What’s Your Point?

I am re-reading T. David Gordon’s book Why Johnny Can’t Preach. It is a delightfully instructive and entertaining read. Our session is going to be going through it with the idea of studying how communication works, such that we can improve our teaching. The thesis of the book is relatively modest in scope. It does not claim to identify and solve all the problems with preaching today. Rather, Gordon claims to be identifying one major problem, and maybe the foremost problem. This problem has to do with the way in which the media, a primarily visual means of communication, has interfered with our ability to read texts well. He would go farther than that by saying that it has almost eradicated our ability to read texts well.

I agree completely with his thesis. However, I would like to point out something else, something less obvious, something deeper and less traceable, albeit still connected with Gordon’s analysis. I would argue that the almost complete division and separation among the disciplines of learning has resulted in ministerial candidates who do not offer the kind of well-rounded sermon that Gordon is promoting. What I typically find is that sermons these days are exegetical or systematic-theological or practical or historical or apologetic. This problem is not merely due to the fragmented way in which many seminaries teach the theological disciplines (though that may well be the main factor). It is also due to the colleges and high schools, which are usually oblivious to the problems that this Enlightenment-created phenomenon has produced. I realize that I am speaking somewhat generally, and that there are exceptions (specifically, most instructors and congregants desire the sermon to be practical, and so the practical aspect is often there alongside one of the other aspects; although, even here, the “practical” is usually truncated to mean “what is helpful to me at 9 AM on Monday”).

The effect this division among the disciplines has on preaching is profound, especially when aggravated by the factors that Gordon mentions. In the modern sermon, not only is there lack of unity in subject matter (“Point? What point?”), but there is also lack of unity in theological discipline (which is, ultimately, the viewpoint of the sermon). Most of the time, it seems that preachers will take one of the disciplines (their favorite) and preach from that viewpoint. As a result, their sermons are greatly truncated. What unites the theological disciplines, after all, is Scripture itself, as Abraham Kuyper so admirably says in his Principles of Sacred Theology (which ought to be required reading at every seminary in the last semester of study). It is like trying to pull a rope while grabbing only one of the strands: eventually the rope unravels.


  1. rfwhite said,

    October 7, 2013 at 9:11 am

    Green Baggins:

    I share your observation about disciplinary integration in the following way. With respect to the fragmented way in which the theological disciplines are taught, I’d add that, increasingly, those disciplines are also learned in an increasingly fragmented way. What I refer to is the fact that the sequencing of coursework in almost all MDiv programs is developed and offered on the assumption that students will be full time and will be taking their coursework in the proposed sequence so that their education is appropriately integrated. But for a number of reasons — two of them being the increased expense of seminary education and the aging of the average seminary student — many seminarians have not be able to take their education as full-time students. The effect on the man’s education is that the integration of disciplines that the program was designed to deliver is not learned even if it is offered, at least not learned in the program. As a result, integration is not achieved through the program and has to obtained, if at all, by some other means.

  2. Frank Aderholdt said,

    October 7, 2013 at 10:55 am

    If this discussion is go anywhere, we need specific examples. The theory and the principles are good, but we need real-world examples of “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” Otherwise, we’ll do nothing but talk back and forth in generalities.

  3. rfwhite said,

    October 7, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    3 Frank Aderholt:

    I do appreciate your interest in specifics. Of course, I’m not quite sure what you’re looking for, but let me try. I won’t speak for Lane but let me try to add some specifics from my experience as a seminarian and then as a seminary professor and administrator.

    When I was a student at the master level in the late 70s, almost all students were full time and single in their early to mid 20s, directly out of college. When I became a prof and an admin in the 90s and 00s, students were mid 30s, married with children, years removed from an educational environment, and the ratio of full time to part time students was 20% to 80%. The aging of the seminary student and the rise in the number of part time students is traceable in the data of accrediting agencies.

