Book Review: Biblical Preaching, by Haddon W. Robinson
Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Sermons. Baker Academic, 1980. 256 pages.
Haddon Robinson was my preaching professor in seminary. He was a very good preacher and a very good professor. His lectures were mini masterpieces of communication. He spoke without notes, included numerous illustrations, and always conveyed one big idea. It felt more like a rhetorical performance than a classroom lecture. Robinson literally practiced what he preached.
We were thoroughly schooled in all our homiletics classes at Gordon-Conwell in Robinson’s distinctive methodology. Robinson was our example, Biblical Preaching was our textbook, and students who preached Big Idea sermons won seminary awards. I enjoyed Dr. Robinson’s class, and I always marveled at his sermons in chapel. While I didn’t fully adopt his method, I learned much from his counsel, from his critiques, and from numerous insights in his book and in his lectures.
LESSONS FOR EVERY PREACHER
Robinson is best known for his Big Idea approach to preaching, but Biblical Preaching is about much more than this one concept. Biblical Preaching is Robinson’s attempt to convince the student of expository preaching and then help that student craft an effective, relevant, and memorable expositional sermon.
While parts of the book, first published in 1980, sound humorously dated (e.g. a reference to resources available on CD-ROM, a remark about how our culture loves “motion pictures,” the suggestion to visit “an experienced clothier” for wardrobe choices), this classic textbook is still well worth reading and rereading. There is plenty of good advice, much of which I’ve incorporated (sometimes unknowingly) into my own preaching.
- In traveling the road from text to sermon, first find your exegetical idea, then your homiletical idea. And remember that the two ideas are often not identical.
- When determining your exegetical idea, ask three diagnostic questions: What does this mean? Is it true? What difference does it make?
- At any point in the sermon, the preacher can illustrate the text, defend the text, explain the text, or apply the text. These four movements can be remembered with the acronym IDEA (illustrate, defend, explain, apply). Most preachers spend almost all their time on “explain.” They would do well to incorporate more of the other three.
- Sermons should be arrows aiming at a target, and the points of the sermon should help the arrow hit that target.
- Preaching in general and illustrations in particular are more effective as they move down the ladder of abstraction. Be concrete wherever possible.
- When it comes to introductions and conclusions, start with a bang and quit all over. Introductions should get the hearers’ attention. Conclusions should not introduce new material. They need not be long, but they should do more than invite the hearer to “live in the light of these great truths.”
- Speak plainly. Speak clearly. Use short sentences.
I could go on. The book is especially suited for the young student or minister with almost no experience preaching. But even seasoned preachers will find solid advice and edification from Robinson’s well-honed words and time-tested advice.
MINING, NOT MOLDS
Like any homiletics textbook, there are bound to be certain exhortations that reflect the author’s gifts and style but do not work for everyone in every context.
For example, I don’t think most preachers should preach without notes. I tried it early in ministry and wore myself out cramming my memorization right up until the moment I preached.
I don’t think you always need a spectacular introduction. After discipling people with the Word for years and decades, hopefully attention-grabbing headlines become less necessary.
And I don’t think you need as many illustrations as Robinson suggests. I doubt many preachers spend as much time collecting illustrations as Robinson did. It was not unusual to see Dr. Robinson in the cafeteria reading the paper and cutting out stories to use in a sermon someday. I wonder if that level of attention to illustration gathering is attainable (or necessary) for regular week-in-and-week-out preachers.
The best preachers can be dogmatic about the things they do well. I love Martyn Lloyd-Jones, but no one can possibly agree with everything he says in Preaching and Preachers. Seminaries are blessed to have revered and accomplished homileticians (like Robinson was) training students. The danger is that the school pumps out one type of preacher who preaches in only one kind of way. The best preaching textbooks should be mined for tools, methods, insights, and inspiration; they should not be considered molds into which each new preacher must be poured.
IS BIG IDEA A GOOD IDEA?
Finally, a word about Big Idea preaching.
First, my critique. I’m not convinced by Robinson’s definition of expository preaching. He writes:
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. (5)
There is much to like about this definition, but is it really the case that sermons can only be expositional if the preacher employs the historical-grammatical-literary method of interpretation? That cuts out a lot of good pre-modern preaching. Likewise, notice the phrase “biblical concept.” This already weights the discussion toward Big Idea preaching. I think Robinson’s definition is too exact. I would say that expositional preaching involves reading the Word of God, clearly, and then giving the sense, so that the people understand the reading (Neh. 8:8).
According to Robinson, every sermon must have a central, unifying idea. To ignore this principle is to ignore what experts in communication theory and in preaching have to tell us (18). Although Robinson claims the sermons of the apostles all communicated one big idea, I struggle to see how the prophetic sermons in the Old Testament, the sermons in Acts, or the letter of Hebrews (if it began as a sermon), can be as narrowly defined as Robinson suggests.
Likewise, when Robinson insists that “the purpose behind each individual sermon is to secure some moral action” (72) and that sermons should focus on “measurable results” (75), I fear the danger of creeping moralism and the assumption that every sermon must tell people to do something. I don’t think Big Idea preaching is the only way to preach or always the best way to preach.
But I do believe it is often a very good way to preach. Most sermons try to do too much (at this point, my congregation is crying out, “Physician, heal thyself!”). Most preachers probably spend too little time trying to figure out the text’s main idea and then are too little constrained to that one idea in the pulpit. It’s true, Reformed sermons often sound like running commentaries. They are usually chocked full of good theology and good information and they communicate many wonderful truths. But many of these sermons could accurately be titled, “A bunch of stuff I learned this week and want to tell you about.”
Robinson’s method is a helpful corrective to meandering messages that land on the congregation like a mist instead of penetrating the heart like a laser.
Biblical preaching requires both skill and faith. As Robinson reminds us, ministers are the only professionals who have people assemble weekly to hear what they have to say. “We preachers use words as tools, and we ought to use them with both thoughts and skill” (147). We can and should improve. That’s our challenge and our opportunity.
Thankfully, preaching is not just a human exercise. Just like the little boy with his fish burgers, Jesus can make a meal out of our meager offering. After all, “we serve the living Lord. Give him your small lunch and trust him to feed his people” (169).