14 March 2008

On Sermons

by Frank Turk

DISCLAIMER: I posted this yesterday at my blog, and I liked it so well, I reposted it here -- because about 2500 of you didn't bother to come see it in the first edition.

I was flitting around today trying to avoid doing work, and I stumbled onto this post by iMonk at BHT about preaching.

Believe it or not, this is not a fisking of iMonk. This is the perspective of a guy who used to be an English major on the art of speaking publicly about some piece of literature.

You know: the degree most reputable universities and colleges give out to English majors is "B.A. (or M.A.) for Literature in English" – because one doesn’t really study grammar or the alphabet for 4 or 6 years in college: one reads way too many books. One reads poems until one either "gets" it or throws up. One reads plays, which is its own special punishment for majoring in literature.

And there's something interesting that happens there which is applicable to the art of preaching: not once in 6 years of studying literature did we do a "word study" for an hour to plunge the depths of meaning in one word over the larger portrait of meaning the author was communicating in his book or play or poem or whatever.

Now, the disjunction between what one does in reading Literature in English and what one does when reading literature in translation (cf. the Bible) is that in the latter case, the reader has to grasp what the translator was doing while at the same time seek out what the original author was doing when the text in question was written. That is: was the translator seeking to be as transparent as possible, or was the translator seeking to do something independent of the original work as well as remain faithful to the work?

For those of you who are really into this geekish analysis, think about Samuel Butler's translation of Homer's Odyssey, which is a prose translation of a poem. Butler's intent was to translate the words as best he could, but in doing that he sacrificed the matters of diction, form, and genre – so we get the story from classical literature well enough, but it's not hardly poetry: it's prose; it lacks the magic of poetic form even if all the words of the original are in tact. On the other hand, about 50 years earlier, Chapman translated Homer as a poem, and as such he took liberty with the words of the original poem in order to convey, in one poetic form/style in order to convey the art and power of the original in a second language. No real story changes were made by Chapman, but you can't line up his poem to Homer's and go line by line and learn the Greek – it would be impossible.

The translator does something to the text when he brings it from the source language to the receiving language, and understanding what he did is important for those who are only reading the receiving language. In that, word studies have a place in preaching. But my contention is that it is a subordinate place to preaching, as they say, "the whole counsel of God".

John MacArthur's excellent book on Bible study, Unleashing God's Word in you Life, makes this point clearly, as does any really good book on Bible study: you have to get the big picture before you try to sort out the details. For example, the book of Jonah is not about a big fish. There is a big fish in Jonah (or, well, Jonah does wind up in a big fish, right?), but this book is about the hardness of Jonah vs. the love of God toward the unrighteous. And if we read Jonah to try to justify the presence of the big fish, or to make the big fish into an allegory of this or that, we miss the actual point that God is willing and able to do things even for the enemies of Israel which we, as men, are not.

You have to read Jonah the first time to see how it comes together; then, you have to read Jonah to see what the parts are in order to better understand how they come together. And it's the same for any book of the Bible.

Listen: preach the word, in season and out of season – but don’t just preach on one word from the word. Preach the Word: preach Christ. Get the whole thing out there. Don't get so engrossed in one word that you miss all the others: that's called missing the forest for the trees.

And for the rest of you who aren't writing sermons today, be in the Lord's house on the Lord's day with the Lord's people this weekend. Jesus isn't stuck between some preposition and its object, even if all Scripture is God-breathed, and "all" means all.


Michael Spencer said...

Outstanding post, Frank.

For several years, I've taught students to begin with the whole Bible, then concentrate on the meaning of a book in order to understand a passage.

You've pointed out the importance of what I call the proper "frame" for seeing the individual parts of the painting in perspective.

It's been easy to teach this using Mark, since the meaning of the book is in 1:1, the book divides into two parts with separate questions at 8:27=31 or so.

It's been especially helpful in seeing things like how Mark's "secret" is a dimension of the focus on the cross in the second half of the book, and we are never meant to see Jesus primarily as a miracle worker.

Also interesting: I think a good education in reading literature is one of the best ways to be a Bible student. Many seminarians learn original languages and word studies, but have no idea what to do with an entire book or larger section.

Thanks for the good word.

Even So... said...

Indeed...It can get to the point where we begin an atomistic break down of every verse, every sentence, every phrase, every word, and we think we have done every service to the text, but we haven’t. All we have done is taken every step to assure us of missing the forest from the trees. We have exposed, not the scope or the depth of the text, but the breadth of our pride.

In sales it is often said we should use the “sizzle not the steak”, but preachers aren’t salesmen, they are shepherds and proclaimers. Sure we are to make the meal appetizing, but we don’t feed them the sizzle, they, and we, must eat the steak.

