Context and Exposition

by Gary P. Eubanks

The burden of these remarks consists of three points:

  1. The value of (immediate) context for Bible interpretation has been overrated.
  2. This exaggerated conception of the importance of context has, in turn, been used to justify an over-emphasis on expository preaching.
  3. The over-use of expository preaching holds the potential danger of covering or justifying false teaching or of encumbering its timely and efficient exposure.

The criticality of (immediate) context to the proper interpretation of a text has been so historically and popularly accepted that it has been enshrined as if it were an intuitive axiom of hermeneutical truth. This is reflected in the old saw, "A text without a context is a pretext." Under the weight of such sentiments, a Bible reader might be forgiven if he were to think that he dare not read a single verse without also reading at least the paragraph in which it lies, lest he surely mistake its meaning.

Yet, while context might be helpful, it might be closer to the truth to say it is not critical. This is suggested by the fact that the word, "context," does not even occur in the Bible (NASB, KJV). This would not, in itself, necessarily be significant, but the absence of "context" belies the importance widely attached to it. "A text without a context is a pretext" is not only not a text in the Bible, it is not even paraphrased in the Bible. The Bible does not promulgate it in principle, infer it in concept, illustrate it in example, or allude to it in passing.

Biblical characters and writers exhibit little, if any, interest in the context of a text. For them, it does not exist as a fact of Bible study or a tool of Bible teaching. Instead, they freely pluck Scriptures right out of their contexts with total abandon, as if they were perfectly oblivious of any need to pay attention to the place whence they came. Whenever they need them, they take them from wherever they find them.

Thus, for example, in the first chapter of Jesus' sermon on the mount (Matthew 5), His quotations from the Old Testament are terse and unaccompanied by any reference to their contexts. Of the several texts Peter cited on the day of Pentecost, in only one case (Acts 2:17-21; cf. Joel 2:28-32a) is (almost) the whole paragraph quoted. Stephen's preaching covered close to a thousand years of Israelite history from early Genesis to early First Kings and made quotations all the way from Genesis and Exodus to Isaiah and Amos (Acts 7). In what is a most telling case, Paul sought to impress the Roman brethren with the stark fact of human sinfulness by taking very partial quotations from as many as a half-dozen or so texts in different chapters and books and weaving them into such a seamless collage that, if one did not know better, he might think they are one continuous text (Romans 3:9-18). Indeed, when New Testament preachers and writers taught, they were "all over the map" (of Scripture). Topical relevancy was the guiding rule determining applicability of a text, not its context. This is so much the invariable pattern of New Testament preachers and writers that there is not even one example of expository preaching of the kind its advocates claim.

Now, it should be observed that the Holy Spirit was behind these men, and He would not have allowed them to cite a text in any way contrary to the truth it enjoys by virtue of its dependence on the context in which it is embedded. Therefore, uninspired teachers must labor to ascertain what Biblical teachers knew by inspiration and give due attention to any limitations on applicability a context might impose on a text within it.

However, is it necessary for preachers to encumber instruction by foisting on listeners a verse-by-verse exposition? After all, the preacher should be conscientious enough to have made such preparations as are necessary to render himself sufficiently knowledgeable to cite a Scripture without misapplying it. If not, then perhaps the appropriate solution is to fix the teacher rather than his method.

Biblical statements (verses) tend to be susceptible to the same basic interpretation whether they are read in their contexts or in isolation from them. In other words, they can "stand alone" and still make sense.

This is not to say that, if they are read alone, questions will not occur to the reader or that their full depth of meaning will be fathomed. However, it is to say that their general meaning should be readily apparent, and so much so that reading them in their contexts does not substantially change what the reader would think they mean if he were to read them in isolation.

This may be tested. The reader could probably pick any Bible verse at random, read it, and understand its basic meaning. Reading its whole paragraph will probably not alter his original interpretation significantly. For instance, reading Peter's command to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins alone or with its whole paragraph or chapter (Acts 2:38) will yield the same conclusion about the necessity of repentance and baptism to salvation. Again, it is not necessary to read the whole chapter, which includes John's famous statement about God giving His only-begotten Son (John 3:16), to know essentially what it means.

