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Preaching: Expository or Text-Driven?


Expository preaching has its proponents and detractors. One only has to read either Haddon Robinson and Jerry Vines or Fred Craddock and Eugene Lowry to discover a divergence of opinion concerning this homiletical method.[1] The former are fervent teachers and practitioners of expositional preaching, while the latter eschew deductive, expository preaching method for the inductive, narrative sermon form. It would be safe to say that if expository preaching privileges sermon content, then the narrative preaching form privileges the sermon experience.[2]

It might help to define terms and clarify concepts. Haddon Robinson, in his landmark work, Biblical Preaching, defines expository preaching as:

The communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.[3]

This definition highlights the historical, grammatical, literary, and contextual study of the Scriptural text and the work of the Holy Spirit in applying the text to the preacher and then to the listeners. Robinson underscores the proper handling of the propositional truth of Scripture.

Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix have crafted a similar definition of expository preaching as "The oral communication of biblical truth by the Holy Spirit through a human personality to a given audience with the intent of enabling a positive response."[4]

These definitions flesh out Paul’s command to Timothy (and the church): "Preach the Word!" (2 Tim. 4:2). They give expression to the fundamental tasks involved in sermon preparation which are to expound, illustrate, and apply the text of Scripture.[5] Thus, the preacher is to make known what the Lord has said in His Word through careful exegesis, clarifying illustrations, and thoughtful applications. Seminary professors should strive to train students to become the best possible interpreters and preachers of the Word of God. Only then can the life-transforming power of the Word be unleashed.

Joining the discussion about preaching recently are proponents of text-driven

preaching.[6] Text-driven preaching affirms every component of expository preaching while adding this nuance: the presentation of biblical truth should be in a manner consistent with the form of that truth in Scripture. Steven W. Smith provides a full definition of text-driven preaching: "Text-driven preaching is the interpretation and communication of a biblical text in a sermon that re-presents the substance, structure, and the spirit of the text."[7] The added nuance of re-presenting the substance, structure, and the spirit of the text distinguishes text-driven preaching from expository preaching.

Location of Meaning in the Text-Driven Sermon

Substance of the text - the meaning of the text uncovered by the exegetical process

Structure of the text - the semantic shape of the text

Spirit of the text - the author's intended emotive design of the text[8]

Robinson affirms that expository preaching "at its core is more a philosophy than a method."[9] If that is so, then the homiletical concepts offered by the proponents of text-driven preaching should be welcome since "the ultimate objective is closeness. We want to get closer to what the text says so that we find the right voice for the right words."[10]

One of the most familiar metaphors for the homiletical task is a bridge. John Stott described preaching as "bridge-building, spanning the gap between the ancient world of the biblical text and the contemporary world of the sermon audience."[11] If, however, the task of sermon preparation consists of determining the meaning of the text at the substance, structural, and spirit levels, then the expositor may have to choose which bridge to cross. In other words, the bridge should suit the content and genre of the text.

Is there a one-size-fits-all model of sermon preparation? Does the expositor utilize a fixed homiletic template? Should the preacher take his cue for sermon preparation only from the content of the text? Does any meaning reside in the structure of the text? These questions point to the need for a closer examination of both the content and form of the text, giving special attention to the various genres contained in Scripture: Narrative, Law, Psalms, Prophecy, Wisdom Literature, Gospel/Acts, Parables, Epistles, and Revelation.[12]

Each of the genres possesses distinctive characteristics and requires a nuanced process in moving from the text to the sermon, a process which Thomas Long affirms is an "underdeveloped aspect of biblical preaching."[13] Would a preacher deal with the story of Gideon in Judges exactly the same way as he would with Paul's prescriptions to the Galatians in 6:1-5? Would the deductive sermon form be as appropriate for the unfolding story of God's power in the life of Gideon as it is in prescribing how to help the fallen in the Galatian church?

