Contemporary homiletical thought manifests little regard for the teaching pulpit. Yet this kind of preaching need not be the proverbial information dump. A realistic, useful and quite biblical teaching-preaching model can be developed, but first one must ask: “What does it mean to teach?” “What is biblical learning?”
All of us who think often and care deeply about preaching have heard it, cringing inside — the caricature of the “seminary classroom pulpit.” It sometimes comes from a bitter churchgoer, a disillusioned ministerial student or a cynical skeptic outside the faith. Decried is the over-attention to detail, the hubris of the ivory tower, and that gravest of all homiletical sins — a fatal lack of relevance.
Caricatures, to be that, must be grounded in an element of reality. Perhaps there are, somewhere, preachers who subject their dozing congregations to lectures on the validity of identifying some of the Apostle Paul’s aorists as ingressive or explications of the names and particular characteristics of all the gates of Jerusalem during Jesus’ ministry. However, caricatures are also by definition exaggerated. We surely know of no preacher who sets out to bore his listeners or intentionally strives for minutiae-enhanced irrelevance.
Caricatures aside, there is still a place for the teaching preacher; one who carefully and sequentially communicates God’s eternal truth with clarity and relevance. For the purpose of this article several presuppositions are assumed. We acknowledge that:
– preachers are called to “preach the word”
– there are various kinds of preaching, determined by both text and audience
– of these varied kinds of preaching two are most easily identified: 1) proclamation-oriented (or evangelistic) and 2) pastoral (or edification-oriented)
– in many, if not most, evangelical churches the primary pulpit event is still directed toward believers, and therefore the preaching may be identified as pastoral (Clearly, this excludes today’s significant number of churches and preachers committed to a seeker-driven philosophy)
– where the preacher is preaching week-in and week-out to believers, his primary scriptural responsibility in preaching the word is to teach God’s truth to God’s people
– in any local church the teaching tasks are spread over all the various ministries of church life, but the pulpit should be the principal source of the teaching ministry
Quite properly then, the conscientious “pastoral preacher” is unwilling, in spite of caricatures, to forsake this primary task of pastoral preaching — teaching God’s people God’s truth.
But this commitment to preaching that teaches presents an imposing question: “What does it mean to teach, and how can we know that, and what evidence is there to investigate whether our people have genuinely learned?” Sid Buzzell, sacrificing etiquette for conciseness, puts it this way, “If they ain’t learnin’, you ain’t teachin’!”
And so, before we consider how one can preach in a manner that teaches, we must examine what it means to learn according to God’s Word. We will then consider various concepts of learning levels from the secular realm. We will suggest a structure that delineates levels of learning in a spiritual or biblical sense. Finally, we will present a grid for sermon preparation to enhance preaching that facilitates biblical learning.
The Biblical Perspective of Learning
Learning and teaching are seen in the Bible as some of the basic and essential activities of life. God Himself is the teacher of Moses (Ex. 4:12) and of the willing one who follows and is willing to learn (Ps. 25:9; Ps. 32:8). Moses is to serve as a mediatorial teacher on behalf of God to his people (Ex. 18:20).
The goal of life itself is the knowledge of God (Jer. 9:23-24). This knowledge of God begins in healthy and appropriate fear (Prov. 1:7a; Deut. 14:23b). Furthermore, this knowledge of God in fear and reverence is facilitated through a knowledge of His Law (Deut. 17:19). In fact, the revelation of God and His nature, works and plan is communicated by Him in rational, propositional truths, i.e., terms of cognition (Isa. 1:18; Rom. 12:1-2; 1 Pet. 1:13).
Cognitive knowledge alone, however, is not sufficient (Isa. 29:13). In addition, it is possible to learn evil (Deut. 20:18; Ps. 106:35), to know without loving (1 Cor. 8:1), to learn but neglect the truth learned (James 1:22-25), to learn but forget what was learned (Heb. 5:12; 2 Pet. 1), and to be learning but never come to a knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 3:7). Ultimately, true spiritual learning issues forth in obedience (Deut. 4:1,14; 5:1, 31; 31:12; Phil. 4:9; Titus 3:14, Matt. 28:19-20).