This fact happens to be reflected in the way that the Holy Spirit had Biblical writers cite and use Scripture. Almost any time they quoted Scripture, they did so with terse, pinpoint extractions unaccompanied by their contexts and without regard to their location. This may be confirmed by almost any quotation of the Old Testament in the New Testament.

These observations are not intended to diminish the legitimate use of context. Reading the immediate context of a verse cannot hurt and might be helpful, at least in understanding its fuller meaning. Rather, the point is to prevent the abuse of the concept of the context.

Indeed, the irony is that these remarks uphold the necessity of carefully considering every verse of Scripture in its context. This would be contradictory to what has thus far been said were it not for the fact that "context" exists on various levels. When people think of "context," they probably conceive of it as a few verses before, and after, a verse. They then grant these verses exegetical dominance. Yet, there are other contexts, and one is of overriding importance.

Contexts might be viewed like the series of concentric circles which ripple outward from the point of a pebble's impact in the exact center of a circular pool of water. There are immediate, intermediate, and remote contexts, the latter represented by the outermost ripples. Thus, a word has its sentence as its context. Then, a sentence has its verse as its context, and a verse its paragraph, and a paragraph its chapter, and a chapter its book, and a book lies within its own context of its Testament or the whole Bible.

Now, it is not necessarily the case that the more immediate contexts are the more determinant ones in terms of the meaning of the verse contemplated. Indeed, while a sentence is surely a context to any word within it, it is just as much the case that all of the other words around it in the Bible also bear the same relation to it as its contexts ("concentric circles").

The especially important and practical upshot of this observation for Bible study is that the most critical context for the study and interpretation of any part of it is the whole Bible. This is to say that any part of the Bible is potentially relevant for the study of any other part and that the interpretation of any part must take into account every other part. This is simply to pay tribute to the old hermeneutical principle that any Bible verse must be harmonized in its interpretation with every other Bible verse. This sentiment has been captured in the observation, "The Bible is the best commentary on itself."

Thus, the reason Bible writers and characters felt free to roam to and fro throughout the Scriptures to find texts which supported their points and lift them right out of their contexts in doing so, is because they knew and honored this principle. Thus, when the Jews accused Jesus of blasphemy for making Himself out to be God, no doubt on the basis of Pentateuchal texts (e.g., Exodus 20:3), He showed no hesitation to reach all the way over into the middle of the Psalms for a response (Psalms 82:6), John parenthetically adding in defense of such a maneuver that "the Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:30-36). When the Sadducees accosted Him with a question based on the levirate law, He was not at all reluctant to stretch back four books to grab another verse to respond to their question (Matthew 22:23ff; Deuteronomy 25:5; Exodus 3:6). In the process, He identified their problem, not as a failure of respect for (immediate) context, but as ignorance of the Scriptures (i.e., the remote context).

Perhaps the most telling example of Jesus' refusal to be bound to the immediate context occurred when Satan, with a quotation from Scripture, tempted Him to throw Himself from the pinnacle of the temple (Matthew 4:5-7). It is arguable that Satan took the Scripture He quoted out of context — that it refers in its original application there, not to self-imposed injuries or suicide, but to naturally- and humanly-imposed ones (Psalms 91:9-13). Yet, rather than correcting Satan's error by an appeal to the context of the promise, He reached all the way back to Deuteronomy 6:16 to do so. Jesus seems to have deemed it more effective to appeal to a more fundamental Biblical principle which Satan's challenge violated. Thus, He invoked the basic hermeneutical principle that no single text of Scripture is properly interpreted and applied if its interpretation and application put it in conflict with any other Scripture. By doing so, He paid tribute to the fact that the foremost context with which any serious Bible student must concern Himself isthe context of the whole Bible. From His example, Bible students learn that the most important "whole" in truly "holistic" Bible study is the “whole" Bible, and not just the "whole" paragraph or chapter in which a verse is found and that the most effective approach to its proper interpretation is by its integration with, rather than its isolation from, all other parts.

