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Some Reflections from a Professor in the Pulpit (Part 2)

[This is the second of two posts on my reflections on preaching. Part 1 can be found here.]

(4) I am convinced more than ever that preaching helps us ask the best questions of the text of Holy Scripture.

Interpretation is driven by and rooted in asking questions. The skill of interpretation of texts is learning how to ask questions of the text and to discern the answers well. There are many different kinds of questions we can and should ask about a text, including the texts of Holy Scripture. We can ask historical questions, grammatical ones, cultural queries; we can do literary analysis, ask about character development; we can ask about the history of the interpretation of a passage or its reception history; we can inquire about how one text connects to other canonical texts or ideas; we can ask what texts teach us about God, the Trinity, and scores of theological and ethical topics. (One unique hermeneutics book that explores a variety of such approaches is Dean Deppe’s All Roads Lead to the Text: Eight Methods of Inquiry into the Bible.)

All such questions can be helpquestions2fully asked about the texts of Scripture. Very importantly, the kind of questions we ask are the kind of answers we will get, whether they be historical, grammatical, theological, or personal. The key is to recognize that while all questions are good to ask, some questions are more important and beneficial than others. Every question we ask can help us grow in understanding and appreciation, but some questions are simply more fruitful, powerful, and more in accord with the overall purpose of Scripture.

A problem is that in the modern period, including for most of evangelical hermeneutics, we have put an overemphasis on historical and grammatical questions, either dismissing theological and personal/ethical questions or relegating them to some other stage or type of reading, calling it “application” and not “interpretation.”

But in the long tradition of the Church the texts of Holy Scripture have been approached with a variety of questions (including grammatical and historical) but with a clear recognition that the most important and most beneficial questions are the ones that ask what the texts reveal about the Triune God, how he operates in the world, what we learn about ourselves, and what humanity is called to individually and corporately. This explains why pre-modern preaching feels and sounds so different when read in comparison with the modern work of scholarly interpretation, even when done by evangelicals. The latter approach has narrowed its focus on a certain set of questions that do not easily enable one to make theological, canonical, ethical, and applicational moves.

Good preachers in the modern period are often better than their own limited modern hermeneutic, however, because if they are sensitive at all to the real life spiritual needs of their congregants then they are already accustomed to asking these best questions about how the text reveals God and how it speaks to our real lives. Thus, even though our modern hermeneutics has made us focus on the lower level questions, preaching will always draw us into the higher ones.

Although I am engaged in research, writing, and teaching on many topics and at many levels – literary, grammatical, theological, historical, history of interpretation, etc. – every time I go to preach I am reminded of and forced to ask the best kinds of questions of the texts, the questions that will preach and minister grace to my hearers. And whenever I ask these kinds of questions, Holy Scripture opens in even newer and more profound ways than by my otherwise helpful scholarly methods.

(5) The Word is living and active and there is much freedom in the homiletical work.

As I continue to study texts both as a scholar and as a preacher I am aware that there are many good readings of any text of Holy Scripture. There are plenty of bad and unhelpful readings as well, but the good readings of any text are manifold, dependent partly on which questions are being asked of the text. It is best to think of the meaning/readings of a text as a (bounded) circle not a point.

By extension, the good sermons that can be written from a text are manifold as well. There is not simply one right sermon to be crafted from a text, but many, based on the homiletical freedom that preachers have to emphasize different aspects of a text’s message and to apply it in different ways according to the needs of the season and time and place.megaphone

One helpful analogy is that of a megaphone. The bounded pluriform circle of good readings is at the entry end of the megaphone and as we move from textual analysis to homiletical performance the circle widens, representing the number of things that can be said in the sermon.

All of this is bounded by the “double love” of love for God and love for neighbor. In Augustine’s famous book, On Christian Teaching — the 1000-year best seller on hermeneutics and homiletics – he provides discussion of how to read and teach Holy Scripture well, all of which is governed by this double love. Augustine’s argument is that because Jesus clearly teaches that this is the ultimate calling and goal and good of humanity – loving God and neighbor (Matt 22:36-40) – therefore, the best readings of Scripture will inculcate and lead to the same.

(6) Every sermon should be a story, whether it is a narrative text or not.

Exegetical work on a text is NOT the same thing as the exposition and preaching of a text. A sermon is a homiletical event, not the downloading of stuff learned. Humans are story creatures and stories are built on plot, which entails tension and release. Therefore, every sermon as a homiletical and rhetorical event should contain a plotline of tension and release to be effective.basic plotline

This intentionality of tension and release is one of the differences between teaching and preaching, between a lecture and a sermon. Both teaching and preaching can and should have thoughtful content. And a good lecture and good teaching may have a plotline of tension. In fact, great lectures do. But this is not necessary for teaching and lecturing. A good lecture can focus on communicating content and making connections.

Not so for a good sermon – it MUST take the hearers from one place to another, not just intellectually, but engaging the whole person, mind and heart. For a sermon to be more than a lecture it should be crafted in such a way that it creates a tension that is then released by the message of the text.

In my experience, for teaching texts that are non-narratives it is best to figure out what the text is getting at, what you want to say from this (the homiletical move), and then how to craft the message into a plotline that takes hearers from problem (that you may have to reveal to them first) to solution, engaging their whole person. I have long found that a good way to create this tension and release is to look for a Fallen Condition (some sin or brokenness or simply creatureliness that is part of the human experience), for which the gospel message of the text (something true about who God is for us) provides the Redemptive Solution. This is inspired by Bryan Chapell’s approach. Also see Zack Eswine’s thoughtful, Preaching to a Post-Everything World.

