This interview was recorded live from the exhibit floor of the 2018 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in Dallas, Texas. David Dockery is the 15th president of Trinity International University, a Christian university located in Deerfield, Illinois.
Michael Duduit: Hi, welcome to a Preaching Magazine video interview. I’m delighted today to be visiting with an old friend, Dr. David Dockery, who is the President of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Trinity International University in suburban Chicago, Illinois. David, thanks for visiting today.
David Dockery: Thank you, Mike, it’s a joy to be with you, to renew our friendship and have this opportunity to have this important conversation.
Michael Duduit: Well now we were just talking before we started the video, we were talking about a book that we worked on, the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, which has been out now 25 years, still out there.
David Dockery: Congratulations on such a fine resource that’s served preachers so well.
Michael Duduit: Well I appreciate that. And you wrote the chapter on hermeneutics in that, which has just been a really helpful tool for students and pastors as they’ve worked on that. I want to kind of talk about that whole area of hermeneutics because in preaching we talk about delivery and application and illustration, other things like that. But at the core of expository preaching is interpreting the biblical text. So talk to me a little bit about what you see as the importance of hermeneutics in the process of preaching.
David Dockery: Yeah, I think it’s very important for those who are preparing to proclaim God’s word to be reminded that that’s exactly what we’re doing, proclaiming God’s word. And so we want to get to the place of trying to understand the meaning of that word, the meaning as it was originally intended by the authors who were inspired by the spirit of God to write Old Testament, New Testament books. And so hermeneutics is an attempt to bring the meaning from then to today. So we understand what it meant then and it’s significance for now. And there’s an important process and things that we shouldn’t jump to help us try to get that right.
Michael Duduit: Well why don’t you talk about, as a pastor or preacher, I’m sitting down, I’ve opened my Bible, now where do I go from here as I’m getting ready to try to prepare a message.
David Dockery: Let’s say you’re going to preach or teach from a passage in the book of Philippians. It’s important that you understand the entire context of the book first and foremost. So you need to understand those four chapters of the book of Philippians, understand that Paul is the author, that he’s writing from a prison cell, most likely a Roman prison cell sometime later in his ministry. So there are some things that he has already said in other places that influence what he’s now saying the Church of Philippi. So you understand the historical context, you understand the literal context, where Philippians fits within the overall New Testament message. And then you understand the theological context.
They say those who sell real estate, that location, location, location is the key. For those who are interpreting the Bible, context, context, context is the key. And it’s more than just historical context, it’s the literary context and theological context as well. So you understand the entire book. Then once you understand the theme of that book, Paul is writing to this church with some particular issues, trying to stress joy and unity throughout, then you understand that that probably shapes everything else that he’s trying to address and you look for key themes that will influence that. So the context helps you understand the meeting. And so you’re getting at the intention Paul had in writing to the Church of Philippi in the sixth, seventh decade of the first century.
Then secondly, you want to try to understand the meaning of the words. That helps you keep from pulling words out of context and just isolating the word and saying that this means this all the time. Well, it probably means this in a particular moment. If you say something in South Carolina, and you come and say the same thing in urban Chicago, it may be heard differently. Because even though we still speak English, there is a difference between context there and context here. You and I both have lived in difficult places and lived around, and so we’ve learned that by experience. So words mean something in their context, so understand those words within the larger literary, historical, and theological context and see how they fit together.
Then you want to try to see if there’s something similar to this in anything else that Paul has said. If we can find something corollary to it, if we can find a passage that might support that meaning. So if he says something similar in Ephesians that he might have said in Philippians, then that can confirm that you’re heading in the right direction of finding that important meaning.
Preaching actually gets to the place of application and significance. But if we jump those steps, then we’re likely to preach the wrong significance and make the wrong application, then we’re not helping people. Because along the way we want them to learn how to read the Bible for themselves, and not just read it as words that jump off the page, but words that actually have meaning and that are divinely inspired, and that have theological content and speak to the Church. It helps us sometimes to go back and look at, if we have opportunity and we have the resources to do so, see what others have said throughout history.
If the Church has said something very similar for 2000 years and now you think you’ve got some bright new idea, the burden is on you to try to say that this is a fresh insight. You don’t want to be stale and just find out what Martin Luther said, or what William Carey or Charles Bergen said, and just preach old stuff. That’s not what I’m talking about.
