My most influential mentor always told his charges that Bible teachers come to the text with one of two questions: either 1) “What can I say about this?” Or 2) “What does this say?” He saw these questions as a continental divide, and he urged us to be guided by the latter question. I completely agree.
But “what does this say?” can be answered at various levels of depth. One fantastic little book on the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, a book in the NSBT series called Five Festal Garments, lasts 151 pages. This little volume says what those five Bible books say at a level of depth appropriate for 151 pages. But there are commentaries on every one of those five Bible books which are 200 pages plus. (Hey, there’s even a 500-page commentary on the tiny epistle to Philemon!) Is Five Festal Garments, then, “dumbing down the Bible”?
How many times did this mentor of mine finish his own richly expository sermons without getting to the end of his notes? I sat in his church for 18 years, and I can tell you: it happened a lot. I also took upper-level seminary courses from him, and I know that he didn’t always go into the level of detail he could have. He is a profoundly gifted Bible teacher, but he decided that, for various reasons, he wasn’t going to say everything the text said. And yet he was still faithfully answering the question, “What does this text say?” I’m convinced he wasn’t dumbing the Bible down.
How can you know what to leave out when you’re teaching a given Bible passage? By understanding the constraints God has placed on any given Bible teaching session, constraints tied to your text, your situation, and yourself. Somehow you have to incorporate all three of these poles, without letting one eliminate the others. (I borrow this post’s structure from John Frame, whose Theology of Lordship Series is well worth your time.)
1) The text
It’s useless to say, as I have been tempted to say, “The text is the only important perspective! So just teach it!” It’s useless because you can’t teach the text without bringing in the other two poles. If there’s no preacher and no people, there’s no sermon.
But quite obviously, the text of Scripture is essential to any sermon or Bible lesson. “Preach the Word,” Paul says (2 Tim 4:2). The text of Scripture furnishes the message the herald is to proclaim to all (actual and potential) citizens of the kingdom; it provides the truths which the shepherd is to feed his people. It is the only ultimate justification preachers or Bible teachers have for what they’re doing. Even the Son of God himself quoted the Bible repeatedly (Matt 19:4, etc.).
That mentor of mine taught me to 1) explain the text, 2) illustrate it, 3) apply it, 4) argue for those applications, and 5) exhort people to do them, in basically that order. I’ve tried out other homiletical models, but this is the one I always gravitate back to. There are many complexities in Bible teaching, and these five rhetorical moves cannot always be kept distinct—but they do help me teach the text. They rein me in when my rhetorical flights of fancy are fluffing their feathers and getting ready to take off. I always feel safest when preaching and teaching if my mind has a keen grasp of the main point of the text.
2) The situation
It’s faithless to say, as I have been tempted to say, “I’ve got to limit the message to what these people can receive.” It’s faithless because God hasn’t permitted you to let the audience overrule the other two poles (2 Tim 4:3–5), and because you don’t really know what God’s Spirit is capable of doing inside those people through his Word (1 Cor 3:6). As one highly recommended book puts it, “God accompanies his own Word, bringing about the appropriate human response to that Word.” (53) God is part of the situation in which you preach. You’ve got a message from him to deliver, and even if that message sometimes appears to exceed your audience’s capacity (or willingness) to hear, God can grow their capacity and willingness.
On the flip side, it’s loveless to say, as I have been tempted to say, “These people are dull of hearing, and I give up trying to put things on their level!” It’s also loveless—and this is more common in my experience—never to give any consideration to what level the people might be on. Whether you’re a formal shepherd or not, every time you teach you’re a kind of undershepherd. The whole point of being a shepherd is knowledgeably and lovingly leading your sheep—your sheep, the ones God put in front of you, with their pasts and presents and futures, and not the sheep you wish you had. You must lead these sheep as far as possible from ignorance (or error) to knowledge, from apathy (or antipathy) to love, and from lethargy (or disobedience) to a truly Christian walk. Ideally, you are pulling them up from a lower spot to a higher one in every possible way.
