The Preaching of John Broadus In Light of Biblical Theology – Part 2

Today, we run Part 2 of a two-part series (read part 1 here) 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.

By Demetrius Rogers

The Cause of Broadus’ Problem

The methodology of Broadus’s exegesis had limitations specific to his era. The primary emphasis of the exegesis of his day was on the meaning of words, with background information and word studies being the typical points of interest. Little to no attention was given to larger literary units. Therefore a text was often an isolated unit all its own. Broader themes and patterns, typical to biblical theology, were not a part of Broadus’ exegetical enterprise.

Broadus’ approach tended to be a mile deep and an inch wide. His fervor was spent on drilling into lexicons, grammars, and Bible dictionaries. And in so doing, the longitudinal themes and rhetorical patterns in Scripture were never referenced, let alone noticed. Broadus adopted more of a synchronic approach to historical inquiry, versus the diachronic endeavor characteristic of biblical theology.

While Broadus was laboring in Louisville, another younger scholar, by the name of Geerhardus Vos, was working out the details to his diachronically oriented theology in Grand Rapids. However, Vos’ landmark volume, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, was not published until 1948, more than fifty years after Broadus’s death.

It seems that the father of modern expository preaching had just missed the father of Reformed biblical theology. And it would be another fifty years before a new generation of scholars would bring the fruits of biblical theology to the expository enterprise that Broadus began, some hundred years prior.

Broadening Broadus: How a Redemptive Approach Could Have Helped

Broadus understood and appreciated the importance of context. He closely observed how passages fit into their chapter and book, and this helped his exegesis render a sharp and clear meaning. However, his contextualization never moved beyond the scope of the biblical book at hand. The redemptive approach could have helped him immensely, for it adds another contextual dimension: the canonical context, with its emphasis on broader redemptive patterns.

It was as if Broadus studied with a magnifying glass in hand, observing texts intently. But he could have benefited from putting that glass down to supplement his inquiry with the fish-eye lens as well. A fish-eye lens enables a person to acquire an ultra wide angle. That is the value of biblical theology (the fish-eye lens approach to Scripture): texts do not exist in isolation from the rest of canonical material. No book in the canon is a stand-alone, self-contained book; it depends on the other books of the canon for meaning. Giving heed to the redemptive context would have enriched Broadus’s interpretation of texts considerably.

As a result of not paying heed to the broad horizon of Scripture, Broadus tended to preach a doctrine-and-duty message. He cared deeply about presenting exactly what Scripture said (doctrine) and how it applied to our life (duty). However, this approach can incorrectly leave people in a position where they seek to obey in their own strength. Preachers must address the believer’s ability to perform the duty as well.

While a passage may call for obedience, the same passage (in light of redemptive history) also points to God’s provision for obedience, which is always sourced in the grace of God. Grace will always ignite new affections, and it is Christ’s love that compels us (2 Cor. 5:14). Because of this, we need to see the love of Christ in every sermon. This has a transforming and empowering effect. We love him, Scripture says, because he first loved us. Love is our great motivation. And just because a text does not repeat that truth does not mean that it is not there. Broadus could have looked to the redemptive context of a text and communicated the source of our obedience much more effectively. However, given his doctrine-and-duty approach and his oversight of a redemptive context, his sermons had a heavy, ethic-laden, moralistic quality to them.

Broadus did many things right in his sermons. He exegeted, explained, and applied the text. He preached the Word. But, he preached it in pieces. The highest point of the canonical terrain was conspicuously missing from many of his sermons. This exposes a vital lesson for us today: no matter how good we are at the exegesis, explanation, and application of a particular text – we must not forget the broader context of the gospel.

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