It is to be hoped that this subject will be, first of all, of benefit to our graduates. I refer to the general decline in preaching in our day. I refer not so much to the fact that there is a drift away from the preaching as the center of worship services. I refer rather to a radical change in the content and the form of preaching. The two are related to each other. And it is my intention to defend expository preaching. This defense requires a stress upon exegesis as being at the bottom of all sound preaching.
But it is to be hoped that some consideration of this matter will also be of benefit to all you who are in attendance this evening. This is not a subject of little or no concern to you; you are the people of God; it is for you that preaching is done.
Expository preaching is preaching which is exposition of the Scriptures. In the Reformed tradition the relation between Scripture and preaching has always been obvious. This is no longer true today. There are many pulpits, perhaps the majority, where preaching no longer has much to do with the Scriptures. This has to do with the question of what preaching is all about, and of what, in the mind of the preacher, preaching ought to accomplish. Is preaching an offer of salvation? Is preaching a moral discourse intended to uplift men’s minds? Is it a commentary on present day social and political problems? Or is preaching the power of God unto salvation? One’s attitude towards the preaching will determine the relation between preaching and Scripture.
To get at the point that needs to be made, I can make use of an illustration. I recall that as a small boy I was aware of the fact that the minister in preaching concentrated his attention on all the details of the text: the individual words, the order of the words, the meaning of the words, etc. I had accepted this as being proper for preaching without ever giving much thought to the matter. But one day I read a parody written by an unbeliever in which he mocked expository preaching. He had, constructed a “sermon” by means of exegesis of a nursery rhyme—I think it was “Old Mother Hubbard.” He prepared a rather lengthy “sermon” with a theme and three points in which he went carefully into the meaning of each word and the relation between the words, expounding with diligence the meaning of the whole. I can recall that I was deeply shaken by this for a long time. It planted seeds of doubt in my mind that the careful attention to details which characterized a minister’s sermon was really a kind of “playing church.”
But there was one point I had forgotten or, at least, did not yet understand. In a sense., it is possible to apply exegesis to any written work whether it be a nursery rhyme of childhood days or a philosophical treatise of some learned man. The term “exegesis” means “to lead out”; and, as applied to any writing, it means “to lead out of a writing the meaning.” In a broad sense of the word, this is not peculiar to the Scriptures.
What then sets the exegesis of Scripture apart from the exegesis of any other book? The difference is in the nature of the book—the Bible as over against all other books in the whole world. The Bible is unique. It stands in a class by itself. If any book is relatively well-written, its meaning lies on the surface and it can be readily determined by anyone who reads it but once. But Scripture is not this way. This does not mean, as the Roman Catholics maintain, that Scripture is obscure, difficult to understand, a book only for trained theologians. Scripture is also clear. It is so clear that a small child can read it with understanding. But Scripture is like one of these pools in Yellowstone National Park. It is so clear that one can see very deeply into it. The longer one looks, the farther one can see into its depths. But yet, it is impossible ever to see the bottom. It is so deep that the bottom lies forever beyond our penetrating gaze.
The point is that the character of Scripture determines exegesis.
There are therefore certain elements concerning Scripture which are important to recall to mind. I do not propose to offer an exhaustive list of the attributes of Scripture tonight; it is my purpose to concentrate particularly upon those points which have direct bearing on our subject.
Scripture is truly a miraculous book. From whatever point of view one looks at the Scriptures, the truth stands out in sharp focus that Scripture belongs to the whole realm of miracles. Do you wish to examine its origin? Its origin cannot be explained except in terms of a miracle. Do you wish to know its character? Its character throughout is truly miraculous. Do you wish to investigate its preservation throughout the ages? and its power in the life of the Church? This can only be understood by understanding that Scripture is a miraculous book.
Scripture is a book divinely inspired. There are those who maintain this doctrine, but insist that there is what they like to call “a human element” in the Scriptures. The trouble is that they raise this human element to such a level of importance that the divine element is all but neglected. Divine inspiration means verbal inspiration. And, as far as exegesis is concerned, this means two things. It means that the very words and expressions of Scripture are of divine choice, the precise way in which the Holy Spirit chose to express Himself concerning the truths of revelation. The Holy Spirit is never arbitrary. He chose what He did with good reason. It is the work of the exegete to discover that reason. Divine inspiration means also that the exegete is always dealing with a book which carries the authority of God Himself in it. This instills in him a proper sense of reverence and awe as he approaches a book which is so completely of God.
