The ‘Technical Stuff’ Matters in Preaching (Or, Theology is Unavoidable)

Matthew Levering makes a point I’ve seen confirmed time and again in my own preaching and teaching with college students and young adults:

Most Christians contemplate God liturgically and through personal prayer and study, rather than also by developing the intellectual habits proper to speculative theology. Nonetheless, attempts to speak about God (not merely to fellow theologians, but also and perhaps especially to persons in the pews) require some understanding of “technical” issues. Anyone who has ever heard a sermon on the Trinity – Catholics will attest to the painfully awkward experience that is “Trinity Sunday” – will admit that talk about the three Persons quickly becomes horribly thin unless the preacher has some metaphysical understanding (without denying the unfathomable mystery) of how the Persons are perfectly one and yet distinct. Simply put, no one in the pews wishes to hear about three gods. There is an expectation, rooted in Christian faith and the practices of faith, that the mystery must possess some intelligibility, that scriptural and metaphysical modes of reflection cannot ultimately be opposed. There must be some way of distinguishing the three Persons from the multiple gods of polytheism, beyond simply asserting that this is “not polytheism” and that the three are “one God,” whatever that might mean.

–Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, pg. 6

Bold Theologian.

Bold Theologian.

Just the other night in Bible study with a group of young adults, working our way through Gospel of John, we had to stop and begin to parse doctrine of the Trinity in some detail. This wasn’t my own theological orientation jumping at the opportunity to explain eternal generation. We were forced by the logic of Jesus’ own words to attend to the trinitarian grammar of what Jesus was explaining to his disciples. Without a proper doctrine of the Trinity, or a working Christology, I don’t believe you can make it through half of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees, or dialogues with the disciples in that Gospel.

I mean, think about it. You can’t even make it past the most bottom-of-the-barrel proclamation represented by that guy holding up the poster of John 3:16 at the football game without encountering “the technical stuff”:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Well, okay. But what does it mean that God “gave his only Son”? God has kids? How? Where is His Wife? Why does Mrs. God get no headlines?

You see where this goes?

All that to say, at some point, for everyone, the “technical details” matter. It doesn’t matter that all you want to do, young pastor, is “preach the gospel” or “just love people.” If any of that involves more than the most shallow truisms and generalities, you’re going to have to do some theological digging. What’s more, for those who think you had all that handled in seminary, aside from the fact that there’s no way you covered all that questions you’re going to face in ministry, or that arise when worshipping an infinite God, just realize that while our basic theology may stay the same, the popular landscape is always shifting. More study is always required.

So roll up your sleeves and get to reading. We’ve got some work to do.

Soli Deo Gloria

I Probably Got It From Tim Keller (Or, A Ramble on Plagiarism)

I'm going to re-preach whatever he's saying right now.

I’m going to re-preach whatever he’s saying right now.

My old pastor Mike Erre used to say, “I’ve never had an original idea in my life. I thought I had one once, but then, unsurprisingly I found it in C.S. Lewis.” He was always declaiming the originality of anything he was saying all the while preaching some of the most helpful, creative, biblical sermons I’d ever heard. At first I thought he was just being modest, but as I grew older, read a bit more, and finally had the responsibility of teaching myself, I began to see what he was saying. When it comes to preaching and teaching the Bible, theology, philosophy, or what-have-you, almost everything has been said once before by somebody. I mean, just the other day I was re-reading an old grad-school paper and realized I’d been arguing for something like Calvin’s double-gift theology without ever having read a lick of Calvin.

I bring this up simply because I’ve been thinking a bit about the issue of plagiarism lately. Most of us in the internet blogosphere have. In light of the big plagiarism scandal with several of Mark Driscoll’s works either not attributing clearly-demonstrated dependency on the work of others, or just straight lifting passages, the thing was ugly. What’s more, recent reports seem to indicate that the plagiarization of sermons is on the rise. Pastors are just finding sermons online and  rereading them, or simply parroting their favorite podcasts, effectively doing the same thing.

Now, this raises a number of questions and thoughts for me, so in the, hopefully coherent, ramble that follows, I’d simply like to ask some questions and raise some points for consideration when it comes to the issue of “plagiarism” in blogging, writing, and preaching.

