Book Review: Doctrine that Dances

Smith, Robert. Doctrine that Dances: Bringing Doctrinal Preaching and Teaching to Life. Forward by Dr. James Earl Massey. Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008. Paperback, xiv + 207 pp. $19.99

(Review copy courtesy of B&H Academic.)
doctrine that dances.jpgPurchase: B&H | Amazon | CBD

ISBNs: 0805446842 / 9780805446845

Winner of Preaching magazine’s 2008 Book of the Year

Subjects: Preaching, Doctrinal Theology-Teaching

Dr. Robert Smith, Jr., is the Associate Professor of Divinity and Professor of Homiletics at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University.

It has been my privilege and responsibility to review or critique books from a plethora of disciplines in the various venues where I have served as student, pastor, mentor, or professor. But I have never experienced such a personal delight as I did while reading, meditating on, and critiquing Doctrine that Dances.

First, Smith exhibits the best of the African-American tradition in his preaching. (If you have not experienced his preaching firsthand, you owe yourself this treat in person, if possible, but on CD or tape if necessary!) This volume is an extension of his preaching craft. Second, he brings the old discipline of rhetoric to bear on his homiletical theory and practice. Third, he teaches, preaches, and “does rhetoric” in the writing of this volume. The latter is difficult to imagine if you have not read it. All of these qualities are woven together intricately and build to a crescendo throughout the work.


Smith declares,

Classical rhetoricians attempted to be holistic in the speech act: enlighten the mind, touch the heart, and move the will. Preaching that avoids head engagement will lead to blindness, and preaching that ignores heart engagement—the emotive realm of the believer’s existence—does so at the cost of boredom and dullness, which prevents the result of an engaged hearing for a transformed life. (p. 2)


One way Smith accomplishes his thesis is with his skillful use of definitions throughout the text. These definitions are the backbone around which the work is structured. They are as follows: Doctrinal preaching for Smith is “the escorting of the hearers into the presence of God for the purpose of transformation” (p. 26). Second, he uses the “two magnificent metaphors” of “exegetical escort” and “doxological dancer.” Of the former, he says, “The function of the exegetical escort is to embrace the text of Scripture in order to usher the hearer into the presence of God for the purpose of transformation” (p. 35). On the preacher as “doxological dancer,” he observes that “the purpose of the preacher as a doxological dancer is to communicate the doctrinal message of the Bible with accuracy and ardor so that the exuberant hearer exults in the exaltation of God” (p. 107). Using these metaphors, Smith builds his argument that the preacher as “exegetical escort” does a “doxological dance” which brings the hearer-worshiper along into the presence of God. The goal is that they will exalt in the presence of God with the result of transformation. The book is a marvelous piece of homiletical writing coupled with rhetorical persuasion.

Authorial Intent

The second way Smith delivers is by inviting the preacher, either novice or veteran, to come along with him and become one who dances with doctrine. He declares so through an unwavering commitment to the complete trustworthiness of the Scriptures. He frames his discussion of Scripture’s integrity around his belief in the authorial intent of the Scripture. It serves Smith’s other arguments as subtext throughout the entire volume. He states without equivocation, “Preachers who preach doctrinally must put their ears to the pavement of the text and synchronize the heartbeat of the text with the heartbeat of the doctrine of the author’s intent,” and “The authorial intention must be gleaned because a text can never mean today what it never meant when it was written.” Concerning the applications of the Bible texts when preaching, he states: “[T]hey must always return to the pulsating heartbeat of the text’s original intention” (quotes taken from pp, 20, 35, and 128 respectively; emphasis added).

Rhetoric in the Writing

The third way Smith delivers is by drawing deeply from his own well of classical training in the rhetorical tradition. During his Ph.D. work at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Professor Smith studied rhetoric as a cognate for his homiletical training. This training exposed him to the ways of Augustine and John Albert Broadus, both of whom “brought rhetoric right into the church house” as theory, method, and preaching practice. Smith knows that rhetorical training can—if studied with diligence—greatly enhance what the novice minister can become. This fact is prominently displayed in his discussion of rhetorical means in the “Reversal of the Canons of Criticism” (pp. 113-117) section.

