Preaching By The Book - A Review

I was impressed with the first volume in the Hobbs College Library from Oklahoma Baptist University when it was published last year. It’s taken me until this Spring to get to the most recent volume in the series, Preaching by the Book: Developing and Delivering Text-Driven Sermons, by R. Scott Pace. The book deserved to be read sooner and deserves to be read widely.

In general, the Hobbs College Library is intended to provide basic resources for students preparing for ministry or men whose entry into ministry preceded their opportunity to get formal education or training. The books are written by highly qualified authors who have spent years teaching university level students; they balance scholarly acumen with a pastoral heart to create helpful resources for the growth and health of the church.

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Pace’s volume is a little over one hundred pages in eight chapters. In Part One, he lays the groundwork for the preaching event, focusing on the nature of Scripture and the importance of properly approaching the text on its own terms. Rather than hunting for a specific text to preach (which often results in sermons that mangle the meaning of the text), Pace urges preachers to survey the text prayerfully in preparation for the study process that comes later.

In Part Two, Pace constructs the framework for the sermon with a chapter on study and interpretation of the text and another of construction of the body of the sermon. Notably, Pace emphasizes that preaching arises out of diligent, joyful study of God’s Word; study is not an onerous duty that must be accomplished because one must preach. This approach to sermon preparation is encouraging. Additionally, the emphasis on using the structure of the passage to drive the construction of the sermon helps keep Scripture at the heart of a given sermon.

In the final section, Part Three, Pace picks up the garnishes to sermons: introductions, illustrations, and invitations. He offers balanced perspectives on both introductions and illustrations, which offer helpful reminders of both the importance of the elements as well as warnings for their potential to overtake the sermon. Pace offers a perspective on invitations consistent with many evangelical Bible belt churches that will work well in that context, avoiding the ditches on that culturally appropriate practice. This chapter will be less helpful for those in other contexts (e.g., many congregations in the Northern half of the US) who would find the practice unduly awkward and disconcerting.

This is a book that puts the cookies down on the bottom shelf. It is concise, clear, and well balanced. The Hobbs Library continues a positive trajectory with this book. I look forward to many further entries into the series of ministry-minded books that are intended to serve the church.

Preaching by the Book should not be the final stop in someone’s preparation for preaching. However, this is the sort of book that would be especially useful in a mentorship program with young men considering vocational or bi-vocational ministry. It would be useful as a text at the undergraduate level in a practical ministry or preaching course. It might even serve as one of several texts in a seminary course. This is the sort of book that is worth reading and sharing with those seeking to improve their skills in the pulpit or determine whether they might be gifted for pulpit ministry.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

The Story of Scripture - A Review

Hershel Hobbs was a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, a faithful pastor, and a theologian for the church. He helped guide the SBC through the doctrinal struggle that is commonly referred to as the Conservative Resurgence, where the theologically orthodox majority of the denomination reclaimed the SBC from the revisionist minority that had gained control of her seminaries, mission boards, and other structures. He was faithful through that work, but importantly, he was deeply concerned about the long-term health and viability of the local church. For Hobbs, the vitality of local churches was dependent upon a reliance and intimacy of the Word of God, which is why many of his 100+ published books are popular-level, verse by verse commentaries on books of the Bible.

With that background, it is a fitting tribute that the first volume in the Hobbs College Library series from Oklahoma Baptist University is an overview of the narrative of Scripture. It is a book designed to introduce the reader to what academics call biblical theology, but which is really just the process of looking at the big picture of Scripture and reading the Bible in light of the common, interwoven, recurring themes.

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Matthew Emerson, associate professor of religion at OBU, was commissioned to write the inaugural volume, The Story of Scripture: An Introduction to Biblical Theology. This little book is targeted at the average Christian who is interested in understanding the Bible better, though it is written by someone who has studied Scripture academically and continues to engage in deep, rigorous scholarship about the Bible. The book is divided into six chapters, including the introduction.

Summary

In Chapter One, Emerson lays the groundwork for the volume. He begins by arguing that Scripture is united in its theme and thrust. Though it was authored by more than forty authors over a period of 1000+ years and consolidated into one volume with 66 books, Scripture has a single main story to tell. In this chapter, Emerson outlines the meaning of and history of the study of Biblical theology, which is essential for those who will do further reading on the topic.