For preaching narrative texts (my favorite) I have found a very helpful approach is (1) set up the tension/question; (2) retell the narrative creatively and freshly; (3) emphasize varieties of applications.

Thus, for both narrative and non-narrative texts, a well-crafted sermon will itself be experienced as a story.

(7) Preaching is above all else a proclamation of God’s kindness in Christ = Gospel.

As I have grown and matured and deepened in my embracing of the gospel over the years, and as I have come to see my own brokenness more clearly and deeply, I have also seen that preaching must be driven by what drives the gospel itself – the proclamation of God’s kindness. It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Rom 2:4).

Life-giving sermons yoke lightwill contain teaching, and this can be challenging at points and include calls to virtue and repentance. But we must never forget – and this is remarkably easy for preachers to forget – that the gospel is good news and that Jesus’ yoke is “easy and light” (see Matt 11:25-30). Whatever else may be said in a sermon, the main takeaway for the hearers must be a seeing of God’s smiling face in Christ and a lifting of burdens. If not, we run the risk of doing the opposite of the work of Christ, no matter how spiritual and biblical we may appear.

A good test of whether we are preaching Christ-centered and Christ-aligned sermons is whether our hearers would say that they have tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8). Whatever changes they might be inspired to make from our applicational work must be rooted in the sense that God is for them in Christ, rooted in experiencing the beauty of who God is. If not, we will end up playing the role of the Pharisees who, while speaking of God, tie heavy burdens upon people all in the name of godliness (Matt 23:4). The woes Jesus pronounces upon such religious preachers and teachers should stand as continual guides as we prepare our sermons (Matt 23:13-39). The broad and easy way of preaching is that of moralism, condemnation, guilt-trips, and burden-laying. One can even build a large ministry and church on such preaching, but it is not the gospel.

(8) Preaching manuscript is still best for me.

Lastly, on a slightly more persosermon msnal note, ever since I first began preaching I have written out a full manuscript and taken this into the pulpit. I realize I am probably in the minority here, but I am still convinced this is the best – at least for me.

Writing out a sermon manuscript is crucial for gaining clarity of what I want to say because, as I teach my doctoral students all the time, writing is not the end product of clear thinking, it is the way to get to clear thinking. Writing out my sermons fully is the only way I can tell if what I’m saying actually makes sense, flows well, and is personal and specific, not just general platitudes.

Many would agree with this but not recommend taking the manuscript into the pulpit. I stiMeet_linus_bigll do so because I want to remain clear, focused, and directed in where I’m going all throughout the preaching moment. I do often leave my manuscript, adding or subtracting things in the preaching moment (especially in the second or third service once I’ve run through it!), but I still like to have the whole message laid out before me and with me in the pulpit. I admit this is somewhat of a Linus Van Pelt security blanket for me!

I think the key to actually preaching from a manuscript well is to have worked through it enough times and have it deeply ingrained enough in your psyche to be able to preach without reading it. I also go through it many times and mark and highlight sentences with a pen that I want to make sure I get right and not miss. I doubt anyone can tell that I have the whole manuscript in front of me because I certainly don’t have my face buried in it. But I use it as a reference point for my open speaking and also have times where I use it to say exactly what I’ve written. I suppose I should ask my hearers what their experience is, but it seems to work well for me to alternate between extemporaneous speaking (that is actually what I’ve already written mostly) and brief times of speaking right out of my manuscript. I recognize that there is personal preference here as well.

I hope these reflections have been helpful for my readers.

Here are the sermons I preached in the Meals with Jesus series:

 

Some Reflections from a Professor in the Pulpit (Part 1)

[Part 1 of 2]pennington preaching

I have been pastoring and preaching in churches regularly for 20 years or so now. I love to preach and even though my primarily calling now is as a professor, I care very much about the art and craft of preaching.

 

But despite regular preaching, rarely have I been in the position to do what I’ve been doing this past month – preaching four weeks in a row. I have just finished preaching each week for our church’s four-week series on Meals with Jesus in Luke. This experience of preparing and preaching each week has given me the opportunity for some reflections from a semi-outsider of what it is like to preach regularly.

 

I have 8 reflections on “The Professor in the Pulpit,” which I will post in a series across the next couple of days. These are in no particular order and are offered merely as an opportunity for me to articulate some thoughts I’ve had about preaching over the years.

(1) Good, well-written commentaries are a great gift to the Church.

The commentary gcommentariesenre is as old (really, older) than Christianity itself, and commentaries in various forms have always served God’s people well. Good preachers regularly take advantage of commentaries, which can be thought of simply as the written record of other teachers, both living and dead, both near and far.

 

So it may not seem much of a reflection to say that commentaries are important.

But as I prepare to preach each week, with the press of time and the pressure of wanting to have something thoughtful and beneficial to share, I am aware of what a gift we have (especially in English) of having so many well-researched and well-written commentaries, the fruit of the labors of many men and women who have given their years to training and expertise.

