Chapter 1
A Definition among Definitions of Expository Preaching

Every discipline has its own vocabulary, and the art of preaching is no exception. Different homiletical terms have taken center stage throughout the history of Christian proclamation. Various emphases and needs have prompted people to preface the word preaching either with an adjective or as an adjectival phrase. Think for a moment of the descriptive words or phrases used to depict a particular type of preaching: topical, textual, expository, doctrinal, inductive, deductive, biblical, biographical, life-situational, and others.

Perhaps the most popular of these is the word expository. The unknown author of a thirteenth-century document entitled Tractatus de Arte Praedicandi (A Treatise on the Art of Preaching) distinguished three different kinds of preaching: topical, textual, and expository. John A. Broadus popularized this threefold classification among Americans in A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (1870). The influence of John A. Broadus, W. E. Sangster, T. H. Pattison, Austin Phelps, and others helped to establish these three categories. Preachers who classify their sermons as expository mean to verify the biblical nature of their messages.

Furthermore, laypersons have overheard the preachers' "shop-talk," and they express their expectation of preaching prefaced by the word expository. The laity like the term expository because of its ring of biblical authority. Many preachers affirm, "I am an expository preacher!" Christians who seek a pastor are often heard to say, "We want an expository preacher!" Yet, if asked to define expository preaching, many preachers and laypersons give vague definitions. In 1870, Broadus understood expository preaching to be exposition of a biblical truth from a passage to a congregation. With the passing of years and with the numerous usages, however, the word expository became vague and relative.

So many definitions of expository preaching have developed through the years that writers on preaching have grouped the definitions into categories. Donald G. Miller gives four broad categories into which many definitions of expository preaching fall.

Faris D. Whitesell establishes five broad categories of expository preaching. He lists ten statements of what expository preaching is not, then adds a sevenfold description of what expository preaching is.

There is still no generally accepted definition of expository preaching. Many definitions have been constructed, but confusion still reigns.

Why this confusion? Why so little agreement about the meaning of such a widely used term? The answer may He in the distinguishable difference between the meaning of the word and the usage of the word. Unfortunately, people get lured into the idea that words have one authoritative meaning and that these words can be defined clearly. Actually, words do have meanings, but their meanings can only be determined by their use in context. To put the matter simply, words do not have meanings, they have usages. Finding the word's usage helps arrive at its meaning. When St. Paul's Cathedral in London was finished in 1716, the king called it "amusing, awful, and artificial." Today we would think that the king had expressed a negative evaluation of the cathedral. But in those days amusing meant amazing, awful meant awe-inspiring, and artificial meant artistic.

Words do not have authoritative meanings so much as they have relative usages. One person's usage of the term expository preaching may mean one thing, and another person's usage of the same term may presuppose an entirely different definition. Even Bible words have multiple, relative usages rather than single, authoritative meanings. For example, the Greek word kosmos which is translated "world" has several usages in the New Testament.

What does kosmos mean? That has to be determined by its context.

Similarly, the term expository has taken on many meanings. No one knows exactly what the term expository first meant, and its meaning today comes from how people use it.

A young preacher received a visit from a pastoral search committee at a large, prestigious church. As the committee talked with this prospective pastor, they specified their expectations: leadership ability, interpersonal relationship skills with staff and church members, counseling ability, preaching skills, and numerous other pastoral responsibilities. The pastor felt reasonably secure with all expectations until one member said, "Our church needs an expository preacher." The term expository stayed in the preacher's mind even during conversation about other matters. The pastor had heard the word expository frequently while in seminary, but he had learned the professor's definition only to pass a test. He never thought the term would be an issue in his ministry.

Keeping in mind the maxim that words do not have authoritative meanings but relative usages, the cause for the confusion about expository preaching becomes apparent. The meaning of expository preaching comes from its usage by theorists and practitioners of preaching. Thus, a person's definition of the term depends largely on the books he has studied or the preacher he has revered.

Humpty Dumpty's conversation with Alice in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland offers some insight about word usage:

"There's glory for you!" remarked Humpty Dumpty.

"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,'" Alice said.

"I mean there's a nice knockdown argument for you," he replied.

"But glory doesn't mean a "nice knockdown argument,' " Alice objected.

"When I use a word," Humpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean, nothing more or less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."

The old, widely used homiletical term expository preaching needs to be and can be a prominent phrase in today's preaching vocabulary. The term needs to be retrieved from the homiletical museums. The expression does not have to be an antique phrase observed by theorists and replaced by different terminology. Learning how others used and still use the expression expository preaching could clarify the many emphases attached to it. The term may be vague and even disdained, but the phrase is too significant to be sacrificed by misunderstanding. Its meaning must be clarified.

This chapter presents the diverse definitions associated with expository preaching through the years, unmasks some myths associated with the term, and then presents a definition that I consider clear and practical.

Three Types of Definitions

No homiletical term has received as many definitions with an apparent authoritative definiteness than expository preaching. Each definition seems to be correct. Because of the variety of definitions, ambiguity abounds about a clear, authoritative, workable definition of expository preaching. Faris D. Whitesell and Donald G. Miller have divided the dozens of definitions into several broad categories.

Will the bewildering variety of definitions motivate people to abandon the term? Can order and design be brought out of this confusion about such a meaningful homiletical term? The answers to these questions He in the future after the reader has worked through the history of the term expository preaching. The pursuit begins with the origin of the word expository and continues with the presentations of the different definitions of expository preaching, both historical and contemporary.

