A Conversation with Steven Smith about Expository Preaching*

Dr. Allen: Dr. Smith, it is a joy to welcome you to the campus of Midwestern Seminary today. We are in the Spurgeon Room today, in the President’s home, the Vivion Home, here on campus. It is a joy to have you here to talk about topics that are of interest to us. Most especially, we want to talk about preaching. For many years, you have taught preaching at Southwestern Seminary, and you serve currently as vice president for Communications and Student Services there as well. You are a person whom I know has given much thought and written much on the topic of preaching. It is fun to have this conversation with you—a conversation that you and I may be having in any setting, as we have on a number of occasions, but to have it in this setting with an audience to listen in and hear what we talk about. It is a joy to have you here in the Spurgeon Room. We are surrounded by some of Spurgeon’s books and Spurgeon’s desk. It is the right time and place to talk about preaching with a man who loves preaching.

I want to draw the conversation specifically to the topic of expository preaching. Now, you and I have talked before about the fact that seemingly everyone is an expositor. I am yet to meet anyone that consciously denied themselves as an expositor. So, begin with how you define expository preaching.

Dr. Smith: It is an elastic term. It is most foundational. It comes from the Latin to “ex out the positive truth.” So, it is to remove a positive truth and give it to someone. One of my favorite definitions of expository preaching is Dr. [Paige] Patterson’s—my boss, the president at Southwestern—which is simply to teach people to read Scripture. I love that because it has another function besides talking. You are actually teaching people their own hermeneutics—teaching them how to interpret a text.

Because exposition is such an elastic term, as I mentioned today in the Hester Lectures [at Midwestern Seminary], we at Southwestern—it is not original of us—have used the term “text-driven preaching.” What we mean by that and the working definition I use in class, is a text-driven sermon is one in which the interpretation and communication of a biblical text that mirrors the substance, structure, and spirit of the text. You are interpreting it, and you are communicating it. When you communicate it, I believe that the actual “how” is not arbitrary. We can talk more about that, but it flies in the face of a lot of what we hear today: “Yes, I believe the Bible. We just need to find another means to communicate it.” Yet, there is so much meaning at the structural level. There is so much meaning at the genre that you cannot have an arbitrary means of communication. That substance, structure and spirit has to mirror what is going on in the text.

Dr. Allen: When you think about expositional preaching—expository preaching—and you have already alluded to this, but define that, especially in contrast with other counterfeits of exposition or other modes or styles of preaching that may rub up against it, but they may not be classical exposition.

Dr. Smith: Today, we talked about three different philosophies of preaching. One is topical preaching, which can be good or bad. You are essentially taking a topic and saying, “Here is what Scripture says about this topic.”

Another one, to coin a phrase, is “text-centered” preaching. The reason I like using the phrase “text-centered” is because I think a lot of what goes under the name of exposition is not really “ex-ing out a positive truth,” but people think it is exposition because they may sound like an expositor stylistically, and they build that sermon around one text. However, it is possible to have one single text, never leave that text, extract all your points from that text, but miss the point of a text. Theoretically, you could preach through a book of the Bible and never get to the point of each individual unit of thought. This is why I do not like the phrase, “verse-by-verse exposition.” I understand what somebody means by that, but the verses, of course, are not in the original languages. Those are important, but they are inventions of later times. We are trying to grasp the meaning and units of thought in the text.

Dr. Allen: Absolutely. To pick up on the phrase “verse-by-verse exposition,” I use that oftentimes in reference to exposition–and I mean that in the good way–but for many people that are doing verse-by-verse exposition, really what they are doing is just a series of topical sermons based upon pre-assigned texts. It just so happens the pre-assigned texts are the ones they are following through in a book of the Bible or a passage of Scripture. But if you are avoiding or not giving due consideration to the canonical context, to the particular book’s context—what is going on before and after—you are undermining your whole argument for expository preaching.

Dr. Smith: That is exactly right. There is another one that I did not mention today, and this is tenuous to talk because it may be misunderstood, but it is perfect for our discussion here. “Theological exposition” is really gaining ground today. What I mean by that is what was taught by William Perkins, probably the most influential Puritan homiletician and was influential perhaps mostly on Jonathan Edwards. He went through Solomon Stoddard down to Edwards.

