“Expository” vs. “Topical”: Overstatement on Both Sides

If you go to certain conservative seminaries these days, you’ll probably see a heavy emphasis on what’s called “expository” preaching.  This is taught in contrast to “topical” preaching, which is often considered, implicitly or explicitly, inferior and less God-honoring.  Such criticisms have ruffled feathers of pastors who practice topical preaching, and some have shot back by calling expository preaching arrogant, disconnected, and sometimes even unbiblical.  One such article is this one here that was written a few years ago.

I myself engage in expository preaching the few times I’m in the pulpit, and even when I teach elsewhere, the majority of the time it is in an expository manner.  However, I agree that some who champion expository preaching do so in an overly superior way and that their arguments against topical preaching can be overstated and haughty.  Likewise, some responses against expository preaching are often too defensive and fail to see some of the good points brought up by those who prefer expository preaching.  I think it is more of a pro/con thing, rather than a matter of right or wrong.

Still, I do prefer expository preaching most of the time, and I’ll explain why this is the case, though I am not against topical sermons per se.  I will also discuss the potential advantages of topical teaching and argue that it is not wrong to do and can be very beneficial.

Definitions

Before I can really begin, it will be important to define the terms used here since they can get a bit muddled.  Expository preaching is called what it is because it is aimed towards “exposing” the meaning of the biblical text, but such a definition is too general.  It is also often called “exegetical” or “text-driven” preaching, but it’s not like topical preachers don’t ever do exegesis or believe that their sermons fail to be “driven” by the Bible.  What really separates expository preaching from topical preaching is that the former aims to pick a specific passage of the Bible and walk through it in detail.  The goal is to find the main idea of the text and explain why that main idea was chosen with a detailed analysis of the text.  This should involve historical research, language study, plot analysis (if a narrative), syntactical analysis, so on and so forth.  Another typical characteristic of expository preaching, though it is not wholly necessary, is to go through entire books at a time.  Except for skipping around Scripture from week to week, expository preaching advocates tend to prefer picking a book, such as 1 Corinthians, and going through it from start to finish.

Topical preaching, on the other hand, does not typically go through books but jumps from different parts of Scripture as the topic demands.  Also, topical sermons aim to gather different verses of Scripture on a topic rather than pick a main passage and exegete it thoroughly.  This does not mean that topical preachers do no research, but their goal is often breadth and not depth when it comes to the Bible.  Topical preachers also tend to do utilize more outside sources such as Christian authors and culture.  Of course, there are sermons that are kind of a blend of both topical and expository sermons, but I think these definitions will suffice.

A good example to differentiate the two may be the subject of divorce and remarriage.  A topical sermon on this matter would probably attempt to briefly summarize several different relevant texts such as Matthew 19, Matthew 5, 1 Corinthians 7, Ephesians 5, etc.  It would then draw a conclusion based upon this overview, perhaps with the help of contemporary authors and research.  An expository sermon, in contrast, would pick one of those texts and walk through each verse, making perhaps passing mentions of other texts but focusing on the main one.  Also, an expository preacher is less likely to preach on the topic out of the blue but instead preach on it if and when a relevant passage comes about in a series.

The case for topical preaching

With these definitions in mind, it will be easier to evaluate both expository and topical preaching.  I’ll first begin with topical preaching and evaluate the case for it, seeing where it makes good points but also where it can go wrong.

One of the more interesting criticisms topical preachers levy on expository preaching is that it is unbiblical.  That might sound bizarre on the outset, but there is actually a good point lurking here: One would be hard-pressed to find any teacher in the Bible, such as Jesus or Paul, who preaches or writes in a way that would be identified as “expository.”  In fact, it’s a common joke in seminary that the way NT writers use OT references is likely to make an OT professor cringe because they are seemingly loose with them.  For example, when Paul references Isaac, Ishmael, Sarah, and Hagar in Galatians 4, he does not bother to exegete the passages in Genesis but instead explicitly states that he is allegorizing these characters.  Allegorization is a big no-no to expository preachers, but topical preachers argue that if loose and even allegorical Scripture references were good enough for Paul, they’re good enough for them.

