Expository Preaching

There is an interesting discussion on Tim Bulkely’s Sansblogue about preaching. In it, one of the people who has posted comments talks about the need for expository preaching – preaching based on the text – rather than simply using the text selectively to back up personal opinions.

While I agree that it is good to base one’s sermons on a biblical text, I think there are a range of ways of doing this, and some of them are more valid than others. I am reminded of some sermons and talks at Christian conventions that I’ve attended, where the preacher/speaker takes the text serious in minute detail. He (it is always he) takes a few words from the text and expands on them, telling us how important a particular adjective or adverb is to how the text applies to the lives of the audience. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I used to find this fascinating and be quite awestruck by the depth of the speaker’s biblical understanding.

Looking back, though, this kind of speaker was rarely looking at the Greek/Hebrew text for his source, so he was basing his exposition on English synonyms and grammatical structure, which is quite often problematic. In addition, the more I look at oral transmission and the psychological literature on eyewitness testimony, the more convinced I become of the invalidity of this kind of text work. What people remember about an event they’ve witness can be so skewed by a range of factors that attributing some divine importance to one or two particular words is simply not on, unless you subscribe to the “divine secretary” theory of inspiration of Scripture (ie that the writers of the biblical texts simply took dictation from God).

I believe that we need to look at the big picture – the themes that are consistent throughout scripture – not the fine detail, for our understanding about authentic Christian lifestyles. Fine detail analysis of text is essential to ensure that we have the big picture right, but the fine detail analysis needs to be of the texts in their original languages as far as possible, and in the context in which they were written.

However, a day or three ago, Chris Tilling’s Quote for the Day over on Chrisendom was from Andrew Perriman and it reminded me of another problem with expository preaching. Perriman talks about the fact that the Bible is not a modern text and was not written to address modern circumstances and therefore should be strange and irrelevant, not immediately accessible to the modern reader/hearer. I’m not sure that I agree with the “should” but it often is and I think that one of the problems of the person who has grown up with or has extensive experience of Christianity from within the church is that they simply don’t realise just how inaccessible the Bible is to the modern reader without a church background. In your average church service, there simply isn’t the time to spend providing the background to help the congregation understand why you are saying that the big picture is what it is – at least in the churches I attend where people start fidgetting after about 15 minutes and cannot be guaranteed to come week after week so they will get all the parts of a series.

A preacher who is trying to work from the text is therefore left with no option but the “trust me – I’m ordained/have studied theology” line, and generally most members of most congregations do trust the preacher not to be making stuff up from thin air, which is quite a sobering thought, really. I mean, how many “biblical facts” have you believed for years on the basis that some preacher years ago said they were true only to find that they actually are not? Preaching is actually quite scarey if you stop to think about it for too long!

Update: Thanks to Pat McCullough of kata ta biblia for explaining how to get a direct link to the Sansblogue post. 🙂


14 thoughts on “Expository Preaching

  1. Pingback: Akma » Duly Noted

  2. Good thoughts Judy. I heard someone remark once on expository preachers who “expose the text but not the Savior.” On the other hand, there is widespread biblical illiteracy, and it ought to be possible to do both.

    I’m not satisfied with the “trust me, I’m ordained” approach. A good friend of mine who proof reads some of my writings commented, “people like it if you make them feel smarter.” There are two ways of dealing with technical (e.g. linguistic or historical) material. One is basically saying, “You wouldn’t understand it, but . . .”–and making it sound mysterious. People are impressed with a preacher who “explains” things this way, but they end up feeling stupid.

    The other way is to bring them to where you are so they can see what you see. That makes them feel empowered.

    There is a popular American preacher (whom I don’t care for) who impresses his audience by saying things like,

    “Paul uses the definite article ‘ho’ here. The definite article is translated ‘the’ and conveys the concept of the-ness or the-osity. It’s the definite article; there’s nothing indefinite about it. Greek is a much richer language than English. It has 18 different forms of the definite article, compared to English which has only one. So you can see that Greek is much more precise than English. Some of the new modern liberal translations don’t even translate the definite article every time it occurs. I call them indefinite translations. So, now that we’ve explained that, let’s move on to the next word.”

    Preaching has to be focussed on the Gospel and on life. But in the process, it is also possible sometimes to educate the people on the Bible and to help them become better readers of the Bible. I often say, we have to interpret the Bible historically and theologically. Historically means, we have to realize the different world people in the Bible inhabited. Theologically means we have to enter this strange world to see what these ancient people understood about the ways and will of God–the same God who calls us to trust and obey.

  3. Mark, I agree. We have preachers like that here, too. I think there is a place for saying “Greek has different forms for the word ‘you’ which enable us to know that here Jesus was talking just to the woman and here to everyone present, but I don’t think the average congregation member needs to know what the Greek words for ‘you’ are. OTOH, I think it is helpful to know, for example, that the English word ‘evangelical’ comes from the Greek euangelion which means ‘good news’.

    I am not saying that I would never explain background, just that there are times when it would take so long and be so technical that most members of the congregation would wander off well before the preacher has managed to explain why s/he has chosen to ditch the pew bible version of today’s reading in favour of a translation which better reflects the Greek text. I think this is the kind of thing that you do in a bible study group, but here it is very difficult to get enough people to run a bible study group.

  4. I believe Spurgeon, in Commenting and Commentators, even in his day lamented that there was not enough time for proper exposition in the sermon. So, he recommended a very brief (maybe five minute) comment on the Scripture at the time of reading.

    A good congregation of listeners can make a good preacher, but maybe a preacher also has an obligation to educate the congregation on how to listen.