We confess also that Scripture is perspicuous. It is often said that one can hear many sermons on a given text—even by many different ministers; and all these sermons are different. This is not because a minister can make a given text teach anything he wants. Not if he is honest with his text. But it does mean that no one hundred sermons will exhaust the riches of any given text. This, in itself, has always been to me one of Scriptures’ most wonderful characteristics. A child of three or four years old can hear his father at the table read: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”; or: “And she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.” Such a small child will have no trouble understanding such a text. He knows what it means. It is child-like language. A preacher of thirty years experience can preach his tenth sermon on this text and firmly believe that he has not pulled from its well of living water the last bucket. There are depths there too profound for his understanding.
We confess that the Scriptures are a unity. They have as their underlying theme: Christ, the full revelation of Jehovah the God of the salvation of His people. Or, as a Bible teacher of mine once expressed it, wherever Scripture is cut it flows with the blood of the Lamb. But, and this is a remarkable fact that I cannot fully explain, the whole of the Scriptures comes into focus in every single passage. Truly, Scripture in every passage moves from Paradise to Paradise. Every truth of the whole of Scripture is implicit in every text. The trinity, sovereign predestination, total depravity, divine providence, particular atonement—these and all the rest are to be found implicit in every passage of the Word of God.
We confess that Scripture is a spiritual book. It is not an interesting collection of ancient writings; it is not a textbook for a literature course. It is a profoundly spiritual book. Beware when you come to it. You walk on holy ground. In a very real sense Scripture is a closed book to the unbeliever. And it is open only to the man of faith.
With this book the minister has to do. This is the heart of his calling. Many other tasks may be placed upon him—important tasks indeed. He may be called upon to give lectures and speeches. He may assume responsibility to write for the Standard Bearer. He may have to take part in the work of various committees. He may be called upon to print the bulletin for his congregation. But he is above all an exegete, whose work it is to exegete the Holy Scriptures. He is a preacher of the Word. And to be a preacher he must be an expositor of Holy Writ.
It is not my intention tonight to give a brief and condensed course in exegesis. But there are a few remarks which seem to be essential to the subject. These have to do especially with the fact that an exegete works as a son of the Church. I want to stress this fact tonight because I consider it to be of singular importance.
What does this mean?!
It means surely that a minister of the gospel is a product of the Church. He was, as a general rule, born and raised in a covenant family where from childhood on he was instructed in the Scriptures. Paul makes quite a point of this, e.g., in his letter to Timothy. He was spiritually nourished in the Church for there he received all his instruction. He was taught the Scriptures not only in his home, but also in his school, in catechism, and under the preaching of the Word. And particularly, he was prepared for his task in the Seminary.
Now all of this implies that the exegete is a man who comes to Scripture with basic presuppositions. Before he ever begins to preach he has received the whole system of the truth. He has received a system of the truth which was not the invention of his parents and his pastor, but a truth structure which has come down to him from the earliest history of the truth. He has received a truth structure which is the fruit of the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church throughout the ages. He has been instructed in this in such a way that it has become his own peculiar heritage and confession. To him is committed what Jude calls “the faith once for all delivered unto the saints.” He has received this of grace, by the operation of the Spirit within his own heart. And particularly he has received this through the confessions of the Church. It is with this truth structure that he comes to the Scriptures as exegete. It is very important that he should do this. He must not be, as some are today, embarrassed by this. This is his life and safety.
And, from this it follows, that he is a servant of the Church. This must not be misconstrued. He is not a servant of the Church in the sense that the pew determines the pulpit, that the man in the pew determines what he must preach. He is a servant of the King of the Church, the Lord Christ. He owes obedience to no one but Christ. But, as a servant of Christ, He is a servant of the Church, for the Church is the body of Christ.
Thus he may never be isolated from the pew.