Chapter Two lays out the first three major themes in the story of Scripture: creation, fall, and redemption. As we piece together the overriding message of Scripture, the storyline is clear: God created the earth good, but Adam sinned leading to the curse. This is the story of Genesis 1-3. God didn’t leave it there, though, he began to enact a pattern of redemption that is evident throughout the rest of Scripture and whose seeds were planted along with the curse. Chapter Two takes the reader through the book of Genesis.

In Chapter Three, Emerson continues to trace the theme of redemption through the rest of the Old Testament, as God’s plan and providence are made evident through the Law, Prophets, and Writings. Chapter Four continues to outline redemption as it is accomplished and applied through the life of Christ, and finally described as consummated in the book of Revelation.

Chapter Five explores some of the major topics or keys that are commonly used to frame biblical theology. These include covenant, kingdom, creation, wisdom, God’s servant, mission and other. Emerson does not provide a comprehensive list (if there is such a thing), but does explain some of the most frequent approaches. Finally, in Chapter Six, Emerson succinctly outlines methods for applying biblical theology, including development of doctrine, ethics, counseling, and other suggestions.

Analysis and Conclusion

This book does not add depth or detail to the literature on biblical theology. However, The Story of Scripture does provide a helpful entry point for the study and application of a critical method of handling Scripture. Emerson does well in providing an entry point for students, pastors, or the average layperson who wants to know how to study the Bible better and piece together a big picture understanding of God’s work in redemptive history.

The Story of Scripture would be a useful volume to give to a new believer who is trying to figure out what is going on in the Bible. It would make a helpful text in an introductory course on the Christian faith or an overview of Scripture. This volume would also be useful in a home school setting, as the concise volume could be easily digested and discussed by the average high schooler.

Emerson has kicked off the multi-volume series from the Hobbs College Library well with this volume that should serve as a tool for churches and individual Christians for years to come.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

An Excellent Introduction to Church History

Recently I taught a four-week series on Church History on Wednesday evenings to my local church. My pastor wanted to expose the congregation to some of the sweep of our collective history, particularly in light of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

As usual, when I have a teaching opportunity, I over-prepared. I re-read many of my notes from seminary, re-read several surveys of Church History, and read a handful of new books on the subject. Since my preparation time was somewhat limited by ongoing life commitments and I had only four 1-hour sessions to teach in, I spent more time with one volume surveys of Church History than monographs or multi-volume overviews.

The recent volume, A History of Christianity: An Introductory Survey, by Joseph Early was one of the most helpful volumes I encountered.

Analysis

Early approaches his survey from a distinctly Baptist position, which is helpful since, as he notes in the Preface, many of the surveys of Church History were written from a distinctly Roman Catholic perspective. For much of Church History, this is fine, except they tend to handle the Reformation as an innovation instead of a return to orthodox roots. In a concise volume like A History of Christianity, there is little room for commentary, but Early is more even-handed in his presentation than some authors.

There are twenty-nine chapters in this volume, which I will not survey in depth in this review. Each chapter is about fifteen pages in length. This arrangement lends itself to easy bedtime reading or reasonable reading assignments for an academic setting. The text is well-provided with headings at reasonable intervals that serve as topic markers for the reader or researcher and opportunities for respite for those reading on a busy schedule. Unlike some of the other volumes on the market, this book uses a humanely large font with sufficient margins for note taking.

While comments about the construction and design of a book may seem like odd fodder for a book review, the quality of publication is part of what sets this volume apart. Each one of the single volume surveys of Church History I read is attempting to approximately the same thing in a few hundred pages. They all have the same facts to present and very little space to arrange them. There is little room for competitive advantage in content, but readability can make a difference. It certainly does in this case.

One place where I will grant Ian Shaw’s Christianity: The Biography a slight edge over Early is that Shaw takes great efforts to highlight the non-Western Church History. Early’s presentation of Church History tends to be a more traditional, bread and butter summary of Christianity in the global North and West. Early acknowledges the ethnic shift in the composition of global Church in the last chapter, but the main thrust of the book focuses on European Christianity.

One of the greatest strengths of the book is that Early engages in his historical task through the eyes of a person of faith discussing the lives and actions of people of faith. Sometimes histories of the Church get bogged down in commentary on power struggles, conflict, and personalities. It is refreshing to see an author simultaneously recognize the reality of power struggles while simultaneously seeing that many of those struggles were driven by faith, not merely political aspirations.

