Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 15: The Crisis in 21st Century Preaching: A Mandate for Biblical Exposition, Part C

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence is a series of articles by faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary that seeks to offer some definitions of what constitutes a GCR, why we believe the SBC is in need of such a movement, and what such a movement might look like in SBC life. The series will address biblical, theological, historical and practical issues related to a GCR with the hope that God will use our finite and flawed efforts for His glory and the good of the people called Southern Baptist.

The Crisis in 21st Century Preaching: A Mandate for Biblical Exposition, Part C

2. Preaching must honor the principle of authorial intent, recognizing that the ultimate author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit, God Himself.

The faithful expositor is humbled, even haunted, by the realization that when he stands to preach he stands to preach what has been given by the Holy Spirit of God. Why is he haunted? Because he understands that what is before his eyes is divinely inspired by God, and he trembles at the very thought of abusing, neglecting or altering what God Himself wrote. Yes, the Bible is best described as the Word of God written in the words of men. However, we must never forget it is ultimately the Word of God, and the divine author’s intended meaning as deposited in the text should be honored. The Westminster Dictionary (A.D. 1645) captures this well when it states, “. . . the true idea of preaching is that the preacher should become a mouthpiece for his text, opening it up and applying it as a word from God to his hearers, . . . in order that the text may speak . . . and be heard, making each point from his text in such a manner that [his audience] may discern [the voice of God].” Charles Spurgeon notes,

A sermon comes with far greater power to the consciences of the hearers when it is plainly the very Word of God–not a lecture about the Scripture, but Scripture itself opened up and inforced . . . I will further recommend you to hold to the ipsissima verba, the very Words of the Holy Ghost . . . those sermons which expound the exact words of the Holy Spirit are the most useful and most agreeable to the major part of our congregations. They love to have the words themselves explained and
expounded (Lectures to My Students, 73).

Haddon Robinson adds, “When a preacher fails to preach the Scriptures, he abandons his authority. He confronts his hearers no longer with a word from God but only with another word from men.” In the 20th century the issue of authorial intent came under heavy and sustained assault, especially with the popularity of the deconstruction movement and its godfather, the deceased Jacques Derrida. For a number of years the English literary critic E. D. Hirsch stood in the gap. Kevin Vanhoozer has exposed the underlying [a] theistic/ [a] gnostic agenda that was driving the deconstructionist all along. In his work, Is There a Meaning in This Text, he presents a careful and impressive defense for “Resurrecting the Author” (ch. 5) and “Redeeming the Text” (ch. 6). This is a much needed critique. It is a sad commentary how easily evangelicals can be fooled, if not by the academy, then by the culture. That this theological and hermeneutical quicksand is ever a serious consideration for those who man our pulpits and shepherd the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is a tragedy with enormous consequences. We should not ignore what a reader or hearer brings to a text or a sermon. However, we should not deify (small “d”) it either.

3. Scripture must be interpreted and understood as it was given to the original audience. The text cannot mean today what it did not mean then.

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart correctly assert, “A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her readers” (How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, 64).

This principle does not neglect the fact that the faithful expositor must build a sturdy bridge between the historical audience and their context, and the audience he addresses here and now. It does mean he will not “eisegete” the text, reading into it the preconceived notions of his own imagination or interest. Further, he will not injure the inspired text with a fanciful and irresponsible hermeneutic that surpasses the allegorist of the medieval period. As evangelical expositors we must continue to affirm that “the meaning is one, though the applications are many.” We must honor the text as it was given and as it would have been understood by the original audience. However, and this is crucially important. This principle does not ignore the divine authorship of Scripture, interpreting Scripture in light of the whole canon, the flow and nature of redemptive history and its Christological focus (principle #5 below), or the intriguing issue of Sensus Plenior. As Vanhoozer argues, and we find his argument compelling, “‘the fuller meaning’ of Scripture–the meaning associated with divine authorship–emerges only at the level of the whole canon . . .the canon as a whole becomes the unified act for which the divine intention serves as the unifying principle. The divine intention supervenes on the intention of the human authors. The Spirit will apply meaning, not change it” (264-65). In other words, implications and significances embedded in the meaning of the text, in light of the whole canon and the grand redemptive storyline may certainly come to light. This will provide balance, as well as a healthy affirmation of the principle of progressive revelation.

