Saturday, May 7, 2016

Feast or Famine -- Pulpit Fare for Lutherans

It has often been said that Lutheranism began as a movement of the Word and that the Reformation was a preaching revival as much as a theological movement.  If that was the case in the beginning of Lutheranism, the state of preaching today is not without its critics.  Even the President of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has called for a renewal in the pulpits of the church. In place of the robust doctrinal preaching of the past, Lutherans have been tempted to focus more upon feelings, therapeutic themes, and topics more suited to the modern day evangelical preoccupation with the best life today rather than the more profound issues of sin, death, and hell.  Even where Lutheran preachers avoid the vacuous oratory found in too many pulpits, they have often found it hard preach the hard subjects of repentance, holy living, and doctrine.  In the midst of this comes a new volume on Lutheran Preaching in the Twenty-First Century: Feasting in a Famine of the Word.

With 17 essays and a foreward, a diverse group of authors addresses a range of topics related to the title.  John Bombara raises an appropriate question not unknown to many folks on the receiving end of sermons: Is there a text in this sermon?  Surveying various methods and suggesting several possible structures, Bombara finds the key less in the structure than in the dymanic content, proclamation, and application of law and gospel.   Mark Birkholz is both one of the editors and a contributor to the volume.  He addresses the issue of certainty – not only the reliability of the Scriptures themselves but also the testimony of the preacher and his own confidence in the Biblical Word (communicated in the same vibrant manner with which the early church preachers spoke with conviction).  I recall in Seminary thinking that New Testament writers would have probably failed a course in Old Testament interpretation.  Paul Elliott addresses just this question of how to interpret the Old Testament faithfully.  Favoring a typological approach, Elliott sets himself within the Lutheran mainstream while at the same time placing Christ in the center. 

The Lutheran tradition is not overlooked.  Rick Serina offers an essay on Nicholas of Cusa in which preaching itself is set as an agent of the semper reformanda of the church and reminds us that no reformation movement happens without it first focusing upon the renewal of the clergy (and preaching).  Roy Axel Coats directs us to John Gerhard and his call for the renewal of preaching and how systematic theology finds its fulfillment in what happens in the pulpit.  Such a connection reminds one of Martin Franzmann’s famous dictim that theology must sing.  Gerhand might say it must preach or it is not worth much at all.  Jacob Corzine takes up the subject of doubt.  Few preachers are immune from doubt and neither are the hearers without their struggles to believe despite their unbelief.  Corzine directs us to the objective foundation of the faith in the means of grace.

Every preacher wrestles with the we and you of preaching.  Jonathan Mumme takes us through the questions of when and whether the preacher identifies himself with the hearers or sets himself apart.  I was particularly interested in this since I grew up in an era when preachers tended to soften the blow of the Law by including themselves under it and hear more and more younger pastors speak more easily the “you” (remembering that when the preacher preaches, Christ is speaking).  Steven Paulson is a well known name who reminds us that the Word preached is performative – it acts, creates, and does what it says.  In the same way, John Pless also highlights the sacramental character of preaching and its liturgical context.  Pless reviews several Lutheran theologians and delves into the place of the catechism within Lutheran preaching.  John Kleinig also is concerned with the relationship between preaching and liturgy and the location of the sermon within the context of the Word and Altar of the Lord.  My old friend David Peterson asks whether we should even bother to preach – given the context of the Word read, the Sacrament administered, and the great sermons of those who have gone before us.  His essay is especially practical since he, as parish pastor, must answer that question every week as he mounts the pulpit to proclaim the Word of the Lord that endures forever to people with whom he also lives out his life of faith.

Hans-Jörg Voigt directly speaks to the antinomian tendency among many Lutheran preachers.  Though it is easy to speak about this clearly, Voigt points out that even the venerable CFW Walther found it challenging to preach as he taught; he also addresses the right relationship between Law, Gospel, and parenesis.  Esko Murto suggests that doctrines often avoided in the pulpit actually belong there – such hard to preach topics as election, the bondage of the will, and original sin.  As a student a wise mentor once told me that if you preach to pain you will have many hearers.  Jeremiah Johnson writes on learning to lament and how to avoid the pleasant, easy, but empty answers that typically try to resolve the tension between the present age and the age to come.  I only wish it were easier!  Jakob Appell continues this idea of the preacher as physician for the sick in spirit, prescribing the medicine of the soul in the means of grace.  Daniel Schmidt brings his missionary experience to bear judging the sermon neither by its content alone nor its delivery but in its cohesive proclamation of the living God and His Spirit.  Gottfried Martens helps the preacher walk from text to sermon, from desk to pulpit.  While he believes in memorization, some will find other methods more apropos. 

After reading this volume, I am amazed by several things.  One is the range and diversity of authors who are hardly monolithic yet who speak from all sides toward the common issues of the preaching task.  They come from all over the globe and represent some of the best of Lutheran scholarship and pastoral care.  The character, scope, and depth of the essays makes this volume more than worthwhile.  Finally, what surprises me is that this was a more or less volunteer endeavor – several individuals whose interest and work turned an idea into a significant contribution on the subject of Lutheran preaching.  It is testament to the editorial team (Mark Birkholz, Jacob Corzine, and Jonathan Mumme).  They have succeeded in rounding up talented authors who put together a powerful resource for Lutheran preachers for whom the subject of preaching is not simply theoretical.  I highly recommend this volume.  I hope that it will become standard fare among those who teach preaching and those who learn it in Lutheran seminaries.

1 comment:

John Joseph Flanagan said...

I agree wholeheartedly. Preaching needs to be revitalized. The LCMS must take on this challenge as an immediate priority. Where the word is not taught correctly and with passion and will find dying churches. We must get back to the basics and do it now in every pulpit everywhere in the Synod.