Teaching: Ten Top Tips?
It’s a great question. Beginning with the most accessible (but possibly fallible) tools, and moving down to the most robust (but possibly difficult) ones, here are a few things that will probably help.
1. Using multiple translations. The principle here is that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, so before doing your own analysis of what the Greek or Hebrew (or Aramaic) means, it’s always best to see how committees of Bible scholars have translated the idea into English. I’ve talked before about the difficulties of translating something on your own without training, and the odds are that if you come up with a meaning or “fresh revelation” that no translators have spotted, you’re wrong and they’re right. So start with other translations, preferably with a blend of translation philosophies (word-for-word, thought-for-thought, paraphrase).
2. Study Bibles. Assuming you use a reputable Study Bible (e.g. NIV, ESV), as opposed to a fringe or oddball one, you will find helpful notes on most difficult verses that, again, will both focus your attention on important issues in the text (if they make a particlar point), and avoid you teaching something suspect (if they don’t). Just yesterday I heard someone explain how the four faces of the living creatures corresponded to different traits in Jesus, the Gospels and church leadership, but with very little evidence for which face matched which Gospel / attribute. Simply referring to a decent Study Bible would probably have saved him from this.
3. Creeds and confessions. The quest for “fresh revelation” can be good, but you always want to make sure you’re not drifting from orthodoxy without realising it. If your studies indicate that, since kenoō means “emptying”, Philippians 2 indicates that Jesus left behind his divinity when he became flesh, the creeds will pull you back from the brink of heresy, and you’ll thank them for it.
4. Interlinears. If you’re interested in the original languages, but don’t yet have enough expertise to understand why a word has been translated a particular way, then an interlinear may help. The challenge with lexicons and dictionaries is that they can make it look like (say) kosmos means “adornment” and “order” and “world” and “humanity” and “totality” all together (a challenge reinforced, in places, by translations like the Amplified Bible), whereas in fact, kosmos only means one of those things, and it takes a good deal of understanding of the context to know which one. Interlinears help you by showing you which Greek word has been translated by which English word, and that can help you find your feet with the original languages.
5. Everyday commentaries. There are some readable, reasonably cheap, informative and user-friendly commentary serieses out there, all of which will pick up on many of the interesting and sticky textual issues, and help you navigate them. Again, if none of them make the point you want to make based on your study of the original languages, assume you’re wrong. I have in mind serieses like The Bible Speaks Today, Tyndale, and John Goldingay and Tom Wright’s For Everyone series (although bear in mind that the latter contains some very eccentric translation decisions of its own).
6. Older commentators. The joy of older commentaries is that they are post-copyright and therefore often available for free: Matthew Henry, John Gill, Charles Spurgeon, John Calvin, Charles Hodge, and so on (most of which are available online). I tend to consult newer commentaries first, because they are more likely to zoom in on issues which I am wrestling with (and older ones are occasionally gazumped by advances in scholarship), but there is a goldmine out there if you’re prepared to dig through the slightly older language.
7. Pastor friends. In principle you can do this at any time, of course, but in my view it’s good to go through all the previous steps before taking a shortcut. Nevertheless, when you draw a blank in your own study, ringing or emailing a friend who is a pastor (or, less commonly but very usefully, a biblical scholar) can be an immense blessing. Most of us won’t admit it easily, but we quite enjoy being asked.
8. Serious commentaries. If you find yourself without answers from the Study Bibles and Interlinears, confused by the everyday and older commentaries and nowhere clear from your pastor friend(s), it’s time to build a better library of commentaries: NIVAC, Brazos Theological, Pillar, Baker Exegetical, NICOT/NICNT, Anchor, Word, NIGTC, Hermeneia, ICC, or whatever (those are in ascending order of difficulty, as I see it). If you’re the person in your church to whom people turn when controversy kicks off about something, you should definitely have a whole bunch of these kinds of books on your shelves; obviously a small group pastor will probably not have the resources to own lots, but if you’re interested in theological study I would always recommend investing in them. My collection is in paper form, but software packages like Logos will have their own version of many of these.
9. Wider reading. This is the most time-consuming one, but also the most helpful one: read widely. Often, you’ll get ideas from books that were not even about what you were teaching on (as happened to me last week; a Catholic commentary on Genesis opened up how I was going to preach on Colossians 3 on Mothers’ Day!), and even if you don’t, you’ll get fresh revelation on other things. If you won’t take it from me, take it from John Wesley:
What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear to this day, is want of reading. I scarce ever knew a preacher read so little. And perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago. It is lively, but not deep; there is little variety, there is no compass of thought. Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this. You can never be a deep preacher without it, any more than a thorough Christian. O begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not: what is tedious at first, will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a petty, superficial preacher. Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer. Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether. Then will all children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you in particular.
10. Finally, if you still haven’t got the fresh revelation you’re looking for, go on the Internet. You’re clearly committed to making the (obscurantist, random, Gnostic) point you want to make, and you’re just fishing for someone, somewhere to give you some cover for saying it, so abandon all rigour and follow that mouse, because it’s bound to be somewhere online. If any man lacks wisdom, let him ask Google.
So there you have it: ten top tips. Or maybe just nine. It depends how desperate you are.