Guiding Principles for Constructing a Sermon

Preaching (Part Three)

There are three broad areas of Bible study: exegesis, hermeneutics, and homiletics. Exegesis is the study of what the text meant. Homiletics is the study of communicating that message to today’s world. Hermeneutics is the interpretation of “what the text meant” to be able to say, “what the text means.”1

These terms, exegesis, hermeneutics, and homiletics are so closely related that they cannot be untangled. You cannot talk about one without relating it to the other. For example, we make hermeneutical decisions when deciding which exegetical approach to use. Some dispositions you will find helpful are:

  • Approach the text with intentional ignorance. Read the text aloud. Write down first impressions for it will often be the congregation’s first impressions. Write down what the text is doing – Will Willimon
  • Tom Long, in The Witness of Preaching, says the preacher goes to the text to find discovery, then presents that discovery to the congregation. Use the same process as used in your study. Discover, hear anew, maybe even recover/rediscover. Craddock: Find the “AHA” in the text. Re-present the “AHA” in the sermon.
  • James Sanders: If we read the Bible and conclude that it says what we always thought and are in general agreement with what we discovered, then, read it again because you probably missed the point. Sanders is pressing for epistemic humility.
  • Do not remove the scandal of the text. We often explain away the text in such a way that the offense is gone. This is an abuse of the text. Instead, stand in awe of the text. Stand in awe of our God.
  • Von Rad: Unwrapping a sermon is like dynamite. One string at a time, waiting for it to explode at any time.
  • Walter Brueggemann: Approach the text with playful obedience. Do not go anywhere until you deal with the authority of the text.
  • Approach the text in such a way that you believe it knows more than you do. Believe it contains the words of life. We are to be prejudiced on the side of the scriptures – a hermeneutic of expectation. I expect to hear a word from God.

Everyone does hermeneutics whether they know it or not. In some Christian circles, the idea of interpretation is a negative activity. However, interpretation is always happening. We are all making decisions about what is context-bound and what is eternally significant.

The following principles come from William Thompson’s, Preaching Biblically.

  • Principle of Simplicity: What is the clear, plain meaning of the text; the natural and obvious meaning? Do not bypass the obvious for some mystical deeper meaning. Know the figures of speech and cultural practices that inform the obvious plain meaning of the text.
  • Intentionality Principle: God intends something in this text. Why is this text here? What difference does it make if that word is heard or not? What was the circumstance that called that word into being? How does that word interpret us? The text addresses us. The text interprets us. The text intends to change our lives.
  • Correspondence Principle: Bring the message to today; bridging the gap. What do today’s hearers share with the original readers so that this text confronts them both? Is there a valid link between the Word God spoke and the word he wants to speak now?
  • Polarity Principle: What brought about this message? What are the opposing forces at work in this text? What are the tensions both explicit and implicit?
  • Contextuality Principle: Texts are not isolated but living systems. What is going on before and after this text? Historical, political, literary, theological, and cultural contexts.
  1. For my understanding of the recontextualization process of hermeneutics see “Wearing Trifocals: Reappropriating the Ancient Pulpit for the Twenty-first Century Pew,” 43-54, and “Reimagining the Future: Past Tense Words in a Present Tense World,” In Preaching Eighth Century Prophets, edited by David Fleer and Dave Bland, 199-233. Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2004.