Four Ways To Exegete Your Text: Following Jonathan Edwards’ Practices

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A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Douglas A. Sweeney’s, Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (Oxford).

One of the take aways from this book for those of us who preach or teach the Bible is the four different ways Edwards regularly approached studying the Bible. The four ways are Canonical, Christological, Redemptive-Historical, and Pedagogical exegesis. Think of them as supplements you take to boost your daily nutrient intake. Do you take any or any combination of them each week during sermon preparation?

These four approaches supplement what we normally think of as exegesis: historical-grammatical-literary. Edwards helps us remember why we need to move beyond the realms of word, historical, and literary studies. Here’s what we gain and how our congregation profits from the results of the following four exegetical practices:

Canonical Exegesis: This shows how your preaching portion fits with other Scriptures. Look for times when other Scripture provide vital additional information for the interpretation of your preaching portion.  Your congregants will appreciate seeing how God’s revelation works together to create meaning.I don’t recommend the common practice of showing listeners other Scripture that say the same thing as your preaching portion.

Christological Exegesis: This shows how your preaching portion functions for the Church because of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and dispatching His Spirit on those who believe. Your listeners will appreciate learning how all Scripture points to the grace of God in Christ. This will keep all sanctification efforts faith-based and help avoid the dreaded moralistic, self-help sermon application. And remember that when you remind the saints about the Gospel, any non-Christians in attendance get to hear the Good News too.

Redemptive-Historical Exegesis: This shows how your preaching portion is part of the meta-narrative flowing throughout Scripture. Your parishioners will profit from the times when you locate your passage in the Story of Redemption (creation, un-creation, recreation, new creation). They will begin to appreciate that salvation is something much larger than the personal, saved-to-go-to-heaven variety.
Pedagogical Exegesis: showing how Scripture guides faith and the Christian life; here we gain precepts for living life as a Christian. One of the great quotes from the book came from this section. It reminded me of my primary responsibility as a soul-watcher. Sweeney writes of Edwards:
“At the end of the day, however, he was a clergyman and teacher paid to unpack the text in a pedagogical way, with the formation of disciples at the forefront of his mind.” (p. 188)

Before Sunday I hope you will supplement your normal exegesis with one or more of these four approaches, all for God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Some Challenges of Using the Big Idea Method for Preaching

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This is the second of two posts devoted to encouraging readers to consider making the big idea hermeneutic/homiletic a part of their weekly study routine. The contents of the post come from the paper Jeff Arthurs (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary preaching prof) and I presented A couple of weeks ago at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Homiletics society held in Fort Worth, TX.

The paper was titled: The Rewards and Challenges of Teaching Robinson’s Big Idea Method.

Last week I wrote about the rewards; this week I’ll list some challenges. And, yes, the difficulties are well worth the effort.

  • It takes some time to learn and to be able to use the genre clues that lead to the subject of preaching portions. This starting point does not always comes easily. Would-be big ideas are coiled, ready to spring out like a Jack-in-the-Box. It takes discipline to let the Text dictate dominant meaning.
  • Not all brains are wired for this. Over the years we’ve discovered that some students learn this method very quickly while others struggle. It’s not because of intellect or training. Some simply don’t think in ways that lend themselves to this kind of analysis.
  • You will need to continue to work on your exegesis skills. The big idea method is hard work because it is the result of rigorous exegesis of ideas (how phrases and clauses form meaning), not fragments (e.g., word studies). We’re better at micro-exegesis than we are at macro-exegesis. We find there’s still a gap between hermeneutics classes and homiletics classes.
  • Prepare yourself for repetition. If you’re preaching through large portions of the Old Testament, you will encounter many preaching portions contain similar big ideas. That is true in the Joseph narrative in Genesis. You will find the same in Psalms and Proverbs. Resist the urge to find new ideas in every section. Only by doing your big idea analysis early on in your study can you map out a sermon series that takes into account such repetition/restatement.

But these challenges are well worth it. So I hope you will consider making the big idea method the focus of your Monday morning hours and add to God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Why You Should Consider Using the Big Idea Method to Guide the First Hours of Each Week’s Study Time

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Michele and I just returned from attending the annual Evangelical Homiletics Society conference held on the beautiful facilities of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX. I had the privilege of co-authoring and presenting a paper with my Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary teaching colleague, Dr. Jeffrey D. Arthurs.  The paper was titled, The Rewards and Challenges of Teaching Robinson’s Big Idea Method.

