Who cares if you preach a doctrine, especially orthodox doctrine, instead of a text? You may think “danger” is melodramatic. My goal is to show you the potential dangers when we preach a doctrine instead of a text. Preaching a doctrine and preaching a text are not the same. The difference is not merely organizational. If you rearranged the verses of Scripture you would not end up with Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. Scripture is a story, not a system. We do formulate our systems out of this story, but the story comes first. Another difference is a text speaks but a doctrine is built. One is active and the other passive. One has the hand of God all over it and the other has the hands of men.
There are, then, three related dangers: imposition, supposition, and deposition. Since caution is needed, at the end I propose a solution. This solution will also be your best defense against these dangers. Let’s look at the three potential dangers.
Imposition. Imposition is not only when the preacher puts something in the text that the author did not, but by doing so, the preacher himself is an imposition. In the world of the text, he is not conquered but the conqueror. The text does not invade him; he invades the text. He subjugates and imposes his will on the text. He exerts force on the text. He is not mastered; he masters. He does not submit to the text; the text must submit to him. To put it delicately: imposition is the forceful insertion of the preacher into the text without the consent of the text.
Sadly, the preacher who isolates a doctrine “out” of a text, is only discovering his own imposition on the text. He may say he “discovered” the meaning, but all he has discovered is own machination, the silly edifice constructed in the text only after he invaded it. What leads one to such a violent act on a text? It is partly because the text has been undermined. This is the danger of supposition.
Supposition. In order to impose, one must undermine the text. In one sense, supposition is when the preacher already knows what the text says. He is convinced the text teaches a certain doctrine, and, therefore, there is the obvious danger he will not prepare as he should. But supposition is even more insidious. To come to a text in this way is to put one hand over the Lord’s mouth, to put your other index finger over your lips, and tell the Lord, “Shh.”
The danger is the same as imposition. We do not let the text speak. We do not give people God’s Word, we give them our word. We give them something we’ve built, our system, our structures, our portraits. We would rightly consider him a fool who critiqued Rembrandt as he painted his self-portrait. If it is true that Scripture portrays an ideal world, and if Scripture is God’s own self-revelation, supposition is to approach the portrait only to say to the Painter, “You should have done it this way.” With a sanctimonious shove, we push the Painter aside. In order to impose, we undermine, and in order to undermine, we must deposition authority. One must participate in a homiletical coup. This is the danger of deposition.
Deposition. In legal terms, a deposition is when a person is asked questions and then gives legally binding testimony. In a deposition, the person giving the testimony is usually not in the position of authority. In the power dynamics of a deposition, the interviewer most likely has the authority. Preaching a doctrine instead of the text functions in a similar way. In deposition, the text is deposed, in the sense of de-positioned, from a place of authority. Instead of the text questioning us, with deposition, the text must answer us. The text is not allowed to be the authority in the process. In deposition, the text is de-positioned from the center. To de-position, the text is to de-position God as the ground and center of authority. Furthermore, deposition makes us the interviewer and God the interviewee.
I hope you see that preaching doctrines instead of texts involves very real potential dangers. I am not saying that you should never preach doctrines or the traditional theological loci. It is possible to preach a doctrine and not a text. It is almost impossible to preach a text and not preach doctrine. I am not saying that if you preach a doctrine that you are committing any one of these—but you might—and that is the point. I want to point out the serious dangers of preaching a doctrine and not a text. This post hopes to highlight the dangers of consistently preaching doctrines instead of texts. If you preach a doctrine but mishandle the text, then all you have accomplished is to “mispreach” the text.
What is the solution? God (and text) must be the authoritative party. The text must be respected (it’s structure, substance, and spirit) and not undermined. The text must not be violated and imposed upon by the preacher. The text must be allowed to speak. How, then, do we best avoid these potential dangers?
Exposition. The three dangers occur in a subtle reversal. Imposition puts things “in” Scripture while exposition draws out. Supposition undermines Scripture while exposition exalts Scripture. Deposition places the preacher in the seat of authority while exposition centers authority on God and text. “Text-driven preaching” not only allows the text to answer, but it also allows the text to ask the question and give the answer. Text-driven preaching does not undermine the text but brings the preacher under the text and its world-shaping authority. Text-driven preaching puts exegesis in front of theology, not theology in front of exegesis. The best safeguard is not just exposition, but the exposition of texts. Therefore, exposition of texts is the best defense against these three dangers. Preachers, “Let the text talk.”
Jason Corn is the lead pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Andrews, Texas, and a current PhD student in preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.