Friday 7 July 2006

The myth of expository preaching

An interesting post on the myth of expository preaching has generated some valuable discussion at Rhettsmith, Awakening, and many other blogs.

I think this is a topic well worth discussing. I myself appreciate good expository preaching, but I have also seen expository preaching carried out as a kind of joyless textual legalism. And, of course, in many cases a line-by-line exposition of a biblical passage (e.g. of a narrative or a parable) is actually unfaithful to the character of the text itself. One can hardly communicate a parable by breaking it down into separate lines or verses—rather, one can communicate a parable only by evoking it as a whole, in such a way that the original language-event takes place again in the present. (In the same way, one communicates a joke not by expounding it, but by re-telling it).

So I think the problem with any single preaching “model” is not only that it will tend towards a narrow legalism, but also that it will fail to do justice to the diversity of Scripture itself.

And this immediately raises the (far more important) material problem: The purpose of preaching is not to proclaim the Bible, but to proclaim the gospel—or rather, to proclaim Jesus Christ himself as Lord. Expository preaching is an excellent thing if it brings Jesus Christ into the foreground and witnesses to him; but such preaching has failed completely whenever the text itself is made the object of attention, whenever the text rather than Jesus Christ is brought into the foreground.

In the privacy of her own study, of course, the preacher must engage as deeply as possible with the text. But she does so not in order to speak about the text, but in order to communicate the reality to which the text bears witness.


Guy Davies said...

Hi Ben,

I appreciate your point that expository preaching can be done badly. All methods of preaching are open to abuse. But expository preaching takes the form of Scripture seriously by recognising that the Bible is not a rag bag of odd texts, but comprises of letters, gospels, histories, prophecies etc.

I disagree with your rather Barthian statement that,

"The purpose of preaching is not to proclaim the Bible, but to proclaim the gospel—or rather, to proclaim Jesus Christ himself as Lord".

I would sat that we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord by proclaiming the Bible. At least, when we proclaim the Bible properly!

As Vanhoozer writes,

"The Bible - not only the Gospels but all of Scripture - is the (divinely) authorised version of the gospel, the necessary framework for understanding what God was doing in Jesus Christ. Scripture is the voice of God that articulates the Word of God: Jesus Christ". Drama p. 46.

I agree that it can be unhelpful to focus too narrowly on one or two verses in a passage, so that the message, say, of a parable is lost in the detail of our exoposition.

Although I am a great admirier of Lloyd-Jones' preaching, he is not a good role model for most preachers to immitate. Not many of have the preaching gifts to enable us to preach through Romans and Ephesians almost verse-by-verse. We would need to take larger units of text. It is often forgoten the Ll-J often preached shorter series and also "one off" sermons on Sunday evenings, when he would expound a parable, a Psalm or a narrative passage evangelistically.

Expository preaching is not about giving a running commentary on a passage of Scripture. It is expository preaching - the proclamation of the biblical Gospel concering what God has done in Christ to reconcile the world to himself.

::aaron g:: said...

I agree that just because it is expository preaching doesn't necessarily make it good preaching. Word studies can stifle the life the words are meant to bear witness to.

However, I’m not sure I concur that the sermon must witness to Jesus. I’ve heard so many sermons that try to force the obligatory Jesus twist onto any text (especially the Hebrew texts) that have nothing to do with him (eg Isa. 9.6). Similarly there are passages that are more humanistic than God-centred (eg. Ruth, parts of Ecclesiasts, parts of Proverbs, etc). But perhaps I’m misunderstanding your point?

By the way...this week I’m enjoying the much sunnier weather of your old stomping grounds!

Anonymous said...

Hi Guy.