Conclusion

This is a book that I will return to again in the future. I will ensure it is stocked on the resource shelf at my local church. As I ponder how to teach Church History to my children, this book remains a solid option. It is concise, accurate, and well-written. I commend this book to pastors as a reference for weaving history accurately into sermons. This would also make a suitable text for an introductory course at the college level.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Enduring Truth - A Review

Aaron Lavender of Carver Baptist Bible College, Institute, and Theological Seminary has recently released a book with B&H Academic that, I believe, provides a much needed word for all Christians of all times. His book is directed toward the particular context of improving the theological quality of African American preaching, but most of the examples and lessons are applicable to any ethnic context.

Summary and Analysis

Enduring Truth: Restoring Sound Theology and Relevance to African American Preaching contains four content chapters bookended by an introduction and conclusion. Lavender begins by addressing the problems he sees with biblical preaching in African American pulpits. He notes that many African American churches have suffered due to the segregation of theological training and social segregation over the previous generations. As a result of many theologically conservative colleges and seminaries excluding or restricting access by African Americans, Lavender argues some bad theological tendencies have developed. He describes a significant mishandling of the Word of God that is widespread and has lead to the propagation of Black Liberation theology and the Prosperity Gospel instead of sound, biblical teaching. In other cases, showmanship and style have replaced substance in African American pulpits. This amounts to a crisis in African American churches.

In Chapter Two, Lavender moves to discuss the goal. Having stated the crisis, he unveils a vision for exegetical preaching, including its importance and its methodology. This chapter is concise and worthy of reading by prospective preachers of any ethnicity. In particular, Lavender tackles the issue of single versus multiple meanings as it pertains to exegesis of Scripture. Progressive evangelicals regularly assault conservatives for believing there is one primary meaning intended by the God-inspired authors of Scripture. Lavender defends the singular intended meaning, but also clearly notes that a given text may have diverse implications and applications in varying context. Lavender handles this issue and other similarly complex issues clearly, carefully, and concisely, which help to make this a good introductory volume.

Lavender builds a brief theology of preaching in the third chapter. Here he moves the reader to understand that preaching is more than simply regurgitating the results of Bible study, but it is a performative act in which the clear content of Scripture is presented clearly as a message of good news to a particular audience. However, Lavender cautions against preaching turning into a performance: “[The preacher] has not been called to entertain or mesmerize his listeners.” Instead, he should seek to reprove, rebuke and exhort. Scripture is to be the center of the preaching, because it is the message of Scripture not the charisma of the messenger that is intended to reshape the lives of the listening congregation. In this chapter, Lavender also considers some elements of preaching that are unique to an African American context. He evaluates both the strengths and pitfalls of “whooping” (“when the preacher’s words begin taking on a musical quality”) and “participatory proclamation” where the congregation is vocal in response to the preacher’s message. The purpose of this chapter is to frame a vision for expository preaching within the particular contours of the African American context.

Chapter Four closes the body of this brief volume by discussing the ever important search for relevance in preaching. In this chapter the author skims the surface of postmodernism, providing a critique that should keep the biblically informed from delving into the allure of epistemology murkiness. Lavender also discusses the importance and dangers of contextualization, which functions as further buttressing against a full-throated Black Liberation theology. Lavender urges his readers to contextual well, but cautiously. Seeking to apply the Scriptures to the lives of the hearers without diminishing the central message and authority of the Word itself is a challenge that every faithful preacher must navigate carefully. Lavender provides sound advice for his audience. This chapter concludes with a question an answer section, with a variety of seasoned African American preachers explaining their approach to the craft of preaching.

Conclusion

At under 100 pages of text, this is the sort of resource that could be useful in mentoring prospective young preachers in any context, but particularly within an African American context.

One of the clear messages that I received from this volume as a white evangelical Christian is that within the African American context, Aaron Lavender has the same concerns about biblical fidelity and faithfulness to the message of Scripture that I have had in a predominately white context. As we continue to work toward racial reconciliation, this makes it clear that conservative Christians of various ethnicities should be able to work together in the common cause of redemption of biblical preaching, even when styles and techniques differ.