Therefore, we see that in the pursuit of genuine discipleship and maturity, such a journey begins with accurate, objectified knowledge about God — facts asserted in His word, the Bible. If spiritual learners are to be taught, then teaching must begin with cognitive truth. Yet teaching in a biblical sense never stops with truth itself, rather one is genuinely taught when she is “like her teacher,” that is, the Teacher Himself (see Luke 6:40). Defining teaching that is genuinely Christian involves the imparting of biblical truth into the life of the learner or disciple in such a manner that change toward spiritual maturity is manifested consistently and progressively.
It is not too much to assert that effective teaching and receptive learning are the core activities of the church as presented in the New Testament. See for example the entire book of Acts, with its constant reference to “teaching”, “the Apostles’ teaching”, and encouragement. Paul’s description of his passion notes this emphasis: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Col. 1:28). Teaching is so much a part of the Faith that it is set forth as synonymous with it (2 John 1:9).
In summary, we are left with an understanding of the foundational and primary importance of objective, cognitive truth in producing spiritual growth and maturity in the lives of believers. Moreover, that growth and maturity does not come about by virtue of mere intellectual understanding of cognitive data. Spiritual, biblical teaching begins with and cannot do without facts — true propositions rooted in the revelation of Scripture. But such learning never ends there. To quote Chapell, evangelical preachers are “Not ministers of information, but of transformation” (Chapell, 1999).
Defining Various Levels of Learning — The Secular Models
Leaders in secular education have developed varied tools to classify and categorize the sequential steps or levels involved in any teaching/learning endeavor. In turn these are used to help the instructor/teacher design his content and teaching in order to see genuine, progressive learning take place. In other words, these tools are designed to facilitate the specifying of educational objectives.
Dr. Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain was developed in the 1950s and represents one such classification system to categorize the processes of learning. Bloom first devised a hierarchical chart of the levels of learning in the cognitive domain. It is hierarchical in the sense that each category is assumed to involve behavior more complex than the one previous. The following is a condensed version of the Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain and its behavioral applications (Krathwohl, 1974, 75):
– Knowledge: to define, distinguish, acquire, identify (knows facts, terms, methods, basic concepts)
– Comprehension: to generalize, defend, explain, infer (understands facts/principles; interprets verbal material and graphs; does not necessarily relate it to other material)
– Application: to compute, demonstrate, modify, relate, use (applies concepts and principles to new situations; applies laws and theories; solves problems)
– Analysis: to diagram, differentiate, identify, discriminate (recognizes unstated assumptions, logical fallacies; distinguishes between facts and inferences; evaluates relevancy of data)
– Synthesis: to categorize, combine, organize, rearrange, revise, modify (puts elements into a whole; gives speech or writes theme; proposes experiments; constructs plan for problem-solving)
– Evaluation: to appraise, conclude, criticize, explain, justify, summarize, support (judges logical consistency of material, adequacy of support for conclusions, value of material for any given purpose)
Though biblical learning is rooted in cognitive truth, the Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain is not adequate to evaluate overall the spiritual and bib-lical learning of individuals. Some insight can be derived, such as inquiring whether the knowledge of our hearers goes deeper to genuine comprehension and then into application. Furthermore, one could argue if real evangelism, discipleship or serious personal Bible study are to take place, analysis and synthesis are necessary as well. However, because it was designed for the cognitive domain, and biblical learning goes well beyond the cognitive, it does not serve the preacher well.
