The Rev. Gerald Ambulance discusses the problem of preaching.
Greek is another good time-killer. Try this kind of thing: "Now the word translated 'preaching' here is the Greek word kerygma. And that comes from the verb kerysso, meaning 'to preach'. So when St Paul says 'preaching', what that word really means is 'preaching'." (Stephen Tomkins, My Ministry Manual by Rev. Gerald Ambulance, p.31).Rod Decker, Preaching and the Biblical Languages: Garnish or Entrée Mellon or Mantra? has a more serious approach.
Forty years ago as a college and seminary student I was a cook. I worked in various types of kitchen settings: short order, line cook, and commercial dining rooms. In most such situations we were concerned that the plate we served look nice. Part of the “dressing” was some sort of garnish—a sprig of parsley, a spiced apple ring, a lemon curl, etc. The garnish was not part of the nutritional value of the meal. We did not intend that our customers eat the parsley. It just looked nice. What we wanted them to eat was the entrée. Whether that was a juicy steak grilled to perfection or a chicken breast stuffed and wrapped and prepared just so, we took great pains that it be good quality, tender, and tasty. We did not, however, carry it to their table on a greasy spatula or in a crusty roasting pan. We served the finished product in an appealing, ready-to-eat form. That setting provides my analogy.
The biblical languages should not function merely as a garnish. Too often pastors pay only lip service to the biblical languages. They may acknowledge that they are important—at least to the commentary writer. They expect others to do the dirty work so that they can garnish their sermons with impressive-sounding jargon, a sprig of Greek parsley. “In the original Greek this is an ‘ā-or-ist’ tense, therefore it means [such and such.]” Or they add a lemon curl. “The Greek perfect mood proves that we were saved in the past and will be eternally secure forever.” Or for a real “ringer” (i.e., a spiced apple ring garnish), “This word in the original Greek is number 4352 which is a compound of 4314 and 2965, so it means to lick God’s hand like a puppy dog.” All such statements are merely attempts to sound impressive or to wield the Greek as an authority club. They prove nothing and do not add anything to understanding the meaning of the text. That is neither the purpose nor the value of the biblical languages.
The languages are much more like the entrée than the garnish. They are not the entrée as such, but the tools used to prepare the entrée. We do not feed God’s people with Greek and Hebrew. What goes on the sermonic plate is an appetizing, tender piece of meat. If we are ministering in an English-speaking context, that means that the entrée—the biblical content—must be explained in relatively simple English that our audience can understand. Just as the goal of a vernacular translation of the Bible is communication, so the goal of a biblical sermon must be the communication of the Bible’s message in language that our audience can understand.
He then discusses the Doors of Durin in The Lord of the Rings. (It seems even Baptists are not immune to the lure of Tolkien.) Just as the Fellowship needed to say the Elvish word for "friend" mellon, to enter Moria, so "it is through the door of the biblical languages that we enter (certainly as friends!) into the Scriptures".
On the other hand, we ought not make the biblical languages, as important as they are, into a mantra (the last part of my subtitle). Some people, being firmly convinced of the general argument that I have proposed thus far, use the biblical languages, not as a mellon, but as a mantra. They are certainly sincere and they have commendably placed a high priority on the biblical languages, but they then go one step too far in making the tools of exegesis into the gadgets of homiletics. Just as a mantra refers to something repeated continually, so these preachers continually inflict their audience with Greek and Hebrew. They preach Robertson and Danker and Wallace in their efforts to preach Christ. Their sermons contain profuse reference to Greek and Hebrew words, to technical grammatical description, to diachronic etymologies, and even verb parsings. Some even imply to God’s people that they should (or even must) learn Greek if they are going to understand Scripture and become spiritually mature. Their churches become language institutes and their pulpits become lecterns.According to the epilogue to Decker's paper, Dr Christopher Cone, at the same conference, argued that it is the job of preachers to teach their audiences the Biblical languages, textual criticism, genre, and so on.
God revealed Himself using language. That he revealed Himself in such a way has tremendous implications for teaching. God expected that His audience would be sufficiently skilled in the principles of the languages He used so that they could understand His meaning. We all need to understand how to understand God’s word. We all need to know how to handle variants, translations, background, rhetorical structure, grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and context."We all"? Everyone needs to be able to cope with textual criticism, ancient genres etc not to mention the languages? How shall we be saved?
What Cone and, to a lesser extent, Decker do, is confuse preaching the words of God with preaching the Word of God. They come rather close to the Mahometan approach of treating a particular language (at least two languages so far as Christians are concerned) as the very language of the Almighty.
Almost ten years ago, as friends of mine were ordained to the diaconate, I was always writing the following passage in greeting cards, from St Gregory the Great (Hom. in Ev. xvii) used in the Office for St Luke on 18th October.
For our Lord follows in the wake of those who preach him, since preaching paves the way, and then our Lord himself comes to make his dwelling-place in our hearts. First come the words that exhort us, and then by means of them truth is received into the mind. It was for this reason that Isaiah [40:3] commanded preachers: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God." For the same reason too the psalmist gives them the order: "Make a highway for him who goes on high above the setting sun" (Ps 67:5/68:4).Msgr. Charles Pope discusses this passage.