Some think that it was inevitable that we should have experienced a crisis in expository preaching, if not in all preaching, since that had been the pattern in most other theological disciplines in recent years. Indeed, ever since 1970 we have been warned about a crisis in almost every other theological discipline: e.g., there was the crisis in Systematic Theology,1 another in Biblical Theology,2 and one in Biblical Exegesis,3 and one in just ordinary Bible knowledge.4 But perhaps the one that precipitated all these crises in the theological curriculum was in the discipline of exegesis, just as George M. Landes had argued in 1971.5 We will return to this later.
But aside from these crises, one wonders if this twentieth century ever had a great moment for preaching, or if the full exposition of the Biblical text ever had a time when it shown forth in all its uniqueness for any extended period in the 1900s? Certainly, there were always a few exceptions that could be pointed to here and there, but there was never anything like a national or international surge and demand for the genuine laying out of the Biblical text for twentieth century moderns who were confronting two World Wars, a Depression, and a constant threat of a third World War. Therein lies the burden of this lecture: there is a continuing crisis in that expository preaching has lain dormant and without many advocates, practitioners, or even demands from the pew during this critical century that could ill afford such a tragic loss.
A Definition of Expository Preaching
But before we go too far into detailing the crisis that has now emerged as we are now half way through the last decade of the twentieth century, it is necessary that we define our terms.
First of all, what do we mean by “Expository Preaching?” Expository preaching is that method of proclaiming the Scriptures that takes as a minimum one paragraph of Biblical text (in prose narrative or its equivalent in other literary genre) and derives from that test both the shape (i.e. the main points and subpoints of the sermon) and the content (i.e. the substance, ideas, and principles) of the message itself. Each of the items in this definition are worthy of some further argumentation.
A Rationale for this Definition of Expository Preaching: Why, some will ask immediately, must the sermon be based on at least one paragraph (or its equivalent in other literary genre) of Biblical text, and in most circumstances the full teaching block or periscope of the Scripture? There are two reasons this is necessary: (1) a paragraph (or its equivalent) is the simplest, most concise statement of a single idea; and (2) if the sermon is to have any authority in this day and age, it must have the divine authority claimed in the text as its warrant.
What such a tactic rules out are the following: (1) bumper sticker slogan preaching, derived either from Scripture or elsewhere that becomes little more than psychological boosters; and (2) preaching from market-driven forces that dictate what will and what will not “go over” with certain age groups, clienteles, or classes of listeners. The Scriptures must be given priority in setting the agenda and the diet for our spiritual welfare.
Secondly, we must ask why both the shape and the content of what we preach must be directed by the passage we are examining? It is because of two other deep crises of all in our age: (1) the crisis of truth,6 and (2) the crisis of authority. Truth with a capital “T” is becoming a most scarce item in our day, for many feel that it is only necessary that each of us have our own measure of truth(s) as a further extension of some of the present age’s narcissism. As God recedes further and further into the background of the postmodern age, and the doctrines of creation, providence and supernaturalism are jettisoned, it becomes all the more difficult to convince post-moderns that there are any absolutes left in the world, much less an absolute truth.7
Gene Edward Veith, Jr. correctly assessed our day when he observed that:
The postmodernist rejection of objectivity pervades the evangelical Church….. This downplaying of doctrine and objective thinking helps explain why 53 percent of evangelical Christians can believe that there are no absolutes (as compared to 66 percent of Americans as a whole)…. This openness to personal feelings and experience is a point of contact with postmodernism, which has gone on to exaggerate the role of subjectivity beyond anything that a “hot gospeler” of the nineteenth century would ever recognize.8
But the crisis with authority is none the less severe. In fact some have taken the ultimate step. In a most startling article that appeared in the January 1995 issue of Interpretation magazine, Robin Scroggs, Professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York, concluded:
I propose instead that we forthrightly give up any claim that the Bible is authoritative (as I have defined the word) in guidance for contemporary faith and morals. This, I would argue, is the inevitable and appropriate final step in the long story of the erosion of biblical authority. In public discussions the Bible must be discussed as a human document from the past and our dialogue with it seen as a human process of the present. The Bible has no “legal” authority to determine our “now.”9
What Scroggs proposes in its place is the use of the Bible as a “foundational document,” i.e., the Bible must always be a dialogue partner, but it would not have the weight of any legal authority nor would it limit us so that we could not go beyond what it taught. Surely, this is the logical conclusion of the constant erosion of biblical authority that this century has been witnessing all along.
