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A Pastor’s Reflections: Do You Really Know?

June 3, 2014


I can remember sitting at a Bible study that was being led by a seminarian who recently returned from his first year of studies. He was really excited to have the opportunity to teach—it was evident in his passion. But as I sat there and listened to his lecture, even though I was a seminary graduate myself, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what in the world this person was talking about. This young man had a lot of passion and excitement, and he used a lot of fifty-cent words like eschatological, already but not yet, inaugurated eschatology, biblical-theological, and the like. But as I looked around the room I could tell that no one really understood what he was talking about. This lack of comprehension became evident when it was time for questions and answers. As the attendees asked their questions, the student offered complex and torturous answers that only poured more densely packed fog onto everyone’s mind. What I concluded is that this seminarian, as excited as he was, did not really understand his material that well.

It’s not fool-proof, but a good rule of thumb is, Do you know your subject well enough that you could explain it to a child? If you can take a complex subject, break it down, and explain it in simple terms so that a ten year old can grasp the concepts, then you truly understand your subject. If, on the other hand, you can’t do this, then perhaps you need to study some more. A good example of how complex issues are broken down appears in the Westminster Standards. The Confession of Faith takes complex doctrinal issues and presents them in a clear and concise manner. This doesn’t mean that the subjects aren’t complex. But the presentation is clear. The theologians who wrote the Confession specifically avoided technical terminology and subjects because they were writing a Confession of Faith for the church, not for the academy. The theology of the Standards is further distilled in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which was written for the catechetical instruction of children.

Compare the Confession and Shorter Catechism to see how it presents the same subject. Try to emulate this type of simplification in your own teaching and preaching. When you’re preparing a lecture or sermon, anticipate where you might receive questions and prepare answers, even write short definitions. Sometimes, you will get caught off guard. I was once asked to teach Sunday School for seven year-old children. They were told they could ask the pastor anything they wanted. I had one precocious young girl ask me, “What does it mean when my Bible says, ‘Some of the oldest manuscripts do not contain verses 9-20’?” I was surprised, but I gave a brief, and hopefully simple, explanation of how the Bible was made. I never invoked the term textual criticism. Rather, I explained the ideas behind this term. I think the little girl was satisfied with my answer.

In the end, remember that when you study, your own comprehension is not the end goal. Rather, you’re studying to learn and share your acquired knowledge with others. This means you need to be prepared to feed your congregation. Practice your craft, anticipate questions, work at making complex things more easily grasped. In the end, your congregation and family will benefit from it.