Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Straining to Hear the Text

David Helm kindly gave me a copy of Preach the Word. I've enjoyed working through the first couple of chapters thus far. In chapter 1, "The Hermeneutical Distinctives of Expository Preaching," David Jackman penned these helpful words:

Learning to listen by opening our eyes is one of the key skills for the biblical preacher to develop. We need to see what is really there and what is not. Like a person with hearing difficulties, we need to strain to catch every detail of vocabulary and nuance of tone in our Lord's conversation with us in the unique and specific parts of Scripture. But the problem with a written text, which increases the more familiar we think we are with it, is our tendency to skim-read it in order find what we already know is there. We then deal with general ideas rather than give attention to detail, and the resulting sermons exist in a world of theological abstraction. So much preaching is bland and predictable because there has been no move toward studying the text beyond its general themes and familiar ideas to the uniqueness of this particular Word of the Lord. The preacher has been content with a superficial, surface reading in which he has viewed the text through the prescription lenses of his own evangelical framework. This means that he has been in control of the text, assessing it, dissecting it, allowing it to illustrate the principles of his framework that he is determined to preach, but not permitting the text to be in the driver's seat, controlling the sermon.

What needs to be happening in the preparation process is for the text to be challenging our framework, and this is achieved by questioning. Obviously, our first question will always be, "What precisely is this text saying?" But then there are other key questions with which we can sharpen our listening skills. For example, "Why does the biblical author say it in these words?" This may alert us to specialist vocabulary that often opens up major themes in the rest of the book of which our preaching is a part. Or it may challenge our pastoral rules of thumb, or even our doctrinal formulations. Additionally, we can ask, "Why is the author saying it to these people (his original hearers)?" This raises the whole issue of contexts, both historical and theological, both of the book in the Bible and the passage in the book. Finally, "Why does the author say it here, at this particular point in his work?" This is an inquiry about the literary context, which helps us to build a picture of the development of the book's major teaching themes, which will also greatly help with application of the passage to the context of today.

And speaking of David Helm, I hope those of you with children have a copy of his Big Picture Story Bible. It's excellent!

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