Review: Expository Exultation

Expository Exultation

Expository Exultation, John Piper. Carol Stream, IL: Crossway Books, 2018.

Summary: Contends that the purpose of preaching is expository exultation; that preaching is integral to worship in the preacher’s work of making clear and exulting over the text of scripture as it reveals the glories of God.

This is one John Piper book that I can unequivocally endorse. While I might differ with him in other matters, I found myself saying “Amen” again and again as I read this book. The reason for this is that he recovers and articulates as well as anyone since Martyn Lloyd Jones and John Stott the glory and high calling of preaching. His central contention is that preaching, properly done is “expository exultation.” What does he mean by this?

“The title Expository Exultation is intended to communicate that this unique form of communication is both a rigorous intellectual clarification of the reality revealed through the words of Scripture and a worshipful embodiment of the value of that reality in the preacher’s exultation over the word he is clarifying. Preachers should think of worship services not as exultation in the glories of God accompanied by a sermon. They should think of musical and liturgical exultation (songs, prayers, readings, confession, ordinances, and more) accompanied and assisted by expository exultation–preaching as worship.”

Piper offers a helpful correction to the mentality that says worship is over when the music ends, where the message is kind of a letdown or a time for the mind to wander.

The remainder of the book is an unpacking of the above statement. He begins with a discussion of how fitting it is for the people of God to gather for corporate worship and then shows how preaching as expository exultation is integral to our corporate worship and rooted in the persons of the Trinity. The following two parts of this work focus on both the supernatural and natural aspects of expository exultation–the work of the Holy Spirit and the proper use of our skills to communicate with clarity and logic the reality of God and his work revealed in the biblical text.

The next part of this work was perhaps one of the most illuminating parts for me that explained why much biblical exposition falls flat. We may say what the text says, even individual words, and what it means, and how it bears on our lives. But Piper contends that we often do not clearly communicate the reality to which the text bears witness as we direct attention to the text so that people discover that reality for themselves, not by hearing us, but by seeing that this is what the text says. Good preaching shows how reality shines through the text.

He then turns in the next part to the central realities to which he believes the biblical text bears witness. They are the glory of God, Christ crucified, and the obedience of faith. Piper would contend that all three run through scripture and ought run through our exposition of it. Then in the following part, he shows how these three central realities run through even the Old Testament. He concludes by reminding the preacher of the high calling and indispensable importance of expository exultation in the life of the church. And he speaks personally to aspiring preachers:

“But he who called you is faithful. He will do it. I testify from forty years in the ministry of the word, through the best and the worst of times, God loves to help the preacher who is desperate to make the word plain for the holy happiness of his people, by the blood of Christ, for the glory of God. He will help you.”

So much preaching seems disconnected from the glories of God and the work of Christ we sing and celebrate in music, liturgy and ordinance or sacrament. Too often it seems merely to be an inspirational message to help us engage another week, or a series of marching orders. Piper articulates a vision of preaching consistent with the rest of worship–that God is the glorious hero of the scriptures we preach, that the decisive act in the story was the life, death and resurrection of the Son, and we are invited through the regeneration and empowering of his Spirit to participate through the obedience of faith in this great venture of God in his world. Those are the realities we make clear from the text of scripture and over which we exult and lead God’s people in joyous exultation both in corporate worship and lives of worship. No wonder Piper has been at it forty years and continues to preach and write with such passion!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Preaching by the Book

Preaching by the Book

Preaching by the Book (Hobbs College Library), R. Scott Pace, (Heath A. Thomas editor). Nashville: B & H Academic, 2018.

Summary: A step by step guide to preparing and giving messages rooted in biblical texts in a slim volume.

There are numerous guides to preaching, most which are both inspiring and perhaps a little daunting. What caught my attention is the straightforward character of this little book. I could see a person, perhaps faced with his or her first sermon, working through this book in preparing to preach.

