There’s no doubt that, at least within Reformed churches, this is an age of expository preaching—of preaching sequentially through books of the Bible while always ensuring that the point of the text is the point of the sermon. Yet you do not need to look far into history to find that it was not always so and that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such preaching was rare. I was intrigued by Bob Fyall’s explanation of how expository preaching became not only accepted but expected. Because he writes from an English and Scottish perspective he focuses on that side of the Atlantic, but it does not take a lot of work to fill in the details for North America. (I share this excerpt from Why Are We Often So Boring? with the publisher’s permission.)
The Revival of Expository Preaching
A feature of the Reformation was a flood of expository sermons with the likes of Calvin, Luther and Melanchthon preaching systematically through biblical books as well as writing commentaries. That tradition was somewhat lost in succeeding centuries. Not that there was no faithful preaching, but that figures such as Charles Spurgeon tended to preach on texts rather than unfolding books and sections of the Bible in continuous exposition. We’ll return to this point later.
The English Scene
A significant figure here was the former doctor, Martyn Lloyd Jones, particularly in his ministry at Westminster Chapel, London from 1939 to 1969, having earlier ministered in Wales. He preached truly massive series on Romans and Ephesians which were a veritable feast of biblical truth, but such length prevented him giving many other expositions of biblical books, particularly from the Old Testament. This was not altogether a helpful model for those of lesser gifts in very different situations.
Also in London there was the hugely influential ministry of John Stott. His ministry at All Souls established expository preaching as the regular practice. Later he developed a worldwide ministry which has continuing influence. He worked closely with Billy Graham and took part in countless student missions. His style was lucid, and he had particular gifts of biblical analysis shown in his commentaries as well as his sermons. A further legacy is his editing of the New Testament Bible Speaks Today series (Alec Motyer edited the Old Testament series) which continue to be of particular help to preachers. Alec Motyer continued his preaching and writing to the great benefit of the Church until his death in his nineties. Both men contributed some of the volumes themselves, as well as much else.
The dispute between Lloyd Jones and Stott in 1966 over whether evangelicals should leave mainline denominations is well known. This is not the place for yet another account of that meeting, except to say that it is a thousand pities they were not able to work more closely together.
A further hugely influential development took place in 1961 when Dick Lucas was called to St Helen’s Bishopsgate in the City of London. He immediately set about establishing expository preaching, not only in the Sunday services but also in the Tuesday lunchtime services, attended by many from the business community. The church grew and became increasingly influential. The Proclamation Trust was founded in 1986 to support and develop Dick Lucas’ ministry.
An important development was the founding of the Cornhill Training Course in 1991. Even good theological colleges were not providing extensive training in preaching and something which placed the emphasis on biblical exposition was badly needed. David Jackman, coming from a fruitful expository ministry in Southampton, was appointed Director. The influence of Cornhill has extended to other countries (later we’ll look at Cornhill Scotland), and many have gone from such training to exercise helpful and flourishing ministries in many places.
Doubtless, other names and situations could be mentioned but there is no attempt to be comprehensive here but rather to indicate the growth and development of expository preaching and give credit where credit is due.
The Scottish Scene
Meanwhile, in Scotland, parallel developments were taking place. The pioneer there was William Still (1911-1997) who spent his whole ministry at Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen. Beginning with an aggressively evangelistic ministry, he turned to expository preaching not only to build up believers but as a more effective way of winning outsiders. This, at first, especially when he replaced Saturday night rallies with a prayer meeting, led to reduced numbers but that was temporary, and the ministry grew both numerically and in its wider influence.
One significant outcome of his ministry was the calling of many men to similar kinds of ministry throughout Scotland. The earliest of these was James Philip (1922-2009) who ministered first in the village of Gardenstown in the north of Scotland, a ministry which was marked by many conversions, and of others being called to Christian service. His later ministry in Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh was one of the most significant of the later part of the twentieth century and its influence is still felt. James’ brother George had an influential ministry in Sandyford Henderson Church in Glasgow. One of the more notable preachers was Eric Alexander, first in Newmilns in Ayrshire, then at St George’s Tron in Glasgow. His ministry also reached widely, particularly though his many preaching tours in America. Other gifted preachers also ministered in most parts of the country, and this continues to the present day. This historical sketch makes no claim to be complete but rather to demonstrate how there was a significant revival of preaching and to indicate some of the major figures and developments.
The Flourishing of Evangelical Scholarship
This was another feature of the post-World War Two years. Again this is a sketch of some significant figures and developments. The work of evangelical scholars gave important impetus to the production of resources which encouraged the expository task and helped to give preachers confidence in the reliability of the Bible.
Probably the most significant figure was F.F. Bruce (1910-1990), a Scot who spent most of his professional life in England. He was a man of enormous erudition who began his career lecturing in Greek first at Edinburgh University and then at Leeds University. He moved quickly to Biblical Studies, being Head of Department first at Sheffield University and later at Manchester University. He produced many books: commentaries on much of the New Testament as well as works on the canon and on the historicity of the New Testament. He was not a particularly scintillating speaker or writer, but his work was marked by great clarity and was free from jargon. His influence was worldwide and encouraged many others to pursue sound biblical scholarship. He was a scholar rather than a preacher, but as a lifelong member of the Christian Brethren he preached frequently.
In the Old Testament field, Donald Wiseman (1918-2010) was a significant influence. He was an Assyriologist and worked both at the University of London and the British Museum. Much of his work was in translating Assyrian texts and also field archaeology. However, he was also a committed biblical scholar, writing the Tyndale commentary on 1 and 2 Kings, as well as being a translator of the New International Version. He also wrote many books and articles defending the historicity and reliability of the Old Testament, including work on Daniel. Like Bruce he was widely respected by those who did not share his views.
One important consequence of the revival of evangelical biblical scholarship was the founding of Tyndale House in Cambridge in 1944. This was, and is, a residential library devoted to scholarship at the highest level. Many well-known scholars have studied and lectured there, and this continues to the present day. Bruce and Wiseman were involved early in this venture and much helpful material continues to be produced there. One figure who has been particularly associated with Tyndale House is the scholar/preacher Don Carson who still exercises an influential ministry.
(TC: That is an interesting though obviously brief account of something we may now take for granted. On this side of the Atlantic we would need to consider names like James Montgomery Boice, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, John Piper and many others who practiced and modeled such preaching. I am thankful for these pioneers in expository preaching and for the scholars who have prepared the lay-level resources that make it possible for those of us with lesser gifts and training.)