Outlining

August 9th, 2008

Charles J. Brown gives some sage advice in his book, The Ministry: Addresses to Students of Divinity

Then, more specifically, first, let there be no mechanical observing of any fixed and unvarying method in the preacher’s outlines. An endless variety will naturally arise here from the character of the text and of the theme, which ought ever to guide, as to his specific plan.

In general, the text dictates not only the content of the sermon, it also dictates the structure. Brown doesn’t go into it, but there are two real dangers to that mechanical observation of a fixed and unvarying method (however excellent it may seem) in outlining.

One is the danger of boredom. When you have the same outline every week, it makes the content seem very similar. But more than that, it tends to impose a similarity of content as well. So there is an appearance of similar content, and there is also a reality. Having always the same sort of outline works to keep you from seeing in the text anything that doesn’t square with your outlining, or at least keeps you from using whatever more you saw in your sermon. Your principle of selection is influenced by your outline: if your outline is always the same, your principle of selection is always the same, and so your content varies very little. And thus your preaching becomes very boring.

The other danger is that of undermining the force of your message with an inappropriate outline. A sermon on the doctrine of adoption, for instance, that has the structure of a harangue is a sermon that has lost much of its rhetorical force. Or there are sermons that have an imperatival structure, an “every Christian must _______” method of organization, and yet the content is of grace, an announcement that God in Christ has done. The structure in that case puts the emphasis on the hearer’s responsibility, on their duty, though the theme and focus of the message may be on the grace of God. There again, the structure undermines the content.

Combine these two factors, and a sermon on the reasons Christians have for joy can become a depressing monologue that leaves a congregation drained and clubbed down by the very content that should have rejoiced their hearts and strengthened their hands.

Calvin’s and Gill’s comments on Hosea 6:2 set before us two approaches to the Old Testament. I should note that I am not making the case that these approaches are characteristic to the two commentators, merely that in this instance they happen to exemplify these two methods rather well. Obviously the ability, piety, or orthodoxy of either commentator is not at all in question.
I will summarize their remarks, make some comments, and place their words in at the end.

Hosea 6:2 After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in
his sight.

John Gill mentions various interpretations, but what he puts forward as most agreeable to the context and scope of the passage, or as the sense of the words (though admitting that it is conjectural) is that this is a reference to “the time of their [the Jews’] conversion and restoration, reckoning from the last destruction of them by the Romans; for not till then were Israel and Judah wholly in a state of death” and hence that there is a prediction of how the Jews will live “comfortably, in a civil sense, in their
own land, and in the possession of all their privileges and liberties; and in a spiritual sense, by faith on Jesus Christ, whom they shall now embrace, and in the enjoyment of the Gospel and Gospel ordinances; and the prophet represents the penitents and faithful among them as believing and hoping for these things.” He then goes on to say that these words can be applied to those who have become aware of their sins, “who, as they are in their natural state dead in sin, and dead in law, so they see themselves to be such when awakened; and yet entertain a secret hope that sooner or later they shall be revived and refreshed, and raised up to a more comfortable state, and live in the presence of God, and the enjoyment of his favour.”

It will be seen from these quotations that Gill’s approach is to take the passage as a prediction of God’s future blessing upon the physical seed of Abraham: this is the meaning he gives the words, although he admits that there is application to the case of any sinner who is coming under conviction. It is obvious that Gill has taken care over this interpretation, and has studied it out. In his comments on this verse he mentions six cross references and refers to four other interpreters by name (three of them Jewish) as
well as mentioning the Talmud and the general interpretation of the church fathers. His words demonstrate a concern for contextually sensitive exegesis, and a real concern to be fair to the text, to the extent of acknowledging what is mere conjecture in his own remarks.

Now Calvin similarly demonstrates an overmastering concern for accuracy in his exposition. He maintains that the Hebrew writers pervert the meaning of this verse. He also rejects an interpretation which he can label as “usual” and which Gill claims most of the church fathers held, namely, that this is a reference to the resurrection of Christ, in the following words:

Yet this sense seems to me rather too refined. We must always mind this, that we fly not in the air. Subtle speculations please at first sight, but afterwards vanish. Let every one, then, who desires to make proficiency in the Scriptures always keep to this rule — to gather from the Prophets and apostles only what is solid.