Michael Duduit: And today’s fresh insight may be yesterday’s old heresy.
David Dockery: Exactly, exactly. And learning what the heresies were can keep you out of trouble. There’s been four or five important heretical trains of thought that continue to raise their head throughout the centuries. Marcion’s repudiation of the Old Testament, Arius and his doubts about the deity and eternality of Christ, Pelagius on the goodness of humanity, Abelard on the subjectivity on the death of Christ. Those unfortunately come back to haunt us over and over again. So understanding the history of interpretation can keep us out of trouble and help us stay faithful to God’s word, faithful to the biblical text, and prepare God’s people well for living faithfully each and every day.
Michael Duduit: Yeah, that’s good. If you were talking to a relatively young pastor, kind of early in their ministry, what are some tools or some resources that you would encourage them to try to bring into their library or into their ministry that would help them in this area of interpretation?
David Dockery: Well you know, they need several Bible translations so they can compare translations. Hopefully, they can do some work in the original, in the Greek and Hebrew. But assuming that they can’t, then they have good Bible translations that they can depend on. And not just so they can pick their favorite one, they think it reads best, but to find what the text is really saying. Find one that’s trustworthy, faithful, and true. The new CSB is a good example of a good translation that’s faithful to the original meaning and reads well today. So having a good Bible translation is important.
A good Bible dictionary that helps them understand broadly the meaning of the words in the context of biblical theology. A theological dictionary or a Church history dictionary that can do some of the things that I’ve said. And then good commentaries, not just picking up something that has sermons in it so that all you’re doing is preaching somebody else’s sermon. It’s okay to borrow good ideas, and sometimes the best things are what’s already been said, as long as you give proper credit to it.
But finding the good commentaries that can help you learn to read the text. You don’t want to depend on those commentaries so that you’re not doing your work yourself. But finding good dictionaries, good commentaries, good theological resources could be essential. Some people have the resources to build a vast library so that can have all kind of specialty tools. Many pastors, unfortunately, don’t have those kinds of resources. And so using your money wisely to buy the best you can that will serve you not just for the preparing this sermon, but prepare you for a lifetime of ministry, will serve you well.
Michael Duduit: And by the way, you mentioned the CSB, and you edited recently a new edition of that, the Worldview Study Bible. Take a minute and give us a little bit of information and promotion about that.
David Dockery: I’m very excited about the Worldview Study Bible. We think it has a very distinctive niche in the study Bible world. The emphasis is on helping men and women, pastors, ministers, and laypersons, particularly college students who are in the time of formation, to learn how to think about the meaning of the Christian faith, Christian life, in a holistic, coherent, related way. What we sometimes call Christian Worldview, a way of seeing life through the lenses of the Christian faith so that all aspects of life, whether it’s in education, or business and law, or health care, is shaped by one’s Christian faith.
And not just one’s personal experience, but the actual meaning of the Christian faith. What does it mean that there’s a Trinitarian God? What does it mean that we’re created in the image of God? What does it mean that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man? What do those things mean for us and how we carry out our life? And so the Worldview Study Bible has about 130 key articles, including one that you procured called Worldview for Preaching, which is an outstanding contribution. But it has 125 high-quality scholars who have participated in this from various denominations, so that it’s a holistic piece that connects to the broader Evangelical community.
I think laypersons will be strengthened, helped, find this tool to be a great benefit to them. And then it has the usual study notes with each passage. But the study notes are not just pure exposition that you find in a traditional study Bible, they have worldview implications and point you to developing a Christian way of thinking about life. So we’re very excited about the new study Bible and think it can serve pastors well, and hopefully serve Sunday School teachers, Bible Study leaders, and laypersons to grow in their ability to provide leadership, to live in the changing culture in which we find ourselves. We hope it’s very relevant for the 21st century.
Michael Duduit: Well I’ve enjoyed already thumbing through and reading some of the different essays that are a part of that. It’s a great project, so thanks for your work on doing that. Your ministry has primarily been in Christian higher education as opposed to specifically the local church. But you’ve also, in your ministry in higher education, trained a lot of pastors, equipped a lot of people for ministry. From time to time I run across somebody that says, God’s called me to minster, God’s called me to be a pastor, but I don’t really need to go to school. Why does school matter? Why does getting that higher education make a difference for preparing someone for ministry?
