What is Preaching Supposed to Be?

Here’s John Piper’s take on it:

What I mean by preaching is expository exultation.

Expository means that preaching aims to exposit, or explain and apply, the meaning of the Bible. The reason for this is that the Bible is God’s word, inspired, infallible, profitable—all 66 books of it.

The preacher’s job is to minimize his own opinions and deliver the truth of God. Every sermon should explain the Bible and then apply it to people’s lives.

The preacher should do that in a way that enables you to see that the points he is making actually come from the Bible. If you can’t see that they come from the Bible, your faith will end up resting on a man and not on God’s word….

That’s more or less what I was taught in the beginning of my ministry training.  Study the text, explain it, and apply it.  Later, influenced by Fred Craddock, I adopted his stance that good preaching says what the text says and does what the text does–if the passage you are preaching from instructs, then instruct; if it inspires, inspire; if it troubles, trouble; if it comforts, comfort.  That was a helpful second dimension that pays attention not just to the teachable propositions of the text, but also to the intended purpose of it.  Even if you have your propositions straight, if you take a text meant to inspire and bore people to death with your step-by-step exposition, you haven’t really preached the text–you’ve processed it and turned it around to zoom down a different path.

With a thorough grounding in Craddock and Stott and other homiletical heroes, I became fluent in what I still believe are the best practices of expository preaching, which my teachers always presented in contrast to “topical preaching” (shudder!).  Topical preaching, I was told, has too much potential for abuse.  Topical preaching is too dependent on the agenda of the preacher.  Topical preaching does a disservice to the congregation, which needs a grounding in verse by verse, book by book, good old expository preaching.

That sounded just right to me, until I read Edward Farley’s Practicing Gospel.  The entire book is excellent, but it was chapter six “Preaching the Bible and Preaching the Gospel” that really did a number on me.  (It first appeared as an article in the April 1994 issue of Theology Today.)  Here’s Farley:

One thing is clear in the New Testament accounts.  That-which-is-preached is not the content of passages of Scripture.  It is the gospel, the event of Christ through which we are saved.  To think that what is preached is the Bible and the context of its passages is a quite different way of thinking about preaching. (p. 74)

That’s a huge problem.  We typically refer to “expository exultation” as “Biblical preaching.”  But if you look at literal Biblical preaching (the kind of preaching modeled in the Bible) it isn’t expository exultation.  Paul’s brand of preaching is notorious for causing problems in conservative churches because you can’t help but recognize that he’s up to something quite different than what we consider good preaching practice.  In my experience, the typical answer when someone realizes that is essentially that Paul can get away with it because he is breaking the rules under inspiration of the Spirit, but that’s one area where we can’t follow his example.  So we are left with a troubling break–Paul’s message is inspired but his method is flawed.  This is another case where a prior commitment to a certain understanding of the Bible either keeps us from seeing the obvious (the Bible itself doesn’t model expository preaching) or keeps us from giving weight to the Biblical example.  On the fundamental question of what preaching should look like, we reject the scriptural model in favor of the expository paradigm, and we do so in the name of honoring scripture.  That’s just not working.

Maybe one of the reasons that people who leave our churches say that are more interested in rules than spirituality is this model of exhortation that breaks every passage down into three or five teachable points to apply in your own life and often misses the glorious proclamation of the good news that Jesus is reigning and renewing the world.

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1 Comment

Filed under Bible, Ministry

One response to “What is Preaching Supposed to Be?

  1. Bill Hogan

    I, too, have followed the expository model throughout my ministry (50+ years). I find that the conflict you reference (preaching the Gospel vs preaching the Bible) is erased by taking seriously the context of the text, realizing that the whole Bible is context. If every passage is on a Christo-redemptive trajectory, as I believe it to be, then it is relatively simple to preach the Gospel in ways that are appropriate to the text.

    May the Lord continue to bless your ministry..

    Bill Hogan
    Interim Minister, First Presbyterian Church
    Schenectady, NY

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