Textual, Topical or Expository?

“Should preaching be textual, topical, or expository?,” preachers often ask. The answer to that question is yes.

If that answer confuses you, let me explain. How could a good sermon be anything but all three at once? The three are certainly not mutually exclusive categories, as some (wrongly) seem to think.

Certainly there will be a text. I prefer to call it a “preaching portion.” What must be avoided is isolating a sentence or a fragment of Scripture from its context and preaching from it in that form for one’s own use rather than for the purpose for which it was written. Objectionable “textual” preaching neglects telic study and focuses on something in the passage that catches the interest of the preacher. A preaching portion should be determined not by its length (in Proverbs, as elsewhere, one sentence clearly can be a preaching portion), but by whether or not it constitutes a distinctively telic unit.

Certainly there will be a topic. If one has no topic, he has nothing to preach about. What must be avoided is choosing a topic and running from passage to passage to substantiate it, whether the passages do so or not. When a doctrine is taught from two or three passages (that is about maximum), to do so properly requires extra effort on the part of the minister. He must study and present textually (in context) each of the passages, doing the exposition that is necessary in all three for the congregation. It is because some preachers do little justice to any passage or group of passages, but merely deliver an essay on a topic, that topical preaching has acquired such a bad press. Good doctrinal preaching (as I prefer to call it) is greatly needed. But it must be textually and expositorally undergirded.

Certainly there will be exposition. By exposition I mean explanation of the preaching portion to the congregation, showing them how he reached the conclusions that he is making in the sermon, thus basing the authority for his exhortations squarely on God’s Word (see my other article on preaching in this Journal). What must be avoided is mere running comments on a passage that have little or no regard for its telos (“purpose”).

As a matter of fact, if all three activities are pursued telically, there will be no problem. It is the neglect of telic analysis and presentation that has led to the various attacks on one or more of these emphases.

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