Expositional Preaching is part of the 9Marks Building Healthy Churches series, which is comprised of 10 books detailing what Mark Dever and company consider to be the marks of a healthy church. David Helm, who is lead pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Chicago and is the chairman of the Charles Simeon Trust which promotes practical instruction in preaching, is a logical choice to author a contributing book on the “mark” of expositional preaching. The definition given for expositional preaching is “Empowered preaching that rightfully submits the shape and emphasis of the sermon to the shape and emphasis of a biblical text” (p. 13). Helm quotes Charles Simeon as one who understood what expository preaching is:
My endeavor is to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there. I have a great jealousy on this head; never to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding (p. 12).
The four chapters progress from identifying mistakes preachers often make in their attempts to contextualize, to considering the challenges and demands of exegeting a text, to understanding a text in light of the entire biblical canon, to preaching in ones present context (see p. 13). Helm spends much time on contextualizing (pp. 16-37, 106) which he defines as “communicating the gospel message in ways that are understandable or appropriate to the listener’s cultural context…[it] is concerned with us and now. It is committed to relevance and application for today” (p. 16). While contextualizing has its place, much danger lurks, Helm admits when the preacher allows his immediate context to control the meaning of the biblical text (p. 17). Helm identifies three specific dangers when contextualizing gains the upper hand. He calls these the dangers of impressionistic preaching, inebriated preaching, and “inspired” preaching (p. 17). Chapter one is dedicated to exposing these dangers.
The way forward, Helm believes, is to begin with the biblical text and discover the intended meaning of the author for his original audience (p. 39). How to do this is described in chapter three. But Helm is not suggesting the preacher’s job is done at this point. Now that proper exegesis is complete, and the meaning of the biblical text is known, the preacher must move to contextualization in which Scripture is made relevant for the immediate audience (pp. 57-59). How to do this is the subject of chapter four in which the author leans heavily on Paul’s encounter with the philosophers at Athens in Acts 17, and other evangelistic sermons found in Acts (pp. 63, 92, 93, 95-96, 103).
It is in chapter three, dealing with theological reflection, where Helm goes astray, in this reviewer’s opinion. The author, in this section, supports the Christocentric hermeneutic which teaches that Christ is found in every text of Scripture and, therefore, all preaching is focused on Christ, no matter what is found in the text. He supports this thesis that “all the Scriptures concern Christ” (p. 62), from his mistaken interpretation of Luke 24:25-27, 44, 45 (pp. 62, 67), his failure to recognize the distinction between evangelistic sermons found in Acts from preaching/teaching within the body of Christ (pp. 16, 92, 93, 95, 96, 103), and Charles Spurgeon’s endorsement (p. 64). Helm is honest enough to offer an opposing view, via James Barr (pp. 66-67), but does not engage with Barr’s legitimate concern. While Helm recognizes dangers in this approach (pp. 79-82), he insists, based upon this theological grid and faulty exegesis (see pp. 68-69, 79, 82, 109), that what he has so accurately confirmed in the first two chapters is to be overridden. That is, Simeon’s preaching philosophy to bring out in Scripture what is there and not thrust in what one thinks should be there (pp. 12, 101-102) is overruled by Christocentric preaching. Under this methodology, Christ is found in every passage of Scripture and the preacher’s job is to somehow find Him even when He is totally absent by any true exegetical standard. Once found, the preacher’s task is to conform his sermon around this supposed discovery and make a straight-line toward the gospel. This so-called “Christ-centered preaching” is controlled by a preconceived theological construct, eisegesis and the preacher’s imagination, not by the actual biblical text and authorial intent.
To say that this reviewer is disappointed that 9Marks made Expositional Preaching its book on preaching is a massive understatement. If 9Marks has joined the redemptive-historical hermeneutic, Christocentric approach to biblical interpretation, then this errant understanding of Scripture is now spreading beyond its Reformed – Westminster Seminary roots. And if so, this is a sad day for those seeking to know and proclaim God’s Word.
Expositional Preaching, How We Speak God’s Word Today by David Helm (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014) 125pp., hard, $14.99
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel