Jul 31, 2015

Be Clear, But Don’t Dumb Down the Bible

Is the average person today living in a post-Christian world really capable of understanding the theology of the Bible? Should a pastor avoid doctrinal themes and terms in favor of preaching messages that are less intellectually demanding and more relevant to his listeners?

Jim Hamilton offers an excellent answer to these questions in his helpful contribution to the book Text-Driven Preaching:

Can God’s people operate those complicated remote controls that come with everything from their new flat-screen TVs to their new cars? Can God’s people use computers; navigate grocery stores; hold down jobs; and acquire homes, cars, toys, and all the stuff they jam into the garage?

Let me be frank: I have no patience for suggestions that preachers need to dumb it down. Preachers need to be clear, and they need to be able to explain things in understandable ways. But human beings do not need the Bible to be dumbed down. If you think that, what you really think is that God the Holy Spirit did not know what He was doing when He inspired the Bible to be the way it is. Not only does the suggestion that the Bible is more than God’s people can handle blaspheme God’s wisdom; it also blasphemes His image bearers. People are made in the image of God. Human beings are endowed with brains and sensibilities of astonishing capacity.

Do you want people to think that everything that is interesting or artistic or brilliant comes from the world? Dumb down the Bible.

Do you want them to see the complexity and simplicity of God? The sheer genius of the Spirit-inspired biblical authors? The beauty of a world-encompassing metanarrative of cosmic scope? Teach them biblical theology.

Do not discount the capacities of God’s people. They may be stupid and uninformed when their hearts are awakened, but do not punish them by leaving them there. Show them literary artistry. Show them the subtle power of carefully constructed narratives. Show them the force of truth in arguments that unfold with inexorable logic. If they are genuine believers, they will want to understand the Bible. Show them the shouts and songs, the clamor and the clarity, the book of books. Let their hearts sing with the psalmist, weep with Lamentations, and ponder Proverbs. Give them the messianic wisdom of the beautiful mind that wrote Ecclesiastes. Preach the word!

Unleash it in all its fullness and fury. Let it go. Tie it together. Show connections that are there in the texts from end to end. Tell them the whole story. Give them the whole picture. Paint the whole landscape for them, not just the blade of grass.

So be clear in your preaching. Use rhetorical principles and strategies to explain the Bible in ways that make its teachings understandable and accessible to the common man. Know your audience and adapt to it appropriately (1 Cor. 3:1-2; Heb. 5:11-14). Don’t drag all your original language exegesis and historical-cultural findings into the sermon. But be careful that you don’t dumb down the Bible in the process.

For example, don’t avoid dealing with the doctrine of the Bible because you fear your audience won’t understand or appreciate “theology.”

The words of Martyn Lloyd Jones on Bible translations are relevant at this point:

The simple answer . . . is that people have always found this language [of the Bible] to be strange. The answer to the argument that people in this post-Christian age do not understand terms like Justification, Sanctification, and Glorification is simply to ask another question. When did people understand them? When did the unbeliever understand this language? The answer is: Never! These terms are peculiar and special to the Gospel. It is our business as preachers to show that our gospel is essentially different and that we are not talking about ordinary matters. We must emphasize the fact that we are talking about something unique and special. We must lead people to expect this; and so we are to assert it. Our business is to teach people the meaning of these terms. They do not decide and determine what is to be preached and how: it is we that have the Revelation, the Message, and we have to make this understood. (Preaching and Preachers, 142, emphasis mine)

Let God decide what needs to be said and what people need to know. Take pains to understand the message yourself. Then work hard to explain the message in ways that your listeners get it and see its relevance for their lives.

Pastors, don’t leave your congregation on the surface and in ignorance. Inspire them to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). Whet their appetite for the meat of the Word.

Remember, however, that no amount of work in preparation and no amount of clarity in presentation can substitute for the ministry of the Holy Spirit. So prepare and preach in dependence on the Lord and pray along with Paul

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give [those who hear your message] the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of [their] hearts enlightened (Eph. 1:17-18).