Ben's statement is hardly - or at least it is not exclusively - Barthian. Indeed the distinction between the Gospel and the Bible was fundamental to all the magisterial Reformers, though especially to Luther (usually, of course, in the form of the distinction between Gospel and Law). I think Ernst Käsemann is the more acute commentator than Vanhoozer on this one:

"Not everything that is in the Bible is God's Word. In the last resort the contemporary controversy is about the truth or falsehood of this proposition. . . For a faith orientated in this way is, in my opinion, and, as I believe, in the view of the Reformers, superstition. But to separate faith from superstition is the primary business of the theologian. It is not the covers of a book which authenticate revelation. God may take up his dwelling between the covers of a book. . . The experience of the Church bears witness to this. But he does not remain so imprisoned therein that it is possible for us to possess him and manipulate him like an object. He himself bears witness to us of this when he does not on every occasion speak to us out of this book, nor out of all its pages, nor always out of the same pages. . . and thus we do not, like the Moslem [sic], believe in a book even if that book is the Bible. . . He will therefore be heard as being himself the measure of the Bible: which is to say that the Bible has, and preserves, its authority from the Gospel, and is, for the rest, only one religious document among others."

Even more strongly: "Those who hold the canon [i.e. the Bible] to be without error of any kind, perfectly evangelical, inspired in whole and parts alike, have a docetic understanding of it; this will necessarily lead to a docetic understanding of Jesus; and then, like all Docetists, they will no longer comprehend the Cross, they will make faith into intellectual assent and the Church, which is admittedly now becoming restricted to the pious, into the flock of the blessed."

(From "Thoughts on the Present Controversy about Scriptural Interpretation", in New Testament Questions Today (1969).)

Guy Davies said...

Hi Kim,

I'm sticking with Vanhoozer on this one. I'm certainly no Docetic. I believe in the full humanity of Christ. Unless he was truly human, he could not save other human beings. What is not assumed is not saved.

I very much appreciate the humanity of Scripture. But just as Christ's humanity was kept free from sin, so the Spirit of God kept the human authors of Scripture free from error.

No doubt Docetics cannot really understand the cross. But I hope I have some grasp of the wonder of the Son of God loving me and giving himself for me. See my post:

Did Jesus know that he was God?

I don't regard faith as mere intellectual assent either. That is Sandemanianism. Faith is self-despairing trust in Christ crucified and risen. As Joseph Hart put it, "True religion's more than a notion, something must be known and felt."

In my opinion, Käsemann was wrong to link a high view of Scripture with Docetic Chrisology.

Guy Davies said...

If the link to my "Did Jesus know that he was God?" doesn't work (and it probably doesn't), paste this into your address toolbar instead:

One of Freedom said...

I have to agree with the comment that says it takes a special person to do exegetical preaching well. The movement that the Vineyard emerged from, Calvary Chapel, is known for their exegetical preaching. However, just because the founder of a movement was able to do that well doesn't mean it is "the" pattern. For me there is as much value in the story as there is in the passages. I am wary of focusing too closely on bits of scripture without exposing the context, and seeing as though our community is lectional (yeah we are odd for a Vineyard) I most often preach from a gospel pericope.

The last bit in the post is, I think, the important bit. If anyone is to do expository preaching well they need to be familiar with the scriptures as a narrative, as a historical/cultural piece, as a liturgical text and as a text in which God makes Himself(Herself) known. You study those things not so that you can prove your own brilliance by confusing your congregants. But so that you can present clearly what is going forward in your text as it relates to your community eager to hear what God would speak through the whole liturgy. I would add that most of my prep is really praying my ass off in the face of the text and seeing what God highlights for us as a community.

Bryan L said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bryan L said...