He then proceeds to give the meaning of the verse as being that although the remedy for their malaise may tarry (in context, the exile which they will suffer is long), it will surely come, with these words “they confirmed themselves in the hope of salvation, though it did not immediately appear”. The effect of this is that “a consolation is here opposed to the temptations, which take from us the hope of salvation, when God suspends his favor longer than our flesh desires.” As in the case of Lazarus Christ delayed in order to show the power of God, so God sometimes delays our deliverance —but that delay does not mean that deliverance will not come. And Calvin goes on to show how this text also does bear reference to Christ, in that Christ is a “remarkable and memorable” instance of what Hosea teaches, or again that Christ is an “illustrious proof” of this prophecy. He then applies it to all believers, “As often then as delay begets weariness in us, and when God seems to have thrown aside every care of us, let us flee to Christ; for, as it has been said, His resurrection is a mirror of our life; for we see in that how God is wont to deal with his own people: the Father did not restore life to Christ as soon as he was taken down from the cross; he was deposited in the sepulchre, and he lay there to the third day. When God then intends that we should languish for a time, let us know that we are thus represented in Christ our head, and hence let us gather materials of confidence.”

There are two differences between Calvin and Gill that I would particularly highlight. One is that Calvin understands this to have immediate reference to the Assyrian Captivity, whereas Gill refers it to later times. Here I think it is fairly simple to assert that Calvin is right (see 8:5-9:3). But the greater difference between them is that Calvin sees in this text a pattern of instruction for all God’s people in all times, culminating in Christ, whose resurrection is the mirror of our life, whereas Gill limits it almost exclusively to the Jews in a future time, and even his application of it extends only to “sensible sinners” before they come to Christ. As such, I find that Calvin’s comments are food for my mind and heart, that they are heartening and strengthening, whereas Gill’s remarks have something frigid and meager about them. Calvin shows the relevance, the immediacy, of this text to us, now: and his comments mean as much to my generation as to any generation in church history; Gill, however, leaves me to wonder what value this text had for Hosea himself, for those who heard him, or for all the generations following until the times spoken of (according to him) in this text should arrive.

Naturally, this makes me greatly prefer Calvin’s approach. But it might be objected that after all this is just sentiment, that I want to feel that this lyrical passage in the Old Testament has something to do with me, that in my desire to appropriate the word of God to myself I am willing to distort it. Well, perhaps. But if so I seem to find myself in good company. It was Paul who taught me to assert that all of the Old Testament is useful to me (and to every Christian), when he said that:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Timothy 3:16,17)
Likewise it was Paul who taught me to see myself (and every Christian) as in view in the composition of the Old Testament, by his statement:
For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope. (Romans 15:4; cp. 1 Corinthians 9:9,10).
I found further confirmation of this point from Peter who went so far as to affirm that the OT prophets ministered not so much for themselves as for me (and for every Christian):
Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; which things the angels desire to look into. (1 Peter 1:12).
But perhaps there is no place where this idea is taken further than when Paul asserted that it wasn’t just the recording of certain events in the Old Testament that was for my benefit, but even the occurrence of those events was for me (and for every Christian):
Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted. (1 Corinthians 10:6)

So in this instance, I conclude that Calvin’s approach is better than Gill’s. It is better because it is more Christocentric, more practical, more theological, more contextual, more encouraging, more relevant; in short it is better because it is more after the apostolic method of interpretation, and so we can say it all in one word: it is better because it is more Biblical.

And so I submit that if an interpretation is distant, paltry, not centered in Christ, and tending rather to give me information I cannot use than to establish my heart in grace, then it fails the test the New Testament gives us whereby to judge the validity of interpretations of the Old Testament. A text that speaks to the future must speak also to the present (and since we are dealing with ancient material must also have spoken to our past).

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If anyone would like to compare them further, here are Gill’s complete comments on Hosea 6:2, and Calvin (likewise complete) is below him.

