Thursday, March 06, 2014

Perspectives VI: Failing the Task of the Preacher

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such
we will incur a stricter judgment. (James 3:1, NASB)

  Something has been troubling me for years. The state of preaching the Word of God today often leaves me in a state of melancholy. I have spent countless hours wrestling with my own thoughts about this particular issue. Having listened to various preachers-in three different countries-try to teach the Bible has left me wondering where this whole enterprise went wrong. The task of the preacher is twofold: 1) to correctly interpret the text of Scripture; and 2) to apply the text in a way that is relevant to the audience and is borne out of the correct interpretation of the text. The task of preaching is usually failed by either being too focused on interpretation, thus being more like a Bible study or lecture, or by being too focused on application.

  I often hear sermons that overly focus on application to the point where I'm left wondering what the Scripture is actually saying. This often occurs when a preacher tries to draw out a point by moving between several different passages. This approach doesn't allow the hearer to adequately evaluate whether or not the preacher is being faithful to the texts that he is referencing. These kinds of messages are very difficult to do successfully, yet it seems to be the more popular among the preachers that I have been sitting under for the last decade and a half. The biggest problem I have with this approach is that the sermon often ends up being no more than simply the conviction of the preacher (biblically-based or not) loosely supported by phrases in the Bible that appear to back the preacher's conviction. Not only is this a failure in the task of preaching, but it is inadvertent deception! The preacher is delivering to those in the audience a wrong interpretation of what certain texts of Scripture mean. This deception is not necessarily easy to spot, either, as many times the preacher will be making a legitimate theological point taught elsewhere in the Bible and import it into the text he is referencing.

  Even when a preacher is trying to stick to the text, more or less, there is a tendency for him to be overly assertive of his own knowledge of the text. This occurs frequently by preachers who attempt to preach without having knowledge of the original languages. Knowing the warning given to teachers in the book of James, it would be wise for those who take on the role of teaching to think very carefully about what they say. The confident ignorance of the preacher has discouraged and disillusioned many of God's children. Even when the error of the preacher isn't a grievous misinterpretation encouraging legalism, licentiousness, or heretical viewpoints, it still has an effect on the hearer. There are many who have picked up small misinterpretations over the years, subsequently prohibiting them from being able to read their Bible with a correct understanding.

  Two examples of this occurred during a sermon I heard somewhat recently. The preacher pointed to a phrase in his text (i.e. the translation he was reading from) which refers to God as the high and lofty one. He then waxed eloquent on how the text says the 'high and lofty one'. "It doesn't say ten, it doesn't say ten thousand, it says one!" The problem is that the text doesn't actually say one. It is actually just a substantive adjective and the word one is supplied in our English translations. His whole point is based on something that doesn't occur in the text! Now it is true theologically that God is the only transcendent Being and that He is one. But this doctrine does not come from this particular text! The other example occurred in the same sermon where the preacher pointed out that the word translated king in our text, actually means idol in the Hebrew. I was astonished, since I had the Hebrew text in front of me and it was clearly the word king! I tried to find out if there was a textual variant that could explain his interpretation, but there was none. This was an error made by the preacher which served as a foundation for subsequent point.1  So whatever point he was making was actually based on an erroneous statement. But those in the audience with no knowledge of the Hebrew would not be able to pick up the error.

  These errors may seem slight, but the aggregate of all these slight errors has, if not directly resulted in, at least encouraged a watering down of theological understanding within the Evangelical community. The point is this: if you don't know Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, then don't talk as if you do!!! Work hard to understand the text, but don't overly assert your knowledge of the text if you haven't adequately worked at the text. This entry is not meant to be a discouragement to those who don't have extensive biblical/theological training, but a plea that those who take it upon themselves to teach exercise humility in their delivery of their interpretation of the bible.

  What began as an observation about the state of preaching ended as a plea for humility. Those who teach have taken upon themselves a noble and solemn task. Be aware that what we say from the pulpit has an effect on those who are listening–that's why we do this! Knowing that what we say has an effect, we ought to keep two things in mind: 1) preaching our own thoughts and hanging them on a text here and there is an egregious misuse of the bible; and 2) be humble and honest with what we do and don't know.

1 It is possible that the vowel pointing of the word could read Molech. The hebrew word for king is מֶלֶךְ melek, but since the vowels were added later it is theoretically possible that the word could have been מֹלֶךְ molek. There doesn't appear to be any reason to doubt the pointing, and a good argument would need to be made in order to support this change. None was given in the sermon, it was just asserted matter-of-factly that this word is idol.

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