Dissecting the Structure

 |  August 10, 2020

In their book Preach, Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert argue, “Expositional preaching is preaching in which the main point of the Biblical text being considered becomes the main point of the sermon being preached.”[1]Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert, Preach (Nashville: B&H Publishers, 2012), 36. An expository sermon exposes the main point of the text. But the concept known as text-driven preaching nuances this particular philosophy of preaching, for text-driven preaching aims to remain true to the substance, structure, and spirit of the text of Scripture.[2]David Allen, “Preparing a Text-Driven Sermon,” in Text-Driven Preaching: God’s Word at the Heart of Every Sermon (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 107. One of the defining marks of text-driven preaching is its emphasis upon the structure of the text, specifically how the structure shapes meaning and the sermon itself. Consider how dissecting the structure can aid in preaching your sermon.

Structure Shapes Meaning 

The philosophy of text-driven preaching is grounded in the theological claim that the Bible is inerrant. If the Bible is inerrant, then this will shape the preacher’s methodological approach to interpretation. As a result, this leads those who take text-driven preaching seriously to consider the specific structural nuances of a given passage of Scripture.

The presupposition that influences a text-driven preacher’s methodological approach is extremely simple but profound: meaning is structured.[3]John Beekman, John Callow, and Michael Kopesec, The Semantic Structure of Written Communication (Dallas: SIL International, 2018), 15. As Louw argues, “To understand any text it is necessary to know how the text was structured.”[4]J. P. Louw, Semantics of New Testament Greek (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1982), 94. This means that there is meaning beyond the sentence level.[5]Allen, “Preparing a Text-Driven Sermon,” 107. While word studies are important in determining lexical meaning, the interpreter must move beyond mere words and sentences in order to see the whole of the textual meaning. This is identifying the semantic structure of the text. There are four basic types of meaning within any text. 1) The referential meaning referring to the subject being discussed. 2) The situational that involves the environment, time, and setting of the text. 3) The structural meaning, which identifies grammar and syntax. 4) And the semantic structure which refers to how the meaning of the text is structured.[6]Allen, “Preparing a Text-Driven Sermon,” 113. We can call the semantic structure the “deep structure.”

Thus there is a semantic structure and a surface structure, which the interpreter must identify in order to correctly preach the text.[7]Louw, Semantics of New Testament Greek, 96. The semantic structure relates to but is different than the surface structure of a text, while the surface structure deals with the grammar (grammatical, lexical, phonological) of the text, the semantic structure seeks to ascertain the finite sets of communication relationships within the entire semantic unit (paragraph).[8]Kyle Walker, Let the Text Talk: Preaching that Treats the Text on its own Terms (Fort Worth: Seminary Press, 2018), 229–33. Therefore, written communication is a composite of form (surface structure) and meaning (semantic structure).[9]Mildred Larson, Meaning-Based Translation: A Guide to Cross-Language Equivalence (Lanham ML: University Press of America, 1998), 29.

It is universally accepted that the human mind cannot handle large quantities of information unless the meaning itself is packaged/arranged.[10]Beekman, Callow, Kopesec, Semantic Structure of Written Communication, 15–16. Moreover, as humans who communicate via language (written and verbal), we process information, not in random snippets, but our minds attempt to unify meaning. To “understand” means that the information is unified and logically makes sense. To process this unity, Tuggy argues that communication has a set of paragraph patterns.[11]John Tuggy, “Semantic Paragraph Patterns: A Fundamental Communication Concept and Interpretive Tool,” in Linguistics and New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Discourse Analysis (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 46. The semantic structure is organized within a hierarchy of language units (the concept, proposition, propositional clusters, and paragraph), which interrelate through paragraph patterns and communication relationships. Since all language attempts to affect emotions, ideas, and behavior, it is the preacher’s responsibility to understand how the textual information is semantically structured given the text’s specific purpose.[12]Tuggy, “Semantic Paragraph Patterns”, 46–53.

