Good Scholarship vs. Good Preaching

The senior pastor at my church is preaching through Philippians this month, and doing a fine job.  He assumes the traditional location and circumstance for the writing Philippians, that is, the Roman imprisonment, sometime between 60 and 62.  Paul is under house arrest while awaiting trial after his appeal to Caesar.  The pastor made several excellent preaching points, great applications which were intended to spur us on to godly living, just as good preaching should do.

However….I am sitting there thinking that it is at least possible that Paul wrote Philippians from Ephesus quite a few years earlier.  In fact, I have become more warm to that idea in this recent round of teaching Pauline Lit in the college classroom.  If Paul is in prison in Ephesus and not Rome, is the fine preaching and application value of the sermon no longer valid?  At the very least they based on some wrong assumptions, and therefore may be improper applications to draw fro this particular text.

This hit me more in my own Sunday School class, since I went to Philippians 4 in order to talk about joy in extreme circumstances.  This is the obvious text to use since Paul is obviously in prison and can still talk about his joy in that rather difficult circumstance.  Which circumstance?  I had to say that he was in prison in Rome since that is what the congregation just heard, and that is the traditional answer that is in all their study Bibles, and I would have to take a half hour to explain the possibility that he was in Ephesus rather than Rome, and by that time people would not care about any “preaching point” I was trying to make.  I simply assumed, for the sake of the congregation, the traditional, and quite possibly wrong background to the letter.

I suppose this was not too great of an academic sin on my part, but it did bother me that I was willing to set aside good scholarship in order to make an equally good point which was for the spiritual benefit of my class.  It was not a lie, but I suppose it was a sin of omission.

This set me to thinking about all of the people every Sunday who preach and teach the word of God and simply set aside good scholarship in favor of making a great point. Usually this involves some abuse of the Greek language and most likely an inadequate understanding of the aorist tense.  Everyone has heard that sermon.  These preachers might very well have good intentions (bringing people to Christ, building people up in their faith), or very bad intentions (increasing their own influence, increasing giving to their ministry).  Either way, it is a sin which must be avoided at all cost.

But if I knowingly and intentionally ignore what I know is true in order to make the sermon “work,” I have sinned because I have not been intellectually honest.  I should never separate preaching from teaching, both must reflect a truthful understanding of the world of God.

10 thoughts on “Good Scholarship vs. Good Preaching

  1. “If Paul is in prison in Ephesus and not Rome, is the fine preaching and application value of the sermon no longer valid?” – Plong

    I think I agree with you Plong. I don’t think that we should at all separate preaching and teaching, but after i read the post a couple of times, a few things came to mind.

    I think a crucial part to learning, is just that – learning. It’s a lifelong process. I don’t think necessarily that it was a “sin” persay. He [Pastor] preached and taught out of what he knew, or what he believed at the time. It would be one thing if he knew that Paul DID write it in Ephesus and not Rome, but still decided to preach it anyways because he felt like it.

    “These preachers might very well have good intentions (bringing people to Christ, building people up in their faith), or very bad intentions (increasing their own influence, increasing giving to their ministry). Either way, it is a sin which must be avoided at all cost.” – Plong

    Is it really a sin?

    I also think back to my dad who was a pastor in Laos who didn’t have very formal teaching [school, college], but taught what he felt convicted the Lord was trying to say through the texts. Obviously after he had received his masters, there are numerous teachings that have changed in his own theology and beliefs than if he didn’t go.

    Could the same have been said concerning Paul before his RADICAL encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus?

    Maybe it is a sin, something that we don’t know what we do that is “harmful.”

    Maybe I’m totally missing what you are trying to say through this post – but just some thoughts. Good stuff.

  2. Can what you taught in Sunday school, and what your Pastor preached that morning be taught from other portions of scripture? If so, you should probably use those instead, because if you have doubts…

    “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.”
    Romans 14:22-23

    I have always wondered why it was so important where Paul was writing from. I understand why who it’s too is important, but the location of Paul. I really don’t see it changing any major parts of scripture, only small segments or verses. It’s important, if just for those small parts, so I do understand why it should be known.

    Isn’t the important thing to know about Paul’s location was that he was in prison? Do prisons change that much from city to city? I would they are all dark, secluded, stinky, and full of chains, bars, and locks.

  3. > I would they are all dark, secluded, stinky,
    > and full of chains, bars, and locks.

    I’ll assume a verb here (heh, Greek joke?) and then point out that house arrest in Caesarea may have been pretty easy, since he was given some level of freedom as a Roman citizen. Herod’s palace in Caesarea was right by the Med Sea and seems like a bit of a vacation spot to me!

    So too the Roman imprisonment, since he was able to rent a “house” (apartment?), and while he was guarded, it was more or less comfortable confinement. If Philippians was written form Rome, IMHO he is a bit over the top about his “chains” — he is not chained to a wall and having daily beatings. He is a Roman Citizen under house arrest on a charge that might not be fully understood yet.

    But if the Ephesian imprisonment is the background, and if the charges are like those against Paul in in Acts 19, then he might be in considerably more dire straits than in Caesarea or Rome.

    The potential background should be used to read the book of Philippians changes if he is in one location or another.

  4. Wow, this post really made me think. It was hard to really come to the conclusion if it was a sin or not. I understand that you want to preach what is truth and you want to give all the correct facts, but I also think that since we do not know everything, we can not be sure. Yes, P. Long, I understand that you did not agree with your pastor on the dating, but I am sure that he would not agree with you. It is hard because you think you are right, but he thinks that he is right. I do not know if we can know 100% for sure which one of you is right. If we can, then I think the other person needs to change his mind. There are a lot of things that God has left open to interpretation.

    If you felt like you were in the wrong for not preaching what you though was right, then maybe you should meet with your pastor and talk to him about when and where Paul wrote Philippians. If you can not come to a conclusion, then maybe it would not be right for you to preach about it. If you feel like you are sinning, then it may be a sin. Sinning while you are preaching at church seems really ironic.

    I really do not know if it changes the values of the preaching and the values of what you are getting out of the preaching. I never thought twice about if the books were written different times or in different places. I do not think that it would change what I learn from the text. For me, I am not that deep of a thinker.

    Also, you said that some preachers may preach with “very bad intentions (increasing their own influence, increasing giving to their ministry).” I think if that is the point of them preaching, they should not be preaching to begin with. They are not preaching to bring God glory. They are just up their for themselves.

    I think that sometimes preachers need to leave out things like the date of books or where they are written just to keep people from arguing but to also to get a point across. It may not be right of them to leave somethings out, but it may be useful sometimes.

  5. “But if I knowingly and intentionally ignore what I know is true in order to make the sermon “work,” I have sinned because I have not been intellectually honest. I should never separate preaching from teaching, both must reflect a truthful understanding of the world of God”. This seems to be a good rule of thumb, and certainly will keep others from teaching an alternate doctrine if followed. Preaching the word of God should be just that, not preaching some words, but preaching the word.

    I would mirror Ben’s opinion though, and say that I never realized that the place of the writing had any weight upon the importance of the letter. I would agree that the Ephesus writing would mean that the persecution would seem to be worse, but the real problem is when the real message in the text (Joy inspite of suffering) is being dismissed and an agenda is being preached instead.

  6. I really liked this post P. Long. Not because it didn’t have much to do with Polhill or Wright (though the break in them was nice;)) I enjoyed it because it hit on something which I have been thinking a lot about lately, albeit in a slightly different field. If I am not mistaken a brief summary of the post would be that you were struggling internally about having to teach something you doubted, or at very least that you could not present the alternative to your class.

    In my field of study, Social Studies Education, I have similar internal struggles–especially in the realm of history. I have to prepare a Unit this semester with at least 8 lesson plans, and I find myself conflicted at times when I am doing them. This is basically due to the fact that history is written by the winners of wars and it is sometimes difficult to find the defeated peoples story. However, even if you can find it, there is often little time to give it adequate attention or people do not care to hear it because it does not change the overall point of the lesson (to the untrained eye, but to some it changes everything).

