Edited 25 June 2003
DEFINING BIBLICAL PREACHING
Wording a definition of the biblical sermon is a challenge. The term "biblical" has been used in a very general sense to mean all preaching or in a narrow sense to restrict it to the expository method. Some definitions focus on homiletical theory and methods while others measure a biblical sermon by its content.
Here is a working definition that includes the features that seem to me necessary to a biblical sermon. First I will state the definition and then comment on each feature of it. The biblical sermon is one in which the intended meaning of a text of Scripture is interpreted to a contemporary audience as theological truth relevant to their own experience with the aim of a faith response.
Originally Intended Meaning
This definition begins with the idea that "the intended meaning" of the text is the message. This requirement emphasizes the historical nature of the biblcal text. The preacher's first aim as he studies his text is not to find a sermon but to see what the text originally said to the audience to which it was addressed. This calls for studying the text in its context, including not only the other writings of the particular author but the whole of Scripture as well.
Discerning the originally intended meaning will require a careful study of the text in four primary areas: language, history, theology, and rhetoric. The preacher wants to discover the theological meaning of the text for his own audience, but he must first find the meaning for that original audience.
The problem we face in dealing with the Bible is its particularity. Every text is written to a particular audience by a particular author on a particular occasion under particular circumstances to address particular needs with a particular message. This particularization of the text in its original historical setting is not just the context for the message, it is a part of the message. That original setting of the text is the medium through which God has given us his word. The medium of any communication so affects the message as to be almost inseparable from its intended meaning.
The situation of the text writer and his readers actually shaped the meaning of the words for them as they were written and read. This is obvious in texts that contain metaphors, analogies, cultural allusions and personal references that were familiar to the original correspondents but a mystery to the casual Bible reader today. We are reading someone else's mail, written long ago and far away. Their culture, relationship with each other, mutual experiences, common commitments and other like factors so colored the plain definition of the words that the meaning may be discernible only in its original context.
The preacher's purpose for a careful study of the text is to discern the universal meaning so that he can present it to his audience. He studies a very particularized text to understand its original message so that he can generalize that message in statements of universal truth and then re-particularize it in the language, culture and rhetoric of his contemporary audience. The particulars of the original writing so affect the message as to become an integral part of it. A failure to understand the original message can result in a failure to present the text’s meaning to the audience today.
If the preacher is to bring God's revealed truth to bear on the needs of his audience, he dare not assume he knows what the text is saying. He must go deep into the details of the original message to discern the universal truth intertwined with the particulars of the writer's world. Otherwise he may read into the text the conventional wisdom of his own day. Instead of a distinctively biblical meaning, he will give it a predictable meaning that reflects his culture. In the process, the audience will get the bland religious thoughts of a nice minister and miss the living power of the word of God.
Using a Biblical Text
So the first aim of textual study is not to find a sermon, but to discern as clearly as possible the original meaning of the text. This, of course, requires a specific text as the basis for the sermon. My definition of a biblical sermon calls for "a text of Scripture." I am suggesting that a sermon should not be called biblical unless it presents the carefully discerned meaning of a specific text. This is a narrow view and may be more in line with a normal understanding of the term "expository." Bear with me, however, and consider the reasoning behind this restricted understanding of biblical preaching.
John A. Broadus, in 1870, suggested the categorization of sermons as topical, textual, and expository. The difference in these categories is primarily the relationship of the sermon with the text. The topical sermon is developed around a theme the preacher chooses. Though he may use Bible verses in the sermon, they are just support for his own ideas. The textual sermon may derive its theme and some development from the text, but is heavily dependent on the preacher's ideas for its material. In the expository sermon the preacher aims to take the text's apparent meaning and develop that subject as the text does. Much of the sermon material is derived directly from the text.
If the sermon does not get its subject, structure, and supporting material from the text, the preacher will have to supply these from his own knowledge. Though every biblical sermon will reflect the thoughts of the text and the thoughts of the preacher, the most effective sermons will maximize the contribution of the text. Even with expository preaching, the preacher must take the biblical meaning through the grid of his own thinking and supply whatever is needed to develop the sermon fully. To the extent he depends on the text, he will depend the less on his own thinking to complete the sermon.
