Practical Questions about Original Language Study in Sermon Prep

A questions from someone who watched my Asia Center for Advanced Christian Studies lecture on Original Languages (click here and here for related blog posts):

Most pastors I know have only about 6 hours max, maybe 8, to prepare a message and most need to prepare 3 messages a week. We want to spend more time in the original text, but if they are like me, I spend most of my time reading and re-reading the text in the ESV & HCSB, making sure I understand the context and authorial intent, analyzing the grammar to make sure I understand the main ideas and how the other parts relate to it (diagramming & clause displays), and then writing and refining my sermon notes. I also need to think about helpful illustrations & specific applications. So I never feel like I have spent enough time in the original text or even consulting commentaries. So do you have any practical advice for how much time we should set aside to spend in the original text out of the 6-8 hours we have per message, and how to use the, let’s say, 20-30 minutes we have to look at the original text? Also, any generality you can make about how much time you would spend consulting commentaries or how many? Lastly, if your Hebrew is pretty rusty, what resource would you use to try to get something out of the original text if you are preaching from an OT passage?

My answer:

A few caveats first: I’m not a regular preaching pastor. I teach Sunday School all year round, pretty much, but my sermon prep (I preach maybe five times a year) tends to get squeezed in between projects. I also tend to use exegetical work I’ve done recently for Logos articles. So though I get two or three hours of “sermon prep” per sermon, I’m spending most of that on rhetorical crafting and manuscripting in English. But I’m relying on other hours of work I’ve already done in exegesis, including time in Greek and Hebrew. This makes it hard for me to generalize. I also don’t do exegesis in such discrete steps that I could say: “Spend one hour in Greek.” I read the text in multiple English translations, and I go chase down in Greek or Hebrew interesting questions that occur to me. If I’m struggling with the structure of a passage, I use Logos’ sentence-flow diagrams. If I’ve got extra time, I do it in Greek rather than in English (I have not done this in Hebrew; the genres don’t usually lend themselves to this type of analysis). If I’m ever about to make a preaching point out of some finer point of grammar, I make sure to check the original languages. Again I’d say that use of Greek/Hebrew is not a step so much as a significant ingredient in the entire atmosphere of my sermon prep. Sometimes, however, I must admit that my time in Greek/Hebrew is limited to a last-minute realization that I’d better read the whole of my sermon text before I go preach it, lest I say something stupid! I totally get the time pressure question.

And I, too, feel like I’ve never spent enough time on commentaries, in particular. I’ve gotten to the point that I mainly tend to check commentaries either 1) when I know I need access to the history of interpretation, 2) when I’m guessing they’ve tracked down a niggling point of grammar or usage that puzzles me, or 3) when I’m looking for rhetorical help in communicating something I’ve already noticed in the text (for this homiletical commentaries are useful, but even technical ones will usually offer some help). The key is that I bring questions to commentaries; I don’t just read them. Most frequently the question I come to commentaries for is this: how have other people used this text throughout time? Often that means I get a quick vote from multiple commentaries on a particular exegetical or theological question (like “Did Jephthah actually kill his daughter?”). I think I’m at the stage of my exegetical skill that if something in the text really puzzles me, it’s going to divide the commentators. Checking commentaries is not a discrete step for me anymore than using Greek/Hebrew is—except that I do try to push commentaries toward the end of my exegetical process, after I’ve had a chance to generate questions. I typically use three to five commentaries at least a little (usually one of them gets more attention than the others), and on the occasions when I need to run an interpreters’ referendum, I use Logos to check a bunch—as many as 60, but usually more like 10–15. That’s what I did with Jephthah. I’m not digging into reasons, I’m just getting votes.

I’ve been influenced by the hermeneutical spiral model, in which knowledge is gained by attendance to generals and particulars in an ever-tightening spiral. In my limited sermon prep time, I’m grabbing as many generals and particulars as I can get, from as many sources as I can get them from, until the last second! I will never be able to track down all the details relevant to the interpretation of my sermon’s given Scripture passage; I have to trust God’s providence in the time he has allotted me. I guess I’d say that attention to theory and methodology—hermeneutics, linguistics, systematics, biblical theology—has really paid dividends, so that I can use the time I have more efficiently.

As for Hebrew… I’d point someone to the methodological reading. Get into linguistics enough so that you can do your own survey of the usage of a given Hebrew word using Bible software. Get into genre analyses like Robert Alter on The Art of Biblical Poetry so that you’re not reinventing the wheel on parallelism every time you preach a Psalm. I have recently been thinking that I need some refreshment of my Hebrew, and I’m strongly considering adopting the read-a-little-bit-every-day approach I’ve heard recommended. William Barrick of The Master’s Seminary has also put out a free online course.

Hope this helps.

Final Lecture for Asia Center for Advanced Christian Studies

In which I take students through How to Think about Others’ Exegetical Fallacies and then talk through some portions of my dissertation that focused on ἀγάπη (agape) and what it “really” means. No, like, for real this time.

Advanced Hermeneutics, Lecture 1: Prolegomena

My respected, long-time friend Joel Arnold has set up the Asia Center for Advanced Christian Studies, an online school aimed at men who don’t have access to PhD-level courses but who can benefit from them. ACACS uses live video in Zoom.us meetings. And multiple other respected, long-term friends are involved, such as Kevin Oberlin, Brian Collins, Randy Leedy—well, pretty much everybody you see on that site.

I applaud what Joel is doing, and I applaud it enough that I got up at 4:40 a.m. on Memorial Day to deliver the first lecture of his newest course, Advanced Hermeneutics. I love Prolegomena, and I volunteered for this lecture. Other friends will teach other two-hour lectures in coming weeks. I’ll be speaking on the following schedule (all lectures take place from 8–10 am Eastern Time):

  • Monday, May 29: Prolegomena
  • Monday, June 5: Original Languages
  • Thursday, June 15: Using Tools: Grammars, Lexicons, Translations, Commentaries, Software
  • Monday, June 19: Exegetical Fallacies

Love the Sin and Hate the Sinner

This is a great insight into a precious truth from Doug Wilson:

Christians are accustomed to distinguish the sin from the sinner. This distinction is good and right, but it is only possible to make this distinction because of what Jesus did on the cross. It is possible for a man to be forgiven, which is to say, it is possible for a distinction to be made between that man and his sins. The man can now be taken in one direction, and his sins in another. He may be established on dry land, and his sins are in the deepest part of the sea (Mic. 7:19).

In Doug’s article he gives a sad example of how our world is loving sin and hating sinners.

Colin Gunton on Frameworks of Belief

All interpretation is shaped by the frameworks of belief which we bring to it; the hope is that the text—or rather the Holy Spirit’s opening up of the text—will enable us both to use and to transcend those frameworks with ever new insights into the truth of the gospel.

—Colin Gunton, Christ and Creation

Right on. The postmodern insight that everyone, by definition, sees through his own eyes and from his own location must not forget the fact that in reading the Bible we are not merely dealing with a static text but the living words of a person. My hope as I read in the Bible is not, finally, in my hermeneutical skill or theological knowledge—though these are important secondary means. My hope is not in myself at all; it’s in God’s mercy and grace, as it is in all areas of life.