Expository Preaching

This was so much the case, that Bible teaching within the Bible itself was essentially a topical approach. In other words, Bible teachers and writers settled on a topic they wanted to address and then canvassed the whole Bible (or Old Testament) for relevant Scriptures to confirm and illuminate their points.

None of this is meant to disparage expository preaching or teaching, per se. It is typical of churches to devote some, if not most, of their classes to study of books of the Bible. Rather, the question raised by advocates of the radical view of expository preaching is whether topical preaching is acceptable and, conversely, whether expository preaching is superior, if not essential.

The value of topical, as opposed to expository, preaching lies in the fact that it is a practical application of the fact that the most important context for the study of any Biblical text is the whole Bible. The Bible reader may feel entirely comfortable with the practice of jumping around from text to relevant text within the Bible in an effort to understand what it teaches. This is because the Bible's teaching on any subject is typically scattered throughout its pages, and Biblical teaching on a subject consists in the totality of what the Bible says on that subject in any place it addresses it. Hence, if one were to focus so narrowly on one text that he effectively excluded all other texts, he might well find himself with only a partial and, therefore, false view of Biblical teaching on a subject.

For example, if one were to read what is said concerning monetary giving in the early chapters of Acts alone(Acts 2:42ff; 4:36ff; 5:1-11), he might conclude that churches may take up such collections any day of the week. However, if he jumps all the way over to the end of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (16:1,2), he learns something critically relevant which he otherwise might not have known and without which he might have engaged in an unscriptural practice. The fact that the information in Acts and First Corinthians is canonically separated by three large books, and the events to which they refer by a quarter-century, is not necessarily material. Is it any wonder, then, that the preaching in the Bible is essentially topical preaching?

Yet, in recent years, the topical approach, which has served brethren so effectively for so long, has come under criticism. Indeed, some have advocated its replacement with an expository approach, for which extravagant claims have been made as to its superiority and Scripturalness.

In order to explain what is meant by "expository preaching," alert readers to its shortcomings and dangers, as well as document its advocates' claims, some quotations are in order. Under the title, "A Wake-Up Call for the Church," and the subtitle, "Have we stopped declaring the whole counsel of God?" one brother writes,

"I submit to you that the only truly effective way to do this [i.e., preach] is with verse-by-verse, systematic, expository preaching. Start in chapter 1, verse 1 and preach His word one verse at a time. By systematic, I mean progressing through the text of scripture as it was given without skipping any of it. By expositionally, I mean preaching in such a way that the meaning of the Bible passage is presented entirely and exactly as God intended it" [Focus, Dec. 1999, pg. 13].

"I don't think we jettisoned our commitment to preaching the whole counsel of God on purpose, but we may have let it happen by practice. … There are three major categories of preaching: Topical, textual, and expository. … Around 5% of preachers are expositors. It is my firm belief that neither the topical nor the textual method represents a serious effort to interpret, understand, explain, or apply God's truth in the context of the Scriptures used" [Ibid., pg. 14].

"In fact, the word of God is replete with such examples [of expository teaching]…. We must return to the Biblical pattern and example of proclaiming the whole counsel of God exactly and entirely as it was given to us. Failing to do will lead to a generation of Christians that know very little about God's word, who do not grow spiritually, and (worst of all) cannot reproduce themselves. We do not do justice to the word of God when we fail to proclaim it in its entirety" [Ibid., pg. 15].

The editor specifically commended this brother's article:

"… We appreciate _______ _______' emphasis … on getting back to the Bible in our preaching … and emphasizing the importance of a steady diet of expository preaching. While … there are occasions [for] … topical preaching …, the way to guarantee that the whole counsel of God is being preached throughout the year is to preach expositorily, giving attention to everything God has said in His word" [Ibid., pg. 2].

