The Centrality of Authorial Intent in Expository Preaching

P52Because of my preparation for some classwork and upcoming preaching responsibilities, I’ve been thinking a lot about expository preaching, particularly the importance of authorial intent. The priority of authorial intent is something every preacher must come to grips with, particularly because of the strong temptation to skew a passage to make it fit the message.

Ignoring authorial intent in interpreting Scripture is not only a temptation for busy pastors; it is also a deliberate philosophical decision made by many modern scholars. Impatient with the irrelevant findings of exegesis, and swayed by a postmodern epistemology,[3] these scholars have decided that it makes little difference what the author actually meant, so long as the reader can derive from it personal significance. When it comes to the task of preaching, the impact of these divergent hermeneutical approaches is enormous.[4] From the perspective of an existential hermeneutic, expository preaching (which seeks to make plain the meaning of a text) is an exercise in irrelevance, if not pure presumption. If, however, Scripture is seen ultimately as the product of a single Author who spoke through a variety of human authors, preaching that honors authorial intent is seen, not as irrelevant or presumptuous, but as the only kind of preaching that matters at all. Thus a commitment to a hermeneutic that keeps authorial intent central is necessary for expository preaching.

A preacher’s commitment to authorial intent drives three main aspects of expository preaching, two of which I discuss here, and the third which I plan to discuss in a follow-up post. These two aspects are the content of expository preaching and the application of expository preaching.

First, this commitment to authorial intent drives the content of expository preaching. Operating from this conviction, Haddon Robinson insists that “first and above all, the thought of the biblical writer determines the substance of an expository sermon.”[5] Bryan Chapell clarifies the negative implications of the expositor’s task: “When preachers approach the Bible as God’s very Word, questions about what we have a right to say vanish. . . . We have no biblical authority to say anything else.”[6] This commitment to authorial intent is the reason that texts on expository preaching stress the importance of painstakingly observing exactly what the text says.[7] Clearly, the meaning of the text as the author meant it forms the essence of expository sermon’s content.

Second, a hermeneutic that keeps authorial intent central requires the application of expository preaching. While the content of the expository sermon is the text’s meaning, the purpose of the expository sermon is the text’s application—bringing the text to bear on the contemporary audience.[8] Application is not merely one component of the whole expository sermon. Rather, it is the end which every component serves to leverage.[9] Neither does the importance given to application conflict with a hermeneutic that honors authorial intent, as if the preacher is only allowed to report the facts of the text and say no more. On the contrary, since such a hermeneutic includes both the divine and human elements of authorship, contemporary application is absolutely necessary for expository preaching.[10] Hershael W. York and Bert Decker reflect this conviction when they explain that “the preacher will experience the greatest anointing of the Holy Spirit and the greatest effectiveness possible when he places himself squarely within the confines of the biblical author’s content.”[11] When the expositor appropriately applies to his hearers the truth of a text, he demonstrates sensitivity not only to the intent of that text’s human author, but also to the intent of the Holy Spirit as the author of every biblical text.[12]

The third aspect of expository preaching driven by a commitment to authorial intent is the benefit to the congregation, which I plan to discuss in the next post.

[1] Walter A Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Baker Academic; Paternoster Press, 2001), 614.

[2] Walter C Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998), 149-50.

[3] Millard J Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1998), 54.

[4] Scott A. Blue Reynolds, “The Hermeneutic of E. D. Hirsch, Jr. and Its Impact on Expository Preaching: Friend or Foe?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June 2001): 269.

[5] Haddon W Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001), 21-22, emphasis mine.

[6] Bryan Chapell, Christ-centered Preaching Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005), 32.

[7] John MacArthur, Rediscovering Expository Preaching (Dallas: Word Pub., 1992), 211-15.

[8] Robinson, 51.

[9] Chapell, 211.

[10] Hershael W. York and Scott A. Blue, “Is Application Necessary in Expository Preaching?” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (Summer 1999): 80.

[11] Hershael W. York and Decker, Preaching with Bold Assurance: A Solid and Enduring Approach to Engaging Exposition (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 29.

[12] Robinson, 21. Robinson’s definition of expository preaching rightly emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit, stating that “the Holy Spirit first applies [the biblical concept] to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies [it] to the hearers.”