First of all, on the alleged rise in plagiarism, in general, I’m not so sure. I mean, the internet has made it easier to access tons of material and do that sort of thing, but when people talk about the recent rise in it, I’m wondering if certain things aren’t being forgotten. For one thing, we’re more aware of that issue and people are probably paying greater attention now to it. It’s also probably easier to track now than in was before as well. Still, there were plenty of audio tape ministries that probably fed a lot of smaller church pastors with sermons back in the 80s too. Also you gotta consider that because of the internet, Evangelical book/celebrity culture, and so forth, more people are hearing, listening, reading, digesting, and regurgitating the same voices. If that’s the case, it’s not unusual that you’re going to hear the same themes repeated in various sermons in various contexts.

Which raises the issue more formally: what counts as plagiarism in various contexts? Let’s be clear that direct quotes from other people that I lift, copy, and then claim credit for seems to be straight-forward plagiarism. Still, there seem to be some gray areas of confusion. Take citing your sources in preaching. Now, I’ll admit, I tend to like quoting people in sermons because I want my kids to get a desire to read books, it gives some weight, and it’s force of habit from grad school. Still, do I have to mention Tim Keller every time I talk about a “Christ-centered” reading of the texts even though l learned it from him and Edmund Clowney? Or what if I mention the anti-imperial thrust of a certain Pauline text without citing the N.T. Wright commentary I got it from? That doesn’t sound quite right.

Maybe that’s just a function of the preaching context. When you’re preaching, you may not want to go citing a bunch of names and sources because it seems too cluttered. A sermon is not a lecture is not a seminary paper. Your point, in any case, is to preach the text, not Wright’s insight into the text. Or again, in the heat of a sermon, you might make a point about a text and forget who said it so you just preach it. Or what if you have in the general course of study preparation, and so forth, you strike upon an idea, write it down, and completely forget that you originally heard that in a sermon by a popular preacher last year?

A single sermon point might be one thing, but what about a whole sermon structure? For instance, I’ve found myself, at times, hearing a preacher exposit a text in a certain manner that I find compelling and I think, “That right there is something I’m going to preach to my students.” In the few times I have found that I’m following someone else’ basic outline, I think at that point it’s appropriate to say something along the lines of “Joe So-and-So gave me the premise of the sermon I’m preaching this to you today”, or something even more clear. Now, to be honest, I don’t think this should happen very much because it could become a habit you don’t want to fall into. Generally speaking, even when you’re using others’ insights into the texts, you need to be prayerfully working on applying them to your own context anyways. Joe doesn’t know your people and wasn’t called to your church, you were.

More briefly, how do those considerations play out in writing? It seems that a number of those points above would call for some sort of explicit reference. But what about general, widespread concepts, or biblical truths? I’m thinking, for instance, of C.S. Lewis’ analogies in Mere Christianity and his explication of the difference between begetting and making in his section on the Trinity. Lewis got most of that from Athanasius and the other Fathers but he doesn’t do much crediting at all. Is it plagiarism to use the same analogy without referencing them, or just prudence in not wanting to get bogged down even in the writing format? At that point I’m not so sure. Maybe there’s a point when an explanation, or articulation of a text has become the common inheritance of the Christian tradition such that specifying its origin becomes pointless, especially when that’s necessarily where you first heard the point.

At this point it seems prudent to end my ramblings. I suppose it makes sense at this point to issue my own version of my pastor’s disclaimer: if you find me saying anything of intelligence, worth, truth, or edification that I don’t cite outright, just assume I got it from Tim Keller. Beyond that, for other pastors, the best concrete advice I have is do your best to be honest. If you’re worried about a certain instance, err on the side of caution and cite it.

If you have any insights to offer on the subject, please chime in below. This was as much a comment as an invitation to further discussion.

Soli Deo Gloria 

The 3:00 A.M. Test For Preaching

3 amHave you ever sat through a sermon you couldn’t follow? You know the kind I’m talking about? Where the pastor is making a lot of, possibly interesting, points and observations, but you’re exactly sure how they all fit together? Now, it may be the case that you simply have a poor attention span and the listening skills of a junior higher. OR, it may be that the sermon lacked what the quality of ‘unity’, of actually having a singular, cohesive point that the preacher was aiming to communicate. When it’s not there, it’s pretty hard to find.

Preachers, especially young ones fresh out of seminary, you must struggle with the task of presenting to your people an actual message from the text, instead of a bunch of rambling observations, or disjointed exegetical insights. As interesting or complex as a passage or story might be, it’s okay to honor the text by acknowledging the inherent of it’s actual message (especially since its author probably had one in mind when they penned it.)

Speaking to the issue of unity in his book Christ-centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (pp. 46-47), Bryan Chapell gives would-be preachers two basic, but key steps to ascertaining the unifying theme of a text:

  1. Read the text with an eye towards finding the main idea the writer is communicating in the text, or a sub-theme with enough exegetical support from the text to be the point of an entire message.
  2. Boil that down into a simple sentence.

Sounds simple enough in theory, right? The problem is that many of us can’t really force ourselves to do that. If you’re fresh out of seminary, you’re too tempted to write out some complex thesis statement with 15 modifiers, sub-clauses, and so forth, because, hey, that’s what your profs liked in your exegesis class. This was one thing my old boss Jay always emphasized with me during my internship, because I tended to think in paragraphs, not pithy sentences.

Knowing this difficulty, Chapell gives a helpful (and challenging) test for preachers to determine whether or not their sermon has the unity of focus that it requires for their hearers:

You will have unity when you can demonstrate that the elements of the passage support the theme of your message and you can pass the “3 a.m. test.” The 3:00 am test requires you to imagine a spouse, a roommate, or parishioner waking you from your slumber with this simple question: “What’s the sermon about today, Preacher?” If you cannot give a crisp answer, the sermon is probably half-baked. Thoughts you cannot gather at 3:00 a.m. are not likely to be caught by others at 11:00 a.m. (ibid., pg. 47)

So what does would that look like? Chapell gives two examples, one of the sort that’s a good seminary thesis, but fails for a sermon:

When the sinful nation of Israel went into exile, its messianic hope and vision were mistakenly and faithlessly diminished because pre-Ezran and pre-Nehemiac proofs of God’s sovereign plan, purpose, and intentions for his people were obscured in Babylonian circumstances of incarceration and oppression that would not be relieved until the Persian emancipation and further covenantal revelation in advancing redemptive history.

And one that you could actually preach:

God remains faithful to his people.

Seeing it put that starkly, some pastors, especially the younger, bookish, ultra-academic ones, might chafe at this sort of abridgement. I know because part of me still does as well. That said, after 2 1/2 years of preaching to college students, I can attest that Chapell’s 3 a.m. test, while seeming a bit stringent, is probably a good rule of thumb.

Realize, Chapell is not advocating for simplistic exposition of the text, or avoiding delving into historical complexities, or even using words like ‘messianic.’ The point is that having a clear, concise, thesis statement gives you a base upon which you can organize all of those complexities in a coherent framework for your people to follow. Whether you state it up front, or weave it subtly throughout, simply having it will focus your sermon construction and keep it from becoming a rambling mess that the Spirit has to work despite, not through. And that’s a good thing, right? Right.

So, pastors, if you’re looking to preach in a fashion that your people actually understand the point you’re driving at, don’t forget the 3:00 a.m. test.

Soli Deo Gloria

Who Needs Preachers When You’ve Got the Bible?

preacherIf you’ve been around long enough, you’ve eventually encountered that guy. You know, the one who basically says all he needs is his Bible and the Holy Spirit. He’s got so much faith that he doesn’t need to listen to teachers or read commentaries. Really, nobody does if they trust the Spirit and the Word enough.

Right.

Well, if you haven’t had the blessing, don’t worry, you’ll meet him eventually. In any case, it’s a very old phenomenon that dates probably as far back as church history extends. It was certainly present in Calvin’s day. Commenting on Paul’s charge to teach the word in season and out of season (2 Tim 4:1-4), he pushes back on the same sort of fanaticism of some of his contemporaries in the Radical Reformation:

It is proper to observe carefully the word therefore, by means of which he appropriately connects Scripture with preaching. This also refutes certain fanatics, who haughtily boast that they no longer need the aid of teachers, because the reading of scripture is abundantly sufficient. But Paul, after having spoken of the usefulness of Scripture, infers not only that all ought to read it, but that teachers ought to administer it, which is the duty enjoined on them. Accordingly, as all our wisdom is contained in the Scriptures, and neither ought we to learn, nor teachers to draw their instructions, from any other source; so he who, neglecting the assistance of the living voice, shall satisfy himself with the silent Scripture, will find how grievous an evil it is to disregard that way of learning which has been enjoined by God and Christ. Let us remember, I say, that the reading of Scripture is recommended to us in such a manner as not to hinder, in the smallest degree, the ministry of pastors; and, therefore, let believers endeavor to profit both in reading and in hearing; for not in vain hath God ordained both of them. -Commentary on 2 Timothy 4:1

Calvin isn’t saying we shouldn’t read our Bibles on our own, or that the Holy Spirit can’t enlighten our personal study. No, there is real benefit there. But if Jesus says that there ought to be teachers the church, and that we ought to sit under sound preaching, who are we to be more spiritual than he is? Apparently there’s something to it.

Soli Deo Gloria

Top 8 Personal Highlights from #TGC13

TGC13This last week I had the privilege of going to the 2013 Gospel Coalition National Conference. While there is a grip of things I could say about the spiritual blessing it was to attend, I thought I’d limit it to 8 personal highlights:

1. Good times with friends. – First off, I was blessed to be able to go with a couple of ministry buddies of mine, Sean McLeish, and Jon Nitta. They’re excellent men to drive around in a rented car, eat too much BBQ, and talk about the Gospel with.

2. Finally getting to hear Tim Keller preach live. -I’ve listened to hundreds of Tim Keller sermons over the last few years. I honestly was kind of worried that it wasn’t going to live up to my expectations. Yeah, he pretty much killed it. I think I he made 4 points within his four points, each of which could have been a sermon on its own, and yet it didn’t feel forced or crowded. And I loved Jesus more at the end of it.

3. Getting a physical copy of Michael Horton’s lecture notes. -Yup. I got to listen in a Michael Horton’s lecture of feasting and hospitality in the Gospel of Luke, which was expectedy brilliant. Afterwards I caught him in the hall and asked him for his lecture notes which he kindly obliged me with. Turns out he is a splendidly humble man in person, beyond being an exemplary irenic theologian in print.

4. Finding out People are Actually Nice. – Following off of that point, it was nice getting to know that people are actually nice. I’ve managed to “meet” some bloggers online before, but at this conference I was able to face-to-face connect with them. The lovely thing was finding out that they’re actually as nice as their Twitter handle pictures. I would go into names, but I hate the idea of name-dropping. The only one I’ll mention is Greg Thornbury: hands-down the most surprising and interesting guy I met at the conference. Brilliant, delightfully humble, and a fabulous appreciation for the proper use of the bow-tie.

5. Books – I bought books for cheap. I think we all knew that was going to happen.

6. Getting Faked Out by Voddie Bauckham – All I’m going to say is, if anybody who knows him is reading this, call him “Joe Nitkowski” next time you see him.

7. The Holy Land Experience – We were too close not to go, so we visited. We didn’t go inside or anything, but experiencing the cheap animatronic animals outside, well–as Jon Nitta put it, “I’ve been born-again again.”

8. Gospel Everything – Seriously, no joke, it was all about the Gospel. The preaching and teaching, break-out sessions, and workshops were all about understanding and seeing the Gospel go forward in our the lives of our congregations, cities, and world. After a bit of a season of discouragement, and honestly, just exhaustion, I was convicted, blessed, and encouraged through the preaching and teaching, the conversations, and the worship to be humbly confident about the Gospel in my ministry. It really is that good of news.

Well, as always, there’s more to say, but all in all, I was truly blessed to by God through TGC13. God willing, TGC15 will be even better.

Soli Deo Gloria

PS. When the sermons start getting posted, I recommend going and downloading or listening to them. I’d particularly direct you to the sermons by Kevin DeYoung on Luke 15 that was convicting and quite humorous, Gary Millar on Luke 22 who killed it, and, of course, Tim Keller’s on Luke 24 and the resurrection.

