Poverty of preaching in the Episcopal Church, The

poverty of preaching in the Episcopal Church, The

Thomas, Owen C

I believe that preaching in the Episcopal Church is generally poor By that I mean simply that there is a general failure to preach the gospel of the good news of God in Christ. A former dean of King’s College, Cambridge, put it this way in commenting on preaching in the Episcopal Church in the twentieth century:

But what shook me most of all is the character of the preaching that seems to prevail in your churches. . . . Preachers take texts from Scripture (though they do no always do that), and treat them as mottoes or captions under which they excogitate some religious or moral lessons that have little, if any, direct relation to the Scripture they have quoted. Who preaches sermons that are genuine expositions of the text and sense of Scripture, bringing to bear the great biblical themes of God’s judgment and mercy upon men who are dead in their complacency, self-confidence or pride? Your preachers are still advocating justification by works of one kind or another (they may be very orthodox or very Catholic works); they are not preaching the gospel of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.1

I am convinced that this assessment was, and still is, correct. It is confirmed by my own impressions, gained over sixty years of extended experience in six dioceses from Georgia to New Hampshire and from New York to California, and occasional experience in several others. Needless to say there have been some glowing exceptions, some experiences of excellent preaching. These, however, have only sharpened the contrast and the general impression of widespread poverty. My experience and judgment have also been confirmed by those of others. It was for me a striking testimony that the first general secretary of the World Council of Churches stated that the main thing that Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church could learn from the ecumenical church was preaching. He said that he believed that preaching was the weakest element in our life as a church. He cited an example from his recent attendance at an Anglican cathedral, adding that it was not an isolated experience for him and his colleagues at the World Council as they traveled around the world and the Anglican Communion, including the Episcopal Church.

More recent evidence concerning the state of preaching in the Episcopal Church can be found in the July 1980 issue of this journal, which celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the College of Preachers with essays on preaching and the teaching of preaching in the Episcopal Church. The warden of the College expressed the consensus of these essays in this way:

Preaching [in the Episcopal Church] is usually not done well; on that there is general agreement. It is often horing, devoid of creative reflection, and in any other setting than the liturgy might constitute a major threat to the survival of religion. Sermons are often composed by overworked clergy in hasty desperation because time has run out, and sound like it. They lean heavily on truisms and repeat endlessly the obvious and the familiar. . . . Congregations return with indomitable hope to the hearing of mediocre preaching.2

In this essay, I will suggest that a major cause of this is the general failure to address the theology of preaching in the Episcopal seminaries, and I will offer some evidence of this failure. I will then suggest that this situation has deeper roots in the Anglican tradition (and the Catholic tradition generally). I will go on to propose that the solution to this problem lies in becoming clearer on the theology of preaching. Finally, I will outline an argument from Scripture, tradition, and reason for one view of the theology of preaching and also what this implies for the preparation of sermons.

What, then, accounts for the situation I have alleged to exist-the poverty of preaching in the Episcopal Church? I believe that neglect of the theology of preaching is a major cause. By the theology of preaching I do not mean the theology in preaching, the relation of Christian doctrine to preaching. I mean the relation of God to preaching. It is commonly agreed that a theological question is a question about God or about Gods relation to the world or some aspect of the world. For example, this is the immediate implication of Faul Tillich’s two formal criteria of theology which distinguish it from other intellectual endeavors, whether in the humanities or the natural and human sciences.3 The theology of preaching will therefore be concerned with this question: What do we hope and expect to happen between God and the congregation in preaching? I believe that our answer to this question will in large part determine how we preach.

My claim is not that the poverty of preaching in the Episcopal Church is solely a matter of theology. For one thing, de-emphasis of preaching is a general phenomenon in American churches. The sociologist of religion David Roozen describes what he calls “the most profound mega-trend” in contemporary American religion as a shift from “Word to Spirit,” which he characterizes as a shift from an emphasis on expository preaching to a more experiential and subjective emphasis.4 Furthermore, important aspects of our contemporary cultural situation tend to downgrade the significance of preaching. These include the current romantic movement with its emphasis on feeling and the non-verbal,5 the dominance of the new electronic media over linear verbal discourse, and the focus of these media on entertainment, such that the value of preaching is taken to be its entertainment value.