Though these excerpts are taken from a magazine associated with "conservative" brethren, the idea that expository preaching is much superior to topical preaching and should displace it wholesale by no means began with them nor is it exclusive to them. Brethren of more liberal persuasion, and especially Evangelical preachers, have been its advocates for a long time.

For instance, M. Norvel Young, one-time president of Pepperdine College, wrote the entry for "Churches of Christ" in the Britannica Book of the Year for 1962. Amid glowing reports about their growth, work, and institutions, there is one comment which is noteworthy for its relevance to the subject at hand:

"Increasing emphasis was placed on expository preaching of the Bible and study of the Bible in classes."

The purpose of Young's brief assessment of "churches of Christ" was to call attention to what he regarded as significant and positive developments among them. That he would mention "increasing emphasis … on expository preaching" is indicative of the great importance he attached to it. In 1962, when Norvel Young made this comment, the debate among "liberal" and "conservative" brethren was in full tilt, and he was in the vanguard of the "liberals."

However, a search of "expository preaching" on the Internet should be truly eye-opening — nay, rudely awakening! — to those asleep on this point and its ramifications. There they will see that expository preaching has taken on a life of its own and become something of a movement. Not only does it have its champions, but lectures, seminars, and even conferences have been devoted to it. In fact, it is so highly esteemed that churches and their leaders virtually brag about expository preaching as their distinctively positive feature.

The blurb on the website of the Macon, Missouri First Baptist Church for its "lead pastor," Dr. Phil Bray (hmmmmm?), says that he earned "a D. Min in Expository Preaching." A doctorate in expository preaching?!?! One wonders whether a doctorate in "topical preaching" might also be had from any institution, or even just a lowly B.A.

A web search also reveals that Randall Runions of the First Baptist Church of Clifton, TN, says, "But one trait that distinguishes us from many churches is the commitment to expository preaching." He also attributes to the late and well-known Evangelical leader, John Stott, the statement, "'All True Christian Preaching is expository preaching.'"

Pentecostal scholar Rick Nanẽz says, "The pastor can practice verse-by-verse (expository) preaching, working his way through each chapter of a book of the Bible. This helps the believer to think systematically, logically, and coherently"[Full Gospel, Fractured Minds?, pg. 233].

In a video blog interview titled "Why Expository Preaching?" Joel Ellis, formerly associated with a church of Christ but now with the Community Christian Church of Apache Junction, AZ, extols it: "Expository preaching, however, allows us to bring the entire witness of the Bible to bear on our lives and … allows us to look at the text in a more holistic way that hopefully improves our understanding of the Bible as a whole."

John F. MacArthur, one of the most influential Evangelical leaders in the United States, strongly urges expository preaching in his extensive lectures on the subject. In one lecture, he proposes fifty reasons for "Bible exposition." He does this by citing the supposed consequences of failing to do expository preaching, the first of which is that "it usurps the authority of God over the mind and the soul."

It is undoubtedly significant that the Wikipedia entry for John MacArthur says, "Theologically, MacArthur is considered a Calvinist, and a strong proponent of expository preaching." Perhaps only the most determined obtuseness could prevent one from noting and contemplating the linking of Calvinism and expository preaching in this quotation.

One may observe more of the same from the Wikipedia entry on the "Calvary Chapel" movement: "Chuck Smith's … Calvary Chapels place great importance in the practice of expository teaching, a 'verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book' approach to teaching the Bible."

This thinking echoes among brethren. This may be experienced in the form of an almost imperceptible shift of emphasis from topical to expository preaching in the pulpit. Also, in addition to the quotation already cited from Focus magazine, another preacher who is an organizer of an annual expository lectureship commends it as an effort "to create an environment in which the goal is to study a whole book of the Bible (or multiple related books), not merely individual topics. This is an approach to study and preaching that is lacking in too many places"

In view of all this, it is hard to believe that, when "conservative brethren" stress expository preaching for essentially the same reasons and in almost the same terms, it is not because they have admired denominational and Evangelical preaching style and uncritically allowed the thinking behind it to bleed into their attitudes about the nature and methodology of their own preaching and teaching.

