Dying to Preach
Apply Liberally?: How Application Can Misrepresent Scripture
The perspiration from his forehead is misleading. He is ready for this. He mounts the mock pulpit in our seminary classroom and delivers what is, from every available means of evaluation, a great sermon. He has a clear main idea and he borrows the structure of the sermon from the structure of the text. And, as I evaluate the sermon, I hear clear explanation (he understands the text), clear argumentation (he understands how this text fits into the larger whole of biblical theology), and clear application (he knows how the text intersects with life).
It's all there. But it's not.
As this "A" sermon rolls out in front of me, something is seriously wrong. It's accurate, faithful, clear&mash;and completely underwhelming. After having this scenario repeat itself a few times in the classroom, I think I have identified the problem. The problem, as is often the case, was sitting in my chair. The problem is, he did exactly what he was taught. I taught the students the arts of explanation, argumentation, and application, but not exhortation. The net result was accuracy without urgency. Their sermons were right; they just weren't compelling.
Ironically, nothing could be further from what the Bible calls preaching. Paul exhorted with tears (Acts 20:19, 31). Peter preached in a way that people were "pierced to their hearts" (Acts 2:37), and Jesus moved the crowds with word play, story, imagination, and provocative language.
The idea then that one can explain, argue, and apply a text of Scripture, without making it compelling, represents a historical shift.
Perhaps the most influential homiletics text of all time is Book Four of Augustine's On Christian Doctrine. Augustine was saved from a life where he only knew rhetoric as a means of self-exaltation. After his salvation, he wrote the first three books of On Christian Doctrine. The work as a whole did not deal with preaching. Perhaps he felt that rhetorical devices should be foreign to Christian preaching. Rhetoric was for the profane, while preaching was the pure explanation of sacred texts. However, thirty years of listening to preaching cured him of this thinking. He finally wrote "Book Four" in which he applied classical rhetoric to preaching. His triad is still instructive today: Preaching must teach, paint, and persuade. This was borrowed directly from Cicero and was later copied by Fénelon. That to say, this idea of preaching was the way it was understood for hundreds of years.
Steven W. Smith is a preacher and author who is attempting to die in the pulpit and call a generation to do the same. He is the Dean of the College, and Professor of Communication, at the College at Southwestern. Follow him on Twitter.