First of all, the author outlines his theology of preaching that affirms that the purpose of preaching is that the Word of God, expounded faithfully by ministers of God trusting in the work of the Spirit of God results in the people of God hearing, worshiping, and obeying God. Critical in this process is that sermons arise from and be based in the text of scripture. The remainder of the book unpacks a process by which this is done, which is outlined in seven steps:

1.  Begin with prayer.

  • Prepare your heart.
  • Pray for help.

2.  Read the passage.

  • Read it casually.
  • Read it carefully.

3.  Discover the point.

  • Summarize the main idea
  • Simplify the main idea.

4.  Study the parts.

  • Study the supporting concepts.
  • Study the significant words.

5.  Identify the precepts.

  • Discern the theological truths.
  • Discern the doctrinal truths.
  • Discern the spiritual truths.

6.  Apply the principles.

  • Evaluate our personal condition.
  • Formulate our practical response.

7.  Develop our plan.

  • Construct our sermon outline.
  • Craft our sermon points.

Chapters 2 through 4 elaborate these seven steps. Then Chapters 5 through 7 help with fleshing out the sermon outline into a message that may be preached. It begins with Introductions and emphasizes brevity and clarity that whets people’s appetites, as well as providing a varying diet. Chapter 6 on Illustrations proposes the various kinds of illustrations that might be used and pitfalls to avoid including the overuse of illustrations, and using yourself or your family excessively in illustrations. Chapter 7, reflecting the Baptist origins of this work, discusses Invitations. This is often neglected in other traditions, where a passage is taught, but no response to it is invited in the context of the service.

One subject that I would have liked to seen addressed in this section would be the question of whether one ought write out sermons, preach from notes, or work from memory. It seems that it would be helpful for many to talk about how not to be tied to a text or written notes and yet avoid the wandering and rabbit trails that may accompany extemporaneous preaching. Perhaps the author assumed that preachers figure out what works best for them over time, which seems to be the case, but this is little help for the person starting out.

That aside, what Pace offers in a handy format is a guide that really can serve as a guide throughout the process of preparing a message from a biblical text. He distills a life of preaching wisdom into a concise, slim volume easily taken along with one’s Bible, study tools, and laptop into the study, or coffee shop. Much like a travel guide organized with the traveler in mind, this little guide can be pulled out throughout one’s preparation to preach to inspire and to give sound direction.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Preaching in the New Testament

Preaching in the New Testament

Preaching in the New Testament (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Jonathan L. Griffiths. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: An exegetical and biblical theology of preaching from the texts of the New Testament.

Most of the focus today in preaching is on what is called “homiletics” which focuses on how to prepare and deliver messages in the church and other contexts. But what are the grounds for this thing called “preaching” in the New Testament? How is this distinct from other ministries of the word? What is taking place, ideally, in faithful biblical preaching? What connection is there between the preaching that occurs today and Old Testament prophetic ministries, the preaching of Jesus, and apostolic and post-apostolic preaching?

These are the questions Jonathan I. Griffiths explores in this clear, and I thought, quite helpful monograph. After a brief introduction laying out these questions and his plan of approach, Griffiths explores first the question of the theology of the word, and how God speaks, acts, and is encountered through that word. Then he considers the particular New Testament terms used for preaching, focusing on three: euangelizomai, katangello, and kerysso. He charts the speaker, context, and content of each instance and argues that they function with a high degree of consistency as “semi-technical” terms for preaching.

The second part of the work then focuses on exegetical studies of key New Testament passages. He considers the following texts and finds these themes:

  • 2 Timothy 3-4: The Preacher’s Charge
  • Romans 10: The Preacher’s Commission
  • 1 Corinthians: The Power of the Gospel in Authentic Christian Preaching
  • 2 Corinthians 2-6: Beholding the Glory of God in Preaching
  • 1 Thessalonians 1-2: Preaching the Very Words of God
  • Hebrews: Preaching to the Gathered People of God

In the third part he summarizes his findings, which he has elaborated in his exegetical studies. Most striking to me is the idea that when God’s word is faithfully proclaimed, people hear God’s voice through the human agency of preaching. I think this is a great encouragement to any who engage in this work, who struggle with what do we have to say, and can we say it well. Certainly these things are worthy of consideration, but uppermost is the idea of faithfully setting forth what God has said in scripture and that when we do so, there is the very real prospect that God works through this and speaks to our hearers! So often, people speak of encountering God in various aspects of worship, but do they think of encountering God through the preaching of the word?

