The Scientific Method and Objective Truth

The scientific method is a learning method that led to many discoveries about the physical world that have defined the modern period. Discoveries in agricultural production, medicine, and manufacturing have alleviated hunger and poverty, and have extended the life expectancy of the vast majority of people since the early nineteenth century. These discoveries has so dramatically improved the lives of modern and postmodern people that claims about the method have pervaded virtually all aspects of our lives. While almost no one discounts the usefulness of the method, the spillover of rational thinking into other aspects of life helped accelerate exploration of limits to its usefulness.

In its simplest exposition, the scientific method consists of series of steps in analytical thinking:

  1. Problem definition
  2. Observation
  3. Analysis
  4. Decision

In the problem definition step, the researcher forms an hypothesis. The researcher then proceeds to collect observations about this hypothesis in the second step. In the third step, the researcher analyzes these observations in view of other discoveries. In the final step, the researcher decides whether to accept or reject the hypothesis.

The flexibility of the scientific method to be applied to many aspects of the physical world accounts for its enormous usefulness. As researchers make new discoveries, they publish their finding so that other researchers can replicate their results. Thus, over time the knowledge of the physical world grows and is decimated throughout the scientific community and applied to practical applications in agriculture, industry, and medicine.

For many years, people believed that using the scientific method did not involve philosophical prejudices, but simply revealed facts about our world. This belief, however, came increasingly under scrutiny as researchers began to apply the scientific method especially in the social sciences. Scrutiny gave way to outcry during the Second World War as people learned of German scientists performing inhuman experiments on prisoners in concentration camps, such as learning the minimum nutritional requirements to prevent starvation, cold water survival rates, and so on. It soon became more widely understood that which problems came into focus in research involved serious philosophical and theological presumptions that had previously not gotten much attention.

One particularly important presupposition in the modern period and in the scientific method had to do with the nature of truth. Arising out of the Christian worldview came the assumption that one objective truth exists which, if we take the time to research, we can discover. This assumption is reasonable in the physical sciences; it is less tenable in the realm of social science, where cultural assumptions often dictate how particular activities are judged. For example, we can all agree on the weight of a particular bucket of sand, but we may not agree on whether to eat pork or whether it is acceptable to charge interest on a loan.

The existence of objective truth may sound like a trivial issue, but it becomes important in determining the status of professionals, such as scientists, doctors, lawyer, economists, and even pastors. If one objective truth exists, then it makes sense to consult the professional responsible for that subject matter. If truth is socially defined as is often argued in the postmodern period, then it is less clear which professional is most appropriate or whether a professional is even needed. In the church, for example, who is most suitable to preach and teach the Bible in which translation and with how much training? The answer to these questions are hotly debated within the church, in part, because we have come to doubt the nature and importance of objective truth.

Why do we care?

In the postmodern world that we live in, rational learning and decision making is still important, but the cynicism surrounding rationality is everywhere to be seen and it affects our attitude about anyone in authority. Prior to the modern period, authority stemmed primarily from wealth and political power in secular society and the church’s authority stemmed from reverence for God. In the modern period in America, authority still stemmed from wealth and political power, but this authority was increasingly tempered by the knowledge-based power of professionals and respect for God waned as rational thinking led many to question God’s existence. In the postmodern period, respect for both God and professionals has waned leading to the rise of authority based primarily on wealth and political power. In effect, if objective truth and God do not exist in people’s minds, then my truth and my group’s truth take center stage.

A second important result of this lack of belief in objective truth is that it undermines, not only professionals, but also respect for democratic and judicial process. On a theoretical level, if objective truth exists, then through debate and argumentation we come closer to understanding this truth, which is embodied in both our democratic and legal systems. If no objective truth is believed to exist, then debate and argumentation are simply a power play that does not enhance the credibility of the decision reached.

Therefore, the losing parties in debate or legal process have no inherent reason to accept the outcome of the process. This is why we observe so many sore losers on the evening news today that previously did not seem even to exist in popular culture. The postmodern rhetoric about the lack of debate in the modern period attributing the peace to an overwhelming majority of Americans being simply white is a half-truth, not the whole truth. Everyone believed in the American system, even when not everyone benefited equally. This why people still prefer to jump over the fence to come to America from other places. One seldom hears of people escaping to join most other, non-western destinations—it is not entirely about the differences in wealth.