False Teaching

It would surely be naïve to consider it a mere coincidence that the strongest advocates of expository preaching are found among Calvinists, Evangelicals, and other false teachers. Hence, aside from the fact that the claims made for it lack a foundation in the Bible (as shown by the fact that there is not a single example of an expository sermon in the Bible), a second major problem with it is that it encourages false teaching. It does this both positively and negatively.

It is a positive encouragement to false teaching in that, by its very definition, it inherently discourages consultation of other relevant texts. Whether expository preaching advocates consciously favor it for the support it gives to false teaching is doubtful, but it ought to be clear that it does so, nonetheless, effectively.

What the Bible teaches is rarely, if ever, contained in one text. Thus, it is by locating, collating, and integrating all relevant texts in a harmonious fashion that one learns the truth. Extreme adherence to expository preaching imposes a sort of "tunnel vision" on the Bible student as to what the rest of the Bible says, which can be critically important to his understanding of the text he is reading. As has often been said, if one were allowed to isolate one Bible text from everything else the Bible says, he could prove by the Bible anything he desired. It is as though he is to read, study, and interpret a text as if he were oblivious to any other, as if it were hermetically sealed and hermeneutically self-contained.

As an example, those who condemn judging by observing that Jesus said "judge not" (Matthew 7:1) are properly corrected by being shown that the context (Matthew 7:1-5) refers only to hypocritical judging. Yet, the corrector might be met by the rejoinder that, since all are sinners, any judging is, ipso facto, hypocritical and, therefore, falls under Jesus' condemnation. The most effective resolution to this misapplication of what Jesus said is to go to other texts (e.g., John 7:24; I Corinthians 6:1ff; Hebrews 7:11) which show that Christians not only may, but must, judge. The implication, then, is that Jesus must have been condemning only a particular kind of judging, which may be ascertained from the context.

This is how proper Bible study is done. This is the way Jesus and His apostles and disciples did it. When knowledgeable Christians read their Bibles, they bring this holistic approach to the process of interpretation.

However, the example just given may explain the appeal of expository preaching, at least among brethren, despite its obvious drawbacks. Brethren may be oblivious to the threat of extreme expository preaching because they have been trained so well by topical preaching. If so, when they read a text of Scripture, they bring to it a background of knowledge in the whole Bible, and they might apply that knowledge so automatically that the proper interpretation seems practically intuitive. Thus, expository preaching gets the credit for knowledge which topical preaching has actually made possible.

Yet, expository preaching can also encourage false teaching negatively by discouraging its immediate and efficient exposure. Implemented as it has been advocated, it can only slow and inhibit the exposure of false teaching. It does this practically by tying a preacher to a strictly sequential treatment of the texts of the same book, Sunday after Sunday and month after month, thus depriving him of the flexibility he needs to address doctrinal threats in a very direct and timely fashion.

This is observable in the claim that one of the "benefits" of expository preaching is that it takes out of the preacher's hands the "agenda" as to what should be addressed in a sermon. What he will preach the next Sunday and the Sunday after that, ad infinitum, is determined for him by the expository method of preaching. It leaves him no choice.

The relationship between a rigid over-emphasis on expository preaching and false teaching seems self-evident. Yet, statements corroborative of this interpretation can be documented. It is not hard to find websites or blogs lauding expository preaching for its ability to restrain the preacher's ability to control the preaching "agenda." It keeps the preacher from preaching what he and others want, or feel the need, for him to preach. Rather, what lies next in the text is what he must preach. Of course, if there is an issue regarding which the congregation as a whole requires instruction, the preacher must either abandon his commitment to expository preaching to address it, artificially inject it into the text he happens to be studying, whether it is relevant or not, or neglect or defer addressing the need. Of course, all of this exposes the expository method of preaching as weak by virtue of its inflexibility.

