Comments on tonight’s school of preaching


Some rather hesitant and awkward expression of two of my driving thoughts from tonight

Table of Contents

I went to Dave’s school of preaching this evening through Colossians, because I feel like I ought to find out what it’s like to give longer talks and get more of my understanding of scripture out if people tell me it’s true to revelation and edifying. I’m generally very reluctant to share things I’m thinking, and avoid bringing things up or making comments in bible studies, and so on, but in fact, on Sunday evening (the night of ‘the scary blog post’), for the first time I actually felt a desire to teach which was stronger. Of course, the next day I fell into sin and realised once again just how misguided it is for me to pursue this (and indeed it is: my sin is not slight), but I went along anyway. I have to be brief, because this opening paragraph is automatically self-pitying and inappropriate. The upshot is that tonight as usual I kept quiet and didn’t speak in the feedback times because I wasn’t confident enough that I had spotted sharply enough the balance and pattern of what I wanted to mention. (I hate typing this, but I have to give some explanation for why I have so much to say only when my reassuring web stats tell me how few people are reading this. Of course, I’m hoping that the deliberately broken-up self commentary will dissuade you reading further.) The point is that of the things I was hoping to say, I’d like to draw out two points.

[Note: to explain the terms, preaching is made up of three parts—exegesis, which consists in asking ‘What does the passage say?’, looking at the words, sentences, and books to draw out what the author is actually writing about; then hermeneutics, which takes the author’s ideas, metaphors, arguments, and builds an (implicit) framework of his thinking and expression which lets us interpret the meaning of the passages; and finally homiletics, which takes that meaning and applies it to our situation.]

1. Regarding exegesis and hermeneutics: look at the whole passage

We had a bit of a contrast tonight Jon’s excellent sermon and Mark’s excellent sermon. Both did exegesis, but in Jon’s case he did half as much (which was a matter of choice of course, just a different use of time). Jon read words from his passages, and even the odd clause, but the understanding he had of the flow of Paul’s argument and thought which informed his outline was not something he had time to demonstrate and quite make us see the correspondence. Mark, on the other hand, made it very clear that what he was saying matched up with not just with phrases and clauses, but the sentences and paragraph of Paul’s thought. I think that’s probably more important to me that it really is, with my persistent attraction to biblical rather than systematic theology, but I can’t help wondering if there isn’t something to gently suggest from this.

The text we are doing exegesis on is not simply a collection of clauses each saying something we make into a point and a section, but it is the passage that links the thoughts up, not something we do after drawing the three individual points out of the three sentences we are set to preach on—something that I have wriggled a bit with even during Eden sermons. There sometimes comes a point halfway through the sermon where I suddenly have to tune out for a couple of minutes when it strikes me that of the points made each lines up with a phrase in the passage, but that whatever process the preacher has done in his study to read the passage as a whole, he is not going to lead us through right then and there, so I have to try and spot the pattern and balance of argument ourselves before tuning in and taking in more.

So, I don’t know how well I will do next week on Colossians 1:15–23, but I know that my choice will always be to try as hard as I can to open up as transparently as possible the process and trajectory of the passage in its ebb and flow. The problem is that is naturally both time-consuming and hard, and I know that in bible studies I never have the skill to capture in what I say the shape and whole bent of the passage as it tugs me.

I am very influenced by Barry Seagren’s preaching style with its simple, gentle, thorough sermons led by exegesis at each level. My huge worry is that I know so strongly how many agendas I have, in particular my burden to capture and explore the whole of the bible’s teaching on the heart and emotions during the last six months. I feel there is so much more to Philippians than we normally tend to hear in Galatians-style sermons which can so easily get bogged down in words and clauses instead of the whole direction and passion of Paul’s concern for the heart. Colossians 3 to me is really the sister passage to Philippians (esp. Phil. 4), and I fear deeply, quiveringly, to so much as make a comment when I see how passionate I am for my hermeneutics to lead me into eisegesis.

