How much Scripture to preach on?

It won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows me, virtually or in real life, that one of the (fairly few) things that annoy me about the contemporary, ‘soft-charismatic’ style of worship that represents the British Baptist mainstream these days is the relative lack of Scripture heard in the services. I’ve written elsewhere about my desire to return to, at least, ‘Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel’ patterns of lectionary reading as opposed to just reading the passage preached on. (We’re just back from holiday in the Lake District, which allowed us to return to the delightful little fellowship at Hawkshead Hill Baptist Church. Three passages of Scripture, read and allowed to mutually interpret, during the sermon; another read and used to shape the worship. Many fellowships could learn from that…)

I observe further a strange phenomenon, that in contemporary church life in Britain, the more a particular church/preacher trumpets their high view of Scripture, the less actual Scripture we hear read in their services.

The reason for this is rather simple: there is an recent British tradition of ‘expository’ (meaning of scare quotes will become obvious) preaching, traceable back to Martyn Lloyd-Jones, although not much further, and presently reinforced by currently-popular neo-Reformed  writings, that measures commitment to Scripture by, roughly, how slowly you preach through it. The practice of spending several years preaching through Romans or Philippians verse by verse-fragment demonstrates, it is held, a high view of Scripture because it is being taken seriously, mined slowly for all of its meaning.

I confess to being profoundly unimpressed by this argument, I take it as a theologically-necessary claim that it is impossible to mine the Scripture for all of its meaning; we might get, by such slowness, everything a particular preacher has been able to discover from Scripture, but that is a rather different, and much less interesting, body of insight. And it seems like bad, or at least lazy, preaching. The preacher’s task is to determine and proclaim God’s word for this people, in this place, at this time; to do this, she must necessarily be selective. Her text might well, for instance, be significant in offering a refutation of Melchior Hoffmann’s Christological errors, and at points in history (even British Baptist history), that might have been vital. It is not now. It should be left out, so that what is vital is not obscured in the noise.

Further, it has always seemed to me that (roughly) the less Scripture preached on, the more there is a danger of the sermon becoming thematic, rather than expository. I once had the misfortune to worship in a church where the preacher had been working desperately slowly through Colossians; the Sunday I was present (I never returned…) he had reached the injunction ‘Fathers, do not exasperate your children’ in 3:21, and was giving four Sundays to this verse, to examine ways in which we might ‘exasperate’ our children. (He had twenty. All beginning with the same letter.) None of this, of course, was exegesis of Colossians; the text had become the occasion for a thematic discourse on child-rearing. Earlier sermons in the series would, of necessity, have been thematic discourses on Christology, or sanctification. Such thematic sermons might be Biblical, instructive, or edifying (although the one I heard failed fairly badly on each of these criteria); they are not the mark of a commitment to the disciplined interpretation of Scripture as the foundation of the church. The church in question would have described itself as thoroughly committed to Scripture and to expository preaching, but their practice meant that there was no exposition of Scripture at all in their pulpit.

I take it (whilst being aware of arguments, ancient and postmodern, to the contrary) that the task of exegesis is, roughly, the determining of the meaning inherent in a chunk of text. (And the task of exposition is the restatement, illustration, defence, and application of this meaning.) Meaning inheres in texts at almost every level, from the whole down. At one extreme, we can ask ‘what does Paradise Lost mean?’ and give a reasoned and defensible answer. Indeed, such work of precis, summary, or abstract is a standard task, set by instructors to teach students the reading and writing of English (and, I presume, other languages), and routinely engaged in by journalists, academics, and other professional writers (‘In his speech he argued…’ ‘This book claims …’ or consider the endlessly popular form of the book review).

At the other extreme, how small a text-fragment may still contain meaning? The obvious answer is the sentence; after all, the grammatical function of the sentence is, roughly, to be a unit of meaning. This is not wrong (although the Greek predilection for very lengthy sentences with endless subordinate clauses, always split up into multiple sentences in English translations, already points to the artificiality of it), and I suspect that it is rarely the case that true exegesis of any sustained interest can be carried out on a sentence fragment (there are examples – I suppose that I could preach for some while on the phrase ‘who was and is and is to come’ and still be expounding the meaning of the text, rather than my own ideas about eternity – but they are rare). Often, however, a sentence is too short to be exegeted meaningfully. Narratives, for instance, must be taken at a larger scale; sometimes as complete, if brief, stories (parables…); more often as extracted segments of a larger narrative (Acts, or Judges), but segments than nonetheless have a certain completeness.