    Again as someone who is going to be an educator one day, it galls me to think I may be teaching information to my future students which I know may not be true to support a point.

    Because your Sr. Pastor had already preached that the imprisonment was in Rome, it gave you very little wiggle room out of agreeing with him, again since the study Bibles also denote agreement to that stance it makes it much more difficult to voice an alternative. Stuck between a rock and a hard spot.

    • Consider this a cathartic post. An alternative way of looking at this is that good scholarship ruins good preaching. I can give you a list of things that are great sermons, but they are based on exegetically dubious foundations. Do you preach it because it works? Or because it is the truth? Do you keep the truth suppressed so that the preacher can make his points?

      You will find that you know way more than your ninth grade social studies textbook does, and that knowledge is enough to cast doubts on whatever the book says.

      • Ok…a couple of things here. First, not to seem like a suck up, but that is one thing that I greatly appreciate about all of the classes that I have taken from P. Long at GBC. The fact that he makes sure to take time to give adequate time to both, or multiple sides of an argument.

        That being said, I know that a Sunday school room is a difficult place to do this in the fact that many people do not go to Sunday school to get a history lesson, but to get a nugget of application. Many people in the ‘Church’ today are not concerned with whether they are getting a fallacy or not, they just want something that seems like it is in line with the teachings of Jesus.

        On top of that, I don’t know if this was a belief of P. Long’s but he makes this statement. “An alternative way of looking at this is that good scholarship ruins good preaching.” Whether or not this statement is fully believed, it has some partial truth, but also so exaggeration. The truth is the fact that there are a ton of good, preachable points that pastors have made, as P. Long mentions that are based on improper exegesis. That being said, when a pastor does exegesis properly, good scholarship can add weight to preachable points that an exegetical fallacy could never achieve. So, there are times when good scholarship can undermine inadequately researched preaching points, but it can also make all the difference.

  7. I would agree with you P. Long. I think that a good preacher needs to research the topic that they are preaching about, and know the historical context that is going on. I think though that if there are 2 thoughts on a topic, and you believe in one more than the other, (point in case the topic at hand) you are going to be biased toward that way of thinking. Your pastor was probably preaching on his own personal view on Paul’s emprisonment. But, that doesn’t mean that you have to. I think you could present both side possibly in your lesson that you had prepared for Sunday School, and allow the pupils to lean which ever way they view Paul’s writting. We can only provide facts that we know, and leave the rest up to God, and the people that hear what we have to speak about.

  8. Hmmm…I’m taking a history class here at Grace right now, and the textbook is driving me wild…it would never make it as a wikipedia article. WAAAAY too many qualifiers: “it seems” that the Greeks did such and so; “studies indicate that it is possible” that the ancients of Peru were this or that; “historians believe” etc. etc. If read uncritically, one will think that all of these conclusions are fact. But they aren’t, they’re guesses. I much prefer an approach that says “we don’t know, here’s some of the information available, draw your own conclusions” because I think it’s more honest.

    In other words, I agree with Jed. Yes, we have a responsibility to be as informed as we can be in any teaching role. No, we do not have the responsiblity – or the right – to present our own assumptions, whether scholarly or no, as fact. Clearly P Long’s pastor put him in a difficult position by doing so.

    The church as a whole has put itself in difficult positions by doing the same thing in the past. At one point the mainstream evangelical churches denied the existence of dinosaurs because they thought dinosaurs proved evolution. That’s still a p.r. nightmare. Further back, didn’t the R.C. persecute people for saying that the earth revolved around the sun?

    I still question whether speculation regarding origins of an epistle should be allowed to have a strong bearing on the exegesis thereof. It seems to me that history should teach us to focus on what we do know, rather than staking our postions on the unknown. That being said, it’s good to try to learn more. Maybe one day something will be discovered that can be considered conclusive evidence of where the epistle was written. That would be cool, but hopefully in the meantime we can still derive the benefit God intended to bring us through His word.

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