This means that the preacher who expounds the main point of the text must come to an understanding of the semantic structure since meaning is packaged.[13]Walker, Let the Text Talk, 224. While more could be said regarding the semantic structure of a text, the principle that meaning is structured provides the specific nuance that contrasts text-driven preaching with other expository preaching methods. 

Semantic Structure as Communication Relationships

Since meaning is structured, it is important to understand the communication relationships in a text. Scripture is a written discourse inspired by God and it intends to be understood. A discourse can be expository, hortatory, procedural, or narrative.[14]Beekman, Callow, Kopesec, 33–34. Also see Robert Longacre, Grammar of Discourse (New York: Springer Science/Business Media, 1996), 10. An expository discourse asks, “what is claimed and why?” A hortatory discourse asks, “what should be done and why?” A procedural discourse asks, “How should it be done?” And a narrative discourse asks, “what happened and how?” These four discourse types have a specific set of communication relationships such as reason-result, grounds-exhortation, setting-outcome, and means-purpose.[15]See Walker, Let the Text Talk, 230–33 also chapter 8 in Beekman, Callow, Kopesec The Semantic Structure of Written Communication for a more defined set of communication relationships.

But to simplify the communication relationships Tuggy claims that we interpret everything around us as: 1) Problem-Solution; 2) Cause-Effect; 3) Volition-Accomplishment.[16]Tuggy, “Semantic Paragraph Patterns,” 51.This helps us as interpreters of Scripture to understand that each discourse we exegete is seeking to show some kind of communication relationship. It is here where we begin to discover meaning. Take the sentence, “I ran away from the dog because it was chasing me.” This sentence presents a “cause-effect” relationship. More specifically the communication relationship is a “reason-result.” We could easily say it this way: Since (reason) the dog was chasing me, this resulted in me running away from it.”

The same principle applies to Biblical texts. We identity the communication relationships which inform the way we understand meaning. This will take time and practice, but it pays off in the faithful exposition of the passage.[17]Walter Liefeld, New Testament Exposition: From Text to Sermon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 50. Considering using the Semantic and Structural Analysis series from the Summer Institute of Linguistics as a helpful aid.

Structure Shapes Sermon

For readers who aren’t trained in linguistics, all this information can be overwhelming. Yet the application of this meaning is structured principle to preaching is twofold: 1) The semantic structure shows the text’s meaning (main point, subordinate ideas, etc); 2) The structure of the text becomes the sermonic structure. Let’s attempt to put this into practice. Take for example 1 Peter 1:3–5. For the sake of this article, I won’t write out the entire text but will provide a brief skeleton structure.

[Result] Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ

                                    [reason 1] He has given us new birth

                                                            [basis] Because of His much mercy

                                                            [result] into a living hope

                                                            [means] through the resurrection of Jesus

                                                            [result] into an inheritance…                       

                                    [reason 2] You are being guarded

                                                            [means] by God’s power

                                                            [means] through faith

                                                            [purpose] for a salvation…

First, this text falls under the “expository” discourse type. Peter is merely explaining the reality of doxology relating to salvation. Second, we find the major thematic idea: “God is to be blessed/praised” followed by two participles “given us new birth” and “being guarded.” Third, the text presents a reason-result relationship. Since we have been given new birth and are being guarded by God, this results in Him being blessed/praised. Or we could say, God is to be praised because He has given new birth and is guarding those who believe. Furthermore, the first participle is modified by four prepositions (κατα, εις, δι, εις) while the second participle is modified by three prepositions (εν, δια, εις). These prepositions have specific syntactical functions. So let’s see how the exegesis and the semantic structure impacts the sermonic outline.

Central Idea of Text:

Our Salvation Produces Praise

  1. God is to be Praised (Doxology)

Of course in exposition, these ideas should be fleshed out more. You’ll need to identify the focus and function of the sermon, refining it with your language for your own context. However, the structure of the text provides a clear outline for text-driven preaching. Before we are preachers, we must become trained exegetes who take the Word seriously enough to allow the full impact of the text to inform everything we say in the pulpit. Dissecting the structure informs what we say and why we say it.

Michael Cooper is the Pastor of Grace Community Church in Mabank, Texas, and a Preaching PhD student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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