Some other key points include the idea that those who preach today do so in continuity with the prophets, the Lord Jesus, and the apostles. Those who preach must be commissioned–not self-appointed. Preaching reflects the character of the gospel in that it is something given by God through preachers to be received and believed by faith. Preaching has a natural context and significance within a Christian assembly–it forms and sustains a local body of believers as they hear God address them together.

I think today that preaching is often conceived of as either an exercise in inspiring people to get through another week or as a way for the preacher and church leadership to get people to devote themselves more diligently to the affairs of the church. Often, the word of God is “used” in these attempts. What Griffiths describes is very different, and to my mind a more noble and awesome calling–to so carefully study and listen to the scriptures in order to faithfully speak for God, such that what people hear are not our ideas, but God speaking. Rather than simply inspiring or goading people to action, the preacher has the opportunity to host an encounter with the living God, whose word is sustaining, and empowering, and compelling. Griffiths’ book sets forth this noble privilege and call, grounded in God’s address to those who preach, and his exegetical work helps us hear that call afresh.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: An All Around Ministry

An All Around MinistryAn All-Around MinistryCharles Haddon Spurgeon. Prisbrary Publishing, 2012.

Summary: A collection of messages given by Charles Haddon Spurgeon as President of the Preachers College during their annual conferences.

Pastoral ministry has always been a demanding profession. If recent statistics are to believed, increasing numbers are struggling and as many as 1500 a month are leaving their ministries due to burnout, moral failure, or conflict. Fifty-seven percent indicate they would leave the ministry if they had somewhere else to go.

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Charles Haddon Spurgeon

It appears that Charles Haddon Spurgeon, often called “the prince of preachers” was well aware of the challenges and pitfalls, as well as the glory of the ministerial calling. He trained a number of pastors in his Preachers College and annually gathered them at a conference over which he presided. An All Around Ministry is a collection of twelve of his addresses to this group.

His titles give some sense of the matters he dealt with in these addresses:

1. Faith
2. Forward!
3. Individuality, and Its Opposite
4. How to Meet the Evils of the Age
5. A New Departure
6. Light. Fire. Faith. Life. Love.
7. Strength in Weakness
8. What We Would Be
9. Stewards
10. The Evils of the Present Time, and Our Object, Necessities, and Encouragements
11. The Preacher’s Power, and the Conditions of Obtaining It
12. The Minister in these Times

His concern throughout was to address the ministerial calling. His message titled “Stewards” probably is the best summary of his sense of ministry as being a steward of an entrusted message, the gospel, and an entrusted task, to bring people to faith and nurture them in it. He writes, “There is great truth in the old proverb that ‘short reckonings make long friends.’ If we make short reckonings with God, we shall be long friends with Him.”

The messages are filled with advice for staying vital in one’s ministry through the practice of faith, the nurturing of spiritual disciplines that deepen one’s spiritual vigor, and lead to one’s being empowered of God for the work. He also warns of the dangers of deviating from personal holiness and doctrinal soundness. While he placed a high value on cogent oratory, he gave preachers this warning: “Perishing sinners do not want poetry, they want Christ.”

In reading these messages, one must understand that Spurgeon was a thoroughly persuaded evangelical of the Reformed perspective. The concerns he argued against in the “Down Grade Controversy” are evident here–a concern for deviation from biblical infallibility, the substitutionary atonement of Christ and the finality of judgment of the unrepentant. Nor does he have a kind word for Anglicanism and Catholicism.

What one does find in these addresses by Spurgeon is the voice of a pastor who has known weariness and discouragement as well as the glorious moments of fruitful ministry. He recognizes the forces both within and without that can derail one’s ministry. And he is one who has had to lean into the resources that come, not from within, but from above to “run and not be weary, to walk and not faint.” His message on “A New Departure” is all about pastoral renewal, as one example.

