So Why Is It A Stinker?

A few posts ago I used an illustration from Ramesh Richard's book Preparing Expository Sermons. On page 22 he provides a sermon outline that apparently was something he actually witnessed. The sermon involves nothing about the original meaning of the text, how the author would have intended it to be understood, or how the original readers would have understood it. Richard states that it is simply moralistic preaching, disconnected from any textual authority.

I don't believe that this kind of treatment of Scripture is that uncommon. Especially in devotional-type preaching or speaking, we are inclined to look for "deeper" insights. Such insights often convey good moral lessons, even ones that sound very spiritual. But as Richard points out, they lack textual authority.

So what's the problem? Doesn't the fact that a message emphasizes a good spiritual point - the lordship of Christ in our lives - justify the approach?

There are a number of reasons why this kind of interpretation/application of a passage is problematic. Some of them are technical, but let me note one thing in particular that we need to keep in mind when we preach or teach: We model how to read the Bible to our people.

If this is the approach we use for a text, what are we teaching them? We are modeling a highly suspect subjective approach to Scripture that makes "what I think it says" or "what it says to me" or even the highly pious-sounding but still dubious "what the Spirit led me to think" the authority rather than the text itself. How can we encourage our people to deal with the objective truth of Scripture when we model subjectivity?

Some may protest that it is the right of the Holy Spirit to reveal these "insights" to us. Right? Sure, I'll go along with that. But I don't think he uses that right. Despite what our "every promise in the book is mine" individual-American mind thinks, the Bible is not a personal love letter from God. It is a book written to a community, teaching the same thing to every individual of the community. Certainly there are applications to a passage that strike us differently, but let's realize that what we are reading is already the product of the Holy Spirit. Frankly there is enough there to hold us accountable and guide our lives and thinking without having to bend the meaning of the text to "get something personal" out of it.


Anonymous said...

I think your comments are spot on Peter. Your statement that in preaching we model to our people how to read the bible, is perhaps the most salient point you have hade in this conversation. All to often, I saw it yesterday as I was teaching a sunday school class, the comments from my people about the scripture begins with, "To me, this verse means...."

Often i have to emphasize with my flock, as well as with myself, that it largely doesn't matter what the scripture means to me, it matters what the scripture says.

Good conversation. Thanks for the thoughts.

Malcolm said...

Forgot to put my name in above.

Peter Bogert said...

That's ok Malcolm. I could tell it was you behind the dark glasses (grin).

Bumble said...

Thank you, Peter, for pursuing this topic some more.

But before I go on, I need to qualify my position that I am wholeheartedly agree with your statement of as preacher, we need to preach what the text mean, and not what we think what the text mean.

But I want to expound some more that it's not easy to know what the author's intention for the text. I often study between 20-30 hours for a typical Sunday's sermon. And I mean I studied: going through the text, combing through various nuances of the original languages, comparing the various readings from the extant manuscripts, reading all I can on the historical backgrounds, how that passage was interpreted through out the history of the church, etc.

And the minute that you engage in serious study of the text, you realize right away that it's not easy to determine the meaning of the text because that result depends greatly on our understanding of the textual evidence in its historical context, and both items in themselves could be interpreted very differently. (My homiletic professor once said that my problem was that I studied too much. And may be that's why it's harder for me to deal with this issue).

But back to the point of wrestling to find the author's meaning of the text. With the myriad of variants we are presented with in the course of studies, eventually we have to trust that God is leading us to discern rightly in our preparation, and so when we preach of "This is what the text means", what we really mean is: "This is what I think the text means, according to the leading of God's Spirit, after consulting the community of God's people, who are also committed to the authority of God's Word."

As our understanding of God's Word changed over time, our conclusion of "What's the author intention" will also change over time. Otherwise, preaching will become static. Granted the major themes of Scripture will be solidified over time, like the Redemption of the Lord Jesus, but many of the minor issues will be working out as the people of God wrestled to answer the questions of "What did the text means in its context?" and "What does it mean to us now?" (Like the church had worked through the theology of slavery a few hundred years, now it's no longer an issue to our theology now).

Perhaps, it's time for some clarification as well. I would suggest that the sermon must not only answer the question of "What did the text mean?" (The author's original intention to the original readers, to the best of our study, and to the maximum of discernment as allowed by God). The sermon must also answer the question of "What does it mean to me?" (Not in term of individualistic thinking of "getting something personal" out of it, but in term of what the Scripture's demand of my practical life)

Honestly, I don't think that we are differing in our opinions at all; I think I was just clarifying the nuances of your general big statement: Expository preaching must preach what the text intended to do! To that, I said "Amen!" and offered a brief prayer, "And help us Lord, to discern what the text intended to do!"