A Rationale for Training the Laity: Another reason for advocating expository preaching is that the laity will be trained in how to read and study the Bible on their own when they imitate the methods they see us using on each Lord’s day. Bible reading and study continues to dwindle and sink to alarming proportions at the end of this century. In times past, many concluded that their pastor was too deep and esoteric for them to be able to imitate what he did. Now, it is just the reverse: many pastors can preach whole messages with little more than a tip of the hat to a clause or two taken from a biblical context that few, if any, recognize. Even more pastors have decided that using the Bible is a handicap for meeting the needs of the boomer and “X” generations; therefore they have gone to drawing their sermons from the plethora of recovery and pop-psychology books that fill our Christian bookstores. The market-forces demand that we give them what they want to hear if we wish them to return and pay for the mega-sanctuaries that we have built. Scripture, therefore, is lost in the shuffle for relevancy and “meeting needs.”
This search for what is sensational, entertaining and ego-building has reached alarming proportions in the fare that is being handed out in many pulpits today. Rather than Scripture declaring what God wants to say to us, the crowds that come dictate what is acceptable, popular, nonthreatening and preachable for modern audiences. No one has stated this better than the psychiatrist and Christian writer John White. He explained:
Until about fifteen years ago psychology was seen by most Christians as hostile to the gospel. Let someone who professes the name of Jesus baptize secular psychology and present it a something compatible with Scripture truth, and most Christians are happy to swallow theological hemlock in the form of “psychological insights.”
Over the past fifteen years there has been a tendency for churches to place increasing reliance on trained pastoral counselors…To me it seems to suggest weaknesses in or indifference to expository preaching within evangelical churches…Why do we have to turn to the human sciences at all? Why? Because for years we have failed to expound the whole of Scripture. Because from our weakened exposition and our superficial topical talks we have produced a generation of Christian sheep who have no shepherd. And now we are damning ourselves more deeply than ever by our recourse to the wisdom of the world.
What I do as a psychiatrist and what my psychologist colleagues do in their research or their counselling is of infinitely less value to distressed Christians than what God says in his Word. But pastoral shepherds, like the sheep they guide, are following (if I may change the metaphor for a moment) a new Pied Piper of Hamelin who is leading them into the dark caves of humanistic hedonism.
A few of us who are deeply involved in the human sciences feel like voices crying in a godless wilderness of humanism, while the churches turn to humanistic psychology as a substitute for the gospel of God’s grace.10
Surely what White describes is accurate and fits the majority of our pulpit ministries today. The people, who theoretically are in need of spiritual help, are prescribing for the spiritual physicians what it is that they need! This, too, is part of the current crisis in expository preaching. There must be a return to preaching the whole counsel of God if we wish to halt the current fad and appetite for “junk food/’artificial preservatives, unnatural substitutes, and carcinogenic spiritual food being served Sunday after Sunday to languishing Christian congregations.11
Preaching the Whole Canon of Scripture
Seedbeds for Heresies or Para-church Ministries. One of my teachers, Professor Merrill C. Tenney Dean of the Wheaton Graduate School of Theology wisely said one day in class: “Neglect one area of the Scriptures in our teaching and preaching and that area will become the seed bed for tomorrow’s heresies.” I would add just one additional item: “…or a para-church ministry will mercifully spring up in the gracious providence of God to capture that neglected truth and portion of the canon.”
Areas of Most Notorious Neglect. When it comes to neglect, no section of the Bible is as studiously avoided as that of the Old Testament, which makes up some 77.2 percent of the Bible (I added the .2% to make the figure sound more authentic and call more attention to the fact that is over three-fourths of the Bible).