Shameless promotion alert: our presentation won the Keith Willhite Award for best paper of the conference.

Here’s a summary of our work. I’m including this because I hope you will consider making the big idea method a part of your weekly sermon preparation. The summary might help move you in that direction if you aren’t already a disciple.

Rewards…

  • Pre-exegesis. The method helps guide my study time at the beginning of every week. I don’t start with micro-exegesis (word studies), but with macro-exegesis or pre-exegesis (learning how meaning is being made through the relationship of ideas within the preaching portion).
  • Discovering the interrelationship between ideas. The method excels at identifying how various sized ideas create meaning in a pericope. Not to mention, this is the time to locate dominant and subordinate thoughts in the passage.
  • Preserves Authorial Intention. This method helps me learn what the writer of Scripture meant and keeps me from reading into or over what he has written. If you preach or teach the Bible then you use some method. I really like this one.
  • Sermon Structure. While you are doing your pre-exegesis according to this fashion, you are beginning to see the author’s structure emerge. The process of finding the big idea leads to the identification of the main points or logical moves of the author and this leads to initial sermon form.
  • Big Idea By-Products. If your analysis is correct within the first few hours of study, you have gained significant sermon by-products. You have your theme or big idea. That means you have direction for both your introduction and conclusions. You also have a sense of what the sermon is supposed to do to the listeners (sermonic purpose).
  • Aids Listener Comprehension and Retention. As your sermon stays locked into the big idea, sermon unity and clarity will help listeners  understand and remember the sermon.

That’s the rewards you can expect if you try the method. If you’re not sure how to put this method into practice, please read or reread my book, Preaching With Accuracy: Finding Christ-Centered Big Ideas for Biblical Preaching (Kregel, 2014).

Preach well so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

P.S. Next time I’ll list some of the challenges that go along with the method.

Preaching the Two Kinds of Stubbornness in Judges

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First, let me say that preaching through Judges has been one of the toughest series I’ve attempted. It has also been very rewarding for our faith-family and for me.

As I am preaching through the book of Judges, I am noticing two kinds of stubbornness. This becomes evident when you enter the Book of Deliverers (chapters 3-16). In this section God teaches us through a series of narratives involving His people’s stubborn rebellion into idolatry and His own stubborn refusal to leave them in their rebellion.

I recommend taking the first four stories of God raising up deliverers for His people as one preaching unit (vv. 3:7–4:24). In those narratives, you can:

  1. Highlight our tendency to worship idols. You may be familiar with Keller’s explanation of idolatry: “What, if you lost it, would make life not worth living….What makes us uncontrollably angry, anxious or despondent?” Someone said that our hearts are an idol factory. I prefer to think in terms of our hearts being a worship factory. We have an insatiable desire for false gods. Consider spending time explaining the connection between the sins we consistently struggle with and an idol or idols. Often, a sermon in Judges contains a first move focused on our evil idolatry, followed by God’s anger, followed by, His grace that saves.
  2. Highlight God’s stubborn, repeated rescue attempts. Throughout the Judges, God’s grace is shown through His…
  • tremendous patience with us
  • use of raw power to defeat temptation and sin (He delivers!)
  • ability to honor weak faith (like Barak’s)
  • ability to save us in a morally messy world where there are not always good options (there’s no WWJD approaches in some of these horrible scenes!)
  • provision of spiritual rest when temptation is defeated.

And, God can does all that for Believers because He disciplined His Son and broke Satan’s power. As someone said, unlike the Judges, Jesus has the ability to rip the idols out of our hearts.

Preach well so He receives the glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

“Some scholars believe…”: Harmless-Sounding Sermon Segments

Sunda Slow Loris (Nycticebus coucang), Gunung Leuser National Park, Northern Sumatra, Indonesia

Sunda Slow Loris (Nycticebus coucang), Gunung Leuser National Park, Northern Sumatra, Indonesia

Two Sundays ago, I preached on Hebrews 9:22-28. Verse 28 reads, “so Christ…will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” Before that, I preached through the book of Daniel and encountered phrases like, “it would be for a time, times, and half a time” (12:7) or, “Blessed is he who waits and arrives at the 1,335 days” (12:12).

No, I’m not a sucker for punishment. I just happened to be in a series that forces me to explain and apply some very difficult Scripture.