But even when all this is granted, the theology of preaching remains an important and indeed a decisive question, and over the years I have formed the impression that it is a question rarely treated in the homiletics courses in Episcopal seminaries. Apparently it is assumed that the theology of preaching is not a topic worth addressing. One commentator on the teaching of homiletics in Episcopal seminaries stated in the issue of this journal mentioned above: “A major weakness of our teaching is a theological uncertainty at the core of the content of preaching: What do we do with something like the Word that claims to be transcendent yet appears in so human a symbolic form? . . . Episcopalians run from it.”6

In order to assess whether this theological uncertainty is being dealt with, twice over a period of five months in the spring and summer of 2002 I wrote to the professors of homiletics at the eleven Episcopal seminaries. I requested the syllabi of their courses, and received responses from eight of them.7 At least one course in homiletics is required for the M.Div. degree at all but one of the eight schools. I examined the syllabi that I received and read the assigned reading for each of eleven courses. I read many excellent books on various aspects of preaching: on structure, presentation, the use of story, image, and metaphor; on types and styles of preaching (narrative, topical, inductive, conversational, African American, evangelistic, expository, devotional, pastoral, biblical, imaginative, phenomenological); on images of the preacher: herald, pastor, storyteller, witness, and so forth. A few of these books mention the theology of preaching in passing. Only one addresses it at any length. Richard Lieschcr, a leading homiletician, laments that “the many books on form and design which have dominated our generations homiletical thinking cannot produce the renewal promised by the gospel.”8

In addition to what I learned from the readings assigned in the courses, I discovered that the theology of preaching was an explicit topic in only three of them. When I inquired further about these, I discovered that the theology of preaching is usually understood to mean the place of doctrine in preaching. For example, the topic in one class was described as “Preaching theology, i. e. preaching on the teachings of the Church. Tour preaching of your own theology. . . . To consider how topical sermons on theological subjects are necessary and appropriate for a congregation s annual round of sermons.” In the instructions for an assigned paper on the theology of preaching, another professor said that it was a matter of identifying the doctrine preached in a sermon. This understanding was supported by one of the assigned texts, which states that one of the important steps in creating a sermon is to choose a doctrine arising from the theme of the sermon.9 In another assigned text the author states that the aim of his book is to “show how theology informs preaching,” but this is interpreted to mean “preaching as the final form of theology.”10

On the other hand, several of the assigned readings imply or refer in passing to the theology of preaching-in the sense in which I defined it above-usually in the form of the word of God or revelation. But this is only rarely elaborated or emphasized. Only one of the assigned texts has a clear and strong statement of the theology of preaching, very similar to the one I will outline below. It is limited, however, to ten pages at the end of a 460-page text.11 And in the one course in which this text is required, the whole book is discussed in two hours. Although two of the seminaries emphasize expository, evangelical preaching, interpreted as the word of God, it is not clear how this theology is elaborated. One of the courses I investigated includes a fine, thorough analysis of the steps involved in exegesis.

My survey of the teaching of homiletics in the Episcopal seminaries is obviously not exhaustive, and it may be that the theology of preaching as defined is treated more often and more fully than I was able to determine. But what I was able to discover confirmed my impression that the theology of preaching is rarely addressed in the contemporary teaching of homiletics in the Episcopal seminaries.

The present situation in regard to preaching and its theological basis has, I believe, roots in the earlier history of Anglicanism. In the early centuries it seemed otherwise, perhaps because of the influence of Lutheranism. The nineteenth Article of Religion, which is derived from Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, states: “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered. . . .” The Edwardian Book of Homilies, by Thomas Cranmer and others and published in 1547, contained twelve sermons on the Scriptures, sin, justification, faith, and so forth. The preface states that the purpose of these homilies is to assure that the people are “faithfully instructed in the very [that is, true] word of God” and to assure “the true faith and pure declaring of Gods word.”12 Late in the sixteenth century, in his Lawss of Ecclesiastical Polity, Richard Hooker wrote an extended treatment of the fundamental importance of the reading and preaching of the Word of God in Scripture. He states, “So worthy a part of divine service we should greatly wrong, if we did not esteem Preaching as the blessed ordinance of God, sermons as keys to the kingdom of God, as wings of the soul, unto the sound and healthy as food, as physic unto diseased minds.”13 In the eighteenth century, the foremost Anglican preacher, John Wesley, was also a theologian who held a high doctrine of preaching. In a sermon “Of the Church” he commented on Article 19 in this way: “According to this definition, those congregations in which the ‘pure Word of God’ (a strong expression) is not preached are no parts of either the Church of England or the Church Catholic,” although he was a bit uneasy about the sweeping character of the Article.14

