Skip to content

Don’t teach the Bible

Luther Preaching

Over Christmas I eagerly clicked on a link warning all preachers: "Don't teach the Bible!" Good title. But the article disappointed. To summarize, it said:

Don't teach the Bible... teach people the Bible.

Oh, ok. Fine. A decent point as far as it goes. But I was hoping for something more along the lines of:

Don't teach the Bible... herald the living Word of God.

If you want to add "to people" to that sentiment, that's helpful. But the dominant thought should be the heralding of the Word of God. Yet this is a thought that is very muted, if not absent, in the preaching advice I hear.

I listened with interest to Carl Trueman's podcast the other day, The Mortification of Spin. He featured Martin Lloyd Jones' classic Preaching and Preachers and held it up as required reading for anyone regarding the theology and practice of preaching. I would agree 100%. And I enjoyed Carl's reflections that the preparation of preachers is often lacking  a theology of preaching.

It's been my experience that would-be preachers are taught the mechanics of going from a biblical text to a Sunday sermon but they hear little or nothing about what the sermon is.  We just take it for granted that preaching is "teaching the Bible". Oh, "to people". Don't forget the people. We need to focus on the human activity and the human recipients and that will prepare us, right?

No, no, says Trueman, there's more. And I'm really glad he regularly reminds us of the theological meaning of preaching. Pointing us to Lloyd-Jones' book, as he did in the podcast, is so necessary because, in my opinion, it is such a corrective to the John Stott approach which has dominated the kind of evangelicalism I've grown up in. (This is now my rant, not Trueman's - he recommends Stott in the podcast).

Stott's "I believe in preaching" was well summarized by its American title: "Between Two Worlds". On Stott's view the preacher valiantly stands between the world of the Bible and the world of 'the modern man'. Thus preaching is "Bridge Building" that surmounts a “Cultural Gulf”, a veritable "yawning chasm" (see I Believe in Preaching, Hodder & Stoughton, 1982, from p135ff). And Stott's great hope in the face of this gulf is: "that God will raise up a new generation of Christian communicators who are determined to bridge the chasm.” (p144)

Well if it's our job to bridge the chasm then the preacher really does need to be a communicator every bit as brilliant and insightful as John Stott. But what hope is there for the rest of us? And, let's hang on just a minute... If we begin with this "yawning chasm" and then look for a solution not in the Word itself but in us, aren't we building on a decidedly liberal foundation? With decidedly flesh-y tools?

It's the liberals who begin with the "foul wide ditch" between then and now (Lessing's famous phrase). It's just that they don't think we can bridge such a divide (hence, cultural relativism between the biblical then and the real-world now). On the other hand Stott does think we can bridge the gulf - but through the capabilities of the well-trained interpreter/communicator. All the while, Lloyd Jones is jumping up and down saying human beings have not changed, the Word is living and active and the Spirit is powerful! Lloyd Jones just has no time for the "foul wide ditch" thinking which is foundational for Stott and for those who have followed him.

But if Stott's chasm is taken for granted, then our preaching books and seminary education is going to look very different to Preaching and Preachers. Essentially we will try to equip preachers with a certain skill set, enabling them to bridge the divide. Such a paradigm will produce Bible teachers and there's every chance that not only will each sermon sound the same, but each preacher too (think sausage machine).

Don't get me wrong, there are skills for the preacher to learn. And Stott has said some incredibly helpful things about preaching and Scripture. He himself was a wonderful preacher. But this paradigm of bridge-building has been - in my opinion - a gargantuan mistake. But it's one that continues to define the way evangelicals think about preaching. I don't think we'll recover powerful preaching of the gospel in our circles without a repudiation of it and a return to something more like Lloyd-Jones' view.

Having said that, Carl Trueman mentions a word of caution about Preaching and Preachers:

"Half of it's brilliant. Half of it's bonkers."

Trueman takes issue with Lloyd-Jones'  discussion of "unction" - a special anointing by the Spirit which empowers the preacher. Rightly he points out how this teaching has been taken in unhelpful directions. Trueman points out that MLJ might well be confusing an experience of the flesh with the work of the Spirit. I think that's a perceptive caution.