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 14: The Crisis in 21st Century Preaching: A Mandate for Biblical Exposition, Part B

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence is a series of articles by faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary that seeks to offer some definitions of what constitutes a GCR, why we believe the SBC is in need of such a movement, and what such a movement might look like in SBC life. The series will address biblical, theological, historical and practical issues related to a GCR with the hope that God will use our finite and flawed efforts for His glory and the good of the people called Southern Baptist.

A Mandate for Biblical Exposition, Part B

1. Preaching Must Be Text-Driven So That It Truly Honors What Is In The Divine Revelation.
Mark Dever writes, “The first mark of a healthy church is expository preaching. It is not only the first mark; it is far and away the most important of them all, because if you get this one right, all of the others should follow” (Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 39). Mark is absolutely right in our judgment.

Expository preaching allows the Scripture text to determine both the substance and the structure of the message. How one structures the Scriptures will determine how one structures the sermon. The Scriptural text drives and determines, shapes and forms sermon development as it relates to the explanation of the biblical text. Sidney Greidanus reminds us that,

Biblical preaching is “a Bible shaped word imparted in a Bible-like way.” In expository preaching the biblical text is neither a conventional introduction to a sermon on a largely different theme, nor a convenient peg on which to hang a ragbag of miscellaneous thoughts, but a master which dictates and controls what is said (The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, 11).

Allen Ross of the Beeson Divinity School concurs and adds an important warning:

Too many so-called expositors simply make one central idea the substance of their message. The narrative may be read or retold, but the sermon is essentially their central expository idea-it is explained, illustrated, and applied without further recourse to the text. This approach is not valid exegetical exposition. In exegetical exposition, the substance of the exposition must be clearly derived from the text so that the central idea unfolds in the analysis of the passage and so that all parts of the passage may be interpreted to show their contribution to the theological idea (Creation and Blessing, 47).

We believe the faithful expositor will reject any method that would entice him to superimpose his preconceived agenda on the text. He will not use the text as a springboard to address the particular issue that currently has his attention. The faithful expositor will make sure that his people hear the message of God who inspired the text and is in the text. Anything less is to be derelict in one’s pulpit ministry.

Are there advantages in this expositional method? The answer is yes and there are many. Don Carson highlights six:

  1. It is the method least likely to stray from Scripture.
  2. It teaches people how to read their Bible.
  3. It gives confidence to the preacher and authorizes the message.
  4. It meets the need for relevance without allowing the clamor for relevance to dictate the message.
  5. It forces the preacher to handle the tough passages.
  6. It enables the preacher to most systematically expound the whole counsel of God if sufficient chunks are handled.

Unfortunately, in our therapeutic culture, where felt needs and how-to sermons are dominant and deemed essential (even by a number of evangelicals!), text-driven preaching is viewed as simply inadequate for the day. The perspective of many was expressed well in an article entitled “What Is The Matter With Preaching?” The author writes,

Every sermon should have for its main business the solving of some problem- a vital, important problem puzzling minds, burdening consciences, distracting lives. . . . And if any preacher is not doing this, even though he have at his disposal both erudition and oratory, he is not functioning at all. Many preachers, for example, indulge habitually in what they call expository sermons. They take a passage from Scripture and, proceeding on the assumption that the people attending church that morning are deeply concerned about what the passage means, they spend their half hour or more on historical exposition of the verse or chapter, ending with some appended practical application to the auditors. Could any procedure be more surely predestined to dullness and futility? Who seriously supposes that, as a matter of fact, one in a hundred of the congregation cares, to start with, what Moses, Isaiah, Paul or John meant in those special verses, or came to church deeply concerned about it? Nobody else who talks to the public so assumes that the vial interests of the people are located in the meaning of words spoken two thousand years ago. The advertisers of any goods, from a five foot shelf of classic books to the latest life insurance policy, plunge as directly as possible after the contemporary wants, felt needs, actual interests and concerns. . . . Preachers who pick out texts from the Bible then proceed to give their historic settings, their logical meaning in the context, their place in the theology of the write, are grossly misusing the Bible. Let them not end but start with thinking of the audience’s vital needs, and then let the whole sermon be organized around their endeavor to meet those needs. This is all good sense and psychology (“What is the Matter with Preaching?” in Harper’s Magazine (July 1928): 135).

Interestingly, this statement is not the musings of a contemporary pulpiteer. Its author is Harry Emerson Fosdick, who penned these words in 1928! Contemporary evangelicals need to be careful from whose homiletical stream they drink. This stream is poison water and will be the death-blow to a Great Commission Resurgence in our churches.

