Here is part of a recent paper which I handed in recently.
Modernist epistemology finds its roots in the enlightenment projects of empiricism and rationalism, each of which are methods which lead to objective unquestionable knowledge.1 This approach can be seen at work in several stages of the studying, preparing, delivery and reception of an expository sermon. The preacher studies the text for objective truth for ‘in their study expositors search for objective meaning of a passage through their understanding of language, backgrounds, and setting of a text.’2 When reading the expositions of Lloyd Jones, or listening to John Piper sermons one is led to believe that the ‘precise’ and total meaning of a passage is being given, an impression which is reinforced by the time which is spent over individual phrases of the bible.3 An expository sermon, does not read like some scholarly commentaries (say NIGTC, Word) in which phrases like ‘highly probable’, ‘likely’, ‘a variety of exegetical options’ are used, for these would not be at home in an exposition which simply, to use as Rankean phrase4, tells it as it really was.
The modernist expositor then seeks to communicate this objective reading of the text, which in Haddon Robinson’s account is understood as the ‘concept/idea’, to the congregation. This objective truth, which is discovered by exegetical skill and prayer, is found in the bible, it can be accessed in its its totality, and received by the listener, through the aid of the Holy Spirit. 5 There is no doubt that such attainment of ‘truth’ is a comfort to the listener of a sermon, for the exposition provides a security, safety and anchor in a world of differing truth claims. Other people, it may be suggested, give their opinions on the bible, but our preacher simply tells it as it was, he does his homework and explains to us the exact meaning of the text.
However, comforting such an approach is to some hearers, the modernist notion of truth is to be rejected as an ‘enlightenment myth’ for we do have direct access to the truth, the hermeneutical chasm cannot be fully crossed using the exegetical tools available.6 Some would argue, following in the footstep of Lyotard and Derrida, that the expository preacher is on a quest for power and the task of communicating concepts, ideas, and truth should be abandoned. All expository sermons should, if this viewpoint be taken, be deconstructed by the listener to reveal the power structures and biases of the expositor.7
If extreme postmodernity is right then expository preaching, including exegesis and delivery, should be rejected in favour of a subjective conversationalist style which puts forward a subjective truth which is one voice amongst many, for, as Kenneth Gregen puts it, ‘we are not dealing here with doubts regarding the claims about truth of human character, but with the full scale abandonment of objective truth.’8
In my opinion the choice between modernity and an extreme post-modern epistemology, in either going the path of modernist exposition or in the rejection of expository preaching, is a false one. A disciple of YHWH should recognise that only YHWH has a god’s-eye-view on truth, and the expositor should display some level of epistemological humility9. Simultaneously to this, the preacher should not fall prey to extreme post-modern thinking as the reality of the Christ event, in both its historical (past) and existential (present) form, cannot lead to the abandonment of metanarratives, as Lyotard would wish, put to the proclamation of tentative truth claims. By tentative truth claims I want to insist that there is a text, composed by an author, which is outside the mind of the preacher. The preacher, recognising his own worldview and presuppositions can approach this text (truth), although he never arrives. The expository preacher seeks to explain, as best as he can, his approach and description of truth, without at any point claiming that he has direct access to it, or that he has truth pinned down. The strengths and weaknesses of expository preaching are noted in the article by Stephen Wright in the recently published Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible,
‘Its laudable ideal is faithfulness to Scripture. Its danger is the illusion that the ‘meaning’ of a text is a readily discoverable entity that can be disclosed to a congregation with minimal self involvement by speaker or hearer.’10
Allan, Blaisdell and Johnston in Theology for Preaching suggest, in the light of the post-modern critique of modernism, that the sermon needs to display the following qualities.
1)Honesty: The preacher needs to be honest about gaps in his own knowledge, the interpretative choices he has made and the validity of other approaches. This could be enhanced in my opinion, by encouraging the congregation to chase up books on a bibilography which is provided by the preacher.
2)Humility. The preacher is to recognise that their understanding of truth is limited. ‘This awareness should take away any arrogance, authoritarianism, or imperialism.’11
3)Openness: A preacher should be open to being corrected. This does not mean that he will automatically change his interpretation or apologise for the content of a sermon, but it does mean that he should offer a ‘hermeneutic of love’12 to those who wish to challenge his/her interpretation. I suggest that this openness could be encouraged, in this digital age, by the expositor publishing his sermon as a blog which allows users to enter into comment and discussion. Mark Driscoll, the lead preacher at Mars Hill church in Seattle, encourages his congregation to text message him at the end of a service. He then seeks to answer these questions live and in public.
These ‘virtues’—honesty, openness, and humility—are to be part of an expository style but I suggest that an expository style, both at the hermeneutics, application and delivery stages, can be enhanced, in the wake of the critique of post-modernist by a move towards i)narrative and ii)worldview as opposed to (i)concepts and (ii) neutrality.
(I) Concept/Narrative: Haddon Robinson states that expository preaching should seek to find the concept of a passage. In my reading of this it it seems to be that every passage, if this approach be followed, can be boiled down into a proposition in the world of ideas. In contrast to this I suggest that the expositor should move away from propositions to narrative. By narrative I mean, amongst other things that stories should not be replaced with concepts. This is true for any preaching on historical books of the bible (Genesis, Kings, Gospels) but also to other books such as the letters of Paul. Romans for example, is often preached as if it were Wayne Gruden’s systematic theology but this fails to realise that Paul writes from his own narrative shaped worldview and that passages often contain a narrative sub-text13. Propositions are not to be rejected in totality but the expositor should remember that propositions function with a larger narrative world of the biblical story. This move towards narrative is essential for non-modernist preaching as propositions can be pinned down as absolute truth claims, whereas stories cannot be reduced to concepts, but can still speak ‘truth’ and have power to awaken authentic praxis. In a similar vein, although he probably goes to far, Brueggemann suggests ‘that we should move to ‘an openness to a text [read expositry preaching] that resists reduction and explanation, that traffics in metaphor, image, tease, and possibility, but that is short on conclusions and directives.’14
ii)Neutrality/World-view: Expository preaching, in a modernist understanding, seeks to give the exact meaning of a text, thus it works with the assumption that this same reading, the true reading, could be achieved by any expositor irrelevant of where he is situated in the globe. In the light of the critique of neutrality the expositor should be aware that she, and her community, read the texts from a particular worldview. The expositor should recognise the non-neutrality of the congregation and seek to resist reading of the text which reinforce non-biblical norms such as individualism and consumerism. The expositor, in making tentative truth claims, is, as post modern thinking reminds us, in a position of power. Yet this power can be used for good or ill, it can be used to point to Christ and challenge non-Christian worldviews (consumerism, individualism) or can be used to to legitimate the zeitgeist. Expositors who are aware of the post modern critique should not only pay attention to the text (exegesis) and culture (interpretation) but also to the ‘spirit of this age’ which can make seeming neutral exegesis into a legitimisation of existing power structures and worldviews.
In case of being misunderstood the purpose of this paper is not to critique and reject expository preaching. In fact, this paper has sought, although critical of modernist epistemology, to offer a defence of expository preaching in the midst of the post-modern challenge. My belief is that God has, and will, speak through tentative truth claims, and the task of the preacher is to communicate, as best as he or she is able, to the claims of scripture, without bowing the knee to the idol of modernity, individualism or consumerism.
Allen, Ronald J., Scott Black Johnston, and Barbara S. Blaisdell. Theology for Preaching: Authority, Truth and Knowledge of God in a Postmodern Ethos. Abingdon Press,U.S., 1997.
Brueggemann ‘A Text that re describes’ Theology Today 58:4 (2002) 526-40
Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-77. Branch Line, 1980.
Goheen, Michael W., and Craig G. Bartholomew. Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview. SPCK Publishing, 2008.
Hayes, Richard The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
MacArthur, John : Rediscovering Expository Preaching. Dallas : Word Pub., 1997, c1992, S. 34,
Robinson, Haddon W. Expository Preaching: Principles and Practice. 2nd ed. Inter-Varsity Press, 2001.
Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. SPCK Publishing, 2006.
Articles cited: ‘Preaching’, ‘Objectvity’
Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God v. 1. SPCK Publishing, 1992.