Bad Homiletical Models of Expository Preaching

from Feb 03, 2016 Category: Articles

Despite the many books on preaching, bad homiletical models of expository preaching still exist. They come from various sources and are influenced by a variety of factors. Often it is not the model itself that is at fault, but the use made of it. They include:

1. The Puritans

With the exception of John Calvin, few men have influenced my thinking more than John Owen. To Owen I owe an understanding of sanctification and biblical spirituality that has preserved my sanity on more than one occasion. Owen’s works are deservedly reprinted and studied. If banished to a desert island with the Bible and six books, I would bend every rule to ensure that all sixteen volumes of Owen’s works were included as one book, and if that could not be done, then I would have to ensure that Volume 2, On Communion with God, was one of the six! To a man, the Puritans were committed to the plain preaching of the Word of God. Few have matched the expositional skills of Owen, Joseph Hall, Thomas Goodwin, Richard Sibbes, Richard Baxter, Thomas Manton, Stephen Charnock, or John Bunyan. On exegetical grounds, they stand shoulder to shoulder with the Denneys, Lightfoots, and Murrays of later centuries. The church would be greatly impoverished without Manton on James, Greenhill on Ezekiel, or Jenkyn on Jude. Their insights and contributions continue to profit the church.

Nevertheless, in the matter of consecutive expository preaching, the Puritans are not always a model for us to follow. To take an extreme example, we can safely say that Joseph Caryl, who took twenty-four years to expound the book of Job in 424 sermons (averaging ten sermons per chapter), was not a good model for preaching the book of Job or for expository preaching in general. The Puritans show an admirable care in teasing out doctrine and even greater skill in application to those in diverse trials (which makes them invaluable reading to this day), but it is doubtful that there are any circumstances, then or now, that would justify such a prolonged series of sermons on one book. Speaking generally is always dangerous, but it is probably true to say that few young preachers can sustain a lengthy (and slow) series of expositions on a particular book of the Bible. Times have changed, as have our congregations, and it is wiser in most circumstances to move at a more rapid pace through the Scriptures than the Puritans did.

2. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Possibly the greatest expositor/preacher of the twentieth century, Lloyd-Jones has had a considerable influence on the preaching styles of several generations of preachers on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain especially, following the publication of Lloyd-Jones’ expositions of Romans (sermons preached during a fourteen-year period, 1955–1968), many Reformed preachers attempted to follow Lloyd-Jones’ preaching model. The problem was that few, if any, could come close to the exegetical and homiletical skills of “the Doctor.” Many a congregation was wearied by an overly ambitious series in the consecutive expository method, and by practitioners that weren’t up to the task. What may be possible and desirable in one context may not be so in another due to several factors, including the giftedness and maturity of the preacher and the makeup of the congregation. Some preachers have been drained by an overly-ambitious series that was beyond their giftedness to deliver. As a result, they have wisely retreated to safer shores.

3. C. H. Spurgeon

The Anglican Bishop J. C. Ryle, in a wonderful lecture called “Simplicity in Preaching,” given at St. Paul’s Cathedral, said of Spurgeon’s preaching:

I am not a bit ashamed to say that I often read the sermons of Mr. Spurgeon. I like to gather hints about preaching from all quarters… Now when you read Mr. Spurgeon’s sermons, note how clearly and perspicuously he divides a sermon, and fills each division with beautiful and simple ideas. How easily you grasp the meaning!… great truths, that hang to you like hooks of steel, and which… you never forget!

My acquaintance with and love for Spurgeon began in 1977, when a somewhat disillusioned friend offered me the complete set (sixty-two volumes) of his sermons, which he had just purchased and had found wanting! I have used them over and over ever since, sometimes with great delight and admiration, and sometimes (it has to be said) with dismay at his handling of the text. Spurgeon’s invariable style was textual, often focusing on one or two verses. His intent was always to be expository; in practice, he could sometimes introduce matters into the sermon that did not properly emerge from the text, and he never engaged in consecutive expository preaching. Nevertheless, the salutary influence of the greatest Baptist preacher of the nineteenth century has been incalculable.

4. Redemptive-historical preaching

Those who favor what is called redemptive-historical preaching tend to be deeply critical of expository preaching styles of the past. They regard the homiletical styles of Augustine and Calvin as guilty of mixing Judeo-Christian theology with classical pagan methodology in their use of the grammatico-historical hermeneutic. Within the redemptive-historical model, there is a commitment to preaching the text and even doing so consecutively; as such, it sounds like expository preaching. But there is a (valid) concern to emphasize context within the overall structure of God’s redemptive plan as it unfolds historically. Sermons of this sort spend a great deal of time detailing the flow of redemptive history, which, on first hearing, can be breathtaking if done well. But what often results from this hermeneutic is a certain predictability (a rehearsal of the history of redemption) that those who repeatedly hear it regard as “boring” and “irrelevant.”

Indeed, in its fear of moralistic exegesis (biographical preaching is particularly criticized), application is noticeably absent from these sermons. There is much appeal to the mind, but little if any to the heart. Indeed, many sermons in this school of thought have no discernible application whatsoever, apart from the informative, that shapes the way we think. Some of the remarks in an otherwise masterly treatment of preaching by Sidney Greidanus fall under this criticism.

These and other considerations have led some to abandon consecutive expository preaching altogether in favor of textual preaching.

See also:

An excerpt from Derek Thomas’ contribution in Feed My Sheep.