His seriousness about the pastoral calling is often punctuated with humor that is self-deprecating of the pastoral profession. At one point he writes:

“We must cultivate a cogent as well as a clear style; we must be forceful. Some imagine this consists in speaking loudly, but I can assure them they are in error. Nonsense does not improve by being bellowed.”

It occurs to me that a pastor or others in ministry might do well to read one of these messages by Spurgeon each month, perhaps as part of a pastoral retreat or a time of personal examination. At times the voice may seem strange, or even harsh, and yet the insights and questions he raises seem to me essential for long term faithfulness to one’s call.

Review: Interpreting the Prophetic Books

Prophetic BooksInterpreting the Prophetic Books, Gary V. Smith. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2014.

Summary: This is a concise guide for those preaching from Old Testament prophetic texts covering issues of genre, themes, interpretation, preaching, and contemporary application.

This summer, I’ve been part of a preaching team covering a number of the shorter books in the Bible one book per Sunday, including the Minor Prophets. My assignment has been the books of Nahum and Habakkuk. This is a challenging task if you are not a specialist in this area and some distance from your seminary classes! Distinguishing between near and distant fulfillment, understanding the setting, recognizing different genres within prophecy, and moving from the meaning of the text to relevant application for an audience separated by over two millenia and a cultural gap are all issues that face anyone working with these biblical texts.

Gary V. Smith’s book, part of Kregel’s series of Handbooks for Old Testament Interpretation, is a concise and helpful guide for all these issues and more. In six chapters coming in at under 200 pages, Smith covers the following:

Chapter 1. The Nature of Prophetic Literature: Temporal categories of present, future, and apocalyptic, genres of prophecy, and poetic elements including parallelism and imagery.

Chapter 2. Major Themes in the Prophetic Books: Themes running through the prophets, and themes by specific books.

Chapter 3. Preparing for Interpretation: Knowing the setting of the pre-exilic prophets to Israel and Judah, the exilic prophets, and the post-exilic prophets, issues to be aware of in Ancient Near East Prophecy, textual criticism, and the use of commentaries, including recommendations of commentaries by book (conservative to mainstream Western scholarship).

Chapter 4. Interpretive issues in Prophetic Texts: Literal vs. metaphorical, contextual limits, conditional or unconditional, near or far future, and prophecy and its New Testament fulfillment.

Chapter 5. Proclaiming Prophetic Texts: Getting oriented, shaping the presentation, determining the principle, and reflecting on the application.

Chapter 6. From Text to Application: Offers examples of the steps of Chapter 5 with reference to near future and distant future prophecy.

The book concludes with a glossary of terms relevant to interpreting the prophetic books.

The organization of the book follows good principles of biblical exegesis and provides pointers to the most common exegetical and interpretive issues that arise in handling the prophetic material. There is a brief and then more detailed table of contents that allows one to consult material relevant to a particular prophetic text. The author provides examples from scripture throughout to illustrate points. And the examples in Chapter 6 illustrate the process and care involved in putting together a message that is both exegetically sound and appropriate for one’s audience.

If there was any criticism that could be made of this book, it would be the very limited attention (six pages) given to prophecy and New Testament fulfillment, and particularly, to Christological interpretation. It may be that the author decided to defer to other texts that give greater attention to these matters but given that this is written for use by pastors of Christian churches, a fuller treatment might have been helpful.

On the whole, however, this is a valuable work that serves as a helpful review for those who have had seminary-level training in prophetic exegesis, and a valuable and accessible primer for those without such training.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: Preaching with Accuracy

Preaching with AccuracyPreaching with Accuracy: Finding Christ-Centered Big Ideas for Biblical Preaching by Randal E. Pelton. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2014.

Summary: This book contends that to preach with accuracy, one needs to find the big idea in the text, but not only that, to understand that idea in the context of the book, and ultimately all of scripture, which means connecting it to the person and work of Christ.

