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Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church

So the sermon I heard at PRBC [link] is at this writing the 18th in a series of 20 (so far) on the book of Romans. The series appears to be literally verse-by-verse, meaning that Fry covers a verse each sermon, more or less. There are roughly 430 verses in the book of Romans, so it’s probably reasonable to expect that Fry will still be in the book of Romans five years from now and it’s not unthinkable that he might still be there ten years from now. So it may or may not be fair to expect that the sermon I heard is representative of anything, even of this series.

That being said, this appears to be a fairly workmanlike example of a single-verse sermon: an opening illustration; a reading of the verse in context; three points, each with an accompanying story or illustration; and a closing illustration. Fry never says “here’s my outline in three points,” (and thank goodness) and he doesn’t phrase the three points the same way twice, but on the other hand he doesn’t really seem to be preaching to the outline and the three points don’t alliterate or rhyme (again, thank goodness). There’s always a risk when using a formal structure like this that the Scripture used and the points drawn from it will be overshadowed by the points or the illustrations. I think it’s fairly safe to say that doesn’t happen in this case. This is a fairly solid Reformed sermon based on a Reformed proof text.

I am a big fan of expository teaching; in fact, when I sermon starts I’m typically fidgety from the moment the preacher starts talking until he starts reading Scripture. I’m always looking for the foundation of the sermon, and I’m wary of sermons that appear to be founded on stories, illustrations, the authority of the pulpit, tradition, etc. The down side to expository teaching is that so many Scripture passages are thorny things, with phrases that do not appear to contribute to the passage’s plain meaning, and when a preacher sets about using a short text he faces three problems:

  1. Presenting the passage in the context of the whole of Scripture
  2. Presenting the passage so it fits the surrounding greater text
  3. Dealing with these troublesome phrases

For many Reformed preachers the book of Romans is the whole of Scripture, so I’ll give Fry a pass here. And he did read the verse in the context of the surrounding verses, so I’ll note that he did that. The problem, though, is that there are three thorny problems with this passage:

  1. What is the righteousness of God? Is it something He gives? Something He has but no one else does? Etc.
  2. What does Paul mean by “from faith to faith?”
  3. Why Habakkuk? How does Paul’s understanding and portrayal of the quote [KJV] fit its original context? Are Paul and Habakkuk saying the same thing? If so how and if not why not?

Fry namechecks the first two but doesn’t dig into them, and he mentions Habakkuk but doesn’t go back to the original context; it’s as if he considers Paul’s reading (or maybe the 16th century understanding of the quote) to be normative and doesn’t consider the continuity (or the contrast) between the original meaning and later understandings at all. I realize this is a high standard, but I think it’s appropriate for someone doing a verse a sermon.

Fry also tends to leave important terms (“righteousness,” “gospel,” and to a lesser degree “justice”) undefined. This is a pitfall of anyone who prizes “strong doctrine” at the expense of other values; it’s possible to start on a firm foundation and end on a firm foundation but leave the audience with things that can only be understood and believed theoretically. And I’m afraid that’s what happens here.

Finally, there’s Fry’s delivery. Fry is a shouter. Or a dramatic reader. Or something like that. I suspect this is more or less the delivery he learned in seminary, probably at a time when seminary professors had less practice using microphones, etc. and Fry has never seriously reconsidered his delivery. I suspect this because his volume rises at odd times, on phrases that don’t necessarily need emphasis, and he did not seem to be getting worked up emotionally in a way that corresponded with his tone of voice. Preachers shout for many reasons (see e.g. [link]), and I have a hard time pigeonholing Fry’s delivery against the popular explanations.

I choose to believe that shouting is something of a generational thing, as younger preachers (e.g. 50 and younger) are less likely to shout than older preachers. I have to hope that good acoustic spaces and inexpensive amplification will eventually make this a rare phenomenon. It’s one of the remaining rhetorical tricks still in wide use (anaphora being another) that I think distracts from the message rather than contributing to it or supporting it.

Whenever I visit a church I wonder why the people who are there stay there. My best guess in the case of PRBC is that the people there want to hear Reformed doctrine affirmed, like the conservative music, and appreciate the linear, straightforward presentation, so they’re willing to tolerate a little shouting. I hope for their sake it’s not just because they e.g. like being around James White.

Ah yes James White. I think there’s one more post left in this series, and I’m hoping to get back to him in it.


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