Recapturing the Voice of God: Shaping Sermons Like Scripture. By Steven W. Smith. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2015. 240 pp. $24.99, Paperback. ISBN 978-1-4336-8250-6.
Steven W. Smith, current Vice President for Student Services and Communications at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, has challenged the primary notion of what people consider expository preaching. According to Smith, expository, or text-driven, preaching “is not a style but a theologically driven philosophy of preaching whose purpose is to get as close to the text as possible” (1). Sermons are simply a “re-presentation of what God has already presented” (3). In order to accomplish this, Smith argues that preachers should pay attention to the genre.
Chapter one highlights the deficiency of the typical “one size fits all” structure of a sermon. The structure of the text shapes the structure of the sermon (8). The task of the preacher is to “re-present what God has said” and the end of preaching is “to sound like God’s Word” (10). This leads to his point in chapter two, namely that the secret to great preaching is simply staying at the text until its meaning is clear (17), because it is the pastor’s responsibility to explain the Scripture to the congregation (22–25).
In chapter three Smith helpfully guides the reader through the basics of genre and forces the preacher to understand the influence of genre. He argues that genre is both situational and moving. Smith convincingly argues that if the preacher views the genre as arbitrary the communication of the text will be flat. The preacher must remember that the exegetical work is done by “mining the life that is already embedded in the text” (32), thereby relinquishing the temptation of presenting the sermon as either flat or static.
Chapters four through seven comprise Smith’s attempt to help the preacher recapture God’s voice in narratives. In chapter four he begins with Old Testament narrative and remarks that narratives are parts of a larger whole and are affected by its surrounding context. To neglect this is to detach these stories from their “original purpose or authorial intent” (40). Stories have structure and, therefore, discovering its structure produces the structure of a sermon outline (41). Chapter five encompasses the Law, perhaps the most neglected of the genres to be preached. Smith reminds the reader that the Law leads people to Christ (67) and describes God’s nature (67–68). He also rightly provides the reminder to look to both the micro and macro-exposition of the Law in order to aid in sermon outline (74–75).
Chapter six changes to the New Testament narratives. The preacher must remember the narrative as a whole (91) and allow the structure of it to shape the outline. Smith reminds the reader that each Gospel is its own, has a unique purpose, and its own unique structure. Therefore, the sermon outlines for each respective Gospel will not appear the same (81–86). In chapter seven Smith seeks to answer what the structure of a parable is since they are “inductive stories that develop toward a main point” (105). He argues they should be structured based on their own structure and not content (106). Because parables are culturally distant (110) they must be translated for the modern audience (111–112) or they lose their force.
Chapters eight through ten discuss how to recapture God’s voice in poetry. In chapter eight Smith lays out his guide on how to preach the Psalms, and he argues that the preacher must let them stand alone before making connections elsewhere in the Scripture or the New Testament (124). He notes that psalms contain poetic features such as parallelism, movement, and imagery (125–131). To preach a psalm Smith allows for two approaches. First, the analytical approach can be employed when preaching shorter psalms but, second, a topical approach can likewise be used when preaching the larger psalms (137).
The Wisdom Literature is the focus for chapter nine, and Smith encourages the preacher to view them as travel guides (146). He tackles each book from the Wisdom Literature corpus in its own section. Job is narrative poetry and synthetic parallelism is often used (148). Proverbs allows the preacher to “preach across a wide spectrum of topics” (148) since its structure is topical and collective. Ecclesiastes is focused on the futility of life and provides a collection of sayings and thoughts as to its structure (150–151). The Song of Solomon has a distinct narrative flow and is possibly chiastic in nature (153).
Chapter ten focuses on prophecy. Smith notes the importance of remembering the prophets each have a unique historical setting, one which typically is found “unpacking cultural issues…and judgment” (166). To structure a sermon from the prophets requires utilizing the strophes contained therein, staying aware of varying genres within prophecy, or perhaps even considering preaching one sermon on one minor prophet (173–174).
Chapters eleven and twelve focus upon both the Epistles and Revelation, respectively. In chapter eleven Smith remarks that the “Epistles are the bread and butter of most evangelical, pastoral preaching” (180). They also have macro and micro-structures (182), and serve as occasional letters that address a specific issue (185). To read the macrostructure and move it to the micro-structure is important because it safeguards “ourselves from reading meaning into words and sentences and disregarding the context of the book” (191). Chapter twelve concludes with Revelation and, as Smith notes, it contains both a unique genre and structure. The structure will vary depending upon the ensuing narrative scene (200) and genre (202–203).
Smith’s work is helpful in that it provides the solution to a problem most preachers will encounter, sermon structure. When the preacher allows the structure of the biblical text to inform sermon structure, he is then alleviated the temptation to superimpose the “one size fits all” method. Also beneficial is his sermon outlines at the end of each chapter. Furthermore, Smith’s chapter on both the Law and the Parables are extremely helpful. He carefully guides the reader through the technicalities of these difficult genres and shows that they are not as difficult to preach as one might think.
A few points of critique are in order. First, Smith states the first question of the Bible is God’s inquiry as to where Adam and Eve are (1). This is not so, for it is the serpent’s question to Eve, “Did God really say…” Second, the accompanied diagrams that begins each chapter is helpful, but following this as a guide would lead to prophecy as chapter nine and Wisdom Literature as chapter ten, but it is swapped in the book. Consistency would be helpful here.
Overall, Recapturing the Voice of God is a worthy read. Steven Smith has aided the preacher with practical application of how to preach the genres and preach them well. This should be a welcome addition to any pastor’s library.
Jason P. Kees
Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
This review originally appeared in the Midwestern Journal of Theology 15.2 (2016): 172-174.