Randal Pelton thinks that much of “biblical preaching” isn’t biblical enough because preachers have failed to find the big idea in their chosen text. Often, they are preaching something tangential to the big idea. Furthermore, truly biblical preaching sets the textual big idea (texbi is Pelton’s term) within the contextual big idea (conbi) and ultimately within the canonical big idea (canbi) which will center on the person and work of Christ. Hence, Pelton is contending that it is not enough to turn one’s exegesis of a passage into a sermon. Rather one must place the text in its theological context in God’s redemptive story (Pelton assumes the unity of the canon, while recognizing the diverse literature and settings in which the books of scripture were written).

The book begins with an argument for exposition today from 1 Corinthians 14:24-25, arguing that it is the word of God explained plainly that God uses in the hearts not only of his people but even the outsider. He then contends that many preachers fail to preach accurately because they are preaching small ideas in the text rather than its main or big idea. After showing how to appropriately “cut” the text, that is, choose the textual portion on which to preach so that one isn’t only preaching part of the development of an idea, he provides specific help with “do it yourself” examples for identifying the textual idea in various genres. He then gives similar instruction in finding the contextual big idea, noting things like God or Christ as the key actor in narrative, that epistles are arguments and one must identify the thread of argument, and situate the text within this, and so forth.

Finally, he addresses how to find the canonical big idea. This seemed to me to be the vaguest part of the book. Pelton quotes Sinclair Ferguson, who said that there is no “simple formula, an elixir to be sprinkled on our sermons to transform them into the preaching of Christ” (quoted on p. 138 of Pelton). Ultimately, he would argue that Old Testament texts, indeed all texts, should be read in light of the gospel. He contrasts his approach to that of Sidney Greidanus, but I found Greidanus far more specific in how to go about this (in a much longer text) that Pelton. But both ultimately advocate forms of Christ-centered preaching of all biblical texts. This is an alternative to the “book of stories and rules” or “God’s handbook” approach, or approaches that moralize narratives (this is what Nehemiah did and we should too). In his concluding chapter, he describes how one moves from this textual work to the sermon with the encouragement that the work he describes in the book should come early in the week so that it can be fleshed out in a message.

This strikes me as a very helpful book for someone in the early years of preaching, or someone who preaches who has not yet had the benefit of seminary, who is committed to expository preaching. It helps transform sermons from either running commentaries on the Bible, or when one is preaching through a book, preaching disconnected messages that fail to show how the book coheres. More vitally, it shows the pastor how to provide a theological framework in his messages to hang the big ideas of a text onto the framework of the biggest ideas in the Bible of God’s redemptive story that culminates in Christ. And it has the virtue of being concise and practical while pointing those interested to further resources.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Month in Reviews: May 2015

May continued the trend of listening to non-Westerners discussing theology. I read a travel narrative on prayer and a business narrative rooted in a study of Joseph the son of Jacob. In the history category, I worked may way through a sprawling history of Scotland and a parallel biography of Grant and Lee and their Civil War commands. I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s musings on the English language, a work that dealt with 145 “myths” about Christianity, and a plea for “slow church”. For some reason, I didn’t finish any fiction in May, but look forward to a review of the Pulitzer Prize winning All The Light We Cannot See which is one of the best works of fiction I’ve read in some time.

That said, here is what I reviewed in May with links to the full reviews:

MythsA Year of Living Prayerfully1. Exposing Myths About Christianity by Jeffrey Burton Russell. Under eight headings, this book offers 145 short essays responding to lies, legends, and half-truths about Christian faith in contemporary discussions, giving concise, thoughtful and catholic responses (in the sense of representing the wide swath of Christianity) helpful both to the person exploring the faith and to apologists and others who proclaim it.

2. A Year of Living Prayerfully by Jared Brock. Jared Brock and his incredibly patient wife Michelle go on a year long pilgrimage that takes them to the Vatican to meet the Pope and to Westboro Baptist Church and many other places alternately delightful and weird in a quest to deepen their prayer life.

slow churchMother Tongue3. Mother Tongue: The English Language, by Bill Bryson. This amusing and informative book surveys the history of the English language and all its vagaries and perplexities of word origins, spellings, and pronunciations and why it has become so successful as a world language.

4. Slow Church by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. This book argues that the church has been “McDonald-ized” and that just as the Slow Food movement has returned to embracing food that is good, clean, and fair, so the church needs to embrace an ethic of quality, an ecology of reconciliation, and an economy of abundance.

Accidental ExecutiveCrucible of Command5. The Accidental Executive, by Albert M. Erisman. A former Boeing executive reflects deeply on the biblical character of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, and amplifies on these reflections from his own experience in business leadership and interviews with other executives in a highly readable account suitable for discussion groups in business and church settings.

6. Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee–The War They Fought, The Peace They Forgedby William C. Davis. This is a dual biography of Grant and Lee that studies their contrasting origins and yet similar qualities of command through back and forth narratives covering similar periods leading to their climactic confrontation, the peace they established, and its aftermath.

Preaching the NTScotlandEvangelical Postcolonial Conversations7. Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis edited by Kay Higuera Smith, Jayachitra Lalitha, and L. Daniel Hawk. This book arises from a roundtable that sought to apply postcolonial concepts to re-visioning evangelical theology and praxis, coming to terms both with how colonialism shaped evangelical theology and mission and what it means to listen to the voices of the formerly colonized.

8. Scotland: A New History by Michael Lynch. This one volume work provides a comprehensive overview of the history of Scotland from the Roman invasions, through the kingdoms of the Picts, the Wars of Independence, the rise of the House of Stewart, the Treaty of Union in 1707, the commercial and intellectual zenith of Scotland in the late 18th/early 19th century and its continued efforts to define its relation with the U.K down to the time of writing in 1992.

9. Preaching the New Testament edited by Ian Paul & David Wenham. The contributors to this volume consider how the character of the genres and sub-genres of the New Testament shape how these texts are preached with faithfulness not only to the meaning of the text but also to the type of text they are preaching. Essays include not only discussions of genres but also issues in hermeneutics and homiletics as they bear on the teaching of the New Testament.

Best of the Month: I would have to go with Slow Church. The authors of this book propose a different way of thinking about the church from so much of the mega-church and church growth models that have dominated evangelical discussions of what the church ought to be.

Quote of the Month: I chose this one from Exposing Myths about Christianity: 

“Original sin is actually a democratic idea. Without believing in original sin, one person might pride himself or herself on being better than another and one group or race or nation might claim to be better than others. The idea that absolutely everyone is a sinner makes it much harder to be arrogant and judge others” (p. 263).

In addition to the review of All The Light We Cannot See, look for reviews of a book on preaching centered around Christ, even when working from Old Testament passages, Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring, and a book on caring for the creation that seeks to develop the biblical ethics behind our care for creation. Time allowing, I also hope to review David McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers.

Perhaps from all these choices you will find a good summer read. Happy reading!

All “The Month in Reviews” post may be accessed from “The Month in Reviews” link on the menu bar of my blog. And if you don’t want to wait a month to see my reviews, consider following the blog for reviews as well as thoughts on reading, the world of books, and life.

Review: Preaching the New Testament

Preaching the NTPreaching the New Testament edited by Ian Paul & David Wenham. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.

Summary: The contributors to this volume consider how the character of the genres and sub-genres of the New Testament shape how these texts are preached with faithfulness not only to the meaning of the text but also to the type of text they are preaching. Essays include not only discussions of genres but also issues in hermeneutics and homiletics as they bear on the teaching of the New Testament.

Anyone who has attempted to preach from the various New Testament texts quickly realizes that not only do  different principles of interpretation apply to different genres, but how one preaches these texts differs. When preaching a gospel narrative, helping people inhabit the story is crucial. When preaching Romans, understanding the argument Paul is making and how he develops it is important.

