Delightful, Dangerous Topical Preaching (pt 2)July 5, 2007
Some further thoughts today on what someone creatively coined “Topositional Preaching.” (read part one). As promised, let me mention several pros and cons of the topical method, at least those which I have come across.
1. Topical preaching compels the preacher to carefully consider Scriptural truths within the sweep of biblical theology. Though preachers should always strive to set every text in sharp relief to its historical-redemptive context, topical preaching forces the issue. For example last week – when surveying the truth of “redemption” – I was encouraged with ALL Scripture before me to ask in what ways this truth had developed throughout the Old and New Testament’s. It was insightful. In this sense, therefore, topical preaching can actually be more careful in its attention to context, since the preacher is constantly taking a bird’s eye view.
2) Topical preaching encourages the preacher to compare, contrast and synthesize various texts addressing a given doctrine, within the sweep of biblical history. This is really an extension of the last point. Precisely because multiple texts are being considered, the thoughtful exegete must study those texts in relation to each other. This will inevitably bring out parallels, contrasts and even apparent contradictions which must be worked through. For instance, my study of redemption across the sweep of Scripture revealed that the Old Testament tends to emphasize slavery in itsphysical aspect (eg. Exodus!) whilst the New Testament focuses more on it spiritual counterpart (eg. ‘slaves to sin’). Similarly, it was wonderful to examine the various forms of ‘ransom price’ in the OT which point forward to that all-surpassing ransom in the NT – the price paid by the blood of the Lamb.
3) Topical preaching – precisely because it is selective – enables a preacher to cover important or neglected doctrines on a fairly regular basis. Of course, we will certainly want to cover the whole counsel of God in our preaching and we cannot seriously attempt this unless we deal with whole books of Scripture at a time. However there is arguably a significant need in our day of increasing biblical illiteracy to teach more generally upon the cardinal doctrines of the faith on a frequent basis. With the best will in the world, a lengthy series on Jeremiah may leave some critical doctrines unattended to for too long a period.
4) Topical preaching works well over periods of the year which lack ‘continuity.’ The summer period is quite simply a tricky time to do a continuous books series. Granted, one can preach individual short sections of Scripture during the summer months – and this is often what we do. But why not a topical series? In this way, there is still some sequential element for any who will be around continuously, but there will also be a sense of completeness, having considered “Creation” or “The Second Advent” etc.
On the other hand, we could mention some drawbacks to the ‘topical’ method.
1) Topical preaching faces the constant danger of wrongly interpreting multiple verses referenced, particularly in relation to their immediate contexts. In my mind, this is what makes topical preaching so time consuming. Every referenced passage must be considered by the preacher at some length, so as to insure their understanding of it. In this regard, it is usually easier for more experienced expositors to preach topically. The ‘well versed’ preacher has already studied sizeable portions of Scripture in detail and so knows the immediate contexts of many verses they cite.
2) Topical preaching faces the inevitable danger of preachers being selective with the texts they employ. When marching straight through a book, the expositor is made to cover all the territory before him. Not so, with a topical sermon. One danger is that we preach only certain aspects of a doctrine and therefore misrepresent it altogether. This is one of the reasons why many today are turning to sequential exposition as their default mode of operation.
3) Topical preaching tends to extract doctrine from narrative in such a way that the biblical story (and ‘stories’ within the meta-narrative) are not appreciated or even ignored. For example, it is one thing to give your church a one sermon abstract study of the central facets of redemption – it is spiritually potent to walk with the Israelites through Exodus and see God’s redemptive might in action. Likewise, it is one thing to discuss the deity of Christ merely in extra-narrative terms, but it may actually be more compelling to see Mark’s emphasis of Christ’s divine identity through the miracles and healings in the early chapter’s of his gospel. It seems to me that a great danger today is to separate propositions and narrative. Some of us commit the former sin (propositions without narrative), others the latter (narrative without propositions). But what God has joined together in Holy Scripture, let no preacher separate.
Particularly for the three reasons given above, I would be cautious about making topical preaching my default approach. I for one already have too much of a tendency to preach hobbyhorses and ignore text’s immediate contexts! That said, I believe we should not neglect this topical mode altogether – given its pluses. No doubt topical preaching can be dangerous, but it can equally be delightful – to God, the people and the preach – if we plan to utilize it carefully.