I am also reminded of how good and important it is to have different kind of commentaries, technical, historical, exegetical, expositional, theological, and applicational. For this series in Luke I have simultaneously benefited from more traditional modern scholarly commentaries like Joel Green’s excellent NICNT volume on Luke as well as the more homiletical variety of Philip Ryken and R. Kent Hughes. Each of these has different and mutually informing things to offer.

I myself have recently completed a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount and am under contract to write others. This recent personal experience of how beneficial commentaries are for weekly preaching has motivated me again to give myself to the great labor of commentary writing. I would also like to see the western Church spend more resources helping Christians throughout the world have more access to good commentaries both in translation and written by nationals.

 

(2) There is a difference between a good sermon and good preaching – the Holy Spirit.

Good sermon writing takes a lot of work. Not everyone is willing to do this work. And regardless, some people are simply more able and more talented than others, both in crafting and mosaic holy spiritdelivering sermons. Giftedness and labor work together in a mysterious way.

But anyone who has preached regularly knows that there is also something uncontrollable in the actual preaching moment – that good preparation doesn’t guarantee great preaching, and even more inexplicably, sometimes spontaneous preaching (or moments within an otherwise well-prepared sermon) can be the most powerful and effective.

We understand from Holy Scripture that this difference is the work of the Holy Spirit, who blows where he wishes and whose sound we hear but we don’t know where it is going (John 3:8). It is the Holy Spirit alone who reveals God to us in Christ and opens the eyes and hearts and minds to understand (1 Cor 2:6-16; Eph 1:17-23).

Thus, while the preacher has the responsibility and obligation to labor diligently and carefully in preparation – the means by which God normally ordains to utilize – ultimately the effectiveness is the work of the Holy Spirit, first in the preacher’s own preparation and also in the hearing and taking to heart of the message.

In Tim Keller’s recent book on preaching he makes this same helpful distinction between great sermons and great preaching. Great sermons are a function of the skills, giftedness, and preparation of the sermon writer; great preaching is the work of the Spirit.

These reflections have encouraged me simultaneously to work very hard at understanding the texts and at crafting well-written sermons and preaching well-spoken messages, and to recognize that the “success” of my messages is not ultimately up to me. God wants to speak to his people and I want to simply line myself up with his voice as much as possible and trust him to do what he wants in the actual preaching moment.

 

(3) The most important labor should go into personal and practical application.

Speaking of the importance of labor and diligence in sermon preparation, I have long been convinced that the most essential yet the most neglected part of sermon writing is thoughtful, personal, and practical application. (Rare among hermeneutics books is much on application, but Dan Doriani’s excellent Putting the Truth to Work is an exception).

Many preachers, maybe especdd-eucharist-main-image-100512ially within the evangelical movement, spend much of their preparation time and speaking time seeking to understand what the text is communicating. This is good and right. But I would suggest that this is only half of the work and is actually not the most important aspect of preaching, which is helping hearers to receive the scriptural message and bring it to bear on their real lives. Of course, this is a both-and, not an either-or. But the application deserves as much focus as the explanation.

If preachers preach texts in a way that is exclusively or even primarily saying what the text says – which is essential and powerful – but don’t spend as much labor in thinking through how a particular text speaks into the real and daily lives and struggles of non-preachers, then I would consider the sermon incomplete and maybe even a failure.

It is difficult for someone inclined toward biblical and theological studies and trained in this to understand that most people are not inclined this way nor trained to do so. Nor must they be! This is precisely the job of the preaching-pastor – to be a primary instrument of the Holy Spirit to grant personal and applicational understanding of the texts of Holy Scripture. This is the division of labor God has established in the Church and the difference between those called to lead and those who aren’t (most people). The vast majority of Christians do not want or need to understand half of what the preacher wants and needs to understand any more than I need to understand the construction of a silicon chip to use my MacBook nor the function of a fuel injector to drive my car. I can and should have some understanding, but the preacher’s role is to serve those who have other callings by helping them apply.

This service of helping people apply Scripture to their lives should not, therefore, be an afterthought or something the preacher tacks on out of obligation to what they consider to be the “real” work, exegesis. Quite the opposite, to preach a text well is to apply it well.

This takes work, work that is hard because it means looking inside to our own hearts and asking the penetrating and honest questions of how this text can go from being merely ideas to transformed thinking, feeling, and doing.

imaginationIt is also hard because it is a work involving the organ of our imaginations. Preachers need to not only think about how a text might apply to their own situation, but also how it will be heard and how it can be received by people very different than themselves. Even as it can be difficult for a preacher to understand that not every Christian views the world and life the same way they do (and that’s OK!) so too the preacher needs to be consciously intentional in considering how a text can be applied to different people.

Always remember that the hearers of a sermon are going to be as diverse as humanity itself. If we think along the lines of the differences in personality types, using for example, the Myers-Briggs analysis, there are 16 distinct ways in which people view the world and themselves, different ways in which love is received and given, diverse modes by which people are motivated. A big part of personal maturity and ministry effectiveness comes from preachers recognizing that they are individually but one of these 16 types (most commonly ENFJ’s) and therefore what communicates hope, grace, love, encouragement, is very likely different for them than for most of the congregants.

And this is only speaking of personality differences. A congregation is full of people with vastly different experiences in terms of families of origin, biopsychosocial experiences, sufferings and pathologies, and circumstances.

