Preaching the Scriptures. An Interview (Part 1)

Crossroads Worldwide Ministries sponsors a one-year internship for discipleship and ministry training they call Community Discipleship House (CDH).  I am good friends with the guys who lead this ministry—their work is top-notch.

One of the CDH-ers (as they are called), contacted me for an interview about my preaching experience.  Replying to the questions turned out to be a an interesting and helpful time of reflection about the awesome and gut-wrenching and joyful task of presenting Scripture to God’s people.  The questions and my replies are below….

1)You are asked to speak at a college conference with a diverse crowd. You are asked to speak about the Holy Spirit in 4 talks. How would you go about preparing? Do you have a process?

I would begin with prayer.  Preaching entails the responsibility to express accurately, passionately, prophetically and pastorally the self-revelation of God from the Scriptures.  So the process is sabotaged from the beginning unless we turn desperately to the One who can most help!  In the scenario you presented, the diversity of the crowd and the complexity of the topic are daunting, but in no way unmanageable under divine guidance.  So prayer is the 1st step.

In the praying, there will be reading, the reading of Scripture texts—pertinent texts that provide direction and guidance for the topic at hand (the HS, in this case).  Now, let me be clear that my reading of specific texts is preceded by lots of other reading.  By regularly spending lots of time in the Bible, a preacher can have a wider, general understanding of where to go when specific topics are assigned.  (Incidentally, I have highlighted all references to the Spirit throughout the entire Bible in yellow for easier access—I have done this for a number of urgent and controversial themes that have seemed to require more attention than others in my years of pastoring and preaching).

More on this prayerful reading.  When I find specific texts in Scripture to which God seems to be directing me for the sermon prep, I would read widely all around those texts.  For instance, if I am reading about the Paraclete in John (a Johannine term for the Spirit), I would make sure I understood the Johannine understanding of the Spirit as indicated elsewhere in that Gospel.  At a minimum, I would read the entire Farewell Discourse (John 14-17).  I would also spend a great deal of time in Romans 8 where Paul presents his clearest, strongest vision of the Holy Spirit.  But Romans 8 is the tail end of a long, winding series of arguments that begins in the beginning of the Epistle, so I would read Romans 1-8 before I ever set myself to do serious exegetical work on just ch. 8.I would also try to consider what texts regarding the Holy Spirit are already in the minds of my hearers, and how those texts may be misunderstood or misapplied.  1 Cor 12-14 comes to mind, of course.  So I would likely devote one of my talks to “Myths About the HS” and seek to carefully and pastorally dismantle some unbiblical ideas.

2)How do you think that storytelling plays a role in teaching Scripture? If you do use stories then how do you make them come to life?

Stories are employed in preaching for the sake of clarifying or entertaining… and in some cases these two can go nicely together.  But ultimately the use of story must be to clarify.  When you are trying to engage an unruly crowd, or a bunch of folks who just don’t want to be within earshot of a sermon, then stories have the effect of grasping attention.  Tentatively, I think that is okay.  The problem is when stories are used for entertainment but never really lead to clarification of the topic or text at hand.

But we must be careful not to readily demonize stories in the homiletical task.  Much of Scripture is in narrative form, and the entire Bible narrates a massive saga, a bold, compelling story of God’s powerful and gracious program of redemption.  As a matter of fact, I would go so far as to say that stories can communicate in ways deeper and more profoundly than the delineation of certain doctrinal points.  I love doctrinal points.  I just love them.  But sometimes, there are truths beyond the communicative strength of a sentence.  Last Spring, I found myself so mystified by the Gospels’ narrations of Jesus’ death and resurrection that I ended up just reading the texts and walking the college students before whom I preached through the accounts.  I did not try to explain what was happening behind the texts so carefully provided by Matthew, Luke, Mark and John, trusting that the inspired power of their theological reportage would be sufficient.  I just sought to beckon the congregation into the haunting, gripping, inspiring narratives.