Since we preachers always leave our mark on the sermon anyway, and this is God's intention in using us, it seems wise to allow the text to shape the sermon as fully as possible. Most of us like to think we are "preaching the Bible" and most of our hearers would like to hear that kind of preaching. In most of the preaching I hear, however, the sermon does not reflect the text (if there is one) so much as it reflects the preacher. Though he would insist that his preaching is biblical, the relationship of the sermon with the text seems to be somewhat weak and superficial.
Allowing a specific text to shape the sermon narrows the message to a focused and dynamic point. The more concrete and specific the meaning in the sermon, the more likely it is to address specific needs. An examination of the Sermon on the Mount makes clear that Jesus' preaching was very much to the point of human need. He spoke to his hearers about their thinking, their attitudes, their behavior, their speech, situations that might arise, worries they had--all in terms of kingdom theology. Limiting our sermons to specific texts will keep us focused as well on specific needs.
Preaching as Interpretation
The third feature of the definition is the verb in the sentence, "is interpreted." The premise is simple, that all preaching is interpretation. We do not simply declare the Bible truth in its pure form. We translate it from the original revelation in a biblical text to the understanding of the modern audience. So the contemporary preacher is not just a reporter, he is puts his own mark on the message. This is God's method, to use human agents to communicate his word to every generation.
The interpretive process will affect the message more than we realize. In subtle ways our own subjectivity will color what we see in the biblical text. Knowing that the meaning will be shaped by our handling of the text can lead us to abandon all hope of letting the text speak. Or it can lead us to more careful efforts to be as objective as possible with the theology of the text.
The preacher's task is to interpret the meaning from the text as theological truth to the audience. Another way to describe this pattern is to note that sermon preparation proceeds in three phases: (1) the exegetical phase, carefully studying the particulars of the text; (2) the theological phase, carefully wording the theological truths discerned from the text; and (3) the rhetorical phase, carefully designing the sermon for the contemporary audience.
In the exegetical phase of your sermon preparation, you want to study the particulars of the text with great care in order to discover its meaning. In the theological phase you can continue your effort to be as objective as possible with the ideas in the text, while wording them as effectively as you can as universal timeless truths. In the rhetorical phase of sermon preparation your personal touch is appropriate and necessary as you plan how to communicate the biblical message to your audience. Your aim is to allow the text to speak through the sermon without losing the theological meaning along the way.
To say we are interpreting the meaning says we are not merely reporting it or declaring it or delivering it without affecting it in the process. The conscientious preacher might like to bring the biblical truth to his audience unaffected by his own handling of it. That is a worthy aim, but not a realistic one. There seems to be no sure way to eliminate the interpreter's impact on the message. God's method in making Himself known has been to use human agency to do it. The original writer affected the meaning by his choice of words and his involvment in the context of the writing. The contemporary preacher also affects the message as he addresses his audience in their language and context.
Some texts express their message with a minimum of cultural and historical trappings. Other texts seem almost smothered by cultural and historical particularities that shape the message. Compare, for instance, two of Jesus' parables, the Two Builders and the Good Samaritan. In the first parable two different men build houses, one on the rock and one on the sand. These are universal concepts that require very little understanding of cultural and historical trappings. The parable of the Good Samaritan, however, has a number of characters who were understood by the original audience but make little sense to a contemporary one. The Priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan are not familiar; their significance for the parable must be explained for the meaning to be clear.
Just as the trappings of the original text writer so shape the message as to become part of the meaning, so does the preacher's interpretation become the meaning received by his audience. The question for us as preachers is whether we are faithful messengers. The aim of the interpretive process is to bring the text's meaning all the way to the audience in tact, with as little corruption as possible in the process. God revealed himself in a particular way through the text writer and wants to do so again through the preacher, with the same well-wrapped truth coming through.
Your Particular Audience
The definition of the biblical sermon also mentions "a contemporary audience." The biblical sermon is tailored for the specific audience. A pastor preaching on an ongoing basis to his own congregation will want to make sure the sermon is designed for their ears. He will take into account their knowledge, their convictions, their attitude, their demographic makeup. This is what we call audience analysis. The purpose for this analysis is to allow the preacher to adapt his sermon to his hearers. We study the audience in order to present the sermon in the way most likely to speak to them.