John Gill:
After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, etc.]
The Jews, in their present state, are as dead men, both in a civil and spiritual sense, and their conversion and restoration will be as life from the dead; they are like persons buried, and, when they are restored, they will be raised out of their graves, both of sin and misery; (see Romans 11:15, Ezekiel 37:11-14); the time of which is here fixed, after two days, and on the third; which Jarchi interprets of the two temples that have been destroyed, and of the third temple to be built, which the Jews expect, but in vain, and when they hope for good times: Kimchi explains it of their three captivities, in Egypt, Babylon, and the present one, and so Ben Melech, from which they hope to be raised, and live comfortably; which sense is much better than the former: and with it may be compared Vitringa’s notion of the text, that the first day was between Israel’s coming out of Egypt and the Babylonish captivity; the second day between that and the times of Antiochus, which was the third night; then the third day followed, which is the times of the Messiah: but the Targum comes nearer the truth, which paraphrases the words thus,
“he will quicken us in the days of consolation which are to come, and in the day of the resurrection of the dead he will raise us up;”
where by days of consolation are meant the days of the Messiah, with which the Jews generally connect the resurrection of the dead; and if we understand them of the last days of the Messiah, it is not much amiss; for the words respect the quickening and raising up of the Jews in the latter day, the times of Christ’s spiritual coming and reign: and these two and three days may be expressive of a long and short time, as interpreters differently explain them; of a long time, as the third day is a long time for a man to lie dead, when there can be little or no hope of his reviving, (Luke 24:21); or of a short time, for which two or three days is a common phrase; and both true in this case: it is a long time Israel and Judah have been in captivity, and there may seem little hope of their restoration; but it will be a short time with the Lord, with whom a thousand years are as one day, and one day as a thousand years: and this I take to be the sense of the words, that after the second Millennium, or the Lord’s two days, and at the beginning of the third, will be the time of their conversion and restoration, reckoning from the last destruction of them by the Romans; for not till then were Israel and Judah wholly in a state of death: many of Israel were mixed among those of Judah before the Babylonish captivity, and many returned with them from it; but, when destroyed by the Romans, there was an end of their civil and church state; which will both be revived on a better foundation at this period of time: but if this conjecture is not agreeable (for I only propose it as such), the sense may be taken thus, that in a short time after the repentance of Israel, and their conversion to the Lord, they will be brought into a very comfortable and happy state and condition, both with respect to things temporal and spiritual;
and we shall live in his sight; comfortably, in a civil sense, in their own land, and in the possession of all their privileges and liberties; and in a spiritual sense, by faith on Jesus Christ, whom they shall now embrace, and in the enjoyment of the Gospel and Gospel ordinances; and the prophet represents the penitents and faithful among them as believing and hoping for these things. This may be applied to the case of sensible sinners, who, as they are in their natural state dead in sin, and dead in law, so they see themselves to be such when awakened; and yet entertain a secret hope that sooner or later they shall be revived and refreshed, and raised up to a more comfortable state, and live in the presence of God, and the enjoyment of his favour. The ancient fathers generally understood these words of Christ, who was buried on the sixth day, lay in the grave the whole seventh day, and after these two days, on the third, rose again from the dead; and to this passage the apostle is thought to have respect, (1 Corinthians 15:3); and also of the resurrection of his people in and with him, and by virtue of his: and true it is that Christ rose from the dead on the third day, and all his redeemed ones were quickened and raised up together with him as their head and representative, (Ephesians 2:5,6); and his in virtue of his being quickened that they are regenerated and quickened, and made alive, in a spiritual sense; he is the author of their spiritual life, and their life itself; (see 1 Peter 1:3); and not only in virtue of his resurrection is their spiritual resurrection from the death of sin to a life of grace, but even their corporeal resurrection at the last day; and as, in consequence of their spiritual resurrection, they live in the sight of God a life of grace and holiness by faith in Christ, and in a comfortable view and enjoyment of the divine favour; so they shall live eternally in the presence of God, where are fulness of joy, and pleasures for evermore: but the first sense is best, and most agreeable to the context and scope of it.

