The Preaching of John Broadus in Light of Biblical Theology

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


Broadus, Considered the Father of Expository Preaching in America

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 is still used in some schools today. So central to the legacy of Southern 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’s 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.


John Calvin (1509-1564)

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 of Broadus’s Homiletic Approach

Although Broadus is considered the great architect of American exposition, his approach, and subsequently sermons, fails to canonical context. His approach to 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. Again he makes mention of ‘general teachings of Scripture,’ but what this amounts to is 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.

near sightednessWhen 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,” strike 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 exhortation 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.

The Cause of Broadus’s 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. Richard Melick, professor of New Testament at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, distinguishes two general types of exegesis: structural and literary. Structural exegetes typically focus their attention on the analysis of words, grammar, and syntax. Literary exegetes (from a more recent school of thought) pay closer attention to patterns and rhetorical devices utilized by the author. Melick points out that, “Broadus’s world was a world of structural exegesis” where background information and word studies were the typical points of interest. Little to no attention was given to the concept of macro units. Therefore a text was often an isolated unit all of its own. Larger themes and patterns (typical to biblical theology) were not a part of Broadus’s exegetical enterprise.

drillingThere are different styles of methodology. Some approaches appear to be a mile wide and an inch deep. It could be said of Broadus, however, that his 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 were never referenced, let alone noticed. It seems like John Broadus’s temperament and needs (and even tools) of his day caused him to adopt more of a synchronic approach to historical inquiry. Yet, biblical theology is a diachronic endeavor.

Broadus was a man of his times. He did not get to enjoy the fruits that the field of Biblical Theology yielded. 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. And Vos’s landmark volume entitled, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments was not published until 1948, more than fifty years after Broadus’s death. So 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.  In all fairness to Broadus, that is the nature of a father; he would clear the way so that his children could go farther. Broadus may not have trafficked in biblical theology, but those who do, in part, stand on his shoulders.

Broadening Broadus: How a Redemptive Approach Could Have Helped

The Redemptive approach broadens the context of any passage. Context is the fundamental criterion of interpreting any unit of discourse.  But, separate text from the context and meaning becomes a vaporous cloud. Broadus understood and appreciated this well. His insistence of closely observing the context (chapter and book) helped his exegesis render a sharp and clear meaning. But as we have seen, his contextualization never moved beyond the scope of the biblical book at hand. That is why the redemptive approach could have helped him immensely for it adds another dimension of context – the canonical context, or shall we say the redemptive context.

nikon-fisheye_03It 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. This could have enabled Broadus to see how a text such as Psalm 40:8 had a much richer and fuller meaning in light of the full scope of redemption. As was mentioned earlier, his sermon feigned as if the new covenant never occurred. However, in light of Jeremiah 31:33, Ezekiel 36:26-27, Luke 22:20, and the New Testament fulfillment of a regenerated heart in Christ Psalm 40:8 should take on new meaning for the believer, which Broadus never drew out.  Instead of preaching imperatives (should’s and do’s) he could have preached grace that culminated in Christ. We have new hearts because of God’s grace revealed in Christ and because of that we may delight to do his will!

Fish eye view of NYC

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. Psalms (or any other book in the canon) is not a stand-alone, self-contained book; it depends on the other books of the canon for meaning. Bryan Chapell explains that “Biblical Theology is not simply asking what truth does this particular passage reveal but how is it revealed to the whole message of Scripture” (emphasis mine). 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), but as we shall contemplate, this leaves people on their own. Preachers may say the right things, but not ‘right’ enough if they do not talk about the believer’s ability to perform the duty. While a passage may call for our obedience, the same passage (in light of redemptive history) also points to God’s provision to obey. This provision is always sourced in the grace of God. And grace will always ignite new affection. 2 Corinthians 5:14 says it well: Christ’s love compels us. So 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 truth is not there. Broadus could have looked to the redemptive context of a text and communicated the source of our obedience much more effectively. Bryan Chapell asks a great question of the would-be preacher: “With whom will they walk out the door? Me, myself and I, or their Savior?” Preaching only imperatives sends them out of the door with only themselves.

Also as we have seen, Broadus was a big proponent of applying the text to the life of the believer. However, given his doctrine-and-duty approach (or at least his oversight of a redemptive context) his sermons had a heavy quality to them. Though at the outset this impulse to apply sermons seems commendable, it has the tendency to make sermons ethic-laden and moralistic if the gospel is not permeating the presentation. Dennis Johnson defines moralism this way: “[It is the] practice of issuing ethical demands without grounding them in the gospel or showing how they are integral to a grateful response to the redemptive work of God in Christ.” It is not that Broadus was doing the wrong thing in any of his sermons. Far from it. He exegeted the text, explained the text, 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 portraits of the Bible. And unfortunately, ignoring the gospel, at any one point, fragments the Word. So as Broadus excavated the Bible, one piece at a time, he applied to the people exactly what he found (“do, don’t, should, must”) while forgetting, it would seem, that Christ already took that application and fulfilled it Himself. So instead of these direct applications of morals, Broadus could have instead celebrated the fulfillment of these morals in the perfect obedience of Christ and its corresponding significance to us.


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