Thursday, June 14, 2007

Staying Put in a Text

I have been holding onto a post for over a week and letting it ruminate in my head. The post is by Steve Matthewson over at (

He addresses a concern that I think is an issue in my preaching, which is a failure to stay put in a text. Here is his post: (My comments follow)

An old adage claims: “The best interpreter of Scripture is other Scripture.” True. But expositors must not abuse this insight when preaching a particular biblical passage. We must learn the discipline of staying put in the text we’re preaching. I face this challenge every weekend. I have to ask, “When is it appropriate to turn to another passage, and when is it better to stay put in the text I’m preaching?”

This question matters because teaching people how to think biblically means (1) teaching them to follow the flow of thought of a passage and (2) teaching them to connect the ideas of a passage with the overall message of the Bible. The first concern warrants staying put in a text. The second compels us to make connections with a passage we’re preaching and the whole sweep of the Bible. Every time we preach, we have to find the right balance between camping in the text we’re preaching and making forays into other parts of the Bible.

My concern, as I read and listen to some sermons, is that flitting all over the Bible can be a substitute for tracing the argument or the development of a passage. I reviewed a sermon outline recently and noticed that the preacher referred to thirty (yes, thirty!) other passages to develop the six-verse unit he preached. It was clear from the outline that he turned to all of them during the sermon. As I studied the outline more closely, I realized that the sermon got its shape from this assortment of texts scattered around the Bible rather than from the text on which the sermon was based. More accurately, the sermon got its shape from a grid created by the preacher as he read assorted passages related to the various words or topics in his text.

Remember, people learn how to read their Bibles from listening to your sermons! After a steady diet of your sermons, will they opt for a ‘concordance approach’ in which they simply look at the cross-references for every major word in the passage they’re reading? Or, will they develop the instinct to look for the flow of thought, to trace the argument, and to reflect on the figures of speech within this passage? As believers mature in their faith, we want them to make connections between texts of Scripture. We want them to think theologically (in terms of both biblical and systematic theology). But they will not do this well unless they learn first to stay put in a text. (Find the original post at:

Cal's reflection: While I do believe that I flit from scripture to scripture a lot less than I did early in my preaching years, I still find it easy to do that. (Frankly, it fills out the sermon). But it does not always ILLUMINE the text. And that is the point, isn't it? Even if the cross references ARE illuminating, does using them take time both in prep & in preaching that is better used in sticking with the original text and working through that? I find this train of thinking helpful. Thoughts?


Stephen said...

I spent some time this morning after our prayer time to see what your site was all about. I've now got it on my favorites. I don't have time at the moment to write much about my thoughts, other than I appreciate your insights and questions. Kind of like the Jewish rabbi that said, "Why spoil a such a good question with an answer?"

I would have loved to go with you to the Festival, though, it was impossible at this time, but am pretty sure I would have felt a lot like you described you felt. Of the entries I read, I liked the one about Walter B. the best, particularly about telling the truth and inspiring hope. Hope to keep up with what you're reading and writing!

Cal Habig said...

Thanks Steve. Like the rabbi quote!

Visits Since Dec. 11, 2007