What Literary Analysis Can Add to Expository Preaching

First of all, let’s define what I mean by “literary analysis” and “expository preaching.” By “literary analysis” or criticism I mean the methods of analysis instilled in high schools or colleges, basic literary analysis. By “expository preaching” I mean that kind of preaching that “relives” the passage being explicated. Let me try to explain a bit further by quoting Leland Ryken, “the aim of expository preaching is to unfold a biblical passage-to relive the passage-from beginning to end and in keeping with the kind of writing that it is” (1). In other words, before you read a Psalm and rapidly come to a moral or theological conclusion, if you apply expository preaching techniques to your Bible hermeneutics, you will first acknowledge the Psalm’s literary form (poem, lamentation, etc.) and break it down according to said literary form. Once you have done this, then you can arrive to a moral or theological conclusion, for you will then have accurately dissected the Psalm.

Why such an emphasis on viewing the Bible as literature? What can literary analysis possibly contribute to good hermeneutics? Well, “a literary approach to a biblical text can serve as a warden to block a common practice of viewing virtually every passage in the Bible primarily as a collection of theological or moral ideas” (1). It is very common in the church today to sit down and listen to a pastor read from Joshua 1:9 for example and make a rapid theological assertion of how this verse applies to our daily lives sufferings and how God is with us always. This is true but, is it faithful to the context of this verse and its literary form? Absolutely not. Ryken rightly states the consequences of such interpretations, “many people who value the Bible most highly as a spiritual authority experience the Bible in large part as a repository of proof texts for theological ideas-quite contrary to the actual form in which the Bible comes to us, namely, a literary anthology” (1). To most of today’s church, the Bible is nothing more than God’s kind words or comfort for the 21st century. Try selling that idea to missionaries, or to the persecuted church, or even to Paul and the apostles. I can say with confidence that they would roll over their graves if they would see what the church has reduced the Bible to.

The problem is in the pulpit, “when preachers stand in the pulpit on Sunday mornings, their whole bent is directed to sharing the product of their work in the study during the week. The process of analyzing the Bible is not even on preacher’s radar screens as something to mention from the pulpit” (1). This is teaching the congregation how to be lazy enough not to study the Bible for themselves, and not to equip the flock with how to study the Bible by themselves. But this is why expository preaching is so important because “one of the byproducts…ought to be a congregation adept at handling the Bible inductively. A mere two or three minutes of interspersed tips for interpreting the Bible in every expository sermon would yield spectacular results” (1). Christians would know about plots, conflict resolution, episodes, scenes, climax, etc. This would add to how accurately they approach the Bible, “church members would know that…the word metaphor is based on two Greek words meaning “to carry over,” with the result that we need to carry over the meanings of a metaphor from level A (the statement itself) to level B (the actual subject of the passage)” (1).

For those reading this entry who may be thinking that this “literary criticism” hermeneutics is some sort of “modern theology,” let me tell you that it is not, “literary criticism is not a gimmick for innovation; it is a centuries-old way of dealing with literary texts dating all the way back to Aristotle’s Poetics“(1). Are people ignorant of these basic literary analysis techniques? Ryken rightly views that “the language of plot and characterization and metaphor and irony is in the active vocabulary of anyone who had a bona fide literature course in high school or college, and in any case terms like these cannot be said to be totally unfamiliar to, or beyond the reach of, the ordinary person” (1). At least the most basic of these are within the grasp of every single ordinary person that has had access to education.

Moving on, why is literary criticism so important? Well, since literary criticism first seeks to identify the literary form, it emphasizes the unity of texts and their harmony. A pioneer in the modern Bible-as-literature movement correctly stated that “no principle of literary study is more important than that of grasping clearly a literary work as a single whole” (2). A literary approach to the Bible does the best job of supporting the harmony of the Bible.

Literary criticism also opens the door to preaching from the whole span of the Bible. Ryken gives the following example of how lack of literature-driven exegesis affects preaching, “a preacher once shared that although he would often read psalms to people in the hospital, he would avoid preaching from them because he did “not know what to do with them.” Mastering the literary genres of the Bible shows anyone “what to do” with Bible passages” (1). Also, the church seems to have a fixation with preaching from the Epistles. Since they contain the crucifixion, the resurrection, the birth of the Church, Paul’s writings, and Revelation, among others, people embrace the Epistles and forget that the Bible is a unit. Preachers tend to forget that all of the New Testament flows from the Old Testament. The covenant God has made with the true Israel (comprised of both native Jews and Gentiles) can be seen all throughout the Bible. Why should we then make this distinction? God gave us the entire Bible so we would use all of it, not just part of it.

Ryken outlines several hermeneutical principles that stem from a commitment to close reading of a biblical text:

  • Close reading implies that an expositor does justice to the specificity of a text. If the text is literary in nature, an expositor cannot deal with the particulars of a text without identifying and interpreting the literary details.
  • A piece of writing needs to be analyzed in terms appropriate to the genre in which it is written.
  • Explication of a text (expository preaching): to relive a text as fully as possible, and ordinarily to do so in a sequential manner from the beginning of the passage to the end.
  • Authorial intention: everything that biblical writers put into their writing is intended for a purpose. If they wrote in literary genres rather than expository ones, and if stylistic and rhetorical techniques spring forth from virtually every page of the Bible, it stands to reason that biblical writers intended that expositors do something with the literary dimension of their writing.
By keeping this in mind, next time you read Chronicles you will (hopefully) think twice before turning to Daniel because “it’s boring to read a bunch of genealogies,” but you will seek to understand why the writer considered it important to write, and ultimately and most importantly, why the Holy Spirit allowed it to form part of the canon
If a literary nature of the Bible is acknowledged at all in some evangelical circles today, it is limited to the preference of the congregation. In other words, close reading of a text is optional and is to be pursued if the person has the time or the interest to engage in it. Therefore giving a very superficial attention to the importance of rightly dividing the word of truth accurately. This also violates a very obvious principle of communication, namely, that content is communicated through form. Whatever a preacher is teaching his congregation, it is useless and irrelevant if the form in which it was written is not first determined, explained, and dissected, “we cannot extract meaning from a literary text in the Bible without first interacting with aspects of literary form” (1).
Let me quote Ryken one last time, “if the writing of the Bible is the product of divine inspiration-if it represents what the Holy Spirit prompted the authors to write as they were carried along (2 Peter 1:21)-then the only possible conclusion is that the literary forms of the Bible have been inspired by God and need to be granted an importance congruent with that inspiration” (1). It all goes back to the hermeneutical principle of authorial intent, ultimately, that whatever is in the Bible, God Himself intended it to be there. I rest my case of the importance of both literary criticism and expository preaching on this principle.

1- Ryken, Leland. “The Bible as Literature and Expository Preaching.” Preach The Word Essays on Expository Preaching: In Honor of R.Kent Hughes. Ed Leland Ryken and Todd A. Wilson. Illinois: Crossway Books, 2007. 38-53.

2- Richard G. Moulton, The Modern Reader’s Bible (New York, 1895), 1719.

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