Bottleneck 3: Faulty Text Selection

Preachers make decisions about what text or texts to preach for all sorts of reasons, often the most powerful one being the sort of preaching they have heard. Most of us were also influenced by our training, and the homileticians who trained many of us usually classify sermons by a time-honored taxonomy. In the traditional nomenclature of homiletics, sermons tend to be classified as topical, textual/thematic, or expository.

A Classic Homiletical Taxonomy

Let me rehearse a classical definition of each of these and then tell you why I think this taxonomy can be improved.

Topical Sermons

James W. Cox describes the topical sermon well:

The topical sermon gives a systematic or integrated treatment of a theme considered worthy of discussion. Such a sermon may or may not be biblical. Whether such a sermon is biblical does not depend on the degree to which it relies on particular texts from the Bible. Rather, that depends on faithfulness to the great themes of the Bible, “the characteristic and essential biblical ideas” (John Knox). Therefore, a topical sermon may be thoroughly biblical, even though it is not expository or textual. By the same token, a so-called expository or textual sermon may not be biblical.

You know that you are listening to a topical sermon when a topic, idea, or concept is what controls the sermon, not one or more texts of Scripture.

Textual/Thematic Sermons

Text-sermons begin with a text of Scripture, often a short one, which the preacher reads and which suggests to him one or more ideas that are developed, often with the aid of phrases or parts of the passage. For instance, Broadus (citing Shedd) offers the example of a preacher named Bedome who spoke from Acts 9:4 (kjv): “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” His main parts were: “(1) It is the general character of unconverted men to be of a persecuting spirit. (2) Christ has his eye upon persecutors. (3) The injury done to Christ’s people, Christ considers as done to himself. (4) The calls of Christ are particular.”3 Broadus speaks of text-sermons that suggest multiple ideas that are then pursued, sometimes using the phrases of the text to string them together. “Thematic” suggests that sermons in this category start with a text and let that text suggest a theme that might then be developed with more or less reference to the text at hand or other texts, but the text itself does not control the sermon; it merely launches it and legitimizes it. Other texts, insights, or experiences provide the material that develops the idea suggested by the text. Ultimately, control is in the hands of the preacher.4

Expository Sermons

“A sermon that explores any biblical concept is in the broadest sense ‘expository,’ but the technical definition of an expository sermon require that it expound Scripture by deriving from a specific text main points and subpoints that disclose the thought of the author, cover the scope of the passage and are applied to the lives of the listeners.”5 The word expository, when used to define preaching, often, but not always, signals the handling of a single text that is usually longer than a verse and does so in the context of treating the next section of text the following Sunday. This, unfortunately, conflates two distinct practices: exposition of thought units of the biblical text and lectio continua, the practice of consecutive exposition through books of the Bible.

Abandoning This Taxonomy

While I acknowledge that this taxonomy has helped many preachers, I find it less helpful than it once was for the following reasons:

First, it merely describes some sermons and offers no helpful guidance concerning how to approach the Bible when preaching it.

Second, the titles themselves, including topical and expository, have become, on the one hand, epithets of derision, and on the other, badges of honor. Instead of helping preachers know what to do when deciding how much text to preach, they have become fortresses behind which lazy preachers hide or toward which others fire their missiles. They have become associated with various preachers, as if each of us should unthinkingly embrace the method of one or another popular preacher.

Third—and this is not unrelated to my second concern—these titles have become caricatures. The result is that some preachers wrongly despise topical or thematic sermons that are in fact thoroughly biblical and pastorally helpful. Others criticize so-called “expository sermons” that those of us who aspire to expound Scripture would also find equally—or perhaps more—inadequate as sermons. That is, they take such sermons as typical of this category of sermon and vilify the whole group on the basis of the shortcomings of sermons they put in that category.

An Alternative Approach

If I am correct that this taxonomy now creates more problems than it solves, then an alternative approach is warranted. John Stott’s solution commends itself. He argues that all truly biblical preaching is or ought to be expository. By expository I mean bringing out what is there, as opposed to “impository,” imposing our ideas, presuppositions, and biases on the text. Stott emphasized that we are not originators of a word from God; we are only stewards of it. Later on in his ministry, he preferred the adjective biblical with the noun preaching, as a way of minimizing the confusion that comes with the word expository. Walter Liefeld helpfully reminds us what expository preaching is not:

– “Expository preaching is not verse-by-verse exegesis.” In the pulpit we are not to spend a lot of time describing in detail the grammar and syntax of the passage, despite having spent much time on both in the study.

– “Expository preaching is not simply a running commentary.” We are not to paraphrase the contents of the passage in order or simply rehearse ideas gleaned from others, often commentators.

– “Expository preaching is not a captioned survey of a passage.” That is, we do not merely describe the parts of a passage. For example, we do not say, “Next we have a section that deals with Paul’s second missionary journey.”

Liefeld concludes, “The foregoing substitutes for expository preaching often share two basic faults: (1) they may fail to be faithful to the emphasis, doctrine, and function of the passage, and (2) they may fail to possess the qualities that make for a homiletically sound and pastorally applied message.”

I conclude that expository is a good word, if we use it to help us avoid any approach that fails to let the text have its say. For that reason, it is worth keeping, but I will use it only with the above clarifications in mind.

Content taken from Let the Earth Hear His Voice by Greg Scharf, 2015. Used by permission of P&R Publishing Company, Phillipsburg, New Jersey 08865,

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