Book review: Proclamation and Theology by Will Willimon
William Willimon: Proclamation and Theology (Abingdon Press)
It’s my reading week this week so I’ve got four books lined up to read, learn from and then review for The Proclaimer. This is the first. I forget now who recommended that I should read it (though I have a notion it may have been Garry Williams at the John Owen Centre). Nor do I know anything about the author – William Willimon is apparently a Resident Bishop in the United Methodist Church in the US – but I have no idea what that means in terms of theological position – nor did I try to find out; I wanted to read this book on its own merits, not because I share the doctrinal convictions of the author!
The book is based on three lectures on preaching given by the author and at times it feels like there has not been enough work done on editing and making it a book rather than a printed lecture. So, for example, there are times when it seems that Willimon is contradicting himself, albeit gently:
“We must recover a sense of preaching as something that God does – a theological matter before it is an anthropological matter – preaching is the business of God before it is our business” (p19).
He goes on to explain that this means the primary issues are of understanding truth, not playing to the gallery of our hearers.
“The Christian preacher is so much more interested in the nature of the God who is to be brought to speech rather than the nature of the listeners who are to hear the speech or in the limits or attributes of the speaker who must give the speech” (p41).
But he then later berates preachers who are “prejudiced against concerning themselves greatly with matters of style and delivery….in preaching, style is substance, the way truth is presented is part of the truth.” (p43). At times, then, there is the lack of internal consistency.
At other times, the book seems rather bitty – like a collection of thoughts strung together when a lecturer has reached the end of his allotted time and realised he still has a lot to say. Whilst this often works in a spoken context, it rarely does in a written one and I found those parts of the book hard going.
However, I don’t want to paint a negative picture. Far from it – this is a good book, especially in its initial defence of preaching as God means of communicating himself and growing the church. The first third of the book (probably the first lecture?) is a robust defence of what I would call “biblical preaching.”
The author also uses a puritan type language to align the work of preaching (both public proclamation and private exhortation) with prophecy.
“From my reading of Acts 2 and Luke’s account of the birth of the church I derive a few principles of prophecy: (1) The Spirit has given the world a prophetic community not simply a few outspoken social critics; (2) The goal of the Spirit’s descent is the creation of a polis a people who look, speak and act differently from the world’s notions of community; and (3) No individual prophets are possible without the existence of a peculiar prophetic community whose life together is vibrant enough to produce a band of prophets who do not mind telling the truth to one another and the world, no matter what” (p26-7).
He also has a high view of the nature of Scripture which is helpful for every preacher.
“The Bible was spoken before it was written….All Scripture is, in its various forms, proclamation remembered, recollected, and reformed in literary form. We will read Scripture in a way that is faithful to its intentions if we read Scripture as a sort of sermon before we read it as history, mythology, literature, biology or doctrine. Scripture may proclaim through literary modes that resemble what the world calls history or literature or myth or cosmology but we do the Bible a disservice any time we read it without being cognisant of its essentially theological, homiletical intent” (p32-33).
This high view of the nature of Scripture as essentially God’s sermon means that Willimon has a corresponding and welcomed high view of preaching itself. So the preacher is not analaysing an ancient text like a scholar with Homer’s Iliad, “desperately hoping to make this ancient writing relevant to a contemporary audience” but, rather, that “here, the living, resurrected Christ, intends to be with his people…Scripture is God in action, not just then but also now.” (p39).
The strong exhortation to think about serving God as our main aim is an encouragement to every preacher.
“[This is] different [to the] approach of contemporary homiletics. We tend to think of that the test of a sermon is the impact upon the listeners. Have they heard what is said? Do they consent to the argument? Are they emotionally moved? Have their lives been enriched?” However, “we are to love the text more that we love our congregational context. We preachers are to worry more about what is being said and how well we can replicate that word than we are to worry about whether or not what is being said is being heard in the world” (p20).
The second two thirds of the book though seem weaker. This may be because I have fundamental difficulty with the way Willimon applies his principles (with which I largely agree). For example, on the style of preaching,
“Biblical preaching tends to be narrative rather than abstract or propositional or theoretical because narrative is the typical way of dealing with the truth of a Trinitarian incarnate God” (p48).
“so-called expository preaching is not truly biblical when the extracted idea is expounded and applied, turning biblical narrative into abstract, general concepts and principles.”
I think I know what he is saying, but it’s not a helpful way to say it. For sure, those of us committed to biblical preaching can lack variety in our preaching (and I think Jeffrey Arthurs is best on this in his book Preaching with variety). Nevertheless, the epistles, for example, which Willimon acknowledges as God’s sermon, do precisely what he denigrates here – they do present the truth of a Trinitarian incarnate God in propositional terms.
Later on Willimon explains a bit more what he thinks it means to preach a Trinitarian God, but this section only gets 3½ pages and has some strange conclusions, for example,
"The conventional three point sermon, the sermon that explains, defines and fixes, is usually too tame and stable a medium for the dynamic living Trinity. Most of us preachers require a three year cycle of Scripture in the Common Lectionary..” (p64).