Yale released two years ago the first volume of Edwards’ sermons that have been translated. It was 19 sermons on one parable. As you read through Edwards’ sermons, it is just incredible. Rarely does he deal with the point of that parable. What he would do, following the Puritan plain style, is extract the text, deal with the text, and—reading these sermons—he would never refer back to the text after the first five minutes. He would extract a doctrine from the text and, the rest of the sermon was an exposition on that doctrine. Why could he do that? He was Jonathan Edwards. He just had this veracious mind that was incredible. However, I do not think it is an imitable practice from someone who wants to, over a period of time, give people a swath of Scripture because we do not have access to his mind and that giftedness. There is, I think, a growing number of people who are extracting doctrines from a text and preaching that doctrine, but sitting under that for 20 years I think would keep people from seeing the overarching canonical flow of the grand narrative of Scripture because they have been taught doctrines, not texts.

Dr. Allen: Absolutely. There is a certain appeal to that, especially if you are a theologically-minded person. There are times when we need to camp out on a particular doctrine and hammer it out and explain and defend it, especially in this age when we pastor churches and preach to parishioners who very often are ill-equipped and ill-informed theologically. At the same time, though, if you do that and make it a mode of preaching, you are certainly strained for exposition, and you may be informing your folks of doctrine, but you are not teaching them how to study the Bible. You are not teaching them how to read the Bible, and you are not bringing that full scriptural diet to bear.

Dr. Smith: That is a great way of saying it. I love theology. I love doctrine. But that approach has a tendency to reduce individual texts of Scripture to propositions in which, actually, these are fully orbed pieces of literature. I am picking on the Puritans. The Puritans are amazing, but this is why they were so forcibly allegorical in their approaches to wisdom literature, because you had to find a way to reduce these propositions. Well, wisdom literature is incredible. Proverbs are incredible; Psalms are incredible. In a purely text-driven approach, you can allow the genre to breathe. Let it be itself. Let the text do what it was intended to do. Appreciate the literature of it and the communication of it.

Dr. Allen: Very good. When we are thinking about exposition, oftentimes in the poplar mind, there is this strong correlation between something being thought of as being expository and there being a tightly defined, and often alliterative, outline. So, a ton of time and energy goes into having this spit-shined outline. I know what you are going to say to this because we have talked about some of these things in different settings, but I think it is helpful to get it down here. Talk about the role of the outline and how much energy a preacher should expend on the outline, and how that is or is not reflective of an expository sermon.

Dr. Smith: When I first began to preach, the outline defined the sermon. The question was not, “Do you have a text?” The question was, “Do you have an outline?” In the circles that I ran in, that was the most important thing. What we are suggesting by text-driven sermons is that I decide what type of outline this sermon is going to have because every sermon will have an outline, but I make that decision upon what is going on in the text. There is no one template by which you preach a parable. Take Matthew 13:52. It is a one-sentence parable. That is it. But take Luke 16, The Rich Man and Lazarus, or Luke 15, The Prodigal Son. These are huge, fully-orbed settings with characters, scenes, and all of these types of things.

So, the outline that I choose is going to simply be buoyant. It is going to come up from the text. If I am preaching a parable and it has three major scenes and Jesus teaches something at the end, that is what I do. If it is an Old Testament narrative that has four major movements, I just preach those movements. If it is out of the Apocalyptic literature, where there is just a description of something coming in, then that is my sermon. It is just incredibly liberating. The temptation is to not think of exposition as a philosophy but to think of it as a style. If it is just a style, then I sound like the style of an expositor. I think sometimes we attempt to sound like the style of an expositor only to neglect what the text is really saying.

Dr. Allen: That is very well said. Oftentimes, when a person is so inclined to have an outline and spend so much energy seeking to force or inflict an outline or certain structure on a passage, it actually is counterproductive. Not only may you be undermining the revealing of the passage and the meaning of the passage, but oftentimes outlines become very generic. If you are always trying to get at a proclamation, documentation, and exhortation or the person, the plan, the plea, them these outlines are sounding very generic. It is really not even helping to illumine the text.

We are in the Spurgeon Room and as I sit here I am mindful of a picture to my right of Stephen Olford, who is one of my heroes in preaching. He and Mrs. Heather, who recently passed away as well, were very kind to me and my wife when we were engaged and newlyweds. We had occasion to visit with them several times in Memphis. He was just an incredible preacher. He is one of my favorite preachers who has ever lived. But if I would offer one slight word of criticism—I want to put an asterisks by the word “criticism” because who am I to criticize him?– he was so dependent upon that sermon outline. The points of the outline would always alliterate, the sub-points would alliterate, and he would always emphatically say, “You should never force alliteration on a passage to get the outline.” He believed that, and I believe that he believed that. But there is no way you get all of this alliteration all the time without somewhere rounding an edge.

