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Hermeneutics, Preaching, and the Problem of Biblical Illiteracy

Posted On May 6, 2017

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15, ESV)

When it comes to understanding the Christian life, knowing and applying the Bible is a non-negotiable: one simply cannot do Christianity without it. Not only is the Bible the foundation of all truth claims, it is immensely practical. It is filled with God’s self-revelation, and it is filled with parameters by which man can live. To use Peter’s language, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 2:13).

The problem comes in, of course, when we don’t see the Scriptures in this way. When a person chooses not to find in the Scriptures a wealth of knowledge and practical wisdom, he chooses the path of autonomy, which is paved with pride and ends in despair. The person who wishes to live his life abundantly in Christ must go to the Bible, under the illumination of the Spirit, as the source and power for “life and godliness.”

And yet, we have problems in our churches, don’t we? We have Bible apps on our tablets and phones, as well as study bibles readily available with Prime shipping. We have resource after resource, and yet, the question is, are we better for it? Have we become more knowledgeable because of our access to the Word of God? Are we applying it in ways we never imagined because we have so many resources? It should be obvious to the reader that these are rhetorical questions.

As a pastor who preaches week in and week out, I find it rather disheartening that the level of biblical illiteracy seems to be at an all-time high. Stories from the Old Testament that used to be well-known are now unknown (it seems). You might well think pastors and teachers in the church are doing a horrible job! But that’s certainly not where all the blame should reside.  If a person chooses not to take Paul’s admonition in 2 Timothy 2:15 seriously, that is, doing one’s best to present himself to God as one approved, handling the Scriptures properly, then it’s no wonder illiteracy is a problem in the pew. Which really means that it isn’t because of a lack of resources. No, illiteracy in the Scriptures is a lack of desire.

When we talk about illiteracy, we’re not necessarily talking about whether a person can read, or really whether a person has strong reading comprehension skills. The focus for this article is rooted in the problem of knowing the Bible. Whether it’s knowing where particular books are located, or even knowing which events happened in which books, the problem is far and wide. Instead of seeing the Bible as telling the same story, people who are “biblically illiterate” see disjointed stories that don’t tie together—they miss the entire story of redemptive history. It’s not whether someone knows the name of Nebuchadnezzar’s chief eunuch or not (it’s Ashpenaz), but rather, does this person understand why Daniel is significant in redemptive history? You might forget who Moses’ wife was (Zipporah), but did you know that Moses came after Abraham? These are the problems we seem to be facing.

Moreover, since the problem is both knowledge (mind) and desire (heart), the pastor now must preach in such a way as to address both issues. Is the sermon just about knowledge? Or is it just about emotions? Just how might a preacher attack the problem of biblical illiteracy?

One of the aphorisms that Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones would use to describe preaching was “logic on fire.” Preaching is logical, and it is hot. Whenever I approach a sermon, my goal is to focus on the head, the heart, and the hands. It takes the text and lights it (metaphorically) on fire. It also douses it with an accelerant as the sermon unfolds. As the Puritans would say, “The sun both melts the ice and hardens the clay.” Preaching does many things, but it must address the whole of man, otherwise it becomes a TED-talk, and you don’t need the Spirit to do that. So, preaching requires a lot of work, as it is both an art and a science.

If the goal is focusing a sermon on the head, heart, and hands, then the vehicle to reach that goal must be hermeneutics. I have always believed and approached preaching with the presupposition that I’m not only saying things loudly and intensely, no, I’m doing the work of hermeneutics, while the congregation is listening. In other words, preaching isn’t simply the communicating of information; it’s the communication of hermeneutics. While the preacher is doing his work, he’s demonstrating in his delivery (which ought to include logos, pathos, and ethos), how to do proper hermeneutics. This is the key to dealing with biblical illiteracy.

Think about it for a second. What makes a sermon, a sermon? What makes it different than a TED talk? What makes preaching different from attending a meeting at a hotel conference center that features a motivational speaker? What makes the sermon on the Lord’s Day special? The answer is simple: preaching is a means of grace. Preaching is what God has set aside for Himself. It’s what God desires His people to experience. The Holy Spirit of God uses preaching to shave off the rough edges and heal the wounds of the previous week. Preaching is a balm that soothes the weary sinner. God has chosen the preaching of the gospel and the teaching of His word as the very means to bring a sinner to repentance, and bring a now justified-in-Christ-sinner to maturity. Preaching matures us.

When a pastor has these specific aims in mind, I believe he will do well to address the problem of biblical illiteracy. The goal must always be addressing the head, heart, and hands—changing what we think, how we feel, and what we do. God’s word is a corrective. The way to get to this goal is by doing proper exegesis and hermeneutics. Demonstrating to the congregation how to read the Bible properly is the vehicle that helps deliver the message in such a way as to address all the faculties of men. The outcome, Lord willing, is a production of mature men and women who are faithfully serving Jesus and clinging to Him through His Word. When this happens, the listener has much to learn and apply, and at the end of the day, he or she can say, “I’ve shown myself approved.”

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