Common? High? Pop? What Kind of Culture Is It? (With Some Help From Roger Scruton)

The notion of ‘culture’ has fascinated me ever since I first got my hands on Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society in which he lays out his vision for engaging Western culture for the Gospel. It was around the time that the whole emergent church thing was still a thing and it seemed like everyone was talking about the shift to “postmodern” culture and what that meant. In middle of that conversation I started to realize that ‘culture’ was an important issue for evangelism, discipleship, and just ministry in general.

As I went on to read more about the issue, I found that almost everybody in the theological literature agrees that if you’re going to do ministry, then you have to understand cultural context you’re set in. Whether it’s modern culture, postmodern culture, indigenous cultures, or church cultures, ‘culture’ is everywhere and ever-so-important. Of course, this raises the issue of what exactly we mean by the term ‘culture’.

Seems like something we ought to have nailed down if we’re going to be talking about it so much.

You can almost feel the philosophy coming off of him.

You can almost feel the philosophy coming off of him.

Now I’ve had my own working definition of it for some time. The problem I’ve found is that, depending on the publication, author, or discipline you’re reading, everybody seems to have their own definition of it, many which seem to be at odds with each other.

This is why I was so pleased when I found that in first pages of his insightful little work Modern Culture, Roger Scruton helpfully lays out three different senses of the term ‘culture’ that are typically used today:

  • Common – The first is what might be called ‘common’ culture. It takes its cues from Herder, whose notion of kultur indicated the unique spirit of a nation or people as opposed to zivilization which could be shared with various other nations. This, apparently, was taken up and developed by the German romantics who pointed to the idea that culture is what shapes and is found in the various songs, art, traditions of a nation. In this view, it is what is common to all the people in a nation or tribe. This means that nobody, “however ill-educated, is deprived of culture, since culture and social membership is the same idea.” (pg. 1) It is this interpretation that most of the early anthropologists and sociologists of our day work with.
  • High – The second is what might be called ‘high’ culture and takes its roots in a more classical understanding that is linked to the idea of culture as cultivation and virtue. It is not common to all, but must be acquired through education, which usually requires some intellect, as well as leisure and resources for study. To have culture on this view is the province of the few and the well-educated. It comes with a knowledge of the broad literary canon, an appreciation of the right sorts of music and the arts. Culture, in this view, is a sort of moral-technical expertise. This idea has been championed by literary critics such as Matthew Arnold, and later by T.S. Eliot, and of course, Scruton himself. In fact, the book as a whole should be seen as a defense of high culture. (pp. 1-2)
  • Pop- Scruton says that a third sort of culture has emerged recently from the battles between the two. As we noted, the idea of common culture is usually attached to a tribe or a nation, a set, identifiable grouping of people whose culture can be identified and is generally shared. One of main characteristics of the modern/postmodern world which we inhabit is the breakdown of the various tribes associated with ‘traditional society.’ (pg. 2) There are no uncontested practices, thought patterns, songs, and narratives which can be appealed to without a sense of irony. That being said, humans still have need for a sort of solid and stable identity-shaping environment just as the traditional societies gave. It is in this situation that what might be termed ‘popular’ culture emerges, as a sort of tertium quid, a third thing, both like and unlike both of the prior conceptions. Pop culture is the province of ‘cultural studies’ programs in college and is thought of by its defenders as an equally valid ‘culture of the people’. Essentially pop culture is what’s involved when the notion of high culture as something that is a feature of “choice, taste, and leisure” in the sense of cultivation is merged with the common such as pop art and entertainment.  (pp. 2-3) As Scruton notes, “Any activity or artefact is considered cultural, if it is an identity-forming product of social interaction.” (pg. 3)

Of course, Scruton looks upon this last development with dismay, and, as mentioned earlier, in the rest of the work will launch a defense of high culture against any relativistic, postmodern deconstructions, or anti-elitist protests of the equal validity of popular culture.That doesn’t concern me at this point.

For Christians and ministers of the Gospel in particular, there are a number of theses I would like to simply list for reflection, without much additional comment.