I want, so deeply, my understanding of sanctification as unifying theme of Paul’s theology to be there in the passages, that I make it come to life in my eyes. I feel it strongly, that there is so much more to say from Paul that we tend only to hear from John, because he gloops it into each sentence whereas Paul can somewhat sprinkle the pieces across his letters.

You can see the confusion I am trying to express. I want to talk about these things I wrestle with but can’t talk about, and fear and doubt my own ability to pull together the sort of theology I struggle to find in books and hear so little. This was rammed home to me last Monday, when I was talking with Daniel Sim and tried to articulate some of what I was working on in Paul, ad-hoc, and really didn’t convince him.

So, the sort of exegesis I desire to hear I can’t even model, and I’m not convinced that stepping back from the passage like that is even safe for me to do, but there’s so much richness I can’t find in Paul’s letters any other way.

2. Regarding homiletics: the author’s applications or ours?

This second point is really related to the first: it is the same comment, but looking at the level of applications. It is hard to know where to get applications from and how to angle them. There are varying schools of thought: we can just say what the author does. When he says ‘God is great’, and that’s it, we pass on, and when he says ‘God is great, so share fellowship’, we follow his instructions and exhort the congregation to more acts of fellowship. On the other end of the spectrum, you can get talks which bang in an application for every point. Jon tonight was clearly in that camp, with a stack of applications that weren’t clearly part of Paul’s intention, like an evangelistic point from Ephesians 1:6. Sure, the gospel is going out into the whole world, but Paul doesn’t seem to be mentioning that at that moment in order to exhort us to go out and share it. (Mark fell in between the two extremes.)

There are pros and cons of each style. The first is obviously the sort of doctrine-heavy, application light preaching which Dave was criticising, but the second, by breaking up the flow and ideas of the word can prevent them being applied to demonstrate and fit into whatever the author is actually trying to tell us.

The same feelings I have above translate into a very natural third option here: we make sermons application heavy by finding the application in the book as a whole, not just the passage we are given. I found it very worth noticing that neither Jon nor Mark mentioned anything outside their given passage at all (except Jon’s throwaway mention of false teachers from ch. 2), and it was a pity no-one really explored why that was in the discussion, because I feel that is potentially a huge weakness.

Again, it’s a matter of choices and use of time. There’s nothing wrong with either of the approaches above to cooking up applications, each used in due proportion, but what I regret is that sometimes the application of the book as a whole is not given its share of the preaching in a sermon series. Paul’s gearing up for chapter three, and the more practical tone of chapter 2 which introduces the tone and meaning he’s going to draw out of the truths in chapter 1. We don’t have to make up applications, or give none when there are none, when a sermon series has room for several sermons just looking at that big theme, that deep sustained patchwork picture of the heart Paul stitches together, and treating the passage as part of that. That is, we are given the task not just of preaching a passage, but of understanding the meaning and context of that passage so as to say to the listeners, ‘This is what the book is all about! See how Paul says these things, here, here, and here! Today’s passage paints these parts of the whole, and you’ll see the rest of it in the other sermons.’

I think this is why people get mixed up with all these silly ideas that Paul majors on justification. Of course it’s huge for him, but I feel that’s only seen as such a big emphasis for him because so much of his teaching on sanctification (and glorification) permeates the books and is so much less amenable to word study sermons and sentence-by-sentence exegesis. He is a theologian of the heart’s change towards our Lord, just like 1 John so palpably is, but we miss those applications unless we pursue books as a whole with more passion in our preaching. This has to make up at least some of the balance and mix of different sorts of sermons we are treated to.

Where do I go with all this? I am still scared of my tendencies to manipulate the word and use it to push my agenda when taught in this way. I also know I’ve still not enough maturity to make it work, given how much easier it is to grasp and teach in a basic way systematic rather than biblical theology (although equally hard to do very well). My prayer is that God would equip us as he may to have a passion for his word, and teach it in all its fullness as well as we may. Let there be men who can apply the word to every depth of the human heart, and offer us that hope for change and maturity in every part which Paul teaches us to set our desires on and implore God to grant us.