Less than one-tenth of the sermons submitted for the journal Preaching are based on the Old Testament. Even for those who use a lectionary to guide them in their worship and preaching, wherein an Old Testament passage, a Gospel and an Epistle are suggested for each Sunday; more often than not, the Old Testament winds up being used primarily or solely for public reading with the overwhelming majority of the messages coming from the New Testament. One should not complain, I suppose, for the public reading of the any portion of the Word of God is fast disappearing from those congregations that do not use a lectionary in favor of numerous “Praise Choruses” sung repetitiously over and over again in the manner of Sesame Street lyrics.
As Michael Duduit speculated, can you imagine what it would be like to enroll in a foreign language class three-fourths of the way through the term?12 How could one keep up with the class, hearing the same lessons and taking the same tests without receiving the foundational material? That is what trying to preach on or to listen to the New Testament is like without having a good diet of preparation in the Old Testament. The organic unity of the Bible comes crashing down around our feet in spite of the vigor with which we press our sermons, for they drift in a open sea of ideas and opinions with little to anchor or to prepare for them.
Preaching to Meet Contemporary Needs and Issues. The Scriptures must be given priority in setting the agenda and the diet for our spiritual welfare. The relevancy and adequacy of the Bible to meet the needs of a modern age are easily demonstrable. In fact, sermons that feature the latest pop psychology or recovery plan are settling for less than they could or should. In almost every contemporary issue the Church faces today, she would have been better off a thousand times over had she gone with a systematic plan to go through the whole Bible in an expository way. Modern congregations have lost their sense of direction because they do not know either the beginning, middle or end of the plan that God has laid out so clearly in the Bible. This can be argued in the following ways.
The Organic Unity of the Bible. The first place that we have failed in recent years is in our ability to state for ourselves and our parishioners wherein the Bible exhibited an organic unity from Genesis to Revelation. For almost forty years after 1950 there was almost no writing (or teaching) on the unity of the Bible.13 In 1992 Daniel P. Fuller’s The Unity of the Bible: Unfolding God’s Plan for Humanity14 appeared followed by David Noel Freedman’s The Unity of the Hebrew Bible in 1993.15 Neither one develops the organic theme as richly as did Geerhardus Vos at the beginning of this century;16 nevertheless, it was a delight to see the subject once again being taught.
Fuller rightly argues that teaching and preaching from the standpoint of the unity of the Bible put the whole Bible together so that people could make sense out of it; it gave coherence to the whole canon. Moreover, it sounded a clear and intelligible note so that people could respond.
As far back as 1907, James Orr had compared the Koran to the Bible on this matter of unity. The 114 suras, or chapters of which the Koran is composed are arranged chiefly according to length — the longer in general preceding the shorter. Other than this principle, it is impossible to extract any order, progress, or arrangement. The same held true for the Zoroastrian and Buddhist Scriptures. But how different, Orr argued, must everyone acknowledge the Bible to be. There is a beginning, a middle and end. We see the plan of God growing before our eyes with purpose, progress, and functioning according to a plan.17
David Noel Freedman went at it another way in a lecture he gave to the faculty of the University of Michigan. After noting that the Hebrew Bible has some 305,500 words, with approximately one-half, or 150,000 found in the first nine books of the Hebrew canon, which included the five books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and the four books of the Earlier or Former Prophets (viz., Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings), he concluded that these nine books told the basic story of Israel from the beginning to the dismantling of Israel’s national identity. In the second half of 150,000 words, it begins with the Latter Prophets(viz., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve [minor prophets]) and ends with the Writings (viz., Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Songs, Kohelet, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles), on the same melancholy series of events noted in the Primary History of the first nine books; only this time they form the center, not the conclusion of the argument. This mournful moment comes this time at the center of this prophetic corpus, for the latter part of Jeremiah and the first part of Ezekiel record the Fall of Jerusalem while the center of the Writings comes approximately in Lamentations that depicts that same event.
