This semester in seminary I am taking a course, “Preaching to Modern Listeners,” the second of two courses on homiletics that are required for the M.Div. Whereas the first course focused mainly on basic methodology—taught with Haddon Robinson’s now famous book, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages—this course devotes most of its attention to the latter part of Robinson’s process: application and communication of biblical concepts to modern listeners. The governing metaphor for the class is drawn from John Stott’s book on preaching, also very well known, called Between Two Worlds. As preachers (so goes the metaphor), we stand astride a great chasm separating the world of the bible from today’s world, and are faced with the task of conveying the message of the bible to the ears of modern listeners.
Gordon-Conwell is widely recognized for its outstanding homiletics instruction. Though Haddon Robinson himself just recently retired, the other faculty (Jeff Arthurs and Scott Gibson in particular) have gained a reputation for offering some of the best training in expository preaching available at evangelical seminaries. I have benefited immensely from these classes, and will certainly grant that Robinson’s method provides brilliant tools for preparing and delivering sermons.
At the same time as these tools have proven themselves helpful in preparing sermons (or for that matter, writing) effectively, I have also found myself repeatedly perplexed by certain aspects of the homiletics instruction I’ve received—hence this post and the ones that will follow. What I mean to say is, though I quite like the homiletical methodology on offer here, I find the theology that is supposed to support it wanting—threadbare, to be honest. Granted, I am in full agreement with the philosophy, so admirably evident in Robinson’s writing, that the preacher submits his or her thoughts to the text of scripture. What is to be preached is ultimately, one way or another, what is written. But a problem I consistently perceive in my classes is that a basic, all-important issue is never thoroughly addressed: what purpose does preaching have, and how does it relate to the purpose of scripture itself for the life of the church? A host of unexamined assumptions about both these questions seems to underlie much of our instruction, and I have felt repeatedly the need to reflect on them in greater depth.
This will be an ongoing focus for the fall; I consider the matter worthwhile as a topic for reflection, seeing as there is more at stake in the matter than just a grade on a transcript. I love the scripture that we recite at the beginning of every class:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.
2 Timothy 4:1-2
Preaching, like the kingdom of God, is not a matter of talk but of power, and a grave responsibility. It behooves us, then, to consider carefully how we ought to understand the task, its relation to the scriptures we rely upon to preach, and its purpose in the life of our churches. If we grasp this, our methodology will prove even more useful.