Exegetes at Church

Repost: This topic has come up a few times in conversation, so I thought I’d repost this.

A few recent conversations have sparked some thoughts about going to church as a critically-engaged exegete.

Biblical exegesis is all about critical analysis of the details of a text and critical scrutiny of other exegetes’ work.  Several times after intense and involved class discussions, someone has commented that it must be tough to go to church.  If you’re analyzing the nitty-gritty of a text so closely, emphasizing each feature as crucial, how do you put up with sloppy preaching?

Good question.

Here are a few scattered thoughts, in no particular order.

First, there’s a world of difference between a critical mind and a critical spirit.  A critical mind is essential for the classroom and important for life.  A critical spirit, however, is soul-corrupting and community-destroying.  Hopefully, as I mature, I’m cultivating the first while avoiding the second.

Second, I don’t expect a classroom experience in church or an academic paper from a preacher.  Further, my attention span on a Sunday morning is about eight minutes.  The kid sitting in front of us usually reads Berenstain Bears books during the service, so I have to fight the urge to lean forward and find out what’s making Papa Bear freak out.  Rather than a complex treatment of interpretive options, I love hearing someone trace the broad contours of a text to provide a sweet and simple glimpse into the grace of God in Christ.

Third, when I hear something I haven’t heard before, or even something I’ve previously dismissed as unworkable, I don’t pass judgment and shut down.  I take it up and consider it.  I look again at the biblical text and ask if it fits.  Such opportunities force me to re-examine the text more closely and that’s always a good thing.

Fourth, ministry is hard.  It’s lonely.  Pastors hear far more criticisms than encouragements.  Rather than an exegetical critique on the way out, what a pastor needs to hear at the end of a service is, “thank you.  I appreciate that.  I hope you have a good week.”

Finally, I go to the weekly gathering of my church family as a Christian.  That is, my aim must be God’s aim, and his priority for my church is for it to grow in unity and love as a people called and brought together by the Spirit of God in Christ.  That aim must orient my behaviors.  So, when I’m at church, I try to have one or two good conversations, asking someone some good questions about how they’re doing.  I try to have some good laughs.

Criticizing the sermon simply is not on the agenda.

Exegetes, new and experienced, how do you approach the Sunday gathering?

Pastors, what are your experiences with professors in the pew?

11 thoughts on “Exegetes at Church

  1. gjohnston2244

    My experience and perspective is a bit different from that of a “professor in the pew.” I come at it from the perspective of one who has been involved in the Christian education program at a local church. The use of my teaching gift does not take place in a college classroom. It takes place in the regular assembly of believers.

    I agree that critique of sermons is not constructive, and I don’t do it as a rule. However, we not only have a pastor that delivers homilies, we have a “preaching team” that is learning to preach in assembly and frequently takes turns preaching on Sunday morning.

    So as a former elder, a life-long Sunday School teacher, and one who is dialogue with elders on the subject of the Bible and its role in the life of the church, your formula for a light-hearted visit in the Christian assembly doesn’t really apply to me.

    Having said, that, I personally am at a loss for how to be influential or whether I should give up trying to be It grieves me that the evangelical church seems to be failing in its larger mission and that the growth “in unity and love” isn’t really happening in many Christian assemblies in any way that is effective at reflecting the distinctive wisdom and love of God for his creation. It seems to me that we have lost the essential biblical story and replaced it with our American evangelical counterfeit. If that judgment is wrong, then I need to shut up and reassess. If it is even close to correct, I am still at a loss.

  2. gjohnston2244

    To clarify my perspective, I could cite any number of your comments (including the Kasemann quote a couple months back), but the one below from “The Emerging Church, the New Perspective and Evangelical Identity” is as good as any.

    “Genuine evangelicals ought to embrace the challenge to think creatively and purposefully about Christian thought and practice.” You also mention reading the text “through fresh eyes.” What if one’s church of twenty years is not interested reading the text through fresh eyes and are perfectly content with the inherited faith and practice, which they reinforce a through topical Sunday School program?

    How does reading through fresh eyes that seems to be dominating biblical theology these days apply to a local church whose leadership is both uninformed and uninterested?

    1. timgombis

      Those are good questions, Greg, and I’m not sure I’ve got answers. I choose to be involved in ways that radiate life and joy, and hopefully these strategies are the fruit of my faithfully reading and re-reading Scripture with a transformed imagination. And while my critical faculties are turned on, they are directed toward reflecting on the richness of the faith rather than how I disagree with this or that.

