Text-Driven Arrangement: Allowing Textual Structure to Inform Sermon Progression

 |  June 14, 2019

I want to be a text-driven preacher, and I know you do, too. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this blog post. If we are going to be text-driven preachers, there are certain commitments we are required to make. First, we must be committed to the text of Scripture. We must value the truth of Scripture more than our opinions or the opinions of the world. We use words like inerrancy and infallibility while speaking of the veracity of the text and the deep trust we place upon the truth therein. We believe in preservation, perspicuity, and illumination. We believe that God has spoken in His Word and that people need to hear what God has said.

Second, we must be committed to our roles as messengers of God’s Word. It is not our goal to fashion something new for people to hear. Rather, we need to say what God has said in a way that is compelling and creative for our current context. While seeking to be compelling and creative in our context, we must avoid the pitfall of adding to or subtracting from God’s Word. All of our study and toil over the Word should strive towards uncovering the original meaning of the text we preach. The meaning is one but the applications are many.

Third, we must commit to allowing the structure of the text to define the structure of our sermon. Arrangement is the second of the Five Canons of Rhetoric (invention, arrangement, elocution, memory, and delivery) and, simply stated, is the order in which you decide to arrange information within a speech. In this rhetorical framework, the arrangement of the arguments within the speech is organized towards producing the most persuasive results.

Rhetoricians like Cicero and Quintilian identified six parts to persuasive speeches. These parts are introduction (exordium), statement of the case (narratio), outline of the argument (divisio), proofs of the argument (confirmatio), refutation of contradicting arguments (confutatio), and conclusion (peroratio).  Therefore, arrangement is primarily concerned with the content of each of these six parts of a persuasive speech as they relate to a specific subject.

For the text-driven preacher, the specific subject is simply whatever pericope of text you are preaching in a given sermon. The preacher defines the subject when he delimits the text. We must be careful to preach a standalone unit of thought: a complete scene of narrative, a paragraph of an epistle, a whole psalm (unless otherwise indicated like in Psalm 119), or a selected proverb. But, how do we arrange the information?

The answer is simple if we have made the three previous commitments. If we believe the Scripture is the Word of God and we believe we are messengers of God and we believe the structure of the text should inform the structure of the sermon, then we simply arrange the information the way God arranges it. What genre are we dealing with? What grammatical issues are at play? If we are in an epistle, what is the verbal structure? If we are in a narrative, what is the narrative progression? It is more important to the text-driven preacher that the structure of his sermon reflect the structure of the text rather than reflecting the six parts of a persuasive speech.

However, these six parts can aid the preacher in some ways. Obviously, every sermon needs an introduction and conclusion (exordium and peroratio). We must give significant thought to beginning and ending well. At some point, we may choose to state the case upfront (narratio), outline the argument (divisio), list proofs for the argument (confirmatio), and/or refute contradicting arguments (confutatio). The extent that we may or may not embrace these six parts of a persuasive speech should not be defined by a slavish commitment to ancient rhetoric but by a slavish commitment to the substance and structure of the text we are preaching.

The text-driven preacher believes the text is primary and all other things are secondary. Rhetoric is a worthy study because it is useful to communicate the truths of Scripture. We must not view rhetoric as an end in and of itself but rather as a tool to produce our desired end: the effective communication of the Word of God. Commit to the text. Study rhetoric. Preach the Word!

Jeff Campbell is Assistant Professor of Preaching, W.A. Criswell Chair of Expository Preaching, and Dean of Students at Criswell College in Dallas, Texas.

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