A good preacher will write and deliver a sermon that is sensitive to the great diversity that is humanity in both make-up and experiences. One way to do this well, I have found, is to think specifically about how the message will be heard and how it can apply to specific groups/types of people and address them. For example, I will sometimes speak specifically to how the teenagers might apply the message, or those who are in a season of trial, or those in a difficult marriage, or those who feel lost or hard-hearted. This takes creative thinking but is the obligation of the preacher who wants to do more than share ideas, but truly minister grace to people.

My reflections are continued in Part 2.

Here are the sermons I preached in the Meals with Jesus series:

Jesus as Teacher in Matthew

As of today I wrapped up 11 years of teaching at the seminary level, including teaching my Greek Exegesis of Matthew class every year here at Southern. Additionally, I have taught Matthew (in English) countless times in my NT survey course, and have given assorted lectures on Matthew in the States and several other countries and scores of churches. All this was based on the three years of intensive study of Matthew during my time in St. Andrews. This means I have been studying, thinking about, preaching, teaching, and writing on Matthew for nearly 15 years now.

Nonetheless, as Matthew subtly predicted, scribes of the kingdom continue to bring forth treasures old and new from the message of Jesus (13:52). Whether I am a worthy “scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven” is debatable, but I can at least testify that as I continue to study Matthew I learn more and more every time.

4329.jpg   This happened again today. I recently ran across a book I had never seen before (I’m not sure why!) and I have found it to be a careful study and one that pulled together several loose ends in my mind. It is a dissertation done at Yale under Wayne Meeks and then published in the BZNW series: John Yueh-Han Yieh’s One Teacher: Jesus’ Teaching Role in Matthew’s Gospel Report (de Gruyter, 2004).

This well-written piece of scholarship has as its goal to explore and explain how and why Jesus is depicted as the Teacher of God’s will par excellence. Besides John Meier’s The Vision of Matthew (1979), Samuel Byrskog’s Jesus the Only Teacher (1994), Chris Keith’s Jesus’ Literacy (2013) Jesus Against the Scribal Elite (2014), there are few studies on Jesus as Teacher per se. What makes this particular work stand out is a more literary reading of Matthew (including redaction and narrative approaches) plus a historical and conceptual comparison of Jesus as a Teacher with the Teacher of Righteousness from Qumran and the Greek moral philosopher Epictetus. (Those who have been following my occasional tweets about my own work in the Sermon will notice that I am very intrigued by this comparison of Jesus to his dual context of Judaism and the Greco-Roman philosophical world. See my forthcoming book The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary [Baker Academic, 2017].)

Near the end of the book Yueh-Han Yieh offers four functions of Jesus as Teacher (the One Teacher [23:8,10; cf. 28:19-20]):

  • Polemic Function — Combating Jewish Hostility
    • fighting the synagogues
    • disputing the rabbis
  • Apologetic Function — Defining Group Identity
    • God as Heavenly Father, Church as God’s Household
    • Jews as Lost Sheep, Church as New People
    • World as Weedy Field, Church as Kingdom Missionary
    • The End is Delayed, Church as Eschatological Community
  • Didactic Function — Forming New Community
    • Making a Community of Disciples
    • Prescribing New Patterns of Behavior
    • Authorizing New Institutions for the Church
  • Pastoral Function — Maintaining the Church
    • Promising His Presence
    • Fostering Servant Leadership
    • Demanding Mutual Forgiveness

I find these insightful and that they correspond well with many other themes I have observed in Matthew over the years

I’m thankful that I (rather accidentally) started studying this amazing First Gospel fifteen years ago and that I continue to learn so much from this master document and its beautiful Master.

“Blessed” (versus “flourishing”) in The Gospel of Nicodemus

Back in 2013 I began working seriously on the question of what “blessing” means, particularly what I came to see as an important distinction between μακάριος and εὐλογητὸς (in Greek), אַשְׁרֵי and ברך (in Hebrew).

I gave a paper on this at ETS in November of 2013, followed by further work that contributed to my broader arguments about human flourishing in the Bible that can be found here and here (see also earlier mention here).

In my forthcoming book on the Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing I have a lengthy chapter arguing for the essential difference between flourishing (μακάριος) and blessing (εὐλογητὸς), which is obviously very relevant for the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12), which are based entirely on the meaning of μακάριος.

In short, my argument is that Greek and Hebrew both clearly distinguish between the idea of divine, effective, active blessing (ברך and εὐλογητὸς) and the description of the state of flourishing (μακάριος and אַשְׁרֵי). Ultimately these come together in the biblical worldview in that the only way to truly and fully experience flourishing is by also receiving God’s blessing. But the linguistic and conceptual distinction between these two still remains and is important. The big problem is that in English we have lost the ability to maintain this conceptual distinction because we translate both ideas with the singular word in English, “blessed.”

My point in this post today is not to unpack all of this. Rather, I simply wanted to note another example of this same Greek and Hebrew distinction (relative to English) that I ran across this morning in the ancient apocryphal text called The Gospel of Nicodemus or The Acts of Pilate. (A description of this work and its text in diglot form can be found on pages 419-489 of The Apocryphal Gospels by Ehrman and Pleše).

The Gospel of Nicodemus is a fascinating expansion of the Passion narrative that tells us about Pilate and his reactions to Jesus. At one point we are told about the triumphal entry (Matt 21:1-11) including the words said by the children, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The Greek text here in Matthew (and in Nicodemus) appropriately uses εὐλογημένος, indicating that God’s divine favor rests on Jesus.