While the modern period is clearly over, the challenges and risks that we face remain poorly understood without understanding the role played by the scientific method and objective truth in the world that we continue to live in.


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Augustine’s Confessions, Part 1—Overview

Foley, Michael P. [editor] 2006. Augustine Confessions (Orig Pub 397 AD). 2nd Edition. Translated by F. J. Sheed (1942). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
(Goto Part 2; Goto Part 3; Goto Part 4)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the late seventies as I worked on a master’s degree in agricultural economics, my best friend, who had just entered seminary, encouraged me to undertake study of classics in the faith and early on I read Augustine’s (1978) Confessions. The Confessions proved to be a challenging read both because of my lack of seminary training and because of the old English translation. When I undertook this year to write my own memoir, my friend encouraged me to return to the Confessions both because the Confessions provided a template for all memoirs to follow and because this time I also had seminary training.

Convinced of the wisdom to return to the Confessions, I sought a more modern translation that would be easier to read and, to my delight, found a translation by E.J. Sheed with an introduction by Augustinian biographer, Peter Brown. Brown (2000) is revered as one of the leading Augustinian biographers of our time and I had used his biography during my days in seminary.

I break this review up into four parts. In the first part, I give an overview of the Confessions and why we are interested. In the second part, I review the life of Augustine and sin, as he describes it. In the third part, I will focus on Augustine’s coming to faith. And, in the fourth part, I will review his theological writings, which focus on the creation accounts in Genesis.

 Background on Augustine

For those unfamiliar with church history, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD)[1], which was in modern-day Algeria, lived right after the time of Emperor Constantine the Great (272-337 AD)[2] who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Bishop Ambrose baptized Augustine who had such contemporaries as Jerome, who translated the Bible in Latin. The fourth century posed a heady time for the Christian church and Augustine’s theology influenced much of what followed. For example, Martin Luther (1483-1546), a leader in the reformation more than a thousand years later, was an Augustinian monk (Bainton 1995, 25).

Of contemporary significance is the point that Augustine hailed from Africa where some of the best theology and early Bible manuscripts were copied.[3] African scholarship dominated the early church and this dominance continued until the Islamic invasion in the sixth century, following the life and work of Mohammad (570-632 AD).[4] The statement that Christianity is a “white man’s religion” (widely touted in developing countries) is not historically accurate and denigrates the significant contribution of African scholarship to the early church.

 What Are the Confessions?

Augustine came to Christ as an adult. In his introduction, Peter Brown writes:

“On Easter day, April 24th, 387, he [Augustine] had ‘put on Christ’ by receiving baptism at the hands of Ambrose.” (xv)

Shortly before the death of his mother, Monica, who was a devout Catholic, later that year. Augustine supported himself teaching rhetoric, was heavily influenced by the writings of Plato, and wrote the Confessions to be read aloud. Each of the thirteen books could be read in about an hour’s time (xvi-xviii). Brown writes:

“For, as Catholic bishop, Augustine did not simply know ‘about’ the Bible, or preach ‘on’ the Bible. He prayed out of it every day, using especially the book of Psalms, which he believed to be the direct, personal prayers of King David, and so the model of all Christan, as they had been of all Jewish, prayer.” (xvii-xviii)

The influence of the Bible on the confessions is obvious to any reader because Augustine frequently begins a particular section in prayer and cites scripture throughout, allusions to which the editor has conveniently footnoted.

Less obvious to the reader is the definition that Augustine used for confession. As noted by the editor’s glossary, for Augustine confession could be:

  1. a profession of faith,
  2. praise of God, or
  3. an act of penance (self-accusation).

Today, we primarily assume the last definition (329).

In his book, Confessions, Augustine of Hippo describes his life before and after converting to Christianity as an adult. Augustine shamelessly lays out the sins of his life, saying:

“Let the mind of my brethren love that in me which You teach to be worthy of love, and grieve for that in me which You teach to be worthy of grief.” (191)

I take this statement to mean that Augustine proposes to be frankly forthright in confession so that he can be an example to others. Is it any wonder that people trusted him and followed him into the monastic life? Having read the Confessions as a young man, I truly believe that they helped lead me to live ascetic lifestyle, even after it was no longer a financial necessity. I commend the Confessions to anyone who wishes to deepen their faith in Jesus Christ.


