Why biblical authority rarely impacts the local church

The need for a more exegetical approach to the Bible in sermon preparation

Jon Paulien, Ph.D., is chair of the New Testament Department, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

It's eleven o'clock at night, and you realize you have to preach the next morning. With a longing look toward your warm and comfortable bed, you head into the study instead.

The concept of prayer suddenly looks more appealing. After that fervent appeal for wisdom, you begin working. You think about your congregation and its needs. You think about the direction God wants you to take your church. For a moment your mind is almost blank. Then, gradually, you sense the leading of the Spirit of God. One idea forms, then another. At first it seems just a muddled collection of ideas, but suddenly, in a moment of inspiration, a thread appears, and the project begins to fall into place. An outline develops; some things are dropped, others added. This isn't going to be half as bad! you think. It's 1:30 in the morning. You reach for your Bible concordance....

Hold it right there! Why do you reach for your concordance only then? In order to sprinkle your sermon with Bible texts, why else? But why would you do that? Simply in order to dress your sermon with the authority of the Bible. Yet by doing this, your sermon will gain an influence that it doesn't deserve. It will sound like the will of God when it may have been only the educated musings of a stressed-out and sleep-deprived pastor. The Bible had little or nothing to do with the development of the sermon. You never took the time to bathe yourself in the Word so that your texts really said what needed to be said.

What you have done is tantamount to fraud, hermeneutical fraud, claiming something you haven't invested adequate time and proper procedure to achieve.

Something even worse happens. Those who listen with a care and an attention that your preparation may not have merited will learn a hermeneutic, a way of approaching the study of the Bible that doesn't yield the best results. They will pick up the undertone that it doesn't really matter what the Bible says as long as you can use it persuasively. They will learn to read the Bible, not to submit themselves to God's authority but to support positions they already believe. They will put texts together that don't belong together in order to make a point. One day, these careful listeners may even use your hermeneutic against you.

Exegesis versus intuition

The frightening thing is that this approach actually comes out of a high view of inspiration. You and your church members believe that the Bible carries God's authority. If you didn't believe that, you wouldn't use it the way you just did. Certain uses can be even more dangerous than not using the authenticity of the Bible.

If you preach a sermon based on psychology, sociology, or experience, level with your people. "I didn't get this from the Bible, so I don't want anyone to feel compelled to accept what I am about to share. But I believe the Spirit of God has placed a burden on my heart this morning. Please listen prayerfully and then decide whether or not God would want you to make this part of your life." You don't have to claim some special authority in order to preach this sermon. You don't have to demand that everyone agree. If you got your ideas out of a book or a personal experience, just say so; let the Spirit apply God's authority if, in fact, you have it. What often happens instead is that we use the Bible to provide a cloak of authority to a sermon based on psychology, sociology, experience, or mere intuition.

If, on the other hand, you want to preach a truly biblical sermon, you need to get your message from the Bible. It sounds so simple and obvious, yet it can be difficult. Perhaps God has ordained that the truths of His Word will yield themselves only to the diligent and obedient student (2 Tim. 2:15; John 7:17). The gems of truth can be mined only by digging deep, which demands investing significant amounts of time in a productive approach to Scripture.

How can we study the Bible so as to draw out the truths that are actually there and not simply see what we want to? In other words, how can we do biblical exegesis? Exegesis simply means "read out." The exegete wants to "read out" of the text what is there. The opposite is what happens the night before the preaching appointment: eisegesis "read in" to the text what we want to see or already believe.

The problem of self-deception

The bottom line for most misuse of Scripture is self-deception. We deceive ourselves, and we don't even have a clue how it happens. We turn the Bible into a book that looks like us by reading our own ideas, concepts, and needs into Scripture.

Psychology talks about defense mechanisms automatic, and even unconscious, ways that we have of avoiding the pain that comes from knowing the truth in certain situations. These natural defense mechanisms are designed to protect us from the emotional arrows of a sinful world. But they also get in the way of receiving the Word. Have you ever been reading the Bible and then suddenly realized that you had no idea what you were reading? Automatically, even subconsciously, we can tune out and reinterpret threatening biblical concepts.

As a result, I've developed a playful definition of exegesis: "The process of learning how to read the Bible in such a way as to leave open the possibility that you might learn something." It is easy to study the Bible without learning a thing, especially if what we might learn is that we are wrong or that we may have to change. So, instead, it is easy for us to avoid the truth and deceive ourselves, even as we study the Bible.

The original languages

The best safeguard against self-deception is a knowledge of biblical languages. Scholars have done a poor job of selling this point to young pastors. For example, how did you learn English (or whatever language background you were born into)? As you heard certain words over and over, you gradually understood the meaning of those terms in the context of everyday life. Every word came to you in a certain time, place, and circumstance. When you read the Bible today in your native language, every word triggers these personal associations. The translation evokes events, contexts, and people you automatically associate with the words in the verses. When reading Scripture in your own language, therefore, you inevitably import your own ideas into the text.

In contrast, reading the New Testament in the Greek allows you to break the bonds of your personal past and begin to experience the text as it was meant to be. Scholarly study of the New Testament forces a person to learn the Greek in its original context. You consult lexicons and dictionaries, which unpack the original meanings. When I read the New Testament in the Greek, I begin to feel associations and patterns that I would have never noticed in English. Over time, a reading knowledge of the Greek causes a greater break with one's own worldview and immerses one more into the worldview of the Bible writers, which is the primary goal of exegesis.

Many will, however, never develop a reading knowledge of the Greek or become specialists in the ancient time, place, and circumstances of the text. It is imperative, therefore, that they have a way to do serious, honest exegesis without such knowledge.

How can you and I reliably approach the Bible in our own language, time, place, and circumstances? In the conclusion of this two-part series (to appear in July), I will share five simple principles of Bible study that mark out the difference between using the Word, on the one hand, and receiving and obeying it on the other. Hopefully, in the light of these principles, we will be weaned away from the night-before forays and consistently compose sermons that use Scripture as the source of deep truth rather than as a flimsy cover for what might not even be truth at all.

This is part I of a two-part article. Part 2 -will appear in the July 1998 issue.


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Jon Paulien, Ph.D., is chair of the New Testament Department, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

May 1998

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