What is interesting is that in Nicodemus 1.4 we get not only the Greek text reproduced but also a Greek transliteration of what was being said in Hebrew. And lo and behold, entirely in accord with the Septuagint and broader Greek usage, the Hebrew transliterated is barouchamma, from ברך, maintaining once again the clearברך – εὐλογητὸς connection in distinction from μακάριος – אַשְׁרֵי.

 

 

[BTW, for all the Greek lovers out there I realize that the εὐλογητὸς should have an acute rather than grave accent but I was having a major font battle that I eventually gave up on.]

Reasons for Residential Education & The Local Bookstore

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece called “Reasons for Residential: Some Thoughts from a Professor and Administrator on the Abiding Benefits of a Residential PhD Program.” I’ve used this in a couple of lecture scenarios but have not yet published it anywhere, though I hope to get back to it. Partly I’ve delayed because I’ve wanted to keep thinking about this complex issue.

questionbookWhy should we continue to value and promote on-campus, residential, life-together education in this age of high expenses and convenient online and modular options? This is a question I have been thinking a lot about for the last three years as I lead our large part-residential/part-modular PhD program at Southern and as I think about our plans and goals for the future.

Only time will tell and wisdom is vindicated by her children (which also means it can take a while), but I remain convinced that there are numerous tangible and intangible benefits that come from maintaining a traditional residential program, despite the costs and in the face of the great convenience of other forms.

I thought about this whole issue again a couple of days ago when I saw this article on the surprising survival and even thriving ocornerbookstoref the local bookstore, despite the dire warnings that the big box world of Barnes & Noble and Borders (remember them?) and the online giant Amazon would destroy local bookshops.

This has proven to not be the case: “4 Reasons Why Independent Bookstores are Thriving”

The reason this article reminded me of the residential issue is because in my paper I actually used the analogy of bookstores and anticipated precisely this phenomenon — that over time, despite the warnings, the localized experience will win out. One of my “Reasons for Residential” is that residential education can put great emphasis on mentoring the whole person not just educating the mind. I illustrated this with a comparison of Amazon, B&N, and the local bookstore. Here is my argument taken from my original position paper:

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

“We can helpfully analogize our options as educators with three possibilities for the sale and purchase of books – Amazon.com, a physical Barnes & Noble store, and the local, independently owned and operated bookshop. I love Amazon, as millions of others obviously do as well. It is not only a one-stop shop for nearly anything one could need, but it also serves as the quickest bibliographic source for many as well. Amazon offers books, both digital and paper, quickly and efficiently, conveniently and cheaply.

This is today’s online education world, or least what online education hopes to be and is growing toward. With a little technological investment and marketing savvy a school can ship off massive amounts of content at extremely low cost, especially employing a phalanx of part-time workers (many of whom are PhD students at other, traditional schools). This efficiency and profitability does not necessarily mean that the quality of the education is low, but at best it means one has to work especially hard to make it so, and at worst, it is a great, profitable method for mass-produced degree generating.

Both students and teachers would agree that personal mentoring and development of the individual is certainly not the goal or driving force behind online education. Rather, it is convenience and speed of earning a degree or certificate. Some rare, exceptional online programs or individual teachers may indeed make an effort to personally relate to their students, but this can only happen on a small scale and can rarely go beyond the level of online dating. Again, this analysis of online education is not a condemnation overall. In many ways online content delivery makes a lot of sense, especially for certain kinds of information and certain necessary settings. I myself have been involved in a lot of online education at the Master’s degree level. But we should not act as if it is somehow just another way of doing education; it is a method of delivering content, but this is not the same thing as education unless one defines the latter entirely in cognitive terms, with no affective or relational aspects.

Largely because of Amazon and similar developments in commerce, the brick and mortar chain stores are in trouble. Borders Books famously went bankrupt and closed down in recent years and B&N is struggling too. No one knows for sure, of course, but it looks like the chain bookstore is going to have trouble making it as things stand.

Why? Because what B&N offers over its main rival Amazon is not much, certainly not enough to make it competitive and profitable enough. What does B&N offer over the convenience and cost of Amazon? Maybe a place for meetings for the local chess club or German speaking society; the place one can run in to on a Tuesday night at 8:45pm to buy the Hemingway book that your teenager was supposed to read for Wednesday but neglected to; the ability to pick up a boxed book set on How to Play the Harmonica from the clearance section as a last minute birthday gift for one’s nephew. These small advantages are not a sufficient business model in an age of online commerce.

By analogy this is precisely what we’re seeing in many educational institutions. The brick and mortar school that is primarily a way to communicate information and provide some knowledge-skill development doesn’t offer enough of an advantage over online education to pay for the expense of building rental, utilities, library resources, insurance, food service, and security, let alone professors’ salaries. As a result, many have closed and many more will likely close. Various attempts have been made to slash tuition prices and cut teachers’ benefits and campus amenities to make ends meet, but you cannot run a business selling clearance items with demoralized staff in a smelly and dilapidated store.

