When the history of twentieth century Southern Baptist preaching is written,
one name will stand at the top of the list: W. A. Criswell. Here was a man
who preached for more than three-quarters of a century and who on October 6,
1944, at the age of 34, preached his first sermon as the pastor of the great
First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. For more than half a century, perched
behind the beautiful red velvet topped carved oak pulpit his expository preaching
ministry became world-renowned.
the single most significant impact Criswell’s preaching had was to foster expositional
preaching within the Southern Baptist Convention and beyond. In 1946 Criswell
began an expository preaching tour through the entire Bible. He began with
Genesis. Seventeen and one-half years and a few thousand new members later,
he finished Revelation. When he announced his intention to preach through the
Bible, the nay-sayers emerged from within the church. “You’ll kill the church!”
some warned. “People won’t come” moaned others. “What will you do when you
get to the book of Numbers” carked some. As Criswell put it, “you never heard
such lugubrious prognostications in all of your life.” During those years,
the church needed no ecclesiastical undertakers; in fact, her ministries flourished.
Under Dr. Criswell’s preaching, FBC became the prototype for the mega-church
with her membership rolls swelling to over 25,000 by the mid-1980s. In an era
when preaching in the main-line denominational churches was afflicted with nervous
prostration, Criswell proved you could build a great church on the expositional
preaching of the Bible as the inerrant Word of God.
steady diet of expositional preaching combined with a rhetorical eloquence kept
people on the edge of their seats. His knowledge of history, the arts, literature
and human nature was only eclipsed by his knowledge of the Scripture. His sermons
were always lightly sprinkled with quotes and illustrations from these other
sources that enhanced his powerful exposition and application of the Bible.
Criswell’s versatility, knowledge of the original languages, and oratorical
skill were marshaled in impressive array Sunday by Sunday in his sermons. His
preaching was often a verbal pyrotechnic extravaganza . . . a homiletical fourth of
preaching reflects a mastery of correct use of grammar. His use of the elements
of persuasion made Criswell virtually peerless in his ability to make relevant
biblical exposition. He also excelled at explaining a biblical text without
the use of technical theological jargon. He had a reputation of being “a Holy-roller
with a Ph.D.” Vividness of language, use of strong, active verbs, and a regular
use of the first person plural instead of the second person, all combined to
create a bond between himself and his hearers. Concreteness, repetition, alliteration,
combined with a superb ability to make use of figures of speech turned the ear
into an eye for Criswell’s listeners.
Criswell also made effective use of pause, rate, vocal variation, etc. in his
preaching. His voice would rise to a shout and then fall to a whisper. These
matters of delivery merged with his expository content created an effective
combination, like the one-two punch of a skilled pugilist.
respect to sermonic structure, Criswell usually maintained the priority of content
over structure, with the result that his audience was not “distracted” by overly
analytical or artificial outlining. Criswell violated virtually every homiletical
rule in the book when it came to sermon introductions. In short, he scarcely
ever had one! His sermons began like a vertical leap off the proverbial ledge
into the waters below. Criswell seldom commenced a sermon with the hearers
and their context. Rather, he started with the “then” of the text.
one of the most important points to note about Criswell’s preaching is the correlation
of logos, pathos, and ethos to put it in Aristotelian rhetorical
terms. His messages had content, but also his audience viewed him as credentialed,
believable and genuine. Indeed, he was to some almost larger than life. His
sermons had something drastically lacking in much of contemporary preaching:
passion. Criswell preached to hearts as well as to heads.
own views on preaching can be found primarily in his Guidebook for Pastors.
“A sermon is not a theological essay. It is designed to move the heart
and the will of the people as well as to instruct them in the way and in the
faith. A sermon ought to be like the epistles of Paul. The apostle wrote of
great doctrinal truth and teaching, then he closed with wonderful application
. . . There are many different kinds of preaching, but the heart of it all is
to preach the Christ of the Bible, the Word of God incarnate, spoken and written.”
Speaking of his early preaching as a young man compared with his later years
at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Criswell said: “When I first began to
preach as a teenager . . . I preached about whatever fell by chance into my
mind. I preached according to whatever some incident or event or saying would
suggest. That is about as poor a way to prepare a sermon as could be found
in all the world . . . If I had my ministry to do over again, I would from
its very beginning preach the Bible and nothing but the Bible. I would go through
book after book of the Bible. If I could not find a message in a verse, I would
take a paragraph. If I could not find a message that moved my heart in a paragraph,
I would take a chapter . . .” 2
Perhaps more than any other single preacher in the last half of the twentieth
century, W. A. Criswell has fostered the expositional preaching of the Bible.
In addition to his influence as an expositor, from the beginning of his ministry
Criswell preached without notes. This choice undoubtedly contributed to his
effectiveness in the pulpit and his influence upon many who preach without notes
because of his own approach in this area. Another area of influence was his
habit of spending the morning hours in study and sermon preparation at home.
He regularly emphasized the need of the pastor to devote his morning hours to
study and sermon preparation, preferably at home, away from the hustle and bustle
of the church office. These three characteristics: expository preaching, preaching
without notes, and morning study influenced myriads of preachers in the generations
Criswell’s preaching combined with his incredible 56 published books had a significant
theological impact in two ways. First, through his expository preaching ministry
and his study of the Scripture, he became a committed Premillennialist. Postmillennialism
had begun to be shaken after WWI and with the aftermath of WWII the Amillennial
perspective came to ascendancy in Southern Baptist life. From 1944 on Criswell’s
espousal of Premillennialism became increasingly influential in the Southern
Baptist Convention and beyond.
Second, the most powerful influence he exerted within his own denomination and
beyond, and for which he will be remembered, is his unswerving commitment to
the inerrancy and infallibility of the Scriptures. In his preaching and writing,
he inveighed against the liberalism, which had infected Protestantism as well
as his own beloved Southern Baptist “Zion” (as he loved to call it). He was
a key player in the conservative resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention
in the last quarter of the 20th century.
Criswell has often been compared to his favorite preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon,
the famed London Baptist pastor of the nineteenth century. There are indeed
a number of similarities between the two. Both were Bible expositors, both
built great churches, both founded schools to train preachers, and both were
embroiled in doctrinal controversy in their denominations surrounding the issue
of liberalism in the later years of their ministry.
the author of Hebrews noted about Abel, “he being dead yet speaks,” so the influence
of W. A. Criswell’s preaching ministry continues. It continues in his fifty-six
books; it continues in the school he founded known as The Criswell College which
exists to train expository preachers; it continues in the recently released
Criswell Legacy Project on the internet website www.wacriswell.com
where more than 2000 of his sermons can be downloaded; and it continues in the
countless men filling pulpits around the world whose expositional approach to
preaching was somehow encouraged by W. A. Criswell.
was the living example of Phillips Brooks’ definition of preaching as truth
through human personality. The pulpit could do with a little more “Criswellian”
L. Allen is Criswell Professor of Expository Preaching at Criswell College,
Dallas, and is newly-elected Dean of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Seminary.
Guidebook for Pastors (Nashville: Broadman, 1980), 41. See especially
27-57, the chapter entitled “The Pastor in the Pulpit.” This is a must read
for all preachers.
Why I Preach that the Bible is Literally True (Nashville: Broadman Press,