(‘But Spurgeon/Wesley/Edwards/… preached on single verses!’ Well, no, actually: they would often announce a single verse, but the practice of exegesis if you read the sermons routinely interpreted the broader text, the announced verse being chosen as one which summarised the meaning of the whole pericope.)

So, how much Scripture to preach on (assuming in preaching one is committed to a discipline of exegesis)? On the basis of the arguments above, one may meaningfully offer an exposition of the whole of Colossians – or indeed the whole of Ezekiel. Much will be missed along the way, but much will always be missed, and there is worth in the big picture, also. What of the Psalms? That depends on a judgement: is the book of Psalms a literary whole, in which case it may meaningfully be preached (in the same way that it is meaningful to talk about the unitary meaning of Housman’s Shropshire Lad, say), or is it merely a collection of disparate lyrics, in which case it has no unity, and cannot be preached as a whole (the Lyrical Ballads?). We were once, as a preaching team in St Andrews Baptist Church, asked if we could preach one sermon on the whole Bible; my initial reaction was not encouraging (I seem to recall saying ‘I’ll preach the sermon if you’ll listen to the reading…’), but I believe that the Bible, because of the Spirit’s inspiration, is a single, albeit complex, book with a single message, and so is in principle preachable. I preached the sermon, and the sermon I preached was (an attempt at) proper exposition, drawing out and applying the meaning of a text.

Probably, however, one cannot regularly preach on fewer than, say, ten verses of Scripture and still claim to be engaged in expository preaching. There are places where it can work – mostly in the epistles, of course – but they are unusual.

17 Comments

  1. mshedden
    Jul 19, 2011

    Interesting post.
    For this Sunday I will show this video: http://vimeo.com/24926085. Then read the whole of Colossians and offer a short (5mins) picture of what I think we heard.
    This makes me think I am not quite crazy for trying it this way.

    • Steve H
      Jul 21, 2011

      Welcome; thanks for stopping by.
      Crazy is good for preachers, I think!

  2. lynn
    Jul 20, 2011

    I love the question: could you preach one sermon on the whole Bible?

    I am committed to and concerned for good theology permeating everything we do with under 18s. I feel as if sometimes I spend my life thinking how I can teach the message of the whole Bible to the youngsters under my care at each and every opportunity as there is a real lack of biblical literacy marking many of our older teenagers.

    So if I’m leading children deeper into their understanding of worship, (to name one example of something I’d do), we journey from Genesis through the what the Pentateuch teaches about worship and in particular on the tabernacle onwards through Psalms and the prophetic literature into the NT and Jesus to set the sene of the work of the cross in making the way open to us to enter the most holy place – and all in 15 mins or less so that we can get active and release the young into DOING and EXPERIENCING the power that underpins, undergirds and overarches the story.

    Could you preach one sermon on the Bible….still mulling that one over. My previous SP, Edwin, did once, I still have my notes on his “walk through the Bible”.

    Can one obtain for children, one storybook that contains within the whole metanarrative?

    Yes – “the Jesus Storybook Bible – every page whispers his name” (Sally Lloyd Jones)

    Sorry Steve, went off a bit Tommy Tangent there, but the question you were asked got me thinking about what I feel drawn to do.

    We’re up your way next week for you-know-what!

    • Steve H
      Jul 21, 2011

      Hi Lynn – a comment on ‘one sermon’ below; I imagine you’re not, but if you happen to be free at all whilst at Clan, it would be good to catch up – happy to buy you coffee/lunch/something stronger if needed… Email me.

  3. Matt Frost
    Jul 20, 2011

    “(‘But Spurgeon/Wesley/Edwards/… preached on single verses!’ Well, no, actually: they would often announce a single verse, but the practice of exegesis if you read the sermons routinely interpreted the broader text, the announced verse being chosen as one which summarised the meaning of the whole pericope.)”

    Precisely! There is definitely something to be gained from being able to preach on a single verse — in its context. To find and expound for the hearing church the gospel that touches them, in an exemplary form. And yet it can be a perverse sort of calisthenics to try and carry as much weight upon as small a scriptural basis as possible. The visible scripture needs to be as big as it needs to be for the given preaching event — but the rest of the iceberg always remains, under the water, supporting it.

    One of the joys I find about the current RCL 3-year cycle and its wealth of texts is something Joseph Sittler once called “preaching symphonically.” There are polyphonic possibilities available where the congregation has heard four readings, and is primed with that material. We must still preach one gospel, but we have more notes available to shape it. It may reflect the broader life of the people of God. (Of course, it can also turn out to make mush and rambling nonsense, but as you have observed, one may have that with nothing more than a single clause, too.)

