By Rev. Charles S. Robinson, D.D.
Preliminary.—If any parts of the New Testament are capable of an expository treatment, the Gospels would seem specially adapted to it. They are made up of episodes which are at the same time related and independent, and capable, therefore, of a treatment in a course of expositions as well as in distinct and separate sermons. If what is suggested on another page2 be correct, it is possible and eminently advisable to make the whole of any one Gospel the subject of a single discourse. Why? Because it is not merely a chronicle, but is organized about a few ideas, if not indeed but one controlling thought. Canon Farrar has done just this in his " Messages of the Books " in an admirable way worthy of study and imitation. If he has erred or partially failed, it is in making his sermons too scholarly. But it is possible, also, to handle, in an expository way, sections from these Gospels, and here is the material with which most of those who practice expository preaching begin and in which they feel most at home. It may be worth while to devote a portion of our space to the study of some expository work on the Gospels.
The Material.—The book chosen as the basis of criticism and suggestion is a series of sermons, published a few months ago by an eminent preacher. A brief preface informs the reader that "in character they are meant to be plain expository sermons, with illustrations and enforcements easily joined together." One may expect, then, to find here the writer's idea of what an expository sermon is. A glance at the contents reveals a series of twenty-eight discourses, beginning with " Beginnings of the Gospel" and closing with " Lessons at the Sepulchre." It is an endeavor to cover the whole Gospel of Mark in a series of sermons, and will afford an illustration of both the methods mentioned above. Manifestly, a r6sum6 of its contents would occupy too much space. The student, if he has the book in hand, can follow closely the analysis and criticism which will here be given. And though, without it, he must be content with our condensed remarks, he will be greatly profited by accompanying these outlines with an independent study and comparison of the Gospel itself.
Analysis of the Material.—This analysis will follow the two lines of treatment which, as has already been said, find their place in the work. There is both the discussion of passages taken in regular order, proceeding through the Gospel from beginning to end, and also a detailed treatment of particular sections as they are reached in the course of the more general survey.
First, the question may be asked, What is given as an exposition of the Gospel as a whole? Manifestly a statement of the contents of the entire series of twenty-eight discourses would be as unnecessary as it is impossible in the limits of this brief article. It is sufficient for all purposes simply to indicate the passages treated in the three first sermons, which fairly represent the method adopted throughout. The introductory discourse has as its text Mark 1:1. The following one takes up Mark 1:2. The third considers Mark 1:34. No exposition or discussion is given of the intervening verses. As the writer proceeds in his work, he is found to make many such omissions, even to the extent of passing over entire chapters, while on the other hand several sermons are found to be devoted to the consideration of single verses in the same chapter.
Secondly, the character of these discourses as expositions of particular sections or passages of Scripture may be analyzed. Take the twenty-fifth discourse, which is a fair example of all. It considers Mark 14:55-65, and is entitled Misunderstood to the End. Its main points are summarized as follows:
A careful observation of the above outline shows that the preacher has grouped the scripture material in the section treated under one general head, viz., "misunderstanding." Each verse is made to contribute something to this main topic. The result is a clear, compact and definite discussion. The same may be said of nearly all the sermons under review. They are admirably organized and seem to introduce in the course of the discussion the larger part of the scripture material of each passage treated.
Criticisms.—Bearing in mind the characteristics of the sermons as a whole and as particular independent discussions, we may proceed to the task, which, if less agreeable, may be equally profitable, of making some criticisms upon their form and method.
1. The analysis of what is given by the writer as an exposition of the Gospel of Mark as a whole in this series of sermons proves clearly that his endeavor must be acknowledged a failure. After one has read them all through thoughtfully, he is left with no distinct apprehension of the meaning, contents, and purpose of this Gospel. The discourses might have been founded on Luke or Matthew, except so far as they are labeled with a text from Mark, or now and then discuss passages peculiar to him. Exception might reasonably be taken to the frequent and large omissions of passages, as noted in the analysis. Should it be replied that not all the material is equally important and that a selection of passages was necessary, this may be allowed, provided that a principle of selection is followed which has its basis in the evangelist's material. No such principle is found governing the selections of the preacher. How, indeed, could this be claimed when, following the second sermon, discussing Mark 1:2, comes a study of Mark 1:34, events so fundamental to this Gospel and to its controlling ideas as the baptism, temptation, first preaching of Jesus, and calling of disciples being passed over almost without a word? As sermons expository of the Gospel of Mark they would seem to be far from accomplishing their purpose.
2. But what may be said of the exposition of the particular sections of the Gospel, one of which has been analyzed? It was noted as a commendable feature of that outline, that it grouped the scripture verses about a single thought, " Misunderstanding." Yet here it must be asked, Was this the thought of the evangelist in the passage in question? If it is not, the sermon, as an exposition, is a failure. And when the passage is studied, no such thought is found to be the fundamental and dominant teaching there. It is there, no doubt, but not as the central idea, the prominent truth designed to be conveyed as the lesson of the passage. Here, again, a failure must be recorded in the endeavor to expound a section of the Gospel in its meaning and purpose.
3. It is possible now to lay bare the secret of the failure. What has impaired the value of these discourses as expository sermons is this, that they are expositions of a particular thought or subject which the preacher lights upon in the passage, not an exposition of the passage itself. The reader cannot fail to notice this fact in the discourse already outlined above. The same thing can be observed in any of the others, as, for example, in the third sermon, entitled, "A Day in Capernaum," where the work done and the words said during that eventful day, are not considered; but the subject of the miracles of Jesus is discussed with the use of this particular section merely as illustrative material. It is evident that a method of treatment like this not only fails to satisfy the expository demands of the individual passage, but will result in no adequate development of the entire Gospel. No combination of independent selections dealt with upon so vicious a method can produce a harmonious, progressive, unified whole.
Conclusion.—This criticism discloses an important fact, namely, that " expository preaching" is sometimes made to include the exposition of a theme or a thought. This is a conception which is not to be regarded as legitimate. Exposition in the true sense is concerned primarily with the scripture passage, not with any subject for discussion which may arise out of the passage. Expository studies in any Gospel consider what is the meaning of the Scripture and its application to life. Whoever gets a good idea and finds it congruous with a Gospel passage, and so proceeds to illustrate it by that and other passages, will scarcely be able to turn out more vigorous and more beautiful work than this of Dr. Robinson—but he has not yet begun to produce an expository sermon.
1) STUDIES IN MARK'S GOSPEL. By Rev. Charles S. Robinson, D.D. New York:The American Tract Society. Pp. 299. Price $1.25.
2) See page 114.