The Big Idea: Let's Get Back to the Text
This chapter is from the preaching guide:
Staying True to the Text
The Big Idea: Let's Get Back to the Text
Before you rush to application, get the A(a)uthor's meaning of the text right.
PreachingToday.com: As you think about your life as a preacher and a professor of homiletics, what are you passionate about these days?
Dr. Jeff Arthurs: First and foremost, I'm passionate about preaching the biblical text, about preaching sermons that are tied closely to a specific Bible passage. Of course most sermons are based on a biblical theme, but they often don't go far enough into the specific authorial intent. So preachers are preaching from the Bible but it's not really exactly what the author—both the little a author and the big A Author—really intended for that passage.
Can you give a specific example of what you mean?
I'll start with an example from my own preaching. I was preaching from the story of the friends who lowered the paralyzed man through the roof to get him to Jesus. When I was planning the sermon series and chose that particular text, I intended to preach on lifestyle evangelism. So I was prepared to list some principles of friendship evangelism: Be a good friend, bring your friends to Jesus, persevere in your efforts to evangelize your friends, etc. Of course you can probably find some of those principles in that text, but that's not why that passage is in the Bible.
The story of the friends of the paralytic man is in the Bible because it's part of an argument for the Deity of Christ. It was originally written as part of a series of five controversy stories that start in Mark 1. Jesus is gradually unfolding his true identity, and the religious leaders are getting mad. Finally, in this scene Jesus claims that he has the power to forgive sins, a power which the Pharisees knew belonged to God alone. So the main idea in the text is that Jesus is the Christ. It's all about the Deity of Christ.
Now, a warranted implication of that truth may be to bring your friends to Christ. He's the Son of God. He's the Savior. He knows everything. He loves sinners. So bring your friends to Jesus. But the primary purpose of that passage focuses on declaring the identity, the person, the Deity of Christ.
That serves as an example of what I mean by pastors who say they are preaching from the Bible, but they're actually reading their own conclusions into the Bible. They bring out of the text what they have already predetermined is in the text. Unfortunately, I would say that that type of approach to Scripture constitutes quite a bit of evangelical preaching in the West.
Why do you think we keep doing that? Is it easier? Or are preachers just trying to be helpful by making Scripture applicable?
Both—it's easier and we're trying to be helpful. The preacher's instinct is always What am I going to say? Sunday's coming. I have to say something. We need to develop sermons efficiently, so we opt for a method of exegesis which is shallow, avoiding meditation and rigorous exegesis. Furthermore, we not only face the pressure of "I've got to say something," but we also feel, I want to say something good. I want to say something helpful. These are my people. I love them. So I want to apply in a way that helps them. That's the preacher's instinct. But unfortunately we jump too quickly from the text to application and we don't sit long enough with exegesis and theology.
Let me give you another example from your site, PreachingToday.com.
Oh, no. Okay, let us have it. It's your time.
It was a Christmas sermon—well, a Christmas text anyway—about how Joseph was going to put Mary away privately. And the preacher was focusing on marriage—principles for marriage, how to navigate the tough times of marriage, etc. So based on Matthew 1, he came up with three principles for marriage: Admit it when things are looking bad. Remember that when things go bad to worse we still have options. Difficult circumstances become the very thing God uses to make a new beginning.
Oh man, we can do better than that! Those principles are a real stretch from the Holy Spirit coming upon Mary and the angel announcing, "Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife." But that pastor really wanted to preach on marriage, so he found a biblical text about a married couple (or an almost-married couple) who were experiencing a tough time. Unfortunately, that pastor was searching for relevant principles on marriage but he wasn't trying to find the Author's or the author's intent for Matthew 1:18-25.
Now that preacher's instinct may have been good, but we need to be reined in by careful exegesis and more grounded in sound theology.
It sounds like you're advocating the approach from one of our heroes at PreachingToday.com—Haddon Robinson.
Yes, that's what I'm referring to. In Haddon Robinson's terms, most preachers can identify the subject of the passage—faith or some big theme like that—but then they don't go far enough. They don't answer the question in the text about the subject. For instance, they don't ask, What is the author saying about faith? The author might be saying "Faith is the counterpart of works," or "Faith is the gift of the Holy Spirit given to those who repent," or "Faith is necessary to please God." You see, those are three very different ideas about faith. But the preacher has to identify and then zero in on whatever the A(a)uthor is saying about the subject.
Okay, now for our second question: What concerns do you have about contemporary preaching? Where do we need to grow as preachers?
As I survey the preaching landscape, I have concerns about plagiarism. As you know, we live in an electronic world, and it's very easy to just take someone else's sermon—lock, stock, and barrel. I'm concerned that some preachers are shortchanging the marinating time required for a good sermon. And of course most of us have heard the quote from Phillips Brooks who said, "Preaching is truth through personality." But when someone plagiarizes the sermon isn't coming through his or her experience and thoughts. I understand we're busy and it's easy to find good sermons online, but our sermon prep shouldn't be driven only by pragmatic factors.
Obviously, I don't have a hard and fast policy on this, especially since I have sermons online. But we need some guidelines, like a one-page list of rules, for how to navigate this issue.
Well, now that you mentioned it, we do have a list of reasons for why we put sermon manuscripts on our site. Here's a condensed version:
1. To serve as models for outstanding preaching.
2. To feed the preacher's own soul.
3. To inspire creative thinking of your own, like how to preach on that passage.
4. To serve as preacher's commentary by providing sound theological, biblical interpretation and sermon application.
Those reasons sound good to me. What do they translate into in terms of policy? Do you put a disclaimer on the website: You may not re-preach this?
No, we don't provide any ethical guidance on those guidelines—although we do have some very good skills articles that address plagiarism in the pulpit.
Of course it's one thing to say something like, "For my outline this morning I'm indebted to Tim Keller," and it's quite another to use someone else's entire sermon and pretend it's yours. The plagiarism issue isn't going to go away in this electronic culture. So we need to have some clear, simple guidelines. I also think that whatever we decide, we should probably draw the line tighter and harder than we've been drawing the line in the past.