In the nineteenth century, however, the situation appears to change. Preaching begins to be subordinated if not ignored. One reason, no doubt, was the Oxford Movement and its revival of Catholic practice. John Henry Newman, a leader of the movement, had this to say in the “Advertisement” to the Tracts for the Times about the awakened and anxious sinner who goes to hear dissenting ministers preach: “Had he been taught as a child, that the Sacraments, not preaching, are the sources of divine grace, . . . we would not have so many wanderers from our fold, nor so many cold hearts within it.”15 One indication of how this view spread is the Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles published in 1919 by E. J. Bicknell. Each of the articles is analyzed in detail, but while Bicknell devotes eighty-four pages to the sacraments there is not one word on preaching, even in his analysis of Article 19. Similarly, in 1935 Paul Elmer More and Frank Leslie Cross published their well-known, 800-page book Anglicanism: The Thought and Practice of the Church of England, Illustrated from the Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century. Although over a hundred pages are devoted to the sacraments, not a single page is devoted to preaching. Finally, Doctrine in the Church of England, the 1938 report of the Doctrine Commission appointed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, although it includes seventy-five pages on the sacraments, has nothing on preaching. I should add that all of these works treat the theology of the sacraments, that is, the relation of God to the sacraments.

It is characteristic of the broadly Catholic tradition that it tends to downplay preaching. In this tradition salvation tends to be interpreted as participation in the divine life or, as in patristic theology, the deification of humanity. The focus is on the Incarnation of Christ as interpreted in the fourth gospel, and the means of salvation is primarily the sacraments. Accordingly, the theological language is that of being, nature, and substance interpreted by organic and non-personal metaphors. It might be noted in this connection that right down to the second Vatican council, preaching was not a constitutive element in the official concept of priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church.16 In the Protestant tradition, on the other hand, salvation tends to be understood as the restoration of a broken relationship, communion with God through the forgiveness of sin. The focus is on the atonement of Christ in the cross as interpreted in the letters of Paul. The means is primarily the preaching of the word of God, the word of divine favor and forgiveness. The theological language and metaphors are those of personal relationships. Although Anglicanism claims to combine the Catholic and Protestant traditions and understand them its essential to each other, in recent centuries the tendency has apparently been to emphasize the former in regard to preaching.

Now if my assessment of preaching in the Episcopal Church is at all valid, what is the solution? I suggest that the solution lies in our becoming clear on the theology of preaching, which I have defined as the theology of Cod’s relation to preaching. The initial question is: What can we hope and expect to happen between God and the congregation in and through our preaching? Let us assume that God is always present to all people as creator, sustainer, and potentially as judge and savior. So the question becomes: What, beyond this, is the relation of God to the congregation hearing the sermon? What more can we hope and trust that God is doing specifically in and through the sermon?

A useful way to approach such a theological question is to inquire as to the possible answers.17 I suggest that there are four possible answers. In and through the sermon, God may be expected:

(1) to do nothing unusual;

(2) to inspire the hearers to grasp the meaning of the instruction in the sermon;

(3) to inspire the hearers to act on the exhortation in the sermon; or

(4) to use the sermon to encounter the hearers with a divine word of judgment and mercy.

As suggested above, I believe that the way we answer this question will determine how and what we preach. For example, if we hold the first answer and so have no particular expectations about the relation of God to our preaching, our sermons will be quite different from those we would preach if, for example, our expectation were that God will use “the foolishness of our preaching to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). Now how shall we decide between these answers? Let us follow a common Anglican procedure of assessing them by the criteria of Scripture, tradition, and reason (as the means by which we interpret Scripture and tradition and the contemporary cultural situation).