  5. One last thought: I don’t mean to run with this forever; but you have raised an interesting and important issue.

    I think it takes a creative imagination to communicate historical distance properly. Sometimes if you can relate something strange to something familiar, it helps. For example, in talking about women’s hair in 1 Cor 11, I have quoted American Country music, “When she let’s her hair hang down . . .” or referred to scenes in movies where a librarian removes her glasses and lets her hair down . . . to make the point that in the ancient middle east a woman’s hair was sexy–her hair–her sexual beauty is her glory to enjoy with her husband in private–but in church it would be a distraction to the men (and angels) who might be present.

    Of course, as you said in the first post–it’s good to be accurate before you use your historical imagination to embellish the truth.

    Sorry, I’m getting carried away. That reminded me of an experience I had helping an undergraduate student doing research in the library. He asked me about the Greek synonyms for love in John: “Do you love me?” I said, “let’s look it up.” We began with the old ICC commentary, which pointed to a study 50 years prior, that had debunked the idea that philein represented a lesser kind of love than agapan.

    (By the way, I’m at home, not at the library, so I didn’t look it up–some of the details might not be precise; but this is a casual conversation, not a sermon or public presentation.)

    I pointed out that every serious commentary written since the ICC would have referred to it, and would have commented on the point-but preachers who quote the old idea without any awareness that it has ever been disputed–well, give the impression that they haven’t opened a book in 100 years.

  6. Again, yes, Mark. I don’t think I know too many preachers who haven’t opened a book since they were ordained, but I think there are some who haven’t bought a new theology book since then – they just keep referring to their same old favourites. I have a number of colleagues who assure me that they always find William Barclay very helpful, and he probably is, but he died in 1978 and quite a number of people have written quite a number of things in the field since then. 🙂

  7. I should first make a confession: I’m a Quereinsteiger into theology, so my knowledge is limited to what I’ve read, which is for now mainly Childs and Barth. From what they say, a focus on the “big picture” would seem to be the best way to preach. Your average congregation member is going to be looking for ways to live their life in the fullness of what Christ has done, as well as to understand this fullness. Given that this reality is not available in any one text, it is the totality of Scripture that provides the most adequate context for accessing and proclaiming this truth. As Barth says, a theology which is orientated to him who is its starting point and goal must thus become “a knowledge that articulates the unity of the manifold.” Whatever text constitutes the reading for the day, in the act of preaching the logic of the Gospel requires that it be taken up into the whole and be seen in relation to this whole. A syn-opsis, a seeing-together, needs to take place.

    I should add that this happens anyway. No-one reads a text in isolation from the multitude of intertexts that are already present in his or her head. As such, a preacher should not only be theologically trained in learning how to relate the parts to the whole (Childs’ canonical approach?), he should be a faithful disciple, steeped in his tradition, so that, whether consciously or not, he becomes an adequate “intertextual hub,” presenting the Gospel as fully as possible.

  8. Phil,

    Theology is not my strong suit or favourite area. I read as little as I could of most systematic theologians in order to pass the compulsory course for my ordination, being much more interested in biblical studies, ethics and pastoral care. I later discovered that feminist theology, process theology (except John Cobb, whom I find virtually unreadable) and ecotheology much more helpful than ordinary systematic theology. Oh, except Calvin. I liked Calvin. Don’t necessarily agree with him, but I like reading his work. 🙂

    There are preachers, however, who preach as though the reality of God in Christ is available in single texts and they come up with some very creative interpretations that won’t stand up when held up against the rest of scripture.

    Incidentally, there are quite a number of female preachers around the world, too, you know. 🙂

  9. I read my only ever systematic theology (well, most of it) two years ago. It was fundamentalist, with the blessings and curses that brings. I’ve not read any since, though I intend to get into R. Jenson as soon as I can.

    Incidentally, there are quite a number of female preachers around the world, too, you know.

    Sorry, I figured my first “he or she” would qualify my use of the following pronouns. I notice that you prefer using s/he. I still need to get used to that … 😉 Thanks for your thoughts.

  10. I recommend that we all adopt the 3rd person pronoun “li” from Hatian Creole. Hatian has no grammatical gender.

    I made up a lame pun years ago after visiting Haiti and learning a little Creole.

    Li also = lire, read. So what does a Hatian person do with a book?

    Kisa fe moun Ayisyen avek yon liv?

    Li li li. (She or He reads it)

  11. Phil,

    Try changing all your pronouns to she/her/hers and then change the first one back to he/she or his/her or whatever and see whether it feels as though the one masculine qualifies what follows. I think you’ll find that it doesn’t. 🙂 If your institution requires inclusive language and/or you want women to feel included then you need to use either both male and female pronouns or the plural throughout. Or some people alternate, but that can get very confusing.


    A number of people have come up with different options for a gender neutral 3rd person pronoun, but until there is general agreement, I think we’re stuck – and it will take a generation after that for people to use it naturally and comfortably. I’m fascinated by the difference in usage between books published in the last ten years and those published in the 40s and 50s on a range of language uses, incidentally.

  12. Even when I read the NIV (the old one, not the TNIV) it really seems glaring now, all the “he’s” and “men” (where the Greek is inclusive or nonspecific). I suppose when it came out it seemed normal, because that’s what I was taught in high school. We were taught to use “he” when we meant “anyone in general.” But it sounds odd now.

    I’m not sure if this is an urban legend or a fact, but one of my former professors told us it took an act of parliament (200 years ago or more) to ban the generic use of 3rd plural; so the use of the masculine ‘he’ for a generic reference is the original politically correct usage.

    I haven’t been able to convince anyone to adopt the Haitian pronoun.

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