Of course, surface dwelling of the text can be just as bad, but that discussion is for another time. When you have the basic sense of what the passage teaches, then you have the basic sense of the message. Please, have the basic sense to realize when to stop digging and when to start developing what you have already mined. We are creating a legion of Bible students who may know Greek but they don’t know God.

Unknown said...

I have a cousin who is so educated at seminaries he now knows what the writers intended to say in scripture, which is not what they actually said. He now teaches this “knowledge” to others at seminaries and has for years. Because of this I’m a little suspect of scholarship. The man I’ve most enjoyed studying under thanks to "The Spurgeon Archive" is C.H.S.. I don’t believe he went to seminary. Gene

Chris Roberts said...


Good scholarship is good, bad scholarship is bad. The hard part can be telling one from the other. More than a few of our resources for studying the Bible simply would not exist if not for good scholarship (or even bad scholarship, in some ways! The great Hebrew BDB lexicon comes from very liberal scholars...) So, continue to be cautious and skeptical, but be willing to accept those worth accepting. Thus we will be Berean.

Stefan Ewing said...

Considering that the entire Bible is absolutely centered around Jesus Christ's being the means of reconciling us sinners to a holy and righteous God, would it be reasonable to say that as one reads this or that passage in isolation, one should see how it fits into God's overall redemptive plan?

Since we're on the matter of reading literature (and germane to what I just wrote), the whole Bible seems to be structured like a three-act play. Genesis-Esther sets the narrative stage; Job-Malachi is an in-depth exploration of first act themes and prepares the audience for the third act; and Matthew-Revelation reveals the resolution of all the first- and second-act themes and conflicts.

There's an introduction to the story, then a huge complication precipitating a conflict that unfolds and isn't resolved until the antagonist is finally vanquished at the end of the third act. There is a turning point at the beginning of the third act, which had been foreshadowed right from the initial complication. This turning point is followed by a major apparent setback, which quickly becomes an unexpected triumph.

And there is either one or three protagonists, depending on how you look at it: God in three Persons, or the three Persons of the Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

All of which is to say, that one would analyze any part of a play to see how it fits into the play's overall plot. (Well, good critics or scholars would. Bad scholars would look for hidden clues, reader-determined interpretations, etc.) So why not also with Scripture, where the plot is God's plan of redemption? (And here, too, there are bad scholars looking for hidden clues and reader-determined interpretations!)

Stefan Ewing said...

I guess one can only take my analogy so far, however.

First of all, this drama is not fiction, but living reality.

Secondly, we are not merely transformed by it the way we are by a great play, but we are characters in it, and its Author actually interacts directly with us to transform us as we read it.

Thirdly, a protagonist is supposed to undergo a catharsis: in reality, God is unchanging (amen!), and it is we who undergo the catharsis.

Chris said...

Excellent post Frank!

You have addressed my territory today, as I continue to regret my decision to earn a BA and an MA in English Literature...which has led to teaching college composition (and ocasionally lit) for the past decade in the most liberal department on campus--the bastion of secular humanism. In my opinion, English faculty members--especially at the college level--are perhaps the most opposed to Christ and His church than even the science or philosophy departments; English folks are the most verbal and active in their opposition to Christianity, yet there's always a proud pagan who is more than willing to teach our staple course: The Bible as Literature from a purely humanistic perspective as they worship the word-study, not the Word itself. Ever notice that whenever there is a news headline about a high school teacher, usually a woman, who has an illicit encounter ("relationship") with one of her students, it is almost always an English teacher? Why? Because one of the most celebrated "qualities" preached by my pagan profs throughout my undergraduate and graduate programs was the rebellion, or "fierce individualism" or "antihero" traits found in both fictitous characters and in the authors (along with their miserable lives) who created them. In grad school, there's the gross liberalism embodied in so many of the schools of literary criticism they present as such objective analysis; nothing could be further from the truth, as these schools of pagan thought are rooted in atheism, marxism, feminism, and relativism, particularly "reader response" criticism and deconstruction. In terms of so-called objective language analysis, they count-on the likes of men like Noam Chomsky to manipulate language and capitalize on the notion that the "medium is the message". So, is it any wonder that the chief guru of the ECM has the same two degrees I have? The only difference? He believes and embraces everything he was fed as an English major and English grad student, and has decided to rehash and incorporate all of that nonsense into Christianity whilst making a name for himself in the proverbial smaller pond of authorship (in constrast to the big pond of the pagan world from which it came!)

Stefan Ewing said...
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Stefan Ewing said...


