The Greatest Problem in Preaching


Earlier I stated I’ve never seen a preaching textbook deal with authorial emphasis in a substantial way; so I’ll take a shot at it. My earlier article gave the practical implications (which is what most people are interested in). Yet, we need to understand “why” we believe it for it to become convictional. What follows offers some academic girth to the importance of authorial emphasis

Why does this even matter? In short, it matters because our defense of authorial emphasis is at one and the same time a defense of authorial intent, objective truth, and ultimately, the sufficiency of Scripture. It will not do for ministers of the gospel to tout the sufficiency of Scripture but then deny it in their homiletics (i.e., preaching).

New Criticism

The academic world of literary theory often seeps-down from the ivory tower into the pulpits. Whether you knew it or not, we are coming off the heels of a literary theory that dominated the 20th century: New Criticism. It has permeated into our own thinking more than we realize. T.S. Eliot was, perhaps, its most recognizable spokesman. New Criticism sought to eliminate from the interpretive process the reader’s subjective response (which we applaud) and the author’s intent (which we decry) by analyzing the text itself as its own, autonomous entity. All else—historical context, cultural context, the issues at-hand that provoked the writing in the first place—must be carved-out so the bare text stands alone. Then, and only then, can the grammatical and syntactical structures be analyzed free from bias—even the author’s. They called this the “text only” ethic in all its purity. They famously chimed, “A poem should not mean, but be;” and gloried in what they called “exciting new voices” a text can evoke. Why? Because no longer was a text’s meaning limited to the author’s intention; now, a self-contained text is pregnant with “possible meanings,” as many as the grammatical and syntactical structures will yield. The irony is: New Critics imposed on others this “text only” approach, but they expected others to read their writings strictly according to what they, the author, intended. A classic case of, “It applies to thee but not to me.”  

It will not do for ministers of the gospel to tout the sufficiency of Scripture but then deny it in their homiletics (i.e., preaching).

This literary theory filtered-down into Christian preaching, as “textual preaching” was pushed even in seminaries. Set aside the biblical author, his historical context, his cultural context, etc., and examine the self-contained text. “After all,” they opined, “the actual words are God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16), not the contextual issues.” 

While we applaud this concentration on the biblical text itself, we refuse to sever the text from the biblical author’s original intention. To do so is intellectually dishonest. Indeed, it amounts to the theft of the biblical author’s intellectual property. As you can see, the battle for objective truth was slipping down the pathway to full-blown post-modernism (no objective truth): The wild, wild west of literary theory. A society in which every person has their own version of truth. Or, as Scripture puts it, a society where every man does that which is right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25). 

Relative Emphasis

Into this state of confusion stepped a man of clarity: E.D. Hirsch. Hirsch, who taught literary criticism at Yale and later at the University of Virginia, recognized where this was headed. He challenged the New Critics with this premise: A text means what an author wills it to mean; nothing more, nothing less. 

His seminal book on authorial intent was published in 1967, Validity in Interpretation. Hirsch recognized that the author—not the text—controls the grammatical and syntactical structures. His quarrel with the New Critics centered on the relative emphasis of an author. He recognized that relative emphasis naturally accompanies an “implication” (sub-meaning) of the author’s verbal meaning (main proposition). Hirsch defines emphasis as, “the relative degree of attention that should be paid to an implication.”[1]

To over or under emphasize an implication is to miss the sufficiency of the author’s intent.

The relative emphasis of an implication is pivotal because a wrong emphasis can produce a wrong meaning. Hirsch explains:

A different system of emphases gives a different meaning both to a temporal sequence and to a spatial configuration, and obviously when the object of interpretation is a mute text, the problem of getting its emphases right is particularly difficult.[2] 

E.D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation

Simply put, Hirsch says to emphasize an implication more or less than did the author can alter the author’s meaning. 

He famously wrote:

How much emphasis should an implication receive? The straightforward answer is, “Just as much relative emphasis as the author willed it to receive.”  However, we all know that this answer has to be recast in terms of sharable conventions, since we have no direct access to the author’s mind. . . . To determine relative emphasis, therefore, we must have reference to something else that makes the function important, and this something lies at the heart of what genre is. The unifying and controlling idea in any type of utterance, any genre, is the idea of purpose.[3]

E.D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation

What Hirsch correctly saw is this: The larger, single purpose of an author’s writing (Hirsch names this the “intrinsic genre”) must govern the amount of emphases given to each of its parts. Therefore, we must prioritize and preserve the main proposition and any sub-propositions (i.e., “implications”) the author conveys. Relative emphasis is not only crucial to meaning (perhaps it is the most crucial and problematic element of all), it is also highly restrictive; it excludes alternatives.[4]

I know this is rather technical, but it has massive implications on Christian preaching (and on truth, in general). When two Bible interpreters approach a text with different emphases, then at least one of the interpretations must be wrong. The conclusion is obvious: To over or under emphasize an implication is to miss the sufficiency of the author’s intent. Or, to state it positively, one must affirm the proper emphasis of the biblical author’s implications in order to affirm entirely the author’s willed meaning. You don’t need my help to trace-out the consequences this has on the sufficiency of Scripture.

Hirsch concludes, “The principle by which we can discover whether an implication belongs to a meaning turns out to be the concept of intrinsic genre.”[5] Accordingly, the following two concepts we centered on earlier (in our hermeneutics articles) are critical: (1) the correct controlling purpose of an author’s writing and (2) the correct relative emphases that feed that controlling purpose. 

Closing Thought

Relative emphasis often is demeaned or rejected entirely today, even among faithful expositors. In practice, the relics of New Criticism still reside in our homiletics. We often get the authorial emphasis right in our hermeneutics (our interpretation). However, somehow we disconnect it from our homiletics (our preaching presentation). This is why relative emphasis represents the greatest problem facing Christian preaching today.

In practice, the relics of New Criticism still reside in our homiletics (even those who call themselves).

I shall get to the practical implications (and correction) of this problem next. 


[1]E.D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (Yale University Press: 1967). 


[2]Ibid., 99. In an unnecessary concession, E. D. Hirsch, Aims of Interpretation (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1976), 79-80 later enlarged “meaning” to “simply meaning-for-an-interpreter” instead of clarifying that “meaning” is always a return to the text  Along with Kaiser, “The Current Crisis in Exegesis and the Apostolic Use of Deuteronomy 25:4 in 1 Corinthians 9:8-10,” JETS 21 (1978): 4, we must “applaud Hirsch for his earlier distinction between ‘meaning’ and ‘significance,’” but not “follow his most recent concession and thereby abandon the principle that ‘meaning’ is a return to what the author intended to say by his use of words in a particular text.”



[4]Ibid., 230.

[5]Ibid., 89-90. 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Author Expositional

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.