His guest Jonathan Masters says that he too was perplexed about Lloyd-Jones:

"I'd gotten wrapped up in my own mind in the mystical moment that Lloyd Jones talked about."

Those who have read the book know what he means. But then Masters says he was given relief when Jim Boice told him: "I don't look on it as preaching a sermon, I just see it as teaching the Bible."

Oh. Well, we're back to that then.

So are we doomed to bounce back and forth between MLJ's mysticism (which does get to be a problem) and Stott's bridge-building techniques?

Hopefully not. And I think Trueman's brief comments about MLJ's mysticism point us in the right direction. Is it possible that the dangers of Stott involve a one kind of carnality and the dangers of MLJ involve another? Preachers trying to traverse the foul wide ditch through their scholarship and oratory could be doing so as an achievement of the flesh. But so could preachers trying to "get wrapped up in a mystical moment". Those two kinds of carnality might look different, but both are characterized by looking to the nature of the preacher rather than the nature of the Word.

So what's the answer? Well read Preachers and Preaching. Be entertained - it's a terrific read. And be challenged about the bridge-building paradigm. Techniques are fine, but they're not what crosses the divide. Christ Himself speaks in His word as we herald it. So let's preach with all the entreaty and gravity appropriate for this word of the Spirit. Let's aim for what the Spirit aims for: faith - knowing that neither our mystical nor our rhetorical skills can bring it about.

But whatever our preaching style, let's ditch the ditch.


6 thoughts on “Don’t teach the Bible

  1. the Old Adam

    Don't teach what Christ taught…preach what Christ did for sinners…who are unwilling to live by what the Bible teaches about 'how'.

    In short..don't teach 'how'…preach 'who'.

    (you can teach how…but to expose the sinner and the fact that he/she is just not up to it)

  2. Michael Baldwin

    I remember you mentioning some of these things (Stott vs MLJ) when you were down in Reading for the AofE @ Carey. Great to see it fleshed out a bit more here!
    Couldn't MLJ's alleged mysticism be put down a more straightforward continuationism w.r.t. spiritual gifts? Sounds a bit like how John Piper approaches preaching.

  3. Marc Lloyd

    So, Glen, how would you account for Stott's greatness as a preacher? Great natural gifts and lots of hard work, no doubt, but does his preaching show the problems you'd expect from his paradigm or do you think he spoke better than he knew?!

  4. Glen

    @Michael - I'm not sure MLJ was continuationist. A hunch somewhat confirmed by this:

    I think whatever position someone comes to re continuation/cessation - mysticism remains a danger (note how it flourished in the medieval church). Essentially it's a legalism of the heart, making spiritual experiences the root not the fruit of union with Christ. Thanks for the link to Piper - he's an extraordinary preacher. I'll take a look.

    @Marc - I think John Double-First-At-Cambridge Stott would have excelled (and would have felt compelled to excel!) at anything. His crystal clarity of thought and expression really suited his 'bridging the gap' model of preaching. He was able to stand as an authority and pronounce what it meant then and what it means now. But the better he was at that, the more we thought we needed him (or 'communicators' like him) and the danger is that the ditch starts to *grow* in our minds. Maybe it's just in All Souls Langham Place circles but I find it almost impossible to say things that disagree with Stott, who has taken on with some a role akin to the magisterium!

  5. Howard Nowlan

    Was never really touched by Stott - too busy dealing with latter rain casualties in the late 70's and early 80's. Fell in with a ML-J cleek for a while in the 80's and experienced the pain of Reformed theory and practice first hand before convalescing in general evangelicalism for a few years and then being rescued from all the ism's by CURE (Christians United for Reformation) and the healing clarity of Mike Horton, Rod Rosenbladt and co pouring in the oil and wine of Luther, Lewis and the like - finally found my true roots in Christ and haven't looked back since. I wonder how many of us spent our lives in the 'I am of" shadow of others, rather than having teachers who totally point us at Jesus and His astonishing work alone?

  6. Brian Midmore

    So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind. (1 Cor 14.15). Those who are led by Spirit of God are sons of God. (Rom 8.14). Is the mystical inherently more dangerous than the intellectual? No. But both mystical and intellectual can be fleshy, and likewise they can both be Spiritual when led by the Spirit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Twitter widget by Rimon Habib - BuddyPress Expert Developer