Jeff Ray and Three Text-Driven Elements

 |  January 24, 2020

Jeff Ray (1860-1951) was the first professor of preaching at Southwestern Seminary. His convictions concerning expository preaching in the early 20th century played a critical role in laying a foundation for a text-driven movement among Southern Baptists. Ray’s conception of expository preaching was critical in establishing the roots of modern text-driven preaching.

First, he argues the substance of a text is “what the text is talking about, and this must be the focus and drive of the sermon.”[1]Steven W Smith, “The Essential Elements of Text-Driven Preaching” in A Pastor’s Guide to Text-Driven Preaching, 2nd ed. (Fort Worth, TX: Seminary Hill Press, 2016), 9. In order to explain the text properly, one should determine the main idea of the text, which then becomes represented in the main idea of the sermon. Ray deals with the theme or main idea in Expository Preaching when he writes:

A treatise on expository preaching would be incomplete without some discussion of the mental processes by which a theme is drawn from the text. There must always be vital connection between the theme proposed and the text chosen. There should be a clear mental path from the theme back to the text…An ideal homiletical process requires that the theme of every sermon by some mental process must be drawn from the text.[2]Jeff D. Ray, Expository Preaching (Zondervan Publishing House, 1940), 101, 110.

Likewise, Ray emphasizes that real expository preaching should have the theme of a sermon to be drawn from a text of Scripture.[3]C. Kyle Walker, “Jefferson Davis Ray: A ‘Forgotten Man’ in the Matter of Preaching” (Ph.D. diss., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2015), 76. The mental process by which the preacher identifies this theme may occur in four varieties, which he lists and explains as follows:

  1. He finds the theme explicitly contained in the text.
  2. He derives the theme by a process of logical inference from the text.
  3. He obtains the theme by a process of analogical deduction from the text.
  4. He gets his theme by a process of rhetorical suggestion by the text.[4] Ray, Expository Preaching, 102.

Ray highlights the importance of the sermon theme: “A sermon is half preached when the preacher gives his audience a fresh, gripping theme well stated.”[5]Ibid., 110. Ray’s other legacy regarding the substance of a text is the public reading of Scripture:

If, by the way he reads it, the preacher can cause the people to understand the Word of God, how important that he learn to read it well! If the preacher can interpret and practically apply the Word of God by the way he reads it, what answer will he make at the judgment bar if by sheer indifference and wanton neglect of his talent he fails to become an effective reader?[6] Ibid., 122–23.

Ray committed himself to reading the Scriptures in public and preparing his students to do so.[7]C. Kyle Walker, Jeff D. Ray, Let the Text Talk : Preaching that Treats the Text on Its Own Terms (Seminary Hill Press, 2018), 116. One pastor communicated Ray’s influence in his own life in the following way:

Just today a good woman told me that her husband said that he enjoyed the scripture reading so much. He said that I read it better than any man he had heard. You know where I received that training. (Please pardon this immodesty but it was another laurel in your crown).[8]C. S. Cadwallader to Jeff D. Ray, 16 November 1931, Ray Collection, Box 6, Folder 308.

Ray had a biblical conviction that public reading of Scripture that is infallible, sufficient, and inspired meets people’s greatest needs. This legacy still upholds the substance of a text in text-driven preaching.

Concerning the structure of a text, unfortunately, Ray’s views on expository preaching “stem primarily from the fact that he did not account for the meaning of a Scriptural text contained at the level of genre and semantic structure.”[9]Walker, Let the Text Talk, 172. Ray argues that a sermon can be expository regardless of the structure of the text. He describes, “A sermon is often expository in its nature even though it may not be technically so in its homiletical structure,” in Expository Preaching, 46. As a result, Ray’s version of expository preaching jettisoned the meaning of a text at the structural level. Instead, he discovered a subject from the text and developed that subject in a sermon through rhetorical modes of invention and arrangement.[10]Walker, “Jefferson Davis Ray,” 90. This is far from the text-driven preaching that uses the structure of the text to inform the structure of the sermon.[11]Steven W. Smith, Recapturing the Voice of God: Shaping Sermons Like Scripture (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2015), 21. However, through Ray’s ignorance of the text’s structure, readers can refrain from ignoring the dynamic relationship between substance and the structure.

Lastly, through Ray’s understanding of figurative language, readers can understand how the spirit of the text functions as “the author-intended emotional design of the text.”[12]Robby Gallaty and Steven Smith, Preaching for the Rest of Us: Essentials for Text-Driven Preaching (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2018), 32. Ray writes:

How could you comfort a dying saint with a description of the joys of heaven without the use of figurative language? How could you warn a rebellious sinner of the horrors of eternal hell without the use of figurative language? How lame would be all our efforts to make clear our conceptions of God if we could not represent Him in the figure of a father, a brother, a friend, a mother, a king, a master, a shepherd? How would be ancient Jew typify and prophesy of the coming Savior if you take from him his figures–the lamb with its shed blood, the altar, and the priest? The preacher who cannot see great spiritual truths in these types and pictures and figures so abundant in the Word of God can never rightly understand the Scripture.[13]Ray, Expository Preaching, 34.

Here, he argues that preachers should have a literary instinct to discover truths in the literary form.[14]Ibid., 35. For instance, when David said, “I water my couch with my tears” and when Jeremiah said, “Let tears run down like a river,” they were using hyperbole to express excessive grief.[15]Ibid., 36. Jesus also says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. If one interprets this verse literally, one can miss the perfect meaning behind Jesus’ hyperbole. Therefore, while Ray mentions the usage of “hyperbole,” if one is not able to understand the meaning behind hyperbole, he is not a trustworthy interpreter.[16]Ibid., 37. In order to figure out the meaning behind hyperbole, one should realize the characteristics of the biblical genre. Since hyperbole appears in parables, one needs to interpret it in a way that the parable is interpreted.[17]C. H. Dodd’s classic definition is, “At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, 3rd ed., rev. (London: Nisbet, 1936), 5. How Ray interprets figurative language such as hyperbole is associated with the spirit of the text that is sensitive to the biblical genre. Even though Ray did not directly illuminate the spirit of the text in the days of Ray, the concept like “literary instinct” plays a vital role as a catalyst for giving birth to the spirit of the text.

Gu Kwon is the Musical Worship Pastor of Refuge International Baptist Church in Irving, Texas, a Teaching Assistant at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. student in Southwestern’s School of Preaching.

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