Peter Bogert said...


I think we do agree in the main. And please be assured that you were not a target in the post. It was kind of a natural followup.

I wholeheartedly agree that we need to move beyond the meaning of the text to its application. But, as I am sure you would agree, even that is governed by what the text says.

Have a great night! My Phillies are on their way to Oakland in a few nights - have your California team treat them nice, ok?

Bumble said...

Not at all, Peter, I don't feel that I was targeted; nor do I mean to be argumentative at all. I just carry the exegetical habits into life a bit too much. Which bring me to another question (perhaps you can address in your next post): What tools are there for us preachers to be able to exegetes our hearers better? Without that, we can't bridge the text to life effectively.

I myself, read blogs of people in my congregation on a daily basis, created a web forum where people can "shoot the breeze" and discuss all sort of stuff, including faith. And I tried really hard to present myself as "one of you guys, who are also traveling on this journey of faith..." And even so, I feel that I am still at a lost of knowing where most people are in their faith development...

How do you know where your congregation is at? (Not just individual that you know, but the collective.)

Bumble said...

I am still digesting your post and have another question for you. If we need to preach rightly (or expositionally) in order to "model how to read the Bible to our people", wouldn't that actually *discourage* people from studying the Bible?

After all, they would reason that, "I don't have the time, I don't have the trainings, I don't have the tools to understand the original intention of the authors like these marvelous preachers - so I should leave the studying the Scripture in the hands of the 'professionals'."

Would that also be equally bad?

(Sorry, but I really like to learn more about preaching matters...)

KP said...

Peter, thanks for making excellent points that can't be sounded too frequently or too emphatically. Whenever someone preaches there is explicit teaching (i.e., the content of the passage) and implicit teaching (i.e., a method for arriving at the meaning of the text).

The tendency to divorce a text from its context and thus from the author's intent is exactly why I have such a low tolerance for verse-a-day devotionals and those little Bible promise books.

A great popular-level book to help people in the pew understand the dynamics of language in general and how that applies to biblical interpretation is The Language of God: A Commonsense Approach to Understanding and Applying the Bible by Ron Julian, Jack, and David Crabtree.

Thanks again for addressing this issue, Peter.

Malcolm said...


I think that your question is an excellent one. I would offer this in response.

Through expositional preaching, if anythign else we are teaching a good hermanutic. Consistently asking the questions of the text, regardless of what passage we are studying, what did this mean to the original recipients, what was the author intending to say to them, how does it relate to our context today, how does it apply to my life, etc. is a model for any bible student to follow.

I fail to see how teaching our people to ask these kinds of questions would discourage them from wanting to read the Bible. I find that in going over this kind of rubric week after week our people are enabled to understnad the scripture much more clearly in their devotional life.

The underlying issue, and perhaps what you may also be asking implicitly, seems to me to be this: are our people simply too disengaged with wanting to be committed disciples of Christ and serious bible students to care about engaging the scripture? I find this attitude to be far more prevelant within the church than one that looks at a preacher and says I can't do that so I won't read the bible anymore. Heck, I could hope the weeks that I have the privledge of preaching I would be bombarded by questions, thoughts, and challenges to what has been said.

Sadly, I think I could stand in the pulpit many times and proclaim simple heresy and still get a "Good sermon, pastor" from the majority of folks.

I desire deeply that my people, and frankly I too often need to place myself here, would take a commitment to "hiding the word in [our] hearts that we might not sin against You" much more seriously than we do.

Tools for study are rarely the reason one does not engage in the scripture. that may be what is said, but frankly, with a little probing it's nothing but smoke. There are so many non-technical resources for people to use in the market that are solid, easy to understand, and provide excellent avenues for learning to study the scripture.

Laziness is, I find, the perferred spiritual lifestyle keeping people from The Word, rather than a lack of exegetical skill.

Ok.. I'm coming off the soapbox.

Thanks for the thoughts Bumble, this has been an intriguing conversation.

Peter Bogert said...

Thanks KP. And Bumble: I would agree with what Malcolm said. I'm going to post on this.

John Schroeder said...

Great Post Peter! I passed it on with some comments here

Peter Bogert said...

Thanks, John. I appreciated your post! Thanks for the quote!

papa said...

I think i once heard charles swindoll say something like "expounding the scriptures is like polishing a tarnished brass railing. The lazy man buffs a few times until he thinks it looks ok. But the approved workman polishes the brass until its true brilliance shines through. A lazy preacher finds a passage and preaches on a truth that it seems to support. But the approved workman meditates and studies a passage until its true, intended meaning shines forth, and that is what he teaches.