Etymological Definition

A search for the meaning of a word begins with studying the form of the word and then investigating the various usages of the word. The first endeavor in searching for the meaning of expository involves studying its etymology. Words originated and developed by adding prefixes and/or suffixes to a root. The study of a root word and its prefixes or suffixes is called etymology. Therefore, to understand the word expository, we must examine its etymology. The root of expository seems to be the word expose which is a term derived from the Middle English word, exposen, which came from the Middle French word, exposer, derived from the Latin word exponere. In Latin the word ponere (the root) was combined with the prefix ex (out of, from), and the resultant meaning of exponere came to mean "to put on display." In Late Latin (a.d. 180-600), the meaning of exponere came to mean "to interpret or explain." The related terms exposition, expositor, and expository came to the English language by way of French. All three terms came from the French word expositus which means "expounder." And expository is the adjectival form of exposition derived from the Medieval Latin expositories.

In Webster's Tenth New Collegiate Dictionary, the noun exposition means "a setting forth of the meaning or purpose" and "a discourse or an example of it designed to convey information or explain what is difficult to understand." The noun expositor means "a person who explains," and the adjective expository is defined as "of, relating to, or containing exposition." Paul D. Hugon placed the same emphasis on explanation when he used expository in relation to rhetoric. Exposition answered why and how in orderly detail. Hugon contended that exposition was unemotional explanation and appealed only to the intellect. Webster's New Dictionary of Synonyms included a discussion of exposition:

Exposition often implies a display of something...; more often it implies a setting forth of something which is necessary for the elucidation or explanation of something else such as a theory, a dogma, or the law.... In a more general sense, especially in academic use, exposition applies to the type of writing which has explanation for its end or aim and is thereby distinguished from other types in which the aim is to describe, to narrate, or to prove a contention.

Therefore, in both written and spoken discourse, explanation was the prominent and differentiating ingredient for exposition.

When the adjective expository prefaces the word preaching, it is modifying or ascribing some particular characteristic to the preaching. George M. Glasgow, with reference to public speech, said, "Exposition is the explanation of something, for example, a thing or a process, with the intention of making it clear." If the basic etymological meaning of expository is followed, such preaching would be proclamation that displayed or disclosed a view of the subject. If the spirit of the adjective's usage in written and spoken discourse is followed, expository preaching means etymologically a proclamation in which a subject is disclosed to view by means of explanation. Explanation is the dominant idea, and any other element such as interpretation, elucidation, declaration, description, or other element is subservient to the purpose of explanation. More than likely, the earliest usage of the adjective expository before the noun preaching meant an exposure or explanation of a Bible truth.

John Calvin (1509-64) used the term exposition in the sense of explaining Scripture. He seemed to consider an expositor to be one who explained a text by laying open the text to public view to set forth its meaning, explain what was difficult, and to make appropriate application. John H. Leith described Calvin's understanding of exposition:

First of all, Calvin understood preaching to be the explication of Scripture. The words of Scripture are the source and content of preaching. As an expositor, Calvin brought to the task of preaching all the skills of a humanist scholar. As an interpreter, Calvin explicated the text, seeking its natural, its true, its scriptural meaning.... Preaching is not only the explication of Scripture, it is also the application of Scripture. Just as Calvin explicated Scripture word by word, so he applied the Scripture sentence by sentence to the life and experience of the congregation.

John Calvin and other sixteenth-century preachers viewed preaching with the idea of exposing truth from a text. No complicated concepts of expository preaching seemed to exist in the sixteenth century. Basically, a definition of expository preaching at that time would have involved an etymological perspective of exposing truth by explanation and application in a verse-by-verse method of handling a Bible passage.

Over three hundred years after John Calvin and other sixteenth-century preachers, John A. Broadus continued to use the adjective expository in an etymological manner. In his 1870 work entitled, A Treatise m the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, Broadus wrote:

An expository discourse may be defined as one which is occupied mainly, or at any rate very largely, with the exposition of Scripture.... It may be devoted to a long passage, or to a very short one, even part of a sentence. It may be one of a series, or may stand by itself. We at once perceive that there is no broad line of distinction between expository preaching and common methods, but that one may pass almost insensible gradations from textual to expository sermons.

Like Calvin, Broadus associated expository primarily with the explanation of Scripture. Merrill F. Unger, writing in 1955, continued to use the term expository in the etymological sense. Unger wrote: "No matter what the length of the portion explained may be, if it is handled in such a way that its real and essential meaning as it existed in the mind of the particular biblical writer and as it exists in the light of the overall context of Scriptures is made plain and applied to the present-day needs of the hearers, it may be properly be said to be expository preaching. "

The adjective expository seems to have first been attached to preaching to describe the exposure or explanation of biblical truth. As time passed, changes took place in the meaning of preaching terms. The simple, etymological usage of expository preaching developed into more complicated usages and meanings.

Morphological Definition

Some homileticians were not content with the etymological meaning of the adjective expository before the word preaching. As years passed different theories about expository preaching emerged. The term took on a more morphological usage that concentrated on the form of the sermon.

Definition by Length of Text. The most widely used morphological meaning defines expository preaching on the basis of the length of the text. Morphological theorists have classified sermons as topical, textual, and expository according to these criteria:

Andrew W. Blackwood, professor of homiletics at Princeton during the 1940s, concretely attached the definition of the expository sermon to the length of the text. In Preaching from the Bible, Blackwood said, "In the broad sense, this sort of sermon is the unfolding of the truth contained in a passage longer than two or three consecutive verses." In a later book, Expository Preaching for Today: Case Studies of Bible Passages, Blackwood again used the length of the text to define expository preaching. He said, "Expository preaching means that the light for any sermon comes mainly from a Bible passage longer than two or three consecutive verses."

