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Sometimes when I tell people I teach homiletics, they reply, “I remember when I took a class on Bible interpretation in college.” At that point I know they have confused homiletics (the science of preaching) with hermeneutics (the science of interpretation).

The confusion, of course, comes from the fact that the two words are similar in sound. However, they are two distinct disciplines. But not unrelated disciplines. In fact, there is the closest possible connection between them.

So what exactly is the relationship between interpretation and preaching, between hermeneutics and homiletics?

How you answer this question most likely depends on your understanding of the nature and task of preaching. If I believe that my primary responsibility as a preacher is to say what God said, then the central, governing question that fills my mind (at least initially) is this: What did the A/author of this text mean when H/he said what H/he said?

I want to know the answer to that question. I must know the answer to that question.

And, so, how do I come to that point where I know (or at least think I know)? Well, I must apply the generally-agreed-upon (at least in theologically conservative circles) principles of biblical interpretation. That is hermeneutics.

And that is why someone like David Allen would make the claim,

There is no good preaching apart from good interpretation.

Or to put it another way, David Jackman writes,

Where the Word of God is faithfully taught, the voice of God is authentically heard.

Jackman’s statement is quite good and warrants our attention. There is one, huge key word here: faithfully. Here’s why I think that. Let’s take the word faithfully out of Jackman’s statement and see what we get.

Where the Word of God is . . . taught, the voice of God is authentically heard.

True or false? Well, it depends, right? It depends on what kind of teaching is going on. The mere fact that someone is standing up and preaching from the Bible doesn’t guarantee that God’s voice is being heard clearly and unobtrusively. The fact is–the guy may be misrepresenting what the Bible says. In that case, are we really hearing God’s voice? That’s why Jackman insists

Where the Word of God is faithfully taught, the voice of God is authentically heard. (emphasis mine)

So if our objective is to let God’s voice be heard clearly and authentically, then we must be faithful in our teaching. And in order to be faithful in our teaching, we must first be right in our interpretation. That’s how hermeneutics and homiletics are related, at least in part. To be right in our homiletics we must first be right in our hermeneutics. Or to put it another way: there is no right homiletics apart from right hermeneutics.

Okay, so what? Someone says, “That’s nice. They’re related. Who cares?” Well, let me give you some implications of this vital and important relationship between hermeneutics and homiletics:

Implications for Teaching Homiletics

As a teacher of preaching, I have realized that a big part of my job is teaching guys how to think about texts and interpret them properly. If they don’t get that, it doesn’t matter how good they are at communicating. It doesn’t matter how likeable and effective they are as public speakers. If they are not saying what God said, they have missed the point of preaching.

Implications for Sermon Preparation

Though I am certainly for designing a logical and well-prepared sermon, I really need to discipline myself to make sure I am comfortable with the point of the passage before I start sermonizing. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how symmetrical and parallel my points are if God’s voice is muffled in the process.

Here’s a comparison that might help. Let’s say I pop a brand new CD into my car’s stereo system, but when it plays it sounds terrible. So I take the CD out and look it over for scratches and defects. Nothing. In fact, when I play it on my home system, it sounds amazingly clear and beautiful. So I take my vehicle to a car audio store and have them check it out. It’s then I find out that the speakers are bad. In other words, there was nothing wrong with the electronic signal coming from the CD. Rather, it was the speaker’s translation (or mistranslation) of that signal that resulted in the poor audio quality.

You see, there’s nothing wrong with God’s Word. The signal emitted is just fine. But we as the speakers can sometimes so muffle and distort that signal (through misinterpretation–perhaps due to a flawed hermeneutic) that what is being heard may not be clear, or even worse, it may be totally distorted and unrecognizable.

That is why careful interpretation is foundational for quality proclamation.

Implications for the Preacher’s Personal Reading

In addition to reading books on preaching, a preacher should also be reading books to help him interpret the Bible. Though there are many good works available in this area, here are a few that come immediately to my mind (in no particular order).

  1. Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics – Kaiser & Silva
  2. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible – Duvall & Hays
  3. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation – Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard
  4. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth – Fee & Stuart
  5. The Hermeneutical Spiral – Osborne
  6. Invitation to Biblical Hermeneutics – Kostenberger & Patterson
  7. Exegetical Fallacies – Carson
  8. Getting the Message – Doriani
  9. Understanding and Applying the Bible – McQuilkin
  10. Basic Bible Interpretation – Zuck

Implications for the Sermon

At times we want to rush to the application for the sake of our audience. And though I certainly don’t suggest that we dump all our heremeutical findings on our listeners, we may be shooting ourselves in the foot if we don’t take the time to establish that our applications are really based on the authentic and therefore authoritative voice of God. In other words, the foundation of our sermon application has to be a well-established and clearly communicated interpretation of the passage.  To bypass this critical step is to undercut our authority.

Implications for Sermon Evaluation

I am concerned that my students be able to employ principles of effective speaking in communicating God’s Word. I do think we should be concerned with how we say what we say. (In fact, a big portion of my dissertation is taken up with the rhetoric of preaching.) But the how is irrelevant if the what is not what it ought to be. When I evaluate a sermon, my first and primary question must be, “Did this guy say what God said?” If not, it doesn’t matter how well he said it.

Conclusion

Again, in the words of Jackman, “Where the Word of God is faithfully taught, the voice of God is authentically heard.” Here we have hermeneutics (faithfully) and homiletics (taught) brought together to accomplish something beautiful and powerful (the voice of God . . . authentically heard). And that’s what Christ’s true sheep really want: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

I was amused and encouraged by these words from Tim Keller. Evidently I’m not the only one who has these conversations with my wife.

I remember, some years ago, to when I sat down with my wife. You know what that’s like – on the way home – after the sermon. First you are hoping she will say: “Great sermon, honey.” But if she doesn’t say anything, you fear the worst. I remember one day we really got into it. I said “let me ask you, how often do you think it was a great sermon? How many weeks out of the month?” And she said “no more than one in every four or five weeks.” So, we sat down and here’s what she said: “For a good part of your sermon, your sermons are great. They are rational and biblical, and they are exegetical. They show me how I should live, and what I should believe. But every so often – suddenly at the end – Jesus shows up. And when Jesus shows up, it suddenly becomes not a lecture but a sermon for me, because when you say this is what you ought to do, I think to myself, ‘I know, I know, okay. Now I am a little clearer about it and I am a little more guilty about it. Fine.’ But sometimes you get to the place where you say, ‘This is what you ought to do, though you really probably can’t do it; but there is one who did. And because He did it on our behalf, and because He did it in our place, we believe in Him. We will begin to be able to do it.’” This is true only to the degree that we understand what He did for us. And she says: “That’s different. One time out of four or five, your lecture becomes a sermon when Jesus shows up and I want to do that. I have hope. And I begin to see how I can do it.” (Gospel-Centered Ministry: 1 Peter 1:1-12 and 1:22-2:12)

Is it silent in the car on the way home from church? Perhaps it’s time to get some honest feedback from your wife. It may sting a bit. But it may also change your preaching for the better.

Question: Do you ever have these kinds of talks with your wife? If so, what have you learned about preaching from your wife?