It took me a while as a preacher to work through that and to reassess the role of the outline. I have an article up on my website about the five ways my preaching has changed. One of the leading ways it has changed over the years is a whole reassessing and appropriating of the sermon outline.

Dr. Smith: Maybe one positive spin to put on it—you think of our Southern Baptist heritage, and there was a time when the young up-and-coming guys were looking for models of preaching and wherever they were not getting it, they were getting it in a Stephen Olford. I think of it like a 12-year-old who is learning a golf swing. He learns the fundamentals of that; he imitates; he only learns through imitation; but ultimately, he has to tweak it to fit what is most effective. When you learn from a master like that, there has to be a point where you keep the spirit of that and deviate from the style and start doing what is faithful to the text, even if it may break down the style that was once so attractive.

Dr. Allen: That is good. That is a very insightful point to make. I tell our students here, listen to a lot of good preachers. If you listen to one preacher, you will find yourself sounding a lot like that preacher. So if you only listen to John MacArthur, you are going to be preaching a whole lot of sermons with a lot of content that he can do exceptionally well, but you may not do so well. If you only listen to Alistair Begg, you are going to be developing a Scottish accent before you know it. If you listen to two preachers, you will likely be very conflicted because you are not going to know who you are. Who do you preach like? But if you listen to seven or eight, that will probably help round you out and inform you.

To this day, I am a seminary president, you are an executive cabinet member at Southwestern Seminary, you teach preaching, and I teach preaching, I have never outgrown and will never outgrow the joy and benefit of listening to great preaching. My wife will come down in the morning or late at night, and I will be getting dressed or shaving or sorting files and there will be sermons playing. Our kids know voices, and they can walk through my office and they will hear W.A. Criswell’s voice, Adrian Rogers’ voice, John MacArthur’s voice, John Piper’s voice, and so many others playing.

In talking about expository preaching, we have talked about the “what.” I want to shift gears and ask you the “why.” If you were to give a very quick defense or apologetic of exposition, what would it be? Why expository preaching?

Dr. Smith: I would turn to Colossians 15a: “Christ is the image—the eikon, the exact representation—of the Father. He is the image of the invisible God.” It is repeated in 2 Corinthians 4 as the image of the invisible. Christ exactly represented what the Father has to say; and in a perfect way, the Scripture represents what Christ has to say, all to get to the people. There is an exact representation of the Father in the Son and an exact representation of the Son in the Word. I have no other ambition than to represent—in the same way to God’s people–what God has said perfectly in his word.

Dr. Allen: Very well said. It is the whole notion of exposing God’s people to that truth and to God’s Son as you just said. I think this case—of course I may be partial—is a slam dunk case, especially the philosophical commitment to biblical exposition. The way that fleshes itself out may vary from location to location, and whether it is John MacArthur with a more deliberate verse-by-verse, or more of a Mark Dever style of exposition that is more paragraph-by-paragraph of larger sections. I can be very happy and live with both of those. There is a fundamental commitment to bringing God’s word to bear.

Dr. Smith: What a theology of preaching does for me–that I love–is it protects me from having to defend exposition from a Scripture. I had a student say to me, “What verse in the Bible tells us we have to do exposition?” That is a great question. I do not think there is one. I am not getting my responsibility to do exposition from one verse. I am getting it from answering this question: “Is it the pastor’s responsibility to teach people Scripture based upon how God has revealed himself?” If the answer is yes, then I can figure out how. For me, text-driven preaching is the most faithful way to do what God has called me to do. If there is another way, I would do that. It is just a method to be obedient to that call.

Dr. Allen: Yes. One of the beauties of exposition is, when rightly done, it leads people back to God’s Word. Everything about this should not only be bringing God’s Word to bear, but teaching people by how you handle the text, how you respect the text, how you explain the text, and how you apply the text. All of that is bringing God’s people into engagement with that passage.