Thus the structure of the Old Testament is pyramidal and symmetric; its apex is near or at the center. The center of the Hebrew Bible as a whole comes at the end of what Freedman calls the Primary History (the first nine books). But the mid point of what Freedman calls the Primary History is the book of Deuteronomy with its Decalogue constituting the essence of the covenant and summarizing Israel’s obligation to its God.
Amazingly, the decalogue appears at the beginning of Israel’s march from Egypt to Canaan (Exodus 20)and just before they entered the land (Deuteronomy 5). In Freedman’s way of reckoning, each of the first nine commandments was featured in eight of the first nine books as being violated by Israel and as the reason why God finally had to send them into seventy years of captivity in Babylon. His list goes like this:
Apostasy Exodus 32
Idolatry Exodus 32
Blasphemy Leviticus 24:10-16
Sabbath Numbers 15: 32-36
Parents Deuteronomy 21:18-21
Stealing Joshua 7
Killing Judges 19-20
Adultery 2 Samuel 11-12
False Witness 1 Kings 2118
While the particular details of this scheme may be debated, the overall plan is certainly very suggestive.
The Consistent Exposition of Sections of the Bible. What is needed to reverse the tragic course of events briefly described above is a whole new appreciation both for the adequacy and relevancy of the whole Bible to answer the contemporary morass that preaching has fallen into. This can only be accomplished by providing for the growth of the preacher as well as the congregation.
One of the best ways to accomplish this is to deliberately push the exegete into a pattern of study and preaching that forces the exegete to explore new texts and thereby to grow in his or her own understanding of the principles God has set forth for modern application. Without such a plan to study and preach through the Bible section by section, book by book, and pericope by pericope, the opportunity for spiritual growth and development in the exegete and proclaimer will be severely restricted, not to mention the inhibited growth of those to whom they minister.
But there is another factor: to use an analogy, how can water rise higher than its source? Surely one lake in the Rockies cannot feed another lake or stream unless it is situated on a higher level that the one it is feeding. In like manner, a congregation cannot be expected to think, act, or live on a plane higher than those who are charged under God to feed them. And if the shepherd is not growing and expanding his or her understanding and horizons of biblical truth, it is almost a foregone conclusion that the laity will likewise evidence little or no growth and perception of spiritual realities beyond the most elementary entrance truths of the gospel.
It must have been a situation close to our present crisis that called forth the remonstration from the writer of Hebrews when he warned:
We have much to say about [God designating Jesus to be a High Priest after the order of Melchizedek], but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. Therefore, let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance form acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instructions about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection from the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so (Heb. 5:11-6:3, NIV). (Emphasis ours).
It is possible to get stuck on simply going over and over again the same old elementary truths of the gospel, thereby only giving milk without any solid food. Is that not the case today? Maturity requires solid food! Some by “constant use [of solid food] have trained themselves” to go on to maturity, argued the writer of Hebrews. But there is little “constant use” and little “train(ing of ourselves in the use of solid food).” We return repeatedly to those portions of the Scripture and those elementary truths we know best.
How can we get off this merry-go round? By getting the big picture of the whole plan of God in our study of the unity of the Bible and by digging deeply and originally into new books of the Bible. Until we have searched exegetically the whole counsel of God, book by book, chapter by chapter, and paragraph by paragraph, we will put the same elementary content into differently shaped vessels (i.e. different sermon outlines allegedly even from different biblical passages) week after week to the detriment of our people.
A Concluding Observation
It is clear that things are getting out of hand in our present day and cultures. Whether it be the editorials in The New York Times, one of the news weeklies, or a pastoral analysis, the complaintaints are agreed that there is too much violence, too little respect for authority, too much drunkenness, drug addiction, and ethical and moral decline.
But what did we expect? Had we not been seriously warned in texts like Proverbs 29:18 that “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off all restraint?” Most recall that the Authorized Version translated these same words as “Where mere is no vision the people perish,” but these words were not best suited as the initial words for the pastor’s annual report. The word “vision” is actually on of the words for God’s method of revealing his words to his prophets in the Old Testament.
