeneutic. I recognize a lot of value in these streams of thought, but I would suggest that a purely subjective interpretational approach to the text is the bath water that can be helpfully drained away.

I’d be interested to read other comments on this.