The Beauty & Power of Biblical Exposition: Preaching the Literary Artistry & Genres of the Bible, by Douglas Sean O’Donnell and Leland Ryken. Crossway, 2022, 304 pages, $23.99, paper.

Drs. O’Donnell and Ryken are particularly qualified to write a book such as this. Ryken not only taught English literature at Wheaton for many years, but he also has written a number of books about the Bible that focus on its literary qualities and has served as an advisor to the ESV translation committee. O’Donnell has two decades of pastoral experience and has written an interesting volume entitled God’s Lyrics: Rediscovering Worship through Old Testament Songs (for which—full disclosure—I wrote the Foreword) about Old Testament songs outside of the Psalter, indicating his interest in matters of composition and style. O’Donnell primarily writes about the Bible, having written books on Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, Matthew, and the Johannine letters. Each of the co-authors has demonstrated both competence and interest in “the literary artistry and genres of the Bible.” O’Donnell has assumed the primary duty of writing the book, with frequent citations of Ryken’s words as well. And those citations are, indeed, frequent: By my count (and I may have overlooked one or two), Ryken has written at least eleven books that pertain to the literary artistry and genres in the Bible.[1] To my knowledge, no author has devoted as much to the topic of the literary traits of Holy Scripture as Ryken. The shared commitment of the two authors to expository preaching is well-evidenced by the fact that they dedicated the book to R. Kent Hughes, widely recognized as one of the ablest expositors of our day.

The title of the book may suggest to the casual reader that this is another homiletics textbook, to compete with others in the field; and, indeed, the book demonstrates a thorough acquaintance with the literature on homiletics written by authors both living and deceased. The subtitle, however, discloses what sets this volume apart from the more-typical homiletical textbooks, because the special concern of the volume is to include self-conscious reflection on the Bible’s literary artistry and genres as an aspect of expository preaching. The subtitles of the six chapters disclose this interest: Preaching Narrative, Preaching Parables, Preaching Epistles, Preaching Poetry, Preaching Proverbs, And Preaching Visionary Writings. Each of the six chapters has two parts: how to read each specific genre in the Bible, and how to preach that genre. Their stated goals for the book are two: that “attentiveness to the literary dimensions of the Bible should be foregrounded in expository sermons,” (23) and that readers would produce “sermons that are fresh, relevant, interesting, and accurate-to-the-authorial-intention,” (23) including, of course, the biblical authors’ intention to employ particular literary genres.

The interesting (and, to my knowledge, novel) thesis throughout the book is that the preacher should, when and where possible, reflect the biblical genre by the manner and structure of the sermon itself. Such a thesis needs to be discussed for a considerable time before the churches and/or their individual ministers embrace the thesis; but, at a minimum, the thesis demonstrates a very high regard for the Bible’s own artistry and genres. At a minimum, it could not be wrong per se to employ in sermons, genres that exist in the Bible itself; however, for the thesis to be widely accepted, it might be proper to acknowledge that orality, as a medium, differs from writing, as a medium, a distinction that was very important in the twentieth century to those who proposed what became known as the Oral Formulaic Hypothesis, proposed by Milman Parry (1902–35),[2] and developed by Parry’s student and protégé Albert Lord (1912–91),[3] Eric A. Havelock (1903–88),[4] and Walter Ong (1912–2003), who interacted substantively with Parry, Lord, and Havelock in his own Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.[5] Those persuaded by the theory might suggest that literary genres have their own distinctive properties and that, therefore, they may not always “translate” well into an oral production such as a sermon; a literary genre, such as epistle, may not be a good model for an oral performance, such as a sermon. Repetition, for example, a common virtue in an oral performance (whether Parry’s Croat traditional performers or preachers today), is tedious, if not objectionable, in a written product. And, unfortunately, even the records of oral performances in the Bible (such as prophetic judgment oracles or the public speaking of Jesus or his apostles) are themselves written records of oral performances; they are not recordings of those performances themselves. Proof of this is that the records of apostolic preaching in Acts are very brief and can ordinarily be read aloud in less than a minute (Peter, at Pentecost, might need two minutes). Yet we know Paul preached longer than this, so much so that the hapless Eutychus, wearied by Paul’s sermon going until midnight, “fell down from the third story and was taken up dead” (Acts 20:9). The thesis, therefore, of O’Donnell and Ryken might need some fine tuning, but it need not be abandoned entirely, especially without some effort being made to attempt the thesis in practice.