There are times, of course, when I have gone deeper into the theological issues at hand in the narrative accounts… but sometimes it is okay to just leave everyone lost in the wonder of the narrative.  It is okay if a sermon mystifies sometimes more than clarifies… because being mystified can lead us to worship.

More practically speaking, when I preach on a story, I usually rely more on a story form.  And I should probably say that I do not actively look for stories and illustrations as a preacher, though I try to keep my ears and eyes open lest God provides one that would help.

The Doctrine of the Trinity and Pastoral Ministry

Joel Busby here. The other (though largely absent!) contributor to this blog…

I’m in my final semester of seminary at Beeson Divinity School. I’ve also officially begun leadership of University Christian Fellowship at Mountain Brook Community Church — where Andy and I served together prior to his move to the UK. For me, the collision of these two activities have made for very interesting reflection. I’ve transitioned towards thinking really hard about how my theological education will work itself out in my pastoral ministry. I’ve learned so many important things. Now, I want to these truths to “happen”, you know? I guess this means that I’m seriously drawn right now to “Pastoral Theology.”

When I reflect upon my time at Beeson, the doctrine of the Trinity (and all its implications!) represents an area of theology that has challenged my thinking the most. I can’t help but think that I’ve been a functional Unitarian throughout much of my Christian life and ministry.

I’ve been reading James Torrance’s Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace.

In this small (125 pages) work, Torrance challenges the Christian and the Pastor along these lines. I’ve come across one paragraph I really love:

“It seems to me that in a pastoral situation our first task is not to throw people back on themselves with exhortations and instructions as to what to do and how to do it, but to direct people to the gospel of grace — to Jesus Christ, that they might look to him to lead them, open their hearts in faith and in prayer, and draw them by the Spirit into his eternal life of communion with Father. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is the grammar of Romans 8 — the grammar of grace, the grammar of our pastoral work. (Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996) 45.)

I’d love your thoughts.

How have you noticed the Doctrine of the Trinity guide and shape your ministry, your preaching, your worship leadership, your devotional life? Or has it?

My hope is that such a question would be almost impossible to answer — Trinitarian understanding of God is so fundamental that we can’t even pinpoint how it shapes us. But I’m afraid this isn’t the case…

Nijay Gupta’s Book—Prepare, Succeed, Advance

For the past few years I have been a regular reader of the blogs maintained by Ben Blackwell and Nijay Gupta.  Now teaching at Houston Baptist University and Seattle Pacific University respectively, I found their blogs when they were slogging away at New Testament doctoral work at Durham University.  They have both been extremely gracious to me in providing counsel as my wife and I made our own venture Durham-wards (and fittingly, I ended up with Ben’s old Ikea wardrobes in my bedroom!).

Quite conveniently from my perspective, Wipf & Stock released a book by Nijay on pursuing a biblical studies PhD just before I boarded the plane for England.

Nijay was kind enough to endorse my book, Faith Without Illusions.  I am going to offer some blog posts on his book, but just know that this is not just some quid pro quo sort of thing—I am so pleased to see that a book is now available for aspiring doctoral candidates and I want to make sure folks are aware of it. 

The title is Prepare, Succeed, Advance: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond.  As the title indicates, there are three sections to the book.  The first: PREPARE.  Here are some of the questions addressed in this section, questions that burned in my heart for a long time and that I have been asked myself repeatedly by other students interested in academic work.

How do you choose the right program?

How does the application process work?

What are schools looking for in the application?

What distinguishes American programs from British programmes?

How should I be academically-equipped?  (More to the point: How well should I know German, Greek or Hebrew?)

(And one that is still burning in my heart): How do I pay for doctoral work?

Nijay addresses these questions and many others in about 50 pages.  Of all the info I collected through blog-reading, through long conversations with students, and through nerve-wracked encounters with professors at SBL meetings, Nijay has it all nicely condensed and accessibly provided in this opening section on “Prepare.”

