Yesterday at our local Ministers' Fraternal that meets at The Old Baptist Chapel, Bradford on Avon, Phil Heaps, teaching elder at Grace Church, Westerleigh spoke on 'Tools for Preparation'. Here are some notes on his very helpful talk.
God has spoken in Scripture. It is the business of all Christians to seek to understand God's Word and put it into practice. If this is the case for every believer, then it is certainly true for pastors. Their key task is to teach and apply the message of the Bible for the salvation of the lost and the building up of the people of God. Acts 20:17-41.
1. The context of our ministry
In the passage just quoted, Paul sets out the context for the pastoral-preaching ministry. As shepherds pastors have been called to feed and protect the flock of God. The means by which this is done is prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). We must preach the whole word of God and nothing but the word of God, (Acts 20:20, 27). All biblical texts and truths must be applied to all the people of God. This involves declaring the word in public and in the setting of home visits (Acts 20:20). Feeding and guarding the flock involves exposing the dangers of false teaching (Acts 20:30-31, Titus 1:9). Like Ezra preachers must apply the word to their own lives before they can preach it to others, (Ezra 7:10, 1 Timothy 4:12-16). It is in this context that preachers rightly utilise tools for sermon preparation.
2. The need for preparation tools
1) God's word has come to us in languages of which none of us are native speakers.
We therefore need aids like introductions to biblical Hebrew and Greek, lexicons and commentaries to get to grips with the meaning of Scripture in the original languages.
2) God's word comes to us in literary forms and cultural contexts that are foreign to us.
With regard to literary genres for example, we need help with with Hebrew poetic forms in order to understand the Psalms and some of the prophetic literature. Knowledge of the historical background of biblical times throws helpful light on the text of Scripture. Joseph toyed with divorcing his fiance Mary when she fell pregnant with Jesus. That makes little sense to modern day people. It only makes sense when we understand first century Jewish customs on engagement and marriage. Knowing something about ANE treaties as reflected in the structure of Deuteronomy enables us to see that the Lord is unique in being a covenant keeping God.
3) God would have his people learn in community
We believe in one God in three Persons; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Community and fellowship are defining aspects of the life of God. In saving us, God has brought us into fellowship with himself and his people. We learn and grow in the context of the church community. God has gifted the church with pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:12). Through books we can sit at the feet of some of the greatest teachers that Christ has given the church. Consulting commentaries and other aids for preparation is an expression of the communion of the saints. Using helps saves us from an overly individualistic reading of the biblical text.
4) Commentaries can make us aware of blind spots or solutions that we have not seen before
We are finite beings and the Bible is a big book about an infinite God. No one knows it all and commentaries can open our eyes to readings of the text or solutions to problems that had not occurred to us. In that way commentaries can help stimulate creativity and freshness in biblical exposition.
5) Commentaries challenge wrongheaded interpretations
Our preconceived notion of what a text is saying should be tested against the findings of others. While the Lord may grant us special insight into his Word, we should be proceed with caution if no other sound and able interpreters agree with our conclusions. Commentaries can put a brake on idiosyncratic exegesis.
6) We need help!
The Bible is self-interpreting and is sufficient for our ministries (2 Timothy 3:16). But we need help in understanding the biblical languages and assistance with matters like getting to grips with complex arguments in the Epistles. Commentators can point to the way in which Scripture interprets Scripture eg. how Genesis 3:16 may be viewed in the light of Genesis 4:7. Paul's negative stance on the law in Galatians 3:12, quoting Leviticus 18:5 may puzzle us until we also bring Nehemiah 9:29 and Ezekiel 20:11 into the picture. A studious commentator may have spotted intertextual links that we never would have noticed. Similarly we may not have made a connection between the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 and Isaiah 61 - until Phil Heaps pointed it out!
3. The dangers of commentaries
1) Redundant material
Wordy commentaries waste time. Commentators sometimes go to great lengths on 'easy bits' of the Bible, while passing over more difficult passages where most help is needed.
2) Vain discussion
Some commentaries pay too much attention to scholarly fads. Lengthy discussion of Pauline authorship etc. Biblical scholars should write with pastors in mind and pay attention to 1 Timothy 1:4 & 1 Timothy 6:20.
3) Weak exegesis
Even the best commentators may be wrong. As a case in point Phil pointed to poor handling of Romans 2:17-24. Commentators struggle with how Paul could accuse his fellow countrymen of temple robbing etc, hardly the besetting sin of 1st century Judaism. The estimable Mr. Heaps suggested that Paul was thinking of Israel as a nation rather than just his contemporaries. David committed adultery, kings often plundered the temple to pay off aggressive foreign powers. Cue the sound of pennies dropping, "kerching"!
4) Weak in biblical integration
Little feel for redemptive-historical issues. No suggestions as to how OT texts speak to NT believers. Preachers are especially in need this kind of help.
5) Failure to point to Christ
A sad failing in some modern evangelical OT commentaries. Symptomatic of the influence of unbelieving scholarship. The Old Testament is about Christ (John 5:46). Evangelical commentators above all should attempt to show how the OT is fulfilled in Jesus (Luke 24:44).
6) Often weak in application
As John Frame says, 'meaning = application'. A commentary that fails to apply the text has not made the meaning clear. Another area where pastors look for help. That said, however applicatory a commentary may be, the preacher's job is to apply the text to the congregation before him in a discriminatory way.
7) Concessions to unbelieving theology
Historicity of OT events questioned. Pauline authorship denied.
Scholarly commentaries can sometimes be a little dull. Preachers must not be. Avoid the danger of 'the bland leading the bland'. Dale Ralph Davies' racy and gripping commentaries on the OT historical books are an exception!
9) Turn the handle mentality
Commentaries are no substitute for a prayerful and reflective engagement with Holy Scripture.
4. More tools
Greek NT (UBS) Index of Allusions and Verbal Parallels
Bible Works for Windows
Electronic Bible + word processor + printer.
These jottings only give a little flavour Phil's stimulating and thought provoking talk. What he had to say led to a helpful discussion on on the use of tools in sermon prep. It was good to go back to first principles and think though the use of commentaries and other aids to Bible study. We were invited to bring a couple of commentaries with us (one OT and one NT) and explain why we found them helpful. My OT work was The Book of Origins: Genesis Simply Explained, by Philip H. Eveson (interviewed here), Evangelical Press. Insightful exegesis, good redemptive-historical awareness, applicatory and full of Christ. Just what an OT evangelical commentary should be. NT: The Letters to the Thessalonians, by Gene L. Green, Eerdmans/Apollos. Excellent use of historical background to throw light on the text (see review). Very helpful exegesis of the 'man of sin' passage in 2 Thess 2 (see here).
* Augustine hard at work and looking for inspiration (pictured above). How did he manage sermon prep without the aid of Matthew Henry's Commentary? The poor chap didn't even have Bible Works, or is his left hand resting on a primitive laptop, holding what looks like a mouse?