Indeed, because so much of life goes beyond the cognitive, secular educators recognized that other classifications were needed or would be useful. In the 1960s others developed the Taxonomy of the Affective Domain. It focused on values and beliefs. The following is a condensed version of the Taxonomy of the Affective Domain and its behavioral applications (Loehrer, 1997, 28-30):
– Receiving: to accept, respond to, listen for, attend (the subject is aware and receptive to stimuli)
– Responding: to follow, approve, discuss, applaud (the subject regularly receives and responds to stimuli, moving from acquiescence to satisfaction)
– Value: to specify, support, protest, debate, argue (the subject’s behavior is consistent so that he comes to hold a value or belief, even to the extent of a conviction or certainty)
– Organization: to theorize on, compare, balance, define (the subject organizes more than one value into a system, determines the relationships among them, and continues to classify them, refining them into a more useful system)
– Characterization by a Value: to revise, change, complete (the subject has such an internalized value system that it becomes his basic orientation in relating to the complexities of the world around him)
Developers of the affective domain taxonomy faced difficulties. One acknowledged the inherent challenge in quantifying issues of feelings and values when he notes, “Though there is confusion in communication with respect to terms in the cognitive domain, those who worked on the taxonomy found the confusion much greater when they began work on the affective domain. The state of communication with respect to a term like ‘really understand’ is nothing compared to the confusion that surrounds objectives dealing with attitudes, interests and appreciation” (Krathwohl, 1974, 74-75).
In considering the Taxonomy of the Affective Domain we might label the education in view related to, for lack of a better term, “value-driven behavior”. The inherent difficulties of definition acknowledged above are to be expected given a mindset where ultimate, objective moral truth as a reality is doubted, marginalized or excluded. Still, learned behavior rooted in “principles” is, indeed, the focus. “Internalization [is] the inner growth that occurs as the individual becomes aware of and then adopts attitudes, principles, codes and sanctions which become inherent in forming value judgments and in guiding conduct” (Krathwohl, 1974, 76).
The use of the Affective Domain Taxonomy in evaluating biblical learning produced by preaching is, like the cognitive, possibly helpful but ultimately inefficient. This is because it ignores the cognitive domain, in which much biblical learning is rooted, and it is presented in such generic and subjective terminology.
One helpful insight we might gain from the Taxonomy of the Affective Domain is an acknowledgment (general revelation?) of the process of internalization — that is, that of moving the behavior of the learner from coercion, to acquiescence and finally to obedience driven by internal conviction. This mirrors some of what we see in a biblical view of learning.
A Taxonomy of Biblical Learning
In developing a Taxonomy of Biblical Learning the task is to identify and separate the sequential steps which a teacher (preacher) must lead a student (hearer or congregant) through which result in what we have recognized as learning in the truest biblical sense. A suggested structure might look like this:
Stage One — Receiving Biblical Information
– Reception: attending to the biblical data (the learner listens, receives, attends)
– Cognition: learning the facts intellectually (the learner hears, recites, names, lists, recalls, recognizes)
– Comprehension: understanding the truths — including initial implications (the learner understands, comprehends, grasps)
Stage Two — Applying Spiritual Knowledge
– Application: obeying the precepts and / or principles and applying them to daily living. This is volitional obedience rooted primarily in the duty enjoined by God’s word. It is more than empty ritualism (the learner repents, obeys, believes, applies, changes)
– Internalization: obeying out of love and desire. Here the truths learned have been embraced as convictions; external behavior mirrors the above level, but the attitude is transformed (the learner worships, embraces, appropriates, loves, commits)
Note: Ideally, the learner will fold these two stages into one decision process. However, at other times with other truths the steps are sequential, first Application followed by Internalization.
Stage Three — Pursuing Godly Wisdom
– Correlation: relating the truths learned and internalized to other truths and other areas of life. This includes the developing of willingness and an ability to study and pursue truth on one’s own. This represents the beginning stages of “doing theology.” (the learner meditates, studies, seeks, pursues, systematizes)
– Reproduction: discipling, whether it be teaching unbelievers the biblical truths of the gospel or teaching and admonishing other believers, (the learner shares, teaches, warns, evangelizes, admonishes)
As with the educational taxonomies considered above, one must inquire at what minimal level can we acknowledge that the “hearer” has learned? We have seen that genuine biblical learning requires obedience. Some learners will progress farther through these stages and steps than others will. Therefore, the Application level would be the minimum a preacher should strive for in each and every message. Imparting biblical knowledge apart from its mandated obedience, mere Biblical Information Stage preaching, only results in arrogance (1 Cor. 8:1).