Augustine. 1978. Confessions (Orig Pub 397 AD). Translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin. New York: Penguin Books.

Bainton, Roland H. 1995. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Meridan Book.

Brown, Peter. 2000. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Orig pub 1967). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Metzger, Bruce M. and Bart D. Ehrman. 2005. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. New York: Oxford University Press.



[3] Before mechanical printing, manuscripts had to be copied by hand and copyist sometimes “corrected” texts as they reproduced them. African scholars, centered in Alexandria, were much more careful in copying manuscripts than others, including their European rivals (Metzer and Ehrman 2005, 278).



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Prayer for Relief

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Almighty father,

All praise be yours for you are holy, set apart, and righteous

and you have created us in your image,

with the potential to do great things in your name.

We confess that we do not desire to be called Christians,

for we have tarnished your image,

and remain unholy, polluted by the world, and unrighteous.

Yet, we give thanks for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,

and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We ask for strength to resist the besetting weaknesses and sins

that rob our prayers of power and limit the fruit of our ministry.

Guard our hearts and minds in Jesus Christ

that we might run the good race and be victorious in this life

through Jesus Christ in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.


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Analysis versus Synthesis

It is common for people to say that they plan to analyze an issue, but what do they really mean? Suppose your professor asks you to analyze an author’s point of view and review his book. Typically, an analysis involves breaking a big idea into the smaller ideas that together compose the big idea.

For example, a book about the history of the United States might be composed of sections describing the period before colonization, the period of colonization, the revolutionary war period, the presidency of George Washington, and so on. The analysis focuses on American history, but the details break that history up into manageable time periods and special events. In fact, one might say that American history is a synthesis of these smaller units that help to explain what it means to be a country called the United States.

Notice that a synthesis is used to compose an aggregation of these parts while an analysis takes the whole and breaks it up into the parts. It is fair, for example, to describe the Bible as a synthesis of the historical revelation of God to humankind. The best minds of the church undertook this synthesis historically and continue even now to affirm the special character of the books chosen. This is why the Apostle Paul could write to Timothy:

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17 ESV).

Another example of synthesis in our faith walk arises when we employ an ACTS prayer. The first part (A) of the prayer is adoration (or praise). We adore God for his mercy, compassion, patience, love, and truthfulness (Exod 34:6), attributes rare in the world, but which characterize God. Having praised God, in the second part (C) we confess that we are sinful and cannot enter God’s presence, except for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Confession marks us as believers in Christ—an insight gained from analysis of the three verses in Romans 10:8-10.[1] Having praised God and confessed our sins, we then move into the third part (T) where we thank God for the many blessings of this life. Then, in the final part (S), we supplicate—an old-fashioned word for ask—God for his help in our lives. In effect, our synthesis in an ACTS prayer is a short statement of our personal theology.

It is helpful to distinguish analysis from synthesis because both are useful, but in different ways, in organizing and presenting our thoughts clearly. For example, a sermon is typically a synthesis composed by the pastor, for example, while the listener is engaged in more of an analysis of what is being said. If the pastor rambles a few observations about a particular passage of scripture without preparation,[2] then the congregation may find the observations interesting but not be able to draw any serious conclusions, even if they take notes. By contrast, the same observations preceded by an introduction with a statement of premise, separated by restatement of premise, and followed by a conclusion repeating the premise may be understood by everyone in the room.[3]

David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons recently underscored the importance of clarity in church preaching and teaching. They write:

“Many Christians worry about secularism taking over, but secularism shouldn’t be our greatest concern. In other words, secularism’s advance is downstream from anemic Bible engagement and thin theological thinking.” (Kinnaman and Lyons 2016, 227).

Because of the Internet, original documents from the time of the Bible and the early church have never been more widely available and the number of competent researchers and pastors has likewise never been greater. So why are so many Christians having trouble applying their faith in everyday situations? Part of the answer is that we need to take ourselves more seriously as researchers and pastors, and communicate our faith clearly.