There is danger of this. I warn you of it. It is possible for a minister to assume that he is a learned man who enjoys studying abstruse and esoteric subjects for the mere pleasure of study. The knowledge of the truth is then for its own sake. He engages in learned and wise discussion with his fellow theologians of like faith or differing faith and finds his delight in the mere knowledge of difficult problems and the intellectual stimulation which comes from studying and discussing them. The danger of this is readily apparent. It leads to the idea that there is a certain area of the knowledge of the Scriptures which belongs to the learned, and another area which is the province of the unlearned.
I engaged in a discussion with another professor concerning this matter but a few weeks ago. He was deeply steeped in the area of New Testament criticism. And he kept wanting to engage me in debate over very involved and difficult textual problems. Finally I asked him concerning a question he brought up in connection with the Scriptural narrative of Jesus’ conversation with the Syro-Phonecian woman, how he would discuss these problems of textual criticism on the pulpit. Oh, he assured me, he would never think of bringing these problems on the pulpit. I asked him why not. His answer was that these were areas of Scripture reserved for the theologian; they were of no concern to the man in the pew. But they are matters of Scripture. Is Scripture then to be divided into two categories? that which belongs to the trained theologian and that which belongs to the man in the pew?
This same idea has even led so far that it is claimed that there are different meanings in Scripture—one for the theologian and one for the laymen. For the theologian, e.g., it is obvious that Christ did not really rise bodily from the dead. But we must nevertheless teach this to the layman. For he can only understand picture truths. As one man so aptly observed: “I’m sure if I had to produce picture-truths to a parishioner in great anguish or under fierce temptation, and produce them with that seriousness and fervor which his condition demanded, while knowing all the time that I didn’t exactly believe them-myself, I’d find my forehead getting red and damp and my collar getting tight.”
This whole idea must be reprobated. And yet it is, e.g., the very issue in the so-called Report 44 of the Christian Reformed Church which deals with the question of Biblical authority. Only a trained theologian can understand that report. And there are serious differences of interpretation even among them.
The exegete is a servant of Christ for the sake of God’s people in everything he does. All his labors are to that end. You may take it as a rule of thumb that if you stumble on an idea which enamors you but which you would be hard pressed to explain to any single child of God, you have stumbled on an idea which is false.
As a servant of the Church the exegete does his work, for he is a preacher.
There is a problem which remains and to which I call your attention in conclusion.
We are agreed that true preaching is preaching of the Word. Only in this way can a minister be a servant of Christ. Only in this way will the sheep of God hear the voice of their Shepherd when they hear the preaching.
But expository preaching means preaching which explains the text. Does not then a preacher, in his explanation of the text, interject into the Word of Scripture his own word. Or, to put it another way, is it not better simply to read Scripture from the pulpit to be sure that only the words of Scripture itself are heard? Is not exegesis, exposition, always man’s work?
It is my concluding thesis that true preaching is indeed expository preaching. It would not be true preaching for a minister to read selected passages of Scripture in place of a sermon. The Reformers were correct when they divided in the liturgy the reading of Scripture itself and the sermon which was based upon Scripture. Both are important.
There are especially two reasons for this.
Preaching, because it is expository preaching, is always explaining. Scripture with Scripture. It lies in the nature of Scripture that he must do this, for Scripture is a unity, an organic whole. But it is precisely in this way that he does not come with his own word, but lets the Scriptures themselves speak. This is most important. It is exactly why heretics always fail. They come always with isolated texts. In this way it is possible to prove anything from Scripture; but the very character of Scripture is denied. The true preacher preaches in such a way that the whole Word of God shines through and must be made to shine upon every text.
Secondly, preaching brings out the truth as it lives within the consciousness of the Church. There is the operation of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the people of God. This operation of the Spirit brings the whole Word of God to God’s people. That is, the very truth of the Scriptures itself is the work of grace wrought within the hearts and lives of God’s people. Do the Scriptures teach the forgiveness of sins through the blood of the cross? But this same truth is a work of grace wrought within the consciousness of the people of God. The very truth of the Scriptures is the objective testimony of what God has given to His people in Christ. That truth is therefore the confession of the Church—a confession in all life’s experiences. And so the believers of God find themselves and the work of grace in their hearts in the preaching. This is the great wonder of preaching the Holy Scriptures.
And so God has given to us this calling to preach the Scriptures. The very authority of that calling lies in the authority of the Word itself. This has been and is today more than ever the strength of our Churches. May God give grace that that preaching is preserved among us.