Negotiating the London subway system, also known as the Underground, provided just one of many interesting experiences during the recent International Congress on Preaching. Those who rode the Tube, as the Underground is also known, saw and heard the slogan, Mind the Gap, as the trains stopped to let riders exit and enter. The gap is that menacing chasm between the subway car and the platform. In reality, it usually only stretches an inch or two. In only a few places the gap expands to a whole five or six inches. I can’t imagine anyone falling into the gap, but the warning was ever present.
Mind the Gap is reminiscent of John R. W. Stott’s description of the gap existing between the world of the ancient text and the world of the immediate audience in his classic Between Two Worlds. Stott was correct when he reminded preachers that our task is to connect those two worlds.
It is because preaching is not only exposition but communication, not just the exegesis of a text, but the conveying of a God given message to living people who need to hear it, that I am going to develop a different metaphor to illustrate the essential nature of preaching — that of bridge-building.
We should pray that God will raise up a new generation of Christian communicators who are determined to bridge the chasm; who struggle to relate God’s unchanging Word to our ever-changing world; who refuse to sacrifice truth to relevance or relevance to truth; but who resolve instead in equal measure to be faithful to Scripture and pertinent to today.1
The gap represents the precarious distance between the languages, cultures, values, and experiences of the biblical authors/readers and the interpreters/ hearers of our day. A wide gap, indeed, in most cases. Of course, one of the ways “those in the know” suggest for bringing these two very different worlds together is to fuse or to merge them. The phenomenologists introduced us to the problem of “horizons,” pointing out some of the barriers, or supposed barriers, to interpretation as a result of the horizon or vision limitations that blind all of us. Anthony C. Thiselton brought the discussion closer to home in his The Two Horizons in 1980.
Having wrestled with the distance between the past and the present, Thiselton concluded, “The hermeneutical goal is that of a steady progress towards a fusion of horizons.”2 Yet in the extreme, merging pollutes both the ancient text and the contemporary message. The merging metaphor may grant the modern interpreter too much influence over the Scriptures.
This “New Hermeneutic” has resulted in a “New Homiletic” which, at its worst, merely tells a story because there is nothing left to be said with propositional, biblical authority. Thiselton warned that fusing “is to be achieved in such a way that the particularity of each horizon is fully taken into account and respected. This means both respecting the rights of the text and allowing it to speak.”3
Others have found that Stott’s bridging metaphor proves much safer and more practical. It more easily pictures each world existing in its own contextual identity, but also allows the world of the text to interpret and influence the world of the reader/listener.
Michael Quicke, Principal of Spurgeon’s College, London, warns of at least one danger associated with this bridging metaphor.4 The bridge must not span in one direction only; that is, from text to listener. It must complete a full 360 degree cycle, back to a living revelation of obedience.
Here is the gap. (see figure 1) Differences in language, culture, worldview, values, contextual experiences, and the like challenge our ability as interpreters/preachers to understand the Bible and to apply its teaching with authority. While some would insist that we cannot understand the far removed meaning of Scripture and, therefore, apply that meaning with authority, those who believe in expository preaching fundamentally believe that God has spoken in forms that still can be comprehended and obeyed, even today.
Here is the merge. Those who are most skeptical of our ability to understand the original and intended meaning of the text argue that modern interpreters will, because they must, read their pre-suppositions and biases back into the Bible to make “new” meaning. The merit of this merging metaphor is that it recognizes the tendency of all interpreters to read texts according to their own predisposition(s).