A representative example of this may be found in the "Pastor's Blog" of the website of the First Baptist Church of Newberry, Michigan. In a blog titled, "Why Expository Preaching? 20 Reasons to Preach Expositional Sermons," Andrew Manwarren gives numbers 15 and 18 as:

"Expository preaching makes the task of preaching easier. Instead of having to prepare fresh material week after week for years, expository preaching sets the agenda and makes sermon planning easier. … There is always something new to preach. … Expository preaching keeps the pastor from saddling up on one of his hobby horses. … Preaching consecutively through the books of the Bible sets the preaching agenda instead of a pastor's passion."

This author would do better to be more concerned about hobbling hortatory preaching rather than hobby horses of preachers. The fact is that religious issues and the problems of life do not come at people in canonical or textual order and cannot wait until the preacher, at long last, works his way to the right spot to address them. (The ponderous impracticality of adhering to expository preaching with the radical rigidity some seem to advocate is exposed by the realization that, if a preacher were to treat one Bible chapter per sermon at the rate of two such sermons a week, it would require almost twelve years for him to cover the 1,189 chapters of the whole Bible.) No preacher in the Bible did this. When Jesus was given the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth, He went, not to its beginning, but "found the place where it was written" about Him (Luke 4:17ff). That happened to be almost at the end of the book (Isaiaha 61:1-2).

Indeed, the responsibility the preacher has to discern and address the needs he sees obliges him to set the agenda. Simply put, this is his job! Surrendering to an impersonal textual order does nothing more than enshroud cowardice or dereliction of duty in an aura of nobility.

It is highly unlikely that textual order and the random surfacing of issues and problems will coincide. Thus, the expository method allows the preacher to shirk his responsibility with the excuse that he must preach what the order of the Biblical text dictates rather than be diverted from it to address an issue or problem in a timely and relevant way. If the preacher is failing to address needs with topical preaching, switching to expository preaching will hardly correct the problem. (Since, for some, the expository method requires preaching from the books of the Bible consecutively, it is worth remembering that humans, not God, created the canonical order.)

During the writing of this article, a letter confirmatory of the author's suspicions arrived in his box.

"… The elders had approached [the preacher] ... and asked him to preach a sermon on divorce and remarriage. … I attended the next several Sundays, not wanting to miss [the preacher's] lesson. Nothing. Then, according to [one of the elders, the preacher] wouldn't be able to do the lesson until he had completed the Bible reading, which was up at the end of the year. … Before too long, [the preacher] announced that the "Read the Bible in One Year" study would extend into the new year (2015). … I would guess he has yet to give that lesson, and never will" [Mark Lenza's email to the author].

It is also noteworthy that an advocate of expository preaching previously cited begins by mocking the kind of preaching characteristic of pulpits among churches of Christ:

"There is another movement currently taking place that says there are only certain subjects that should be preached on exclusively: Baptism, Denominationalism, the Church, and Authority. With only minor variations, the congregation hears essentially one of four sermons twice every single week (morning and evening). This is what I call the 'only four things really matter' school of preaching" [Focus, Dec., 1999, pg. 12].

The fact that the author introduces his pitch for expository preaching with a complaint about the preaching of critically important and distinctive themes among churches of Christ is clearly indicative of his impatience, if not antipathy, toward such preaching. That he would replace such preaching with expository preaching ought to alarm any who rightly appreciate the threats represented by the perpetual and prevalent false teaching about these themes.

The purpose of this article would be misunderstood were it seen as anything other than an attack on the abuse of expository preaching by the false and extravagant claims made for it and the further problems such abuse might introduce or foster. As pressed by its advocates, expository preaching has the potential to be a veritable wolf in sheep's clothing (Matthew 7:15).

It is much more likely that a well-rounded knowledge of, and respect for, the whole Bible, and not context, will prevent any text from being made a pretext. Indeed, given that liars often resort to covering themselves, when caught in their lies, by claims that their statements "were taken out of context," it might more aptly be said, with apologies to Samuel Johnson for the paraphrase, "Context is the last refuge of the liar."