Kinnaman, David and Gabe Lyons. 2016. Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Robinson, Haddon W. 2001. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Sedniew, Andreii. 2013. Magic of Impromptu Speaking: Create a Speech that Will Be Remembered for Years in Under 30 Seconds. Santa Clara: Andreii Sedniev.

[1] “But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Rom 10:8-10 ESV)

[2] In an impromptu speech, you talk about one idea for a couple minutes, transition to a second idea, then transition to a series of other ideas. Transitions are hugely important to bringing your audience along with you. One way to transition is a synthesis (this idea is a part of a larger class of ideas, as in cups to dishes) or an analysis (this idea can be broken into subclasses of ideas, as in cups to tea cups), which Sedniev calls linguistic pyramids. Another way to transition is to use associations, as in a table and a donkey are similar in that they both have four legs (Sedniev 2013, 32-35).

[3] This is a brief overview of “big idea” preaching as articulated by Haddon Robinson (2001, 33-46).


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Jonathan Edwards’ Most Famous Publication

Jonathan Edwards. 20016. The Life and Diary of David Brainerd (Orig Pub 1749). Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In February 2008, I read a biography by John Piper which focused on the lives of three saints whose affliction bore fruit for the Lord. Having known affliction in my family life—my wife had two rounds of breast cancer, my son is a kidney transplant, and so on—this book sparked my interest. Of particular interest was the story of David Brainerd, who suffered greatly in life—losing both parents at a young age, chronically despondent, and infected with tuberculosis most of his adult life—yet persisted in ministering to the Indians of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware until his untimely death at the age of 29.

Writing about Brainerd’s diary, Piper (2001, 131-132) writes:

“why has this book never been out of print [since 1749]? Why did John Wesley say, ‘Let every preacher read carefully over the Life of David Brainerd’? Why was it written of Henry Martyn (missionary to India and Persia) that ‘perusing the life of David Brainerd, his soul was filled with a holy emulation of that extraordinary man; and after deep consideration and fervent prayer, he was at length fixed in a resolution to imitate his example? Why did William Carey regard Edward’s Life of Brainerd as precious and holy? Why did Robert Morrison and Robert McCheyne of Scotland and John Mills of American and Fredrick Schwartz of Germany and David Livingstone of England and Andrew Murray of South Africa and Jim Elliot of twentieth-century America look upon Brainerd with a kind of awe and draw power from him as countless others?”

This biography proved irresistible to me and I ordered a copy of Edward’s The Life and Diary of David Brainerd, which became the core of my personal devotions as I entered seminary in August 2008.

It is easy to get caught up in Brainerd’s life story. As a third-year ministry student at Yale, Brainerd made an uncomplimentary statement about one of his tutors, a Mr. Whittelsey, saying: “He has no more grace than this chair” (28) in a private conversation, which was overheard and reported to the faculty. The faculty expelled him; the presbytery appealed his expulsion, but Yale did not back down. Concern about Brainerd’s case led the presbytery to establish a new school, which became Princeton University which later spun off Princeton Theological Seminary in 1812.[1]

But Brainerd’s influence did not depend on Princeton, which was founded after his death. Because of his expulsion from Yale University, Brainerd could not be ordained as a pastor and he was commissioned as a missionary to the Indians, in spite of suffering from tuberculosis. His illness left him chronically weak, depressed, and frequently spitting up blood. Yet, he ministered from horseback preaching multiple times a day and even lived among the Indians enjoying a fruitful ministry to within months of his death.

What is most striking about his diary is the depth of his personal piety—he constantly praises God, contemplates scripture, fasts, and prays. For example, on Saturday February 19, 1743, he writes:

“Was exceeding infirm today, greatly troubled with pain in my head and dizziness, scarce able to sit up. However, enjoyed something of God in prayer, and performed some necessary studies. I exceedingly long to die; and yet, through divine goodness, have felt very willing to live, for two or three days past.” (72)

Brainerd actually lived another four years (1718-1747).

