Rhetorical & Homiletics: Questions About Where You Spend Your Time In The Study

time for change

I just pick up a commentary and thought about those early days of preaching —- those days of book, books, and more books — There was hardly a trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where my wife’s parents lived, that we did not drive back with a stack of books from Kregels, Baker Book House, and Eerdmans. Those commentaries would be stacked up on my desk as I worked on my sermons!

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I also heard the number one rule of sermon preparation . . . .

“Read the commentaries AFTER you have worked the passage yourself.”

I’m NOT sure that most follow that advice, or that it is even the best advice! I will go so far as to say that most preachers, who preach three to four times a week, can not follow such a pattern, nor would it be the best advice to follow it.

After taking six years of Greek and three years of Hebrew, I make no claim to know those languages as well as those who are dedicated linguists in those languages. I rely on them. In fact, I also relied on my three years of seminary education, which formed the foundation and developed my understanding of the Scriptures. While there are differences of Scriptural understanding [1] (and even in regards to pastoral practice) from what I was taught over those three years, probably nothing major — “Major on the essentials.”

I was primarily taught by Dr. John Whitcomb, and I came through that process with a vantage on what the Scriptures taught which clearly reflects his handling of the Scriptures — especially of the Old Testament [2].  That is why it is important to select your seminary judiciously. You are not there to defend and argue, [3] but to sit under men who can biblically educate.

I suspect that most preachers read the passage which they have selected, and in short shrift began reading various commentators and expositors.  Such an approach is neither uncommon, nor inherently precarious.  That approach is no more precarious than entrusting three years of your life to the wisdom, expertise, and experience of  one’s seminary professors.

Being a “Berean” was not the mindset of us as seminarians, except in the classroom, where we had the awesome opportunity to interact with our professors — which is why a “brick-n-mortar” education, with live professors, who were willing to reason through questions (and at times banter), with a variety of fellow future pastors, makes for a different kind of seminary education.

Reading good Bible commentaries does not unavoidably lead one into errant or heretical territory.  Rather, as did seminary, it exposes you to the most well thought out paths.  Commentaries offer an understanding of the passage; they do not force a vantage.  It is not that you can’t read the commentaries and dismiss or concur with what the commentator is saying, having not first having come to your own “conclusions.”  In fact, over time, certain commentaries and authors are selected, and others are dismissed because they are trusted and do clear the path.  Our libraries reflect the fact that we come to trust the paths of some, and avoid or dismiss those of others.  Books were expensive, and we had to select them judiciously, and we had to make the most of every hour in reading during our bordered study time.

We stand on the shoulders of great biblical scholars,
both as authors, preachers, and professors.

There is little reason that we should struggle with understanding what most biblical passages say and teach after centuries of commentators who have established well-worn paths. [4]. We all stand on the shoulders of great biblical scholars who were preachers, authors, and professors. We stand on the shoulders of commentators who were remarkably prolific in their study and in their writing endeavors. Today, comparatively few (not none) have written and/or edited a 50 volume commentary on all the books of the Bible. [5] We all have come to trust, and rightfully so, the biblical and sound teaching of good and godly men on all different levels of our formal and our continuing education.

I might suggest that it is the veering away from such good and godly men’s shoulders that has produced some of the aberrant and even heretical teachings that pass for being biblical exposition. The love of the novel and even the bizzaro is partially due to a disregard of those who were part of the faith’s historical foundation. [6].

I might also suggest that the real task of biblical preaching and teaching is not determining what the Bible says, but that the real work of preparation revolves around making biblical truths and principles clear, luminous, and life-changing to those who have come voluntarily to listen, to those who have to go to work on Monday morning!   —– AGAIN → [4]

As I listened to an evangelical preacher this past Sunday morning — of whom I am not particular enamored, I was again reminded how one’s focus on communication can make all the difference between speakers. I listened to the whole message and walked away, challenged, and moved. Not because I did not already understand the biblical truth or principle he was focused on, but because he drove home that truth in such a clear and meaningful way! If I mention his name, a good number might dismiss him out of hand, not because he is in any way on the evangelical or theological “heretical” fringes, but because, like me, his preaching approach and style is “not my cup of tea.”  [7]

Break away from the homiletical patterns you have come to rely on (conventionally exemplified by the phrase — “three points and a poem”) and increase the time you spend on how best to communicate well-known and understood truths and principles.  “We all know” what the passage is teaching!  Those listening “all know” and “have heard” the truths and principles found in that passage.  The question is . . . . How do I preach and teach that in a way that it impacts life and living?