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 13: The Crisis in 21st Century Preaching: A Mandate for Biblical Exposition, Part A

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence is a series of articles by faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary that seeks to offer some definitions of what constitutes a GCR, why we believe the SBC is in need of such a movement, and what such a movement might look like in SBC life. The series will address biblical, theological, historical and practical issues related to a GCR with the hope that God will use our finite and flawed efforts for His glory and the good of the people called Southern Baptist.

The Crisis in 21st Century Preaching: A Mandate for Biblical Exposition, Part A

We believe the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is at a critical point, especially in the Western cultural context. To be specific, there is a real and serious crisis in our pulpits today. The situation must be addressed if we are to experience a Great Commission Resurgence. Walt Kaiser is exactly right when he says, “One of the most depressing spectacles in the church today is her lack of power . . . At the heart of this problem is an impotent pulpit.” Seduced by the sirens of modernity we have jettisoned a word-based ministry that is expository in nature. We have, in our attempt to be popular and relevant, become foolish and irrelevant. The fallout is quite literally indescribable.

Skiing across the surface needs of a fallen, sinful humanity we have turned the pulpit into a pop-psychology side-show and a feel-good pit stop. We have neglected preaching the whole counsel of God’s Word and the theology of God’s Word. Too many of our people know neither the content of Scripture nor the doctrines of Scripture. Preaching the cross of Christ and His bloody atonement is often absent. Some simply want to be cute or edgy. Others choose to focus on politics, the environment, social action, the emotions, or relationships, and the list goes on and on. If the Bible is used at all, it is usually as a proof-text out of context with no real connection to what the biblical author is saying. Many who claim and perhaps believe they are expositors betray their confession by their practice. This tragic fact is undeniable.

The words of the prophet Amos were never more piercing, “Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord GOD, “That I will send a famine on the land, Not a famine of bread, Nor a thirst for water, But of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, And from north to east; They shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, But shall not find it” (8:11-12).

It is disheartening when evangelicals walk the same path as the liberal and the neo-orthodox of a previous era. Claiming to believe in an infallible and inerrant Bible, far too many pastors handle the Bible in a way that is sloppy, irresponsible, and dishonest to the text, a text given as it is by the Holy Spirit of God. They are guilty of ministerial malpractice on their congregation. Evangelists, conference speakers, and pastors all stand guilty. By what they do they say we can see people converted and brought to maturity in Christ without the consistent and comprehensive teaching of God’s Word. Further, at least implicitly, they question the judgment of God the Holy Spirit in inspiring Scripture as we have it. Topical preaching, narrative preaching, emerging preaching, and yes, even some types of doctrinal preaching, fundamentally suggest by their method and practice that the Holy Spirit should have packaged The Bible differently. This is spiritually ignorant at best, and arrogant at worst. Al Mohler is certainly correct when he observes, “Preaching has fallen on hard times. That’s the impression you would gain by listening to much of what passes for preaching in American pulpits. Something is clearly missingINand that missing element is the deep passion for biblical exposition that always characterizes the great preachers of an era” (“Charles Haddon Spurgeon – A Passion for Preaching, Part One” [9-20-04]).

Now the question is rightly raised: What do we mean by biblical exposition and what are the essential components for this type of preaching?

It is often said that there are as many definitions of expository preaching as there are books on the subject. This statement has only a modicum of truth. It ignores the basic fact that these various definitions, though differing at particular points, are quite similar at the foundational level. What we discover is that there actually exist a genuine consensus on what expository preaching is among those who write about it and practice it.

Drawing from complementary definitions and descriptions of expository preaching, we would submit the following short definition followed by an expanded description. Our short definition, in ten words or less, is this: Expository Preaching is “Christ centered, text driven preaching designed to transform lives.” From this bare bones definition, we offer the following description. From it we shall develop several basic and fundamental principles, seven to be exact, that hopefully can provide a compelling case for biblical exposition in the 21st century. Our description is:

Expository preaching is text driven preaching that honors the truth of Scripture as it was given by the Holy Spirit. Discovering the God-inspired meaning through historical-grammatical-theological investigation and interpretation, the preacher, by means of engaging and compelling proclamation, explains, illustrates and applies the meaning of the biblical text in submission to and in the power of the Holy Spirit, preaching Christ for a verdict of changed lives.

From this description we develop several mandates for a preaching/teaching ministry that is true to the high view of Scripture we profess, and absolutely essential for the health of the Church in the 21st century. This will be the focus of several articles to follow.