Learning to Preach: An Ancient Method

Once upon a time preachers learned how to preach in a particular way. Actually we learned just about ANYTHING and EVERYTHING in this same way. Every subject was taught using the same process. Why, you might ask? It was because the ancients realized that it was both sound educationally and suitable to our human development. This approach was called the Trivium and it guided education for thousands of years, from the fall of Rome in 476 AD to the Enlightenment.

As you might expect, over time as a culture, we have decided there is a better way. In our chronological snobbery, as C.S. Lewis put it, we assume that new things are better things. In fact, the Trivium was lampooned in the emergence of a new word to denote unimportant things: trivia.

Yet in our labeling of certain basics and fundamentals as trivia and our haste in rushing to application and communication, we have become less competent in the most important task of the Christian minister–yea, even the most important task of all–which is the understanding and teaching of the word of God.

Those who teach the Scriptures seem to typically concern themselves with this question: “How do I communicate this to the people with whom God has given me influence?” Thus, delivery of the material moves to the top of our priority list. However, there should be a greater concern: understanding the biblical text for what it is and then–only then–seeking the best form in which to communicate it.

We should first worry about what we are going to say before we concern ourselves with how we are going to say it. And if you listen carefully enough, echoes from our classical past can be heard to say A-men!

In 1947, Dorothy Sayers wrote an essay on the trivium and its application to child development and entitled it, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Originally delivered as a lecture at Oxford in 1947, it was developed into an essay and eventually became a catalyst to a revival of interest in classical Christian education.

This ancient approach–mostly discarded by modern education as outdated and archaic–consists of three main areas: grasping the nuts and bolts, the pieces (they called this grammar), understanding the pieces and putting them together in a systematic manner (logic), and communicating this understanding to others (rhetoric).

As an ancient and classical method of learning, the Trivium gives us an approach to learn the individual components of biblical exposition, understand them in a connected manner, and share them with others so that they might also teach others. We begin with the principles or tools of exposition, such as context and structure, and then we move to the integration of these tools in a systematic study approach, with a final consideration of how the fruits of study is shared with an audience of one or more.