How to Tell If a Sermon is Good

Every week, millions of people around the world situate themselves in moderately uncomfortable seating and listen to someone talk at them for an extended period of time. I am, of course, referring to Christians who attend church services and listen to sermons. While Christian denominations differ on all manner of doctrine and practice, the proclamation of a message is accepted as standard practice by Christians worldwide.

Now, sermons vary quite a bit. They differ in title (sermon, message, homily, lesson), length (from 5 minutes to hours), style (read, Spirit-inspired, off-the-cuff, practiced), emphasis (as the central focus to a prelude to something else), and content (topical, exegetical, series, stand-alone, visionary, reactionary). Furthermore, as anyone who has attended church more than a handful of times can tell you, sermons also vary greatly in quality.

Some sermons are extremely boring, filled with clichés, poor teaching, and dragging on for what seems like an eternity. Other messages are highly engaging, composed of amusing anecdotes, motivational testimonies, and powerful calls to action. Some sermons are theologically rich, rooted in solid exegesis, overflowing with biblical wisdom, and founded on timeless truths. Other times, sermons are theologically destitute, bereft of meaningful insights, rarely referencing the scriptures, and lacking identifiably Christian content. Continue reading

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The Wilderness and Early Christian Monasticism

st-antony-agains-the-demonsIn the sixth chapter of his The Word in the Desert, Douglas Burton-Christie reflects on the influence of eschatology, compunction (penthos), asceticism, and the struggle against evil on the shape of the scriptural interpretation of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). Highlighting monastic awareness of coming death and judgment (182-3), compunction and the power of scripture (187-91), and the dual (internal and external) nature of struggling against evil (192-5), Burton-Christie outlines the desert reading of the scriptures, remarking on the centrality of allegorical interpretation (196), the recapitulation of Jesus’ time in the desert (198), the power of the words of scripture (199), vigilance and guarding the heart (203-5), and the lack of relations (207). In light of a course devoted to the study of wilderness traditions, while Burton-Christie’s work remains intriguing, this treatment against raises questions about why early Christian monastics did not draw upon and/or develop further Israelite wilderness traditions. To my mind, the Father who asked, “Did Satan pursue them like this in the early days?” could easily have turned to Israel’s wilderness testing for some type of answer. Instead, figures such as Abraham, David, and Jesus were regularly utilized, at least according to Burton-Christie’s presentation. Although the Fathers were clearly aware of Moses—and, it seems, the language of the Pentateuch, at least exhortations to “watch yourself” (Gen. 24.6; Ex. 23.21)—these narratives were not meaningfully employed in the monastic resistance of evil. Could it be that Israel’s time in the desert was viewed more as a model of what not to do in order to avoid temptation? Perhaps. But Burton-Christie’s reflection on desert interpretations of scripture doesn’t address possible wilderness interpretations of Israel in the wilderness. Continue reading

God Made Man (Part II)

major-roman-cities-mapBetween the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), many controversies erupted from the Alexandrian and Antiochene positions on the person of Christ.[16] The Council of Constantinople (381 AD) condemned the belief of Apollinarius that Christ only had one will, that of the divine.[17] While the Church believed that Christ had a divine will, there was too much scriptural and philosophical support for the position that Christ had a human will as well. How else can one explain Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42), and other verses that seem to indicate that Christ had a human will? For God to be the redeemer of man, He needed to include full humanity as Irenaeus and Tertullian had emphasized years before.[18] Continue reading

God Made Man (Part I)

jesus_catacombC. S. Lewis once said that if the incarnation happened, “it was the central event in the history of the earth.” What is the incarnation? And why has it been such an important area of theological consideration since the earliest days of Christianity? The term ‘incarnation’ may be defined as “a person who embodies in the flesh a deity, spirit, or quality.”[1] For the Christian tradition, the man who has been understood as deified has been Jesus of Nazareth; but the Christian claim of Jesus as God, not merely as one who embodied God, historically presented a plethora of questions to the early Christian theologians.

In determining what the incarnation means for Christians, the Early Church Fathers sought to determine more concerning the person Jesus. Maurice Wiles writes that “the heart of Christian faith is the person of Christ and what God has done in him.”[2] The orthodox Christian Church has always professed monotheism based upon the Jewish tradition and the scriptures.[3] Given this monotheistic belief however, the early Church viewed Jesus not as a simple messenger of God, but worshiped Him as the Son of God.[4] This is especially evident in the writing’s of Irenaeus, who refers to Jesus as “the Word, the Son of God.” [5] Continue reading

Were the Gospel Writers Eyewitnesses? John

This post is part of an ongoing series examining whether or not the writers of the canonical gospels were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.

fourth-gospelThe Fourth Gospel, traditionally referred to as the Gospel According to John, provides the closest example of explicit reference to authorship, though it too remains originally anonymous. Church tradition has long linked the Fourth Gospel with three early epistles and the Apocalypse, which bears the author’s name, John.[1] While debated (as all good scholarly truth claims are), there exists a good deal of evidence (vocabulary, structure, grammar, theology) indicating that the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse were written by the same individual. Continue reading

Book Review: The NIV Proclamation Bible

NIV Proclamation BibleWriting a book review on a book of such importance as the Bible constitutes a unique experience regardless of how many times one has undertaken the process. Most book reviews focus on the meaning, implications, and history behind the content of a publication. With the Christian Bible, however, these tasks are insurmountable in a single book review, for these questions are the purview of the life of the Church as well as whole academic fields. Thus, as I have said before, attempting to summarize the contents of the Bible for a mere book review remains foolishness at best, since could not possible hope to do justice to what must be said.

Musings on reviewing Bibles aside, this particular review examines the New International Version Proclamation Bible (Zondervan, 2013).[1] As with nearly every translation or version of the Christian scriptures, the contents of this Bible are well worth reading and are commended to readers and listeners everywhere. This general affirmation in mind, the duration of this review will focus on three aspects of the Proclamation Bible: the “Proclamation” Front Matter, two front cover designations, and some general notes on the style and construction of this particular Bible. Continue reading

On the Incarnation

incarnation_1600C. S. Lewis once said that if the incarnation happened, “it was the central event in the history of the earth.” What is the incarnation? And why has it been such an important area of theological consideration since the earliest days of Christianity? The term ‘incarnation’ may be defined as “a person who embodies in the flesh a deity, spirit, or quality.”[1] For the Christian tradition, the man who has been understood as deified has been Jesus of Nazareth; but the Christian claim of Jesus as God, not merely as one who embodied God, historically presented a plethora of questions to the early Christian theologians. Continue reading

Ephrem’s Boundaries of Investigation: Scriptural and Natural

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syriac theology.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Throughout his Hymns on Faith, Ephrem remains especially concerned with recasting the terms of the Arian-Orthodox debate concerning the relationship of the Son to the Father. Instead of simply affirming a Nicene, Homoean, or Subordinationist perspective, Ephrem focuses on what he believes to be the root cause of the Christological controversy of his day: investigation. In Ephrem’s view, improper investigation has lead to the current turmoil and improper debate. While subordinationist theologies are in the wrong Christologically and methodologically, Ephrem does not hesitate to also problematize the methods of those with whom his Christology agree. In this essay, I briefly reflect on Ephrem’s two chief boundary markers for proper investigation: nature and scripture. Continue reading

Would Christ Have Come If Humanity Had Not Fallen?

Or, On the Value of Speculative Theology

Medieval UniversityA common criticism of medieval Christianity theology centers on the practice of speculative theology, the asking of seemingly obscure questions which have little bearing (or none at all) upon the vicissitudes of human life or Christian faith. Perhaps the most common example of this are stories about medieval theologians sitting around and discussing how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.[1] What possible value could the answer to such a question have, we wonder? Of course, there exists no evidence suggesting that this particular topic was ever discussed in the medieval world—in fact, the claim seems to be a modern fabrication intended to dismiss the medieval worldview.[2] But the basic criticism persists: why were medieval Christians so enraptured with fine details and endless clarifications on seemingly speculative questions? Continue reading