John Calvin:
This place the Hebrew writers pervert, for they think that they are yet to be redeemed by the coming of the Messiah; and they imagine that this will be the third day: for God once drew them out of Egypt, this was their first life; then, secondly, he restored them to life when he brought them back from the Babylonish captivity; and when God shall, by the hand of the Messiah, gather them from their dispersion, this, they say, will be the third resurrection. But these are frivolous notions. Not withstanding, this place is usually referred to Christ, as declaring, that God would, after two days, and on the third, raise up his Church; for Christ, we know, did not rise privately for himself, but for his members, inasmuch as he is the firstfruits of them who shall rise. This sense does not seem then unsuitable, that is, that the Prophet here encourages the faithful to entertain hope of salvation, because God would raise up his only-begotten Son, whose resurrection would be the common life of the whole Church.
Yet this sense seems to me rather too refined. We must always mind this, that we fly not in the air. Subtle speculations please at first sight, but afterwards vanish. Let every one, then, who desires to make proficiency in the Scriptures always keep to this rule — to gather from the Prophets and apostles only what is solid.
Let us now see what the Prophet meant. He here adds, I doubt not, a second source of consolation, that is, that if God should not immediately revive his people, there would be no reason for delay to cause weariness, as it is wont to do; for we see that when God suffers us to languish long, our spirits fail; and those who at first seem cheerful and courageous enough, in process of time become faint. As, then, patience is a rare virtue, Hosea here exhorts us patiently to bear delay, when the Lord does not immediately revive us. Thus then did the Israelites say, After two days will God revive us; on the third day he will raise us up to life.
What did they understand by two days? Even their long affliction; as though they said, “Though the Lord may not deliver us from our miseries the first day, but defer longer our redemption, our hope ought not yet to fail; for God can raise up dead bodies from their graves no less than restore life in a moment.” When Daniel meant to show that the affliction of the people would be long, he says, ‘After a time, times, and half time,’ (Daniel 7:25.)
That mode of speaking is different, but then as to sense it is the same. He says, ‘after a time,’ that is, after a year; that would be tolerable: but it follows, ‘and times,’ that is, many years: God afterwards shortens that period, and brings redemption at a time when least expected. Hosea mentions here two years, because God would not afflict his people for one day, but, as we have before seen, subdue them by degrees; for the perverseness of the people had so prevailed, that they could not be soon healed. As when diseases have been striking roots for a long time, they cannot be immediately cured, but there is need of slow and various remedies; and were a physician to attempt immediately to remove a disease which had taken full possession of a man, he certainly would not cure him, but take away his life: so also, when the Israelites, through their long obstinacy, had become nearly incurable, it was necessary to lead them to repentance by slow punishments. They therefore said, After two days God will revive us; and thus they confirmed themselves in the hope of salvation, though it did not immediately appear: though they long remained in darkness, and the exile was long which they had to endure, they yet did not cease to hope: “Well, let the two days pass, and the Lord will revive us.”
We see that a consolation is here opposed to the temptations, which take from us the hope of salvation, when God suspends his favor longer than our flesh desires. Martha said to Christ, ‘He is now putrid, it is the fourth day.’ She thought it absurd to remove the stone from the sepulchre, because now the body of Lazarus was putrified. But Christ in this instance designed to show his own incredible power by restoring a putrid body to life. So the faithful say here, The Lord will raise us up after two days: “Though exile seems to be like the sepulchre, where putridity awaits us, yet the Lord will, by his ineffable power, overcome whatever may seem to obstruct our restoration.” We now perceive, as I think, the simple and genuine sense of this passage.
But at the same time I do not deny but that God has exhibited a remarkable and a memorable instance of what is here said in his only-begotten Son. As often then as delay begets weariness in us, and when God seems to have thrown aside every care of us, let us flee to Christ; for, as it has been said, His resurrection is a mirror of our life; for we see in that how God is wont to deal with his own people: the Father did not restore life to Christ as soon as he was taken down from the cross; he was deposited in the sepulchre, and he lay there to the third day. When God then intends that we should languish for a time, let us know that we are thus represented in Christ our head, and hence let us gather materials of confidence. We have then in Christ an illustrious proof of this prophecy. But in the first place, let us lay hold on what we have said, that the faithful here obtain hope for themselves, though God extends not immediately his hand to them, but defers for a time his grace of redemption. Then he adds, We shall live in his sight, or before him. Here again the faithful strengthen themselves, for God would favor them with his paternal countenance, after he had long turned his back on them, We shall live before his face. For as long as God cares not for us, a sure destruction awaits us; but as soon as he turns his eyes to us, he inspires life by his look alone. Then the faithful promise this good to themselves that God’s face will shine again after long darkness: hence also they gather the hope of life, and at the same time withdraw themselves from all those obstacles which obscure the light of life; for while we run and wander here and there, we cannot lay hold on the life which God promises to us, as the charms of this world are so many veils, which prevent our eyes to see the paternal face of God. We must then remember that this sentence is added, that the faithful, when it pleases God to turn his back on them, may not doubt but that he will again look on them. Let us now go on —