A Three-Legged Stool

All expositional preaching rests on a three-legged theological stool, 1) exegetical theology, 2) biblical theology, and 3) pericopal theology. These three legs are all necessary for expository preaching.


In 1981, Walter Kaiser sounded a grim warning about a growing crisis in evangelical preaching. The crisis has only grown worse since he warned us about it 40 years ago. The crisis in evangelical preaching is the loss of exegetical theology as a foundation for our sermons.[1]

What is exegetical theology? Exegetical theology emphasizes that every sermon “must be derived from an honest exegesis of the text and it must constantly be kept close to the text.”[2] The analysis of the text in its context governs the message of the sermon to our people. Exegesis is reading God’s meaning out of the text. Eisegesis is reading our meaning into the text. Preachers must use the Bible as the source for what we say, not a resource for what we want to say.

Every Bible text has only one meaning. Many evangelical preachers do not believe this simple statement anymore. A sea change has taken place in evangelical preaching over the past 50 plus years. It revolves around this simple question. Does the Bible mean what it meant to them, or does it mean what it means to me? Commonly we hear people today make statements like, “what this verse means to me” or “what I got out of this verse.” Exegetical theology argues that the meaning is what it meant to the original author and his audience, not what it means to me.[3] Interpretation is determining what the meaning is in the original context. Application is what the significance is for me today. There is only one meaning, but there are many applications. Keeping interpretation and application separate is vital to exegetical theology.


The Bible was written down over many years and by many different human authors (Heb. 1:1). God revealed His Word in pieces over time through various ways and people. Biblical theology studies progressive revelation. God progressively revealed more of Himself as the Bible was written down. The revelatory content about God that Abraham understood was far less than the revelatory content that Paul knew. The discipline of biblical theology studies the texts of Scripture progressively.[4] The discipline of systematic theology studies the texts of the Bible as a whole without regard to the order of progressive revelation. Both disciplines are valuable, but the methodology is different.

Graeme Goldsworthy points out that biblical theology does not seek to explain the “final doctrines which go to make up the content of Christian belief,”[5] for that is the role of systematic theology. Biblical theology is concerned with the process and progress of revelation, not the final content. The limitation of biblical theology to progressive revelation does not mean there is no concern for the unity of the Bible. It is to stress that biblical theology focuses on interpreting texts in accordance with the content available to the human author first without coloring that interpretation by later content.

The hermeneutical rule is that later Scriptures inform but do not determine the meaning of earlier Scriptures.[6] They help us understand where God is going, but we still must interpret the Scriptures in their context as the original author intended them to be read.


Homiletics professor Ken Langley tells a story about a pastor giving a children’s sermon. “I’m thinking of one of our forest friends who is small, gray, and has a bushy tail,” he says.  “Does anyone want to guess who it might be?”  No response. “This forest friend is shy and scampers up a tree when you get too close.”  Still no guesses.  “This friend likes to eat nuts.” Finally, one kid pipes up, “I know you want us to say ‘Jesus,’ but it sounds like a squirrel to me.”[7]

When we neglect pericopal theology, sermons become predictable. Every message ends with Jesus. As the saying goes, “Ten thousand are their texts, but all their sermons one.”[8]

What is a pericope? Conrad Mbewe calls it an “expository unit.”[9] Abraham Kuruvilla defines a pericope as “a portion of the biblical text that is of manageable size for homiletical use … in other words, a preaching text.”[10]

Pericopal preaching is the way the average Christian experiences the biblical text in a worship service. Whenever we, as preachers, select the text we will use to preach in church; we are implicitly telling our congregation that this is a segment of Scripture that can stand on its own and has something to say to us today.[11] A pericope is a unit of thought. The unit of thought has one main idea with an identifiable beginning and ending to the unit. In the epistles, that unit of thought is usually a paragraph. In narrative literature, the unit of thought is a story. In poetry, it is a stanza. Expository preaching is unit of thought preaching. Our objective in preaching is to emphasize the applicational thrust of each pericope, not fit a predetermined paradigm for preaching.

Text-driven preaching follows a simple formula.

Say what it means.

Apply what it says.


[1] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology, 18.

[2] Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology, 19.

[3] Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology, 24, 28.

[4] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, 13-15.

[5] Graeme Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom,” in The Goldsworthy Trilogy, 45.

[6] Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 274.

[7] Langley, “When Christ Replaces God at the Center of Preaching,” 73.

[8] Langley, “When Christ Replaces God at the Center of Preaching,” 71.

[9] Mbewe, Pastoral Preaching, 134.

[10] Kuruvilla, Privilege the Text! 91.

[11] Randal E. Pelton, Preaching with Accuracy, 47.

[12] Quoted by David Helm, Expositional Preaching, 83.