30 April 2008

The Wrong Way to Teach Homiletics

is to begin with the assumption that one must master the text. You know, the pastor, the "expert", equipped with all sorts of dictionaries and grammars has a go at the text. Then he takes the info from the text he's mastered and is given various techniques to knock it into shape and impart it to the "non-experts" - the laity! I don't think I'm being unfair as I reflect back on my own seminary training - that's what they attempted to teach us to do.

And it's all wrong. It goes wrong from the get go. The task of the preacher is not to master the text, not to interpret it, not to exegete it. Rather, the task of the preacher is to hear God addressing him through that text, interpreting him, exegeting him. The text and the God who speaks through it, is the Master. God would shape through that text the mind of Christ in those He addresses. And a big help in that is the whole community of those whom God has addressed - the Church who has heard Him speak through this text through the ages.

That God speaks a shattering word of law to humble pride of heart to save us (the Akathist of Thanksgiving) and that God speaks a sustaining, refreshing word of Gospel to impart and strengthen trust. Both together and neither alone - either by itself is formula for disaster for then God hasn't been heard all the way through.

And the beauty of this is that the preacher doesn't come to the pulpit as the resident expert, but as one among many whom God has addressed, and his whole task is to let others HEAR the address that he has heard: the God who humbles and who imparts trust to save us. The God revealed in the Cross of Christ as so for us that the spiritual attacks that come in their diversity and ferocity cannot shake that anchor that holds firm within the veil.


Anonymous said...

As a seminarian, these comments are very helpful as I seek to understand just what it means to be an instrumentum Dei. Thank you!

Pr. Lehmann said...

I've often thought that this was probably the most important thing you taught me about preaching during vicarage.

BTW, that Christ is the exegete is the simple plain teaching of Scripture:

Θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακε πώποτε· μονογενὴς υἱὸς ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς, ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο. (John 1:18)

No one has ever seen God; the only begotten Son, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.

Christopher Esget said...

I think I finally began to realize this a few years ago. I came out of seminary thinking I needed to write a commentary on each pericope, and teach the people up so they could understand what "the original Greek text" was saying. One dear friend was driven from the ministry, I am convinced, by taking this burden to extraordinary lengths. Of course, not only is this impractical, it misses the real point.

Thanks for articulating this. The trick is to continue to study, while not letting that study "show."

+ Robert Wurst said...

That hits the nail on the head.

I think the seminary approaches preaching as an academic exercise. They teach it like one teaches dissection. Do this, then do that, etc. I remember learning Goal-Malady-Means. Ack.

Preaching is intimately connected with the people who hear it. I don't think it can be effectively taught by those who are not actively preaching in a parish. The seminary is a wonderful environment but it is an isolated one.

Pastors need altars. So do professors.

Petersen said...

Good post! Thanks.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

The old catch word was "relevant" - we had to make things relevant. And all sorts of things would be tried - and yet, the key to "relevant" preaching is to see that your sermon preaches to you, hits you right between the eyes. If it does that, it's going to do that for your folks too.

My vicarage supervisor at daily Matins would drill this into me. We would discuss the NT reading, and after 15-45 minutes of discussion, he would ask me "What do the people at Trinity need to hear from this?" And I would be expected to give a brief outline. And if I just was broad about the text, he would say, "No, that's too generic - what do the people here need to hear?" Thinking that way shifts your focus on what the Scriptures say. They aren't just texts to be understood, but they speak to you no matter what your situation is.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I should clarify - when discussing "relevant" I wasn't saying this is what I was taught at the Seminary, but in the last 50-60 years in the US that has been the push.

Also - whom do you guys think are the good preachers - who give good examples of how one should craft a sermon these days?

Anonymous said...

Gee, Pastor Weedon, sounds like you have picked up the "Augsburg Aha" from Ed Schoeder over at Crossings.org.
Spot on !

Fr. Hank

William Weedon said...

More like reading Oswald Bayer, Fr. Hank, and his various insights into what Luther thought made a theologian. Good stuff.

Pr. Lehmann said...

Bayer was reinforcing what you taught me on vicarage. This is not a new insight for you.

Pastor Beisel said...

Well, I have to say that having had Art Just for hom. I, I do not feel like I was lacking in anything. He most certainly did not approach it as an academic exercise, but I remember one line from him: the purpose of preaching is to bring people into communion with the flesh of Jesus Christ. For me, preaching is an ever-evolving art.

Pr. Lehmann said...

I wish Dr. Just had still taught homiletics when I was at the Fort.

Dr. Gard and Dr. Quill were okay, but I mainly learned homiletics from David Schmitt and William Weedon.

Fr John W Fenton said...

Good post, good thoughts, Pr Weedon. Luther certainly preached in the patristic vein--not as "master teacher" but as homilitician--one who says the same, or says again, what the Lord has said. To say that, one has to first listen. To others who have asked, I've suggested that they preach what they need to hear from what they've heard.

exegete77 said...

Thought-provoking. I don't think it is as clear cut as you suggest though, and caution against the neglect of exegetical study (the temptation is there enough to do so as it is). Sadly after seminary, many pastors no longer engage the original language text, but get "derived exegesis" through word studies, commentaries, the latest theological treatises, or what-have-you. So it isn't that it is "too exegetical"; rather, it is the wrong kind of exegesis that plagues many pastors.

