Haddon Robinson’s Definition of Expository Preaching

I still look back with huge gratitude at the opportunity to have studied with Haddon Robinson in the mid 2000’s. Here is his oft-quoted definition:

“Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.”

Importance of the “concept” – the central role of the “big idea” is vital to coherent preaching.  Preaching is not the conveying of random details held together by their proximity in a biblical text.  It is easy to let a Bible text nudge you into your favourite theological themes, your anecdotes of choice, or even other disconnected biblical truths. This definition urges the preacher to study the passage in order to determine the big idea of the passage. What, specifically, is this passage saying?

Importance of the study method – among the expository definitions that I’ve read over the years, I think this one is unique in including a definition of the hermeneutical approach advocated.  In order to get to the biblical concept in a passage, the preacher is to use a historical, grammatical, literary study of the passage in context. What, accurately, is this passage saying?

Importance of the transmission – many people miss the two words “transmitted through” that come before the hermeneutical element.  Not only should a preacher use good hermeneutics in the study, but they should exemplify good hermeneutics in the presentation. After all, the preacher is modelling Bible handling before a crowd who will pick up habits from what they observe. How will they read their Bibles after listening to you preach?

Importance of the Holy Spirit – again, many definitions of preaching seem to omit any reference to the Holy Spirit.  This one recognizes the role of the Spirit in applying the biblical concept in the life of the preacher, then through the preacher in the listeners too. Apart from Him, we can do nothing.

The Basic Elements of a Preaching Definition

It is a good exercise to think through what should be included in a definition of expository preaching.  One way is to collect several definitions and recognize what is present in all of them, or unique to some of them.  While wording may change, it seems to me that a definition should include the following pieces as a bare minimum:

Some reference to the meaning of a biblical text – whether one takes Sunukjian’s phrase “the true and exact meaning of a text” or Robinson’s specification of the method used to arrive at that understanding or simply use of the term “truth,” as in Vines & Shaddix’s “biblical truth,” somehow expository preaching in its definition must honor the reality of specific and true meaning in the text.

Some reference to communication – perhaps “oral communication” or “presentation” or “spoken” or whatever.  Somehow the meaning of a text has to be conveyed to the other side of the chasm (John Stott’s 2nd world) – the listeners.

Some reference to relevance – without relevance, the communication of biblical truth could remain at the level of historical lecture (and often does).  True biblical preaching has to include the meaning of a biblical passage communicated with relevance.  Generally the term “applied” will come in at this point.

Some reference to God – should go without saying, but the whole process involves God.  God’s Spirit at work in the study, in the delivery, in the lives of the listeners, in the Word He inspired, etc.

Expository preaching is surely the meaning of at least one biblical passage communicated with applied relevance to contemporary listeners, the whole process being under the influence of the Holy Spirit.  I still prefer Haddon’s definition in many ways, but would you agree that these four elements form the sine qua non of expository preaching?  What would you include?