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Writing a Commentary vs. Preaching, With Christopher Ash

We're really blessed at CCM to currently count Christopher Ash among our congregation.  Even more than his smiling demeanor and fantastic cheese and ham muffins, each term Christopher contributes a series of sermons from the book of John (we're currently hearing from John 13 & 14).  Hearing that he is also currently writing a commentary on the fourth Gospel, we thought there were some questions which would provide for an interesting insight into this process.

Christopher has been so thorough in his answers that we've broken up our conversation into this discussion on the differences between writing a commentary and preaching and his answers about writing a commentary.

What are some of the differences between writing a commentary and delivering a sermon?  Are there particular challenges to writing/delivering a sermon while writing a commentary?

I can think of four differences, although I’m sure there are more.

A. Coverage

A commentary needs to be comprehensive, covering every verse of a book. A reader needs to be able to pick up a commentary and be confident that his or her question about a particular verse is likely to be answered. Of course, the less technical a commentary, the less absolute that is; lighter commentaries do not cover everything. But if they don’t do a reasonable job of covering the detail as well as the main lines of the book, they limit their usefulness.

By contrast, it is very important indeed that a sermon does not try to cover everything in a bible passage. Sermons are killed dead by trying to cover everything. Sermons need to keep the main thing the main thing, and to aim at getting the main thrust of a passage over forcefully and persuasively. While a longer sermon may be able to cover more that is in a text, it is vital even in a longer sermon that there is a central focus which lines up with the central focus of the passage. A commentary can take the reader at leisure down all the interesting side roads and lanes (not least because the reader can skip these if they choose!). A sermon needs to spend most of its time driving down the main road, so that hearers are left in no doubt where we have travelled and in which direction.

B. Repetition

Commentaries do not need to repeat themselves much. Readers can look back to remind themselves of things they have read. A commentary can focus on saying something once. But a sermon that says something important only once will fail to communicate, except to the most exceptionally gifted listeners. Sermons do well when they follow Winston Churchill’s advice:

Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you have told them, and then stop.

Part of the art of preaching is to repeat things without sounding repetitive, to say the same thing using slightly different words, to introduce a theme, to explain a theme, to press home a theme, to conclude and summarise a theme, all in a style that is clear (so that everybody knows what has been said) and fresh (so that no one feels bored by simple verbatim repetition).

C. Application

Commentators do not know the people for whom they write, except in very general terms. Preachers ought to know the people to whom they preach, some individually and in depth, and all in the sense that the preacher has some understanding of the circumstances and culture of the hearers. The precise way in which a bible passage is ‘earthed’ and applied to the hearers by a preacher ought to be more targeted than a commentary and to show that the preacher understands his hearers. This is part of the joy of preaching, that there is a dynamic chemistry of speaker and hearers who are present for the preaching; and it is part of the challenge of writing a commentary, that as you write there is no one there listening (and indeed you wonder if there ever will be!).

D. Delivery

To state the most obvious point, a sermon is spoken while a commentary is written. At Cornhill, we can always tell when a student includes some text from a commentary in their exposition; the style changes dramatically. The sentences become longer, the words become unfamiliar, and the whole thing sounds unreal! A student may be speaking quite naturally and normally, and then suddenly they say something like, “The eschatological implications of this disputed text for the ecclesiological and sectarian tensions of our culture, having been debated for many centuries, continue to cause controversy, notwithstanding the thoroughness with which Augustine has addressed them.” By half way through that sentence, we have switched off!