THE center of worship in the Seventh-day Adventist Church service is the pulpit. The climax or disappointment for the faithful tens of thousands who attend a multitude of sanctuaries on Sabbath morning is the pastoral exhortation. No single hour of the minister's week is so impregnated with opportunities.
The tone of most any missionary endeavor, for instance, is set by the words of a sermon. Though no single message or even a series of messages can ever supplant efficient organization and one-to-one recruitment, a congregation truly lifted be fore the throne of grace through effective pulpit communication is better prepared to accept the rigors of spiritual commission.
Even counseling opportunities have a way of freer exposition as confidence is care fully nurtured in the worship hour. The flow is both ways, of course. Communication as far as possible on a more personal level with each member helps supply the important context of acceptance and expectation in which any successful sermon is delivered.
While it is true, however, that a thorough visitation program can cover a multitude of homiletical sins, a potent pulpit can only add strength to any personal contact.
Little Hurt and Little Help
Admittedly, a mediocre sermon possibly does very little dramatic damage. It may be suspected that the message failed to gain the fullest response and confidence, but is not failure relative to many things? And is this not the Laodicean church?
Nevertheless, no pastor full of his com mission can long take comfort in such a rationale as this, for he soon recognizes that even a little hurt to his people is also very little help to anything. Negative satisfactions accumulate finally into positive failures with the result that his sermonic sins, no matter how well camouflaged, finally find him out.
Of course, it is more by default than design that many pastors are just ordinary preachers. No one really covets mediocrity. Ordinariness is simply the condition of those who hesitate before excellence. Some hesitate because they consider the price of refinement too high in terms of study and sermon preparation. One wonders if their congregations would agree.
Time With the Technical
Avoiding pulpit mundaneness has been the object of countless books, articles, and classes. It seems unfortunate, though, that the preacher often comes away from such exercises with little more than a clutch of sermon types and outlines and with very little commitment to serious content. Applied theology in the pulpit must inevitably fail when there is mainly a theological deficit to apply.
If a Seventh-day Adventist minister would be a "preacher extraordinaire," he must spend more time with the technical. It appears that Sabbath morning is considered too much as "the hour of inspiration" and not enough as the hour of instruction. Instruction, artfully presented, is always inspirational, but more than that, it supplies substance for real spiritual growth. Many preachers are good pulpit performers. Pain fully few, however, are good teachers and teachers the pulpits of this church must contain if a people are to be truly prepared for the days ahead.
History, theology, archeology, back grounds, languages, literary and textual analysis, et cetera, as may apply in varying degrees to both the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White in a particular sense need to be as much the preacher's concerns as any college professor's. What this implies is a true inter-disciplinary approach to preaching. Dictionaries, commentaries, word studies, grammars, histories, theologies, introductions, as well as contemporary works in literature, sociology, and psychology, et cetera, are tools that most every pastor has been at least nominally trained to use, but frightfully few do use many of them, and with unfortunate results pulpit ordinariness.
An Added Dimension
The conviction that lies behind every thing written here, is that though the unadorned technical discovery can be quite cold and uninspiring, as it is thoughtfully applied in the homiletical process, the pulpit hour can gain a precious added dimension of clarity and refinement for persuasion that simply cannot be accomplished by any mere frenzy of sincerity.
To illustrate this premise, consider the area of Biblical languages. This seems a fair enough place to represent such reasoning since the Bible does maintain itself in the Seventh-day Adventist Church as the unmovable base for any responsible theology. In fact, it is an apparent contradiction that the same church which nourishes this Bibliocentric viewpoint has raised up a virtual horde of ministers who by and large have evidently failed to appreciate the Bible's very language! How dispassionately does the average ministerial student recite his Greek lesson. It remains a mystery that any Greek or Hebrew textbook ever survives the final exam! (Some do not, of course, students, as well as texts.)
Allowing for the realities of linguistic aptitudes, why is it that the Biblical languages are so uninteresting to what may be a majority of ministers and ministerial students? Or would a better word be "irrelevant"? One might be tempted to offer a variety of answers to such a question as this, but perhaps the most realistic one is simply that the student often expects unreal results for his labors. As it sooner or later becomes apparent that no major doctrine can finally rest upon or be determined by any mere lexicographical or grammatical nuances, disillusionment can set in.
