As I said in Part One of this two-part series on preaching, I have never (at least since early adulthood) been a great critic of preaching, except for the sort of topical preaching in which no real expounding of biblical texts is taking place. Like my grandfather, I am for “staying as close as possible” to the text of Scripture—really trying to explain the meaning of a Scripture text (and occasionally more than one) and apply it to the present-day needs of my listeners.
However, the rash of self-proclaimed sermon czars we see popping up is a little disconcerting to me. Part of the impetus for this phenomenon is that people are reacting against the sort of topical preaching we’re used to that really doesn’t seriously probe the meaning of the Scriptural text. I understand this. I “feel the pain” of our young people who are longing for rich, biblical preaching but are getting mostly the opinions of preachers and not deep interaction with Biblical theology and its meaning and application.
Exegetical Papers for Laypeople
One manifestation of this overreaction against topical preaching is what I laughingly call “exegetical papers for laypeople.” This is where a college or seminary graduate’s sermons are basically like an exegetical paper for a class, adapted for laypeople with some of the Greek or Hebrew or technical vocabulary toned down, with an application tacked on at the end. As I tell our ministerial students at Welch, this is disastrous for congregations and must be avoided at all cost.
A Dizzying Array of Definitions
There is such a dizzying array of definitions and narrow delimitations of expository preaching out there that it really makes me feel for the young, conscientious preacher who is trying to do things well. This lack of a clear, agreed-upon definition of expository preaching is not new. The Presbyterian homiletician Theron Rice, in a 1913 article on Alexander McLaren, discussed the myriad definitions of expository preaching in his day and the elusiveness of a definition: “While almost all writers on homiletics laud expository preaching, it is difficult to find any satisfactory definition of the expository sermon.”
After mentioning what writers say about topical and textual sermons, he asked, “Now what is the expository sermon? Silence. One writer goes so far as to declare that an expository sermon is one occupied largely with the exposition of Scripture. But does that tell us much? Others suggest that it is a sermon dealing with an extended passage of Scripture, whereas the text-sermon deals with a single verse or two verses—a short passage. But where draw the line then? When does a short text become an “extended passage?” In a discussion in one of our Reviews recently the suggestion was ventured that as the textual sermon was one deriving both theme and main divisions from the text, the expository sermon was one deriving subject, divisions, and subdivisions all from the text. Well, that is at least a good try at a definition. But the question is not settled yet” .
As Sidney Greidanus once said, there never has been any consensus on what makes an expository sermon: Some have said that an expository sermon is a textual sermon, but just from a longer passage. Some have said that, for a sermon to be expository, both the points and the subpoints of the sermon have to derive from the sermon text. Others have said that an expository sermon is, of necessity, a verse-by-verse treatment of a text. Still others define expository sermons necessarily as being in a sequential series from a book in the Bible—often called lectio continua preaching. And if that’s not enough, some proponents argue that the main points of the passage always have to be the main points of the sermon, so that if a preacher preaches a sermon from a subtext or a secondary point of a scriptural passage (even if he gets the interpretation right), he’s veered from expository preaching .
The Need for Homiletical “Rules of Thumb”
Now, I understand why textbooks are written and methods are outlined and technical definitions are proliferated. I assume it’s because a good, careful method will generally produce more sermons that are true to the meaning of Scripture. In other words, the more narrow the method of expository preaching you teach homiletics students, the more foolproof the result will be; the greater chance there is of having more sermons preached to congregations that are really letting God speak rather than just featuring the opinions of a preacher. And this is a crucial goal.
But let us not allow this propounding of a good general method or a “good rule of thumb” for biblical preaching to turn into a prideful hyper-criticism of preachers who are trying to be faithful in expounding the Bible in a deep, serious way.
Avoiding a Hyper-Critical Mentality
It is counter-productive when we spend too much time critiquing and picking apart people who are striving to preach rich biblical-theological sermons that are deeply probing the meaning of a text or texts of the Bible. I think too much nit-picking of preachers for not doing all their preaching as book series, or not preaching strictly verse-by-verse, or saying that sermons that probe a minor point in a biblical text are not really expositional, or that having the occasional subpoint from another passage than the sermon text—or preaching one sermon from more than one text–is “not letting God speak”—all this can get very tedious and tiring and debilitating.
The Need for Humility
What is the solution? First, we all need more humility, about our own preaching and everybody else’s. Second, we need a more modest definition of expository preaching that recognizes the difficulty in giving an exacting definition. We need to be more humble and modest in our own defining of expository preaching, not giving the impression that there is some transcendent, self-evident, and compelling definition of it. We need to see preaching as more of an art than a science.
I like Sidney Greidanus’s preferred definition of expository preaching, which is taken from Merrill F. Unger’s homiletics textbook. There Unger says that expository preaching involves
. . . handling the text of Scripture “in such a way that its real and essential meaning as it existed in the mind of the particular Biblical writer and as it exists in the light of the over-all context of Scripture is made plain and applied to the present-day needs of the hearers” .
So, if a preacher preaches a sermon from more than one text; or if he hones in on a subtext in a biblical passage and probes its meaning; or if he deals a lot in a sermon with some other texts in Scripture or takes some of his subpoints from parallel passages; or if he distills the literal meaning of a passage (using careful, genre-sensitive, grammatico-historical interpretive methods) and communicates it in a way that is not verse-by-verse; or if he doesn’t preach book series—if he does any or all of these things in a sermon, let’s not pick him apart and say with utmost confidence, “That’s not an expository sermon,” as if we have some sort of homiletical wisdom from heaven (or even from Aristotle or Quintilian or Augustine or some other time-tested rhetorician) that has fallen into our laps. And, if we do have a less-exacting definition of expository preaching, let us not pick apart those who employ a more narrow method of biblical exposition than our own.
Regardless of definitions, and how narrow or broad we choose to be, let all of us preachers seek to preach as many sermons as we can that let God speak by expounding His Word in a deep, biblical-theological way, practically applying it to the present-day needs of our listeners.
Let’s stay as close to the Bible as we can.
_________________________________________________________________ Theron H. Rice, “Alexander McLaren’s Contribution to Expository Preaching,” Union Seminary Magazine 24 (1913), 389-90. (Rice was a professor at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.)  Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 10.  Greidanus, 11, quoting Unger’s Principles of Expository Preaching, 33.