Rhetoric & Homiletics: What Has Gone So Wrong?

why 2Why?


The Simple Answer :
Ecclesiastes 12:12
And Solomon Didn’t Know The Half Of It!

Why has so much been written and continues to be written on the subject of biblical preaching and teaching?

Why is there such a deluge of books, articles, blogs, magazines, seminars, conferences, webinars, podcasts, and online classes — after years and years of such materials  — after the supposedly definitive books and volumes – (such as John Broadus*) which address preaching?

√  Hasn’t it all be said?
√  What more can a person say which hasn’t been already covered?
√  What is left to say even in 2019?
√  Is Preaching the Word that difficult & different in 2019?
√  Do we really need another book on preaching?
√  Why are so many like each other? (I can almost tell you the chapter titles.)
√  Has someone something to say which is really that different?
√  Another seminar on improving ministry in the pulpit!  Really!
√  Will another book finally address the issues?
√  Where did homiletics take a wrong turn?


T. David Gordon (Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College)
states in his book, “Why Johnny Can’t Preach,“*** . . . . .

“The average pastor (“Johnny”)
cannot preach a good sermon.”



√  Homiletics must have taken a wrong turn!  Is that not a fair inference?


Somewhere there must be a vacuum, a hole, a gap, an unrealized aspiration!

Something must not have been clearly or adequately addressed by all those authors who are writing about homiletics and preaching.

Somehow the preachers-teachers still aren’t getting it and it is going to require another person to take a stab at it and get them on track!

Somewhere what needs to be said hasn’t been said or isn’t being heard!

Somehow the seminary professors, the teaching professionals, have failed at teaching preaching after being enrolled for three years.

Someone in the publishing business can’t find a modern-day “John Broadus” who can provide something even close to a definite work on homiletical instruction.


There are a few homiletical “books” (I use “book” as shorthand for the various avenues mentioned above.) which are recognized as significantly contributing to the discussion of homiletics. You hear the author’s name or the title of this-or-that book repeated by a variety of preachers!  Their book on preaching is seen as valuable, beneficial, and even a homiletical game changer (such as “Biblical Preaching” by Haddon Robinson**)!  but for a reason!


Their book on preaching is seen as valuable, beneficial, even a homiletical game changer! 

but for a reason! —


They provide something that many and most books on preaching do not offer! 

They offer a “rhetorical perspective.” 

While some might not appreciate the term “rhetorical,” because “rhetoric” calls up the idea of the manipulation of others by the use of words — an “Elmer Gantry” connotation.

Nevertheless, the fact is that the books, articles, seminars which are most valuable, oft-recommended and purchased time and time again — come from a rhetorical vantage — whether or not the writer or seminar speaker realizes, grasps, or understands that.

Own a home long enough and you will learn a lot about maintenance and repair — a lot about which some have published “Do It Yourself” manuals about.  You may not understand the thinking and theory behind what you are doing, but you can still carry out the repair. . . .

“Put the purple liquid on the PVC joint before you apply the glue.”

Doing that does not require that you know what the purple stuff is or why you should do that.

AND you can write a book on maintenance and repair after years of home ownership and repair.  In fact, if you have bought enough used cars, you might be able to produce your own “Do It Yourself” car manual for dummies.

And many a preacher can write a “book” on preaching / homiletics after years of preaching!  Indeed, many have!

Many are unprofitable.
A good number are mildly helpful.
Many are repetitive.
A few explain-develop a side of sermonizing that is interestingly helpful!
Some charge good money for what they have to say!


However, the best and most beneficial books on home or car repair are written by those who . . . .

•  know and understand on a deeper level
•  grasp why this-or-that does or does not work
•  know the typical mistakes made
•  the reason why you have to or should
•  grasp what is being said when you . . . .
•  how best to explain the process
•  why saying it that was gives the idea that . . . .


Chilton’s manual is “Chilton’s” for a reason!

There are a lot of books out there on car repair!
A lot of “Youtube How To Do It Videos” online you can watch.

Many are unprofitable.
A good number are mildly helpful.
Many are repetitive.
A few explain-develop a side of repair that is interestingly helpful!
Some charge good money for what they have to say!


However, there is a reason Chilton’ manual is still around and selling!


What Separates Out The Various Books On Preaching?

What separates out some books is their rhetorical vantage.  There are some authors who understand the classical underpinning of communication and are not warded off by the mistaken belief that somehow faithful preaching & biblical theology are at odds with also improving one’s grasp of the process and principles of communication — of “rhetorical theory.”

As Paul Tripp states,

“It is important to understand the two essential parts of effective preaching and how each requires its own discipline of preparation. . . . . Preaching is not just a craft of content; it is also a craft of communication . . . . I am persuaded that we have devalued the communication aspect of powerful, effective, life-changing, gospel preaching.”

While Tripp has not yet written a book on the subject of preaching, he reveals that he understands that there is a rhetorical element to preaching and teaching!

Why did Haddon Robinson’s books, classes, seminars, articles, interviews, and speaking situations find such an audience — to this day?  I saw it first hand.  In 1982 I was on the speaking venue with him.  I was invited to speak at a conference in Perryville, Massachusetts along with Dr. Haddon Robinson.  I spoke after Dr. Robinson and would be hard-pressed today to remember the passage I spoke on — ( I know — “on which I spoke”).  However, I still remember the passage and much of the message which was preached by Dr. Robinson. It was Psalm 73, and I could almost write out some parts of that message yet today!  Why?  Because he understood that there is more than the theological-biblical!  There is the rhetorical!

Individuals like Haddon Robinson come from a classical-rhetorical vantage.  Robinson didn’t devalue the communication aspect — the rhetorical elements of preaching.  He understood that there is a body of public speaking theory which can and will benefit those who spend their lives communicating!

Many can write on preaching from a theological perspective — a perspective that most pastors have been taught in seminary but which lacks the classical rhetorical theory component.  After years of speaking, pastor and preachers may write a book on homiletics / preaching. However, too often they are writing from a theological or an experience perspective — but not both.

Theologically: The Bible is not a book on communication theory, no more than it is a book on science — though it includes both those topics.

Experientially:  You can and do learn (or unlearn) a lot by speaking experience!  Nevertheless, you may not know or understand enough to pass it on adequately.  A great football player is not necessarily a great coach.

The result . . . .

#1) a lot of “books”  — by those who do a lot of speaking and are primarily theologically oriented. 

#2) a good number of bad “books” —  by those who live in the world of “public speaking” — and see secular public speaking and preaching as identical twins!  Who discount the inherent power of the Word, the working of the Holy Spirit, the cooperation of God, and his commitment to a coming kingdom!

#3) a few good “books” —  by those who have lived in both worlds and like Paul Tripp and Haddon Robinson can keep the balance!


Unfortunately, some decry the idea that good-to-great preaching should be connected to rhetorical ability.  Such disparage and diminish some of the really great communicators like Andy Stanley (some will bristle at that — just saying), Tony Evans, Alistair Begg, Lloyd-Jones.

Read Andy Stanley‘s book (and/or others) and see WHY he is so effective. He understands the communication process!

But you don’t have to.  There are a lot of options!  There is a host of typical homiletical books which reiterate, repeat, cover & recover, and “hearse”(no such word except in reference to a funeral home — so there may be a connection after all) and rehearse the well-trodden, impractical terrain of preaching.

Equally unfortunate is the increased probability that such preachers-teachers will be mediocre-to-terrible communicators of the King and His coming kingdom!

The best of both worlds is to grab ahold of biblical truth and rhetorical principles, concepts, techniques, methodologies, etc.

The best balance is to be . . . .

√  theologically faithful
√  rhetorically educated (academically or well read), and
√  experienced in the art of preaching!


Why is it that some people preach for an hour, and it seems
like twenty minutes, and some preach twenty minutes and it
seems like an hour?”
— Haddon W. Robinson —


What Is The Answer?


* “A Treatise on the preparation and delivery of Sermons” by John Broadus — A treatise!  526 pages!  Have you read it recently!  I have!  This is one of the most definitive works to this day on Preaching!

** Many contemporary “books” on preaching are about “finding Christ in all the Scriptures.”  That is another whole discussion!

*** “Why John Can’t Preach” by T. David Gordon (Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College). “The book has a strong thesis, which Gordon convincingly develops: The average pastor (“Johnny”) cannot preach a good sermon.

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