Sermon preparation goes through a process that begins with the particularized presentation of the message in the biblical text, discerns from that a general and universal theological meaning, and finally particularizes that meaning again for the preacher's audience. So the message is particularized for the original audience, must be generalized to state the theological meaning, and then must be re-particularized for the contemporary audience. The original historical and cultural trappings affect the text writer's meaning to the extent that they becoming a part of the message. The preacher presents his interpretation in the framework of his own culture and moment so that these new trappings also become a part of the message.
Sermons can be prepared for an audience as general as "contemporary Americans" or as specific as "the Sunday morning crowd at Bethel Church on October 12." Either way the preacher has someone in mind from the beginning of his preparation. It is as though his audience is gathered around him as he works on his sermon. He sees their faces as he studies and hears their silent questions. They influence his analysis of the text. They affect the wording of his theological message. They shape the selection and arrangement of his sermon material. Without the audience the sermon has no where to go and nothing in particular to say.
People do not live their lives in the abstract. They do not relate to one another in the family in terms of filial affection, but in terms of hugs, kisses, and loving words. Homemakers do not concern themselves with the culinary arts, but with toast and cereal or roast and potatoes. They do not send their children to school to experience educational benefit, but to learn long division and English grammar. In the same way preachers must get down to cases with the meaning in their sermons. Interpreting the text’s meaning to the audience means presenting it in terms of the normal fabric of their lives.
Biblical preaching to real needs offers the hearer not only theological truths but spells out the implications of those truths for his own experience. Jesus preached like this. He not only challenged his hearers to love their enemies, He spelled out how to do it: bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you, do good to those who hate you. He not only challenged them not to resist evil, but described several situations and how to behave in them--being slapped in the face, being pressed into forced labor, or being mugged. Those who listen to sermons not only want to know what God has to say, but how to live it out.
The Interpretive Link: Theology
The constant throughout the process of interpretation is the theological meaning. The definition before us mentions "theological truths." The biblical sermon is prepared with a theological link between the text and the sermon. To say that the interpretive link between Scripture and sermon is theological is to say that the text tells us about God. So the preacher as interpreter is to study the text for what it says about God rather than focusing on the very human story of the religious heroes of the past and their exploits.
The text is to be examined, not only for what it reveals about God, but for what God is saying in it. Preaching from biblical texts is indeed the word of God to man, not a commentary about God by man. So our intent is to look for what God is saying, to the original audience and to the contemporary audience. What God is saying will be essentially about God--his nature, his intentions, his perspective, his instructions. And through seeking to interpret any and all texts in terms of what God is saying, we make the theology, the God-word of the text, the link from text to sermon.
Whatever else the Bible addresses, it was given to tell us about God, and that is theology. The Bible presents moral truth, how we are to behave. It offers ecclesiastical truth, the nature of the church. It gives us philosophical truth, a worldview. It even contains psychological truth, the nature of man. But all of these areas of truth are secondary to the chief aim of Scripture, to reveal God to us, that we may know who He is and trust Him. Though all the Scripture teaches us is God’s truth, the foundation for it all is theology.
Using a contextual or relational link for interpretation is fallacious. Yet this is the approach being taken by some homileticians of our day. They look for a common thread in the experience of the Bible characters and ourselves as the key to their interpretation. But the results miss the mark. To interpret the story of Ahab and Naboth's vineyard as only relevant to the oppressed is to miss the truth in the text that applies to most of the audience. To interpret David's sin with Bathsheba as a story of mid-life crisis is to miss God's truth about sin and repentance.
God's revelation in Scripture includes action and word. God acts in man's experience and then interprets to him the meaning of His action. He may also interpret to him the meaning of actions beyond the experience of any eye witness, as in the creation account and the Revelation of John. What God said once he will say again through the sermon. So the sermon is the word of God to this audience because it presents the truth of Scripture, what God has said at another time. And when it is preached, the Spirit of God is active to convince the hearer.