Brainerd’s work among the Indians did not go unnoticed by local businessmen. On Monday, February 3, 1746, he writes about being accused of a “popish plot” for:

“[vindicating] the rights of the Indians, and complaining of the horrid practice of making the Indians drunk, and then cheating them out of their lands and other properties” (184)

He personally raised funds to hire a teacher to help the Indians learn English, which would allow them also to read the Bible for themselves. Absent this skill, they could be cheated by local businessmen and depended wholly on preaching and the teaching of catechisms (328) to learn about the Gospel.

Another technique for teaching, which is mentioned mostly in passing, is the use of what Brainerd refers to as “ejaculatory prayer” (74), which is a short prayer, like the Jesus Prayer, designed to be repeated as a form of meditation.[2] He later cites a prayer of one of his Indian converts:

“I hearkened to know what she [an Indian woman] said, and perceived the burden of her prayer to be, Guttummaukalummeh wechaumeh kmeleh Ndah, i.e. ‘Have mercy on me, and help me to give you my heart.’” (284)

In my own ministry, I was introduced to ejaculatory prayer by a Roman Catholic Sister who encouraged psychiatric patients engaging in negative self-talk to substitute the Jesus prayer to break the despondency created by their own rumination. In Brainerd’s ministry, he used such prayers to focus his converts on Christ and to bring them to faith in spite not having access to scripture in their own language.

One of the more fascinating stories that Brainerd recounts is his visit with a local shaman among the Indians. Brainerd describes him as a devout and zealous reformer who tried to help his community resist the temptation of alcohol through a frightful costume and prodigious dancing (300-301).

Jonathan Edwards edited David Brainerd’s diary and published it two years after Brainerd died under the care of Edwards’ daughter, who later also died of tuberculosis. The diary was Edwards’ most popular publication, which seems odd because Edwards is often described as America’s most influential theologian and was better known himself for his role in the Great Awakening.

If you liked this review, you will love the diary of David Brainerd.


Piper, John. 2001. The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd. Wheaton: Crossway Books.


[2] “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (


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Prayer to Increase Faith

Oak Tree in Oakton, Virginia

Prayer to Increase Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Almighty Father,

I praise you for the gift of another day,

let the newest of the day (Isa 43:1) be expressed in new faith.

I confess that I have to  frequently blocked your access to my heart

in despair, in self-pity, and in cynicism not worthy of your love.

Thank you for not giving up on me (Eze 37).

In the power of your Holy Spirit,

give me instead a stronger, more vibrant faith (2 Cor 4:8-9),

where I am able to make you Lord over increasing parts of my life (Acts 4:36-37)

and drain the despair, self-pity, and cynicism by laying my griefs at your feet (Ps 31:9-14).

In Jesus’ name, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2), Amen.


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Rational Learning

“Behold, I have set before you an open door,
which no one is able to shut. I know that you
have but little power, and yet you have kept
my word and have not denied my name.”
(Rev 3:8 ESV)

Earlier in my preface, I argued that the act of knowing brings us closer to a holy God because holy means both sacred and set apart. Rational thinking sets us apart from the object of our reflection just like God was set apart from his creation, not part of it. Yet, knowledge is also at the heart of sin, as we learn in Genesis 3 when Satan tempts Eve. Scripture praises knowledge when its object is God, but cautions us when it leads to pride.[1] So we should take the attitude of the Apostle Paul vigorously defending the faith and pointing people to God (2 Cor 10:5-6).

So what is rational thinking?

The word, rational, implies that a conclusion comports with reason or logic. Rational thinking is thinking logically while thinking has to do with the work of the mind. Using logic and experience to judge rightly. In this context, rational thinking starts with making reasonable comparisons and associations.

Rational thinking benefits directly from logic, such as mathematics and mathematical relationships. We might argue, for example, that 1+1 = 2 which simply states that adding one to one makes two. Alternatively, we might argue that 1+1+1 > 2 which says that one plus one plus one is greater than two. Simple comparisons, like these two equations, make rational thinking extremely powerful in ordering our thinking and quickly admit substantial complexity.