While there is something to this, I think this is greatly overstated for several reasons.  One, allegory is fine as long as one does not think that the allegory is the actual meaning of the text.  Paul in no way argues that his allegory is the main point of those passages in Genesis; he uses well-known characters in a certain manner to illustrate a point, which even expository preachers do.  Two, the purpose of the NT writers was not so much to exegete the OT but to bring the good news to different people.  The OT was referenced as a way to show continuity between Christ and the OT, but the purposes of the writers and teachers of the NT were not to simply rehash what was already there.  This is different for current preachers who are not inspired authors or Jesus himself.  An expository preacher, in response, can easily quip, “Yeah, but you and I ain’t Paul or Jesus.”

Three, just because there aren’t explicit examples of a teacher teaching exegetically doesn’t mean that the Bible discourages it.  If anything, the Bible itself commands that believers pay close attention to the teachings of God and Christ… which are recorded in Scripture.

Another reason topical preachers find their method to be superior is that they feel like topical preaching gives them the flexibility to address matters most relevant to their congregations, while expository preaching is often too academic and disconnected.  Andy Stanley, quite strongly, called expository preaching  “easy” and “cheating” and not the way people grow.  Stanley’s words are way overboard, but the basic point that topical sermons allow pastors to relate to their congregation more is shared by many topical preachers.

Again, there is something to this, but ultimately it is overstated.  First, there is a hidden assumption that what Scripture teaches isn’t always relevant, but it should be because it’s, well, Scripture.  Believers should become mature enough to submit to Scripture at all times.  Second, preachers in their applications can draw reasonable links to what the Bible says in their series to what is going on in their churches (being careful not to stretch this to its breaking point).  Third, there’s actually something good about letting Scripture speak rather than the pastor going off on his own talking points.  Sometimes, pastors just want to talk about stuff they want to or harp on things that annoy them, but expository preaching helps limit that.  If we believe the Word of God to be powerful in itself, we can be confident that it will have its effect.

These two overstated points aside, there are still good reasons in support of topical preaching.  Yes, it can provide flexibility to address issues in a congregation, and it also has the advantage of looking at the whole counsel of Scripture on a particular topic.  For some classes, like a doctrines class, topical is really the only way to go, and it can still have some benefits when utilized in the pulpit.  Also, on a practical matter, topical preaching tends to be less study-intensive and can be easier for pastors to do who are swamped with other responsibilities, though it’s only the very gifted (or… very irresponsible) pastors who conjure up their sermons on Sunday morning.  Some pastors did not have the opportunity to be trained to preach purely expository sermons, and it’s a bit insensitive and arrogant to look down on them for that.

Expository preaching: Helping people read the Bible better

Because I’ve already discussed expository preaching some in the previous section, I’ll be brief here.  Basically, there is a reason why I prefer expository preaching, and that is because it helps people come to a deeper and more accurate understanding of the Bible and does a better job avoiding illegitimate proof-texting.

Dr. Paige Patterson has stated that he believes preaching is simply helping people read the Bible better, which is a good, basic way to understand expository preaching.  The accusations of being overly academic only betrays an implicit anti-intellectualism that has long plagued evangelicalism.  For sure, wise preachers should not try to unload Greek syntax on their listeners in order to make themselves look smart, but a skilled teacher will do his studies and then communicate the gist of those studies in a way that is accessible.  What expository preaching enables, at least theoretically, is a deeper appreciation of context and careful handling of the text.

Oftentimes, after a topical sermon, people do not walk out of the service coming away with a better understanding of Scripture.  They do not know much about the context of a certain passage, who wrote it, and what the flow of thought was.  They maybe have a snippet of that passage and that’s it.  Expository sermons help them understand the Bible with depth and helps them read the Bible more carefully in their own personal readings.

Practically, while topical sermons have their advantages, so do expository ones.  Namely, instead of trying to be “creative” and coming up with interesting topics from week to week, pastors can simply go on to the next passage in their series.  This often includes a heavier study requirement, but it also lessens the time it takes to try to come up with something cool and new.  It puts emphasis on what Scripture says rather than the charisma of the preacher, which in many ways lifts a burden on the pastor.  Personally, it’s always been a great comfort to know that as long as I exegete a passage and communicate it reasonably well, I can be confident that God will work through his Word, even though I am far from a talented or emotionally rousing public speaker.