I don’t expect Bible teachers who teach me to tell me everything they see in the Bible text in front of them. There are elements of discourse analysis or paranomasia or literary theory which simply don’t need to be mentioned in a fifteen-minute devotional on a mission compound in Honduras or in a Christian school chapel for elementary kids right before the annual field day. I actually hope those who teach me won’t tell me everything they know about a given Bible text but will tell me what will most help me learn, what will most prepare me to (someday) know everything they know. I don’t want every upward step. I want the next step.
Sometimes, as often with children, you do teach things you know your hearers can’t fully grasp so that in the future the lightbulb will have a chance to go “ding.” (Scientific progress goes “boink”; insight goes “ding.”) You’re screwing in bulb after bulb with the hope that, one day, the electricity will be turned on.
But I also think that such an illustration can be an excuse for not trying to communicate in ways calculated to make the lightbulb go off right now. There are other “Bible teaching” situations in which I don’t dare talk over the head of my listeners (1 Cor 14:9–11). I’m not going to read Paul’s phrase “kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom 9:3) in an evangelistic conversation in the back of the bus with someone whose mastery of Biblese is clearly non-existent. I’m going to translate that on the fly to “my Jewish brothers and sisters” (which is precisely what the NLT has).
For the purposes of this conversation in this situation, I am going to gauge how fast or slow I can go, and I’m going to highlight the aspects of the truth that truly need to be communicated in any given Scripture passage we might turn to.
It’s profitless to say (and this is one I don’t think I’ve personally been tempted to say), “I’ve just got to be authentic, be myself, and say what I really feel.” It’s profitless because your own holiness or passion or intelligence or experience are not sufficient justification for you to stand and teach others. They are important and necessary, because they’re you, but they have no authority without the biblical text and no impetus without the people’s need of that text. Kings don’t commission heralds to deliver messages of their own choosing (Rom 10:15).
You can’t teach the Bible text in any situation if you yourself aren’t one of the poles, or there’d be no one teaching anything. Preaching is “truth through personality,” as Philips Brooks famously said, and you’re the personality. That’s why you’re supposed to “keep a close watch on yourself” and on “the teaching” (1 Tim 4:16).
I have taught the Bible pretty much weekly for quite a number of years, but I have only rarely handled all of the services on a Sunday (three at my church: Sunday School, morning, and evening). I just did it this past Lord’s day, and it was a wonderful, fearful, exhausting privilege to bring the Word to God’s people. It hit me hard how difficult it is to bear the spiritual weight of standing in front of other Christians who know you and urging them (in this Sunday’s case) to be salt and light (Matt 5:13–16, morning sermon) and to adopt the psalmist’s viewpoint on apparent divine rejection (Psalm 44, evening sermon). It would tear me up to preach the Bible knowing full well that I was openly unrepentant of some sin. Bible teachers are sinners, too (as Paul Tripp has pointed out in this needful book), but the Bible does call for a higher level of sanctity (1 Tim 3:1–5), knowledge (1 Tim 3:6), and discretion (James 3:1) among those who teach Scripture to others.
Our levels of sanctification and maturity are, therefore, limits on our own Bible teaching. So, of course, is our knowledge. But that’s the easy one to rectify. No, we’ll never understand everything about a given Bible passage with perfect clarity. But with the profusion of powerful tools and good books available, it’s a relatively simple matter to learn more about what a passage is saying. We’ve just got to take the time. By God’s grace, we should know and love and live what we’re teaching.
People who teach the Bible in any given setting are always picking and choosing among the various things a text communicates, highlighting and explaining and illustrating and applying and arguing for some truths and yet saving others for later, or expecting people to study them on their own. I’ve heard numerous experienced Bible teachers say that the quality of a given sermon depends to a great deal on how much you left on the cutting room floor in your study. These preachers are actually hoping that God will give them wisdom to know not just what the text says, but what not to include from a given passage. What, they’re asking, is the message I absolutely must communicate and what should stay in the study?
Rather than insisting that all efforts to put the cookies on a lower shelf are “dumbing down the Bible,” we might as well acknowledge the limitations God has placed on our teaching times. And we might as well bring purpose and method to our teaching decisions—a framework like the three poles: the text, the situation/people, and you.