Rational learning, which is based on comparisons, differs from behavioral learning because we need to stand back from simple responses to stimuli. For example, suppose I am a high school student trying to decide whether to take a full-time job or to enroll in college. From a behavioral learning perspective, the job provides an immediate benefit while college enrollment requires an immediate expense for tuition and living expenses so the obvious decision is to take the job. From a rational learning perspective, the lifetime earnings in the job may be only a small fraction of the lifetime earnings after completing a college degree, even accounting for costs involved so the decision likely is to enroll in college. While both alternatives involve uncertain outcomes, the behavior learning model focuses on short-term costs and benefits, while the rational learning model employs more information than simply immediate costs and benefits.

From a faith perspective, how we learn clearly affects our attitude about our faith, especially when it comes to future events. Think about our attitude about children. When our children are young, they require a lot of expense and attention. Even if they care for you in your senior years, such benefits are far into the future. Considering only the short-term costs and benefits, the behavior learning model suggests that having children is only a present cost, while the rational learning model weighs the current costs against future benefits. The calculation applies to living out our faith today in view of our future life in Christ. The sacrifice of praise on Sunday and of living a moral life the rest of the week has both present and future benefits, but only a rational evaluation sees beyond the sacrifice. Trust in God’s goodness and provision for our needs is also required

If blind response to stimulation leaves the exclusively behavioral learner at risk of addiction and of missing out of benefits preceded by costs, the exclusively rational learner falls prey to analysis paralysis. The rational learner patiently considers all available options, comparing costs and benefits. We all know Christians who get stuck evaluating all their options in life decisions and spend more time studying their faith than living it out. Coming to closure on decisions is frequently a problem for those specialized in rational decision making.

How do we come to closure on decisions? When should options be limited and a decision made?

In my experience, this is an opportunity to pray for God’s guidance. Where the behavioral decision maker needs to focus on developing patience in decision making, the rational decision maker needs to pray for guidance to be satisfied with the doors that God has already placed in front of them.[2]


Ortberg, John . 2015. All the Places to Go—How Will You Know? God has Placed Before You an Open Door: What Will You Do? Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

[1] Compare, for example, (Prov 1:7; Isa 11:1; 2 Cor 4:6; Phil 1:9) with (1 Cor 8).

[2] John Ortberg (2015, 257) sees the opened door is a fitting metaphor for how God invites us to step out in faith and service rather than having us wait for confirmation and comfort. He writes (10): “It’s an open door. To find out what’s on the other side, you’ll have to go through.” This opened door invitation always appears riskier than it really is because of who offers the invitation and for what purpose. The purpose that Ortberg sees is intensely interesting: “God’s primary will for your life is not the achievements you accrue; it’s the person you become.” (15). As God tells Abram: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3; 9, 35). In offering such blessings, God invites us to decide which doors to go through as part of our sanctification (16) and our decisions form our character and mold our identity (8).


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Sedniev Teaches Improv to Speakers

Andreii Sedniew.[1] 2013. Magic of Impromptu Speaking: Create a Speech that Will Be Remembered for Years in Under 30 Seconds. Santa Clara: Andreii Sedniev.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Confession time. Analysis paralysis is my default setting. I write out my sermons and generally over-prepare for presentations. As I tell my colleagues, I don’t do spontaneous. When I notice Andrii Sedniev’s book, Magic of Impromptu Speaking, I knew that I needed a copy.

In his book, Sedniev presents a how-to guide on extemporaneous (or improvisational) speaking. He writes:

“During the last 10 years, I collected tips, techniques, and strategies that can dramatically raise the level of any speaker in impromptu speaking. My goal was to create the most comprehensive system, which will make anyone a world class impromptu speaker within a very short time. The Magic of Impromptu Speaking system was based on the analysis of thousands of impromptu speaking contests, interviews, debates, and Q&A sessions.” (3)

The book is deceptively short (100 pages) and Sedniev writes in a breezy, conversational style organized into 28 chapters. Sedniev is a speaking coach from the Ukraine trained as an MBA.

For Sedniev, an impromptu speech is a talk one to three minutes long (64; and no more than five minutes long) that one cannot prepare for in advance. A job interview question or a party invitation to speak are examples of impromptu speeches (7).