  1. While these categories are not air-tight, uncontested, or always easily-distinguishable, it’s good to have some baseline working definitions to think with, especially when you’re reading about cultural engagement. It’s helpful to know what your author is dealing with because prescriptions for one category don’t always carry into the others.
  2. Christians should be engaged with culture at all levels. Common, high, or pop, there is no level or layer that can be ignored by ministers of the Gospel. Anything that is forming our people for good or ill, is our concern.
  3. Accordingly, effective ministers will become students of the common culture of the communities they inhabit.
  4. Depending on the type of congregation, or minister, they should also try be serious, not merely cursory, students of both the high and pop culture that our people draw on for their social-identity construction. (I emphasize ‘try’ because pastors have a lot on their plate already.)
  5. Preaching that both affirms and critiques in light of the Gospel needs to be alert to both the unconsciously formative, and consciously chosen elements of cultural formation. Sometimes it is the common cultural assumptions that are most difficult to expose, simply because they are assumptions.

As always, there’s more to say, but I don’t want to say it right now, so maybe I’ll say it later. Or maybe you should say it in the comments. Knock yourself out.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Out with Philosophy! Just Preach the Gospel!” Or Something Like That

thinker

Looks like he’s philosophizing. STOP THAT!

For a long time now Paul’s discourse at the Areopageus in Acts 17:16-31 has been a favorite text of mine. As a philosophy student in college I loved the picture of Paul debating with the philosophers of his day, quoting their poets and philosophers, and engaging the best of their thought in order to clear the way for the proclamation of the Gospel. I’ve long seen it as a model for understanding how to properly contextualize and challenge the thought of the culture while at the same time maintaining a faithful witness to Christ.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I found out about a certain line of interpretation, particularly in some hyper-Reformed circles, that sees this whole engagement as a failure. The idea is that Paul here, instead of engaging in some straightforward Gospel-preaching like he does in other places, makes the mistake of trying to make the Gospel presentable to the philosophers, ends up getting laughed out of court, and from there on resolves to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:1-5) Silly Paul, philosophy is for pagans!

Now I’ve always thought this was a forced interpretation. Then again, what do I know? D.A. Carson on the other hand, well, he’s got an actual case for it:

There are good reasons for rejecting this false reading:

  1.  This is not a natural reading of Acts. As you work your way through that book, you do not stumble upon some flag or other that warns you that at this Paul goofs. This false interpretation is achieved by putting together an unnatural reading of Acts with a false reading of 1 Corinthians 2.
  2. The theology of the Areopagus address is in fact very much in line with the theology of Paul expressed in Romans.
  3. The Greek text at the end of Acts 17 does not say that “a few men” believed, as if this were a dismissive or condemning assessment, but that “certain people” believed. This expression is in line with other summaries in Acts.
  4. In Athens Paul had already been preaching not only in the synagogue to biblically literate folk, but to people in the marketplace who were biblically illiterate (Acts 17:17). What he had been preaching was “the good news” (Acts 17:18), the Gospel.
  5. Transparently Paul was cut off in Acts 17 before he was finished. He had set up the framework in which alone the Gospel is coherent: one transcendent God, sovereign, providential, personal; creation; fall into idolatry; the flow of redemptive history; final judgment. He was moving into Jesus’ resurrection, and more, when he was interrupted.
  6. Paul was not a rookie. He had been through twenty years of tough ministry (read 2 Cor. 11), much of it before pagan biblical illiterates. To suppose that on this occasion he panicked and trimmed the Gospel is ridiculous.
  7. Acts 17 shows that Paul thinks “worldviewishly.” Even after 1 Corinthians 2 Paul still thinks worldviewishly: 2 Corinthians 10:5 finds him still striving to bring “every thought” into submission to Christ–and the context shows this refers not to simply isolated thoughts but to entire worldviews.
  8. 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 does not cast Paul’s resolution to preach nothing but the cross against the background of Athens (as if he were confessing he had failed there, but against the background of Corinth, which loved eloquence and rhetoric above substance. The apostle does not succumb to mere oratory: he resolves to stick with “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

-D.A. Carson,  For the Love of God Vol. 2, February 15

Kids, the moral of the story is that Paul isn’t confessing a ministry flub in 1 Corinthians 2, and repenting of his foolish decision to engage with the philosophers in a contextually-specific way. So if you’ve ever thought that it helps to know and be able to discuss the actual thought-processes of your neighbors and peers in order to present the Gospel to them effectively, don’t worry, so did Paul.

Soli Deo Gloria