In other words, nearly all pastoral preaching should be designed with a goal of seeing learners move through Application into Internalization. Furthermore, a strong and mature church manifests itself in people of Godly wisdom, people who study God’s word on their own (Correlation) and are active in discipling, both the lost and other believers (Reproduction).
Crafting Preaching That Teaches
How can the pastoral preacher use these concepts in designing sermons through which people really learn? Here are several suggestions for using the Taxonomy of Biblical Learning to help design sermons that teach God’s truth to God’s people. The preacher should…
– periodically assess his congregation as to their spiritual growth and learning. For example, are they only barely into Stage Two, having made changes but obeying out of duty alone? Have they internalized the knowledge they have attained? Do they need to move farther — lacking a commitment to or training in personal Bible study? Are they reproducing?
– consider these levels in planning his preaching calendar. Is a particular series needed on the authority of the Bible or one dealing with cults? Do his people comprehend, apply, and have they internalized the principles of biblical stewardship? Is a series in the Epistle to the Romans called for? Or rather, should he begin a study in a less-doctrinally-intense book?
– assess regularly the focus of his sermons. Does he tend to allow his sermons to be driven by only one or two levels of the taxonomy? If so, his people will likely not move beyond those levels, and in fact may digress. Is he an information-oriented teacher who fails to move them toward genuine change? Has he drifted into the stance that his task is merely to dispense the information?
On the other hand, does he focus on Godly wisdom-level preaching, constantly emphasizing the issues and skills of Correlation and Reproduction? In doing so, has he left the majority of his people behind as they are simply struggling with understanding and applying God’s word in daily life?
It should be noted that it might be difficult or impossible to address each of the seven levels of biblical learning in each and every sermon. However, the thoughtful pastor will constantly reevaluate his audience as he deals with the presentations of his texts’ main ideas, assuring that does not repeatedly neglect any portion of his attending congregation.
– after his weekly exegesis is completed and his exegetical idea is nailed down, as he pursues his exegetical purpose he should consider the various learning needs of his hearers, considering the various levels above (e.g., if the exegetical idea of the text is, “God’s Word is eternal, powerful and authoritative,” at what level does his church need to have this idea preached to them? Is this an issue the church has resisted or fought over in the recent past? In that case he should preach it primarily on a simple Knowledge and Comprehension level. Do they already buy it but have become forgetful of its importance and impact? If so, his sermonic purpose should be directed toward a renewal emphasis at the levels of Internalization and Correlation.).
Preaching that teaches need not be as dry and irrelevant as is often caricatured. Yet careful labor and consideration, not only of the text but also of the learning process itself and the learning needs of one’s people, are as necessary as clear presentation for genuine biblical learning to take place.
An amazing thing can happen when a preacher has clearly thought through what it means to teach and learn and has studied how the text before him holds eternal truths that can be taught to willing learners. As he clearly and compassionately preaches these truths in a relevant manner, the preaching task takes on its most basic and useful form in the context of the confessing church. That is, it obeys the final, often overlooked, portion of the Great Commission, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mat. 28:19-20a; emphasis added).
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Chapell, Brian. Lecture during the Evangelical Homiletics Society, Garden Grove, CA, October, 1999.
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Arno A. and Kliebard, Herbert M., 111-121. Berkley, CA: McCutchan Publishing Corporation, 1977.
Krathwolhl, David. “Stating Appropriate Educational Objectives”. In Curriculum Evaluation, ed. Payne, David A., 69-80. Lexington: Heath and Company, 1974.
Loehrer, Michael. How to Change a Rotten Attitude. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 1997.
Metfessel, Newton S., et al. “Instrumentation of the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives in Behavioral Terms”, In Curriculum Evaluation, ed. Payne, David A., 81-85. Lexington: Heath and Company, 1974.

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