Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Why Sequential Exposition?

This blog (named for the latin of "sequential exposition") has existed for 174 days and yet I have not really made my case for "Why sequential exposition should be the preferred method of exposition." One reason I have not done this is that manufacturing the argument intimidates me some. Much like my room rarely but occasionally (mom and dad usually dropped the hammer before then) would get so messy in my adolescence, that when I finally decided (read: was ordered) to clean it, the most difficult part was standing in the room figuring out where to start.

Quite frankly, there's many ways to skin this cat.

But since I actually consider cat skinning a public service, I will give this an initial introductory attempt, and then seek to build on it from here.

1. I had considered laying out all the advantages to sequential exposition, but I've already started that process. It can be read here and I hope to continue to add to it. (If some of the pastors I have requested from ever check out this blog...yes, I'm still waiting for your list!)

2. I also considered an autobiographical series explaining how I have been transformed from arrogant, self-absorbed, glory stealing story teller to one who delights in the power not being mine but God's. I have come to understand what "preach the Word," "not coming with cleverness of speech," and "having nothing to boast in, save the cross" truly mean, and lectio continua has been an essential element in that development. Not only has the congregation benefited from lectio continua, but a specific member of the congregation (read: me, the preacher) has benefited the most. This series may come down the road, but not at this point.

3. If lectio continua (sequential exposition) is all about letting the Word speak, how can you advocate this form above others when the Scriptures do not do that? I'm summarizing a series of questions asked, but it also must (I would hope) become the question that every faithful preacher asks. If my methodology comes from a source outside the Scriptures, do I then make that source in authority to the Scriptures? Therefore, we must ask the question, do the Scriptures give any examples or commandments that tell us we should be doing lectio continua?

Just some "quick hit thoughts"

1. I think there are Biblical examples. Nehemiah 8 is a glorious example. Ezra stands up and reads from the book of the law. The Levites "explained the law" (8:7) and were "translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading" (8:8). Clearly, Ezra is reading through the text, for it isn't until the second day that the people come to Leviticus 23. In that context then, we realize that Nehemiah 9 is not merely a retelling of the history of Israel, but is the response of the people after walking through the Word of God. Clearly, Ezra (as one who had "set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel--Ezra 7:10) was not just teaching what he knew, but had instructed the teachers to work through the Law. For some time later (Nehemiah 13:1-3) they come to Deuteronomy 23. It seems that Ezra embraced lectio continua and encouraged the teachers to do likewise. However, this is just one example (of many, I believe...including the example of our Savior) but examples could be simply descriptive, not it doesn't quite make the case.

2. I believe Paul solemnly charged Timothy to do it. When I read 2 Timothy 4:1-5 the most simple reading leads me to lectio continua. Paul does not tell him to "preach portions of the Word" or "back your beliefs with the Word." He does not even tell Timothy to "preach the portion of the Word that you think people need on that particular week." In fact, his exhortation toward "in season and out" I believe speaks to more than just a commitment to always preaching the Word, but also speaks to a commitment to a particular text, even if our human wisdom leads us to believe it may not be "relevant" right now. Of course, I am willing to admit this is based upon debatable exegesis (to which this small paragraph does not give justice) so this argument could be ignored as well.

3. But ultimately, I don't believe I have to make such a case.

While I believe I can show examples of lectio continua from the Scriptures and though I do believe that is the nature of Paul's command to Timothy, I do not believe the Scriptures had to state "Preach thou verseth by verseth" nor that I must show how Galatians is actually an exposition of 2 Samuel (it's not, by the way) to make my case for lectio continua. Ultimately, I think the argument that I must prove examples and exhortations from Scripture to make it permissible (or even to be favored) is slightly flawed thinking. Here are a few reasons (again, I attempt to keep them brief) why I would make such a claim:

This is a different era. This is not a statement of covenants or dispensations, but merely an acknowledgment of Hebrews. The author states:

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they.--Hebrews 1:1-4
"Now wait," one may protest, "that only makes a distinction between the periods of preincarnate Christ and incarnate Christ!" First, I merely list that reference to establish that distinctions should be made, but would turn to the second chapter to show another:
For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.
One cannot help but notice the us and them language employed in this passage. Clearly, there is not just a distinction between Old and New Testament guys but between us and Apostles. Therefore, if an Apostle had authority and revelation to speak (or write) to a church body without walking through a particular text, I should not simply assume I have equal authority to do so.

It betrays the purpose of Scripture. In one of my favorite passages of Scripture, Jesus explains the purpose of the Word of God:
"You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life."--John 5:39-40
If I seek to turn the Bible into a "how to" preaching manual, I miss the intention of the Scripture. Even in the above example from Nehemiah 8, the lesson is not just to obey the Lord by observing the Feast of Booths, but that feast was to direct the people to the God who will "tabernacle" among them (John 1:14). Therefore, Paul does not explain what he means (or his method) toward preaching the whole counsel of God's Word to the Ephesians during his 3.5 year ministry (Acts 20:27). Since Luke's agenda (nor the Holy Spirits) was not to explain how Paul did this, but merely that he did, we must be careful to assume we have all the evidence before us to know how he did do it.

It betrays the logic of literature. Frankly, an appeal for a verse by verse exposition of the text in favor of lectio continua makes the case itself. (Confusing sentence, I know, but hang with me.) An appeal for lectio continua from a text makes the case for lectio continua.

If I pulled one word from fifteen separate verses to construct a sentence stating we should do lectio continua, I would be distorting the text. Similarly, if I produced one sentence from five different texts to produce a paragraph that seemed to support lectio continua, I would be accused (rightly so) of distorting/ignoring context. Why? Because we understand the nature of literature. It is written with sequential thought. The "Therefore" of Romans 12:1 loses its purpose if I ignore all preceding texts. This applies to all literature, not just to Scripture. I would not receive a letter from my wife (or even an email) and determine where I felt like starting...I would start at the beginning. Likewise, a student does not receive a book in English class and begin reading wherever he/she feels, but starts at the beginning of the book. Even in a work that is a compilation (which may therefore allow for various starting places), we begin at a chapter beginning or at the beginning of the article. (Even this blog, for instance. You may have become bored and skipped portions of this article...if you are still even reading to this point...but if something becomes confusing, you will naturally go back and read that which you skipped...knowing I may be building on a previous argument.)

Now Scripture is certainly more than just literature, but it is also most certainly not less. God chose to reveal Himself in written form, and therefore has even ordained the basic laws to literature as part of His means of communication. That's why He starts His revelation at the beginning with "In the beginning..."

Again, I am not advocating that any sermon which is not sequential exposition is not glorifying to God or useful to the saints. (In the comment section of my previous article, I lay out that I do not always use sequential exposition.) Certainly, for an occasional preacher, or a regular preacher in a unique environment, anything he preaches is without surrounding context. However, I simply do not understand why a regular preacher of the text believes he is being faithful to the text when he continually preaches whatever topic or text he feels he should, rather than walking through a book of the Bible as the author (human and Divine) intended it be read. I do not believe I need chapter and verse to make this assertion, for I believe it is an understood conclusion when God chose to have men record His revelation in written form.

This was not intended to close the argument, but could be seen as my opening statements. In short, I've sought to cut the feline into fillets, perhaps in future posts I'll seek to deep fry some of these thoughts.


Tony Hall said...

Bro, why haven't we hooked up yet. I look forward to catching up. It seems that God has done similar works in both of us.

Brad said...

There's an awful lot here to answer, but rather than waiting until I have time to respond to everything at once or trying to fit it all into one comment, I'll start at the beginning and just keep pecking away until I finish or you kick me off your blog.

I know that you have decided not to rely upon scriptural examples or exhortations to support your position that sequential exposition is the best way to preach, but I do want to briefly respond to the ones you mentioned.

First, regarding Ezra 8, the event here recorded was a reading through the entire Torah in just a few days and had been commanded by God to occur during the Feast of Booths only once every seven years (Deut. 31) This hardly strikes me as an example of the kind of preaching sequentialists usually recommend. It certainly isn't anything like what they practice.

danny2 said...


i'm not going to kick you off! i hadn't replied right away, not because i was avoiding you (btw, you better not avoid me if you use my yard for a parking lot during the next week--which you're welcome to do--but better look me up. i look forward to seeing you!), but because i'm not really sure what you mean, or how to respond to your comment.

is it the fact that God commanded it that makes it different? if that is the case, don't the commands to "preach the Word" (2 tim 4:2) and "give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching" (1 tim 4:13) not to mention all the examples that teaching was clearly happening provide the mandate? it kind of makes the point, i think. like the people of ezra's time, this isn't my's His.

it also seems that exposition was taking place. verse 7 says they were explaining the Law. the text seems to indicate that Ezra was not merely reading through the Law as quickly as he could, but that time was taken to translate and explain the text. i think good exposition is the same thing. read the text, explain the text.

surely, you'd also consider it sequential? i doubt that Ezra started at Genesis 18 and them moved around to Exodus 12 before settling on a text in Deuteronomy. it seemed to me that his logical move would have been to start, "In the beginning..." and work his way down from there. if that's the case, it seems it would be largely sequential too.

