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How Biblical is Expository Preaching?

Baptist Times, Apr 2011

Expository preaching is usually defined as bringing out the clear meaning of the text of Scripture.  Of course, this is not the only definition.  Nor is it the best.  But if it’s what we mean by expository preaching, the sooner evangelicals ditch it as a practice, the more biblical they are likely to become.


The belief that the bible contains something called ‘meaning’, that the preacher can extract, explain, and then apply to the otherwise ignorant congregation, has its roots in a worldview utterly alien to that of Scripture.  It is the great spirit of modernism, with its desire march into the wild and tame it!  It assumes that Scripture is a crude resource for humans to plunder.  For it to help us today, we have to extract the meaning from its context so that it makes sense in our context.  


If this is expository preaching, it is the kind of preaching that all sound bible-thumping Christians should dismiss as ‘eisegesis’, reading into the text something that isn’t there.  For instance, a sermon that takes a parable of Jesus and lists the important points he is making: what better way to turn Jesus into a tedious and turgid purveyor of modernist drivel? The radical rug-pulling Jesus becomes a harmless idol offering helpful tips for the Christian life.


Isaiah in the temple, or Peter in the boat, when they experienced God did not have to ponder the meaning of that encounter, nor go away and apply it to their lives.  The role of the preacher is surely to bring the congregation to encounter God directly.  


The word of God is alive, and active, and sharper than any two edge sword.  If it’s just a literary box containing an unchanging meaning for people to apply to their lives, then it is lifeless and limp and about as razor sharp as a Cumberland sausage.  Evangelical pulpeteering can often feel like a feeble attempt to bring these dead words to life.  


As every Baptist minister will doubtless agree, Scripture is not the final authority for the church.  It is the Jesus Christ revealed in Scripture who is our authority.  The biblical authors were Witnesses, whose job it was to point to this Christ.  And the role of the preacher is to bring the church as close as possible to these biblical Witnesses so that the church engages with the one to whom the Witnesses point us.


That means that a biblical preaching ministry will engage not only the mind, but also the spirit, the emotion, the politics, the relational and the social dimensions of our whole being.  If we do not listen in all these various ways, we are unlikely to hear what the Witnesses would have us hear.  


In literature, for instance, exposition is a literary device designed to provide background information that will keep the story moving.  Necessary though this kind of exposition is, it is a minor part of the magic of story-telling.  If it’s all there was, authors would be producing essays, not narratives.


Similarly, while exposition is a vital part of hearing the voice of the witnesses, it is not a valid end in itself.  If it clouds out all other dimensions of preaching, then what we have left is a teaching lecture, not a sermon.  And whilst we may like to think that sermons are about teaching, they are not.  They may have a didactic element, but that is always to bring us to a dynamic, living encounter with Christ.  Preaching is a prophetic gift for the church in which the word becomes flesh.  ‘Expository preaching,’ would keep the word of God buried in the tomb of human words, just like the rich fool buried the treasure with which he was entrusted.


Exposition is a crucial aspect of the sermon, an important part of listening well to the Witnesses.  But to make exposition the most important dimension of preaching is like making scaffolding the most important part of a house.


Jesus didn’t do expository preaching!  Neither did anyone else in the New Testament.  Neither should we.