Moreover, the verb “perish” is deliberately taken from the informing theology19 of Exodus 32:25 where Moses used the same word which was there translated as the people “were running wild.” Moses was gone for a little more than a month up on Mount Sinai (forty days) when the absence of teaching from God’s revelation caused the people to request Moses’s brother Aaron to build the Golden Calf. Then it was that the people “cast off all restraint” by stripping off their clothes as they danced and fell into religious prostitution before the Golden Calf.
What can we say in defense of the contemporary scene? If only six weeks absence of the Word of God led to this outrage in Israel, a people who had firsthand directly observed so much of the hand of God working on their behalf in miracle after miracle, what will a month and a half of musical groups, films, discussion and recovery groups in place of a fair exposition of God’s Word lead to in our day? This is not to say that many of these substitute programs are not fine in and of themselves and appropriate in certain settings, but must they replace the Word of God?
The motto of reformed Geneva was “After darkness, Light!” It was the assumption of Calvin and his successors that light came to God’s people through the preaching of God’s Word. Therefore six sermons a week were prescribed according to the ordinances of the Church of Geneva in A.D. 1541. There was to be a sermon at dawn on the Lord’s day, one at the usual hour of nine a.m., catechism for the children at noon, another sermon at three p.m. and a sermon on each of the working days of Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
If they thought all of that was necessary in order for light to penetrate the darkness of their day, can we not at least find thirty to forty minutes at the eleven clock hour each Sunday to exposit the Word of God? How else will we end the famine of God’s word that has been sent in the latter part of this twentieth century? Was that not what Amos 8:11-12 had predicted would take place when their generation wearied of hearing and doing the Word of God? It would not be a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but “a famine for hearing the Word of the LORD.”
That is what we are now hard into in the middle of this last decade of the twentieth century. The exposition of God’s Word today is as rare and scarce as it was during the days of Samuel (1 Sam 3:1).
But that scarcity can end if and when God’s people and His ministers deliberately decide to take steps to reverse our current appetites and procedures. A consistent and systematic exposition of the Scriptures will help restore order, end the habits of a violent society and repair damaged relationships at every level of society. I rest my case for an urgent return to expository preaching.
1See Tom F. Driver, “Review of Langdon Gilkey’s Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God Language,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 25 (1970): 361.
2Brevard S. CMds, Biblical Theology in Crisis (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970).
3George M. Landes, “Biblical Exegesis in Crisis: What is the Exegetical Task in a Theological Context?” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 26 (1970-71): 274.
4James D. Smart, The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church: A Study in Hermeneutics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), p. 10.
5Ibid., p. 274. Landes argues that the most “basic crisis in biblical studies” must be placed in the discipline of exegesis.
6See David Wells. No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).
7See the very insightful discussion by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture. Wheaton, IL.: Crossway Books, 1994.
8Veith, ibid., pp. 211-12.
9Robin Scroggs, “The Bible as Foundational Document/’ Interpretation 49 (1995): 23 (Emphasis hers).
10John White. Flirting with the Word. Wheaton, IL.: Shaw, 1982, pp. 114-17 as cited by John MacArthur, Jr. Rediscovering Expository Preaching. Dallas: Word, 1992, p. xvi.
11See the development of these metaphors in the “Preface” to my book entitled Toward and Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981, pp. 7-11.
12Michael Duduit, “The Church’s Need for Old Testament Preaching,” in Reclaiming the Prophetic Mantle: Preaching the Old Testament Faithfully Ed. by George L Klein (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), p. 10. Michael used the figure “Two-thirds,” but I have modified it to three-fourths.
13See for example, Floyd Filson, “The Unity of the Bible/’ Interpretation (1950).
14Daniel P. Fuller. The Unity of the Bible: Unfolding God’s Plan for Humanity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).
15David Noel Freedman. The Unity of the Hebrew Bible (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1993).
16Geerhardus Vos. Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961 reprint).
17James Orr. The Problem of the Old Testament (New York: Charles Scirbner’s Sons, 1907), pp.31-32.
18Freedman is aware of the fact that he has scrambled the order of the commandments as: 1-5, 8, 6, 7, and 9, though he argues that there is precedence for doing so in certain lists in the Old Testament itself
19Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology, pp. 134-140.

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