is it the Christ centered nature that we should preach with? well, i think that is very much what they were explaining about the text. the narratives of the Law really aren't hard to understand, nor are the commands given in the Law. the beauty is seeing how they point to Jesus. Ezra and company may not have seen all that Leviticus has that points to Jesus, but i think they did see that it was all pointing to their true atoning sacrifice. i assume you think the same.

is it that he had a pulpit and i don't? i would seriously doubt that a guy like you would want to quibble over furniture.

is it that you were looking at ezra 8 when my example is from nehemiah 8? really, i assumed that is just a typo.

the only possible objection i can see is the amount of text covered and length of the message. Ezra covered a lot more text than i usually cover and preached a lot longer than i actually preach (though some may have thought that impossible!). however, if you notice, i have never once on this blog (nor my old one) imposed a quantity to the text which needed to be covered. Mark Dever has an incredible two volume set where he preaches every book of the Bible in one sermon. 66 sermons through the entire Bible. if you read the series, you'll find it to be exposition. i have also observed and benefited from exposition that does not even finish a verse in a 45 minute setting.

sure, i'm not wearing a tunic, i've trimmed my beard and it certainly isn't in Hebrew...but i don't see how this blog has imposed those kind of standards to follow in their example. nor do i see how length of text becomes the determining factor.

Brad said...

Yeah, I was fixin' to call you about Wright Family Parking Services. Of course, I wouldn't think of avoiding you. And I'm not at all put off by less-than-immediate responses to my comments.

My only point was that the practice recorded in Nehemiah 8 (yes, a typo) being an exposition of the entire law and taking place only once every seven years, is not the best support for the practice of splitting one text up into little chunks to be examined every week over the course of several months or years.

Again, not that this the only way sequential exposition is done. (I like Dever's idea, BTW, and while we're on that note, I like many things about the more typical approach to sequential exposition as well).

I don't think anything in Nehemiah 8 proves that a pastor shouldn't spend a year preaching through one text, I just don't see how it necessarily supports such as the "best" practice.

I know I led off with a rather weak point, but I'm just planning to follow your original order.

danny2 said...

I don't think anything in Nehemiah 8 proves that a pastor shouldn't spend a year preaching through one text, I just don't see how it necessarily supports such as the "best" practice.

i agree, that's what i meant by:

However, this is just one example (of many, I believe...including the example of our Savior) but examples could be simply descriptive, not it doesn't quite make the case.

are we ready for the next point or more to cover here?

Brad said...

I was going to address your reference to the Timothy passage, but you've already qualified it fairly well. I will just add that among the other things Paul didn't say was, "Preach that sequential portion of the text you've selected for this week." I guess the bottom line on this point is just that I agree with you that the verse is of limited probative value on the issue.

If it should please you, I'll move on to the next point as I find the time.

danny2 said...

of make another excellent point for me.

in topical preaching, i must choose the topic, then choose a text, then choose a starting and stopping point--for every single week.

even in spontaneous exposition (no rhyme or reason a particular passage followed another...honestly, this is usually textual preaching cloaked in exgesis), i'm choosing the text, the starting point and the stopping point, every single week.

however, in sequential are the choices:

choosing the text once to start (granted, this can sometimes be the most painstaking part...except that i keep in mind that i eventually hope to preach all 66)...not every week.

where i start the next week is simply where i left off the week before.

where i left off is a choice (and is subjective) but it can often be determined by the text, or even sometimes, by the amount of time alloted to getting through the text. (similar to nehemiah 8. i assume they concluded for the day not according to a specific text requirement, but probably more based on time allotted.)

therefore, i'm making far fewer choices.

therefore, "Preach that sequential portion of the text you've selected for this week." isn't really a far assessment of sequential some degree. it's still subjective, but far less.

Brad said...

Righto then, point three.

The author of Hebrews is not distinguishing between the apostolic era and our era, but rather between the apostolic era and his era. (When will you anti-preterists learn to properly interpret scriptural timing language? :))

Then what does he do next? He launches into the most non-sequential exposition imaginable.

I think your point actually goes along way to proving that the apostles' style of preaching (which the self-confessedly non-apostolic author of Hebrews adopts) was not, in fact, unique to the apostolic ministry, but that it was the approach intended to be taken up even by those who were self-consciously not apostles and self-consciously not in the apostolic age.

danny2 said...

since Hebrews is a sermon transcript, the proper way to preach Hebrews would simply be to stand behind the pulpit, open to Hebrews 1:1 and then just read straight to Hebrews 13:25. then, close in prayer and sit down?

only one problem. that wouldn't be preaching. that would be reading the text, but not preaching.

so whatever era you put the message into, being Holy Writ creates a new "twist" for us. it may be a sermon, but it is not just a sermon. therefore it becomes divinely inspired text and i must handle it differently than the author of it.

making the case that Scripture is a difficult place to dictate how to preach Scripture.