In the penultimate section “cross and resurrection in preaching” the author gives almost 5 pages to “Cruicform preaching” (which consists of 5 slightly abstract and unconnected thoughts) but gives 15 pages to “Resurrection preaching.” I would be the first to admit that Evangelicals can neglect the Resurrection at the expense of the Good Friday story – but I can’t go with Willimon’s balance. He links with crucifixion with “failure” in our preaching and the resurrection with “potential” (p79) but I’m not sure that this is a parallel that really works.
It’s easy, of course, to find fault rather than praise excellence and there is much in this book that is excellent and worthy reading for any preacher. Nevertheless, I finished up feeling a little cold about preaching rather than warmed and stirred. My initial enthusiasm gave way to befuddlement as concrete propositions gave way to somewhat confused (to my mind) application. Perhaps the book needed to be longer to allow Willimon to make his points more clearly?
Greg Jones (Duke Divinity School) wrote the blurb. “Will Willimon explains the urgent importance of preaching for the church and for people’s lives and he commends it beautifully as a theological task.” Yes, he does do that – I agree. But it is what he then does with his principles that left me feeling ever so slightly cold and more than a little dazed.
Avoiding boring sermon illustrations
Experienced preachers often suggest younger ones should start a file of sermon illustrations. There isn’t really any other way to avoid recycling illustrations everyone has heard before.
The trouble – at least for me – is that this involves an awful lot of organisation. You have to remember to write it down when the inspiration hits, or you hear that perfect story. Then you have to remember to file it properly. And you have to file it in the right place. There are plenty of illustrations that cross categories – that might be useful to illustrate humility, but seem more sensibly filed under marriage. Neither paper nor, until recently, computers, offered solutions to that problem that are anything other than baroque – at least if you build up a file of any size.
Recently I discovered a solution that is both simple and free: Evernote. This program will file whatever you like, and you can search all your notes easily – and find them by any of the words contained in it, not just by title or where you happened to file it. And then you can organise them however you want. Unlike paper notes, it is easy to tag your note both ‘humility’ and ‘marriage’. And all this is backed up to the internet, accessible from anywhere, so you can’t lose the files. It can file pictures, sounds, and web-pages as well, and even has the ability to search text in photos you add.
If you have a smartphone of almost any kind, it works on these too. So if you are out, you can make a quick note on your phone or take a photo, and when you get home it will be sitting there on your computer.
And as a result you spend far less time desperately trying to remember where you saw that article last month which illustrates exactly what you need to say in your sermon this week.
Thabiti on conferences
Seeing as we're in the business of running conferences, here's a great help posted by Thabiti Anyabwile… 10 questions to ask when attending a conference.
Doing justice to an acrostic
I'm preaching on Psalm 145 at the weekend. It's one of the acrostic psalms – each couplet begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. I have been thinking how a preacher in the 21st Century, preaching in English, does justice to this memorable structure. It's almost certain that David wrote the psalm in this way to make it memorable – and indeed many preachers incorporate that into their title – "The A-Z of praise" of "An ABC of the greatness of God." All well and good – but it doesn't really reflect the nature of the psalm does it? Is there any way to be faithful to the nature of the psalm?
Here's one idea – my four teaching points were originally:
- Praise the Lord for his greatness (4-7)
- Praise the Lord for his grace (8-13)
- Praise the Lord for his faithfulness (14-16)
- Praise the Lord for his salvation (17-20)
I've now rewritten these to be:
- Praise the Lord for he is AWESOME (4-7)
- Praise the Lord for his BLESSINGS (8-13)
- Praise the Lord for he is the CARER (14-16)
- Praise the Lord for he DELIVERS (17-20)
Perhaps, just perhaps, people will now think A-B-C-D and it will make the message (and the psalm) more memorable?
MLJ memorial lecture
This year's memorial lecture hosted by the John Owen centre (there's a lot of this boy at the moment) is given by Stuart Olyott on the topic of Preaching that gets through – God's Word and our words. Stuart's always good value – even if you don't agree with everything he says, his style and content always makes you think. You can read his article on prayer for our 2010/11 guide here. This lecture is on Monday 24th September 7.30pm at London Theological Seminary. Maybe I'll see you there?
John Owen and the barn
PT is off to Colchester tomorrow to run a Bible teaching day focusing on the prophets. We'll be working with around 60 local Bible preachers and teachers. This is our first regional venture for some time and we're very excited about it. Our actual venue is the John Owen Barn at Fordham Church. I asked the rector, Mike Neville, how the barn came to be so-named. The answer? Fordham was John Owen's first living – that's quite a history! Now, seeing as John Owen is something of a hero of mine, here are a few resources to find out or read more.
