The importance of exegetical preaching in the Christian Church

Everyone claims to be doing “exegetical preaching”.

There is no camp that says, “We’re going to stick strictly to isogetical falsifications of the text.” There is no camp that doesn’t claim they are preaching the word. They all say the same thing.

In seminary, (@fuller) I interact with a wide swath of preacher-teachers that hammer on exegesis and application. They use, “the grammatico-historical methodology (some of them) and on and on, even the ones that don’t believe the text is actually true (by their own affirmations). The problem is that they get such different things from the texts that they can’t all be telling the truth. That’s not to say that anyone is lying as to say that a given text does not have an infinite series of possible meanings and one is either preaching the text, or one is not. The claim to exegetical preaching of the Bible is about the same in the real world as to say I’m preaching “out of the Bible”. Yeah, we know.

So how then would we discriminate or identify Biblical preaching-teaching from mere topical or a good lecture?

That’s simple: If there is a text, and the teacher is explaining the text, and is right about what the text means, they are preaching the word. If they’re wrong they are not preaching the word whatever their pretensions of exegetical methodology.

There is a text. After hearing the text preached, do you understand that verse, section of a verse, chapter or book better than you did prior? If you do then you might have heard an exegetical sermon or you might not. If you do then at least some exegetical preaching has taken place but there’s no certainty that the sermon itself has been a preaching of the word. It might merely have included the preaching of the word.

What came along with that exegesis? Was the exegesis a formal duty performed that was dispensed as a cursory necessity in order to move on to some other presumptively more important matter? Then the “exegetical” requirement was merely a ruse, a shell game in which the hearer is expected to keep their eye on the text wherever it leads regardless of the content of the sermon.

(I recently sat through a sermon on “teamwork” by a well known Pastor of long career and good reputation. After 35 minutes on being a team (because apparently a church is some kind of a team) he noticed that he hadn’t read or referenced any text at all. He picked up a Bible and opened it to proverbs and read one, perhaps at random. I’m not sure anyone else noticed. I don’t remember what the verse was. Why would I? It wasn’t relevant to the sermon.)

You see, in a sermon, if it is a gospel sermon, the text of scripture demands all that is said in that sermon. Every exhortation or sermon by every preacher or teacher might be different. Every one of them using different words, illustrations, points of focus or analogies to better equip their hearer to apprehend their text (and all of these in its service) but often the text is a mere pretext to the preacher’s own personal intent or theological agenda.

If one brings in any other thing it is an ellipse of the Holy Ghost.

We could say it like this, in a sermon, whatever is not in service to the specific word is probably sin. It’s not that it’s bad information or even something that is false or heretical, but that time in the worship service of a Christian Church when all else is silent and the souls of the body come together for spiritual feeding upon Christ preached, Christ is exclusive. There is nothing other that a person can say or do that is not a human imposition upon holy scripture. So many Bible related sermons are rooted not in sacred scripture but human imagination that it seems to have become the norm in American preaching and teaching.

So what can rightly be brought into a sermon and still be a preaching of the word? Plainly, almost anything. History, fiction, narrative, story, illustration, personal accounts, poetry, experience, other texts of scripture, theologies, philosophy, the breadth is not easily limited. But is that thing directly related to one’s understanding of the true meaning of the text? Or at least, is it an inference from the text that gives one a useful nuance that leads to a better understanding? If not, almost everything we can do when we stand in front of a people declaring Christ is going to be mere construct. There is a text and it must be preached because the text and not the preacher is the power unto salvation. The preacher is such a little thing. A mere voice for a message not his own. More a town cryer than a king.

So what of erudite and vast sermons that show deep study and learning but are wrong? The early church was obese with sermons by incredible intellects that taught heretical sermons. If you think Sabellius, Nestorius and Arius were mental midgets that avoided careful exegetical methods, they were not. They were men of renown and men of vast intellectual gifts but I would argue their sermons were not “exegetical” in that the word they preached did not include the gospel. I think we can safely say that missing the gospel is not preaching the word of God at all, can’t we? If we preach a Christ that is not the Christ of the Bible isn’t that enough to secure the obvious? What then if we smuggle obvient points of distraction and chaos?

Now you might be thinking “what does he really have in mind here?” Well there’s no purpose to writing if we don’t aim when we shoot; many of the super-pastors that so enthrall the masses like Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, John Hagee are Pastors that have become like objects of devotion themselves. Their ministries are huge and their income incredible. Their influence is unprecedented in the history of the church if simply because we can now reach so far in the homes of so many persons. Perhaps also if in a different vein: Friedrich Schleiermacher, Charles Augustus Briggs, Henry Ward Beecher, Adolf von Harnack, Charles Fillmore, Walter Rauschenbusch, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich and N.T. Wright. But do they preach the word of God or do they preach sermons inferentially related to the Bible? When they preach loud and strong with a clear and vigorous voice with a bible held high in their hand do they preach the word? Is the intensity of their presentation the measure of true preaching? Is the emotional effect upon the hearer the test? Is the moving of the crowd to earnest personal interest (really, this is perhaps the most common present measure used by the contemporary Christian; did that message “move” me. If it did then how can there be error wherein I have been “moved”).

That’s the question: is the text a mere servant of a another less noble interest? In whole or in part.

Now who am I? No one. Nothing really. Any one of those or a hundred more like them preach to hundreds or thousands of people every week and on a good week I might have the opportunity to speak to a few hundred. Their greatness in one sense dwarfs the work of the small churches that struggle in the word day by day, week by week, year by year… but they do preach the word and not something else.

At the end of the day perhaps the preaching of the word, meaning the accurate telling, re-telling and re-re-telling of the gospel of Jesus Christ will never have the cache and sophistication of other tales born of powerful creatively human forces but they will be God’s story and not ours. They will tell a tale that can save and not merely inspire or impress.They will be the message of Jesus and not of men.

”preach the word in season and out of season…”

Neiswonger