Preaching With Non-Believers In Mind…By Using Greek? Subverting Hermeneutics of Suspicion By Recovering The Original Languages
A few weeks ago I read an article on The Gospel Coalition’s site titled “How Andy Stanley and Tim Keller Preach with Non-Believers in Mind.” The article explored some thoughtful strategies that Keller and Stanley use when they preach to ensure believers and non-believers alike are taught the Bible engagingly.
Some of their thoughtful strategies include: acknowledge and welcome non-believers in one way or another; assume non-believers are present and need help in approaching the Bible; challenge non-believers to engage the Bible by acknowledging the oddity of Christian belief and practice.
I loved these strategies, all from Keller’s and Stanley’s new books on church ministry. I’d like to add one more, though: subverting their “hermeneutics of suspicion” by recovering the original languages of the Biblical text. And one of the best ways to do this is preparing and preaching sermons using side-by-side Bibles like the fabulous new NIV Greek and English New Testament.
You might find this an odd, ivory-tower suggestion, but stay with me, because I think there is something to regularly incorporating the Bible’s original languages into your preaching in order to remind people your words, authority, and interpretation are not merely your own.
One More Barrier To the Preaching-Act: Hermeneutics of Suspicion
Today we preachers have to hurdle several barriers when taking to the pulpit: shorter attention spans thanks to television and Twitter; an increase in basic biblical literacy; quick-fix, seven-points-to-healing-whatever sermons are expected over deep, involved expositions of God’s Story; and more skepticism and suspicion of people’s interpretation of any given text, particularly the Bible.
This last barrier isn’t often considered in the preaching-act, however. But the fact is, our culture breeds people with a deep hermeneutic of suspicion, an attitude of distrust toward the existence of meaning in a Text and our ability to interpret that meaning. In “Is There Meaning In This Text?” Kevin Vanhoozer notes, “This is precisely what interpreters who create rather than attempt to discover textual meaning do; they prefer their own observations to the testimony of authors.” (291) That’s our culture: meaning is made, not discovered, and anyone who claims to discover it is dismissed.
People commonly respond “That’s your opinion” or “That’s your interpretation” in their regular life, not to mention their spiritual life. Meaning is now in the eye of the beholder, not in the beheld. If that’s the case, especially for those returning to church or coming for the first time, you better believe they’re bringing this same suspicion of meaning-making with them to your sermon.
Which is why incorporating the original languages into your preaching could be helpful.
Your Words Are Not Your Own
When we go back to the original language in a sermon, we remind our listeners that our words are not our own. As I wrote earlier, when you preach you are “a living voice for the living Word. When we preach, we inflect the Word of God for those who hear.” (Folly, Grace, and Power, 18) And using original biblical words can remind people that this moment of inflection transcends the American language, it transcends Bible translations—it is a moment when God Himself is saying something.
Your Authority Is Not Your Own
From the same earlier post and same book, “The biblical text is the true location for the preachers’s authority.” Part and parcel with our current crisis of interpretation is a crisis of authority. Now that interpreting meaning is in the eye of the beholder, it seems necessary that preachers remind their people from where their authority comes, which is the Bible itself.
The original languages provide this reminder, because those were the sources God used to exercise His own authority to us through His Word. God’s authority was exercised through the original writers using their original contexts, cultures, and languages. We use these original words not as a power play or to show off, but as a reminder of what God originally spoke to the prophets and apostles, and what He is still saying through them to us in the 21st century using you, the preacher.
Your Interpretation Is Not (Entirely) Your Own
I say entirely because we all bring something(s) to the hermeneutical table—none of us have clear lenses through which we interpret Scripture. But good preachers will interpret along with the Church, which involves returning back to the original linguistic source of our interpretation.
That was the goal of the Reformers, reflected in their rallying cry ad fontes—literally “back to the fountain” or “back to the source.” The Reformers weren’t interpreting Scripture newly and freshly, they were returning back to the original sources the historic Church had used to discover the meaning of the Text: the original languages. They returned back to the source texts in Greek and Hebrew in order to interpret rightly.
Joining the Reformers in returning back to the sources of our words about the Word and then bringing those sources into our preaching will signal to non-believers that our interpretation isn’t our own. We are interpreting along with past communion of saints who have constantly returned back to the original source in order to discover and know who God is and how He desires us to live.
One of the best resources to help you in your own subverting efforts is the NIV Greek and English New Testament. I love this resource because it allows me to compare the original Greek text with the bestselling english translation side-by-side. It allows you to move easily between the Greek and English texts while preparing for and teaching sermons.
As preachers we are mindful of the barriers that disrupt the preaching-act, and we are trained to play interference in order that God’s Word will go forth. When preaching with non-believers in mind, consider using more of the original languages in your preaching in order to subvert their suspicions and skepticism by communicating that your words, authority, and interpretation are not merely your own. They are God’s.
Jeremy Bouma has spent a decade ministering among our postmodern culture, first in Washington D.C. and most recently as a pastor in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA—a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith—holds the Master of Divinity and Master of Theology from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and writes at www.novuslumen.net.