The Danger of Exemplarist Preaching


Recently, I came across a sermon from John 19:26-27: “Seven Ways to Love Your Mother.” Sounds great, but is this what the Apostle John meant when he wrote the account of Jesus hanging on the cross? This is an example of “exemplarist preaching,” which ignores the all-important relative emphasis of the biblical author.

Exemplarist Tendencies

Sidney Greidanus offers the most extensive treatment I’ve found of exemplarist preaching.[1] He explains:

[P]reachers, in preaching historical texts, would display the person mentioned in the texts as models to be imitated, as examples to be followed—hence the term “exemplary preaching.”[2]

Sidney Greidanus, Sola Scriptura

Greidanus later asserts that “the redemptive-historical side claims that this is not only an illegitimate use of the preaching-text but also a degradation of redemptive history to the level of ‘profane’ history.”[3] His argument (rightly) suggests “exemplarist” sermons deny (or degrade) the redemptive-historical nature of historical texts, and in doing so, undermine the sufficiency of Scripture.

Practically speaking, preachers often lift a biblical character from a historical text and build the sermon around him/her. This presents the historical text not so much as a “fact” of history, but as a contemporary parable or allegory.[4] Greidanus’ objection:

If the text is historical, it will call for a historical method of interpretation which accounts for its historical (factual) character at every step of the interpretive process.[5] 

Sidney Greidanus, Sola Scriptura

In other words, the text must be taken according to its nature and not merely as a contemporary parable. Otherwise, the uniqueness (or the factual essence) of the text is overlooked. Greidanus offers a solution: Expound the person (or characteristic, virtue, moral, etc.) within the redemptive-historical framework (i.e., the larger storyline of the Bible). That way, the historical nature and purpose of the text is preserved and the contemporary audience appreciates the relevance of the text.

We agree with Greidanus’ conclusion, but for a slightly different reason. His argument concentrates on exemplary sermons and their negative relationship to the redemptive-historical framework (important as that may be). The more critical concern is in their negative relationship to the biblical author’s original intent. Did the biblical author intend for the historical text to be interpreted in an exemplary fashion? 

Exemplarist sermons “will preach,” as they say in seminary. People love them. However, they often breed even greater problems. What if the examples simply don’t fit our situation today; the historical gap defies all attempts to apply them directly; or, there is still too much historical debris clinging to the examples? 

In such cases, who gives the preacher the authority to lift a certain element from a text and preach it in isolation to the other elements surrounding it? Certainly, the biblical author did not. If not he, then who?

It is admirable to see preachers who genuinely desire to connect the gospel with the modern audience. Yet, in his zeal to connect, the exemplary preacher does violence to the text by “de-historizing” certain of its elements. This attempt to gain the contemporary man’s ear is a homiletical (i.e., presentation) short-cut that works its way back into the hermeneutical (i.e., interpretation) process.

This attempt to gain the contemporary man’s ear is a homiletical (i.e., presentation) short-cut that works its way back into the hermeneutical (i.e., interpretation) process.

The Danger

This is a monster problem plaguing preaching today. Preachers disregard God’s intent as revealed by His biblical authors in order to gain a hearing. “What does it matter,” they object, “so long as I’m preaching biblical truth?” Yet, we must keep asking, “Whose truth? If the single truth-intention of the biblical author is not the objective measure, then who determines truth?” Their position is an “ends justifies the means” approach which does serious damage to the sufficiency of Scripture. Our earlier survey of Christian preaching shows, inevitably, it is a slippery slope into eventual heresy. 

The concern rests in the effects of the exemplary tendencies on the single truth-intention of the author. Haddon Robinson agrees, and he turns the discussion back where it belongs: The biblical author’s single truth-intention. Robinson asserts:

A less obvious but just as harmful way of ignoring the purpose of a biblical author lies in the common practice of employing the historical narratives as case studies in morals, virtues, or spiritual struggles. In such sermons the camaraderie between David and Jonathan models an ideal friendship which all Christians should imitate; the conversation of Jesus with the woman at the well provides lessons on personal evangelism; the story of Ruth and Naomi turns into an example of how Christians should relate to their in-laws; Jacob’s struggles at Peniel demonstrates how one must wrestle with God for blessing; Nehemiah becomes a case book for leadership. What is not asked in these sermons is whether the biblical writer intended for these histories to be used in this manner.[6]

Haddon Robinson, “Hermeneutics and Homiletics”

Robinson uses the term “ignore,” and rightly so. Exemplary tendencies ignore certain foundational tenants of the sufficiency of Scripture. They lift an “atom” from a text, and treat it as an individual thought-unit (my next article will discuss “atomistic” preaching). 

Closing Thought

To take a text and disregard the purpose of its originator denies the verbal meaning. Rather, Robinson asserts, “The purpose of the sermon must flow out of the purpose of the historical narrative.”[7] The critical question is not, “Are the assertions of the preacher true?” Typically, they are. The critical question is, “Are the assertions of the preacher honoring the specific truth-claims from the author’s intent?” If not, then the preacher would do better to either choose a different text or submit to the assertions of the author in preaching-text under consideration.

Why don’t they? The answer to that question is quite another matter (which might step on a few toes). Some preachers don’t know any better. Others desire to say something “fresh,” “new,” or “profound” to keep the audience’s attention. Others reason, “Church folks have heard this preaching-text 100 times. I want to give them a different angle they’ve never considered.” Sadly, some simply covet the praises of men. So they inject seemingly profound ideas into the text (see our earlier “Daddy Issues” article).

To0 often preachers sacrifice the biblical author’s relative emphasis at the altar of personal admiration. Whether they realize it or not, this downgrades the sufficiency of Scripture and upgrades themselves instead. This must stop

Too often preachers sacrifice the biblical author’s relative emphasis at the altar of personal admiration.

This must stop.

Isn’t Holy Scripture sufficient? It is, and the relative emphasis of the biblical author is what (1) holds us accountable and (2) holds the sufficiency of Scripture intact. 

[1]See Greidanus, Sola Scriptura: Problems and Principles in Preaching Historical Texts (Eedmans: 1999), 1-113.

[2]Ibid., 8. Greidanus also deals with texts that allegedly legitimize exemplary preaching: (1) 1 Corinthians 10; (2) Hebrews 11; and, (3) James 5:16-18 (see 113-19). Greidanus maintains the biblical author is not exegeting in those text. Rather, he is merely using examples as illustration, “[T]he 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” (119).   

[3]Ibid., 59. 

[4]Ibid., 61.

[5]Ibid., 62.

[6]Haddon Robinson, “Homiletics and Hermeneutics,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible (Zondervan: 1984): 809.

[7]Ibid., 812. 

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Author Danger

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.