What about the local bookstore? Despite initially having a difficult time of it and contrary to the doom and gloom predictions of the Amazon-effect killing all local business, the local bookshop is doing better than ever. Or more accurately, some local bookstores are doing better than ever – the ones who are thoughtful and intentional in offering something that neither Amazon nor B&N can provide. The failure of the big chain bookstore is, as we noted, that they are trying to do with half the effectiveness and ten times the cost the same thing Amazon is doing – delivering books. But the local bookstore that has survived the initial Amazonification and B&Noblizing of their area has been the shop that doesn’t try to compete with these behemoths or play their game.

Instead, they offer a high quality product, located in a place, providing a community, including caring and motivated experts who guide and inspire and friends who converse, all in an ambience of beauty. In short, they create community and mentoring. They offer the same products that Amazon and B&N do, not always quite as conveniently, but with the added benefits of space and relationships.

It is not difficult to see that this is just the same for the educational institutions that are surviving and even thriving today. They are places that, due to size and/or sound financial management, have survived the initial problems of the financial crisis and the threat of technologically convenient online education, and are doing what the best educational institutions always have – providing a place in which cognitive, affective, and relational education occurs. Campus development, morale of professors, community activities, meaningful mentoring relationships – these are the practices that wise and thriving schools offer, in addition to high quality content delivered by experts in knowledge and pedagogy.

The lesson in all of this is that any institution of higher education that values something more than online content delivery and wants to thrive must stop trying to go the B&N route of competing with the Amazon’s of education and instead do what they do best – educate the whole person through mentorship. Mentorship requires all these best practices just noted – a physical place, committed time over the long haul for ideas and relationships and experiences to germinate and gestate, excellence in teachers who are supported financially and encouraged in morale to enable them to devote time to developing expertise in their field of study and in pedagogical techniques.

To commit to this route as administrators and trustee boards there must be a longer-term vision than the next year’s profitability. Higher education in the States is a business, necessarily, in that bills must be paid and therefore profits must be generated. But experience shows that any business or school that loses the focus on its mission and becomes driven by perpetuating the organization will, ironically, lose both its mission and its organization. Higher education – and especially Christian Higher Education – must remain committed to its vision of academic mentorship (= education), even if this means some lean years or some re-allocation of resources or some less than profitable quarters, because in the long run this trajectory alone will provide a long-term solid foundation and fulfill the calling of the university.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

That is what I originally wrote and still stand by it. I don’t want in any way to communicate, however, a disbelief in the value of online or modular education (including at my own school where I think we do it VERY well!). My point is not a ludite, “good old days” argument. Online and modular education can be excellent and it is here to stay. Rather, I simply want to make sure we are thinking about these big and important and pressing questions with the right categories, not just pragmatism. Particularly, we must consider the issue of education as mentoring.

Back in the “Why Local Bookstores Are Thriving” article they give four reasons for the surprising trend:

(1) They offer an experience; (2) They curate and recommend in a human way; (3) They’re diversifying their offerings; and (4) They foster community.

Not all of these match precisely with what I have argued above, but there is a striking similarity and significant places of overlap. I will continue to wrestle with how to work out all of this in real life educational environments, as I hope my readers who are involved in education will too.

“Reading the Gospels Smithly” — Interacting with James K. A. Smith

A couple of years ago I greatly benefited from reading Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom, both of which I use as textbooks for some of classes I teach as PhD director here at SBTS. They are well-written and stimulating books. Around that time I gave a paper at Southeastern Theological Baptist Seminary reflecting on my reading of Smith and interacting with him as a Gospels scholar.

A slightly modified version of that paper has just now been published in Southeastern’s journal. I am attaching a pdf of that below. The full citation is: Jonathan T. Pennington, “Reading the Gospels Smithly: Thinking Upon and Loving the Gospels in Dialogue with James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom,” Southeastern Theological Review 6/1 (Summer 2015): 45-61.

I continue to be grateful for Smith’s work and all that I’ve learned from him. As I have continued to read and ponder and dialogue with others on these issues I think I would find a few more things to disagree with than before. Nonetheless, I still highly recommend interacting with Smith.

Pennington, Jonathan – Reading the Gospels Smithly

DTKITK

GK Chesterton on St. Francis

This past Thursday and Friday I was supposed to make a quick trip up to McMaster Divinity College near Toronto but ended up getting stranded in and around Reagan International Airport in DC instead. As a result I got some writing done, discovered the delightful historic town of Alexandria, Virginia on the Potomac, and read two books. One was a structuralist analysis of the Sermon on the Mount that had some moments of insight but generally left me dissatisfied.

The other book, however, was a real gem — G.K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis of Assisi. A couple of decades ago I read quite a bit of Chesterton’s fiction including Father Brown, Napoleon of Notting Hill, and one of my favorites that I recently re-read, The Man Who Was Thursday. I’ve not read enough of Chesterton’s non-fiction for some undefinable reason. I’m glad I had this book along for my first-world problem of getting stuck in an airport.

