Ministerial Myths I: The Minister as Scholar
As I recall it (and recall is not something I rely on too heavily these days), when I went to seminary we were taught the myth of the Presbyterian minister as scholar. What this meant in part was that sermon preparation involved making your own translation of the text from the original, and then doing your own exegetical work. Only after you had done these things were you to consider the translations and the commentaries.
But, from the perspective of 40 years since graduation and ordination, as well as preparing to lead services next Sunday, I believe this is a wrongheaded ideal for the average working pastor. There are no doubt men, including not only those who will labor in an academic setting but also some who will spend their lives in pastoral ministry, who are have an unusual ability for learning Hebrew and Greek and for putting their language and other gifts to work in exegesis.
But me? No way. And, perhaps I am to be found among the majority of Reformed ministers.
Who am, I to think my translation could ever be better than that of teams of scholars who have given us the translations? I am to judge matters of vocabulary and grammar for myself? Who am I to think I might do better exegesis than the best of past and present Old Testament and New Testament scholars? It’s a myth, and an unhelpful one, to view myself as scholar. The chances of my ever improving on translations available to me are zero and nil.
I don’t believe in ministers giving out their own translations of texts. It is far better to have a “received” translation in the pews or printed in the bulletin and to preach from that translation, taking issue with it only under extraordinary circumstance, when convinced by the scholarship of others that it is necessary. You don’t engender confidence in the Bible as the Word of God when you are constantly informing the congregation, “What the Greek really says,” or, “What the Hebrew word really means,” correcting or contradicting what appears in the text before them.
When it comes to exegesis, my goal was and is to be able to read the exegetical commentaries and understand the issues of interpretation. One will have to weigh these things and ultimately make choices that will bear on the sermon. Even then, we are not “on your own” but stay within proper bounds, if we are a confessional ministers, because we will submit to the analogy of faith as expressed in the confession(s) of our church. Don’t ask congregations to listen as you say, “Some think this means, while others say…” Make the best decision you can, and then preach it.
The big problem with preaching is that so many ministers do not know what the text says nor what they want to say from it. Most ministers would do a lot better to spend less time pouring over the original texts, doing word studies, and reading lexical and dictionary studies. Cut to the chase. Go to the commentaries. Understand the issues. Make decisions. Figure out as best you can what the text says – what the original author meant to say to the original audience. Then figure out what you want to say that is both true to the original text and edifying to the people to whom you will speak today. Work hard sermon structure and composition. Be clear. Be logical. Say it. Know when to stop. You owe it to the Bible and the people.
Meanwhile I am warned by the preacher for whom I will sub next Sunday that his wife and daughter are known to mimic the preacher. I think I will preach on Elisha, the children, and the bears. I’ve not looked at the Hebrew or any commentaries but I know what I want to say.