In regard to Scripture I will not be exhaustive but rather simply indicate relevant passages that need to be interpreted for their theological meaning. Where and how does Scripture address the theology of preaching as defined? The main form of preaching in the Old Testament is that of the prophets. Many passages in the books of the prophets include the words, “The word of the Lord came to the prophet, and he said, ‘Thus says the Lord. . . .'” This phrase appears some fifty times in the book of Jeremiah alone. It becomes most explicit in Jeremiah 1:9, “Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See today I have appointed you over nations and kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” This is explained further in Jeremiah 23:28-29, “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word, speak my word faithfully. . . . Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” The dynamics of this are spelled out in Isaiah 55:10-11, “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out of my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the tiling for which I sent it.”

In the New Testament, preaching is primarily that of Jesus and his followers. Jesus’ preaching is essentially the announcement of the good news of presence of the reign of God (Mark 1:14-15) or “speaking the word” to the people (Mark 2:2). “The crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God” (Luke 5:1). When a woman cries out that Jesus’ mother is blessed, he responds, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:28). The same applies to the twelve and the seventy disciples sent out by Jesus to preach and to heal as his representatives. “Whoever listens to you, listens to me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Luke 10:16). This is explained further in the parable of the sower: “The seed is the word of God” (Luke 8:11). John’s gospel announces that the word of God, which is God, “became flesh” in Jesus (John 1:14) and proclaims the identity of Jesus as manifest in his works and words with the word of God.

Similarly, the preaching of the apostles after the resurrection is seen as the preaching of the gospel of Christ understood to be the word of God. In the earliest book in the New Testament Paul states, “We also constantly give thanks for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13). Paul understands preaching as involving Gods saving approach to the hearers, as in 1 Corinthians 1:21: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our preaching, to save those who believe.” The context of this is Gods reconciliation of the world through Christ. Paul states, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was . . . entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:18-20). Paul stresses the urgency of this in Romans 10:13-14: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? . . . So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of God.”

In regard to tradition I interpret the Anglican view to be that, while there is a specifically Anglican tradition, exemplified in the Articles of Religion, Anglican theologians have properly been free to appeal to any part of the orthodox tradition in assessing a theological question.18 Richard Liescher laments “how few theologies of preaching the Church has produced in the past 1900 years.”19 Although preaching occurred everywhere and always, especially at the eucharist, apparently the theology of preaching did not become a subject of debate in Christian history until the Reformation. There was much discussion of the theology of the sacraments, beginning in the late fourth century in Augustine’s debate with the Donatists, but there was little or no discussion of the theology of preaching before Luther. In Luther, however, the theology of preaching as the word of God is a constant and powerful theme. The preacher, as he puts it, must boldly say with St. Paul and all the apostles and prophets: Haec dixit dominus, Thus saith God Himself; or again: In this sermon, I am a confessed apostle and prophet of Jesus Christ. It is neither necessary nor good to ask here for the forgiveness of sins, as though the teaching were false. For it is not my word but God’s, which he neither will nor can forgive me, and for which He must always praise and reward me, saying: You have taught rightly for I have spoken through you and the Word is mine. Whoever cannot boast thus of his preaching repudiates preaching; for he expressly denies and slanders God.20

Although Calvins emphasis falls more on the teaching of doctrine as the word of God to the faithful, he understands the importance of the preaching of the word of God in much the same way that Luther did. He speaks of preachers as the “voice” and “mouth” of God, emphasizing the internal testimony of the Spirit. He states, “In the preaching of the Word, the external minister holds forth the vocal word, and it is received by the ears. The internal minister, the Holy Spirit, truly communicates the thing proclaimed through the Word, that is Christ, to the souls of all who will. . . .”21 I have discussed above the interpretation of the theology of preaching in the Church of England of the sixteenth century. Much of this teaching was repeated in the Protestant orthodox theology of the seventeenth century. During the Pietist and Evangelical movements of the eighteenth century there was a revival of expository preaching, as exemplified in that of Wesley.

Although the liberal theology of the nineteenth century had some of its roots in German pietism, the tendency of this theology was to play down the evangelical style of preaching. The period of liberal theology came to an end in the first quarter of the twentieth century in the work of Karl Barth in which there was a powerful reaffirmation of the theology of preaching of Luther mid Calvin. In fact, the whole of his massive thirteen-volume (but unfinished) Church Dogmotics is based on the doctrine of the word of God and focuses on the theology of preaching. He begins with a 1400-page prolegomena, entitled “The Doctrine of the Word of God,” containing a strong emphasis on preaching or church proclamation as the material of dogmatics. This also contains his theology of preaching, which can be summed up in his explication of the following statement in the second Helvetic Confession of 1566, the most universal of the Reformed confessions: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is preached, and received of the faithful.”22 Barth adds, “For a proper explanation of this . . . we should have to refer . . . to the Christological doctrine of the two natures.”23 That is, preaching constitutes an extension of the Incarnation in that it is an action that is fully human and fully divine and mediates a real presence of Christ, as in the eucharist.