Brad said...

All right, your repetition of the last thought is really beginning to cause me some concern. Where in the world do you propose we go to learn how to preach and teach if not to the scriptures themselves? And don't say Star Trek; someone else has already tried that.

danny2 said...

oh, certainly from the Scriptures. though i do not believe the New Testament was written to present us with the pattern for preaching, it does establish:

--our goal is to reveal Christ.
--the context is always the redemption sinful men by the glorious grace of Holy God
--it is only made powerful by the work of the Holy Spirit
--it is not to be built on my cleverness
--it is to be an essential part of church life
--it is to be built upon the Word of God
--it is to be done in season and out
--it is to be guarded and honored
--and much, much more.

perhaps this is a rabbit trail...but it appears much like a strict regulatory principle to me. i'm all for looking to the Scriptures to see what worship we know is pleasing to the Lord, but the strict camp that takes it to only singing the Psalms seems to miss it to me. how do they sing a new song? ok, they've got down singing psalms, but what about hymns and spiritual songs?

it seems that in the attempt to turn their Bible into a strict regulatory book, they can almost defy some of the desires of the Text.

i guess i'm just getting impatient (i thought you were going to get to the point soon!!!), but i just can't understand how you think preaching through a text is defying the will of the Lord in preaching. i'm struggling to understand the style of preaching you think is most fitting which would make preaching through a book of the Bible impossible.

again, i'm not saying that "if it ain't sequential exposition, then it ain't a sermon," but i'm failing to understand how you think i'd be more biblically faithful to preach galatians 3 one morning without having preached galatians 1 & 2 and following 3 with 4, 5 & 6 (only as example...i'm not saying "s.e." has to be divided into chapter headings...which man created)? sure, i COULD preach just galatians 3, and it would be beneficial to the body, but how am i doing an injustice to the Word of God by choosing to preach galatians 1 & 2 first?

Brad said...

I confess myself baffled.

I have been expressing my misgivings, not regarding sequential exposition per se, but merely regarding your position that this "should be the preferred method of exposition", a form to be "advocated above others".

I certainly have not meant to say that sequential exposition is defying the will of the Lord or that preaching through a text is biblically impossible.

If I've been slow in getting to my point (as some count slowness) it is because, one, I'm attempting to make my way through your points (which are somewhat numerous) and, two, because I as yet have no point, which is why I'm weighing and examining yours.

I truly, honestly, and really want to know what teachers in the church ought to be doing and how. I truly, honestly, and really think that we should be able to rigorously and carefully support our answers to those questions from the scriptures. I have some embryonic half-baked notions about what these answers might be, but no more.

Your claim for several years now, seems to me have to been that lectio continua is the method receiving the greatest support from the scriptures, the method to which all others are inferior. You've done me the great service of offering up your arguments to that effect. Now, I'm just asking you to hold those arguments up for a little scrutiny.

danny2 said...

don't mind the scrutiny...just struggling to figure out what you are looking for.

i do think the Scriptures support lectio continua. i think an examination of of what the Scriptures says about itself, and examination of the role of a pastor and an examination of the Holy Spirit's work through the Word lend to the conclusion that lectio continua would be a preferred method.

however, if you're looking for a verse of Scripture that says you must start at the beginning of a book and work your way through it, or if you are looking for an example of it from Scripture, followed by a "now, this is how you should do it" statement...they aren't there. i'll readily admit that.

however, no such statement follows (or precedes) the book of Hebrews either....probably the only complete sermon transcript in all of Scripture.

Brad said...

No, I'm not demanding an example or a commandment (though I can see why you might think that I was). I do acknowledge that any conclusions to which one comes on this matter are likely to be based more upon general scriptural principles like you've said.

It does seems to me, however, that an important source of disagreement we might have (if I ever end up with a position for you to disagree with) is the degree to which we're willing to place normative value upon the preaching and teaching practices we see in scriptures, especially in the New Testament.

While I acknowledge that there have been significant changes since such times which make it difficult to argue for a one-to-one relationship between their practices and ours, I think I'm inclined to give these examples more normative force than you seem to be willing to do.

Not a simple issue.

danny2 said...

certainly not simple.

two reasons i struggle to give too much normative emphasis...

1. it does not appear we have completed transcripts of any sermon but Hebrews. otherwise, we have main points, but we don't really know all the preacher said.

2. i certainly could be missing much, but it does not seem to me that there is an easily spotted pattern from the accumulative survey of sermons.