  4. Catriona
    Jul 20, 2011

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I do wonder if the tide is slowly turning? Or maybe I just move in circles of Baptist ministers who are sympathetic to your perspectives? Certainly it is very rare for me to use less than two passages of scripture (often but not necessarily OT and NT) or if only one then sometimes a whole chapter. Last week, for example, we had all of Matt 18, to set the ‘wandering sheep’ in a broader context.

    Quite a few folk now seem to have moved over to RCL as the basis for their preaching and though I haven’t will rarely do a series of more than 6 weeks on a given theme/book.

    Perhaps you have to choose your Baptist churches carefully?! ;-)

    • Steve H
      Jul 21, 2011

      Hi Catriona – I’m not against preaching long series – Isaiah takes a while if you really want to preach through it – its the size of the units, not the length of the series, that worries me.

      The RCL has its own strengths and weaknesses – it does privilege the gospels for sequential reading, which is not wrong, but also not wholly right. There is, I think, a place for preaching through Judges (say) with gospel readings in support.

      Glad you’re back in harness – we’ve been praying – will you be at the Assembly?

      • Catriona
        Jul 25, 2011

        Hi Steve, thanks for your reply and more for your prayers. Yes, I’ll be at the Assemlby (Scotland) (and in England next year possibly – long way to go for a mini one in London).

  5. Chris E
    Jul 20, 2011

    I’m unsure that purely lengthening the body of text to exposit makes for better sermons. A skilled preacher with a shorter text will use the surrounding context to bring out the text. A less skilled preacher will make a hash of whatever length of text you give him.

    I think a lot of the problems come from the fact that – as T David Gordon has pointed out – the close reading of texts is a dying art.

    So no matter how long the text, if it speaks about God’s love, you usually end up with a sermon on God’s love with only a brief anchoring in the text, rather than what this text in particular tells me about God’s love.

    • Steve H
      Jul 21, 2011

      Hi Chris, welcome back.

      I confess to being profoundly unconvinced by Gordon’s book (Why Johnny Can’t Preach, for anyone interested). He seems to compare an educated elite of three generations ago with the general population of today. The level of literary ability he requires has always been extraordinarily rare.

      But he is right that we need to work hard at learning to read – and to put words together.

      • Chris E
        Jul 21, 2011

        Hi Steve -

        I also felt that the comparisons Gordon makes were largely nostalgic. I did feel – however – that there was something to be said for his arguments when applied to ministers.

        Though perhaps in the bad old days, the less rigorous tended to end up in other circles, and the comparison of younger ministers with their older peers is an unfair one.

  6. John S Smith
    Jul 21, 2011

    Stimulating stuff – thanks.
    I did attempt a sermon on the Message of the Bible earlier this year as part of a series relating to Biblefresh. I had discovered an exercise in which a number of people were asked to submit the message of the Bible in one sentence which ranged in brevity from Come Home to longevity – more like an essay than a sentence (from an academic theologian by the way). The one I liked best and which I used to structure my sermon simply said ‘God made it, We broke it, Jesus fixes it.’ I have certainly moved away from the lengthy series preaching exhaustively through Biblical books (one in the morning and the other in the evening) which I employed as standard in Scotland in the eighties and nineties – so I have done e.g. short series on Good News in Isaiah and Good News in Romans. With such sporadic and unpredictable attendance at church by regulars these days, very few people even catch every episode of a short preaching series – which may suggest the concept of series is more useful to preacher than to hearer. For many people each sermon is effectively a one off, stand alone.

    • Steve H
      Jul 21, 2011

      John, thanks for stopping by – I’ve benefited greatly from your writing and speaking in the past.
      One of the things that struck me powerfully when I agreed to preach on the Bible was a realisation that (my best attempt at specifying) the message of the Bible was rather different from (my best attempt at defining) the essence of the gospel. I had, of course, preached sermons on the gospel – ‘God made it, we broke it, Jesus fixed it’ is a beautiful summary of the gospel – but when I thought about preaching on the Bible as a whole, it suddenly struck me that I couldn’t ignore Israel (perhaps I’ve read/talked to Tom Wright too much…). I ended up taking God’s promise to Abram from Genesis: ‘all the nations of the earth will be blessed through you…’ and explaining how that promise defined the calling of Israel and was fulfilled in the work of Jesus.

  7. Ollie
    Jul 21, 2011

    I think there is a common, rather hubristic, assumption amongst preachers in denominations who use the RCL or similar that they need to use the homily to unite the readings by extrapolating a single theme, and that they can’t leave anything unsaid. This is regrettable: the themes tend to be rather forced (encouraging the preacher to see pride themselves on being a veritable Ali Bongo, pulling a different theme from the hat each week) and cluster themselves at one or other extreme of the ‘so patently obvious as to be tautologous’-‘so risibly circuitous as to distract entirely from the texts’. If it seems I’m being unfair, I once heard a 25-minute weekday sermon on Exodus 14:21-15:1, Psalm 77:18-19,23-8, and Matthew 12:46-50, that developed the theme of ‘Egypt’ to explore the failure of Neoplatonism in Alexandria… (the final line of the sermon, which included a fairly lengthy excursus into the aporiai of Aristotle’s ontology, was ‘I hope these potted thoughts mesh with some of your own’).

    Personally, I think that even if the preacher intends to preach on a single verse, they should preach a good chunk of scripture, preferably more than one distinct reading, and preferably at least one reading from the OT. Hearing the word proclaimed in the gathered community of the faithful is not merely a pre-condition to homiletic exegesis, but – if we take the pneumatic animation of the ecclesia seriously – an imperative psycho-spiritual conditioning. In an era when the latent influence of punitive supercessionism continues to raise its ugly head with shocking regularity (amongst both laity and clergy), the proclamation of (and sensitive preaching from) Old Testament texts is surely an ethical imperative (even for those who hold to roughly economic supercessionist positions).

    [Tangentially, I wonder if I might raise a concern regarding the use of the Holy Name of Jesus in sermons: it alarms me the frequency with which preachers refer to Jesus as if he were absent. Whenever two-or-three are gathered in His name, He is present! Obviously, we can’t turn the sermon into a 2nd person oration to the Jesus who is in our midst (or perhaps occasionally we can), but neither can we talk as if we are the patients of Jesus’ agency, since we are gathered in Him: he is, I suppose, the locus of the sermon itself (and if he’s not then we might as well go home). I think that if we are to make any sense of our new dialectical I-Christ identity (cf Gal 2.20), into which we have been birthed by Holy Baptism, we need to leave behind ways of talking of the relationship between Christ and His Church (and each of His people) in ex parte or ab extra terms, and find ways of talking ab intra. How this can be reflected in our homiletic language, I am not quite sure, but it is surely a start that the preacher takes care to control their use of the Holy Name.]

    • Matthew Frost
      Jul 22, 2011

      I agree – especially when the RCL (acting as the “wisdom of mother church”) has decided that there is a blatantly obvious point to be had from these four readings, in alignment with the festivals especially. “We have this gospel — oh, and hey, I remember some similar point from Genesis, and ….” When the preacher walks down this primrose path, she is more likely to be ignoring what the texts themselves are saying. It’s a trap that’s too easy to fall into. It gets better in the sequential-reading half of the year, because the easy path is largely absent.

      • Ollie
        Jul 25, 2011

        Matthew – I agree with what you have to say. Your observation in passing that there are four readings also provoked some thoughts: marking the epistle as the ‘second reading’ (at least in the OLM) has the unfortunate consequence that the responsorial psalm, intervening as it does between the ‘first reading’ and the ‘second reading’, risks being forgotten, or (sub-conciously) deprived of its rightful status as a reading! In fact, now that I think of it, there is often a ‘hidden’ fifth reading, couched between the ‘alleluiahs’ of the gospel acclamation (and, from a homiletic point of view, I think it’s fair to say that the gospel acclamation is usually highly indicative of the theme which the lectionary compilers have in mind as a procrustean bed for the preacher!). I will now desist as I am ploughing into a full-blown evaluation of the RCL/OLM!

  8. Chandler
    Jul 24, 2011

    I enjoyed very much this post, Steve. I find the same phenomenon in America of preachers making appropriate use of the text less and less while touting all the more its relevancy, often times while simultaneously decrying its lack of use in the public sphere!

    I take your point that preaching too slowly through a text can cause a preacher and congregation to trail off into oblivion amidst the details. Increasing the amount of text to be preached on may help to be sure. But your mention of being selective is even more to the point. I would venture to say too that improving biblical and theological literacy among preachers may go a long way in improving their preaching (at least in America, illiteracy of this sort is much too common). And this literacy, however counter-intuitive this may sound, can I believe help preachers in the very task of being selective. I would also add that the study of public speaking can greatly increase the way in which one communicates God’s Word. Former President of Princeton Seminary Tom Gillespie required lots of public speaking courses of seminarians for this very reason.

    In my view, a good preacher can communicate a select text in light of the entire OT/NT narrative (and in light of tradition), but does so with clarity so that the congregation understands and is built up in the faith. This, to me, seems to be the way in which Scripture was written and intended to function in the first place.

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