The other theologian who most deeply influenced Christian theology in the twentieth century, and through his students still influences the twenty-first, is Rudolph Bultmann, a colleague of Barth who came later into conflict with him on many issues. Theology in the latter half of the last century was dominated by the issues that divided Barth and Bultmann, but in one respect they are entirely agreed, for Bultmann’s emphasis on preaching as the word of God is even stronger than Earths. Bultmann, interpreting Paul, states, “The salvation occurrence is nowhere present except in the proclaiming, accosting, demanding, and promising word of preaching.”24 And in the context of the demythologizing debate, he writes that “Christ meets us in the preaching as one crucified and risen. He meets us in the word of preaching and nowhere else. . . . The word of preaching confronts us as the word of God. It is not for us to question its credentials. It is we who are questioned, we who are asked whether we will believe the word or reject it.”25

Here we may conclude this brief summary of some of the main points in the Christian tradition on the theology of preaching.26 There is little to add from the last fifty years. Important theological movements have, of course, taken place-liberation theology in its various forms (feminist, black, Latin American, and so forth), ecological theology, and various theologies from Asia and Africa. As far as I know, however, none of these has emphasized the theology of preaching.

In summary, I suggest that the majority of the testimony of Scripture and tradition interpreted by reason supports the fourth answer to our question. What can we hope and expect will happen between God and the congregation in and through our preaching? We can hope that God will use the sermon to encounter the hearers with a divine word of judgment and mercy. (Here I might add that the theology of preaching implied in the service for the ordination of a priest in the Book of Common Prayer is consistent with this answer.27) The argument I have given has been only an outline. It may be that other arguments could be made which would lead to different conclusions. I would nevertheless maintain that my argument and its conclusion are valid possibilities, and I would note that they are confirmed by the fact that the position I have taken is practically identical with the theology of preaching of a leading Anglican theologian, John Macquarrie,28 and with that of two of the leading contemporary homileticians, David Buttrick and William Willimon.29

Now what does the foregoing argument have to say about what must be involved in preaching? If Scripture is understood in the tradition as the word of God, that is, as testimony to the revelation of God in the history of Israel culminating in Christ, then preaching, understood also as the word God, must be the reiteration of the prophetic and apostolic testimony in Scripture. That is the chief point. It does not mean that preaching is a mechanical repetition of Scripture but rather that it is a creative interpretation and application, to the situation of the hearers, of the scriptural testimony.

A second point follows. There are not several types of sermons, for example, expository, historical, doctrinal, moral, apologetic, and topical. There is only one, namely expository preaching. The promise of Scripture and tradition that “the one who hears you hears me,” that the words of the preacher can be used by God to encounter the hearers in judgment and mercy, is based on preaching being expository, the attempt to interpret and apply a passage of Scripture to the situation of the hearers.30

From these basic points, some practical consequences can be drawn. The preparation of a sermon begins with the selection of a passage of Scripture from the gospel, epistle, or Old Testament readings for the day. It begins, in other words, with a passage from one among assigned texts-not from a passage freely chosen by us, which makes some point we want to preach about. Furthermore, the text should be a passage of more than one or two verses, because the shorter the text, the greater the temptation to use it as a pretext for our own ideas rather than those of the text. Then should come prayer that the Spirit will open and illumine our minds to understand the meaning of the testimony of this passage to God in Christ. This will involve our willingness to subordinate provisionally all our ideas, images, and convictions to the text in order to hear its testimony without distortion.

The work of actually producing the sermon requires three steps: exegesis, translation, and application.

(1) The first step, exegesis, is the attempt to determine the intention and meaning of the passage in its historical context, situation, and terms. Here we are greatly assisted by the literary and historical-critical study of the Bible over the past century issuing in a range of dictionaries, general commentaries, studies of individual books, and other reference works. With what these are, and how to use them, the sermon-writer ought to be thoroughly acquainted. We may not be professional exegetes, but we can become familiar enough with their methods and procedures so that we can do some of it ourselves and check their conclusions.