    These shifts changed how students were integrating or not integrating their coursework especially in their exegetical and homiletical training, and it changed what profs could expect of students in their coursework. I’ve personally experienced and witnessed how it changed what profs talked about in class and changed what assignments they gave students. Assignments shifted to less reading and less writing and more to rote memorization, to presentations, and to projects. Don’t get me wrong: the change in assignments was not detrimental in every case, but the effect on outcomes over time was a downgrade, particularly, when it came to exegesis and preaching. For example, when it came time for me to teach exegetical courses, there was an evident discrepancy in the ability of the part time and full time students to see, deal with, and express the historical-, biblical-, and systematic-theological implications of their exegetical work, and these limitations, especially in their ability to express themselves, would show up in what they did or did not do in their homiletical work.

    One other dimension: as a presbyter, I served for nine years on a credentials committee. When it came to ordination exams, the difference in educational experience often affected preparation and performance. To be sure, there were exceptions to what I’ve described.

  4. Frank Aderholdt said,

    October 7, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    Thank you, Dr. White. I’ve been a voracious consumer of Reformed preaching for over forty years, and I think I see what you and Lane are getting at. Fragmentation, dis-integration, narrowness of focus, “tunnel vision” seem to be the major problems.

    Now on to the solution. We need contemporary examples of “how to do it.” Who are some of the men whose preaching models the integration of the various disciplines, and who communicate effectively? Given the sad state of secondary and college education today, many men will learn good preaching only by hearing it from others, and by following in their paths. I’ve just about given up on the sixteen or more years of the typical educational experience to prepare one for much of anything, other than a technical skill.

    As a Board member of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, I’m intensely interested in this topic. GPTS puts a premium on producing effective preachers. From “Our Distinctives” on the GPTS website:

    Because the preaching of the Word is the God-ordained means for the spread of the Gospel, the priority of preaching is one of the main thrusts of a GPTS education. We believe that one of the great needs of the modern Church is strong preaching accompanied by the same humility of spirit that the Apostle Paul showed in Acts 20:18-21. In our mission to produce strong, godly preachers, we teach courses in logic and rhetoric, and design our curriculum to equip men to be effective preachers.”

  5. greenbaggins said,

    October 7, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    My short list of those preachers who I think offer us the kind of model we are talking about: Phil Ryken, Rick Phillips, Iain Duguid, Dale Ralph Davis, Derek Thomas, Joey Pipa, Terry Johnson, Jon Payne, Danny Hyde, and R.C. Sproul. I’m sure that there are many others who I have not named, but nevertheless do a great job. This is not meant to be an exclusive list, but rather a suggestive one.

  6. Frank Aderholdt said,

    October 7, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    Excellent list! Add a Puritan per excellence, Joel Beeke.

  7. DM said,

    October 7, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    I think too many professors and seminarians are always coming up with something new, and so perhaps accreditation is part of the problem. The new historic redemptive teachers of the last few decades, for example, are always discovering new interpretations that ignorant Christians overlooked for 2000 years. What a beautiful picture of God they paint, but how much of it is true? That is what we would think when we got yet another Westminster-Calif student for pulpit supply.
    But listen to a Covenant student and you would think you were back in the PCUSA. It is so sad to hear most of these students not even being able to explain the Gospel.

  8. gagebrowning said,

    October 7, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    As a layman- not an exegete, I must say that it seems to me that it is a rare thing anymore to hear a sermon with a “big idea”. It is even more rare to hear a big idea that matches the main idea of the text. I’m not sure why that is, and I’m not sure it is a new issue in preaching. In earning my degree in “Speech Communications” I can tell you that every speech we ever heard in class it was “anathema” to forgo the big idea. It seems common to excise the big idea with 20 of them in many of the churches I’ve experienced.

  9. Frank Aderholdt said,

    October 7, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    Sinclair Ferguson, a master preacher. (We have three things in common – our Savior, our Presbyterian heritage, and the year of our birth.)

    John MacArthur and Steve Lawson, credobaptism and elements of dispensationalism notwithstanding. In clarity of exposition, pointed application, and evangelistic fervor, they have few equals.

