Expository Preaching a Myth?

Leadership Journal’s “Out of Ur” blog recently ran a series of articles by Pastor David Fitch called “The Myth of Expository Preaching & the Commodification of the Word.” I found his series to be provocative and unusual. It was provocative because he forced me to think about the very heart of what I do which is expository preaching. It was unusual in that he sent a warning shot over the bow that expository preaching might be dead, even if such was not his intention. In fact he goes to some lengths to say that such is not the case but he never convinced me. His series certainly resonated with a few preachers (here, here, and here) but in the end I think he failed to deal with what expository preaching actually is or offer any constructive advice to preachers struggling with some of the issues he raises.

There is an obvious frustration resident in his tone that so much preaching falls flat and never connects with “where the people are.” Only a blind preacher would deny that such an estimation is accurate in many ways. I too have seen my share of stale sermons that never seem to go anywhere, say anything, or call for change. There have been Sundays where I was ready to resign, disgusted not with “performance” but with my handling and communication of God’s Word. However I don’t think this is a problem of method or message but one of messenger. The method of expository preaching is sound and fits most naturally with the message of Scripture. It takes into account the style, genre, and most importantly the authorial intent of the author. Contrary to some of the comments left at “Out of Ur”, expository preaching is not a myopic form of preaching that ignores the various forms of the text. There have been many misrepresentations of expository preaching and Fitch has not helped this problem by taking aim at expository preaching.

He begins with an overbold statement in the first article that begins his journey of deconstructing what he thinks is expository preaching and in the process rendering it all but a useless exploit (and yes I believe “deconstruction” is the right term to use since Fitch later pays due homage by placing a coin in the hat for Derrida). He states,

“There is a myth surrounding expository preaching among North American evangelicals. It goes like this: if the preacher follows the text more closely in his preaching, both he/she and the congregation will stay true to the Word of God. No other agendas or human wisdom will slither into the preaching. Implied is, if the preacher but applies the exegetical historical-critical skills learned in seminary and studies the text in its original language, (s)he can arrive at the meaning of the text all by him/herself. This is the mythology I believe is behind expository preaching in the evangelical world.”

My first thought is that it would have proved more constructive if Fitch worked within the framework of any number of standard definitions of expository preaching rather than resorting to improbable generalities (see his opening sentence). It might have made a good blog series to interact with some of the published definitions of expository preaching but that is not my main concern here.

Two initial observations are in order at this point as to why I think so much confusion exists about the nature of expository preaching as exemplified in the author’s post. First, if one abandons the doctrine of inerrancy then biblical expository preaching is impossible. Without inerrancy one is left with an unsure text delivered through an unsure messenger resulting in an unsure audience. All arguments aside, this is exactly where Fitch leaves us. Such a notion does not sit well with postmodern preachers but that’s where their best philosophizing has left many in the broader emerging movement. I don’t know the author’s view of inerrancy but this issue seems to be amiss in all the conversations about textualization and what Fitch derisively calls “commodification.” We’ll return to this point later. Second, if the hermeneutical task is rooted in subjectivity then expository preaching will result in confusion and the morass of problems that Fitch so rightly points out. It becomes clear that the author’s problem is not with “expository preaching” but with an understanding of hermeneutics. For example, consider his second paragraph:

“Why do I label this a mythology? Well first of all, the historical-critical method in the hands of individuals has not yielded a singular meaning as “intended by the author” in over 100 years. Instead what we have is thousands of commentaries on the Bible that present numerous unresolved options for interpreting practically every verse in the Bible. Historical-critical exegesis hasn’t generated more unity over Scripture; it has generated less.”

Again, I point out that Fitch’s problem is not with expository preaching per se but with how his own form of deconstructionism (or even reader-response understanding) does not gel with what he views as historical-critical methods. Reading Fitch one is left with the impression that expository preaching is not only a myth but it is a useless task of subjective rambling. The author knows this and tries to head-off such criticism with:

“What I have said above is a pretty heavy indictment. Some might imply that I don’t believe preaching is any longer possible in the postmodern worlds. But nothing could be further from the truth. Others might argue the same problem plagues topical preaching. There are those who respond to all of this by dismissing the role of traditional preaching altogether. And some respond with attempts to democratize preaching.”

Fitch will try to unravel the knot he has tied in parts one and two which we will examine in subsequent posts. Pointing forward he says, “I will discuss how we can reshape and restore the proclamation of the gospel in the church gathering amid postmodernity.” He has his work cut out as he has led the reader down a trail of subjectivity without a map or a compass. One may be tempted to lose heart at this point and give up the journey. However, I would echo the words of John Frame that “Despite the limitations of human language, God is able to use human language to tell us clearly and accurately who he is and what he has done” (Salvation Belongs to the Lord, 13). The sovereign Lord accomplishes this through earthen vessels faithfully preaching His inerrant Word. This is not only a possible task but one that the Lord Himself has blessed.

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One response to this post.

  1. If i were to summarize your article i would do so with these three helpful statements (all yours unless indicated):

    I think he failed to deal with what expository preaching actually is or offer any constructive advice to preachers struggling with some of the issues he raises.

    Without inerrancy one is left with an unsure text delivered through an unsure messenger resulting in an unsure audience.

    However, I would echo the words of John Frame that “Despite the limitations of human language, God is able to use human language to tell us clearly and accurately who he is and what he has done” (Salvation Belongs to the Lord, 13).

    Thanks for this Paul!

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