A key starting point in successful impromptu speaking for Sedniev comes from his training in karate: “Think about the impromptu speech as a game.” (10). Attitude matters because time is short. There is no time to think analytically about the talk. He describes impromptu speaking as drawing primarily on right brain (subconscious mind) not left brain (conscious mind) processing (16)—this is the magic part of his system. Therefore, Sedniev advises the speaker to hold two beliefs: “I will definitely answer the question and I will not always have a stellar answer” (17).

Understanding the above paragraph is important in processing Sedniev’s method. Think of the basketball player’s mindset. If you are standing under the basket and your teammate throws the ball, there is not time to thinking about what to do—you reflexively take the shot. That reflex becomes automatic, but only after many hours of practice and training with your team. This is what Sedniev is saying when he talks about right brain thinking. Later in the book, Sedniev talks about the need to practice and mentions, for example, that he joined seven toastmaster’s clubs and offers visualization (a Zen Buddhist technique) as a technique to enhance speaking performance (75, 82).

In my own experience, for years I advised young professionals to practice taking job interviews, even when the job is not a perfect fit, so that when the dream job comes along you will understand the process and can interview well. Sedniev’s method provides a more focused way to get this practice without the stress and need to dress up.

Once you understand Sedniev’s basic approach, he provides advice on structuring your talk and handling the particular problems that come up in extemporaneous speaking.

Several elements are critical in structuring an impromptu talk, which Sedniev outlines as rules of thumb in speaking:

  • Going back the right brain, reflexive response idea, he writes: “Once you hear a question, begin answering it based on the first idea that pops up in your head.” (21)
  • “The best time for thinking is while you are talking because it is not limited.” (23) By limited, Sedniev means that it is not limited like the problem of remaining silent until an idea pops up and makes analytical sense.
  • When someone asks a question, you have several choices to make in responding. You can answer the question directly, answer in part, transition to another topic, refuse comment, or answer later (28). You can also pick a word from the question to focus on, seek clarification, or redefine the question (30-31).
  • In an impromptu speech, you talk about one idea for a couple minutes, transition to a second idea, then transition to a series of other ideas. Transitions are hugely important to bringing your audience along with you. One way to transition is a synthesis (this idea is a part of a larger class of ideas, as in cups to dishes) or an analysis (this idea can be broken into subclasses of ideas, as in cups to tea cups), which Sedniev calls linguistic pyramids (32-33). Another way to transition is to use associations, as in a table and a donkey are similar in that they both have four legs (34-35).
  • An impromptu speech is still a speech, having three parts: an opening, a body, and a closing (36-38).
  • Impromptu speeches generally have three basic frameworks. You can tell a story, a PEEP (point, explanation, example, and reiteration of point), and a PAB (position, action, and benefit) (40-45).

 The PAB is an approach often used in a business context to propose a solution to a problem, an action that needs to be taken, and a benefit likely to result.

Sedniev sees four levels of proficiency in impromptu speaking. At the first level, you acquire the ability to talk for two minutes about an random topic without discomfort. At the second level, you add an introduction, body, and conclusion to your two minute talk. At the third level, you begin to pay attention the audience, gesturing, using dramatic pauses, establishing eye contact, and vary your voice. At the fourth level, you mix things up—using slant—a bit to make your talk more interesting (69-71).

Andreii Sedniew’s book, Magic of Impromptu Speaking, is a helpful and interesting book focused on extemporaneous presentations. For people unaccustomed to speaking on short notice on random topics, like myself, this book fills a unique void in the speaking literature. In my case, I must have twenty books on preaching and speaking, but none address the question of improvisational speaking. Seminary students, pastors, business leaders, and politicians may all find this book beneficial.


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Prayer for Strength

Holy Father,

I praise you for creating me.

For giving me life and health and all the many blessings of family.

I confess that I have not always used time wisely and not always made the best lifestyle choices.

Thank you for another day–I have learned not to take them for granted.

The gift of time is precious to me; help me to make good use of it.

and, above all, to be a faithful steward of it.

Thank you for good health–I have learned not to it for granted.

The gift of health is a prerequisite for everything else that I do;

help me not to abuse it.

In the power of your Holy Spirit, I ask for strength.

Strength to make good choices.

Strength to be a witness, a good father, and a loving spouse.

Strength just to deal with all the many challenges of this life.