Andrew Blackwood's concept that expository preaching is based on the length of a text influenced other writers. Douglas M. White wrote, "In distinction to both the topical and textual sermon, the expository sermon is a treatment of a single extended passage of Scripture, a lengthy paragraph, a chapter, or more than a chapter, or even a whole book of the Bible." T. H. Pattison agreed with Blackwood when he wrote, "The topical sermon, in which the theme is especially prominent; the textual sermon, in which more regard is paid to the words of the text; and the expository sermon, in which, as a rule, a longer portion of the Bible is taken as the basis for the discourse." One of the most prominent morphological usages of expository preaching centered around the length of the text.

Definition as Connected Series of Sermons. Another morphological meaning was associated with the term expository preaching. Some people began to think of expository preaching as a connected series of sermons through a book of the Bible. William M. Taylor, in his Lyman Beechers Lecture on Preaching delivered in 1876, associated expository preaching with a series of sermons from a Bible book. Taylor stated: "By expository preaching, I mean that method of pulpit discourse which consists in the consecutive interpretation, and practical enforcement, of a book of the sacred canon."

F. B. Meyer also defined expository preaching along the lines of a series of sermons from a Bible book. Meyer said: "Expository preaching is the consecutive treatment of some book or extended portion of Scripture on which the preacher has concentrated head and heart, brain and brawn, over which he has thought and wept and prayed, until it has yielded up its inner secret, and the spirit of it has passed into his spirit." Preaching a connected series of sermons from a Bible book developed as another idea associated with expository preaching.

Definition by Treatment of Text. Through the years, still another morphological meaning came to be associated with expository preaching. An expository sermon was defined by some on the basis of the homiletical treatment of a text. Such a slant of definition stressed that main points and even subpoints need to come from the text which was usually designated as longer than two or three verses. Charles W. Koller wrote that the expository sermon derived "its main points or the leading subhead under each main point from the particular paragraph or chapter or book of the Bible with which it deals." Brown, Clinard, and Northcutt followed the same line when they wrote, "The expository sermon secures its major and first subpoints primarily from the text." Nolan Howington thought an expository sermon was one that used the homiletical treatment of a text. Howington said, "An expository sermon is generally based upon a passage or unit of Scripture, and the theme with its divisions and development come from that passage." Faris D. Whitesell presented a definition of expository preaching which included two morphological meanings: the length of the text and the homiletical treatment of the text. Whitesell wrote: "An expository sermon is based on a Bible passage, usually longer than a verse or two; the theme, the thesis and the major and minor divisions coming from the passage; the whole sermon being an honest attempt to unfold the true grammatical-historical-contextual meaning of the passage, making it relevant to life today by proper organization, argument, illustrations, application, and appeal."

Running Commentary. Still another form for expository preaching involves the association of a commentary format instead of a rhetorical or sermonic format. Discourses appear to be running commentaries from word to word and verse to verse without rhetorical unity, outline, and persuasive drive. David Breed in Preparing to Preach took issue with expository preaching as a running commentary when he wrote:

The expository sermon is the product of exegesis, but it is in no sense its exhibition. It is not a running commentary upon some passage of Scripture in which its separate parts are taken up verbatim and explained, but, as its name implies, it is a piece of rhetoric: a sermon. It differs from the topical sermon in that it is all derived directly from the Scripture; and it differs from the textual sermon in that more of the details of the Scripture passage are employed.

The morphology of the running commentary has had, and even continues to have, many users. In the history of preaching, some effective preachers employed the running-commentary method. John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407) used the commentary style in many of his oral presentations. Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin also preached with a commentary format rather than the rhetorical sermon style. The Bible commentaries of both Luther and Calvin, which are still available, represent more of their style of preaching than study guides of Bible books. Today many preachers choose to preach through a book of the Bible going from verse to verse or from section to section of a passage with little concern for sermon structure.

With the association of many morphological meanings to the term expository preaching, confusion began to develop. The evolution of the various concepts of form around the adjective expository moved the simple etymological idea of exposing or explaining a biblical text to more complicated homiletical matters. Many questions arose: How much should be exposed? In which way should a text be exposed? These became issues in the dialogue about expository preaching. Such definitions about length of text, series of sermons, treatment of a text, or format have confused expositors about the definition of expository preaching. Some people have become so confused over these morphological issues that they have dropped the use of the expression expository preaching entirely.

Still, closer study reveals many theorists and preachers through the years did not get obsessed with rigid forms and did not associate morphological meanings to expository preaching. Basically, they stayed with the etymological idea of exposing or explaining a Bible text. In our study, we started with the idea of expository as "exposing," but we have passed through such issues as the quantity and quality of exposure. Now we are ready to return to exposing or explaining a Bible text.

Substantive Definition

Through the years, many people have basically stuck with the idea that expository preaching exposes or explains a biblical text. Such an emphasis may be classified as substantive meaning. According to this emphasis, the substance of an expository sermon must be drawn from a Bible text, irrespective of how long or how short it is. The substantive category does not involve such criteria as length of passage, number of sermons, consecutive sermons in a series, homiletical treatment of a text, and other morphological matters. John A. Broadus advocated the substantive position when he wrote: "An expository discourse may be defined as one which is occupied mainly, or at any rate very largely, with the exposition of Scripture. It by no means excludes argument and exhortation as to the doctrines or lessons which this exposition develops. It may be devoted to a long passage, or a very short one, even part of a sentence. It may be one of a series, or may stand by itself."

Austin Phelps, a significant author on the subject of preaching, wrote a year after Broadus that expository preaching was one type of explanatory preaching. Phelps argued that a sermon is expository if the text is the theme and if the chief object of the sermon is to explain the text by elaborate treatment with a view to persuasion.