Obviously some balance is needed. There are at least two aspects to the preaching preparation: the man's study of the text and God's study of the man through the text. We cannot ignore the exegetical tasks and preparation; otherwise we are no different than the hobby-horse preachers who "come up with their own thing". Likewise, exegetical study does not end the process, as you note, because it leads to academic treatises.

I remember that Dr. Brighton would have us read, translate, comment on the Greek text. Then he would lean over the podium and say, "Gentlemen, how are you going to apply (preach, teach, pastoral care) this to your people in the pew?"

I have noticed over the past 20+ years that many pastors read/study the (English) Bible for the sake of preaching, teaching (which leads to distancing of the text from life), but seldom do they read for their own spiritual enrichment. So perhaps we are not so far apart in our assessment, after all.

Always enjoy reading your blog, Bill. Thanks.

Rich Shields

kjslutherisch said...

I had Fickenschur and he was great; I think he hit the balance well - that is, getting the insights from the languages but still roughly following the approach you outline in your post. I distinctly remember him saying something to the effect of, "If you could preach your sermon anywhere, it's probably not a good sermon."

As far as "immersing yourself in the great life-stream of the church," as put by the Rt. Rev. Bo Giertz and alluded to by you here, I personally find St. Bernard of Clairvaux very helpful to that end.

William Weedon said...


I think the key is the use of the languages (which is truly a joy, though one I still struggle with after all these years) is to help us to HEAR what God is saying. I was not arguing against the sweat per se, of hearing the text (it is work!).

One area that I remember thinking exegetics struggled over a bit was in failing to HEAR how text calls to text, and thus recognizing through all of Scripture the Spirit's voice testifying to the Son. Good, solid work on the text is the work that aids in that hearing. But the hearing needs to happen in the total matrix of Scripture so that you hear fully what God is saying - and again I'll stress, we ignore those who have heard this Word spoken before to our peril. Not that I think you're suggesting any such thing!

Aaron D. Wolf said...

What is the relationship between "sermon helps" and the preacher's task of hearing the Word?

William Weedon said...

Well, I'm not sure exactly what you mean by "sermon helps." I can tell you that I o seek the help of others to help me hear God's speaking through the pericope.

I do try to listen to whatever the fathers (including the Lutheran fathers) heard God saying through the text. Luther's House Postils are invaluable for that - and most valuable where you find yourself scratching your head at how he heard THAT from the text (same the the Church fathers - pay attention above all to what you missed in your reading and listening).

Secondly, I think quite helpful is listening to those who share the mind of Christ and what they hear in the text - that's the point of our weekly pericopal gathering. It seems invariably I learn much from my fellow pastors who have stood together under the text, listening to God speak through it.

Thirdly, I must confess that I almost never use commentaries. I say that simply because I've found nearly across the board they take a lot of time answering questions I didn't have; and almost no time answering the questions I do. And they seem invariably to operate from the "mastery of the text" perspective which gets in the way of HEARING God speak through the text. I just haven't found them nearly as useful in HEARING the text as my fourth point.

Fourthly, hearing with the Church how that Word of God impacts her means more than just checking out the Symbols (though that's vital!), but above all it means hearing the text in the matrix of the Church's liturgy.

"See the rivers four that water
With their streams the better Eden,
Planted by our Savior dear.
Christ the fountain, these the waters,
Drink, O Zion's sons and daughters,
Drink and find salvation here."

Four rivers watering Eden? Four Gospels watering the new Eden! The water of life that courses through them? Jesus Himself. And so on.

There's so much to learn that way, and its set before us in our hymnody and prayers. If we pray and sing, we will find the place where the Words live, for this is the community that those Words called to life and that live, literally live, from those Words, from hearing them.

Does it all make any sense or is it a mishmash?

William Weedon said...

Oh, Fr. John, thanks for the heads up on Bayer on the other thread. I've not seen anything yet that contradicts the Finns, but will keep my eyes open, especially in that direction.

exegete77 said...

William, your comments seem to complement what I had written and addressed my concerns. Further, your outline in response to Aaron's question clarifies that we are walking the same road.

I think in early years after studying the text, it was too easy to go to the commentaries. Wrestling with the text is best without that perspective until later, otherwise, the study is of the commentary, not the text itself.

Dizziness said...

In case it gets lost in the discussion, you should note that CTSFW revised its curriculum in 2005-6. Part of this revision was a major shift in the teaching of homiletics. Yes, it still emphasizes exegesis but has added emphasis on the other three disciplines. In your second year you take Theologia: Preaching which includes consideration of preaching through the centuries (with an emphasis on Luther), many weeks on the theology of preaching, and analysis of techniques and styles historically and recently.

Its quite the incredible course. Great preachers like Just, Bushur, Ziegler, and Scaer all get to have a part.

But as Pr. Lehmann said, nothing makes a great preacher like listening to great preaching. Fathers, Luther, and contemporaries. The Lord speaks and I'm listening.

Josh S said...

The text interprets you? What is this, Soviet Russian?