(2) The next step is meditation on this meaning, to allow it to speak to us, and then its translation into the language, the concepts, and the metaphors of our own day. (I am aware of the criticism of the use of the metaphor of translation here, and I have responded to it in Theological Questions, pp. 16-18.) This is already begun in the first step in the process of understanding the intention and meaning of the original text. And it already involves the beginning of the third step.

(3) The final step is the application of this intention and meaning to the situation of the hearers. This is a demanding process that involves creativity and imagination on the part of the preacher. It requires an understanding of the general cultural situation of the modern world, where it came from and where it is going, and also the special version of this which obtains in the congregation of hearers with their own particular issues. This requires a continuing discipline of reading from the daily newspaper, interpretive journals, and broader studies.31

This summary of the process of expository preaching oversimplifies an extremely complex process that has been analyzed over the past two centuries in the discipline of hermeneutics.32 Krister Stendahl has encapsulated it in the metaphor of the bilingual translator who knows the languages of the biblical world and of the modern world and can move around in each with idiomatic ease and thus relate them at particular points. He concludes, “The task of the pulpit is-as suggested here-the true Sitz im Leben, ‘life situation,’ where the meaning of the original meets with the meaning for today.”33

Nothing in what I have proposed is meant to deny what Article 19 plainly affirms, namely an equality of word and sacrament as marks of the “visible church of Christ,” for the word leads to the sacrament and is fulfilled in the sacrament. Without the word the sacrament tends to become a strange mystery which is easily misunderstood. Without the sacrament the word is unfulfilled, not acted out. Macquarrie speaks of the unity, mutual necessity, inseparability, and importance of a “proper balance” between the word and the sacraments.34 In Anglicanism we are strong on the sacraments. It is perhaps our greatest strength. But we have been weak on the word. A sign of this to me is that while we begin and end the eucharist with many prayers, we tend to begin and end the sermon with none. And my point is that our weakness in regard to the word tends to have a deleterious effect on the sacraments in our common life.

Furthermore, I believe that this approach to preaching will solve some of the problems faced by the preacher. Taken together with the liturgical lectionary, it will solve the problem of what to preach about, although the choice of a specific text remains. Also it will help to solve one of the problems of the beginning preacher-a problem which persists for even the most experienced one-namely, anxiety about preaching. I believe that this anxiety derives in large part from a concern to do well, a worry about what people will think of the sermon, and a desire to be admired as preacher. This problem is only aggravated if the sermon consists mainly of the preacher’s own experience or the ideas or views he or she happens to have about some topic or other. In expository preaching this problem is avoided in large part because attention is taken off the preacher, the preacher s ideas, personality, manner, delivery, and performance, and transferred to the text, where it belongs.

I believe that the theology of preaching that I have outlined, and the necessity of expository preaching to which it leads, present an exciting challenge and opportunity. It is an awesome and solemn thought that God may use our preaching as the divine approach to the hearers, as the means of his saving presence to them, that God may use the “foolishness” of our preaching to save those who believe. Furthermore, I believe that many people attend church today hungering for the gospel. I will never forget one evening at a closed Al-Anon meeting, which was subverted by a couple of visitors who were obviously not living with an alcoholic. After a while an older woman in the back row stood up and said quietly, “Look, I came here tonight because I decided not to commit suicide . . . yet. These meetings are a matter of life and death for me, and you are ruining them. So please shut up or leave.” My point is that the preacher never knows, but should always assume, that there are going to be some people in church every Sunday-and perhaps the same applies to everyone present, in some degree-for whom this service, this eucharist, this sermon, may be a matter of life and death. We who preach should never fail to preach the gospel.

1 Alec R. Vidler, Essays in Liberality (London: SCM Press, 1957), 175-176.

2 Clement W. Welsh, “Preaching as Apologetics,” Anglican Theological Review 62:3 (1980): 239-252 at 239-240; see also H. Barry Evans, “Introduction,” 195-196 at 195; John Snow, “Reflections on Anglican Preaching,” 211-220 at 211; and J. Randall Nicholls, “What is the Matter with the Teaching of Preaching?” 221-238 at 221-222, 234.

