Posted by: chuckbumgardner | October 7, 2007

Let Us Not Despise Topical Preaching

In circles which seek to give the Scriptures due honor, expository preaching is held high.  By “expository preaching,” I mean a sermon which takes one particular passage of Scripture and carefully exposes and applies its meaning to the congregation. As I understand it, an expository message looks for its very structure to the text of Scripture itself, so that it may emphasize what the text emphasizes and subordinate what the text subordinates. An emphasis on expository preaching (as I am here defining it) is a fine emphasis, and many preachers would be well advised to pay a good deal more attention to the texts from which their sermons purportedly spring. I prefer to preach expository messages myself, and I prefer to attend a church which majors on expository preaching.

But let us not despise topical preaching.

I understand that topical preaching has often been marked by a lack of adequate exegesis of texts engaged in the course of the sermon (read: proof-texting), or a lack of engaging many texts at all. The type of topical preaching to which at least some have been exposed takes a topic mentioned either obliquely in Scripture or not at all, and provides a venue for the preacher to give his thoughts on the matter, many or all of which have little grounding in Scripture.

But topical preaching, rightly done, is an entirely appropriate way to communicate the Word of God to the church.  Rightly done, topical preaching is more difficult than expository preaching, in that it develops (at some level) a biblical theology of the topic under consideration, exegeting adequately at least the major texts which intersect that topic. As well, ask yourself this: how many of the sermons in Acts are expository in the sense given above? Do Peter or Paul structure their messages (which I acknowledge are, at least in most cases, abbreviated in the Scriptural record; see how long it takes to read through one, and cf. Acts 2:40) on the basis of an OT text or a saying of Jesus? I am not suggesting that expository preaching (as defined above) is an invalid method of preaching, just that it is not the only valid method of preaching.

Is it warranted to take a topic which is not directly addressed in Scripture, and to preach a topical message thereon?  On the one hand, the emphases in the NT ought in large part to determine the emphases in our own preaching.  On the other hand, we must recognize that Scripture was written in a particular historical context, and in many cases (think of the NT epistles) was addressing particular issues in that historical context. This certainly does not mean that such texts are useless for us today. But when we consider matters of emphasis, it must be remembered that particular issues needed emphasis in the original setting of Scripture which do not require the same emphasis in our own context. As one example, the NT epistles are replete with instruction on handling persecution. The NT writers would not, I suspect, emphasize that topic as much were they writing to believers in 21st-century America today.  There are other topics, no doubt, receiving relatively less attention in the NT, which would be receiving more attention were the NT written to churches in our own cultural context. Paul would, no doubt, have devoted ink to open theism had he written to the churches which are in metropolitan Minneapolis-St. Paul in 2000.

Now, of course, I could be misunderstood to be establishing a firm and fast boundary between expository preaching and topical preaching. But good topical preaching will rightly expose the meaning of relevant texts, and good expository preaching is not afraid to reference other texts to round out what the present text says about a particular topic. This is akin to the relationship of exegesis, biblical theology, and systematic theology — but that is a topic for another day.

Let us not despise topical preaching. But let us be sure that when we preach topically, we engage the text of Scripture properly.

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Responses

  1. How would one preach the Epistles without indulging at least a portion of topical preaching? Could one seriously claim, for example, to preach through Paul’s words to wives in Ephesians without going to Genesis, the rest of the Torah inasmuch as it deals with wedlock, Proverbs, and 1 Peter?

    Perhaps I’m bouncing around the fringes of the definition of “exegetical preaching” and “hyper-exegetical,” but it seems to me that there are some out there who, by belittling topical preaching, simultaneously downgrade that which they meant to exalt–exegetical preaching.

    Feel free to educate me here. I’m just a dumb observer trying to figure a bit of this stuff out.

  2. I hate to admit it, because I love expositional style, but there is definitely a place for topical. Even when I’m in an exegetical study, I like a lot of cross referencing on words or topics.
    To God be all glory,
    Lisa of Longbourn


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