What makes for good preaching? How church history shows us that it’s bigger than topical vs. expository

What makes for good preaching? That is a huge question, and not one which I will solve in this post, but I do want to dive into one of the debates that is common when discussing this question and provide a different perspective, which I have come to over the past few months while diving into church history. The debate I am referring to centers around method of preaching—whether it is Topical or Expository.

While there are many arguments on either side of this debate, I don’t plan to address those arguments directly, but instead consider how the debate we couch in the terms “Topical” or “Expository” is simply today’s incarnation of an argument that started in the 4th century between the Christians in Alexandria and those in Antioch.

The modern debate

I have grown up as a Christian in churches that have highly valued expository preaching. This means that the preacher will explain the bible passage going verse by verse, often covering entire books over the course of weeks, months, or even years. Preachers using an expository method value sticking to the words as closely as possible, explaining the context of the passage, and uncovering the original meaning of the text.

On the other hand, many preachers use a topical approach to preaching. This means, generally speaking, that the preacher may have an idea of what needs to be communicated to the audience, and then will find one or more biblical passages which effectively support that idea. Those passages may be shared at the beginning or throughout the message. Preachers using a topical method value making a particular application, idea, or principle clear or relevant to the listeners.

There is nothing inherently wrong with either approach. Many preachers use both, determining which to use based on the circumstances of their church or audience. Despite this there is, at least in the circles I have grown up in, a debate about which of these is best or most appropriate in church. We all have preferences about preaching, formed by hearing excellent preachers using one or another style, that unconsciously inform our tastes. In my circles, I have noticed a stereotype that if the preaching is not expository, it is self-gratifying, superficial, and unbiblical, driven more by the preachers desire to convince the hearers of personal ideas than of God’s.

The historical debate

During the 4th and 5th centuries of the church, there were a handful of cities of great significance to the Christian community: Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch (where Christians were first called Christians), Jerusalem, Rome, and Constantinople, which replaced Rome as the capital of the empire. Within two of these cities, Alexandria and Antioch, differing approaches to bible interpretation developed in the 4th century, and theology grew out of these approaches which led to misunderstanding, debate, bitter rivalries, and ultimately, schism.

Within Alexandria an allegorical approach to bible interpretation took shape. Interpreters would seek the deeper, spiritual meanings of the texts. Often this would lead to passages, or even seemingly insignificant objects in a text, being given new meanings with profound implications. Along different lines, those in Antioch took an approach to bible interpretation that emphasized the literal, historical, or earthly reality of the text rather than a deeper meaning.

Basil of Caesarea, a student of the literalistic Antiochene approach to bible interpretation criticized the allegorical Alexandrian approach when he wrote:

I know the laws of allegory, though less by myself than from the works of others. There are those truly, who do not admit the common sense of the Scriptures, for whom water is not water, but some other nature, who see in a plant, in a fish, what their fancy wishes, who change the nature of reptiles and of wild beasts to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own ends. For me grass is grass; plant, fish, wild beast, domestic animal, I take all in the literal sense. (Basil, Homily 9.1)

Guided by their method of interpretation, the Alexandrians emphasized the deity of Jesus, at times to the expense of his humanity, and the Antiochenes emphasized the humanity of Jesus, at times to the expense of his deity. In turn, these emphases, being carried to their extremes, led to the Monophysite and Nestorian controversies. Monophysitism, out of Alexandria, taught that Jesus’s humanity was absorbed by his overwhelming deity, making him a single person with a single divine nature. Nestorianism, originating from the Antiochene approach to interpretation used by Nestorius, taught that Jesus’s divine and human natures were so distinct that Jesus had not just 2 natures, divine and human, but also two persons, a human person carried by and born to the Virgin Mary, and a divine person, joined to his human person at some point subsequent to his birth. Despite gravitating more to one or the other interpretive approach, the majority of the Christian community remained within orthodoxy as they fought through these issues. Ultimately, they produced the Creed of Chalcedon as an affirmation that Jesus was one person with two natures, being both fully God and fully man (Needham, Chapter 10).

The new incarnation of an old debate

In our day, I believe we are seeing a recapitulation of the old allegorical vs literal interpretation debate using the language of topical and expository preaching. I don’t think today’s debates will affect doctrines as important as the Person of Jesus, but they can contribute to the further disunity of Christians. To its critics, topical preaching can seem, as was the tendency of the allegorical Alexandrian approach, inappropriately detached from the grammatical-historical meaning of the text of the bible and ripe for abuse and eisegesis. On the other hand, many expository preachers don’t go far enough to help their listeners understand the spiritual significance of a passage or help their listeners apply scripture in a practical way. They may also neglect to put in the necessary work to understand the legitimately intended spiritual or metaphorical meaning of the original author, perhaps being content with an arrogant or ignorant literalism.

Until this study, my preference had long been expository preaching. I have always gravitated toward preaching that explains why the text of the bible is the way it is, and what it meant to the original audience in its context; however, understanding the debate between Alexandria and Antioch has helped me to realize that preaching does not need to be in the line by line expository style to accomplish that goal. A topical sermon can be as true to the text and the original context as any expository sermon. I have also seen examples of expository preaching used in a way that butchers the message of the original author, often because the preacher over-explained greek words and focused on minutia that didn’t really help understanding.

Though I get suspicious of overly allegorical messages, I do think there is a place for allegory in preaching. There are many speakers or preachers who have winsomely presented the gospel in their own words, crafting illustrations from the bible that may have been completely foreign to the original audience. This can be a tool that God uses to break down the barriers an individual is using to resist him. There is also, I believe, wisdom that has grown out of other disciplines of knowledge, such as philosophy or science, and I believe that it is OK to seek points of similarity in the bible to support those ideas, in so far as the Bible’s original meaning and intent is not abused or broken in the process. While I think there is a place for this type of preaching, I think it should be used sparsely and carefully in church.

Ultimately, in church I expect to hear preaching that has two primary aims: making the gospel clear, and helping our modern minds actually understand the original intent of the authors of the Bible. I believe this is best done with a grammatical-historical approach to the bible that avoids allegory that is not clearly called for in the text. Preaching that does this well will guide its hearers first to understand what the original author was saying to his audience given the context and type of literature, second to understand the principle or truth that God was trying to communicate to them, and third to understand how that principle or truth applies in our context. This can be done just as well in a topical sermon as in a line by line expository sermon, and can be just as absent in a line by line expository sermon as in a topical one.

If you find yourself searching for a church, please do not judge the preacher simply on a style of communication like “expository” or “topical”. Instead, try to understand their underlying philosophy of communication. Are they trying to continually remind you of the gospel and become a better student of the Bible? If that is their aim, then I believe they will be effective at “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) and teaching their hearers to understanding Holy Scripture, which “is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

References

Needham, N. R. (2016). 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Volume 1. Christian Focus.

Basil: Letters and Select Works, Homily IX, vol. 8, p. 101, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, 14 vols. (1890–1900; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995).

Image Credit: John Wesley preaching outside a church. Engraving. Photograph, Wellcome Collection. Accessed 4 Aug 2021. CC-BY-4.0

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