Text-Driven Preaching and Sermon Form
All preaching rests upon certain convictions about the nature of God, the Scriptures, and the Gospel. James Barr said he doubted whether the Bible itself, regardless of one’s view of inspiration, can furnish the preacher with a model for sermon form and content that could be conceived as normative.1 Such a statement is clearly informed by a less than evangelical view of biblical authority. Contrast this with Haddon Robinson’s statement: “Expository preaching, therefore, emerges not merely as a type of sermon—one among many—but as the theological outgrowth of a high view of inspiration. Expository preaching then originates as a philosophy rather than a method.”2
Are all sermon methods equally valid or desirable? Many today would consider expository preaching on an equal plane with virtually any other method of preaching, and perhaps just as many consider it less serviceable for preaching today than other methods such as topical or narrative. The renowned Spurgeon did not think so:
A sermon, moreover, comes with far greater power to the consciences of the hearers when it is plainly the very word of God—not a lecture about the Scripture, but Scripture itself opened up and enforced. … I will further recommend you to hold to the ipsissima verba, the very words of the Holy Ghost; for, although in many cases topical sermons are not only allowable, but very proper, those sermons which expound the exact words of the Holy Spirit are the most useful and the most agreeable to the major part of our congregations.3
What form should a text-driven sermon take? Today, sermon form is frequently dictated by one or more of the following considerations: tradition, the prevailing paradigm in homiletics, culture, literary form, etc. Not all sermon forms are created equal, and some are based on a faulty understanding of biblical revelation and/or the human sciences. For example, the New Homiletic with its disdain for “propositional, deductive” preaching, its elevation of the audience over the text, and its privileging of experience over knowledge, substitutes a narrative sermon form that oftentimes leaves the meaning of the text blurred or undeveloped. This is not to say that the New Homiletic has nothing to teach us about preaching, for indeed it does. However, due to the truncated view of biblical authority of many of its practitioners, it does not take seriously enough the text of Scripture itself as God’s Word to us.4
Ultimately, sermon form should be dictated by theology. What one believes about the nature and sufficiency of Scripture will largely determine how sermons are structured. Text-driven preaching does not entail enslavement to a deductive sermonic form nor artificial outlining techniques such as a three-point structure, alliteration, etc. A good text-driven sermon that explains the meaning of the text can be couched in a variety of forms. Scripture employs various genres including narrative, poetry, prophecy, and epistles, and good text-driven preaching will reflect this variety as well. There is a broad umbrella of sermon styles and structures that can rightfully be called “expository” or “text-driven.”5
Text-driven preaching is built on the solid foundation of the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture. Anything less than real exposition—which explains, illustrates, and applies the text to the people—does not reflect a proper view of biblical authority. Sermonic form should reflect the form and structure of the text.6
1 James Barr, The Bible in the Modern World (London: SCM Press, 1973), 139.
2 Haddon Robinson, “Homiletics and Hermeneutics,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl Radmacher and Robert Preus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 803.
3 C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 73.
4 Narrative Preaching has come under significant critique in recent years, even by those who were once its ardent supporters. See, for example, Tom Long, “What Happened to Narrative Preaching?” Journal for Preachers 28.2 (2005): 9-14. In 1997, Charles Campbell’s bombshell Preaching Jesus: New Directions for Homiletics in Hans Frei’s Postliberal Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), and James Thompson’s, 2001 Preaching Like Paul: Homiletical Wisdom for Today (Louisville/John Knox: Westminster, 2001), both leveled broadsides against the New Homiletic. See also David L. Allen, “A Tale of Two Roads: Homiletics and Biblical Authority,” JETS 43 (2000): 508-13.
5 For a helpful discussion of this subject, see Dennis Cahill, The Shape of Preaching: Theory and Practice in Sermon Design (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).
David Allen is dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Seminary. This article is an adaptation of a chapter he wrote for Text-Driven Preaching: God’s Word at the Heart of Every Sermon. Follow Dr. Allen on Twitter @DrDavidLAllen.