Expository preachers believe that, however true that may be, with care they can grasp and be grasped by the message of the original author. To capitulate to agnosticism regarding biblical meaning and intent goes too far. To limit meaning to the response of the reader/listener ignores the obvious desire of all communicators to be understood, to be taken seriously. The merge, though submitted as a solution to the extreme objectivity of past interpretive methods, is a subtly precarious tool. (see figure 2)
Here is the expositional bridge spanning in only one direction. Rather than eliminating the gap by surrendering the originally intended meaning, expository preachers believe that it is possible to connect the two worlds through the expositional process. Stott’s bridging metaphor testifies to the expositor’s conviction that the gap, though imposing, is negotiable. The usual image evoked, however, is that of a bridge going in one direction only, from text to audience.5
Figure 3 shows the bridging process consisting of “exposition.” In other words, when we work through the exegetical, theological, homiletical, and revelational meaning(s) of a unit of Scripture, we are constructing a bridge that establishes the connection Stott called for, the connection between the Bible and the modern reader/preacher/listener. True exposition will always, as Quicke pointed out, bring the reader/preacher/listener full circle back to revelation, to obedience, to conformity to God’s revealed will. Here is the full cycle 360 degree bridge.6
Revelation emanates from God and has resulted in the inspired, divinely superintended Scriptures. The recognition of divine inspiration has resulted in the canon as we have it today. Exegesis seeks to understand the originally intended meaning of the biblical author as he wrote God’s message for his particular, contextualized readers. Normal-Literal, Historical-Contextual, Grammatical-Syntactical, Literary-Rhetorical tools aid the exegete in arriving at the original “surface” and/or “existential” meaning.7
Theology consists of answering the questions, “What does this text tell me (1) about God, (2) about Man (creation), (3) about the relationship(s) between God and Man, and (4) about the relationship(s) between Man and Men?” These four questions will be answered on at least three levels: the biblical theological, the canonical theological, and the systematic theological.
Biblical theology asks the questions in the context of the human author and his readers. Canonical theology asks the same questions in light of the entire Scripture through the progress of revelation. Systematic theology asks the theological questions in terms of the doctrines developed and articulated by the church over the centuries. This theological process exposes the “deep structure” and/or “essential” meaning, the timeless truth of God’s Word for all people everywhere.
Homiletics discovers the best way to communicate the “consequent contextualized” and/or “existential” meaning of the passage to a particular, contemporary audience. The preacher must explain the meaning of the text, prove its validity, and demonstrate its relevance. The fundamental tools of communication — reasonable/rational argument, solid moral character, and appropriate emotional appeals — drive home the subsequent meaning, the significance, persuasively. The final move back toward the revelational represents the obedient, transformed Christian, a “living epistle” revealing God to a watching world.8
Where the expositor first enters into this expositional cycle is not crucial. Many will begin with a particular text, at Divine revelation, and move through exegesis to theology to homiletics and back to the living revelation of obedience. This form of preparation/presentation has commonly been identified with narrower definitions of expository preaching. These preachers may follow a lectionary schedule, predetermine a text through a personal preaching calendar, or progress unit by unit through a book study.
Others may begin with a homiletical thought — a contemporary issue, event, exigence. This pop-ular form of topical expository preaching meets felt needs head on. Still others may begin their expositional process with a theological topic — something of interest to or need for the preacher and /or congregation. The result is a doctrinal expository sermon. A few preachers might even begin with an exegetical motivation — a hard to understand or accept text. Even these messages will be expositional if the preacher works through the full expository cycle.
Where you first enter this process is not the issue. That you discipline yourself to go back to the text, through exegesis, then through theology, only then through homiletics, and ultimately to obedience is the issue. If you fail to move systematically through the cycle, or if you skip around in the expositional process, you will be doing something other than expository preaching.
More than once I have been asked to explain why a so-called “expository sermon” or why a so-called “expository preacher” falls short of true exposition. I’m not referring to preachers who reject the concept of biblical, expository preaching. They are trying their best to preach expositionally but they sense that something is wrong. For those who do not lack the commitment or the spiritual and intellectual tools for exposition, I would like to expose seven “preaching pathologies” which can rather easily be identified and corrected.
