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.

Review: John McWhorter’s Words on the Move

I’ve gone through two of John McWhorter’s Great Courses on language; I’ve read several of his books, and I’m a faithful listener to his podcast. When I picked up this book I suddenly realized, “I know just what he’s going to say. I get John McWhorter.” I put the book down after two chapters. But a testimony to his consummate skill as a popularizer and communicator is that I couldn’t help myself and I finished the book anyway. And then, particularly with regard to back-shifting, McWhorter managed to say something new to me that my own reading in linguistics hasn’t brought me to. I also collect many quotable quotes and fun illustrations from him that I can use in my own popularizing work.

McWhorter’s head is screwed on straight. He spends an entire book bemusedly observing the sometimes random changes in language (in both word meaning and pronunciation) and offering none of the moral judgments people expect about them But he knows readers want that judgment, and he gives it to them in a wise form. Listen to this:

For a linguist to hope that the public will give up the idea that some ways of speaking are more appropriate for formal settings than others would be futile—especially since all linguists agree with the public on this. Often we are asked, “If all these things considered bad grammar are really okay, then why don’t you use them in your writing and speeches?” However, none of us is pretending that a society of human beings could function in which all spoke or wrote however they wanted to and yet had equal chances at success in life. The linguist’s point is that there are no scientific grounds for considering any way of speaking erroneous in some structural or logical sense. To understand this is not to give up on learning to communicate appropriately to context. To understand this is, rather, to shed the contempt: the acrid disgust so many seem to harbor for people who use the forms we have been taught are “bad.” (220–221)

This is very practical wisdom. It would have saved me from asking a Singaporean friend what his first language was and (I’m so embarrassed by this) asking a Kenyan friend why he speaks English wrong. It would have saved me from mocking a teacher who had a Southern accent when I was eighteen. And even now, the implicit connection to class McWhorter makes (“equal chances at success in life”) is a good reason to be humble about whatever facility I’ve attained in the use of standard American English. The truth is that I’ve been schooled in it from infancy. I never, never had to labor to acquire it. (Thanks, English Major Dad.)

McWhorter also raises the question: “If the way so many people talk is okay, then what counts as a mistake?”

And he provides an answer:

When people are doing things on their own. I once knew someone who, for some reason, despite otherwise perfectly ordinary American English, used “nerfry” for nursery and “grofery” for grocery. That was, quite simply, off because no one else says the words that way; nor is there anything about their sounds that makes it likely that anyone ever will. (195)

Get it set in your mind that McWhorter isn’t giving the inmates permission to rule the asylum, only noting that they in fact do whether think they do or not, and you can quell your moral alarm at his sometimes nonjudgmental descriptions of language change.

And then there’s this, an idea I consider a significant advance in my own understanding:

The fury some harbor over language usage issues is incommensurate with the gravity of the issue. Does anyone genuinely fear that we are on our way to babbling incomprehensibly to one another when no such thing has ever happened among a single human group in the history of our species? One suspects more afoot than logic: rage over language usage may be the last permissible open classism, channeling a tribalist impulse roiling ever underneath.

The tribalist impulse has ever fewer officialized outlets in our society, in which open discrimination is increasingly barred from the public forum. The very pointedness of the rage behind so many comments about language usage suggests something exploding after a considerable buildup of pressure, denied regular venting. In this grand and tragic world of ours, it is rather unexpected, in itself, that anyone would experience anger in response to the construction of a sentence. A student can hand in their paper anytime after Thursday—this use of their is grounds for fulmination amid global warming, terrorism, grisly epidemics, and the prospect of a world without bees? (223–224)

I doubt this explanation will persuade anyone of (ahem) their guilt, but this is by far the best explanation I’ve seen for the furor people raise over language change—and the moral disapprobation I see on people’s faces when they find out I’m fine with particular language changes that have occurred. I have literally been told that I am a moral relativist, even after I have tried to explain with great care what I do and don’t mean. (It was during a Q&A in front of a large group of people; it was awkward.)

(And I’m not a moral relativist.)

Especially helpful for me was the fact that one theme in McWhorter’s book was identical to the major theme of my upcoming book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (in fact, I’m hoping to get my hero McWhorter to blurb the book for me!). The argument I apply to the King James he applies to Shakespeare. And the argument is this simple:

English has changed a lot more since Shakespeare than we think. (205)

The key there is “than we think.” People who don’t obsess over language change like McWhorter does just aren’t likely to notice all the subtle differences that make Shakespeare and the KJV bumpy sidewalks for modern readers. There are many words in each that McWhorter calls “false friends,” words that we still use today but that meant something different in Elizabethan times. McWhorter and I share the same value: we want people to understand what they read and hear. So he made precisely the call I’ve made: update the false friends. His words on this issue are exceptionally wise and deft—and I promptly added them to the manuscript of my own book.

Thank you again, John McWhorter. I owe you a great debt, I really do.

Fantastic Deal on My Favorite Theology Books

John Frame is retiring, and now you can have all six of his best and most important books for $120. Hardbacks. This is killer. I paid much more.

Do not miss this deal: $20 a book for some of the best theology books you will ever buy.

The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, in particular, has been epochal for me. It shapes me in ways I see just about every day. The Doctrine of the Christian Life was also extremely helpful. When I’ve dipped into Frame’s Systematic Theology, I have also found what he always delivers: carefully biblical, straightforward, clear, even simple explanations of complex topics.