  10. DM said,

    October 8, 2013 at 12:37 am

    William Still had a huge influence on S. Ferguson, William Harrell, Tom Swanston and others. You can hear him on tapesfromScotland.org

  11. Frank Aderholdt said,

    October 8, 2013 at 8:29 am

    If we are to expand the list to men of recent memory who have passed into glory: Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and James Montgomery Boice (though few today would copy The Doctor’s unique style).

    I see a number of common characteristics in all the men mentioned so far. Each man’s preaching, however different from the others according to gifts and temperament, is a healthy corrective to the problems outlined in Lane’s original post. More on this later.

  12. rfwhite said,

    October 8, 2013 at 9:59 am

    5 Frank Aderholdt:

    I’m glad we’re tracking. As far as solutions to the disintegration, that is a major challenge, perhaps the challenge, isn’t it? My thinking runs in a couple of directions.

    One focus is on what happens in seminary itself: course sequencing for part time students. My thought is that it’s desirable to move from synthesis (general) to analysis (specific), and so, as a rule, having students take theological studies before exegetical studies is best, and both of them before homiletics. Even, then, though, serious changes have to take place in how theological material is presented when students lack sufficient exegetical training to appreciate the theological conclusions being reached.

    Another focus is along the lines already suggested, namely, finding good examples of what to aim for.

  13. greenbaggins said,

    October 8, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Dr. White, may I add a suggestion here? I agree completely with the idea of starting from a synthesis, and then going to analysis. However, given the current fragmentation of the theological disciplines, would it not be wise to end with synthesis as well? This is why my suggestion is that they read, early on, Richard Muller’s book _The Study of Theology_, which gives one a great road map of the disciplines, and their interdependence. Then, at the end of their seminary training, they should read Abraham Kuyper’s book, which emphasizes that the Bible is the ultimate unifying factor in all of the disciplines. It brings it back together in a synthesis. What do you think?

  14. rfwhite said,

    October 8, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    14 greenbaggins: you’re right; my previous comment was incomplete in that it seems to me that we are describing what is a cycle that has analysis moving back to synthesis, all in a hopefully, prayerfully upward, sanctifying progression — which leads others to call it a spiral and not just a cycle.

  15. Martin said,

    October 8, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    This is a very interesting and important discussion. Thank you!

    I suspect part of the reason we don’t see integration at the level we would like is that very few of us are synthesizers by nature. We each have our particular areas of interest and those tend to come through in teaching and preaching, too often to the detriment of a holistic, integrated approach.

    To combat this, for what it’s worth, I have tried to maintain a practice or habit of asking three questions of Scripture to help keep a broader perspective: 1) Why did God give this to its original audience? (a reminder to keep in mind the grammatical-historical aspect of context, author, language, setting, etc.); 2) Why did God preserve this for us today? (IOW, what am I supposed to learn, or how am I supposed to behave differently? – a reminder to keep in mind doctrine/systematics and the practical side of personal application); 3) How does this passage point me to my Savior, Christ? (the redemptive-historical approach). Depending on the text, one question and its answers may dominate, but hopefully I don’t forget to think about the others.

    Then as a teacher/preacher, I try to keep in mind some simple goals: 1) that people walk away with a better understanding of the text than they had coming in; 2) that they walk away with a better understanding of how it impacts them personally than they had coming in (what they should believe or how they should live); 3) that they walk away with a deeper appreciation for, faith in, love of Jesus than they had before. Again, one goal may dominate depending on the text, but hopefully all three can be met to some degree.

    Do I do the above well? Hardly. But one can try…

  16. Reed Here said,

    October 9, 2013 at 9:33 am

    I was blessed this summer to take a course at Ligonier on preaching with Dr. Dennis Johnson, WSCal. Thought about blogging some on it but time commitments to my “day job” said otherwise.