For instance, does the doctrine of the nature of Christ seriously depend upon what one decides on the absence of the article before theos in John 1:1? As for an illustration with lesser ramifications, can one be entirely sure that John meant some clever distinction between agapad and phileo in his account of Christ's reinstatement of Peter in John 21:15-17? Other items could be cited.
In other words, when the realization sets in that virtually no theological battles are ever won or lost on the basis of the ancient languages alone, the entire effort can be come extremely boring, if not totally distressing. The Greek and Hebrew languages are transformed into objects to be over come and then as with anything painful, to be forgotten.
The Will to Excel
In view of the relative impotency of the Biblical languages for "defending the faith," of what real worth are they? Without exploring the important supportive role of Greek and Hebrew in Biblical theology per se, there is hardly no end to what might be said for the value of these disciplines in preaching. As previously indicated, such a discussion could be divided into two basic parts:
1. Passage clarity. Whether a sermon is exegetically based or more topically based, in so far as the presentation has recourse to Biblical passages and texts, knowing the languages involved can almost always supply an added dimension of clarity.
Take into consideration, for example, Isaiah 58:13, 14. Though very seldom are strict lexicographical distinctions ever finally valid, familiarity with the two He brew words translated "pleasure" and "delight" in the King James Version (chephes and 'oneg) is helpful for understanding and especially illustrating the meaning of these verses.
As the discovery is made that "pleasure" in this context is probably in reference to nothing more or less than routine "business" or daily "affairs" 1 and that "delight" (taking its cue from the verb form 'anag) points to an experience of "exquisiteness" or "delicateness,"2 whose homiletical imagination could not do something significant with illumination such as this? The point to be made is that God invites His people to stop routine "business" for one day in order to discover every day in every thing that is done the "exquisite delight" of Yaweh (v. 14).
Not every pastor has taken Hebrew in his schooling, of course, but a paltry one-half hour daily five days a week with a beginner's grammar can permit any average student to do limited Hebrew exegesis within even six months. The same is true for the Greek. The single most important element is the will to excel. Does God ever have anything less in mind for His servants?
2. Sermonic refinement. The Biblical languages are valuable to the preacher not only in supplying textual clarity but also in affording an almost aesthetic dimension which helps a sermon to be a work of art.
The examples that could be cited to illustrate this point are too numerous even to list! Here are just a random few:
a. The Greek present tense potentially more than its English counterpart in Romans 5:1, "we have" (echomen), helps indicate salvation as a continuing experience more than a faint memory of the past or a nebulous hope for the future.
b. The aorist tenses in 1 Corinthians 6:11, "ye are washed" (apelousasthe), "ye are sanctified" (hegiastkete), "ye are justified" (edikaiothete), on the other hand, may be taken to imply God's completed act in Christ for salvation. In other words, the ongoing realities of redemption are founded upon the assurance that at each step the sinner is made whole in Christ.
c. Interesting plays on words are often impossible to translate effectively. In Romans 12:3 the apostle admonishes "to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly. . . ." Just reading aloud the Greek sentence without even understanding it can supply the effect. Try it: "me huperphronein par' ho dei phronein, alia phronein eis to sophronein . . .," which could be literally translated, "but do not think more highly than it is necessary to think, but give thought unto sober-minded thinking. . . ."
d. In Romans 8:37 "we are more than conquerors" actually translates one Greek word (hupernikomen), which represents the union of the preposition "above" or "over" (huper) and the verb "to conquer" (nikao). The idea of "superconquering" in Christ helps to illustrate the meaning of the word in the apostle's context. In Christ the sinner discovers not barely ample strength to over come adversity, but a spiritual "superness" that daily transforms him into a virtual dynamo against demonic forces.
The temptation is to continue, but perhaps the point has been made. It really is not true that one can expect too much of the Biblical languages. It is simply a case of expecting the wrong thing.
However, as long as effective preaching is important to the Seventh-day Adventist ministry the raison d'etre for the Greek and Hebrew in the minister's sermonic tool kit seems clear. The same could be said and illustrated for the entire gamut of the more technical studies. Why be an ordinary preacher? God is waiting to reinforce His ministers' very best efforts!
1 See also Isaiah 53:10; Proverbs 31:13; Ecclesiastes 3:1, 17; 8:6, where chephes is translated variously in the K.J.V. as "pleasure," "willingly," and "purpose." The usual LXX translation of chephes is thelema, "will."
2 See Psalm 37:11; Isaiah 55:2; 58:14, for illustrations of usage for the verb 'anag and Deuteronomy 28:56 for both the verb and adjective usages.