But that makes me susceptible to saying things like: “Some scholars believe that before Jesus appears the second time on earth, He will…” Or, “Many believe that what the angel was saying is…” Or, “Others believe that the 1,335 days mean…”

At first these kinds of phrases might appear harmless. I means, let’s face it, what harm can it do to give congregants exegetical or interpretive options? The more I’ve thought about this habit of mine, the more I’ve come to think that those minutes are not as harmless as they look. Those minutes…

  • take me away from my primary task of announcing truth and urging faith and a worshipful response.
  • eat up precious time that I usually wish I had as the sermon comes to a close.
  • muddy the waters and distract listeners from their worship-response.

Before Sunday, examine your notes and see if such harmless-looking minutes exist. Decide whether those minutes help you complete your responsibilities to watch over souls.

And, for the sake of God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21), preach a good sermon, will ya.

Randal

How Much Speculation Is In Your Exposition?

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Shortly after graduating from Dallas Theological Seminary, I preached a sermon in chapel at Appalachian Bible College. I was working at the time for, what used to be called, Washington Bible College/Capital Bible Seminary. I don’t remember the sermon, but vividly remember the late, beloved preaching professor of ABC, Dr. Paul Reiter, giving feedback.

He kindly urged me to get rid of phrases like, “I think…” or “I believe…” His reasoning was that these phrases took away from the authority of Scripture and from my responsibility as a preacher. I took his critique to heart.

Through over 20 years of preaching each Sunday, teaching preaching students, and listening to hundreds of sermons, I’ve come realize we preachers have a strong tendency to pepper our exposition with speculation. Instead of breaking news, we announce breaking speculation.
The fact that it happens frequently says something about the Bible and something about our understanding of preaching.
First, the habit highlights the need to carefully understand the doctrine known as the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture. I believe in that doctrine, but also believe it downplays the difficulty of Scripture. It is the difficulty of Scripture that causes us to frequently announce breaking speculations in the form of, “Well, I think Paul is saying this…” or “Scholars believe that Paul is…”
In his commentary on 2 Corinthians, Harris writes, “Although Paul has not identified the ‘thorn,’ commentators have not been slow to attempt the impossible.”
And I am far too guilty of wasting valuable sermon time announcing breaking speculation. Never have I been so aware of this as while recently preaching through the book of Daniel. Imagine what our exposition of Daniel would sound like if we stuck with exposition sans speculation!
This habit also says a lot about our understanding of preaching. God didn’t authorize me to announce speculation, but His revelation. Dr. Reiter was right when he told me to preach, “This is what the Lord says, not what you think.”
Before Sunday, look over your exposition and see how much speculation is in it. Ask God to help you balance good scholarship with faithful preaching so He receives glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).
In emails or Facebook posts to my preacher friends, I’ll often end my note with the playful challenge, “Preach a good sermon, will ya?!” I consider you one of them, so…
Preach a good sermon, will ya?!
Randal

When God Repeats Himself: Discovering the Meaning of Luke’s Record of Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus

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Often, repetition is a key to the meaning of Gospel narratives. Meaning the main idea of my sermon needs to match the meaning conveyed through repetition. That’s important to remember in long narratives like Luke 24 where Jesus approaches two men who were walking toward Emmaus.

Among so many promising ideas, is the repeated idea of recognizing or not recognizing Jesus.

V. 16 “But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”

V. 31 “And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”

V. 35 “…and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

So, the sermon centers on this idea of being able to see Jesus. There was a reason why they couldn’t see Him. They didn’t believe in His resurrection from the dead. More importantly for us is why we can’t see Him at times. We live in a time when we follow Jesus without seeing Him. That means we have to believe in Him as recorded in Scripture. We know we’re on track because Jesus “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (v. 27).

Read to see Jesus; read to believe in Jesus.

Also important for us is noting that they finally did see Jesus during a Communion service. God opened their eyes while they were eating with Him. Every Sunday, the Word and the Lord’s Table (if you’re fortunate enough to celebrate it each Sunday) provide opportunities to see Jesus.

Whatever else you feel you need to say about these scenes, the repetition guides our exposition.

Before Sunday, see if there are repeated concepts in your preaching portion that are significant enough to yield dominant meaning. In the case of narratives, significant repetition is repetition that is connected to the storyline.

Preach well for the sake of His reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Surprising Help from a Critical and Historical Commentary!

