The Preaching of John Broadus In Light of Biblical Theology

By Demetrius Rogers

Today, we run Part 1 of a two-part series exploring the homiletic approach of John Broadus, a prominent Southern Baptist figure. In this series, biblical theology is used as a lens through which to critique Broadus’ preaching.


Introduction: The Life of John Broadus (1827-1895)

While the prince of preachers was proclaiming the gospel in London (Charles Spurgeon), there was another prince busy expounding Scripture in the village churches of Virginia and Kentucky. His name was John Broadus – preacher, teacher, and confederate army chaplain. In 1859 he was instrumental in the founding of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

A few years later, during the civil war, the school had to close its doors, as Broadus served as a chaplain in the confederate army. On one occasion he preached to more than 5,000 of Robert E. Lee’s men at one time. And upon the close of the war, he returned to the classroom and stayed at the school for 30 years until his death.

Broadus was a tireless worker and his contributions are still recognized in the modern era. His book, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (1870), became for many decades the most popular text on homiletics in the world, and it is still used in some schools today.

So central to the legacy of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was Broadus that he has been memorialized in its literary tradition. Along with his colleague, Basil Manly, Broadus’s name was combined to form the first word of Southern’s publishing company, Broadman & Holman.

The Strength of Broadus’ Homiletic Approach

As a minister, John Broadus established preaching as his primary duty and would not accept every pressing need as his own. Upon his election as the pastor of his first church he wrote a letter to his new congregation indicating,

As to visiting and the kindred pastoral duties, I am wholly exempted from them as a regular duty. I will visit among the members, especially the poor and the sick, to whatever extent I may find it in my power.

In so doing, he guarded adequate space to give the text his undivided attention.

Broadus built his preaching enterprise upon the idea of sound exegesis, rightly making him the father of expository preaching in America. If preaching was not based on sound exegesis, then Broadus would not consider it rightful preaching. In his Lectures on the History of Preaching he chided Luther for his love of allegorizing, but praised Calvin for the,

soundest, clearest expositions of Scripture that had been seen for a thousand years . . . Especially at a time when direct and exact knowledge of Scripture was a most attractive and refreshing novelty.

In his words, one can easily detect the value he placed on sound exegesis. In his classic book, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, Broadus said, that “using a text . . . [a preacher] is solemnly bound to represent the text as meaning precisely what it does mean.”

Broadus was a staunch proponent of authorial intention. Along with Calvin, Chrysostom was his other source of inspiration for this reason. Chrysostom was of the Antiochene School of hermeneutics, which held a high regard for the literal interpretation of Scripture. Dennis Johnson, in speaking of the Antiochene School in his book, In Him We Preach, sums it up well, “The Preacher who seeks to serve the Word submits his expository reflection to the restraining discipline of biblical texts’ original contexts.”

Antioch’s rival school of interpretation was Alexandria, of which Origen was its infamous representative. Origen had a great penchant for allegorizing a text. Broadus thought this to be a “perverse and absurd ingenuity.” He said in his History of Preaching,

Men who held to a deep, esoteric sense, which only the few could understand, who, like the Gnostics, regarded themselves as a sort of spiritual aristocracy, would not only neglect to bring forth and supply the plain teachings of Scripture, but they habitually made light of these teachings, and cared mainly for such hearers as could soar with them into the ‘misty mid-regions’ of allegorizing.

Broadus, therefore, insisted that the preacher ought to base his sermons on exacting exegesis. This was his unbending devotion.

The Problem with Broadus’ Homiletic Approach

Although Broadus is considered the great architect of American exposition, his approach fails to adequately consider canonical context. His method of exegesis advocates a close consideration of the text at hand, its immediate context, and the context of the book. He does make mention of “general historical knowledge,” but what he means by this is simply knowing facts of geography, manners, and customs. He makes mention of “general teachings of Scripture,” but this amounts to nothing more than systematic theology – a collating of similar types of doctrines.  But, context is a part of the text. And although Broadus considers two levels of context (chapter and book), he does not expand his contextual considerations to the level of the entire canon.

When looking at a text he tended to suffer from a case of myopia. Near-sightedly, he did not recognize the larger themes running through Scripture. In short, there is no biblical theology. And since there is no biblical theology, in Broadus’s approach, there is no redemptive context either.  Broadus did not think in terms of a redemptive context and it shows up in his sermons.

In Vernon Stanfield’s collection of 21 of Broadus’s sermons, curiously only 2 were drawn from the Old Testament (the texts being Psalm 40:8 and Proverbs 3:17). And unfortunately, neither sermon could be considered redemptive or Christ-centered.

  • In his sermon on Psalm 40:8, entitled, “Delight in the Will of God,” countless imperatives (in the form of ‘should’ and ‘do’) were present and not one indicative. Not one! It was a straight appeal to do better – a sermon which would fare quite well in a Jewish synagogue.
  • The sermon on Proverbs 3:17, entitled “The Pleasures of Piety,” strikes a similar tone, with not one reference to Christ. His central thesis in this sermon is that piety is the source of happiness. And I quote Broadus, “Piety makes our worship, both public and private, pleasant.” Piety is the source of happiness and pleasure?
  • This type of moralism can even be seen in his sermons drawn from the New Testament. A sermon based on 1 Thessalonians 5:18, entitled, “The Habit of Thankfulness,” could have struck some clearer notes of grace. However, “thankfulness” as a virtue, in and of itself, seemed to be extolled instead of, perhaps, “thankfulness” as a response to the goodness and grace of God.

Most of his sermons (in this collection at least) seemed to place the responsibility upon the individual. The sermons were exhortations to fly right and work harder. They seemed to be aimed at behavior, with virtually no appeal to grace. Broadus may have attempted to honor the text, but without a grace orientation (which comes from the context of redemption) the sermons went sideways. He honored authorial intention by consulting the local context, but perhaps missed the divine intention by neglecting the trajectories of redemptive history.


Demetrius Rogers (Th.M.) currently serves as the Director of Admissions and as an Online Instructor at Western Seminary.