These two classical homileticians — Broadus and Phelps — dismissed questions of form or morphology to define expository preaching from a substantive perspective. Both identified expository preaching with exposing and explaining a Bible truth.

A check with subsequent authors after Broadus and Phelps discloses a continuation with the concern for substance. Marvin R. Vincent, who is known primarily for his work Word Studies in the New Testament, wrote a work entitled The Expositor in the Pulpit. Vincent said that the phrase expository preaching properly covers all preaching. Exposition to Vincent was exposing the truth contained in God's Word. Vincent wrote, "Exposition is exposing the truth contained in God's word: laying it open; putting it forth where the people may get hold of it; and that is also preaching."In 1910 Harry Jeffs wrote, "Exposition is the art of opening up the Scriptures, laying them out, reproducing their matter and their spirit in forms vitalized by the personality of the expositor."Three decades after Jeffs, R. Ames Montgomery wrote:

The expository preacher proposes above everything else to make clear the teaching and content of the Bible. The preacher seeks to bring the message of definite units of God's Word to his people. He discovers the main theme or constituent parts of a book's message as they were in the mind of the writer. These he unfolds step by step until he reaches the ultimate goal. He discovers the universal, organizing elements of thought in the book, and strives to set forth their essential relationship to contemporary life.

Writing almost thirty years after R. Ames Montgomery, Faris D. Whitesell gave the following sevenfold concept of expository preaching:

  1. It is based on a passage in the Bible, either short or long.
  2. It seeks to learn the primary, basic meaning of that passage.
  3. It relates that meaning to the context of the passage.
  4. It digs down for the timeless, universal truths stemming out of the passage.
  5. It organizes these truths tightly around one central theme.
  6. It uses the rhetorical elements of explanation, argument, illustration, and application to bring the truth of the passage home to the hearer.
  7. It seeks to persuade the listener to obey the truth of the passage discussed.

Can you see some simple evolution in the substantive position? At first, writers simplified the substantive usage by emphasis on exposing or explaining a biblical text. With the passing of the years they added application and organizational matters to the explanation of biblical truth.

Homiletical developments took interesting turns. Writers on preaching began to add more morphological meanings to the term expository preaching. In 1957 Donald G. Miller reacted to the many forms being added to the art of explaining a Bible text. In his book The Way to Biblical Preaching, he contended that the adjective expository had been associated too closely with multiple divisions, length of text, and verse-by-verse commentaries. He felt that the expository sermon had been set off as a special type of sermon, "as one among many." Miller urged for a restoration of the word expository to its true significance. He wrote: "Truly biblical exposition is limited only by the broad principle that the substance of one's preaching should be drawn from the Bible.... Then it follows that all true preaching is expository preaching and that preaching which is not expository is not preaching." Miller advocated that the limits of form hindered the act of preaching biblical sermons. He said: "Expository preaching is an act wherein the living truth of some portion of Holy Scripture, understood in the light of solid exegetical and historical study and made a living reality to the preacher by the Holy Spirit, comes alive to the hearer as he is confronted by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit in judgment and redemption."

With Donald G. Miller, homiletical forms became subordinate to biblical substance. A variety of forms could be attached to biblical truth. Miller's conclusion was that all preaching was expository preaching, for the substance explained or exposed was more important than a homiletical form.

Many others have followed Miller's line of reasoning. Haddon Robinson, writing in 1980, proposed a substantive idea for expository preaching. Robinson said expository preaching was "the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to his hearers."According to this definition, expository preaching was more a philosophy than a method. The expositor's paramount concern was for the message of the text and how to communicate that message. In 1981 William Thompson rejected various morphological meanings in preference to a more substantive approach. Thompson sought to get substance from a biblical text by the processes of exegesis and interpretation. In 1982 John R. W. Stott wrote about exposition: "It refers to the content of the sermon (biblical truth) rather than its style (a running commentary). To expound Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view."

The substantive definition created some changes in the use of homiletical terminology. Some substantive advocates have decided to drop the term expository in preference for the word biblical. More than likely this use of the word expository represents a reaction to the many morphological concepts of the term. Other substantive advocates have chosen to retain the word expository to refer to all preaching. Such use of expository means that many homileticians stay basically with the etymological meaning of expository that all sermons expose biblical truth. With the three basic meanings of expository preaching in mind — etymological, morphological, and substantive — we are now ready to focus on the excessive emphases on the forms attached to expository preaching.

Misconceptions About Expository Preaching

Christian preaching originated with an authoritative message, not with an absolute technique. The New Testament preachers demonstrated more interest in telling the biblical truth than in developing some rigid forms for the messages. In fact, the first-century preachers used several forms to share their messages. One of the most prominent means of sharing God's Word originated in the synagogue service where Scripture passages were read and comments were made about the Scriptures. This form came to be known as the "homily" which probably originated from the Greek word homologo that means "to say the same thing." When a preacher delivered a homily in the synagogue, the same truth was said in the commentary that was true in the text. The word homily could have meant to confess currently what was true historically in the Old Testament text.

Soon after the New Testament era, biblical content began to use many forms. Greek and Roman rhetoric began to influence preachers, and sermons began to take on a more rhetorical form than commentary form. E. C. Dargan in The Art of Preaching in the Light of Its History examined the many forms sermons took from the first century to the nineteenth century. At various times the form of the sermon took more "center stage" than the content of the sermon. The wineskins (form) became more important than the wine (substance).

Over the years of Christian history some homileticians have become so obsessed with the form that many myths have been attached to the technique of making a sermon. No other area of homiletics has created more myths or personal feelings than expository preaching. These myths do not represent heresy or falsehood. Instead, these myths represent personal uses of the expression expository preaching. Perhaps, a homiletical demythologization needs to happen. In this section of a search for a definition of expository, some of the most prominent myths need to be challenged.

Misconception #1: Exposition in the Homiletical Hierarchy

Somewhere in the history of Christian preaching a classification of sermons developed. As early as the thirteenth century, sermons were classified as topical, textual, or expository. A topical sermon represents a message built around a subject taken from the Bible or a subject taken from life and related to a biblical truth. A textual sermon represents a message based on one or two verses from the Bible with the main theme and the major division coming from the text. An expository sermon represents a message based on a Bible passage longer than two verses with the theme and major division coming directly from the text. As time progressed these classifications became more complicated as advocates spoke about topical/textual sermons and allowed an expository sermon to be based simply on a text longer than three verses without requiring major and minor divisions to come from the text.

From a simple classification of sermons by length of texts, the system grew into a complicated system of classifying sermons. The excessive emphasis on form drew away from the emphasis on the content of the sermons. A homiletical hierarchy of what was and was not biblical began to be associated with the three terms topical, textual, and expository. Generally, ranking began to develop as follows:

Topical sermon Sometimes biblical but mostly nonbiblical
Textual sermon Biblical but less biblical than expository
Expository sermon Purely biblical

These rankings tended to exalt preachers who used long texts and disdained preachers who addressed a topic. Thus, a homiletical heresy or myth emerged which advocated that sermons based on longer texts were more biblical than sermons based on shorter texts or a topic taken from the Bible or a current topic taken to the Bible. Unfortunately, conversations emerged about biblical and nonbiblical preachers. This error raises some questions: How many verses does it take to make a sermon biblical? Is there such a thing as a nonbiblical sermon? If a message is not biblical, is it a sermon?

After seeing the myth in print and hearing advocates of this homiletical hierarchy, conscientious persons began to seek to demythologize the heresy. Donald G. Miller questioned the classifications from the standpoint that the length of a text does not determine biblical content. Miller said that both textual and expository sermons could have outlines worded from the text, but they might not really convey what that passage originally meant. In Miller's viewpoint a sermon might have a topical, textual, or expository form, but all three forms may miss the substance of a text. Therefore, Miller disdained the ancient categories and sought to emphasize biblical content more than the form the sermon took.

Clyde Fant rejected the myth which advocates that Christian proclamation occurs by an emphasis on an approach. He disdained the placing of terms such as expository, textual, or topical before preaching. Trying to distinguish biblical preaching from expository preaching or topical preaching represented a meaningless and intimidating exercise according to Fant. He said, "In fact it is not true that there is no 'biblical preaching,' there is only preaching."Jay Adams shared Fant's sentiment about the terms topical, textual, and expository. Writing in the 1983 publication, Essays on Biblical Preaching, Adams described the distinctions between the three as "sheer nonsense," and serving "mainly to create confusion."Adams claimed that each term was an indicator of an emphasis to be included in every sermon, though not always in the same proportion.

John R. W. Stott also sought to demythologize the homiletic myth about different grades or levels of biblical preaching. He said,

I know, of course, that some textbooks on homiletics supply a list of different kinds of preaching, one being "textual," another "topical," a third "expository," and sometimes others besides.... Whether one's text is a single word, a sentence, a verse, a paragraph, a chapter, or even a whole book, still the truly Christian preacher is an expositor, praying and thinking himself into and even under the text until it masters him, dominates his mind, sets his imagination alight and his heart aflame, so that when he preaches, God's Word sounds forth.

Stott saw little value in the traditional classifications and scorned the idea that sermons could be ranked more biblical and less biblical.

William Thompson also sought to demythologize the tradition in which he was trained in classifying sermons topical, textual, and expository. Thompson preferred a substantive approach in which the fundamental question is: How can one make sure the substance, the essence of the sermon, is biblical? Thompson disliked the homiletical heresy that the length of a text determined whether the sermon was biblical. Thompson formulated the thesis that "biblical preaching occurs when listeners are enabled to see how their world, like the biblical world, is addressed by the word of God and are enabled to respond to the word."

Miller, Fant, Adams, Stott, and Thompson represent conscientious attempts to challenge the myth that a sermon is made biblical by the length and exegetical treatment of a text. The questions sought by these writers and by this work are: What makes a sermon biblical? Does the number of verses make a sermon more or less biblical? Does the way one handles the text such as by detailed exegesis make a sermon more biblical? Leander Keck in his work The Bible in the Pulpit helped with these questions in his criteria for biblical preaching. Keck said, "Preaching is biblical when a) the Bible governs the content of the sermon and when b) the function of the sermon is analogous to the text." Neil Richardson had a similar idea when he wrote, "Biblical preaching brings past and present into a creative unity, enabling those who listen to hear a word which illuminates their own situation." Actually, a sermon cannot be a little or a lot biblical. If it is not biblical, then it is not classified as a Christian sermon but as a moral address or essay. In the opinion of this writer, a sermon is biblical when the original meaning of the text intersects with the contemporary meaning of the text, when what the text meant becomes what the text means, when the "now" of the text coincides with the "then." Assigning a length of text and a manner of treatment in order to label the sermon biblical or expository is a homiletical myth.

Misconception #2: Exposition as Exegetical Exposure

Another myth that has developed and continued about expository preaching is that the art is an exegetical exposure. Some have advocated and practiced a more didactic approach to preaching rather than a rhetorical approach. To these advocates the cognitive details of a passage mean more than anything else. Such exegetical exposure involves detailed etymological analysis of Greek and Hebrew words. Syntactical arrangements and literary structures also become a primary part of the pursuit in this type of preaching. What is called a sermon resembles more of an exegetical exposure or a detailed commentary rather than a truth taken from a text and directed to people's needs. Doing detailed exegetical analysis may educate people in Greek and Hebrew nouns, verb tenses, and different genres, but such efforts often fall short of directing these truths to people's needs.

Challenging the myth that expository preaching involves exegetical exposure is necessary. But, the reader might see the challenge of the myth as an attempt to eliminate exegesis from a sermon. This challenge is not an attempt to eliminate exegesis but to propose the purpose and place of exegesis in preparing and delivering a sermon. Exegesis means to study the historical, grammatical, and theological background of a text in order to discover its meaning. After discovering the meaning of the text, the expositor tries to share in a sermon what the text means to people today. Preparing and delivering a sermon requires exegesis. Doing exegesis is not the myth; overly exposing the exegesis is the myth. Ideally, the detailed exegesis occurs educationally in the study and appears practically in the pulpit. David R. Breed presented this view: "The expository sermon is the product of exegesis, but it is in no sense its exhibition. It is not a running commentary upon some passage of Scripture in which its separate parts are taken up seriatim and explained, but, as its name implies, it is a piece of rhetoric: a sermon." Jeff D. Ray also wrote that "exegesis draws out the hidden meaning; exposition places that meaning out in logical, appropriate, effective order. Exegesis is the task of the commentator; exposition is the task of the preacher." Both Breed and Ray emphasized exegesis as a prelude to sermon preparation, but they warned against excessive exegetical information in the pulpit.

Exegesis is the prelude to preparing sermons. Walter Liefeld gave a good perspective of exegesis when he wrote "that careful exegesis should lead into exposition." He also stressed the need for a sermon not only to teach but to help and inspire. How much exegesis appears in pulpit performance will vary from sermon to sermon. The amount of exegetical exposure which appears in a sermon does not make it biblical or expository. In fact, it does not even make it more biblical. Advocating that expository preaching is a continuous commentary on a Bible passage is a myth that needs to be demythologized. Irrespective of how much exegesis goes into preparation and how much exegesis appears in delivery, the authentic sermon is one which expounds or lays open the meaning of the Word of God.

Misconception #3: Rigid Rules of Exposition

When Christian proclamation first began, no rigid rules about techniques existed. The primary concern was to share the content of the gospel. First-century preachers chose varied forms to declare the content. As time passed, rules began to emerge about how preaching should take place. Perhaps the first formal set of rules appeared in the fourth century a.d. when Augustine wrote De Doctrina Christiana. This work was based on Aristotle's rules of speech in Rhetoric. After Augustine, numerous other homileticians added rules about the art of preaching. Many of these rules need to be demythologized. The content remains the same for preaching which is biblical truth, but ideas about technique or method for delivering sermons vary considerably. Principles or techniques need to be emphasized, but principles can develop into rigid rules. Such an overemphasis on technique can cause preoccupation with form rather than content. Homiletical rules are not to be arrogant masters but helpful friends for preparing and delivering biblical content.

Many theorists have proposed rules about expository preaching. Trying to follow rigid rules for expository preaching can be frustrating. Exposing and discussing all the rules attached to expository preaching is impossible, but some of the most prominent rules may be defined and demythologized.

Perhaps the most rigid of all rules about expository preaching centers on the length of the text. Many theorists have proposed that expository preaching includes those sermons with a text longer than two or three consecutive verses. The length of a passage for a sermon seems to be irrelevant. The thought of the sermon should be controlled by the truth of the text. Whether the text is a single word, a phrase, a sentence, a verse, a paragraph, a chapter, or even the entire book, the sermon should expose a truth from the text directed to people's needs. Emphasizing the length of a text has lingered with the concept of expository preaching, and that rule needs to be deleted.

Rules tend to beget other rules. Establishing the length of a text for a sermon led to another rule — points and subpoints need to come directly from the text. Nothing is wrong with the points and subpoints coming from the text if the text merits it, but not all texts have the possibility of points and subpoints. Deriving points and subpoints from the text does not make a sermon more biblical. A sermon is biblical when the point, not necessarily the points and the subpoints, comes from the text. Trying to get major and minor points from a text could corrupt the meaning. The homiletical style of getting points and subpoints from the text has to be challenged.

In addition to the rigid rules about the length of the text and points and subpoints from the text, theorists have established ideas about sermons in a series from a Bible book. In the historical development of homiletics, the idea has emerged that expository preaching involves the consecutive treatment of some book in the Bible. Preaching a series of sermons from a Bible book is an excellent practice, but the rigid rules appear with coerced consecutivism. Having to treat every verse in a book in a consecutive manner appears to border on homiletical legalism. Less rigidity could be advocated by allowing selectivity of texts within a Bible book. Nonetheless, some theorists and practitioners insist on treating every verse in a book, beginning each week where the text stopped the previous Sunday and proceeding until the whole book is covered.

Numerous other rigid rules prevail about the legislation of expository preaching. No authoritative set of rules or definitions exists about expository preaching. Instead relative usages of the term abound, with many rules attached to their usage — preach expository sermons just on Sunday night; never try to preach through a Bible book morning and evening; do not interrupt the series of expository sermons for any reason; pick up the following Sunday where you left off the previous Sunday. These rigid rules and many others exist, and they tend to put potential expositors in homiletical strait jackets.

No technique in homiletics should be infallible. Every theoretical proclamation idea needs to be questioned with regard to its validity and practicality. The demythologization process needs to be a constant practice. A homiletical hierarchy, an exegetical exposure, and the rigid rules have confused people too long. The time has come to look at expository preaching in a new way so the expression can be used with understanding, respect, and practicality.

The Eclectic Emphases on Expository Preaching

Because of the existence of the different definitions and the many myths, an honest examination needs to be made about clarifying or redefining expository preaching. The various usages that theorists and practitioners give to the term necessitate a close look at some options. What can be done with such an age-old, widely used, confusing term as expository preaching? At least four options seem to be available. First is the elimination option which entirely discards the adjective expository and substitutes the word biblical. Second is the elevation option which discards the adjectives topical and textual and retains only expository. Such an option calls for all sermons to explore a biblical truth and advocates calling all preaching expository. Third is the continuance option which perpetuates the classical concept that an expository sermon is one based on a text longer than two or three consecutive verses with the points and subpoints coming directly from the text. The fourth choice is the eclectic option which means to choose ideas from various sources and use them. Paul Scherer advocated the need for an eclectic approach to the sermon. Scherer listed the traditional types of sermons such as doctrinal, expository, ethical, and evangelistic. Then he said: "Let me say again that I have never preached or heard or read a sermon worthy of the name which was not to a greater or less degree all of these together."

The eclectic option for defining expository preaching seems to be the best way to make the term understandable and practical for today. Using ideas from etymological, morphological, and substantive meanings leads to a general definition that expository preaching involves the art of preaching a series of sermons either consecutively or selectively from a Bible book. Each sermon within the series needs to expose a biblical truth, and each sermon may also have different homiletical forms and any amount of Scripture for a text. Remember that a term's meaning is based on its usage; therefore, this concept of expository preaching does not declare all other ideas to be false and this one to be true. It represents only one definition among other definitions. Expository preaching seems to be distinguished from the expression expository sermon. Expository preaching refers to a series of sermons, and expository sermon refers to each sermon in the series. The sermons in the series expose truth regardless of the form they take. The eclectic emphasis, which becomes the emphasis of this book, will now be explained.

Eclectic Emphasis #1: The Sermon Series

The definition of expository preaching as a series of sermons, either consecutive or selective from a Bible book, begins the eclectic emphasis. However, the definition does not end with just a stress on a series of sermons. The emphasis on a series of sermons needs to be amplified with concern for content and with a freedom of form for each sermon in the series. By beginning with expository preaching as a series of sermons, the idea of an expository sermon becomes somewhat obsolete. The emphasis should not be on the length of a text or the source for major divisions and subpoints. Within the series of sermons from a Bible book, sermons may vary in the length of texts and in the structure of the sermons. Categorizing sermons within the series from a Bible book into topical, textual, or expository becomes a futile morphological task. The emphasis in each sermon in the series should be deriving a biblical truth from any size text, shaping the idea in an appropriate manner, and directing the biblical truth to people's needs. Thus, the emphasis is not on a single expository sermon but on a series of sermons from a Bible book.

Preaching a series of sermons from a Bible book does not mean rigid regulations about continuity. Many theorists think of expository preaching solely from the perspective of a consecutive series of sermons. This morphological perspective needs to be changed. The series of sermons needs to be thought of as either a consecutive or a selective series. To be consecutive in the series means to treat every text in order from a Bible book. To be selective means to choose several texts from among the many texts in the book.

Some Bible books, because of the nature of their writing and the length of chapters, lend themselves more to a selective series. For example, preaching a series of sermons from Psalms, Proverbs, or one of the Gospels would be better for selected texts rather than consecutive texts. The nature of material in these and other books does not appear in consecutive order. Also, some books such as Jeremiah or Isaiah seem to be too lengthy for a consecutive series of sermons.

Preaching a series of sermons from such books as Amos, Philippians, James, and many other shorter books lend themselves to a consecutive series. Yet there is no rigid rule to forbid or to force either a consecutive or a selective treatment on any Bible book. The definition of expository preaching in this work allows for either a consecutive or selective series of sermons from a Bible book. A liberty exists in choosing texts for a series.

Eclectic Emphasis #2: The Sermon Content

After establishing the definition of expository preaching as an emphasis on a series from a Bible book, attention needs to be focused on the sermons in the series. Each sermon from the Bible book needs a preeminent concern for biblical content. Rather than concentrating on the length of text and the source for points and subpoints from the text, the concern for each text and sermon should focus on the text's original meaning and its meaning for today's hearers of the text. The emphasis on a series of sermons either consecutively or selectively comes from one of the morphological meanings of expository preaching, and the concern for content in each sermon in the series comes from both the etymological and substantive meaning of expository preaching.

The etymological meaning of expository mentioned earlier in this chapter is "to expose", or "lay open", the meaning of the Word of God in a particular text. The concern for content leads the expository preacher to find biblical truths in texts and then to expose them to contemporary hearers. In each sermon "listeners are enabled to see how their world, like the biblical world, is addressed by the word of God and are enabled to respond to that word." Exposing truth from texts requires serious study of the text. Finding out what the text meant allows the preacher to expose what the text means. Donald G. Miller emphasized the concern for content when he wrote: "Expository preaching is an act wherein the living truth of some portion of Holy Scripture, understood in the light of solid exegetical and historical study, and made a living reality to the preacher by the Holy Spirit, comes alive to the hearers as he is confronted by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit in judgment and redemption."

Harold E. Knott also wrote of expository preaching along the lines of content when he said, "The expository sermon is an effort to explain, illustrate, and apply the Scripture to life.... Its purpose is to help the hearers to find in the sacred writings the true interpretation of life." Exposing truths from a text is no easy task; it takes discipline. What kind of study of the text is necessary for exposing truth? In the concern for context each text needs to be examined in the light of its historical background. Each text came from a historical event that involved both authors and readers, and these events and their historical environment need to be examined. Concern for content involves the disciplines of exegesis and interpretation. Simply stated now, but thoroughly studied later in this work, exegesis means to study words and word construction to see what the text meant to the original readers. Interpretation builds on exegesis and human experience to share what the text means today.

Sometimes in the morphological concept of expository preaching, a particular kind of form searches for content. In most cases in the etymological and substantive concepts, the content discovered by disciplined study of the text looks for a form to contain the content. In preparing individual sermons from a Bible book, the first concern should be the content. Every sermon in the series could be a treatment of a word, a phrase, a verse, a dozen verses, a chapter, or many chapters. Then the content is shaped into some form which leads us to discern the next aspect of the eclectic explanation of expository preaching. When biblical truth from a text has been discovered by means of rigid study and by illumination of the Spirit, the truth must be shaped and shared.

Eclectic Emphasis #3: Free Form

The definition of expository preaching as a series of sermons either consecutive or selective from a Bible book goes beyond a mere series to a concern for content and an emphasis on freedom of form. More modifications may be needed in the area of form, especially in the length of the text and in the style of structure. Many definitions of expository preaching emphasize rigidity in these two areas. The definition of expository preaching proposed in this work continues to be eclectic. To preach effectively from a Bible book, freedom of form is necessary. No preacher needs to prepare for a series of sermons from a Bible book with the presupposition that for every sermon to be expository it must have a text longer than three verses. Nor does the preacher need to be handicapped with the presupposition that every sermon must have points and subpoints coming directly from each text.

Homiletical freedom allows the expository preacher to choose texts from a Bible book of various lengths. As previously stated, sermons from the series may be based on a word, a phrase, a verse, two or three verses, a short paragraph, a long paragraph, several paragraphs, a chapter, several chapters, or an entire Bible book. To make every sermon from a Bible book based on the same length of text seems to be too rigid, thus more freedom for different lengths needs to be considered. In plotting a series of sermons from a Bible book, several text lengths may appear. Generally speaking, the shape of a Bible book often determines the length of the texts. In some books long narratives involving several chapters may be the basis for a sermon, while in that same book one word or one sentence may be used as the text. For example, in a series from a Bible book, text lengths could range from words, phrases, sentences to small or long paragraphs. The predominant emphasis of this phase of the eclectic explanation of expository preaching is to be free to choose texts of various lengths.

For example, for a possible series of sermons from Psalms, you may preach consecutively from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150, or you may choose numerous psalms for a series. In selecting texts from Psalms, you may preach from a word, a phrase, a sentence, several sentences, or from an entire psalm. Also, in preaching from the Psalms, a life experience may arise, and a text could be selected from the Psalms. Which choice seems to be the best way for selecting texts — using three verses for every sermon in the series or choosing texts of various lengths? The answer seems obvious. One method is binding and the other is liberating.

Not only does homiletical freedom exist in the choice of length of texts, but freedom exists in the homiletical form for the sermon. Taking to a text the principle that points and subpoints must come from the text seems much too rigid. Think for a moment about getting points from the text. At the outset of the discussion, settle the matter that getting points or outlines from the text represents a good way to develop an idea, but the problem comes when a homiletical rule tries to make every sermon have points coming from the text for it to be expository. Think more of the main idea or point coming from the text; then the points or outline may proceed from the point. The preacher tries to get across the point, which involves elaborating points or disclosing a plot. The actual divisions (points) of a sermon should be development of the main idea (point). Each part needs to be part of the theme. When the point of a passage is stated, the outline can be developed. At times, the points to develop the point may be contained in the text. At other times, the points for developing the point may not be found in the text. The guarantee that the sermon will be biblical lies in the point's being biblical. Do you detect a freedom with regard to form? The preacher should. The expositor goes to a text to get a point, and then by means of using that point, he may develop the point by dividing the text into parts or by elaborating on the biblical point.

In an attempt to make the popular term expository preaching more understandable, usable, and meaningful, an eclectic definition has been adopted. Excellent homiletical ideas have been examined and chosen from the etymological, morphological, and substantive emphases on expository preaching. In researching the subject of expository preaching, some homiletical rules have been included in the eclectic definition; and other rules have been studied and considered but discarded for the definitions of expository preaching. Such concepts as an emphasis on a series of sermons, an allowance in some cases for points coming directly from a text, and an emphasis on the explanation of Scripture have been retained with the feeling that these ideas make expository preaching a practical term. Yet other homiletical ideas, such as a consecutive series, the length of a text longer than two or three verses, and the absolute assertion that points must come from the text have been discarded with the feeling that these ideas represent too much vagueness and homiletical rigidity.

The eclectic definition primarily emphasizes that expository preaching is a collection of sermons rather than emphasizing the classification of individual sermons with the labels "topical," "textual," or "expository." The eclectic definition does not need to stop with the series. It needs to be expanded with a closer look at individual sermons within the series of sermons from a Bible book. The definition is expansive enough to allow sermons in the series to have different lengths of texts. The eclectic emphasis returns the etymological and substantive ideas with the emphasis that each sermon in the series must expose a truth in the text which will be directed to the people's needs today. In the eclectic definition of expository preaching, structural designs may vary from sermon to sermon or may have similar designs that depend on the shape of the text and the means of getting points from the point. Such an eclectic emphasis on expository preaching seems to make the term usable today.

Other sermons, other than those in a series from a Bible book, exist. These sermons, like those in a series from a Bible book, must expose a Bible truth and meet human needs. These sermons seemingly do not need to be classified as topical, textual, or expository but simply messages based on biblical truth prepared and preached to help people.


Expository preaching is the art of preaching a series of sermons, either consecutive or selective, from a Bible book. Subsequent chapters of this work emphasize the art of preaching sermons from a Bible book.