I hear you. I took just enough college English courses to see the spirit of the age as it manifests itself in academia. On the other hand, at a time when I was transitioning between nascent faith in God and agnostic despair (having my weak understanding of God shattered by reading Joseph Campbell and John Shelby Spong), God used my reading and essay writing to nurture in me an appreciation for the deep themes of the human condition and redemption—themes that He would awaken within me many years later, when He deemed the time was right to bring me to Himself.

Through Paradise Lost, the poems of John Donne, and even some of Raymond Carver's short stories with their glimpses of redemption in mundane, hopeless lives—and in contradistinction, the faith-destroying works of Dover Beach and Waiting for Godot—God plotted out a path of hills and valleys for me in my long pilgrimage to "the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God" (Heb 11:9).

Stefan Ewing said...

That last comment was supposed to be more of a testimonial, not a "look at me!" kind of comment. My point is that God can and does use all manner of means to call His lost sheep—even the fallen world of English Lit.

Justin said...

This was a good post, but it was made so much better by the "I am a scholar!" graphics.

Chris said...

Of course, the works of guys like Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and a handful of other writers/poets might give insight into the human condition, which has some degree of value I suppose, but to me it's all about as valuable as going to a movie! The Bible achieves far more in showing us the reality of our human condition than a silly dead author within the canon of literature ever will. Having read a whole lot and analyzed--through literary criticism--a whole lot more, I would be just fine if I never read another piece of fiction ever again. In terms of the supposed value literature has in giving insight into the human condition, it is important to keep in mind the fact that such insights are not entirely accurate, as there always seems to be a glorification of human achievement, self-reliance, and heroic pride against the 'forces' that keep men from being who they should have been, could have been, or hope to be (often referring to God indirectly). All of this is quite enticing to our fallen nature, as this element of literature appeals to our own sinful pride. When I think back on my colleagues in school, and the ones I work with now, these were and are some of the most affected people I've ever known, giving a whole new definition to myopic.

NothingNew said...
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NothingNew said...

For those who haven’t seen this article before, please check out the whole thing @

Boston Globe:



"The report - a 99-page compendium of more than 40 studies by universities, foundations, business groups, and government agencies since 2004 - paints a dire picture of plummeting levels of reading among young people over the past two decades. Among the findings:

Only 30 percent of 13-year-olds read almost every day.

The number of 17-year-olds who never read for pleasure increased from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004.

Almost half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 never read books for pleasure."

“Apparently, things are not much better among college students. In 2005, almost 40 percent of college freshmen (and 35 percent of seniors) read nothing at all for pleasure, and 26 percent (28 percent of seniors) read less than one hour per week. Even among college graduates, prose-reading proficiency declined from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2003.”

NothingNew said...

The fact that most Christians like to read (Bible/God's Word in particular) is just one of the many factors that separates us from the rest of the world’s religions. Most religions around the world tend to read less and instead they focus on rituals and contemplative forms of meditation to find/see God through their sinful selves. No surprise as people within our civilization read less (especially the Bible) they slide back into meaningless rituals and eastern forms of self-centered worship (just like the rest of the world).

Matt said...

I love how Cent has liberated himself from the success syndrome of having the most comments on his posts. You're just too deep, dude. And that's why I love you!

Matt said...

That last comment is in now way intended to slight Dan or Phil. In fact, I'm indebted to both of you and James White for a fairly substantial transformation in my own life.

My name is Matt, and I'm a recovering Arminian.

(rest of you: "Hi Matt")...

Stefan Ewing said...
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Stefan Ewing said...

Hi, Matt!

Rememberpolycarp: All good points. None of what I read was a substitute for Scripture. Human artifacts versus the work of the Holy Spirit.

Nothingnewunderthesun: You may be on to something.

Rob Willmann said...

Being a preacher myself, I can definitely appreciate this post.

The way my pastor puts it:

1) Preach the Gospel. Find a way to bridge the text to Christ.
2) Keep it simple!

I have to admit that when I first started preaching, I delved too deeply into the word study. But now I try to temper my sermons and pray over what to say, and be so familiar with the text that even though I have a 3 or 4 point sermon, I listen to the Spirit's leading to see if I am on track.

Great post!

FX Turk said...

I don't post for the comments.


I won't anymore next week.

Chris said...

Nice little poem!

Kirby L. Wallace said...

"Comments are Closed"

How very convenient of them.

"There is no real conflict between preaching a passage (esp a pericope) and preaching a theme."

What a crock. If you are preaching a passage, you have to preach what's there. If you preach a theme, you an preach any damned thing you like, so long as it addresses the "theme."

And my use of the phrase "damned thing" is quite carefully calculated and intentional.

Bryan Riley said...

Great post. People often unfortunately fail to let the character and nature of God and His redemptive plan educate their theology, especially when they can rail on about the plain language of the text in this or that passage.