There is no one way,
but there are
mediocre-to-poor-to-terrible ways. 

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1. I came and left Grace Theological Seminary as a baptist in regards to the church ordinances — Grace Brethren teach Triune Immersion and the a “foot washing” as part of the Lord’s Supper.

2. Our seminary class came in as Dr. Whitcomb was moving through the years when others would be teaching the Freshman, Middler, and Senior years of systematic theology. Our class was one of the last classes that would have Dr. Whitcomb for so many of our seminary classes and options. Dr. John Whitcomb was known as an Old Testament seminary professor. My love and interest in the Old Testament is obvious to anyone who knows my ministry.

That might also account for my eschatology because Dr. Whitcomb taught “Daniel & Revelation.”  Unfortunately, too many never studied Daniel, no less in connection to the prophets (which he also taught) or the book of Revelation — thus their eschatology.

3.  There were those who attended such seminaries as Princeton (a few miles outside of Trenton, NJ, who argued that they were going there to learn and understand the “otherside of the argument.”  I would often say that you will probably only get one three year concentrated opportunity to learn what the Scriptures teach, and Princeton is not the place to spend those three years if they are the “otherside.”

Education is expensive, you have to approach such an experience judiciously,
and make the most of that opportunity!

That is not a bad theme for some Christian education institutions on many levels.  Like it is said, “You only get to raise a child once.”

4. That is not to say that there are no some difficult passages and/or significant differences which mark preaching and Bible teaching.  However, the number is far less than some would like to maintain.  Some maintain such differences only because that is their justification for attending and/or supporting their ministry.

5. And amazingly — such works were produced in an age where moveable type and printing was far less available!

Classic Examples Of Voluminous Commentaries:

Martin Luther — 1500’s
John Calvin — 1500’s
John Gill — 1700’s
John Lange — 1800’s
Adam Clarke — a master at Greek and Hebrew and several other languages.
Albert Barnes — wrote on various O.T. books, and on the whole New Testament
Matthew Henry — 1706
Jamieson-Fausset-Brown — 1800’s
Charles Haddon Spurgeon — 1800’s
J.C. Ryle – 1800’s
Joseph Benson – 1700’s
E. W. Bullinger — 1800’s
Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible – 1871
Joseph Parker — The People’s Bible Commentary
Alexander MaClaren — 1800’s
F. B. Meyer — 1900’s
Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary — Published in 1892, 19,000+ pages, 37 volume commentary
Joseph Exell — The Pulpit Commentaries — Published in 1890, its 20,000+ pages, 23 volume commentary
The Biblical Illustrator — Over 34,000 pages in its original 56 volume
R. A. Torrey — Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge
A. T. Robertson — Word Pictures
Philip Schaff — Bible Encyclopedia

Some More Modern:

D. Martyn LLoyd-Jones
Warren Wiersbe
John Macarthur
J. Vernon McGee
Et al

6. “Bible education” has been completely transformed from my days at GTS, and years in Christian college teaching and pastoring!  The internet has changed pretty much everything. — from online commentaries, mp3 sermon listening, podcasting ministries, streaming services, youtube-vimeo, blogged-daily-devotionals, free online Bible class instruction and credit, start-to-finish seminary degrees online, et. al . . . . . .

“Judicious” would not be the word that marks today’s Christian educational landscape.  The theological-educational field is stuffed full of too many amateurs who cannot explain what they really believe because they have neither placed themselves under great and godly men in a solid theological and educational setting, and/or are intellectual un-curious as to what those who have historically hammered out the faith have taught on Scripture.

7. As I listened, I was challenged to preach and teach better and if I lose that challenge, I will fail at the very task the Lord says He has gifted — “apt to teach.”  “Apt to teach” does not mean that I can offer a running commentary on the obvious, that I can merely restate and expand on what all can already see the passage teaches.

If you will really want to hear a clip of the message — CLICK HERE.

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