Indeed, O’Donnell has done this very experiment in his own preaching, and he provides many examples from his own pulpit ministry of efforts to model the manner of his sermons by the genre of the biblical texts themselves; readers who are willing to entertain the thesis will find such examples to be very helpful, as examples of what the theory looks like in practice. I would even predict that many, who might initially be skeptical that the genres of the Bible should shape, in some ways, the production of the sermon, will find some of their skepticism waning as they reflect on the examples provided.   

While some readers may have reservations about preaching each genre in a manner that reflects that genre, no readers of Ordained Servant will question how this volume contributes to its other stated thesis about how to read each specific genre in the Bible. This part of each chapter is rich with references to other books on biblical interpretation and rich in examples from O’Donnell’s preaching and from the preaching of others. Many readers will feel as I did, as though they have returned to seminary for a refresher course in biblical interpretation and Bible survey, with a special emphasis on preaching. This aspect of the book succeeds extremely well. I expect many homileticians will require this as a textbook in their courses on preaching, either as the principal text or as an augment to the principal text.

There are two ways readers might elect to read this book. First, and most obviously, one might read it in its entirety, as a general introduction (or refresher) to the importance of recognizing the Bible’s art and genres as an aspect of biblical exposition. Second, one might elect to read the introduction and then reserve reading the subsequent chapters before preaching sermon series from each of the six major literary genres, so that the particular insights of each of those six chapters might be fresh before planning out the sermon series. Still others will do both, reading the book in its entirety, then referring back to it as they prepare sermon series from each of the six major genres in Scripture.

One of the most refreshing dimensions of this volume is that it is entirely free of fad-chasing. Its ideas and recommendations flow out of careful study of, and respect for, the Bible itself and could have been recommended to any generation in the post-apostolic church, something that cannot be said about every book on preaching, many of which are outdated within a decade or so of their appearance. Ironically, the acute attentiveness to the literary qualities and genres within the Bible, which might be regarded as a timeless reality, may make this volume especially timely for a generation that is increasingly aliterate. Indeed, nonpreachers would read the book with considerable benefit, because they would become much better Bible readers (one of the two stated goals of the book), even if they never preach a single sermon.

We, as readers, are always grateful when we have read a book that rewards our effort. But a special category of book also exists, the kind that, when we finish reading it, we look forward to rereading it in the not-too-distant future, out of our sense that we could not glean all of its benefits from a single reading. I regard The Beauty and Power of Biblical Exposition as such a book, and I believe I will discover even more beauty and more power the next time I read it.


[1] Leland Ryken has written at least two books about Bible translations: Choosing a Bible: Understanding Bible Translation Differences; and The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation. He has written four books that pertain to literary dimensions of the Bible: A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible; How to Read the Bible as Literature; Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible; and Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible. He has also written five books in the Reading the Bible as Literature Series: Symbols and Reality: A Guided Study of Prophecy, Apocalypse, and Visionary Literature; Short Sentences Long Remembered: A Guided Study of Proverbs and Other Wisdom Literature; Sweeter Than Honey, Richer Than Gold: A Guided Study of Biblical Poetry; Jesus the Hero: A Guided Literary Study of the Gospels; and Letters of Grace and Beauty: A Guided Literary Study of New Testament Epistles.

[2] Because Parry died of a gunshot wound at such a young age, his influence was primarily through the lectures he gave at Harvard as an adjunct and through his protégé, Albert Lord, who travelled with Parry in his travels to observe the oral bards in Croatia.

[3] Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960).

[4] Especially Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963) and The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

[5] Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Routledge, 1982).

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is a retired professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, April, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: April 2023

Public Aid?

Also in this issue

Christians, Churches, and Public Aid, Part 1

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: The Primacy of Preaching: A Biblical Overview, Chapter 3 [1]

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 4B

Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 4: Prayer Work

Illustrating Well: Preaching Sermons that Connect, by Jim L. Wilson

Poetry of Redemption: An Illustrated Treasury of Good Friday and Easter Poems, by Leland Ryken

Death Is but a Comma

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