I know from experience that prospective students who are dreaming of the grandeur of those three romanticized letters (p-h-d) need some straight, honest talk.  And Nijay provides it.  Doctoral work is almost faddish these days in some circles, so I am pleased that this book offers the de-romanticized reality of how challenging this vocational venture can be.  He is in no way gloomy about doctoral work—clearly he is an advocate of anyone with a sense of academic calling.  But his pragmatism will be extremely helpful for those of us with that academic glint in our eye who can’t stop dreaming about theological books splayed open in prestigious libraries and cool coffee shop tables.  The process of embarking on a biblical studies PhD is painfully difficult, and not something to be approached without massive amounts of wisdom, so much of which Nijay deftly provides.

In short, this opening section on choosing a program and applying for one is extremely informative and helpfully practical.  Nijay is also a good writer—presenting facts and details like those found in the book in an engaging and readable fashion is a gift!

I will be addressing the other two sections in upcoming posts….

(Thanks to Wipf & Stock for a free review copy of the book!).

What I am reading (if that sounds of interest)

Since doctoral work and writing entails a great deal of reading, and since some people check the blog presumably because they are also bibliophiles committed to the discipline of reading good stuff, I thought I would provide a list of the books I am now in the process of working through.  They are a strange, quirky combination….

As the past two blog posts indicate, I am working through Calvin’s Institutes… quite slowly (in part because my kids usually rise up earlier than I am thinking!).

Also, I am working through essays by Hans Frei, the Yale theologian known for his work on hermeneutics.  Since

my doctoral work involves a narrative and theological look at the Fourth Gospel, Frei’s work was suggested by my supervisor.  I have read a bit of Frei before, but I am now proceeding with greater care, hoping to grasp the wisdom of every word.  Maybe I am alone in this, but Frei is very hard to read.  I have realized that this has a great deal to with the fact that he is so brilliantly conversant with the past few centuries of hermeneutical approaches to Scripture and so competently aware of every philosophical system proposed and argued since the 18th century and so acutely well-read when it comes to literary criticism… at least so it seems.  To read Frei well, it seems that I will need to read Kant, Wittgenstein, Ryle, Auerbach, and maybe a few others!

Just this weekend I decided to pick up Brian McClaren.  I have never read his stuff, but I noticed in Frei the phrase “a generous orthodoxy.”  I had no idea that the Yale theologian was the source for one of McClaren’s most well-known catch phra

ses.  I am curious to see how he appropriates Frei, though it appears from the introduction as though his appropriation of Frei is more thru Stanley Grenz’s appropriation of Frei, which is probably not a bad thing.

I am also reading (just for fun) Walter Brueggemann’s Out of Babylon.  This OT scholar’s The Prophetic Imagination strongly influenced my chapter, “The Way of the Prophet” in Faith Without Illusions.  In Out of Babylon, Brueggemann is contrasting the imperial ideology of Israel (which precipitated natural disaster in the 6th century at the hand of Babylon) with what he identifies as the imperial ideology and rhetoric of the 21st century United States.  Controversial, yes.  But also very, very compelling.  As an American living on a distant shore who is most importantly a Christian, it is helpful for me to biblically reflect on the curious and tricky relationships between national identity and the identity I have as a citizen of God’s Kingdom while also a resident in this world.

Finally, I am reading R. Alan Culpepper’s important work, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel.  In spite of the fact that the story of Jesus life and ministry is presented to us as story (in the four-fold Gospel), a serious engagement with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as narratives has been seriously lacking until recent decades.  Culpepper’s book was one of the pioneering projects of literary criticism—I am letting him teach me the craft of such an approach to John through his chapters. 

When Theological Work is Dangerous

[from my new series of posts entitled, “Calvin & Coffee”…]

Hazardous occupations: firefighting, police work, soldiering, espionage, high-rise construction, mining…


When we think of dangerous job profiles, “theologian” usually does not come to mind.  The stereotypical theologian wears tweed, smokes an occasional pipe, avoids manual labor, and haunts locally-owned coffee shops when not holed up in some office off the university quad.