I had a conversation a good while back with a gentleman who was complaining about expository preaching. He said to me, “I don’t understand all of this emphasis on expository preaching, and I do not believe in expository preaching.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “I do not like where it leads.” I said, “You do not like where expository preaching leads?” He said, “No, I do not.” I said, “Where does it lead?” He said, “Expository preaching seems to lead to Reformed Theology, so I do not believe in expository preaching.” I laughed out loud. I said, “The point of exposition is that it should lead wherever it leads. Whether it is some theological system you don’t like, dispensationalism or whatever the “ism” is that you do not like, that is another conversation. But do not throw out the baby with the bath water because you do not like that in some people’s exposition it leads them to some system of theology. That is a flawed approach. The whole point is, if rightly done and well done, it is leading people back to Christ, back to the text, back to God’s revelation.

I have one other question as we are thinking of exposition. We have talked about the “what” and the “why.” Just briefly mention the “how.” We cannot do a preaching lab here in the few moments we have left, but give some broad suggestions, broad thematic words of encouragement, that you would say to people to help be an expositor.

Dr. Smith: If I had to isolate one thing, when I was a pastor and began to think more intentionally about preaching and starting to teach it, my one thought in going to the text was, “What is the idea in this text?” I have to extract the big idea. What is the driving idea? Then I would try to find the structure that supported that idea, and I became liberated in a lot of ways when I inverted that process.

The first question for me is, “What is the structure?” When the structure becomes buoyant, when it comes up to the surface, now I can see what the idea is. The structure supports the idea. What I am trying to do is teach people what God’s Word is saying in a section of Scripture, and I have a secondary goal to teach them how the structure of the text supports that. By doing that, I am protecting my people from false doctrine they are going to hear because they understand how Scripture gets at a certain idea. When I look at the “how,” that has probably been the one thing that has helped me the most in my preaching.

The first thing I do when I start to preach is take the text and just read it, and read it, and read it until the structure becomes clear. Once the structure becomes clear and comes up to the surface, then so much of the rest of the sermon preparation process is natural. It comes out of that semantic structure that is in the text.

Dr. Allen: That is good. I would emphatically agree with what you are saying. For me, every sermon begins with an open New American Standard Bible and a legal pad. I deal with the original languages; I deal with commentaries–popular and critical–I cross-reference. I do a whole lot of things, but I do not know if there is anything more fruitful—not only meaning the final product, but in my own heart and soul—than a legal pad, fountain pen, and open Bible, thinking, thinking, thinking, and reading, reading, reading, drawing conclusions and asking questions. All of those things that seem very elementary, frankly, but that is how that sermon congeals itself in one’s heart. Oftentimes observing that and reading that passage again, and again, and again, and again, the meaning, structure, and some of those things surface themselves and rise out.

Dr. Smith: You have a kindred spirit in C.S. Lewis. I am reading Alister McGrath’s biography on him now. He refused a typewriter because he felt like he was student and professor of English literature, and just the noise of the typewriter interrupted the flow of how prose felt when he was writing it and saying it. I have found that before I preach a sermon, I take out a blank sheet of paper. Often it is the backside of printer paper we are no longer using, and I write out my sermon longhand. I prepare a manuscript with a computer using all of the software that I use and all of that, but nothing does more to get into my mind so I can preach without depending on notes than just writing it all out longhand.

Dr. Allen: That is a very good word. I have done that for years. Even as I write, I can hear myself saying it and preaching it. That energy realizes itself on the pen and paper. I can feel myself pressing down harder as I am writing, and it is pulsating through my veins. Preaching is an incredible calling, to think that the Lord has chosen to set apart people—his servants, in Ephesians 4—as gifts to the church to equip the church for faithful ministry. It is an incredible calling we have and an incredible stewardship we have. It is a joy to talk to you about these things here with Spurgeon’s books over our shoulders and seated here within arm’s reach of Spurgeon’s desk and to be in this context.

Dr. Smith: Thank you, Dr. Allen. I have a question for you. Do you mind if I ask you a question?

Dr. Allen: Absolutely.

Dr. Smith: Is it true that the Spurgeon Library here is a lending library?

Dr. Allen: It is not true that it is a lending library.

Dr. Smith: Are you sure?

Dr. Allen: I am positive.

Dr. Smith: So I cannot check something out?

Dr. Allen: No, you can look and you can contemplate thievery, but that comes with a gun shot. Seriously, thank you for being here with us Dr. Smith. It is a joy to have this conversation.

*Recorded 21 January 2014

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