- John Owen has his own website here. Well, not his, obviously, but Justin Taylor who's a bit of an Owen fan himself has put this together. The site has a very useful timeline and some helps on how to read John Owen today.
- Talking of Taylor – I do like his slight modernisation of three of Owen's works into Overcoming sin and temptation. I still find it easier to read even this modernised version with someone else. Hard work, but immensely rewarding.
- For those who want something simpler, Grace Publications have produced simplified versions of five Owen classics: Life by his death (The death of death in the death of Christ), The glory of Christ (Meditations on the glory of Christ), Christians are forever (Perseverance of the saints), Living with the living God (Communion with the Holy Spirit), Thinking spiritually (The grace and duty of being spiritually minded) and What every Christian needs to know (Temptation and the mortification of sin).
- Banner still produce the whole works, of course, or you can read them online at CCEL, along with many of his sermons.
- There's also a brief biography at CCEL
You could always nip along to Fordham of course….
FWIW, Owen's stuff on the mortification of sin is dynamite. Not only is he an interesting historical figure, his writing is supremely pastoral and helpful in forging a closer walk with Christ. Try it.
More like this:
I had one ear open at breakfast today (15thSeptember) when the Radio 4 Today programme was discussing the Pope’s visit. Various reports and interviews focussed mainly on the numerical decline of the Roman Catholic Church in the UK (ignoring the large increases from Polish and other immigrants). What interested me was the reason given for this decline, which was the uncompromising stance of the church (and especially this Pope – so deeply loathed by the liberal media) on contentious moral issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and contraception. If only, they suggested, the RC Church relaxed this stance and came more into line with ‘the values of our culture’, then this numerical decline could be reversed.
I hold no brief for the Roman Catholic Church, (and consider the ban on artificial contraception to be a flawed deduction from the Bible), but the liberal ‘logic’ of this report struck me as deeply illogical. Is the answer to numerical decline to take our ethical stance from ‘the values of our culture’? This seems to me absurd. Why bother to join a church, if it believes just what the surrounding culture believes? I can think of better things to do with my Sundays. Besides, there are Anglican churches whose ethics appear pretty much indistinguishable from our culture, and they seem to be declining pretty fast too.
Writing in a wide margin Bible
If you're an ESV user you may be interested to know that Cambridge University Press (who produce fine Bibles) have now added a wide margin ESV to their catalogue. It's not cheap, but if you love wide margin Bibles for note taking, theirs is the best UK text. I use a true-tone Crossway ESV which not only has a wide margin but single column text and, like an old fashioned Bible, each verse starts on a different line – this is great for note taking as it means that there is lots of space around each sentence as well as in the margin. I got mine from amazon UK.
But what do you write with? Some people use pencil – but I find a thin pencil can easily rip the page. Ballpoint is too thick and fountain pen (my weapon of choice) seeps through even "ink-resistant" pages. So I use 0.05mm technical pens – like these by Mistubishi. Ideal.
Conference Bookings Now Open
We are excited to announce that online booking is now open for all of our conferences until July 2011.
- Autumn Joint Ministers Conference : 8 – 11 November 2010
- London Week : 10 – 15 December 2010
- Women in Ministry : 17 – 20 January 2011
- The Preachers Weekend : 18 – 20 Feb 2011
- Spring Ministers’ Wives Conference : 7 – 10 March 2011
- Spring Younger Ministers Conference : 3 – 6 May 2011
- Spring Senior Ministers Conference : 16 – 19 May 2011
- The Evangelical Ministry Assembly : 22 – 24 June 2011
- Cornhill Summer School : 27 June – 1 July 2011
- Summer Ministers’ Wives Conference : 4 – 7 July 2011
Space on our residential conferences is strictly limited, so early booking is recommended.
Wives’ conferences – what’s it all about?
Next week is the second of our two annual wives' conferences. People sometimes ask why a trust concerned with the proclamation of the Word of God should be bothered about such things? Here's why.
- those who are married to ministers of the gospel face a peculiar set of pressures and need targeted and thought through encouragement. It is not enough to be a godly woman when you're married into gospel work. Or, rather, of course it's enough to be godly, but godliness takes a slightly different slant in ministry and needs different focus.
- the state of preaching in our churches is intricately linked to the spiritual well being of those who are called to preach – hence "watch your life and doctrine closely." [This is not a "works" link as though the efficacy of preaching was dependent upon godliness. How could it be so? Nevertheless, Scripture does build a connection.] For every married preacher therefore, his marriage and the support of his wife is critical.
There are more good reasons for hosting wives' conferences, but there are two good ones to start. Both the spring wives' conference and summer wives' conference get fully booked – wives NEED this encouragement. We would love churches to take up the burden of paying for ministers' wives to attend – too many pay for themselves and we think churches need to recognise the important role they play in supporting their man.
Booking will soon be open for 2011. Please note that spaces for those with babies are very limited due to the number of child carers we are able to take with us.