Theological Reflection Statement
June 10, 2002
Theological Reflection - Adding New Dimensions in Sacred Listening
My goals for this course were to explore my exegetical skills in greater
depth, while joining with other pastors in studying the texts from which we
preach. Exegesis and preaching require a certain “sacred listening,” that is,
an openness to the Word of God as it is directed to a specific community of
faith through a particular preacher. The structure of this course brought
together several powerful concepts which I will term “Dimensions of Sacred
Dimension 1 - The Historical-Homiletical Work Method
In my seminary studies, I benefitted greatly from the six step
historical-homiletical work method (HHWM). This method combines historical
inquiry along with inquiry along lines more centered on the preaching event,
such as considerations of the needs and background of the congregation. The
HHWM is summarized In Table 1.
Table 1: The Historical-Homiletical Work Method
Step I - (Initial) Acquaintance
A. Comparison of English or other published translations
B. Greek/Hebrew Textual Criticism
C. One's Own Rough Translation
Step II - Disposition
A. Genre - How the text says what it says
B. Personal Interaction - Questions and observations
C. Organization - Where the elements of "B" are located
Step III - Composition
A. Immediate Context - preceding/following pericope
B. Organization of the Compositional Whole
C. Issues of Authorship
Step IV - Context
A. Primitive Christianity
B. Old Testament and Judaism
C. Hellenistic World
Step V - Distillation
A. Summary of Salient Features
B. Smooth Translation
C. Hermeneutical Bridge
Step VI - Contemporary Address
A. Description of Audience
B. Intended Goals for the Address
Note: Steps I-IV cover aspects of historical inquiry. Steps V-VI are the
This course has allowed me to re-examine this first dimension of sacred
listening. In seminary, I was not writing a sermon every week. In my
ministry, I have used parts of the HHWM, but almost never attempted the whole
method in a given week. This course gave me a chance to try the complete HHWM
in real time. It was fruitful, but exhausting. In the process I made some
Using the Nestle New Testament marginal references to follow biblical
allusions and then using the Internet to copy ALL the allusions into one
document was very helpful. The peculiar language of some New Testament texts
became much easier to understand when the Hebrew scriptures behind them were
kept in mind.
For instance, the story of Jesus fasting in the wilderness for forty days
paralleled Moses’ forty days and Elijah’s forty days. Some of the New
Testament phrases could be direct translations from the Hebrew. Although the
forty days of fasting might seem to a modern reader to be a “proof” of Jesus’
unique devotion, Hebrew scripture reveals that it does just the opposite.
Instead of separating him from the rest of humanity, it places him firmly in
one particular human tradition.
Another useful tool I discovered in this course was the Perseus Digital
Library website which can search for particular Greek words and phrases in
hundreds of ancient Greek documents and then translates the relevant texts
into English. This was a new possibility that gave me access to Hellenistic
culture that I could not have had 10 years ago. For instance, it was
eye-opening to read from Diodorus Siculus in the first century BCE about
whether earthquakes were purely natural phenomena or divine judgements. This
text connected to the sermon text because both used the root for earthquake,
Theologically speaking, this method of listening to scripture shows a
confidence that God speaks to God’s people in a variety of ways. Historical
studies are valued because, when conducted according to commonly accepted
acedemic standards, they are an open and honest study of the world God
created. The historical steps of the HHWM cover a wide range of academic
disciplines, including the work of translators, literary scholars, historians,
Once having listened to these contributors, the exegete turns back to the
faith tradition and the living family of faith, and asks how her/his
particular faith tradition hears the text in question. Current events in the
life of the congregation influence the meaning of the text as well as classic
This first dimension of sacred listening is like a vast antenna. The exegete
spreads wide the array of various ways of listening. All of this energy is
taken in at a particular point in time and in a particular place. Then, all
of this is used to produce a statement of faith for the day.
Dimension 2 - The Lectionary Cycle used Over Time
The second dimension of sacred listening is the dimension of time. Having
used the HHWM once on a particular text, that same text may appear in the
lectionary in three years time. In that time, the exegete has been changed by
interaction with other texts and more of life in general. The ears with with
she/he listens have changed.
For nine years now I have preached regularly from the lectionary, and this
has allowed me the opportunity to experience this second dimension of my
sacred listening. As I conduct my exegetical work for a given Sunday, I now
have two or three sets of sermon notes from previous years to aid me in my
studies. This has given me a chance to reflect upon and critique my own work
from a significant distance in time. It has also helped me notice how the
life of our congregation has changed and grown in relation to the scriptures
we gather to hear each Sunday.
This dimension has obvious theological ramifications. God speaks to us at
all times, yet in different times of life we are able to hear differently.
Hopefully we grow in faith and maturity as time passes. We learn from
mistakes. We repent of old vanities. We appreciate the patience with which
our congregations must listen to us week after week.
Dimension 3 - Collegial Work
Maintaining a disciplined life of listening to Scripture through weekly
exegetical work and the maintenance of organized notes led me to this point in
my sacred listening. This class has helped me develop a third dimension to my
sacred listening. Although I have participated in weekly lectionary study
groups, this has been my most academically intense experience. I have been
able to share in in-depth exegetical studies with other pastors as they
prepare to preach in their particular contexts. The two-week course gave me
time to get to know these pastors and a little of the contexts in which they
serve. Then, with face-to-face discussion of our in-depth exegetical work, my
own understanding of particular texts significantly expanded.
God has called us to be the Church in community. The work of a solo pastor
can be a very isolating experience. Even when we have time to work with other
pastors, we rarely hear another pastor preach, and it is even more rare to
discuss theological implications of differing translations from the original
Greek. This time together has allowed me access to fellow Christian preachers
as they listen intensely to God’s Word and respond to that Word in a way that
is appropriate for their community.
Dimension 4 - Benefitting from Internet Technology
Finally, through the use of the Internet, our conversation continued for an
additional six weeks beyond the time we spent together. In addition, more
people were able to join in the discussion. Just as Paul was able to benefit
from the ease of travel and the mail delivery system made possible by the
Roman Empire, the Church today may use the tools of our society-at-large to
benefit our work in proclaiming the good news.
In my experience, e-mail communication is a unique tool. E-mail is much
faster than standard mail, yet like standard mail, our communications are
recorded for future reference. E mail allows for more thoughtful discourse
than telephone conversations. These advantages worked well in our situation,
since we knew each other from our work together in the two-week class, and the
format for our work had already been established.
Obviously, face-to-face discussions have an immediacy and an obvious sense of
humanity that is lacking on the Internet. Through e-mail postings we can
describe our contexts and stories, but probably never equal the emotion of
personal communication. However, our Internet conversations demand far less
time and money to conduct. Long after our two-week course was over, our
conversation continued to grow. In addition, many more people can benefit
from our discussions.
In a similar way, Paul used letters to communicate with Churches which Paul
had already visited. These letters continued to hold meaning as generations
passed and Christians who had never met Paul read these communications. But
when Paul wrote his letter to the Church in Rome, a Church that had not yet
become acquainted with Paul, the result was a much longer letter. Paul had to
introduce himself and explain his beliefs. The result is a letter that may be
more accessible to later generations.
Learning from Paul, we can expect e-mail communication to slow down and
become more cumbersome when strangers must address each other. My local
conversation partners had a difficult time responding to the work of the other
class members, primarily because of the lack of familiarity with the people
and stories behind the words on the screen.
Comparing Face-to-Face Discussions with Website Exchanges
In spite of the advantages of Internet communication, several problems arise:
1) We can add many more people, but how does a community establish boundaries
in this environment? How do we get to know each other? How do we hear the
gospel in light of contexts with which we are unfamiliar? How do we establish
trust in the quality and faithfulness of the work we encounter?
2) In our particular experiment, the web postings lagged significantly behind
my submissions. As time passed, it was more difficult for me to maintain a
passionate interest in the work. Learning to communicate in this environment
will always face these kinds of technical challenges. In our situation, I
think we needed more feedback to be confident our work was being received.
But more feedback requires more time, and this leads to another problem:
3) Learning to operate in a new environment demands new skills and choices.
Where do I spend my time and effort as I look at my vast array of exegetical
tools, which have now been expanded? Do I find particular exegetical
submitters who I learn to trust over time and follow their work, tracing them
by use of their cryptic initials? Do I somewhat randomly peruse all the work
that is available on the Bi216 website, trusting in the overall quality of the
work of this particular community?
As this type of work continues, I trust we will discover answers to these
questions. In general, we will always communicate more efficiently with
people we already know and trust. And the more separated we become, the more
effort it will take to maintain meaningful communication. Not knowing an
exegete’s name and background is a major stumbling block. If I am already
under the pressure of the many demands of pastoral work, I am unlikely to take
the time to investigate an unfamiliar source.
Similarly, the exegete with many demands on her/his time must focus on the
sermon for which she/he is responsible. When time constraints are tight,
providing feedback to others’ sermons will not be the first priority. And if
the others’ sermons are posted after the sermons have been preached, there is
even less impetus to provide meaningful and timely feedback.
Conclusion - Continuing the Collegial Exegetical Process
In conclusion, the intense nature of this course provided unique learning
opportunities as well as unique drawbacks. In my experience, I discovered
that by expending significant effort, I can use the HHWM to great advantage in
the course of an average week. However, any number of pastoral duties can
make this approach seem unsustainable. A death in the congregation, a
Presbytery meeting, or organizing a new mission task force are typical
pastoral situations that can easily consume all the time normally allotted to
I was much less successful in providing feedback to my peers. Almost all of
my feedback was given well after the sermon I was responding to was preached.
Much of this delay was due to the necessity of choosing between completing my
exegetical work and responding to others. Some of the delay was due to the
slow appearance of work on the website.
For all of the benefits of exegetical work, a pastor can only do this work if
she/he is truly immersed in the life of the Church. Ironically, the time a
pastor takes away from sermon preparation provides the experience and wisdom
that nurtures sermon preparation. Therefore, for our work to remain
meaningful we must have adequate time to live full lives. Our home life, our
play time, our prayer time, our time to simply sit and reflect, our time to
brainstorm with Church members . . . all of these empower our exegetical
If I were to make a plan to continue this work as an ongoing effort, I would
limit my attempts to use all six steps of the HHWM to once or twice a month.
In my experience,the discipline of giving time to each step tends to result in
remarkable insight into the text, and it has always been well worth the
effort. In the remaining weeks I would use the HHWM in a much more casual
way, choosing only the steps that seem most appropriate after a careful
reading of the text. However, in these weeks I could have enough time and
energy to give feedback to perhaps two or three exegetical efforts by other
pastors. With this level of effort, I believe the benefits of this collegial
exegetical process could extend indefinitely.