Biblical preaching, by a leader of the church, in a gathering of Christians for worship, is the communication of the thrust of a pericope of Scripture discerned by theological exegesis, and of its application to that specific body of believers, that they may be conformed to the image of Christ, for the glory of God—all in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I will focus on two aspects; (1) the thrust of the passage,2 and (2) how to apply scripture.
The sermon—bullet or buckshot?
Like many pastors, I read Haddon Robinson’s book Biblical Preaching at seminary. In that classic tome, Robinson explained his “big idea” approach to preaching:3
A major affirmation of our definition of expository preaching, therefore, maintains that ‘expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept.’ That affirms the obvious. A sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot. Ideally each sermon is the explanation, interpretation, or application of a single dominant idea supported by other ideas, all drawn from one passage or several passages of Scripture.
Kuruvilla is against this approach. The sermon, he argues, is not an argument in service to a particular “point” in the text. That is the “old” homiletic,4 where “the point” drives the structure of the sermon:5
Craddock’s wry observation (noted earlier) in this regard is worth repeating: ‘The minister boils off all the water and then preaches the stain in the bottom of the cup.’ Thereby, sermons turn out to be ‘didactic devices,’ more about arguments to persuade listeners to buy into these propositions, and less about texts and what they (or their authors) are doing. All this may even imply that once one has gotten the distillate of the text, that is, the reduction of the text into one or more propositions, one can abandon the text itself.
This, Kuruvilla insists, is not the way. Instead, the sermon is about what the author is doing with the passage. The preacher is a tour guide, a docent,6 and his role is to point out what the biblical author is doing with the text—not to re-package it into a “point” or “big idea” to be argued to the congregation.7 The text is not a plain glass window the preacher points through towards some “big idea” beyond. Rather, it is a stained-glass window the reader must look at.8
So, Kuruvilla argues, the author is doing something with the text. There is a layer behind the onion of the simple words. For example, pretend my wife says, “the trash is full!” She is indeed telling me the trash is full, but she really wants to move me to action—she wants me to take the trash out!9 So, Kuruvilla’s point is there is no “big idea” or “big argument” or “series of points.” There is only the preacher as tour guide, showing what the author is doing, in his context.
This means, for Kuruvilla, application is always based on the theology of the passage.10 “Specifically, the ‘theology’ in the “theological hermeneutic” proposed here is pericopal theology, not biblical or systematic theology.”11 Each text has a message for God’s people. It might be more than one “big idea.” Whatever the passage communicates, whatever the author is doing with his message, that is the basis for application.12
Ironically, Kuruvilla manages his best explanation of his view (his “Big Idea,” perhaps!) in an academic article, not in this book:13
What is needed in the pulpit, then, is a creative exegesis of the text undertaken with a view to portraying for listeners what the author is doing—pericopal theology—enabling their experience of the text + theology.
The sermon is not a lecture; “my three points this morning are on the screen!” The sermon is where the pastor pulls back the curtain and show what he found behind it in his own study.14 This is the great challenge—to structure sermons in an engaging, inductive way to let the congregation “see” the theology of the passage.
Kuruvilla’s book is a tour de force. It is a breath of fresh air from the redemptive-historical and other biblical theology approaches that seek to impose a framework for application into each text. Bryan Chapell recommends we use “gospel glasses” to see redemption in every text.15 This is incorrect—some passages just are not about redemption, and to make them so will rip them out of context.
1 Abraham Kuruvilla, A Vision for Preaching: Understanding the Heart of Pastoral Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), p. 7.
2 I will routinely use the phrase “passage,” whereas Kuruvilla prefers “pericope.” His definition is more expansive than normal. “Though the term is usually applied to portions of the Gospels, I use it in this work to indicate a slice of text in any genre that is utilized in Christian worship for preaching. In other words, a ‘pericope’ is simply a preaching text, regardless of genre or even size. It is through pericopes, read and exposited in congregations as the basic units of Scripture, that God’s people corporately encounter God’s word,” (Ibid, p. 116).
3 Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), p. 35.
4 “The modus operandi of the ‘old’ homiletic is to put the text through a grinder and then preach, in points, the pulverized propositional products that come out of the contraption,” (Kuruvilla, Vision, pp. 95-96).
5 Ibid, p. 99.
6 “… we must reconceive the role of preachers. I propose the analogy of a curator or docent guiding visitors in an art museum through a series of paintings Each text is a picture, the preacher is the curator, and the sermon is a curating of the text-picture and its thrust for the congregants, gallery visitors. A sermon is thus more a demonstration of the thrust of the text than an argument validating a proposition. A creative exegesis of the text is undertaken in the pulpit with a view to portraying for listeners what the author is doing. The sermon unveils the author’s agenda. The distillation of the text into points and propositions is thereby obviated. Instead, as Long describes, the preacher is a “witness” of the text, to the text—equivalent to my analogy of the preacher being a curator of the text-picture,” (Ibid, pp. 103-104).
7 “Thus, for the longest time, preaching has been conducted as a forensic argument that proves the putative proposition of the text for the congregation—an act of reasoning, a parceling of information, and an appeal to the cognitive faculties of listeners to bring them to a rational conviction about that proposition,” (Ibid, pp. 100-101).
8 Abraham Kuruvilla, “Time to Kill the Big Idea?” in JETS 61.4 (2018), 831.
9 This is actually Kuruvilla’s own hypothetical example from his conversation with Hershael York on York’s Pastor Well podcast. “Episode 36: Abraham Kuruvilla discusses hermeneutics and the gift of singleness,” (19 August 2019). Retrieved from https://equip.sbts.edu/podcast/episode-36-abraham-kuruvilla-discusses-hermeneutics-gift-singleness/.
10 “What the pericope affirms in its theology forms the basis of the subsequent move to derive application,” (Kuruvilla, Vision, p. 121).
12 Ibid, p. 122.
13 Kuruvilla, “Big Idea,” 842.
14 Ibid, 843.
15 “A preacher who asks the following basic questions takes no inappropriate liberties with a text: What does this text reflect of God’s nature that provides redemption? What does this text reflect of human nature that requires redemption?” (Bryan Chapell, “Redemptive-Historic View,” in Homiletics and Hermeneutics, ed. Scott Gibson and Matthew Kim [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018], p. 16).