Posted by: Andrew Webb | December 4, 2008

Advice to Old School Teachers and Pastors – Be Clear!

Should the teaching of a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ be clear and easy to understand or difficult and inscrutable to fathom? Should understanding his teaching require that one have at the very least a post-graduate degree and copious training in the subject he is discussing? While those might sound like easy questions to answer, history is full of examples of men who have served in both the ministry and the seminary whose teaching was anything but clear and easy to understand. Often the teaching of such men has been so unclear that they have been thought to be saying things they have later denied they taught. In the case of the recent Federal Vision controversy, for instance, the teachers of the Federal Vision are constantly claiming that even men with advanced theological degrees have not understood their teaching.

What is the real value of teaching that is either unclear, confusing, or unintelligible to most listeners, especially when that teaching is supposed to be an exposition of the clear and perspicuous content of scripture? If a man cannot explain what scripture teaches on subjects like salvation and the sacraments in a manner that even a trained theologian can understand, then surely the problem is likely to be that either the matter or manner of his teaching is confused and quite possibly erroneous.

Our teaching and preaching, while it should not be dumbed-down or denuded of content, should be above all clear and logical. It should not be the case that what we say can be easily taken in a wrong way so that our listeners are likely to misunderstand what we are saying. Instead, like the preaching and teaching of the Apostles we should be striving to be clearly understood by all manner of men.  So if your primary concern is to make Christ and His commands known to a lost and dying world, your ministry will follow the lead of those preachers and expositors who have a gift for being able to make even complex subjects clear and easy to understand, rather than those who have had a knack for complicating even the simplest and most straightforward of subjects.

Men should be able to say of us what Leon Morris (who was himself a brilliant, but very clear expositor of scripture) wrote about one of his own mentors, T.C. Hammond:

He was very clear and logical thinker. He had a way of getting to the heart of any matter on which he was engaged and seeing exactly what was involved. He could sweep aside all the non-essentials and concentrate on what was relevant. In this book there is recorded his comment when someone said that he did not understand Karl Barth, ‘Whose fault is that?’ That says a lot about TC. He was rigorous in thinking any matter through until his own thought was clear and then in expressing the truth he saw in terms that anyone could understand. He had no patience with obscurity and took it as the duty of anyone who lectured or wrote that he should make himself clear.

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Responses

  1. Amen, brother! I struggle with that a great deal. Am I being clear enough? I find that the more I feel I need to say, the less clear I am actually being. Ever happen to you?

  2. It is interesting to see who Scripture itself is given… mostly narratives – often simple “stories”.

    Jesus our Lord spoke to people about foxes, birds, women sweeping their house, sons running from home and squandering an inheritance, etc.

    Paul’s Epistles assume we know the stories but we preach to an age that does not know the rudiments in order to grasp the arguments we make at times.

    We must be clear and lay again a foundation!

  3. Growing up in Baptist churches where theological cliches abounded with no explanation, I had a rich theological vocabulary that meant nothing to me. I avoid those well-known phrases because they are vacuous. One of the most useful teaching methods in my experience is stating the truth and then contrasting it with not only the opposite, but with similarly worded positions. This helped me clarify much biblical doctrine, and I have used it in my own teaching ministry.

  4. Hi Joe,

    Yeah, we can easily talk ourselves into a muddled morass especially when we forget the claritas et brevitas rule. I’ve sometimes listened to my own sermon tapes and wondered what on earth I meant to say at a certain point. This is of course very common when a teacher is either tired, sick, or hasn’t done enough prep work. It usually takes quite a bit of preparation to teach weighty or difficult subjects in a simple and easy-to-understand fashion.

    But what the quote is getting at is not the occasional tendency to be less than clear, but the consistent practice of obscurity. Some men just can’t teach clearly, they are not men who are “apt to teach” and as such they shouldn’t be in the ministry, while others either don’t care whether they are understood or not, and still others seem to feel that the practice of being complex and obscure in their teaching and preaching is actually a sign of their intellectual superiority. For instance, amongst the Greeks it was the rhetoricians who employed the most complicated arguments and advanced vocabulary who were considered the best. Paul obviously eschewed that practice and was much criticized because of it. His speech was criticized as “contemptible” but he stressed the point in Corinthians 1 and 2 that he purposefully avoided the “excellent speech and wisdom” of the orators of his day.

    Unfortunately, there are many camps in the Christian church that still prefer the teaching methodology of the sophists over that of Paul.

    Sometimes we also expect rhetorical polish to make up for the absence of unction and zeal, this was very true amongst the liberals of past centuries and I fear it has crept back into sections of the evangelical camp as well.

  5. Hey Josh,

    It’s interesting you bring up the issue of cliches. I remember that a little while after my conversion a Christian mentor pointed out to me that I was already falling into hackneyed “evangelicalisms” in particular he zinged me for phrases like “Father, we just really wanna….” He asked me, “where in scripture do you see people addressing the Lord “we just really wanna” anything??? Why not just ask in accordance with his will?” Instead he encouraged me to make the language scripture the language of my own prayer.

    I find, of course, I still have my own idioms and cliche sayings, and things I repeat too often even though they are scriptural, but overall the encouragement to make scripture my rule and guide in prayer and in preaching has been tremendously profitable. I’d say, avoid “evangelicalisms” as much as possible, and never ever say “Bless your heart!” ;-)

  6. I have come to believe that in the South, “Bless your heart” really means – “you poor stupid soul, you should have known better!”

    Andy, your post says Dec. 11 @ 7:42 pm. As it is currently Dec. 11 @ 4:29 pm, I’m curious as to how you managed to post back in our time. Sorry this has nothing to do with the discussion – just an observation/question.

  7. Yeah, ever notice that a “Bless Your Heart” is usually followed by a comma and a “but” statement? As in “Bless His Heart, but he is dumber than a bag of rocks”.

    Regarding Time: you’ll notice that your post says 9:31 PM. All WordPress posts appear on GMT – so that’s the time in London when we post. I’ll see if I can change it to EST.

  8. I absolutely agree. From my observations and experience, I would add that much muddled preaching on the part of orthodox ministers often comes from trying to say everything at once. They have been paralyzed by the felt need to over nuance every statement so that they are not mistaken as unorthodox: Every sentence must be given its systematic, redemptive-historical, grammatical-historical, experiential, Trinitarian due if it is to be safe from criticism; and if one is to safe-guard his congregation from heterodoxy.


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