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It is not often that a critical and historical commentary delivers consistent help to preachers beyond technical, exegetical fragments. That’s why I was surprised to see the Daniel commentary in the Hermeneia Series contain a segment called, Structure and Unity.

As Collins goes through each large segment in Daniel’s gospel, along with the brilliant technical stuff, he includes a brief treatment of the segment’s structure and unity:

Major points are listed (I, II, III, etc.)

Verse parameters (I. 3:1-7, for instance)

Summary statement (I. 3:1-7. Introduction)

Summary of the section (two or three sentences describing the content of the section)

For the past few years, I’ve been assigning a similar assignment to my students. I call it, Major Thought Blocks. I believe it to be the most important aspect of developing genuine expository sermons. It’s the first phase of my own study every Monday morning. Here’s why…

Theology is conveyed through the structure of your preaching portion. Unity of thought is also conveyed through the structure. Disregard or break from the structure and, chances are good (within the realm of the sovereignty of God, of course!), that you will stray from the theology and unity of the preaching portion.

So, I add only one more thing to the list above. Along with major points, verse parameters, summary statement, and summary of the section’s content, add logical transitions between the major points. That allows you to track the Author’s/author’s flow of thought. It’s that flow that communicates the theology (whether narrative or epistle).

Before Sunday, see if you have identified these components in your preaching portion. See if your sermon idea matches what is being communicated. If your sermon’s structure and unity is different from the preaching portion’s, check to see how different your message is from the message of the Text.

Preach well for God’s reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Why Your Imagination Should Supplement Your Exegesis

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Einstein said, “Imagination is the highest form of research.” A bit of an overstatement, I guess. But if you do a google search on the word, imagination,  you’ll quickly see how important imagination is to our world.

But our question is, Is imagination important to our sermons and communicating God’s Word? As you can see from the title of this blog, my answer is a resounding, “Yes.” Let me give you an example.

In Luke 22:39-62 Jesus tells His disciples, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” (v. 40).

Our exegesis might delve into the meaning of prayer. You might say something like: “Prayer is asking God for something you desperately need, but can’t get for yourself.” Exegesis might also explain the way prayer protects the Believer from temptation.

Enter imagination.

“Imagine all the temptations you did not face because you prayed to God.”

Or…

“Imagine how the details of your day changed because you prayed to God for protection.” (the assumption, of course, is that God might not only protect you through temptation, but also cause circumstances to occur in such a way that you avoid a temptation)

Now, let me ask you, what does this exercise in imagination do for our listeners? What does imagination do that exegesis doesn’t do? In this case, imagination moves me to wonder and praise and thanksgiving. Watch the expression on your congregants’ faces when you include imagination. The exegetical facts don’t do that. They’re necessary, but not enough.

Before Sunday, see if there is a place where you can let your imagination take the sermon places where exegesis can’t. Imagine that your imaginative exegesis moves them to worship.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

You Need To Read: Reading Backwards

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I’m always looking for books that help me preach Christ while maintaining the integrity of the meaning of the preaching portion. I’m also always looking for books that help me understand how the New Testament human authors reread the Old Testament and how their rereading affects the meaning of the Old Testament.

Richard Hays’ book, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness, helped me do both (Hays did not intend for his book to do the latter).

You’ll enjoy and profit from the book if you do much preaching in the Gospels. Hays does a superb job showing how the four Evangelists used the Old Testament Scriptures to show the divinity of Jesus. And his commentary various passages in all four Gospels is extremely insightful.

For instance, there is much talk today about Jesus being the kinder, gentler God who is much more palatable to post-moderns. Hays writes, “The OT focuses our understanding of Jesus’ role as an eschatological prophet of God’s judgment. The sweet, infinitely inclusive Jesus meek and mild, so beloved by modern Protestantism, is a Jesus cut loose from his OT roots” (p. 12). So, while a particular Gospel scene might show Jesus being kind to sinners like the woman “caught” in adultery, that doesn’t mean that’s the only reaction He has to sinners, especially in the eschaton.

Anyway, I highly recommend the book. If you are as serious as I am about hermeneutics and homiletics, this is a good read. And, as I said at the beginning of the post, an important, probably unbeknownst-to-Hays benefit of the book is how his analysis leads to fresh insights about how to interpret the OT Christologically.

Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness

Preach well for the sake of His reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal