Fallacies about Expository Preaching

The purpose of this article is to codify common misperceptions and criticisms of expository preaching.  These misperceptions and criticisms are often adduced as reasons for preachers and congregations not to adopt expository preaching as their standard practice.

The ultimate proving ground for the assertions and counter-assertions regarding expository preaching is the experience of congregations where good expository preaching is practiced.  In such congregations, the objections to expository preaching are demonstrably untrue.  The proof of the pudding is in the eating.  In churches where dynamic expository preaching is practiced, parishioners would not settle for anything else.  At the very least, this proves that the objections are not inherently or automatically true.

As for the preachers and congregations who have bought into the case against expository preaching, we can legitimately ask, Have they practiced such preaching and found it wanting?  It may be doubted.  Either these churches have drifted away from expository preaching in deference to cultural trends, or they have not given expository preaching a fair try.

The argument that pastors and congregations are satisfied with the alternatives is a weaker argument than it may at first appear.  Congregations might be even more satisfied with good expository preaching than they are with current practices.  More importantly, the spiritual depth of both preacher and congregation might be substantially increased by expository preaching.

I simply leave it as a challenge to those who have not tried expository preaching:  give it a try and see what happens.  By any enlightened standard, a lot of what is said from pulpits, even in churches that by external signs of attendance are flourishing, is insubstantial and platitudinous—”milk, not solid food,” as 1 Corinthians 3:2 puts it.  The largeness of some churches, including ones pictured on television, is not a tribute to the excellence of the preaching but rather to the spiritual hunger of people who are so desperate for spiritual input that they are willing to settle for whatever is put in front of them.  This is not an indictment of the people in the pew, who usually lack an opportunity to choose expository preaching.  It is an indictment of preachers and church boards who have failed to provide the best that is available.

The remainder of this article will be organized as a series of misunderstandings about expository preaching, which I have labeled as fallacies.

Fallacy #1.  Expository preaching consists of running commentary or moralizing on a Bible passage.

The practice of a preacher’s reading verse by verse through a Bible passage and following each verse with paraphrase or application is what some people regard as expository preaching.  This is a misconception.  Expository preaching does, indeed, take the listener through an entire passage in sequence.  But that is all that running commentary and expository preaching have in common.

Expository preaching treats a passage analytically.  It proceeds by the logical or narrative units of a passage, which in only a minority of cases are individual verses.  Expository preaching is genuinely analytic and interpretive, not a mere paraphrase plus application.  Expository preaching is based on the premise that meaning derives ultimately from complete units and literary wholes, not predominantly from individual parts.

Fallacy #2.  Expository preaching is essentially an exegesis of a passage.

Exegesis is the process of parsing individual words as they appear in the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible.  It is what seminarians do in their Bible courses and Hebrew and Greek courses.  It is also what we find in scholarly (as distinct from popular) commentaries on the Bible.  For our purposes here, the two essential traits of exegesis are (a) that it is atomistic in the way it deals with a biblical passage and (b) that it is a form of language analysis (as the basis for understanding the intellectual content of a passage). As with the “running commentary” model, many people incorrectly believe that this type of exegesis is expository preaching.  Exegesis is part of the spadework that goes into expository preaching.  A preacher is unlikely to “get it right” in regard to the meaning of a biblical text if he has not engaged in exegesis.  Knowing what the individual words and phrases mean is the starting point for understanding a Bible passage.  But it is only a starting point. By way of analogy, a literary critic’s explication of a poem or story begins with spadework.  At this stage, a literary critic is like a detective shifting through evidence, collecting data and taking notes.  But a polished explication, whether presented to a literature class or appearing in a journal, is more than a collection of insights into the details of a text.  It molds the details into patterns and organizes the individual insights around generalizations.  At this stage, the explicator is like a trial lawyer presenting data in the most understandable and persuasive manner. The same principle applies to an expository preacher.  Early in the week, he subjects a passage to spadework in the form of exegesis.  But that is not what he presents to his congregation on Sunday.

Fallacy #3.  Expository preaching is left-brain discourse.

Modern brain research has firmly established that the two hemispheres of the human brain respond to (are activated by) different types of stimuli.  The conclusions are based on observations of brain-impaired accident victims and brain wave activity measured as people respond to certain stimuli or engage in certain types of thinking.  In regard to brain wave activity, we now even have photographic evidence.

In brief, the “right brain” becomes active with visual and other sensory stimulation.  It is the part of the human brain that grasps whole-part relationships, emotion, and humor.  When a person is dealing with words and language, the right hemisphere becomes active with concrete (as opposed to abstract) vocabulary, images, and metaphors.

The “left brain” largely complements these activities.  It processes abstract concepts and is engaged during logical thinking.  Its forte is analysis and complex linguistic skills.  But as already intimated, language assimilation is not wholly a left brain activity, since the right brain process certain language functions.

Once we lay matters out according to the foregoing division of duties, it is mystifying as to how the equation of expository preaching with left brain thinking became established.  It is true that some expository preachers err in the direction of excessive theologizing and abstraction. Their bent is quickly and consistently to turn a Bible passage into a series of ideas.  They may dip into the announced passage for proof texts, but they do not relive the text.  This is not what we mean by expository preaching in this book.

Expository preaching contains within itself a safeguard against the syndrome of excessive abstraction.  The text itself is palpably present in the sermon.  It is in effect a concretion that is continuously presenting itself to a reader for contemplation and assimilation.  The preacher’s task is to make this text come alive as an organism that possesses its own life and integrity.  To do justice to the concrete particulars in a text is to ensure that the text is experienced as right brain discourse.

Expository preaching is holistic—neither left brain nor right brain but both.  It engages the right brain in reliving the text and liberating the concrete particulars of the text to make their impact.  Even the analysis and interpretation that a preacher applies to the text can be right brain activity, to the degree to which its effect is to heighten a listener’s grasp of the text as an organic whole made up of specific details.  But of course much of the interpretive commentary and analysis that an expository preacher puts into a sermon is “left brain” in nature, engaging the intellect and dealing with the ideas of the Christian faith and their application to life.

The claim that expository preaching is exclusively or mainly “left brain” is a fallacy that does not do justice to the range of things that happen in a good expository sermon.  In particular, it underestimates the degree to which a biblical text (usually literary in nature, we might note in passing) is experienced as right brain discourse.  The fallacy is correct in one regard, though:  an expository sermon requires focused attention on the part of the listener.  The alternative of an unfocused listener should not be offered as something to be embraced.

Fallacy # 4.  Expository preaching is incompatible with topical preaching.

Whether or not this is true depends on how we define topical preaching.  If we mean a sermon in which a preacher presents a series of ideas with minimal or no interaction with a specific passage from the Bible, then expository preaching is incompatible with topical preaching.  Expository preaching follows the contours of a single Bible passage and does not consist primarily of a preacher’s framework of ideas and generalizations on a topic. But there are other ways in which expository preaching is completely compatible with topical preaching.  The concept of topical preaching can mean that a preacher preaches a “freestanding” sermon on a subject of current importance.  It can also mean a series of sermons bound by a common thread, such as Christian doctrines, issues in the Christian life, critique of cultural trends, or subjects on which a congregation is known to need instruction.  An expository preacher can accommodate all of these situations simply by choosing Bible passages that speak to a given topic or issue.  Expository preachers have always done this some of the time.  All that is required is that a topic be correlated with the best possible text from the Bible.

Fallacy #5.  Expository preaching by definition obligates a preacher to preach through complete books of the Bible.

This is a common belief, but it is untrue.  The most that can be said is that expository preachers have usually found it advantageous to undertake books-of-the-Bible series of sermons.

Two things need to be noted here, however.  One is that preachers who choose topical preaching also often resort to sermon series on books of the Bible.  Their sermons simply do different things with a book of the Bible than expository preaching does.

Additionally, an expository preacher can choose any part of the Bible as the basis for a sermon.  The essence of an expository sermon is the way in which a preacher handles the text.  An expository preacher has the same range of freedom to choose a passage from the Bible that other preachers have.  The belief that expository preaching locks a preacher into preaching through books of the Bible is a false issue.

Fallacy #6.  Expository preaching produces “head Christians.”

I have already replied to the misconception that expository preaching is only left brain discourse.  If the label “head knowledge” means an excessively intellectual or idea-laden form of preaching, the claim is falsely linked with expository preaching.

The nature and effect of expository preaching are closely tied to the nature and effect of the Bible itself.  The Bible is a remarkably varied book that speaks to all temperaments and employs all forms of writing.  Some of the Bible is ideational in emphasis.  Some of it is narrative, producing quite a different effect.  Both of these require the mind to be very active in grasping something–either a sequence of ideas or a sequence of events, settings, and characters.  But other parts of the Bible are openly emotional in content and rhetoric.

No matter what the literary form, the Bible in virtually all of its parts is a very affective and moving book.   Because expository preaching is so closely tied to the biblical text, it has the potential at all times to produce a “heart response” as well as a “head response.”  Additionally, an expository preacher has access to the same range of affective and persuasive appeals that other forms of preaching allow.  We might also note that the obligation that expository preaching imposes on a preacher to unfold a passage in systematic fashion provides a safeguard against a preacher’s lapsing into mere persuasion and emotional manipulation.

Fallacy #7.   Only some preachers are capable of expository preaching.

All forms of preaching are an acquired skill.  Most preachers have received formal instruction in the skills required by their chosen form(s) of sermon.  But even an uneducated person who simply stands in the pulpit and asserts a series of generalizations about the Christian life or who moralizes about Bible verses or shares a series of anecdotes or issues a gospel call has acquired the skills that he is practicing.

Once we grant that all forms of preaching require certain skills, we can assess the claim that expository preaching requires extraordinary skills that only some preachers possess.  In essence, the textual skills required to compose an expository sermon are largely those required to compose a good Bible study.  At the heart of the venture is an ability to approach a text in terms of its genre, to discern unifying patterns in the text, to explore the meanings of individual parts of the text in relation to its patterns, to extract principles or themes after reliving the text, and to apply those themes to everyday life.

If a good Bible study leader can do these things, so can an expository preacher, who almost certainly has received more specialized education than the lay Bible study leader has received.  The only point at which we ideally expect an expository preacher to do something more than a lay Bible study leader lies in the area of knowledge of the Bible in its original languages.  But even here we can say that scholarly commentaries that provide help in this area are now abundant.

Preaching of any type benefits from an educated clergy.  That principle is not limited to expository preaching.  Certainly expository preaching does not depend on a charismatic personality.  It probably requires a preacher with a scholarly side to his constitution, but any preacher who is temperamentally unable to spend the necessary hours in his study is going to produce insubstantial, fluffy sermons, regardless of his chosen mode.

Fallacy #8.  Expository preaching is boring.

Expository preaching is neither automatically boring nor automatically interesting.  It can be either.  Whether it is one or the other depends on a range of factors—the skill of the preacher, the temperament and tastes of the listener, and (potentially) whether or not a listener has an aptitude for the specific type of passage on which the sermon is based.  Expository preaching is not inherently more or less interesting than other forms of preaching.

I will offer the following personal testimony.  Before I started attending College Church in Wheaton, a friend said in a conversation that for him, the Sunday morning worship experience was the highlight of the week.  The highlight of the week? I said to myself skeptically.  I did not have the antennae by which even to imagine such a situation.  After having begun to attend a church where outstanding expository preaching was the norm under the pastoral tenure of Kent Hughes, I came to a similar verdict:  the Sunday morning experience, and especially the expository sermon, was the highlight of the week.

The blanket charge that expository preaching is boring is mainly a comment on the preferences and acquired tastes of the person who finds expository preaching boring.  Such a person can profitably consider the following questions:  If you agree that that the Bible itself is (a) a book with supreme authority in your Christian life and (b) a book that is interesting rather than dull, is it not unlikely that a sermon that unfolds the meaning of a Bible passage is actually boring to you?  If you really do find such a sermon boring, what does this say about you?  And is it not a situation that you would theoretically want to remedy?

Fallacy #9.  Expository preaching is too intellectual.

Here, too, the charge is a self-revealing statement more than a comment on expository preaching.  It is true that an anecdotal sermon or a sermon that consists of running commentary or moralizing on a text requires less thoughtfulness from a listener than an expository sermon does.  But, in turn, an expository sermon is less purely intellectual than a topical sermon usually is.  If the exposition of a Bible passage requires strong powers of concentration, so does thoughtful reading and meditation on a Bible passage.

For the person who finds expository preaching in general to be too intellectual, some questions of self-scrutiny are appropriate:  Are you constitutionally opposed to thinking about the great issues of life?  Do you avoid hard thinking in other areas of life that are important to you?   If not, should you be content to allow your spiritual input to sink below the standards of thoughtfulness that you apply in the areas of life that matter most to you?  How can you reconcile taking a holiday of the mind when you go to church when you know that God’s command is to love him with all your mind (Mark 12:30 and elsewhere)?

Fallacy #10.  Expository preaching is old-fashioned and passé.

The element of truth in this statement is that genuine expository preaching makes up a relatively minor strand in contemporary preaching.  But the additional conclusion that such preaching is therefore outmoded does not logically follow.

After all, many aspects of the Christian faith appeal to only a small segment of people today.  “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48):  that command does not win the allegiance of most people in our society.  In fact, there has been such a drift away from standards of excellence that for a Christian practice to have the status of a minority position might commend it (though this is not a universal principle).

To people who have had their spiritual lives enriched by expository preaching, such preaching is not outmoded but still the best thing around.  To churches or individuals who have come under the practice of expository preaching after having been deprived it, such preaching is experienced as a discovery of something entirely new, not something that is passé.

Fallacy #11.  An expository sermon is hard to listen to.

A variant of this complaint is simply that an expository sermon is too difficult.  By difficult, people apparently mean that it requires substantial powers of concentration from the listener.  This perception is accurate:  to listen profitably to an expository sermon requires that the listener stay with the flow of what is being said.

But, of course, any sermon requires powers of concentration.  Even a string of anecdotes requires that a listener stay with the flow.  The alternative of tuning in and out of concentration on the preacher’s sermon is debilitating to all sermons, not simply expository sermons.  And while it might seem that it requires less sustained attentiveness to listen to some of the alternate models of sermons, expository sermons, too, fall into a series of individual parts.  It is not a single big block of material.  Further, there is a built-in safeguard against viewing an expository sermon as a single monolithic object, namely, the way in which an expository sermon always shuttles back and forth between looking at the text and thinking about the details of the text.  Journeys to the text and away from it toward commentary provides a rhythm and variety to the flow of an expository sermon.

Fallacy #12.  Expository preaching is impractical and lacking in application.

It is hard to see why this objection ever gained currency.  An expository sermon can never consist solely of application (as some of the other models can), but it is as open to application as any other sermon.  An expository preacher would assent to the principle that no sermon is complete without application.  The customary place for application in an expository sermon is at the end of the sermon, after the text has been explored and principles or themes extracted from it, though application can also be mingled with the exposition of the text.

Fallacy #13.  An expository sermon is a lecture rather than a sermon.

This charge is even more untenable than the claim just considered.  Some of the other sermon models come close to resembling a lecture, but an expository sermon can never do so.  It is not a lecture but an explication of a text.

This will be clarified if we consider what teachers of literature typically do during class sessions.  They sometimes lecture on an author or a literary work, or the context of an author and work.  On other occasions they explicate a text, keeping the focus on the story, play, or poem.  In the first instance, teachers talk about authors, works, and cultural contexts, in effect giving a topical address.  In the second instance, the goal is to unfold the meanings and artistry of the literary work.  This is an explication of a text.

An expository sermon clearly falls into the second category.  It is not a lecture.

Fallacy #14.  The returns for preparing an expository sermon are not commensurate with the effort required to produce it.

In the first place, if the spiritual welfare of a congregation is what is at stake, no effort should be regarded as unwarranted.  Conversely, a preacher has more incentive than any other person in the world to put forth the requisite effort that his calling elicits, for the simple reason that the rewards are the highest imaginable, namely, the spiritual health of people.

The premise that preparing an expository sermon requires more effort than other types of sermons require is generally untrue.  Finding anecdotes or preparing a topical sermon probably require as much work as preparing an expository sermon does.  We need to remember that the application part of the sermon is similar regardless of what the rest of the sermon is.  Preachers become adept at preparing for the type of sermon that they usually prepare.  Preparing an expository sermon has one great advantage:  the core material for the sermon is immediately available, consisting of a passage from the Bible.

I offer the following analogy from my life as a teacher of literature.  I find it more time-consuming to produce a coherent lecture on a subject than to produce an explication (close reading) of a literary text.  What preachers need is instruction in how to explicate texts.  The best person to impart that knowledge is a literature teacher.

Fallacy #15.    Expository preaching does not have biblical warrant and is in fact a product of the rationalistic Western or enlightenment mindset.

To say that expository preaching lacks biblical warrant is untrue.  To preach the word is a logical extension of themes that we find many places in the Bible.  Expository preaching has biblical warrant, but it generally lacks biblical models.  But this is true for most other models of sermons as well.  There are simply few models of sermons as we understand them in the Bible.

It is equally untrue that expository preaching arrived on the scene with the enlightenment, or the Reformation, or any other movement.  Examples of expository preaching are present throughout the history of preaching.

Fallacy #16.  Expository preaching is not “Gospel preaching.”

Gospel preaching is evangelistic preaching centered on the way of salvation in Christ and eventuating in a call to faith in Christ’s atonement for salvation.  To say that expository preaching cannot meet this criterion is a false characterization.  Expository preaching allows its agenda to be set by the Bible itself, not by an evangelistic program.  But in keeping with the principle that Christ can be found in some form in the entire Bible, an expository sermon can virtually always be slanted at the end (or elsewhere) to the Gospel of salvation in Christ.  It is true that expository preachers are temperamentally disinclined to make every sermon a rerun of the same message, which “Gospel preachers” usually do.

Summary

A summary statement might be as follows:  the weakness and insubstantiality of most contemporary topical preaching makes any alternative an attractive alternative.  Expository preaching throughout history has been the central, vital tradition.  It has never been proven to have lost its appeal or power.  It has been abandoned for insufficient reasons.  A return to it would be a return to the Bible.  Nothing could be more beneficial to preachers and churchgoers.  In fact, the future of Christendom depends on it.

Leland Ryken

Leland wants to see people growing and reading the Bible as literature. He has been a college teacher of literature for over half a century, authored some sixty books, and now continues to bless the Church through his resources made freely available on this site.

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