But in reading John Calvin, I am reminded that Christian theology has been an exceptionally dangerous profession throughout the history of the church.  Many of the great works we read so casually in locally-owned coffee shops or debate so flippantly in seminary classrooms or teach so dispassionately from the lectern were written by trembling hands, the threat of death and exile ever looming over the open page.

Calvin completed and published the Institutes as an exile.  France was terribly unsafe for a young man writing a book that premised the theological enterprise on the Word of God as revealed in Scripture.  His theology is penned in the hope of eternal life in the face of possible death.  As he wrote to King Francis,

For the sake of this hope some of us are shackled with irons, some beaten with rods, some led about as laughingstocks, some proscribed, some most savagely tortured, some forced to flee.  All of us are oppressed by poverty, cursed with dire execrations, wounded by slanders and treated in most shameful ways [1].

Calvin’s writing is the result of sustained theological thinking under the ominous vigilance of the ruling ecclesiastical and political authorities.  His work was in some ways squeezed out of him, perhaps, by such frightful pressures.

In addition to those external conflicts, Calvin did much of his writing while seriously ill.  Though first published in 1536, multiple editions of the Institutes appeared over the next two decades, the final version not leaving the printer’s office until 1559.  While completing his final revision, Calvin suffered dreadfully from a form of malaria.  He somehow muscled through the sickness in the hopes of bequeathing a worthy work to his readers:

Last winter when I thought the quartan fever was summoning me to my death, the more the disease pressed upon me the less I spared myself, until I could leave a book behind me that might, in some measure, repay the generous invitation of godly men [2].

Danger has attended Christian theology from its inception.  Calvin was not the first to write under the threat of death or to labor in the midst of personal sickness and pain.  Much of the theology of the New Testament was produced in such anxious and dreadful circumstances.  The Apostle Paul would surely have struggled to imagine his vocation as a theologian in a serene and gentle context!

So much of the entire Bible, in fact, was penned under great conflict.  The theology of Scripture is exile theology, the theology of those who cannot forget their near-death escape from Pharaoh (the Torah), the theology of those who anticipate not escaping from Assyria or Babylon (the Prophets), the theology of those who feel the breath of their enemies on their necks and hear the howling of dogs in the distant hills (the Psalms).  The theology of the Gospels is the theology of those who face the threat of synagogue expulsion, who have the claim “Caesar is Lord” ringing raucously in their ears when they know Another is Lord.

Theology is a hazardous vocation.

So how does this heritage of danger affect how we do theology today while the leaves gently fall on green university lawns or while we preach to respectable citizens in the pews amidst their yawns?

Even if the contemporary context in which we work provides safe haven for theological labor, we must refuse to forget the high price paid by the theologians and pastors who have written in darker times.  And we must remember that the times are still quite dark for so many even today.  Though I myself study theology in the shadow of a 1000-year old Norman cathedral in a charming English town, some men and women are doing theology in dirty, humid megacities, breathing in the dust and fumes from busy streets below and sweating on books written only in English which they struggle to understand.  What do these theologians have to teach us, many of whom work in settings much more similar to those of our theological forbears in both biblical and ecclesiastical history?

Theology is always a bit suspect (who among us can truly know the Triune God and write sufficiently about His beauty and power?).  And bad theology can certainly come out of bad circumstances.  But it is also quite possible that Christian theologians writing in favorable circumstances will misperceive or even distort the theological writings of the Scriptures, so many of which were penned in pain.

[1]  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; tr. Ford Lewis Battles; Library of Christian Classics vols XX and XXI; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 14.

[2] Ibid., 3.

