John Broadus and the Importance of Doctrinal Preaching
John Albert Broadus (1827-1895) was one of the most dynamic American Baptist preachers of the nineteenth century. The pastor-turned-professor preached consistently for over forty years and developed a reputation for being a powerful communicator. A. T. Robertson, the famous Greek grammarian and son-in-law of Broadus, heard “Beecher and Phillips Brooks, Maclaren, Joseph Parker and Spurgeon, John Hall and Moody, John Clifford and David Lloyd George” preach, yet he declared, “At his best and in a congenial atmosphere Broadus was the equal of any man I have ever heard.” E. C. Dargan agreed, “As a preacher John A. Broadus was one of the greatest of his age and country.” By all accounts, Broadus was a preacher par excellence.
Not only was Broadus a great preacher, he was also a seasoned educator. He trained hundreds of young men to preach during his tenure as professor of New Testament Interpretation and Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His classic textbook on preaching, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, had an even wider reach, shaped thousands of preachers, and provided the framework for a distinctly Baptist homiletic. Al Fasol credited Broadus with writing “the oldest, most continuously used book on homiletics in the history of Christendom.” Although the book is not widely used today, preachers can still glean much from the writing of Broadus. His emphasis on doctrinal preaching – grounded in Scripture, derived from sound exegesis, and centered on Christ – is worthy of emulation.
Broadus was an outspoken advocate for doctrinal preaching. In his textbook, he discussed the classification of subjects for preaching, and doctrine was the first subject addressed. The placement was not accidental. He wanted preachers to commit to delivering doctrinally rich sermons. Broadus wrote, “Doctrine, i.e. teaching, is the preacher’s chief business. . . . The facts and truths which belong to the Scripture account of Sin, Providence and Redemption, form the staple of all Scriptural preaching.” Note the central role of doctrine in his homiletic. Broadus did not simply say preachers should communicate doctrine in their sermons; he said doctrine is their “chief business” and forms “the staple of all Scriptural preaching.” Broadus specifically mentioned the doctrines of sin, providence, redemption, atonement, repentance, regeneration, and the great doctrines of the Gospel as important subjects to cover in preaching.
Broadus’s comments on doctrinal preaching are as timely today as they were when they were written. Much of contemporary preaching lacks doctrinal depth. Rather than declaring the deep things of God, preachers often focus on human problems and offer practical advice. The need to be “relevant” and “engaging” has driven many preachers away from doctrinal exposition to moralistic exhortation. A recovery of sound doctrinal exposition is needed. I echo Broadus’s sentiment: “The preacher who can make doctrinal truth interesting as well as intelligible to his congregation, and gradually bring them to a good acquaintance with the doctrines of the Bible, is rendering them an inestimable service.”
Grounded in Scripture
Broadus insisted preaching should be doctrinally rich, but he also insisted preaching should be grounded in Scripture. Doctrinal preaching is only effective if it’s rooted in the biblical text. Click To Tweet In fact, Broadus argued all preaching should be rooted in the biblical text. He wrote, “The primary idea is that the discourse is a development of the text, an explanation, illustration, application, of its teachings. Our business is to teach God’s word.” Preaching sound doctrine requires commitment to the biblical text. The sermon should develop the text and draw attention to doctrinal truths contained therein.
Again, Broadus’s instructions are timely. Today, many sermons are topical or thematic, and they often lack biblical support. The preacher may quote several verses, but no real attempt is made to explain, illustrate, or apply the biblical text under consideration. In short, there is a real need for biblical grounded, doctrinally rich preaching. Preachers need to commit to preaching the biblical text. Their sermons should develop the text through explanation, illustration, and application. Their business is “to teach God’s Word.” May they do it well.
Derived from Sound Exegesis
It was not enough for preachers to simply base a sermon on a biblical text, though. Broadus was convinced doctrinal sermons must also be derived from sound exegesis. In other words, the biblical text must be properly interpreted. Broadus chastised the preachers of his day for claiming biblical passages meant something they did not actually mean. The goal of preaching is to accurately communicate the real meaning of the text, according to Broadus. He wrote, “To interpret and apply his text in accordance with its real meaning, is one of the preacher’s most sacred duties.” He urged them to refrain from selecting a text and then misrepresenting it. He said it would “be better to have no text than one with which the subject has only a fanciful or forced connection.” To help preachers avoid misinterpreting the biblical text, Broadus provided six hermeneutical principles to guide their exegesis: (1) grammatical interpretation, (2) “logical” interpretation, by which Broadus meant to consider the context, (3) historical interpretation, (4) figurative interpretation, (5) allegorical interpretation, and (6) consistent interpretation, by which Broadus meant Scripture should help interpret Scripture. His goal was to aid preachers in rightly interpreting Scripture and discerning the actual meaning of the text.
Preachers today must commit to sound exegesis. The doctrinal content of their sermons should be the result of a thorough study of the biblical text and consistent application of solid hermeneutical principles. Preachers must avoid “contented ignorance,” “careless neglect,” and “wild spiritualizing of plain words” in their interpretation of Scripture. Instead, they must prioritize proper interpretation and accurate communication of the meaning of the text. Preachers who claim to preach from a biblical text “are solemnly bound to represent the text as meaning precisely what it does mean,” and this only happens by laboring to properly interpret the passage on which the sermon is based. Preachers should labor towards this end.
Centered on Jesus Christ
Broadus also emphasized the importance of preaching Christ. No sermon was complete without highlighting the person and work of Jesus Christ, whom Broadus described as “the central figure of the Bible” and “the chief theme of Scripture.” This was true of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. Broadus argued preachers could not understand the Old Testament apart from Christ. He wrote:
The holy Scriptures of the Old Testament are never half understood except as they are seen in light of Christ Jesus. They all pointed forward to Christ Jesus; they all found their fulfillment, the key to their interpretation, in Christ Jesus. The Old Testament history is not merely a history of some wandering patriarchs and of a strange, wayward people of wonderful powers and wonderful propensities to evil. It is not merely a history of Israel. The Old Testament is a history of redemption, of God’s mightiness and mercies, and of a chosen nation, all along toward the promised, long-looked-for time when God’s Son should come to be the Saviour of mankind. We cannot understand the Old Testament, except we read it in its bearing upon Christ, as fulfilled in him.
In short, Broadus believed Christ was the lens through which Scripture should be interpreted, and a failure to interpret Scripture in light of Christ was a failure to properly interpret Scripture.
Thankfully, there has been a resurgence in Christ-centered preaching in the last several decades. Men like Edmund Clowney, Bryan Chapell, Sidney Greidanus, Graeme Goldsworthy, and Tim Keller have written and advocated for preaching Christ from all of Scripture. Yet, Broadus pushed for Christ-centered preaching over a century ago. Contemporary preachers would do well to listen to his voice and commit to declaring the glorious of Christ from every passage and in every sermon.
Broadus shaped a generation of preachers through his teaching, and he shaped several generations of preachers through his writing. Today, however, he is largely forgotten. My prayer is that his instructions regarding doctrinal preaching will be heard and heeded once again. May a new generation of men commit to doctrinal preaching that is grounded in the text, derived from sound exegesis, and centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ!