What Is Right With Preaching Today?

FEATURES: What Is Right With Preaching Today?

First part of the series.

A.B., D.D.Professor of Biblical Homiletics, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Preaching "stands higher in the esteem of churchmen today than at any time in the past forty years. Forty years ago I was ordained as a minister of the gospel. During the intervening period I have witnessed five trends that have led me to expect better preaching in days to come. If I felt inclined to look on the dark side of the picture, I could point out ways in which we still fall short, but I thank God for these five trends in preaching and for the privilege of training ministers for tomorrow.

These trends ought to interest all of us who teach the finest of the fine arts, that of preaching the gospel. Those who deal with matters of delivery and we who concern ourselves with the preparation of sermons ought to look on these trends from much the same point of view. You will understand that I approach them as a teacher of homiletics and not as a professor of public speaking. I believe that these five trends, or rediscoveries, ought to en courage every seminary professor of public speaking or of homiletics.


At many a divinity school today note the rediscovery of the preacher. In the eyes of professors and students the preacher has become the most important person in the Protestant church. His work in the pulpit is becoming the most important part of his calling from God. Forty years ago no professor of homiletics could have made such statements. During these two decades I have witnessed at least the beginnings of a renaissance. Early in my career I watched professors and students as they sought to discover substitutes for the primacy of preaching. Of late many of our seminary professors, though by no means all, have begun to put the first thing first. However, they still find it difficult to keep the young graduate from trying to manage an ecclesiastical merry-go-round.

The rediscovery of preaching has begun to affect every department of the seminary. For example, think of theology. Compare the methods of teaching dogmatics forty years ago with the ways of presenting doc trine today. Listen to Prof. H. H. Farmer, of Cambridge, England. As a foremost teacher of theology, he is addressing students for the ministry. His book The Servant of the Word 1 stands second to no recent work about preaching. The scholar opens his book and his introductory chapter with these words:

"If one were asked to indicate in the briefest possible way the most central and distinctive trends in contemporary Christian theology, one would be tempted to answer, 'The rediscovery of the significance of preaching.'"

Professor Farmer makes clear that the trend has not yet begun to show itself everywhere in the church. But in the seminary world he can point to C. H. Dodd as a foremost Biblical scholar. This professor at Cambridge University shows that everywhere in the New Testament preaching stands first. His book The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments 2 has led many of us to think of the apostles first of all as preachers. This amounts to the re discovery of a truth well known to the fathers at the Reformation, but not to seminary students forty years ago.

Many Old Testament scholars have made a similar discovery about the prophets. All of us in the seminaries think of the prophets as the mightiest men of God before the coming of the Redeemer. We have likewise learned to look on them as preachers. Where in the history of the church can we find more moving spokesmen for God than Isaiah and Micah, Hosea and Amos? At an ordination service we often sing a hymn by Dennis Wortman, "God of the prophets, bless the prophets' sons." In that prayer song we implore the God of wisdom to make the young man first of all a preacher.

Church historians also have begun to rediscover the primacy of the pulpit. For example, think of Dr. Ray C. Petry, professor of church history at Duke University. He has just issued a volume of medieval sermons in translation.3 The professor rightly insists that seminary students and graduates ought to know more about the history of preaching. So he calls attention to sermons from the days before the Reformation. Forty years ago no professor of church history in the United States would have compiled such a work, and no publisher in the States would have expected the venture to pay its expenses. How the times do change!

Only one other seminary department remains the practical. The large majority of us who teach practical theology have begun to put the first thing first. Now we can give thanks because the wisest of our colleagues no longer look on homiletics as a waste of time, and on public speaking as the comic supplement of the curriculum. Forty years from now these colleagues may even begin to look on us as intellectually their equals!


In the pastor's study note the rediscovery of the teacher. By this I mean a popular teaching ministry from the pulpit. Forty years ago parish ministers read and thought about homiletics in terms of pulpit oratory and great sermons. Now the clergyman with open eyes has begun to see the necessity for more of teaching from the sacred desk. In various quarters this rediscovery assumes different forms. Often the situation calls for pulpit teaching from the Bible. For instance, Dr. Murray H. Leiffer, a seminary professor of sociology, has written a book The Layman Looks at the Minister* There he reports the results of a questionnaire among Methodist laymen out in the Middle West. He reports that among these Methodist laymen four out of five prefer the sort of Biblical preaching that concerns human needs today. He quotes one man as representing many others: "We want well- prepared, well-presented sermons, mostly Biblical in nature. We can hear book re views and lectures on current topics elsewhere." You note that those laymen want their Biblical sermons to be well presented.

Elsewhere the stress falls on the pulpit use of doctrine. In Richmond, Virginia, Dr. Theodore F. Adams serves as pastor of the First Baptist church. At the end of each year he asks the people to vote on the morning and the evening sermon they like best among those he has preached since the last vacation. Near the end of June he repeats the two messages they have chosen. He reports that the majority of the sermons they select have to do with prayer. Why? Doubtless because they wish to know what the Bible teaches about prayer, and how the hearer can pray most acceptably. A popular teaching ministry!

In other circles the times call for pulpit teaching of ethics. At another large church in Richmond the pastor reported that his largest ingathering came after a series of sermons about the Ten Commandments, one at a time. Week after week he interpreted a commandment in the light that streamed on it from the face of the Lord Jesus. Each time the speaker brought the matter home to the friend in the pew. Such a popular-teaching ministry knows how to reach the conscience and the will. He preaches for a verdict. Someone may ask, "What has all this to do with instructors in public speaking?" At first glance, apparently little or nothing. But let us look more closely. A popular-teaching minister needs to excel in what Dr. Rudolf Flesch terms the art of plain talks By that he means the use of short words and short sentences. He lays even more stress on the use of live words, and on the number of references to persons, usually one at a time. All this has much to do with delivery. How can a minister excel in the art of plain talk unless he knows how to speak clearly and with contagious enthusiasm?

The way a wise man delivers a sermon depends on what he wishes to accomplish. Suppose that he enters the pulpit expecting to teach a truth or a duty so clearly that everyone present will resolve to live in this new light from, God. With such an ideal the man in the pulpit determines to speak so clearly, so persuasively, so effectively, that he will win his case with every hearer. Such a public speaker calls no attention to himself or to his delivery. In the words of a well-known Scottish theologian, James Denney, "No man can bear witness to Christ and to himself at the same time."" For much the same reason Charles E. Jefferson, of New York City, used to declare that the best preaching voice never is heard.

In view of these facts about a popular teaching ministry, the call comes to the professor of public speaking. So train the preacher of tomorrow that he will be able to testify with the prophet of old, "The Lord God hath given me the tongue of one that is taught, that I should know how to speak." Isa. 50:4.


In the church, at large behold a trend that seems to some of us the most important of all. Why then not put it first? Because it does not as yet seem the most prominent. I refer to the rediscovery of the Bible. Forty years ago most of us devoted much attention to Holy Scripture. Zealously we strove to discover who wrote the various parts, with other things in the fields of higher and lower criticism. Now we have begun to insist that the minister of tomorrow ought to become an interpreter of the Book. Alas, many a seminary graduate discovers that he has never learned how to interpret a paragraph or even a verse in its setting! "With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation." Yea, verily, but "thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep."

On this whole matter listen to Dr. W. R. Matthews, dean of Saint Paul's Cathedral:

"The traditional phrases and concepts of theology are almost meaningless. They ring no bell in the thinking of our contemporaries. The first necessity for any Christian advance is to make clear what Christian belief means and what kind of life it involves. . . . We need preachers now who will do for this generation what Robertson of Brighton did for his." 7

What, then, did Robertson preach, and how? During his six years at that seaside resort young Robertson acted as the local interpreter of the Bible always in the best language of his day.8

In the morning Robertson would read a text and deal with it in its own setting. At the later service he would single out a longer passage and give what we call an expository lecture. In true expository fashion he worked his way through Genesis, 1 and 2 Samuel, the book of Acts, and 1 and 2 Corinthians. Whatever the size of the passage in hand, he used it in meeting the needs of the friends in the pews. Thus he ministered to the wellborn, such as Lady Byron, and to the common people, especially the latter. During the last hundred years he has shown more than a few of us ministers what it means to live at Bunyan's House of the Interpreter.

Not every minister has made this re discovery of the Bible as an inexhaustible source of materials for sermons today. More than a few pastors, some of them old enough to know better, keep scurrying hither and thither in quest of something to preach. They attend conferences and devour all sorts of books in the hope that they can uncover a lode of preaching ore, especially if someone else does the spade work. Such men may soon become dealers in secondhand goods. If so, they will miss the joys of the man who fences off a part of the Bible and then does his own digging.

At Princeton University the newer buildings resemble those at older Oxford University. The stone for these Princeton structures has all come from a quarry within a mile of the university. On the same campus the buildings erected fifty years ago consist largely of stones imported from another State. For some reason the imported stone has neither the beauty nor the distinction of what has been quarried close to home. All this suggests a sort of parable for the minister of tomorrow. Nowhere on earth can he find such materials for preaching as lie hidden in the Book that he learned to love at his mother's knee.

Thank God for this third trend, even though in many quarters the movement has only begun!

(Concluded next month)


1 H. H. Farmer, The Servant of the Word (New York: Scribners, 1942), p. 9.2 C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Develop ments (London: Hodder, 1936).z No Uncertain Sound, sermons translated into English by Dr. Ray C. Petry (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1948).4 Murray H. Leiffer, The Layman Looks at the Minister (Nashville, 1947), p. 50.= Rudolf Flesch, The Art of Plain Talk (New York, 1946).6 James Denney, Studies in Theology (London, 1893), p. 161.7 W. R. Matthews, Strangers and Pilgrims (London: Nisbet, 1946), p. 6.8 See James R. Blackwood, The Soul of Frederick W. Robertson (New York: Harpers and Brothers, 1947).

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A.B., D.D.Professor of Biblical Homiletics, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

November 1951

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