    2. timgombis

      Just to draw this out a bit more, Greg, I’d also say that in my classes I’m teaching exegetical method which involves criticizing poor methods and bad interpretations and aiming toward faithful interpretation. Further, I’ll offer comments on how passages can relate to church life, Christian living, other notions. In that setting, I’m being very critical in the critical analysis sense. And I think that students may get the impression that I sit in church judging every word, every aspect of any handling of Scripture, use of symbol, etc. I’m just trying to make the point that I leave that critical analysis in the classroom and adopt a posture toward others oriented by encouragement, service, joy, and not critical analysis.

      1. gjohnston2244

        I agree that it is not helpful to offer a critique of the sermon, especially to the pastor. I think you may have missed my first comment before the one you replied to. For me, the classroom is in Sunday School. We don’t spend much time on comparing other readings of the text. However, we are focused on the text and are reading it “critically” in the sense that we are attempting to read it within the framework of the writer’s “narrative world” rather than our own.

        I recently wrote an article (in your email) about this. The goal in writing it was not critiquing the sermon from the pew, but in helping Christians or student preachers better understand the value of reading scripture “afresh” and as closely as possible from within the framework of the writer’s “narrative world.” I wondered if your blog post on “Exegetes at Church” was in response to that article. If so, our situations are different.

      2. timgombis

        Oh, I see — no, the post wasn’t in response to your blog post. I think I’d largely agree with what you wrote. This post was in response to some conversations I’ve had after exegesis classes.

  3. gaudetetheology

    Great topic. I’m thinking of suggesting to my alma mater that they implement some means of actively addressing the question of the role of theologically-educated laypeople in church, especially in traditions like my own that have no tradition of lay leadership or preaching.

    One of the most helpful comments I received during my theological education came from a professor’s humorous, off-the-cuff comment that his wife was quite accustomed to grabbing and firmly holding his arm during mass when the priest said something questionable or even flatly inconsistent with church teaching, because she knew he wanted to jump up and say something.

    Honestly, that was the *only* bit of help I received in trying to figure out how to re-interpret my relationship with my church in light of my growing education, the utter absence of any visible role models, and the traditional clericalism in the Catholic church. Just knowing that it was normal to sometimes be frustrated by what I was hearing from the pulpit was a great help; but I wish I’d gotten more help than that.

    I’m still working on it, but my approach seems not too different from yours: I try to focus on the non-intellectual aspects of worship, and be open to interpretations with which I disagree. In the best cases, I hear something new and interesting in a sermon, and have a chance to chat with the priest about it afterwards.

    And, when I come home very frustrated by the sermon, I frequently use my own blog to write the sermon (aka lectionary reflection) I wish I’d heard! 😉

  4. evansroyce

    Wow, did you ever nail this one. As a preacher of 27 years, there is no end to criticisms or critics, very little constructive feedback and way too often someone with little or no training attempting to “one-up” the preacher. A little encouragement for those who carry the responsibility of communicating God’s Word and heart for the lost, the weary and the troubled, would be and is greatly appreciated.

    Don’t try to impress me with your exegetical ability, show me the love of the gospel in your daily life and your service to others. That says soooooooooooooo much more.


    Sent from Windows Mail

  5. jenhuster

    Not that I’m and exegete, or really a scholar of any kind, but simply reading my bible during particularly painful chapel messages helped fight the bitterness. Once I abandoned my selfish dreams of having every sermon directly applicable to me, chapels became a lot more manageable. Plus, I couldn’t get demerits for reading the bible!

  6. deeplygrateful

    I am afraid to admit that all too often I have been guilty of the critical spirit over the critical mind when I hear a sermon that is touted to be expositional but ends up being a topical survey of that minister’s specific systematic theology. You give a good word on how to handle each and every sermon: with grace and humility and grace.

    You hit the nail on the head with how to deal with other peoples’ sermons. We deal with them first in a communal aspect with appreciation of seeing God’s grace manifest in a sermonic form. Then we encourage that minister inside of the lonely and difficult position of leadership. I think that when we come to church with a self focus it is extremely difficult to do this. But, as Christians we are called to think of others over our own self, and that is the antidote to a critical spirit.

  7. Pingback: Baker Book House Church Connection | Around the Web

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