Reversing the Five Canons of Criticism

Here Smith asks the question, “What is the matter with the style of … preaching?” His answer: “There is a reversal of the Greco-Roman five canons of criticism,” (i.e., Rhetoric, p. 113). This section is important because, in answering the question, he discusses—albeit ever so gingerly—the Five Canons of [Classical] Rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. He answers the question by asserting that “the fifth canon, delivery, appears to have taken priority over the first canon, invention, in contemporary preaching” (p. 113). To the Greco-Roman hearer, the main issue was, “Does the speaker have anything substantive to say?” based primarily on logic and ethos. The issue was not “how” the speaker said what was said necessarily. The classical hearer of the former days knew that the address built primarily on pathos could lure away the hearer. The hearer could then be caught by any trap laid by any would-be Sophist. Smith seems to imply that some preaching today focuses on delivery more than on content.

Sermonic Dance Steps for Doctrinal Preaching

Moving to the practical aspects of rhetoric, Smith discusses “sermonic dance steps for doctrinal preaching” (pp. 41-44). Young preachers can immediately adapt and adopt these as rhetorical methods and apply them to the preparation and delivery of sermons. The steps are as follows:

Step One: Identification—“Start Low”
Step Two: Clarification—“Go Slow”
Step Three: Intensification—“Rise”
Step Four: Application—“Strike Fire”
Step Five: Recapitulation—“Retire”
Step Six: Motivation—“Sit down in a Storm”

This applied method alone is worth the price of the book.

Rhetorical Tone

The third and maybe most important rhetorical feature Smith employed is his tone. He begins slowly and smoothly and works its way up to a crescendo that captivates the reader and moves him or her along with Smith as if in application of the steps above! This is just what the “doxological dancer” and the “exegetical escort” should do, but Smith does it in his writing! Reading the book provides a firsthand experience of how rhetoric is done in the best of the African-American pulpit’s oratorical tradition. The book is so well written that the reader is captivated and carried along just as though he is “dancing” or “being escorted” into the presence of our Lord. And Smith would have us remember that the “method of the madness” of the “dancer” and the “escort” is for the transformation of the life that will surely come.

These three features (the canons, dance steps, and tone) demonstrate Smith’s oratorical expertise in a simple yet profound manner. To do rhetoric from behind a lectern of pulpit is one thing, but to do so from the medium of the written page as Smith does here is almost surely a craft that has been lost. Smith bears the reader along just as if he were listening to a live lecture or sermon at Beeson Divinity School.

Smith’s overriding desire is to bring the use of rhetoric back to the preparation and delivery of sermons, but he does not want to “do rhetoric” for rhetoric’s sake. He uses rhetoric as a tool to help the minister improve his skills as “doxological dancer” and “exegetical escort” for the Holy Spirit’s transformation of the hearing worshiper. This is an outstanding volume on the theoretical, methodological, and practical levels. As a rhetorician myself, I’m excited to find a move afoot to bring this old and needed discipline back to sermon theory and practice. The intended audience is every minister (whether novice or veteran) who wants to better understand communication theory as represented in the rhetorical tradition in order to connect his people to the God who transforms lives.

If you have not gotten it by now, I love this book! I love what he said! I love what he does! I love the way he does it! If you can fast for one meal, take that money and get a copy of this volume. I guarantee that you will be a lesser minister if you do not!

duke.jpgRoger D. Duke, D.Min. is Assistant Professor of Religion and Communication at Baptist College of Health Sciences (Memphis). He has been an ordained Southern Baptist minister since 1982 and has had an extensive itinerant and interim church ministry. Dr. Duke holds the Associate of Divinity in Pastoral Ministries from Mid America Baptist Seminary (Memphis, TN); the B.Sc. (cum laude) in Humanities from Crichton College (Memphis, TN); the Master of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY); the Master of Arts in Religion in the History of Christian Thought from Harding University (Churches of Christ) Graduate School of Religion (Memphis, TN); and the Doctor of Ministry in Christian Thought, Ethics, and Rhetoric from The University of the South’s School of Theology (Sewanee, TN). He also attended the University of Memphis where he did Ph.D. work in Classical Rhetoric and Communication Theory.

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