Finally, this is an important book that should be read across ethnic lines. Within the African American context, it will provide a focused critique and corrective to possible errors. Within the majority evangelical context, it has the potential to provide an introductory understanding to some of the distinctive aspects of African American preaching (like “whooping” and congregational response), which can seem distracting initially, but which have a historical and theological foundation within that tradition. If you are a white evangelical seeking to be a bridge builder to theologically aligned African Americans in your community, this book will help you understand their context better.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

The Professor's Puzzle - A Review

There are very few jobs where someone recently from their training does not feel inadequate and somewhat unprepared. This occurs even in training nuclear operators, where we spent thousands of hours practicing in a simulator, studying the facts behind systems, and performing tasks under the supervision of qualified operators. Despite all of the practice, operators consistently reported that on the first day on the job on their own they felt nervous.

In the case of college professors, unlike many other professionals, the complaint is much more valid. This is because PhD programs focus on expertise in the field instead of pedagogy. In other words, the prospective professor learns the subject matter and not the means to explain it well. This is a benefit when it comes to doing scholarly research and writing, but it does not prepare PhD candidates for one of the most important tasks in their academic careers: teaching students.

Michael Lawson’s recent book from B&H Academic aims to fix that problem, specifically for professors teaching in a Christian context. The book he’s written, The Professor’s Puzzle, is a gift to the church because it fills in significant gaps that PhD programs leave out. He’s written a book that will help recent graduates, whether they come from a seminary or a university.

Summary

In ten chapters, Lawson manages to at on the major skills that are neglected by most doctoral programs. In Chapter One he builds a philosophy of education, which is frequently skipped. Then, in the next chapter he outlines the basics of the integration of faith and learning. Lawson’s version of faith and learning integration goes well beyond slapping a Bible verse onto the syllabus but shining the light of the gospel on the whole educational experience.

Chapter Three gives an overview of several significant learning theories. Given the diversity of opinions on this topic, Lawson’s chapter is obviously not the final word, but he is balanced and informative. In the fourth chapter, Lawson outlines a method for outlining a syllabus, which is a skill that many new faculty lack. Lawson lays out the basics of course design in a single chapter; I’ve taken and witnessed many professors late in their careers who could benefit from reading and applying that chapter.

The fifth chapter continues the pedagogical theme, discussing degrees of mastery of content and introducing Bloom’s taxonomy. In Chapter Six Lawson discusses managing a classroom, which includes the layout of the classroom, the volume of content in the course, and the flow of the class time. This chapter is, perhaps, a concentration of the most important aspects of teaching that many new professors may have never encountered before receiving their hood and guild card. In the seventh chapter, the assessment process is discussed. This includes assessment of the students, assignment of grades, and assessment of the course.

Chapter Eight touches on basic instructional techniques. Lawson does not call for killing the lecture, but he does recommend doing something besides merely lecturing. The ninth chapter deals with the relational skills that are particularly important for the Christian professor. As fellow believers or as witnesses to unbelieving students, Christian professors have the responsibility to engage their students on a personal and spiritual level. In the final chapter, Lawson presents some of the realities of university life to the young professor. These include budget concerns, enrollment, advising, tenure, etc. All of the things that keep the administrators up and sometimes bleed into faculty life more than they’d like. The book then closes with three appendices with examples and additional information to augment the earlier discussions.

Critique

I have been a professional instructor (in commercial nuclear power, not academia), a longtime student, and an administrator in higher education. This book is a condensation of much that I wish all faculty knew. It does not provide the definitive word on any topic, but it does touch on most of the major topics.

The two weaknesses of the volume are that it has limited advice for online instruction and it does not cover academic assessment of student learning. Lawson does address online some, but it feels like the discussions of online are tacked on the end of the chapters. There is room for more development here. Additionally, Lawson talks some about assessing learning, but given the pervasiveness of assessing Student Learning Outcomes, it would have been beneficial to discuss that more in detail here. In this regard, however, I may be overly biased as I am a Director of Assessment.

These weaknesses are minor in comparison to the extraordinary breadth of information that Lawson covers. This is a one-stop shop for the new Christian professor. It should become part of PhD curricula across the country, particularly at seminaries. Lawson’s vision for teaching the whole student and integrating knowledge with a distinctly Christian worldview are more important today than they ever have been.

This is the sort of book that should be included in courses at Christian seminaries and universities that deal with pedagogy. I am recommending it for my university’s new faculty orientation next year. Faculty who are early in their career should pick it up and read it this summer; it may provide the solution to various problems both inside and outside the classroom. The Professor’s Puzzle is not a volume that will lead to high volume sales to the general Christian population, but it should be a keystone in the library of most young Christian academics.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was granted by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.