David Dockery: Well, wherever the Christian faith has been found, it is almost always, it’s very close to being able to say always, almost always been followed by the establishment of schools, emphasis on literacy, publication of books. The Christian faith is a faith that’s grounded in a book, it’s grounded in words, it’s grounded in literary sources. And so one can’t minister well without mastering the word of God, and you will never master it. And the hope and goal is for that word to master us, to change our lives, to transform us.
But until we recognize that is the case, then we’re going to not be faithful to the Christian message. When the apostle Paul, late in his life is in prison, he writes and says, would you please come and bring me the scrolls, and the parchments, and the books, and my winter coat. And so he recognizes that he needs … sitting in prison, why does he need these things? He certainly needs a winter coat, but he also needs the word of God and he needs books about the word of God, even that were available to him at that time. So that’s been the history of the Christian faith.
Having an educated formed, theologically informed ministry, serves the church well for the longterm. And when schools and churches see themselves in partnership, both are better off. Schools are not churches. Churches have the responsibility of doing education like schools, but schools can do even more and can give particular attention to someone at a key time in their life in an intensive way over a short period of time, that prepared them not just to get a degree, as important as degrees are, but to prepare them for a lifetime of faithful ministry that’s grounded in the word of God.
I am convinced that those who become leaders in the Church are people who learn how to read and read well, and become lifelong learners. Just in the last three months Billy Graham has gone to be with the Lord. While he didn’t have a graduate degree, he always talked about the value of his degree at Wheaton, his Anthropology degree, which not only helped him learn how to prepare for ministry but to learn about people, to learn about culture, to learn about people groups and how to communicate well. He talked about how he depended on that. He valued reading and learning so he helped to launch Christianity Today, and Gordon-Conwell Seminary.
So Mr. Graham is a wonderful example of someone who believed in the Christian faith, preaching, intellectual seriousness, education, bringing those things together. Because he understood that certainly it’s God’s spirit that enables us and anoints us, but we have a responsibility to be as well prepared as we can. In the words of the apostle Paul, study to show ourselves improved unto God, so that we’ll be workmen and workwomen who will not be chained.
Michael Duduit: That’s good. One last question. Although you’re a college President, you do get a chance to preach from time to time. Do you have a particular favorite biblical book that you really enjoy preaching?
David Dockery: Yeah, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a pastor, as you know, in Brooklyn, New York, serving on church staffs in Texas and Alabama, and being an interim pastor several times in several different states, as well as preaching in this country and around the world. So Florida’s been very good to me to give me those kinds of opportunities. I am, first and foremost, I guess an educator, but one who always has a foot in the Church. And I think it’s vital that that is the case. But I love preaching one Old Testament book that is an enigma for people, and that’s the book of Ecclesiastes, because it has such worldview implications. I think it’s probably the most worldview shaping book in the Bible, perhaps maybe other than Romans or Colossians.
In the New Testament I always love to preach the Book of Philippians and the book of Hebrews because it exalts of the Lord Jesus Christ. And it’s such a challenging book to interpret as well, and so trying to find how the message of that book speaks to today has been something that I’ve enjoyed working on for many, many years.
Michael Duduit: All right, just between us nobody else, who wrote Hebrews?
David Dockery: I would vote for Apollos, but who knows for sure. It’s someone in Paul’s family. It has Pauline themes to it. But Paul uses Habakuk tomb text in the Book of Colossians, say Romans 1:16 and 17 in one way, and the author of Hebrews uses that Habakkuk tomb text in Hebrews chapters 10 and 11 just a little bit differently. So it’s probably not Paul, and Paul always identified himself as the author of books, and whoever wrote Hebrews did it anonymously. So it’s probably not Paul, but it has Pauline themes, so it’s probably someone in that family. So I would vote for Apollos because of a high level of literary value of the book.
Michael Duduit: David, thanks so much for visiting today.
David Dockery: That’s just a … who knows Mike? We’ll find out when we get to heaven.
Michael Duduit: We’ll find out, that’s right. Thanks so much.
David Dockery: We know that God’s spirit enabled it and inspired it, that’s the important thing.
Michael Duduit: That’s great, thanks.
David Dockery: Blessings to you. Thanks, I enjoyed the conversation.