Greetings to all the friends and supporters of the Protestant Reformed Theological School!
By the time you read this, the first semester of the 2014-15 school year will be over, classes completed and exams administered, graded, and returned. Fourth-year student Ryan Barnhill will have returned from his six-month internship in the Protestant Reformed Church in Edgerton, MN. It has been an exciting semester.
One of the most notable new features for the nine students in their second year of seminary has been the addition of “practice preaching.” In this new endeavor, the students must take the “theory” of what they learned thus far—particularly, Greek and Hebrew language skills, interpretation of Scripture (hermeneutics), and making of sermons (homiletics)—and apply it to making and preaching real sermons. Since it is new for them, I suspect it is new for most readers, so allow me to explain the process.
Each student first translates the text assigned him for preaching. The students desire to work with the very words that the Spirit gave in the text. They then explain the grammar of the text—perhaps put it into a sentence diagram so that every word is accounted for grammatically—subject, verb, prepositional phrases, and modifiers. The meaning of the text is determined by the words and the grammar, and every part of the text must be explained in the sermon.
Next is “word study,” that is, learning how the Bible uses the terms found in the text. This is one aspect of the main Reformed principle of interpretation—Scripture interprets Scripture. Carefully drawing the meaning of terms from the rest of Scripture, they arrive at the point where they define the term or concept—say, “justification by faith,” or “the glory of God.” They know that their professors will be looking for a clear definition, with proof that it is drawn from the Bible and especially from this text. Then they set about to explain each concept. Since the Bible is the revelation of God in the face of Jesus Christ, they seek to understand how each term (concept) is related to the crucified and risen Lord. After they have a good grasp of each concept, they study relationships: how is each concept related to the others in this text?
In all this, the student is seeking the one main thought that the Spirit conveys in the text. That will be the theme of his sermon. Obviously much time is put into this—the theme and the (usually) three points.
When this is accomplished, the student writes out his exegesis (i.e., interpretation) of the text, starting with the main thought, and continuing to the lesser points. It is a good idea at this point to check his work by reading a couple of good commentaries. From this he may learn that he has missed certain thoughts that ought to be developed. He might discover to his dismay that John Calvin or Herman Hoeksema gave a very different explanation of the text. At that point he faces a significant decision. He has been instructed to deal honestly with the contrary explanation of good commentaries, perhaps changing his own, or going with what he has. Either way, he must be able to justify his interpretation on the basis of the text, the context, and the whole of Scripture.
All that is the enjoyable part. Searching the Scriptures, having the meaning of the text come out—the glory of God, the wonder of salvation, the comfort of the Word. This is a thrill!
What follows can be a struggle considerably less pleasant. “Homiletics.” Putting the exegesis into a sermon outline. It starts with the best formulation of the theme, and proper divisions. Then all that the student has drawn from the text must be pressed into a formal outline—an outline that is logical, balanced, flows well, and will be easy for others to follow. Included in this must be appropriate applications based squarely on the doctrine, and a sharp eye to polemics besides (defending truth over against error). The students earnestly desire a sermon that will edify God’s people and give glory to God through Jesus Christ.
Finally, the sermon is “ready”—typed, copied, handed out to the professors and the assigned student evaluators on Friday. Come Monday morning, it is time to lead in “practice preaching”—to deliver the sermon before the whole student body and the professors. Every student aspires to deliver the sermon with conviction, passion, and earnestness. All the while he is speaking, he is trying to block out the knowledge that he is being evaluated for his volume, use of pause, gestures, enunciation, eye contact, and even facial expression. Not to mention that his sermon is being critically evaluated.
After each sermon is delivered, the two designated fellow students, and all three professors have the opportunity to give their critique—of the sermon itself, as well as of the delivery. Some encouragement is offered, and some criticism. It is hardly a painless experience, as you can probably imagine. To have poured one’s soul into a sermon for weeks, only to be told that you missed the point of the text—painful indeed! To imagine that you were being forceful and dynamic in the delivery, only to be told that you gestured only three times, rarely changed the pitch of your voice, and were exceedingly low-key—a distressing discovery! And you are sent home with a video of your session, so that you can see for yourself what others observed.
All that happened eighteen times this past semester. Difficult and humbling as it may be for them, the aspiring preachers must get accustomed to critique, since elders are called to evaluate the preaching, and the people surely will express their views. Practice preaching is the time-proven method that the Spirit uses to fashion our students into preachers. They all have varying gifts for exegesis and for crafting outlines, and yet again, talents for preaching. But they must all develop into excellent preachers. The glory of God demands it, and the wellbeing of Christ’s church depends on good preaching. We professors know that, the students know that, and thus we persevere.
Pray for us, that these men may continue to develop in knowledge and godliness, and above all, as preachers.
For the Seminary,
Prof. Russell Dykstra, Rector