The Danger of Atomistic Preaching

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My previous article suggested the greatest danger in preaching, even among expositors, is not honoring the relative emphases of the biblical author. Most often, this occurs when a preacher extracts a “part” of a text and gives it more weight than did the biblical author. Sidney Greidanus calls that “part” an “atom.”

Atomistic Tendencies

Atomistic tendencies extract an implication (or sub-meaning or sub-point) of the author and cause it to dominate the author’s single verbal meaning. The result becomes an alteration of the author’s original meaning. Greidanus calls this the “isolation of certain ‘atoms’ within the text from the inner coherence, the central thrust of the text.”[1]  

An “atom” might be a Bible personality’s attribute, experience, or behavior which the preacher extracts and expounds as the main emphasis of the message. The problem with this practice is the main thought of the passage is either ignored or reduced to secondary importance. In either case, the verbal meaning becomes different (or other) than that of the biblical author.

An “atom” might be a Bible personality’s attribute, experience, or behavior which the preacher extracts and expounds as the main emphasis of the message.

Greidanus explains:  

Should any of these “atoms” be treated independently in the sermon, the result would be atomism—making absolute that which is a dependent part—and a loss of the central thrust of the text. Should one, for the sake of a unified sermon, place one “atom” central, the central thrust is displaced by that which is not central. In either case the meaning of the text will be distorted.[2]

Sidney Greidanus, Sola Scriptura

Greidanus claims this tendency produces sermons that become monotonous because they lose the uniqueness of the text.[3] For example, one can preach essentially the same sermon from the “doubt” of John the Baptist (Matt. 11:1-6) and the “doubt” of Thomas (John 20:24-29); or, one could apply the “testing” of the faith of Abraham (Gen. 22) in the same way as the “testing” of the faith of the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21ff.).[4]  He rightly asserts: “[T]he ‘atom’ (doubt, testing) is lifted out of its textual (historic) environment into another realm where, though still called ‘doubt’ or ‘testing,’ it has lost its unique connections and therefore its special meaning.”[5]

The Danger of Atomistic Tendencies

We can reduce the problem of atomistic tendencies to one basic issue: The degree of relative emphasis an implication (or sub-meaning) should receive within the sense of the larger whole. The chief concern occurs when the preacher presents an emphasis (or set of emphases) which is different than the biblical author’s, and the interpretation spawns a different meaning. Therefore, we agree with Greidanus’ argument. Further, we see no reason why we should limit it to exemplary or biographical tendencies. The argument equally is valid for those sermons which take a sub-point within the verbal meaning and cause it to dominate the central thrust of the sermon. We must never stop asking, “Who gives the preacher the authority to change the King’s emphasis? Certainly, not the King; and if not He, then who?”

We must never stop asking, “Who gives the preacher the authority to change the King’s emphasis? Certainly, not the King; and if not He, then who?”

An “atom,” therefore, ought not be limited to a trait, experience, or attribute. We must begin to think of an “atom” as an implication as well.

To extract and explode an “implication” to a place of prominence which challenges the biblical author’s primary intent distorts the verbal meaning. This inherently corrupts the sufficiency of Scripture.

A Biblical Example

Grant Osborne (now deceased, Osborne was Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) shows from Philippians 2:2 how the “atom” of “joy” can challenge—and even silence—the real emphasis, which is “harmony.” He observes:

If the subordinate idea is given extensive clarification, it is a sign that the writer considers it to be a major stress. For example, Philippians 2:2 says, “Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” Obviously, the primary emphasis is not the completion of Paul’s joy but the harmony of the Philippian church, developed in four successive subordinate phrases telling the means for bringing Paul greater joy. In the sermon outline, the point would be harmony, not joy.[6]

Grant Osborne, Hermeneutical Spiral

We often do violence to the biblical author’s intent by shifting the emphasis to address a contemporary issue. To present “joy” as the primary emphasis of Philippians 2:2 does not do justice to the meaning Paul communicates. In fact, it conveys a different meaning altogether (even if a true one).  

Implications on the Sufficiency of Scripture

Typically, preachers will take a text such as the one mentioned by Osborne and see many elements (“atoms”) in that text from which to construct sermons.

This atomistic approach relies a little on the truth of Scripture and a lot on human ingenuity.

This is a dangerous game when handling divine truth. Greidanus astutely observes the “multitude of directions the application could take if the text is seen as a number of elements.” [7] He teases-out the impact on the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture:

One could preach on all these (and more) elements in the text; he would not be telling falsehoods, but he would neglect the revelation in this particular text. For these individual elements can be found in many another text. . . . But the fact that one can use an element in a text as an illustration does not mean that that illustration is the “specific intent of the text.”

Sidney Greidanus, Sola Scriptura

It’s not so much that the preacher is denying truth or preaching falsehoods (it’s more subtle than that). Rather, he implicitly (and typically unknowingly) thinks he can arrange it better by shifting the weight of God’s relative emphases. God breathed-out Scripture precisely as He saw fit. As one African-American preacher astutely observed, “God don’t need no help from nobody!” We agree.

Kevin Vanhoozer (also a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) applies this principle to “proof-texting” as well:

We may note in passing that the tendency among theological conservatives to offer “proof texts”—a method of abstracting individual statements from their larger literary context—is every bit as detrimental to understanding the literary act as a whole as is form criticism. Though they may inhabit different ends of the theological spectrum and though their doctrines of Scripture may be vastly different, the interpretive practice of both form critics and theological conservatives is equally atomistic, equally unlettered—equally capable of short-circuiting the process of interpretation.[8]

Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There Meaning in this Text?

A more scripturally sufficient practice is this: Simply retain the biblical author’s relative emphases. Walt Kaiser wisely counsels us: 

Time and again the exegete may be saved from would-be disaster and the perils of subjectivism by relying on the text’s own pattern of emphasis as it is often indicated by some stylistic, grammatical, or rhetorical device that supplies the authoritative basis for principlizing that text.”[9]  

Walt Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology

The pattern of emphasis dictated by the text keeps verbal meaning in its rightful and prominent position in the interpretive process. All of this is not to say that implications ought not be expounded; indeed, they should. However, implications must remain submissive to the author’s intent—and to the degree that the original author wills them. Otherwise, we comprise the sufficiency of Scripture since the biblical author’s emphases are, in fact, God’s emphases. 


[1]Greidanus, Sola Scriptura, 63 (emphases original). 

[2]Ibid., 64 (emphasis original). 

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Grant Osborne, Hermeneutical Spiral, 32. 

[7]Greidanus, Sola Scriptura, 119.

[8]Vanhoozer, Is There Meaning in this Text? 337. 

[9]Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology, 156. 

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Chip Thornton

Pastor of FBC Springville, Alabama. Chip is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he earned his Ph.D. in expository preaching. He enjoys spending time with his family, has a passion for discipleship, and is committed to biblical exposition.