Conclusion

I think that the advantages of expository preaching, especially in this day and age of biblical ignorance, more than outweigh its inherent limitations to make it the more preferable way to preach on the pulpit.  That does not mean that I think topical sermons are wrong or useless; I think they can be very beneficial and can be interspersed throughout the year, and topical teaching is definitely useful in Sunday School and small group settings.  Since I do not view this as a right or wrong issue, I will not go out of my way to blast pastors who do not preach purely expository sermons all the dang time (frankly, few celebrity pastors actually preach in this manner, even the most popular ones like Piper and Keller).  Hopefully, we are ultimately all on the same side, and any criticism that is delivered should be done so with humility and respect.

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6 thoughts on ““Expository” vs. “Topical”: Overstatement on Both Sides

  1. Believers should become mature enough to submit to Scripture at all times.

    I do not think either method is necessarily superior either. I like your moderation in this post. Thanks for linking to mine.

    I do, however, believe that if someone follows the notion that Scripture is sufficient for *all* godly living without further substantive clarification of what “all” means, topical preaching would be the only form of preaching in the church. This is why I find it ironic that in the very circles that are known for being more systematic in their theology and more pronounced in their doctrine are the very same circles that teach the Sufficiency of Scripture scrupulously when critiquing the broader Christian community, yet forget when they are critiquing topical preaching per se, they are critiquing the apostolic method as well as Jesus’ exclusive style of preaching. Some have failed to see what a painfully obvious problem there *would be* with any kind of preaching not modeled in the Bible on such strict biblical grounds of authority. This is one of many performative contradictions I find among Protestant groups.

    Bradley

  2. Believers should become mature enough to submit to Scripture at all times.

    I do not think either method is necessarily superior either. I like your moderation in this post. Thanks for linking to mine.

    I do, however, believe that if someone follows the notion that Scripture is sufficient for *all* godly living without further substantive clarification of what “all” means, topical preaching would be the only form of preaching in the church. This is why I find it ironic that in the very circles that are known for being more systematic in their theology and more pronounced in their doctrine are the very same circles that teach the Sufficiency of Scripture scrupulously when critiquing the broader Christian community, yet forget when they are critiquing topical preaching per se, they are critiquing the apostolic method as well as Jesus’ exclusive style of preaching. Some have failed to see what a painfully obvious problem there *would be* with any kind of preaching not modeled in the Bible on such strict biblical grounds of authority. This is one of many performative contradictions I find among Protestant groups.

    Bradley

    • Hi Bradley:

      Thanks for coming by, and I agree that the criticisms of topical preaching often go overboard.

      However, I’m not sure I’m following you when you say that if we take seriously the notion of the sufficiency of Scripture for all godly living, we would only preach topically. I’m not sure how that would rule out either form of preaching.

      • Can you offer an example of book-by-book preaching anywhere in the Bible? Or better yet – in the New Testament specifically? Everything will hinge on this. (See the discussion in the thread on my post first because others have offered answers to this already that I have critiqued).

  3. Hey Bradley, sorry for the very late response. I honestly just forgot about this thread for a while.

    I disagree that everything hinges one whether or not we find a book-by-book study in the Bible or New Testament. First of all, we can definitely see some long readings of the Word of God that go on for hours, such as in Ezra reading from the Law in Nehemiah 8, which convicts to the people, makes them weep, but also causes them to celebrate. The Levites also “gave meaning” to the Book of the Law, meaning that they explained it to the people so that they would understand. This, I think, is a pretty significant example. Another example is Paul and the Berean Jews, who clearly combed through Scripture to see if what Paul said was right.

    Regardless, the idea of the sufficiency of Scripture has to do with also following commands that are in Scripture, not simply mirroring examples that are in it. There are commands in the Old Testament to study the Law intently everyday. There are commands in the New Testament to learn and obey the commands of Christ, which are recorded for us in the New Testament. Arguing that unless a specific example is found in Scripture, one cannot apply a principle biblically is a strange standard; in fact, topical preaching would collapse under such a standard as well. Expository preaching surely obeys the commands to take the words of Christ and the apostles seriously.

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