Preach Like Broadus: Interpretation

| May 24, 2019

If you were to walk into my office at church, you would soon be met by two framed portraits. One of Charles Spurgeon. The other, John Broadus. I keep their portraits on the wall, not to idolize them, but to let their example spur me on to do my absolute best in the Pastor’s Study.

If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you want to be the best expositor you can be, as well. You want to hone your craft. You want to sharpen the skills the Lord has given you as a teacher. If that’s you, then I can’t think of a better place to start than Broadus’s A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons. This classic work on homiletics—nearly 150 years old—continues to challenge and inspire preachers with its timeless wisdom.

If you want to preach like Broadus, follow these six rules from Chapter 2 of his Treatise:

1. Interpret grammatically.

The first step in Bible interpretation (after prayer, of course) is understanding the very words the Lord inspired the biblical authors to write. Hear Broadus at his lectern, “Endeavor to ascertain the precise meaning of the words and phrases used in the text. Inquire whether any of them have a peculiar sense in Scripture, and whether such peculiar sense holds in this passage” (58). If we truly believe in verbal plenary inspiration, then we won’t settle for a mere cursory reading of the text. We will soak in it.

While training in Greek and Hebrew is helpful at this stage, those without shouldn’t despair. Broadus notes, “Witness Andrew Fuller, who had practically no knowledge of the original languages, and yet whose interpretations of Scripture are clear and safe in a degree very rarely surpassed” (36). This ought to encourage us. Whatever your background, you can still devote yourself to a careful reading of the text.

In fact, it has never been easier for pastors with little to no language training to be able to interpret grammatically. Thousands of preaching aids exist in print, Bible software programs like Logos and Accordance deliver exegetical gems with the click of a mouse, and websites are popping up left and right to make language learning easier than ever.

Two websites, in particular, Daily Dose of Greek and Daily Dose of Hebrew, have emerged to help expositors either “resurrect” their knowledge of the biblical languages or learn them for the first time. I can’t recommend them enough! Sign up for one of their mailing lists and every day you’ll receive a short two-minute video to help you keep your Greek (or Hebrew) . . . for life . [1] Jonathan Edwards—and your Greek professor from seminary—would be proud!

Before leaving this step, Broadus also points out the importance of comparing Bible translations. Reading in various translations often opens up new and valuable insights for the expositor. “Even those who can use the original languages find this is true, because one is so apt when looking at Hebrew or Greek to be really looking through it at the family English version, as if written underneath” (59). Ouch, Broadus.

2. Interpret logically.

After understanding the grammar of a given passage, Broadus then exhorts preachers to discover how a passage relates to what comes before and after it.

First, read the whole book.

Our instructor points out, “There are very few sentences in Hebrews, or in the first eleven chapters of Romans, which can be fully understood without having in mind the entire argument of the Epistle” (60). Many exegetical errors would be prevented if pastors endeavored to understand the whole and not just the parts.

For help here, check out the excellent resources of the Proclamation Trust (in the UK) and Simeon Trust (in the USA). Both of these groups drill the importance of discovering a book’s “melodic line” before you even think about preaching one of its sections. The faithful teacher must understand the book from which he is preaching.

Second, note the immediate context.

Broadus encourages pastors to not only have a solid grasp of the passage at hand but also to understand how the verses, paragraphs, and chapters surrounding it inform the text.

For help with discerning the logical connections that occur in a given text, be sure to pick up Tom Schreiner’s excellent book, Interpreting the Pauline Epistles, and also visit www.biblearc.com. Bible Arc has several helpful instructional videos that will get you started with bracketing, or arcing, the text—a skill that will aid you greatly as you seek to interpret logically.

3. Interpret historically.

Next, study the historical context. Broadus points out, “We have constant need of observing facts of Geography which would throw light on the text. So as to the Manners and Customs of the Jews, and other nations who appear in the sacred story” (61). While it is true that some have used reconstructed “history” to explain away offensive passages, we ought not throw the baby out with the bathwater. When used responsibly, pastors only stand to benefit from a deep dive into the historical background of Scripture.

One aid for studying the geography of the biblical world that is both accessible and beautiful is the Crossway ESV Atlas. For OT and NT background, consider The IVP Bible Background Commentary set.

4. Interpret figuratively, where there is sufficient reason.

Here Broadus has in mind the many symbols and images that appear in Scripture. However, like the use of history, don’t ever use figurative language to explain away hard doctrines. Taking the fires of hell as an example, Broadus writes:

Only ascertain what the figures of Scripture were designed to mean, and that meaning is as certainly true as if stated in plain words. Thus, the “fire that cannot be quenched” may be called a figure if you choose; yet it assuredly means that in hell there will be something as bad as fire, something as torturing as fire is to the earthly body—nay, the reality of hell, as well as of heaven, does not doubt greatly transcend the most impressive imagery that earthly things can afford (62-63).

A great aid here is The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, edited by Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman. This all-in-one resource helps pastors trace the various symbols, metaphors, and motifs that occur all throughout the canon of Scripture.

5. Interpret allegorically, where that is clearly proper.

Before you spill your Coke Zero, Broadus isn’t telling you to make Samson’s donkey jawbone a symbol for the Word of God. Far from it. He’s mainly speaking about typology here. Moses was a forerunner of Christ. The temple points us to Christ. Adam was a type of Christ. Every pastor should spend time wrestling with the types and anti-types that occur in Scripture.

Broadus offers a helpful rule of thumb for these allegorical or typological connections, “Whatever the New Testament so uses, is certainly allegorical; whatever else is precisely similar to matters so used in the New Testament, is very probably allegorical” (emphasis mine, 63). This keeps pastors from flights of fancy in their interpretations. In the instance of Joseph, for example, Broadus would rather us employ him as an illustration of Christ, as opposed to a type of Christ (63).

A great introduction to biblical theology and typology is Hamilton’s What is Biblical Theology? You might also consider Desmond’s From Eden to the New Jerusalem.

6. Interpret in accordance with, and not contrary to, the general teachings of Scripture.

Finally, Broadus encourages pastors with the tried and true Reformation principle of letting “Scripture interpret Scripture,” that is, allowing the clear texts in the Bible to interpret the unclear texts in the Bible. The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith has a great section on this in Chapter 1, Paragraph 9:

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which are not many, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.

Because of this, preachers need to know their Bibles inside and out. Broadus reminds us, “In order to apply this principle with propriety and safety, it is manifestly necessary that we should bring to bear no narrow and hasty views of Scripture teaching, but the results of a wide, thoughtful, and devout study of Biblical Theology” (65). You can’t allow Scripture to interpret Scripture if you don’t know the Scriptures.

Conclusion

Preachers, let’s commit this week to apply these principles as we labor in the Study. Let’s work hard, let’s sweat, and let’s put in the time it takes to rightly divide God’s Word. Let’s allow the legacy of John Broadus inspire to be better students and better teachers of God’s Word.


[1] Another book that will help you retain your biblical languages is the aptly named,  Greek for Life by Ben Merkle and Rob Plummer (Baker, 2017).

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