“Pathologies” suggests an abnormality, a deviation from an assumed state. My use of the term is not intended to imply that these “pathologies” are immoral, or even “wrong.” They are “pathologies” because they do not fulfill the more typical definitions of expository preaching. I offer the following as typical:
Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical proposition discovered through a Spirit directed exegetical/theological interpretation of a text and applied by the Holy Spirit through a preacher to a specific audience.
Pathology #1: (Figure 5)
The Exegetical Commentary has provided the all too real “straw man” of so-called “expository preaching.” You have heard the Exegetical Commentary and you have probably presented more than one yourself if you have been privileged to preach regularly. As with all but one of these “pathologies,” there is nothing morally wrong with providing an oral exegetical commentary; it just isn’t expository preaching. The “preacher” begins with a text (or perhaps an exegetical question) and proceeds to exegete the passage — usually a paragraph or verse or phrase or word — in public. While this presentation may display great understanding of the world of the text, it ignores theology, homiletics, and revelatory obedience. These often insightful commentaries demonstrate merely a first step in the expositional process.
Pathology #2: (Figure 6)
The Bible Concordance presents the Word somewhere at or before the exegetical stage. This style of biblical communication may not exegete the text at all. Often this presentation simply flips from one text to another demonstrating where and how the Bible says the same, or nearly the same, thing in passage after passage. “See, Moses said it, and Jesus, and Paul, and John. They all said it.”
Again, I have no moral quarrel with these speakers. In fact, they almost become theological in the process, providing a canonical view of a biblical concept. However, this presentation goes around in a truncated circle turning back on the text again and again without actually fully expounding it. This is not topical expository preaching. Topical expository preaching expounds multiple texts, but with each text developing a complement of the same subject that other passages present or develop only in part.
Pathology #3: (Figure 7)
The Theological Lecture provides a helpful insight into the message of the Scriptures, but this form of religious discourse comes short at the point of contextualization. The speaker stops after developing the theological insights based on careful exegesis of the text. It is good to “do theology.” It is essential to the advance of the Kingdom and spiritual development.
The theological lecture fits well into the context of the Bible college or seminary classroom. Even local churches will benefit from a clear explanation and validation of theological issues.9 However, the Theological Lecture is not exposition since it fails to apply the relevant truth of God’s Word to the particular needs of contemporary listeners.
Pathology #4 (Figure 8)
The Existential Devotional can be fun as well as useful in the life’s work of the minister. There are times when a word, phrase, story, or idea seems to have automatic appropriateness. For the Christmas banquet, the speaker may devotionalize about the shepherd’s staff and how it has become symbolized by our modern candy cane. “The white represents Christ’s purity, the red represents His blood, the green represents the life He gives.”
Such presentations provide timely encouragement even though they may lack the authority of the Scriptures.10 When exegesis and theology are skipped or ignored, the speaker may speak the truth, but without the authorization of the Scriptures. This is not a problem, as long as both speaker and audience realize that this is not expository preaching. Existential Devotionals do not, and cannot, demand obedience.
Pathology #5: (Figure 9)
The Didactic Discourse happens more often than most of us would like to admit. Here the speaker rightly has more desire to get on to the application or significance of the passage for himself and his audience than the mere commentator or lecturer. The problem is that the entire theological process is passed over, either out of haste, ignorance, or willfulness. And many preachers can “get away with” this preaching pathology if they preach in the New Testament epistolary literature.
In the Epistles, the theology stands pretty well developed and straightforward. The transcultural truth has even been contextualized for Christians who struggle with the same things as most contemporary church members. The problem with the Didactic Discourse emerges in the other biblical genre, especially narrative and prophecy. Expository preaching does not simply skip the theological process in either preparation or presentation.
Pathology #6: (Figure 10)
Moralistic Talks often prove timely. The speaker isolates a genuine theological truth, but gleaned from tradition, experience, culture, a novel, or some source other than the Bible, and applies the truth of that theological principle to an individual or congregation. The problem is that the “preacher” does not validate the truth through exegesis gleaned in the Scriptures and does not demonstrate appropriate biblical authority for showing/making application(s).