If people want to preach expositorally that's fine, I really don't have a problem with that, but I just have to laugh when I see how much people believe it's the best and the only way to preach. Or when they say it's the only truly Biblical way of preaching. One of my main problems I have with expository preaching is that it's just plain boring. It's rare that I hear an expository sermon that I don't want to fall asleep listening to. And the funny thing is that I hear defenders and teachers of expository preaching say that if someone is preaching expositorally and it's boring then they're doing it wrong (because any time you preach the Word properly it can't help be exciting. or something like that), but when I listen to these teachers and experts on expository preaching they bore me too. Reading all the blogs where expository preaching is big I hear all the time about this or that preacher and how great they are and so I decide to give them a listen. I end up finding them all boring and want to go to sleep when I listen to them. I just find expository preaching boring, and it's not cause it's too deep or too meaty or anything like that, because I love listening to lectures and have like 20+ gigs worth on my computer that I listen to all the time. It's just that expository preaching comes off as a bad mix between lecture and sermon and you get the worst of both worlds instead of the best.
Something else that I find funny is that it seems like the people who really love expository preaching are the preachers/pastors who read the books, attend the conferences and listen to the sermons of the famous preachers/teachers. I don't really see average lay-people (those who don't read a whole lot of books by the famous preachers/teachers and aren't going to their conferences) going around exclaiming how much they love expository preaching, yet they're the ones who are having to listen to it week after week. It just seems like the expository preachers/ teachers are just speaking to the choir, and the ones who are keeping them in business aren't the ones who really need the sermon. It's like they're getting together with a bunch of other like-minded people and deciding what would be the best and most beneficial way of preaching for the others who aren't like them, because they find it to be the best for themselves.
But I do find some good things about expository preaching that I usually don't find with regular sermons. Mainly I feel I can trust that the expository preacher has really done their homework on the passages they use. When I listen to the normal topical sermon I get the feeling that they just looked for verses that would fit what they're saying and they didn't really spend anytime studying them. Generally I feel I can trust the expository preacher a lot more than I can with other types of preachers. So even though I’ll fall asleep listening to the expository preacher, at the same time I’ll often tune the other type of preacher out because I feel they’re just giving me fluff, and haven’t really spent anytime in the word.
Anyway that’s just my opinion.

Guy Davies said...

Brian I,

Maybe you should try to get to bed early on a Saturday night, so you're nice and fresh for Sunday's expository preaching!

David W. Congdon said...

Exiled preacher,

You would really benefit from differentiating between the Bible and God's Word -- the two are not simply identical. God's Word is primarily and centrally Jesus Christ, just as the Gospel is not primarily a genre of literature but rather the kerygma. Once you fall into biblicism, your faith has become faith in a text and not in a Person (or rather a Trinity of persons). The Bible is a human text, albeit inspired, but human nevertheless. It is not dictated from heaven, it is not inerrant or without contradictions. Not every word is scientifically or historically true to reality, as if the Good Book is really the Good Textbook. The Bible is a witness to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Israel and the Church. The Bible is the authoritative witness to God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ, and to the gracious economy of salvation throughout the ages. In the same way, the preacher is a witness and the sermon is, or at least should be, God's word to us. Jesus is God's Word incarnate, the Bible is God's Word written, and the sermon is God's Word spoken. But it all goes back to Christ and to the proclamation of the gospel to which the Bible is the primary witness.

Bryan L said...

Funny Exiled. Actually this isn't the problem at my church. All the expository sermons I'm listening to are from the defenders of it and the supposed greats who've mastered it. No matter how much I want to be into it I just find them terribly boring and they make me want to fall asleep. I guess I could use them on Saturday night to help me get to sleep so that I'll be fresh for Sunday morning service. I wonder if they'll work on my newborn. Thanks for the tip.

Guy Davies said...

Glad to be of help, Bryan

Guy Davies said...

Hi d w congdon,

I am quite able to distinguish between the Bible and Jesus. I worship Jesus as Word who is God and became flesh. I read the Bible as God's authoritative and infallible witness to what God has done in Christ. I don't belive that the Bible died for my sins or that God raised the Bible from the dead. Just to be clear, I don't believe that Jesus as the Word of God is comprised of 66 Bible books.

As you say, Jesus is God's Word incarnate and the Bible is God's Word written. As God's written Word, the Bible entirely reliable and true.

David W. Congdon said...


If you make that distinction, then Ben's comment should become self-evidently true: "The purpose of preaching is not to proclaim the Bible, but to proclaim the gospel—or rather, to proclaim Jesus Christ himself as Lord." This must be the axiom of all preachers, not to expound the Bible as God's Word, but to expound the Bible as the witness to God's Word, Jesus Christ.

Neil, great comment! I wholeheartedly agree with what you've presented. Since the church is indeed constituted by the Spirit and the Spirit alone, preaching begins and ends in prayer. You might say that expository preaching gives the appearance of our mastery over the text rather than God's mastery over us. This, coincidentally, is also why I think inerrancy is one of the heresies of the modern era, along with natural theology, to which it is closely connected.

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