A number of books have been written on genre and exegesis. What is different about this book is that it takes the various genres and sub-categories of genres and explores how these might be preached in a manner consistent with their form. There are several essays concerning various types of writing found in the gospels–an overview by D.A. Carson, a treatment of the nativity narratives by R.T. France, which was the last thing he wrote before his death, and chapters on parables, miracles, and the Sermon on the Mount. Successive chapters consider the book of Acts, Paul’s epistles, and the Pastoral epistles, Hebrews, the General Epistles, and Revelation. These are followed by chapters on the use of archaelogy and history in preaching, how one preaches the ethics of the New Testament, the preaching of hope and judgment, two chapters on hermeneutical issues, and a concluding chapter that considers preaching the gospel from the gospels.

I thought in general the essays were of high quality. Carson’s on preaching the gospels, like so much of what he writes was a goldmine bringing together exegetical and homiletic insight. France explores the crucial issue of how one brings fresh life to familiar infancy narratives. I. Howard Marshall helpfully addresses both the horizon of the context of the Pastoral epistles and a number of contemporary issues that the texts address under the categories of Christian belief, Christian character and congregational life and gives us examples of two of his own homiletic outlines. I thought the essay on Hebrews especially helpful in identifying both the challenges of preaching this text and the thread of redemptive history that may be brought forth.

In the portion not devoted to specific genres, Peter Oakes essay on archaeology and history emphasized as the most crucial task helping people understand everyday life in New Testament contexts. Stephen Travis helpfully took on the important issue of preaching hope and judgment. In his discussion of judgment I thought he struck a good balance of what may be clearly affirmed and the places where there are no definitive answers, between the reality of judgment and the truth that this was not God’s intention for human beings.

A common quality of all these essays was the conviction that those who preach do not need to choose between faithfulness to the text of the Bible and preaching that engages contemporary hearers. In fact, they would contend that faithful attention to the genres of New Testament text that allows these genres to shape how one preaches is critical to homiletic relevance and delivers the preacher from falling into patterns of boring sameness. While this is not the sum total of good preaching, which includes the pastor’s engagement personally with the text and speaking in the power of the Spirit, this work contributes to God’s word being heard by God’s people through the human vessel of preaching. I would commend this book to any who are committed to biblical preaching and seek not only to be faithful to the meaning of these texts but also their literary character.

May 2014: The Month in Reviews

It was a rich and varied month of reading–everything from a long history of genocide to a reflective book on a one sentence prayer. I read primary source accounts of the beginning of the Atomic age and a collection of essays on the challenging theological question of “holy war” in the Bible. There was a book on 19th century efforts to reconcile faith and science, and the cutting edge 21st century science of genomics and its challenges to faith and ethics. I explored a full length memoir of growing up in southern Saskatchewan, a full-length biography of the “little woman that started this great war [the Civil War]”, and a delightful collection of short stories by a Bengali Indian writer. So, here is the month in reviews, with each of the links taking you to the full review of the book:

1. God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America, by Walter H. Conser, Jr. The title summarizes the book in many ways, exploring how 19th century theologians grappled, even before Darwin, with discoveries that called into question interpretations of the Bible.

2. The Manhatten Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians, ed. by Cynthia C. Kelly. The immediacy of these accounts combined with the skillful editing that fashions these into a seamless narrative makes this a compelling read of the beginning of the nuclear age.

3. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power.  From the story of Rafael Lemkin who gave us the word “genocide” to the tragedy of Rwanda, and our first real steps to intervene in the Balkans, Power tells a story of America’s studied avoidance for the most part, of using its power to prevent genocide, even while piously saving “never again” after the Holocaust.

god and natural worldmanhatten projectproblem from hellexcellence in preaching4. Excellence in Preaching: Studying the Craft of Leading Preachers, by Simon Vibert. I appreciated both the concept and conclusions of this book but felt it was marred by its exclusive use of white, Anglo male models. Is excellence in preaching really limited to this demographic? I think not.

5. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life, by Nancy Koester. Stowe did far more than just write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was a pioneer among women authors, the daughter and spouse of New School Calvinist pastors who moved away from these theological roots while not moving away from Christ, and contributed far more to the abolition of slavery than simply her novel. An outstanding biography.

6. Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream, by Suzanne Mettler. Mettler argues that in the field of higher education as in the wider society, our education policies and our failure to maintain policies offering affordable access to all, are creating a new educated elite while excluding many from the lower classes of society.

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7. Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, by J. Craig Venter. Venter was the leader of one of two teams (Francis Collins led the other) who sequenced the human genome. In this book, Venter talks about what he and other genetic researchers have been doing since, particularly in developing our capacities to synthesize DNA and the ways they’ve applied this research.

8. Holy War in the Bible, ed. by Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan.  This book represents the proceedings from a conference on this issue and is organized around essays representing six different approaches to the question of how we deal with war in the Bible. Probably the most thorough-going treatment on this issue I’ve read.

9. The Jesus Prayer, by John Michael Talbot. This little booklet reflects word by word on the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner). A book at once theologically rich, devotionally nurturing, and ecumenically written.

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10. Wolf Willow, by Wallace Stegner. This is Stegner’s memoir of the settlement of south Saskatchewan in the area of the Cypress Hills and his own boyhood. He punctuates this with a riveting, fictional account of the struggle of cowboys to survive the winter of 1906, that devastated the herds and nearly took their lives.

11. Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri. This Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories by Bengali Indian Lahiri explores the intersection of traditional Bengali values with modernity, particularly in negotiating the immigrant experience. A number of the stories are set in Boston, where Lahiri was educated.

David Brooks, in a recent op-ed in The New York Times made this observation about what books can and cannot do in our lives:

I suppose at the end of these bookish columns, I should tell you what I think books can’t do. They can’t carve your convictions about the world. Only life can do that — only relationships, struggle, love, play and work. Books can give you vocabularies and frameworks to help you understand and decide, but life provides exactly the education you need.

That’s what I felt these books do in my life. It’s my hope that one or more might do the same for you!

 

Review: Excellence in Preaching: Studying the Craft of Leading Preachers

Excellence in Preaching: Studying the Craft of Leading Preachers
Excellence in Preaching: Studying the Craft of Leading Preachers by Simon Vibert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was attracted by the idea of this book. Study great preachers to look for the qualities that define the greatness of their preaching. Vibert starts with the greatest of all, Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount. He then explores the work of twelve others, ranging from Tim Keller to John Piper to Nicky Gumbel to Mark Dever and even Mark Driscoll (obviously before some of the controversies surrounding his ministry).

The plan of each chapter is a brief personal profile of the person, a digest version of an exemplary sermon with side notes on what makes it exemplary, followed by a summary of the particular qualities of excellence evident in this person. What is striking are both some commonalities and the differences. Common to all seems to be a faithfulness to scripture and a passion for the glory of God as well as an ability to connect personally through story and pastoral awareness of one’s audience. But there are unique lessons to be learned from each as well. For Keller, it is to anticipate objections, to read thoroughly and widely, to create intrigue, and to preach for a verdict. For Vaughn Roberts, it is careful interaction with the biblical text, a clear and memorable sermon structure, an economy of words, and a commitment to mentor the next generation of preachers. For David Cook, it is to be genuinely interested in people, to apply the sermon first to oneself, and to enter the congregation’s world before drawing them into the world of the text.

Vibert’s conclusion summarizes these qualities and then poses a really interesting question, “wherein lies the power of good preaching?” Is it in the Word of God, is it in the Holy Spirit, is it in the person of the preacher submitted to God? In the end, Vibert argues that the answer is “yes”, that it is an “intermarriage” of all three that can be observed in scripture, church history, and in great preaching in our own day.

I both preach on occasion and have been involved in the training of younger ministry colleagues in preaching so I found much of interest that confirmed my own convictions. There was a significant glaring omission that I could not overlook–the absence of women or non-white exemplars such as Isaac Canales or Ajith Fernando or Ken Fong, and many others. It seems that the unspoken assumption is that excellence in preaching can only be attained by Anglo men. The author does not address this omission other than it may reflect the result of a survey among ministry peers. This lack of cross-cultural awareness is disturbing and undermines the otherwise worthy ideal of this book.

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