    I appreciate the synthesis-analysis-synthesis approach. Being wired as a synthesizer (apparently another expression of being an oddball; thanks Martin ;-) ), looking at my practice I realize that is a good summary of the methodology I follow in sermon prep (and other).

    If I might develop Martin’s three step question process, I find use of three gospel essential foci to be helpful:sin, Savior, and salvation. Each text will in some manner(s) reflect aspects of these characterstics. These then answer Martin’s first question this way: how was the gospel present for the original audience? These also then provide connecting points to the rest of Scripture; the same/similar reflections on sin, Savior, salvation will be seen elsewhere in Scripture (before and after the preaching text). Keeping in view the progressive redemption character of Scripture enables proper coordination of all these reflections.

    I’ve got a pretty good handle on the exegetical/hermeneutical tasks involved in sermon prep. I’m still developing in my homiletical style, although even here the sketch lines and broad strokes are in place.

    Lane, maybe not just Kuyper’s book, but a final class on the subject of integration? I.e., change it to synthesis-analysis-integration. Bring in experienced pastors, men well seasoned in the ordinary means of grace ministry, and let them explain the realities of turning their seminary “engineering” training into actual gospel road-building in church ministry.

    Anyway, just some fluff. Y’all are engaging far more potently than my mere squeaks do justice to. Thanks!

  17. rfwhite said,

    October 9, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    Lane/Reed: given your reference to Kuyper’s Principles. I recall that in my seminary program the final theology course covered all topics in systematics, was based on Carl Henry’s Basic Christian Doctrines and, was taught in a Q/A format, prof posing questions to students randomly chosen, students answering extemporaneously. Challenging and good, I believe. Still not the same as what Reed’s good suggestion.

  18. Cris A. Dickason said,

    October 10, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    This is a good interchange of ideas. I have pondered these things over the years, having gone the seminary/M.Div. route, thinking for a while I was called to the pastoral (or related) ministry. I squeezed the 3-year M.Div. into 4.5 years, working and paying my way through seminary.

    Any changes in seminary-based ministerial education need to occur hand in hand with changes in the churches those seminaries serve or to which they feed graduates. In fact, these changes need to be suggested and requested, expected and demanded by the churches. The changes need to occur when or as men are accepted under care and the mentoring process for ministerial candidates begins.

    If it is not as good for men to take their seminary training piece-meal, in a part-time fashion, while they must also attend to, perhaps, a full-time job, in order to provide for their families, then churches and presbyteries need to step up and $upport that seminary training. I understand this is not a trivial suggestion. It requires a large commitment from churches/presbyteries to screen men and commit to them. It will require even greater work to be able to turn aside from the ministry a man even after seeing him through years of training and education. In other words, having supported a man through his seminary education, he can’t be given an automatic pass to ordination, ignoring doctrinal or “professional” defects (lack of communication, organizational and people skills).

    The first steps would be to have a consensus [one presbytery at a time if necessary] that men must exhibit an integrated, holistic understanding of theology and ministry before they are ordained as teaching elders.

    Presbyterians should not be expecting from the academy that their seminary graduates are fully-formed for office, merely that they are academically formed and trained, they have gone through the intellectual boot camp required to move forward into office, but the divinity degree alone does not confer fitness on the ministerial candidate.


  19. Lee said,

    October 10, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    Thought provoking piece. Thank you. But perhaps you do not go far enough. Perhaps the problem is the seminary model itself. The modern seminary is based on the world of academia, which includes this division you speak about. Is there really a way to keep the academic model, and avoid this problem?
    Perhaps the church would be better served if we returned to a Log College / Internship model where these great preachers took people under their wing and trained them up and then the church examined them for ministry.
    This is something I have been pondering for a while, and now I wonder if you think that would help (or hurt) the problem.

  20. Reed Here said,

    October 11, 2013 at 10:58 am

    How about if each Presbytery (or a group of Presbyteries) calls and supports one or more TE’s whose calling is to train the candidates of the presbytery? These could be the same kind of men now serving at seminaries.

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