To answer the question posed in the title - Preaching: Expository or Text-Driven? The answer should be "Both." Or maybe the answer should be "Yes," since expository and text-driven preaching utilize the same basic homiletical tasks, with the value added textual driven tasks of finding meaning in the content and form of the text. Actually, text-driven preaching privileges the Word with providing both the substance and structure of the sermon:

Expository preaching is that mode of Christian preaching that takes as its central purpose the presentation and application of the text of the Bible. All other issues and concerns are subordinated to the central tasks of presenting the biblical text. As the Word of God, the text of Scripture has the right to establish both the substance and the structure of the sermon. Genuine exposition takes place when the preacher sets forth the meaning and message of the biblical text and makes clear how the Word of God establishes the identity and worldview of the church as the people of God.[14]


[1] See Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014); Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix, Power in the Pulpit: How to Prepare and Deliver Expository Sermons (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1999); Fred Craddock, As One Without Authority (Nashville: Abingdon, 1971); Eugene Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2000). These two perspectives have come to be identified as "expository preaching" and "narrative preaching" (or the "New Homiletic").

[2] David L. Allen, in "Preaching and Post-Modernism: An Evangelical Comes to the Dance." Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Journal 5, no. 2 (2001): 62-78, relates how the New Homiletic practitioners in their aversion to the deductive presentation of propositional truth have replaced it with narrative preaching. They superimpose a narrative sermon straitjacket on most Scriptural texts. The reason they favor the narrative sermon form is that it is most likely to create a sermon "experience" in which listeners are drawn into the moment, thus encountering the text and drawing their own conclusions.

[3] Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 5.

[4] Vines and Shaddix, Power in the Pulpit, 27

[5] Allen adds, "Preaching is not a long, hot, dusty drive through three-point gulch; it is not ethical imperative ungrounded in theology; it is not pop-psychological pabulum; it is not moralistic principalizing; it is not narrative divorced from propositional truth; and it is not pragmatic life coaching. Great preaching is expository preaching practically applied. The problem with much of contemporary preaching is its aversion to exposition." See David L. Allen, "The Theology of Text-Driven Preaching: God Has Spoken," in A Pastor’s Guide to Text-Driven Preaching (Fort Worth: Seminary Hill Press, 2012), 8.

[6] For a complete apologetic on text-driven preaching see Daniel L. Akin, David L. Allen, and Ned Mathews eds., Text-Driven Preaching: God’s Word at the Heart of Every Sermon (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010).

[7] Steven W. Smith, Recapturing the Voice of God: Shaping Sermons Like Scripture (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), 17. Smith notes how the traditional expository sermon's deductive format (the announcement of a thesis followed by explanation, illustration, and application) emerged in large part from the efforts and published works of Charles Simeon (1789-1836), an Anglican preacher and writer who sought "to let the sermon come naturally from the text. . . . to advance the discussion of the text through explication, observation, propositions, and perpetual application." See David L. Larsen, The Company of Biblical Preachers: A History of Biblical Preaching From the Old Testament to the Modern Era, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 1998), 403. Smith credits Simeon with standardizing the expositional process: "Perhaps his greatest contribution was his influence on preaching and the shape of a propositional sermon. A propositional sermon is a sermon that advances certain axioms or truths, and may in fact be crafted around a central proposition. . . . In the mind of Charles Simeon, this is the whole sermon. You lay down the main idea of what you want to say in the sermon then demonstrate from the text how that theme is woven throughout the text of Scripture." See Smith, Recapturing the Voice of God, 8. So much of expository preaching includes the development of the "Big Idea" or the "Central Idea" of the text.

[8] The meaning of the text resides in all three elements. Smith describes and develops them in Recapturing the Voice of God, 19-20.

[9] Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 5. John Stott is credited as saying, "The secret of preaching is not mastering certain techniques but being mastered by certain convictions." See John R.W. Stott and Greg Scharf, The Challenge of Preaching (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015), 12.

[10] Smith, Recapturing the Voice of God, 20.

[11] John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), 135-137. See also Tony Guthrie, Crossing the Homiletical Bridge: A Journey From Accurate Exegesis to Meaningful Exposition (Cumming, GA: Heartworks Publications, 2010).

[12] Smith, Recapturing the Voice of God, 27. Smith deals with each genre in Scripture and demonstrates how to preach genre-sensitive sermons in allowing the structure of the text to shape the structure of the sermon. See also Thomas Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989).

[13] Thomas G. Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible, 12. He further underscores that "two biblical texts may share the same theological theme but by virtue of different literary dynamics do quite different things with that common conceptual core" (13).

[14] R. Albert Mohler, Jr. He is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008), 65.

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