3 See Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951-1963), 1:11-15; see also Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia, 1, 7.

4 See website : Hartford Institute for Religious Research, Roozen lecture, 2001.

5 See, for example, Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972); and Eva Fleischner, ed., Auschwitz, Beginning of a New Era? Reflections on the Holocaust (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1977), pt. 7: “The New Romanticism and Biblical Faith.”

6 Anglican Theological Review 62:3 (1980): 234-235.

7 The professors at three of the seminaries are from other schools or local parishes and are not Episcopalians. Is this fact indicative of the status accorded to preaching in these seminaries, or a lack of able Episcopal mentors? Either way, it is not encouraging.

8 Richard Liescher, Theories of Preaching: Selected Readings in the Homiletical Tradition (Durham, N.C.: Labyrinth Press, 1987), 2.

9 See Paul Scott Wilson, The Four Pages of a Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 44-47.

10 See Richard Liescher, A Theology of Preaching: The Dynamics of the Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981), 11, 27.

11 See David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 449-459.

12 Certain Sentions or Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1822), 2, 3.

13 The Works of the Learned and Judicious Mr. Richard, Hooker, 2 vols., ed. John Keble (New York: D. Appleton, 1890), 1:325a (Bk. 5, chap. 22.1).

14 John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Cutler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 313. For any who doubt Wesley’s credentials as an Anglican theologian, in 1738 he summarized his doctrinal position over against the Moravians in a condensation of the first five Edwardian Homilies, and in 1790 he stated: “I declare once more that I live and die a member of the Church of England, and none that regard my judgment or advice will ever separate from it.” See The Works of John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984), 10.

15 Tracts for the Times, 2 vols. (London: J. G. F. and J. Rivington, 1843), 1:iv.

16 See Council of Trent, Session 23, Canon 1: “If anyone says . . . that those who do not preach are not priests at all: let him be anathema.” See Denziger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, trans. Roy R. Deferrari (St. Louis: Herder, 1957), No. 961.

17 See Owen C. Thomas, Theological Questions: Analysis and Argument (Wilton, Conn.: Morehouse-Barlow, 1983), appendix and throughout.

18 See Owen C. Thomas and Ellen K. Wondra, Introduction to Theology, 3rd ed. (Harrrisburg, Pa.; Morehouse Publishing, 2002), 57-63.

19 Lieseher, Theories of Preaching, 2.

20 Weimar Ausgabe 51:516, 15; quoted in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 1/2 (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1956), 747.

21 “Summary of Doctrine concerning the Ministry of the Word and Sacraments, VJ” in Calvin: Theological Treatises, ed. J. K. S. Reid (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), L73.

22 See John Leith, Creeds of the Churches (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963), 133.

23 Earth, Church Dogmatics I/1, 2nd ed., 52.

24 Rudolph Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 2 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948-1953), 1:302.

25 Rudolph Bultmann et al., Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. Hans Werner Bartsch (New York: Harper, 1962), 41.

26 For a survey of the theology of preaching from the New Testament to the modern period, consult Bernard Cooke, Ministry to Word and Sacraments: History and Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), pt. 2.

27 See the 1979 ECUSA Book of Common Prayer, 526, 532, 534.

28 See John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1966), 387-388, 397-398, 400, 403-404, 405-406.

29 See Buttrick, Homiletic, 449-459; and William H. Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 141-170, which is a summary of his two earlier books on homiletics.

30 For a fuller elaboration of this argument, see Paul M. Van Buren, “The Word of God in the Church,” Anglican Theological Review 39 (1957): 344-358.

31 Two examples of the sort of study I have in mind are Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Community in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); and Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

32 For an introduction to this discipline see Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1980).

33 Krister Stendahl, “Biblical Theology,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols., ed. George Arthur Buttrick et al. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), 1:430-431. Stendahls essay has produced a major debate. For a summary of this and a constructive revision, see Paul Scott Wilson, “Biblical Studies and Preaching: A Growing Divide?” in Preaching as a Theological Task: World, Gospel, Scripture: In Honor of David Buttrick, ed. Thomas G. Long and Edward Parley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).

34 Macquarrie, Principles, 387, 399, 421.


* Owen C. Thomas is professor of theology emeritus at the Episcopal Divinity School. He is the author of a number of books on theology and the philosophy of religion. His e-mail address is ot75@aol.com.

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