I would highly recommend Chesterton on Francis. Here are just a few brief thoughts regarding the book:

  • Chesterton is a great read anytime: nice turns of phrase; ironic statements of litotes that leave one with a wry smile; lively and brisk prose. Good writers give pleasure and Chesterton is a master.
  • The great Roman Catholic authors have a gravitas that exudes from their writings. A good Roman Catholic on the medieval period deepens this even more. As I continue to read people like Sertillanges and von Balthasar I am realizing that this gravitas is a function of a fundamental difference between Roman Catholicism and much of modernist versions of Protestantism. The latter is often a system of doctrines and beliefs while the former is an entire worldview, an understanding of the world as thick and interconnected and a vision of a way of being in the world. Protestantism sometimes communicates this (especially the Dutch Reformed version) but often not in the modernist versions. The great Catholic authors, however, always have this. Even when you disagree at points one cannot deny the sense of a comprehensive picture of the universe.
  • Chesterton makes a fascinating argument about the role of ascetic and monastic practices in the first millennia of the Church. Namely, he suggests that the world into which Christianity was born and grew in the first 1000 years was of a radically different nature than our own and it is hard for us to appreciate that. It was a truly pagan world where nature-worship and the identification of nature with the mysterious divine was inextricably linked. It was a magic and mystical world. Chesterton’s argument is that “Christianity had entered the world to cure the world; and she had cured it in the only way in which it could be cured” (26) — through an era of ascetic practices that expiated and expelled the old ways; the only way this could have been accomplished. As he says, “Nothing could purge this [pagan] obsession but a religion that was literally unearthly. It was no good telling such people to have a natural religion full of stars and flowers; there was not a flower or even a star that had not been stained. They had to go into the desert where they could see no stars. Into that desert and that cavern the highest human intellect entered for some four centuries; and it was the very wisest thing to do.” (31) This is a fascinating idea worthy of more consideration. Chesterton’s bigger point here is to put Francis into his own historical context showing that Francis’ own re-engagment with nature and embracing of the whole world was possible precisely because this expiation had occurred before him. He is like a new born child into a new stage of humanity. Fascinating insight.

There are other great aspects of the book and again, I will simply recommend you read it. No summary of mine can replace the experience of reading Chesterton.

Greek to Latin to English Translation Problems – τέλειος

[First, the obligatory confession that it is embarrassing how long it has been since I posted anything! I’m restarting the clock today!] Now to business:
I have long been frustrated with the English translation of the τέλειος, τέλος word group. Typically these are rendered with “perfect” as in Matt 5:48, 19:21, and James 1:4, but these are very unhelpful glosses because in contemporary English this communicates the idea of unblemished, morally pure, without fault. But this is not what τέλειος is communicating either in the Greco-Roman virtue tradition (where it is a very important concept) nor in Hellenistic Second Temple Judaism.

The idea of τέλειος is not faultless or pure, but complete, whole, or even harmoniously singular (integrity). The implications of this are manifold. It is staggering to consider, for example, how many people have been crushed by the burden of supposed moral perfection in 5:48 or alternatively have deceived themselves into thinking they have reached a place of sinless perfection. Neither of these interpretations understand Matt 5:48 as part of the overall whole-person righteousness theme of the Sermon on the Mount.

I am just finishing up a chapter on the meaning of τέλειος historically and how it serves as a meta-theme throughout the Sermon (for my forthcoming book with Baker Academic, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing).
I have a lot to say, as you might imagine, but for now I just want to reflect on how we got into this bad translation habit of rendering τέλειος as “perfect,” when any scholarly piece you read on it shows clearly that “perfect” is a bad gloss.

In an excellent paper by one of my Greek Exegesis of Matthew students this past semester, David Blackwell took my lecture on this idea and combined it with the insights regarding the similar meaning of “holy” in the OT from my colleague Peter Gentry (article form is somewhere out there; here’s the audio of Peter’s original faculty address).

David also did a nice little spadework on when we started translating τέλειος as “perfect” in English. As a result, he’s appearing in a footnote in my book, which I thought I’d share with you here:

“Like many of our English translation choices they stem from a conservative tradition dating back to the earliest translations from Latin into English by Wycliffe, Tyndale, and the Coverdale and Geneva Bibles. The Vulgate uses “perfectus” in 5:48, which is a decent Latin gloss for teleios, both communicating wholeness or completion. This came into the early English translation as “parfit,” “perfecte,” “perfite,” and finally in the Authorized Version, “perfect.” This transliteration of the Latin term took on its own narrower connotations as English developed and now we continue to use this unhelpful gloss.”

This is a good example of several matters that go on in translation into English:

  • Transliteration from Latin and Greek that created new English words
  • The abiding influence of the first English translations, often unfortunately
  • The generally conservative nature of translations and translators (and Bible publishing houses). Once a certain gloss becomes traditional it is very difficult to change it, even if it becomes clearly a bad choice or ceases to communicate (cf. “Hallowed be Thy Name” and “deliver us from evil” in the Lord’s Prayer).
  • The need for new and continually revised translations because of both the contribution of scholarly research and the changing connotations of the target language. In this case the scholarly work on τέλειος has clearly been ignored. Additionally, while “perfecte”/”perfect” might have communicated the idea of “complete, whole” in 16th-17th century English, this is not the case now, hence the need for new translations.

My Translators’ Club Presentation

[UPDATED POST — WITH AUDIO]

On March 30, 2015 I made a brief presentation at Southern for the Bible Translators in Training Club. We had a good turn out of students and also a couple of seasoned Wycliffe translators showed up (which caused no small self-consciousness as I pontificated about translation theory!).

It was an informal gathering around a few tables. The audio of my presentation is below. There was also a time of Q&A afterwards that we also recorded.

In my presentation I make mention of a number of ideas including some resources from Umberto Eco, Lakoff & Johnson, Delimitation Criticism, and the always enjoyable engrish.com. I also briefly mention this fascinating essay on the history of emoji and how it functions as a language. (In the presentation I said “emoticon” but there is a difference between emoji and emoticons.) More can and should be said about this great piece. And although I don’t say much about it in this presentation, I would also highly recommended the edited volume, The Challenge of Bible Translation by Glen Scorgie and Mark Strauss.

Here is the outline of my talking points:

1) Translation is not math.

2) Translation is a hermeneutical issue.

3) Translation is always transformation, somewhere on the spectrum.

4) Translation Studies continue to improve and so should we.

 

Allegory and Protestant Metaphor — Some Very Brief Reflections on a Very Big Topic

For a current project I’ve been spending time in the history of the interpretation of the story of the Rich Young Ruler (Matt 19:16-22 and parallels). [Very helpful is the summary that can be found in Ulrich Luz’s Matthew commentary, 2:518-523]

Among many other interesting things I have learned, it struck me today once again that the rhetoric of the Reformers against the allegorical interpretations of their predecessors is over-wrought and not the whole story.

Specifically, what I mean is this — Any theological or applicational reading is metaphorical, substituting what is in the text for some idea or truth, reading the events or characters of a story for the purpose of saying something else. In this way, the difference between the Reformers’ reading and the oft-villified allegorical readings of the Fathers is shown to be a difference not of kind but only of form and judgment.

jm_200_NT2.pd-P20.tiff   I must turn to an example to be clearer. In the case of the story of the Rich Young Ruler we encounter the shocking command that for the man to be complete or virtuously whole, to achieve the end goal of virtue (teleios-ness), he must sell all that he has and give it to the poor (19:21). The history of the Church’s interpretation of this is largely one of providing ways in which this does not apply literally; this is true across all eras and denominational lines.

One way that this text is regularly read in the earliest centuries of the Church, completely in accord with the hermeneutical practices of the day, was what some would call “allegorical.” For example, Hilary of Poitiers gave a salvation-historical reading of this story, with the rich man equaling Judaism in its attempt to hold on to the Law. Jesus confronts this inferior, shadowy understanding of the Law and also challenges Judaism to “share its wealth” with the poor, meaning the Gentiles who should also be recipients of divine blessings. Due to the ingrained and inculcated “allergy to allegory” that both the Reformers and Modernism has perpetuated, many of my readers may immediately feel an antipathy to Hilary’s reading, especially because I described it as allegorical.

But consider with me for a moment how the Reformers interpreted this text. Various readings abound (as in every era), but some read the story with the RYR as the prototype of a godless person seen by his striving to earn righteousness based on works. In other commentaries and homilies Jesus’ conversation with the man is seen as an example of the good use the law — the law as a tutor that leads us to conviction of sin. Overall, Protestant interpretation has emphasized (like Clement of Alexandria and a long tradition after him) that Jesus’ command is not to be taken literally but is a matter of our hearts and what we love the most. Luther even turns 19:21 on its head against his monastic opponents (and former self) and says that the true command here is not to leave everything and live like the monks who have to beg and live on the handouts of others. Instead, to earn one’s own keep and to protect and manage money responsibly is the right goal; to forsake all possessions and thereby neglect one’s family and responsibilities is the greater sin.

My point is simply this — All of these readings are metaphorical. They are all seeing either the events or the characters in the story as representing something else. The “allegorical” reading of Hilary sees in the story the salvation-historical difference between Jews and Gentiles and the wrong interpretation of the Law among Jews, from a Christian perspective. He explains this via the methods and techniques of ancient exegesis universally understood (by Alexandrians and Antiochenes) — by pointing what each part of the story represents. The Reformers likewise read off the story in a prototypical way, seeing the man as representative of a works-righteousness person or seeing the events of the story as teaching us how to understand the Law in the New Covenant.

As I hope is clear, this is not really a difference in kind of reading, but only in the form of how this kind of (completely natural and justifiable) metaphorical reading is described and practiced. It also represents different judgments about what is the most important theological truth to bring out in the interpretation — something that is going to always vary by time and place. For Hilary it is the situated issue of Jewish versus Christian readings of the canon. For the Reformers it is the issue of works righteousness and/or use of the Law for the Christian. In either case these are situated theological readings that are understandable and helpful; but the difference is not really about hermeneutics. They are all metaphorical readings.

I am well aware that this topic of allegory and ancient hermeneutical techniques is a MASSIVE topic! I have spent the last 15 years of my intellectual life wrestling with many aspects of this so I feel the pain of having to only dip a toe in today. Nonetheless, I hope this real life example from the history of interpretation will stimulate some thoughts and provide some way forward for my readers.

 

Books

Reading the Gospels WiselyFor the past ten years I have been working on the hermeneutical issues of what the Gospels are and how we are to read them. I'm thrilled to be finally done with this book!

www.readingwisely.com

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Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of MatthewThe theme of heaven and earth is a much-overlooked aspect of the Gospel of Matthew. In this work, rising scholar Jonathan Pennington articulates a fresh perspective on this key interpretive issue, challenging both the scholarly and popular understandings of the meaning of Matthew's phrase, "kingdom of heaven." Pennington argues that rather than being a reverent way of referring to God as is typically assumed, "heaven" in Matthew is part of a highly developed discourse of heaven and earth language.

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