Rhetorical Device in Expository Ministry: The Outline

Probably no device should be more obvious to your congregation than your outline. Our people may miss certain nuances of our argumentation, they may fail to grasp weightier theological insights but at the very least they should walk away with some sort of outline of the text just preached. The goal of which is to bring them back to the Scriptures where they can plainly see how the text unfolds, how your proposition was rooted in the text, and finally how it drives the hearer to worship the Triune God. Some preachers are content to use the same outline in preaching that they devised in their exegesis. This is unfortunate for many reasons, chief of which is it misses an opportunity to do more than merely communicate some facts about the Scripture. A good homiletical outline does more than show the people that you arranged the basic thrust of the pericope. Through the outline, the preacher has the opportunity to call the congregation to faithfulness, inspire them to action, issue the commands of the Lord or raise questions for further reflection (the options are of course not limited to these examples). One way to examine the nature of your outline is ask yourself, “what is this outline calling the people to do?” Is it asking a question, issuing a command, or merely restating a biblical truth? There’s nothing wrong with plainly stating biblical truth. In fact, that is one of the key objectives of the sermon. However, the outline should give the people thoughts, ideas, imperatives and questions on which to hang the meat of the text (I have found that imperatival statements and questions make for effective outlines but one should not limit himself so as to become predictable or even redundant).

For John Calvin, outlines in preaching were more implicit than explicit. They were more felt than seen. Part of the reason for this absence of clear “points” (in the modern usage of the idea) in Calvin’s preaching was his possible overcorrection from the earlier forms of scholastic preaching. Reading Calvin, it becomes clear that medieval theologians like Peter Lombard (c. 1100-1160) and the latter Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1347) had both positive and negative effects on his preaching style. Hughes Old notes that scholastic preaching with its emphasis on rigorous form would have been the preaching that Calvin heard while growing up in Paris. The scholastics forced the Scriptures into their preconceived categories of sententiae or summa which more often than not missed the point of the given text and obscured the message of the gospel. Seeing this, the preaching Reformers were the first to largely move away from the scholastic method and in turn embraced a method of expository preaching rooted in grammatical-historical exegesis. Hughes Old writes that, “Calvin was primarily an expository preacher. From the standpoint of homiletical genre, all his sermons are expository sermons” (The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Church: Volume 4 The Age of the Reformation, 93). So Calvin moved sharply away from scholasticism and embraced a “freer” form of outlining the text. A survey of Calvin’s sermons from Galatians, for example, reveal no obvious outline (in the sense of 1, 2, 3, etc.). However, that is not to say that an outline is not present. Calvin relied more on verbal cues than numbered sequences (e.g., “first, then, and finally”). Old notes that this was because Calvin refused “to force a passage of Scripture into neat sermon outlines and yet seems to have a full command of the arts of language” (108). My conclusion is that Calvin had the clear structure of an outlined sermon but used rhetorical devices more effectively in other parts of his expository messages. However, as Calvin and many others have exemplified, an outlined sermon helps one see the interrelatedness of the Scripture and its demands upon the hearer. Effective expository preaching will make ample use of outlines which will guide the hearer into the ancient world of God’s Word so as to see its original meaning and its modern-day application.

One response to this post.

  1. Excellent thoughts Paul!

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