Too many so-called expositors simply make the 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.11
I have often given moralistic talks to my children for a number of reasons, but I do not contuse that with expository preaching. The fact that I have a room full of people (that is, spiritual children who need my moralisms?) does not transform my little talk (tirade?) into an expository sermon. Without the full 360 degree cycle, I am doing something other than, and less than, expository preaching.
Pathology #7: (Figure 11)
The Homiletical Sham may be the exception to the non-moral character of these preaching pathologies. When the preacher proclaims the relevant application of the theological truth based on solid exegesis of the Bible, but fails to apply it in his/her own life, sin short circuits the expositional process.
When the first changed life is not that of the preacher, something less that expository preaching is going on.12 This is not a claim that preachers must be perfectly sinless, never failing in obedience. It does mean, however, that those who are unwilling to let the Spirit transform their character, values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are not genuine expositors.
I have exposed these “pathologies” both for theoretical and practical reasons. Practically, these abnormalities help me identify, in my own preaching, as well as that of others, where we are coming short of genuine expository preaching. And, when I have identified these aberrant styles, however helpful and moral they may be, I can rectify my shortcomings by proceeding through all the steps of the full-cycle bridge.
Theoretically, I am able to evaluate and critique homileticians as they spin out their definitions of “Expository Preaching.” Those who proffer models that lack the Revelational – Exegetical – Theological – Homiletical – Revelational cycle present pathological models that lead to pathological preaching. Such “preaching” will, no doubt, continue to serve God and advance His Kingdom. Many styles of religious communication are necessary to reach and teach fully developing followers of Jesus Christ. I have used, and will continue to use, most of these models/styles when circumstances have either dictated or allowed a presentation other than a complete exposition. However, if we believe that expository preaching is the method God uses to change and transform,13 then we need to know and practice the full cycle, expositional process as the rule rather than an occasional exception.
1John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), pp. 137, 144.
2Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980), p. 445.
3Ibid., 445.
4Michael Quicke, “The Impact of the Word,” an address delivered at Westminster Chapel, London, England, Wednesday, April 23, 1997. The address was a part of Preaching’s 1997 International Congress on Preaching.
5See, for example, Stott, Between Two Worlds. “It is across this broad and deep divide of two thousand years of changing culture (more still in the case of the Old Testament) that Christian communicators have to throw bridges. Our task is to enable God’s revealed truth to flow out of the Scriptures into the lives of the men and women of today,” p. 138. See also Ramesh Richard, “The Purpose Bridge,” in Scripture Sculpture (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995): 79-85. “We now come to the most critical part of the entire sermon preparation process. When you cross this bridge, you will have gone from studying the Scriptures — a hermeneutical exercise — towards preaching the Scriptures — the homiletical exercise …. you construct and cross the Purpose Bridge,” p. 79. Grant R. Osborne refers to “transcultural meaning which bridges from the text to our context,” The Hermeneutical Spiral, p. 335. The italicized phrases suggest that the bridge extends in one direction only.
6For an extended discussion, see Timothy S. Warren, “A Paradigm for Preaching,” Bibliotheca Sacra 148 (October-December, 1991): 463-486.
7See James DeYoung and Sarah Hurty, “Kingdom Reality: Making the Best of Both Worlds,” in Beyond the Obvious, (Gresham, Oregon: Vision House Publishing, Inc., 1995):101-122.
8See, for example, 2 Corinthians 3:18 and 4:6-11 where Paul states that the life of Christ “may be revealed in our mortal body.”
9Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. “The Crisis in Expository Preaching Today,” Preaching 11:2 (September-October 1995): 4-12.
10An example of this type of religious discourse may be heard in Halford Luccock’s message “The Bell, the Book, and the Candle,” in Treasury of Great Sermons (Waco, Texas: Word, n.d.) side six of a cassette series.
11Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), p. 47.
12Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), pp. 24-26.
13Ibid., pp. 18-19.

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