Strength like an oak that grows straight and tall and sturdy.

Strength in Jesus’ name, for “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:13 ESV)



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Behavioral Learning

In my earlier discussion of perceptions (click here), I argued that we learn to respond behaviorally a long time before any rational decisions are made. Behavioral learning starts with a simple idea: do more of activities that bring pleasure and do less of activities that bring pain. By contrast, rational learning starts with making comparisons: activity A brought more pleasure than activity B so let’s do more of activity A. Such comparison require pattern recognition and memory not required in behavioral learning. Success in implementing rational learning also requires patience.

This simple distinction between behavioral and rational learning lies at the heart of many ethical controversies, because behavioral learning can lead to logical traps. For example, the fish that grabs every tasty worm is likely to end up the fisherman’s dinner. In a study of such traps, Cross and Guyer (1980, 3-4) write:

“The central thesis of this book is that a wide variety of recognized social problems can be regarded from a third view [Not stupidity; not corruption]. Drug use, air pollution, and international conflict are all instances of what we have called ‘social traps’. Put simply, a social trap is a situation characterized by multiple but conflicting rewards. Just as an ordinary trap entices its prey with the offer of an attractive bait and then punishes it by capture…’social traps’ draw their victims into certain patterns of behavior with promises of immediate rewards and then confront them with [longer term] consequences that the victim would rather avoid.”

Following this line of thinking, the existence of conflicting patterns of rewards and punishments create ethical dilemmas in decisions focusing exclusively on behavioral responses.

For example, the example of short-term benefits followed by long-term costs arises in the case of smoking. The pleasure of smoking a cigarette poses no immediate health risk, while a lifetime of smoking can lead to cancer and early death. In the case of smoking, the short pleasure of cigarettes leads one into a pattern of addiction that would not be chosen, if the entire pattern came into view at the outset. Smoking therefore poses an ethical dilemma because hypothetical future costs must be compared with tangible present benefits, which poses a problem for many people.

A counter example arises when short-term costs are followed by long-term benefits. The classical example is the student who hates to study (a short-term cost) and drops out of school losing a lifetime of additional income. Investment decisions more generally have the characteristic of a short-term cost followed by a long-term benefit.

In both examples, smoking and education, conflicts in patterns of short-term and long-term costs and benefits lead those specialized in behavioral learning into ethical dilemmas that cannot be avoided without considering the entire sequence of costs and benefits. The need to study and learn patterns of costs and benefits involving ethical dilemmas provide the inherent motivation for most ethical teaching and for avoiding an exclusive reliance on behavioral learning.

While trap avoidance motivates ethical teaching, teaching self-discipline (a kind of rational learning) has its own benefits. In the early 1960s, Walter Mischel ran an experiment with pre-schoolers (4 year olds) focused on delayed gratification. The children were given a choice: eat one marshmallow now or, if you wait about twenty minutes, you can have two. Mischel then tracked the performance of the children over time, reporting:

“The more seconds they waited at age four or five, the higher their SAT scores and the better their rated social and cognitive functioning in adolescence. At age 27-32, those who had waited longer during the Marshmallow Test in preschool had a lower body mass index and a better sense of self-worth, pursued their goals more effectively, and coped adaptively with frustration and stress.” (Mischel 2014, 4-5).

In other words, self-discipline is at the heart of achievement as we know it (and predictable even in preschool) and impulsive (behavioral) responses lead to under-achievement. The good news in Mischel’s research concerned how self-discipline could be taught, thereby avoiding a lifetime of under-achievement.

If self-discipline is important in worldly success, then why do so many people continue to live a hedonistic lifestyle, pursuing only happiness and pleasure? The short answer is that we become addicted to dysfunctional behaviors much like we get addicted to cigarettes—knowledge about the likelihood of cancer and an early death is normally insufficient to giving up cigarettes. Worse, industries have profited and grown from encouraging people to indulge their addictions—why else would bootleggers and drug dealers be so popular?

The Good News is that Christ died for our sins so that we don’t have to.


Cross,John G. and Melvin J. Guyer. 1980. Social Traps. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Mischel, Walter. 2014. The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. New York: Little, Brown and Company.


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