In the last 20 years, but especially the last 10, there has been a significant resurgence of lectio continua preaching; that is, a return to the Reformation practice of preaching consecutively through one book of the Bible, Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day. Given the state of preaching when this resurgence began, it was manifestly a good thing. For decades our preaching failed to show the intimate connections to be found between passages in the same book, and also failed to patiently open up all of the doctrines found in a single book in Scripture.
On the other hand, not all has been well with this recovery of expository, lectio continua preaching. There are those in our congregations who are dissatisfied with the expository method, often for a whole host of reasons. Too many times our expository sermons seem more like bible study lessons than actual preaching. The preaching can also reach a certain level of monotony, especially if you linger too long in one particular section or chapter. On the whole, it seems that there are those in our churches who are starving for solid, biblically faithful topical preaching, and we haven’t provided it.
As I have posted elsewhere here at Southern Reformation, I believe there are good reasons to avoid preaching topically. As I’ve said there, topical preaching presents a dual danger to the congregation; first, that the preacher will, intentionally or unintentionally, harp on his favorite subjects, and deny his hearers the balance that all of Scripture brings. Second, there is the danger of using Scripture in such a fashion as to make it a springboard for our sermon. The pastor who does this typically reads a text of Scripture, and then rants for 30 or so minutes about something or other than generally has nothing to do with the passage he read. Preaching in this fashion tends to teach our congregants how to abuse the Bible, rather than to use it properly.
That being said, topical preaching can be done well. And one way to do topical preaching well is to use the Heidelberg Catechism. Composed by Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus and completed in 1562, it appeared in three editions in 1563, it rapidly gained wide acceptance among the Reformed churches on the European continent, and was adopted as a subordinate standard for the Dutch churches at the Synod of Dordt in 1618. The first documented use of the Heidelberg Catechism as a guide for preaching are the sermons of Peter Gabriel, a Reformed minister in Amsterdam, who began using the Catechism in his preaching in 1566, also the first year that the Heidelberg Catechism was divided in to 52 Lord’s Days. The Synod of the Hague (1586) made preaching the Catechism mandatory in its churches, and the Synod of Dordt (1578) strongly encouraged its ministers that the sermon for the second service should be a catechism sermon.
Needless to say, catechism preaching has a long and beneficial history in the Reformed churches that subscribe the Three Forms of Unity and the Church Order of the Synod of Dordt. However, even in many Dutch churches, catechism preaching has been in decline for a number of years. I believe that the time has come to revive this practice, as it provides an excellent guide for topical preaching, a subject I’ll have more to say about next time…