Calvin & Coffee… a New Daily Discipline

I am trying to get settled back into what I call my “daily disciplines.”  At this moment for me, these include prayer, the somewhat slow reading of a Psalm, Greek translation of one chapter in John’s Gospel, German translation of Bultmann’s commentary on John (at a very slow pace, I might add), an hour of Hebrew grammar and vocab, and some reading from J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines.  I am excited about adding a new one—working through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. This “discipline” will take place early in the mornings with coffee in the mug.  Yeah, the mug (I think God has given me the best coffee mug every crafted… I just can’t believe it).

image from Wikipedia

I have read chapters of the Institutes, but I’ve never started in the beginning.

What I missed was the editor’s account of Calvin’s historical background, as well as the narrative surrounding the text and its subsequent editions.  I also missed “John Calvin to the Reader,” a foreword of sorts the great Reformer penned for the 1559 version.  And I missed the “Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France.”

These are not to be missed.

The more I study Scripture, the more historical context registers in my mind as absolutely essential for understanding a text… any text.  The Institutes are no different, of course.  John T. McNeill (the editor of the copy I am reading) writes, “…at many points the work itself is alive with realization of the historic crisis amid which it was written” [1].

For most of us Protestants, what we know about Reformation history is a well-wrapped package of oversimplified notions.  Our impression of the Catholic leadership of the day is caricatured, and our impression of the noble Reformers is perhaps a bit too shiny and polished.  The religio-political scenes of Calvin’s day are largely unknown and therefore have no assistance in our reading.  For instance, who in the world is King Francis I?  Why was he persecuting the reform movement?  Who was whispering and shouting in his ear?  The Institutes so cherished by evangelical Protestants today did not arise out of a vacuum… and certainly not out of a sociocultural environment like the one in which unpersecuted, democratic Westerners work, pastor, and write theology today.  We will fail to hear Calvin’s words with their intended force and richness without growing in knowledge of the swirling flux of religious ideas and political stratagems of his times.  I have a lot of work to do….

On these series of posts on Calvin over my coffee (in the mug), I will be reporting some of the glorious (and perhaps disturbing) findings.  For this first post, I will just provide a few interesting facts about the Institutes and then offer comment on Calvin’s motivation for writing.

Curiosities from the Editor’s Introduction

Calvin wrote the Institutes in Latin.

Copies of the French edition were burned in front of Notre Dame on two occasions—1542 and 1544 (the Institutes were violently controversial from the get-go!).

Having fled the repressive regime in France (where many were burned to their death), Calvin finished the 1st edition in Basel, Switzerland.

In its final form, the Institutes is about the length of the Old Testament plus Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Why Calvin wrote Institutes

This is even more interesting to me.  His motivation for writing the work was to provide his readers a theological background suitable for understanding Scripture.  Calvin specifically tells us that he wrote these beloved chapters to enable us to better read our Bibles:

“…it has been my purpose in this labor to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word, in order that they may be able to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling.”

He has offered his Institutes as “a necessary tool” by which we may read Scripture.

So which comes first—the Bible which defines Theology, or Theology by which we understand the Bible?

A fitting question for the 100th blog post here at Hopeful Realism.

The answer?  I go with this one: neither.  It has to be circular.  And I will leave it at that…

…any thoughts?

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; tr. Ford Lewis Battles; Library of Christian Classics vols XX and XXI; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960).

Accordance or Bibleworks… Suggestions?

By a stroke of magnanimity, I was able to get a MacBook Air just before moving to England for the PhD.  I did that Migration Assistant thing with my wife’s Mac, you know—that magical event by which apps and data are invisibly transferred from one piece of well-built machinery to another.  Well, the “migration” was a success, but Bibleworks will no longer open (I was using Crossover to open windows apps).

It looks like I will have to buy either an updated means of virtualization (I can’t believe I am writing about this stuff, as if I had an inkling as to what I am even doing with this tech stuff) or Accordance if I want to retain access to Biblical Studies software.

Any advice?  Is Accordance (at $349) worth it?  I have heard that some folks have trouble opening Bibleworks on Mac’s new Lion operating system.  Should I bother with this route to keep Bibleworks?

Eager to hear some responses….