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A Preacher's Temptation: Forgetting or Neglecting Basic Hermeneutical Practices

10 questions that should be in your mind when your Bible is open before your eyes.
A Preacher's Temptation: Forgetting or Neglecting Basic Hermeneutical Practices
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As a pastor, every week I'm tempted to cheat. I'm tempted to disregard either the Bible or the principles of rightly interpreting God's Word. Or both. I'm tempted, as all pastors are, to bypass the Bible and biblical exegesis in an effort to wow the congregation with anything and everything but the Bible.

In this series of four articles, I want to challenge you to prepare sermons based on the conviction that no sermon is God-glorifying if it ignores or mishandles God's Word. I will do so by briefly walking us through four temptations we preachers face on a weekly basis. For each temptation, I will offer a truth that we can use to uphold us when enticed to leave aside or compromise our fundamental convictions and practices of sound Bible preaching. I will conclude with a summary word from that rightfully famous preacher's text, 2 Timothy 2:15.

No sermon is God-glorifying if it ignores or mishandles God's Word.
In the first article in this series, we saw that our first temptation is to preach something other than the Bible as the source and essential substance of our sermon. The conviction to ward off this temptation is that when the Bible is preached God's voice is heard.
In the second article, we saw that our second temptation is sermon-prep procrastination. The corrective measure is learning the discipline of Spirit-filled sitzfleisch, the ability to stay glued to a chair until the task at hand is complete.

The Third Temptation

Our third temptation is to forget or neglect basic hermeneutical principles. You may not be able to spell hermeneutics (I misspell it every other time I type it), but you better know basic hermeneutics.[1] To make the point more pointedly I will simply list ten regular hermeneutical/homiletical questions that should be in your mind when your Bible is open before your eyes. These are all based on the theological assumptions that the Bible is a divinely inspired, accommodated to humans, and progressively-written revelation.

  1. Did you take at least half a day to make your own observations on the text?
  2. Did you find the skeletal structure of the text?
  3. Did you seek to understand how the original audience understood God's Word to them before you applied it to your hearers?
  4. Did you interpret Scripture with Scripture ("the analogy of faith"), the unclear by the clear, and the implicit by the explicit?
  5. Did you examine the text's context—its immediate context, the book's context, historical context (when and by whom it was written, if known), and literary context (genre)?
  6. Did you examine the text in light of the main message of the book?[2]
  7. Did you examine the text in light of the main message of the Book? That is, did you relate the text to the centerpiece of the canon—the person and work of Christ?
  8. Did you, without straying from historical Christian orthodoxy ("the rule of faith"), allow the text to shape and change, if needed, your theological framework?
  9. Did you read solid commentaries to help with difficult issues, correct your interpretation, and add exegetical insights?[3]
  10. Did your applications come from what is explicitly or implicitly found in the text, or did you add your own legalisms or liberalisms to the Bible?

If I were to add an eleventh question, it would be related to the first: Did you take at least the other half of the day to make more observations on the text? I emphasize the art of observation, and I'll end here with its emphasis, because I believe that good preaching is derived from pleasurable yet painstaking examination of God's Word. What the prominent New Testament scholar Adolf Schlatter said of the science of scholarship—that it is "first observation, second observation, third observation,"[4] I say of preaching. Sit. Read. Sit. Pray. Sit. Think. Sit. Write. Sit. Edit. Sit. Kneel. Sit. Stand. Preach.

In part four of this series, we look at the fourth temptation we must overcome if we are to pass the preacher's test: to cower under cultural pressures.

1 for further study on hermeneutics, my favorite book on the subject is Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton, Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Interpreting and Applying the Bible, 2nd ed. (P&R, 2002). Cf. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003) and Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010).

2 See Dick Lucas's article, "Preaching the Melodic Line" [in this book].

3 What Murray J. Harris said of recent commentaries on the Gospel of John ("what an embarrassment of riches we now have!"), is true of many books of the Bible (see his book review of J. Ramsey Michaels, The Gospel of John, NICNT, in Themelios 36:1 [April 2011]: 102-103).

4 As noted and translated by John Piper, in John Piper and D. A. Carson, The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 28.

Douglas Sean O'Donnell is the Senior Pastor at the New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois and the author of God's Lyrics.

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