Jonathan Edwards and Preaching to Culture

In Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, Tim Keller shares much of what he has learned about preaching. One of my favorite parts is found in the footnotes. In case you do not read footnotes, you might want to read the following about Jonathan Edwards. Namely that he changed his preaching style when he moved to Stockbridge, MA in 1751.

Yes, the author of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” became gentler when he began preaching to the Mohican and Mohawk Indians on the edge of the frontier. According to Keller, his sermons became briefer and more compressed. He began to use more images and metaphors. Not only that, he started to choose images he hoped would resonate with the Indians. This is evident in his sermon “Warring with the Devil.” From the text in Luke 11 he depicts the strong man as Satan who is fully armed and a powerful warrior who has taken us captive. “Sin is therefore imaged as the state of being in thrall of an armed enemy.”

And then Edwards introduces grace and salvation. These of course come through Christ “A greater armed man, who can liberate us.” We are told that Edwards did not often discuss warfare, yet, “The Indian warrior culture provided his rhetorical opportunity.”

As much as I like these highlights from “Warring with the Devil,” I like what Keller tells about Edward’s first sermon to the Indians even more. In “The Things that Belong to True Religion” he does not begin with detailed exegesis, he does not add a treatise on doctrine or give multiple bible proofs. “He does something he had never done before – he begins with an extended story, the story of Cornelius… a racial outsider, a ‘heathen warrior,’ who finds faith in Christ.”

Edwards goes on to outline human history as the spreading of the gospel. From a family to a nation to Europeans like Cornelius. He talks about his own people, the English, who once worshipped idols but now follow Jesus. “Now, Edwards argues, the gospel is spreading from the Europeans to the Indians.” This is brilliant. Edwards identifies with the Indians. Even more, “This account puts the hearers themselves squarely in the middle of the great story of the world and of what God is doing in it.” Edwards shows his listeners that they are part of God’s plan.


Remembering Fred Craddock

At the end of the year when magazines talk about notable persons who died in 2015, it is possible that many will overlook Fred Brenning Craddock.  Yet preachers and congregations will long be indebted to the influence he has had on many sermons.  Nearly every time I have read something about him it includes a line like “he is unassuming.” I have heard him preach and it is true.  It is not a coincidence that he titled an early book As One Without Authority.  I consider this good news for all of us, not one of us bring any authority of our own into the pulpit.

Craddock claimed his early attempts to teach preaching did not go well.  At that time he was encouraged to read Soren Kierkegaard and was struck by the line “There is no lack of information in a Christian land; something else is lacking, and it is something one person cannot communicate directly to another.”  This line became a text of sorts for the Beecher Lectures at Yale which were later published as Overhearing the Gospel.

Craddock helped us to respect the listener.  While some have debated whether he removed too much authority from the preacher, we can probably all agree with his desire to create a dynamic conversation with the text.  Craddock desired sermons to create space for preachers to ask questions and for listeners to respond with yay or nay.  At the very least, this is a realistic place for a sermon to be.  He believed that in order for the listener to have a genuine response, yes and no must be real options.

We can also appreciate that he never removes authority from the text.  The dynamic conversation insists on the text having a say.  In his book Preaching, he states that though he starts with attention on the listeners “If one wishes to begin with the text, no objections come to mind.  The two will meet on down the road anyway, with neither one claiming to have had a head start.”

His legacy certainly includes preaching, but also teaching preachers.  Upon retirement from formal teaching, he started The Craddock Center.  Preaching workshops are among the core programming of the Craddock Center.  The workshops are offered at no charge for active preachers who serve small churches in Southern Appalachia.

I recall reading somewhere that he considered all of his preaching to be “semiautobiographical.”  I suspect the same is true for all of us.  The final paragraph of his Reflections on My Call to Preach says, “As for me, I believe God called me to preach; or, to put it another way, I decided to be a preacher.  Or, as Paul might put it, ‘I seek to lay hold of him who has already laid hold of me.’”  We are grateful and listeners to our sermons are as well.

Implications for Teller, Story, and Listener

Luke is full of implications for preachers, the message, and the listener. Perhaps Luke is especially interested in such conversation since he seems to go out of his way to report on the spread of the Gospel no matter what gets in the way. With that in mind, we had a kind of short course this weekend to discuss some of these implications. As with any short course, there is risk of over simplification but at the very least, it served as a starter for our conversation.

For a look at the teller, we examined Luke chapter three and the preaching of John the Baptist as a text.

Implications for the Teller, Messenger, Preacher
1. the teller is part of a larger story; one bigger than here, bigger than now
2. the teller is not assigned to coddle or flatter, not to amuse or entertain
3. the teller emphasizes and highlights what God is initiating and is bringing to pass
4. the teller is a participant in the activity of God, the teller is a participant in God’s intervention
5. the teller calls the audience to change, it is time to act differently, the way things are is not enough
6. the teller points to One who is greater

We examined an episode from Luke chapter four and the preaching of Jesus in Nazareth as a text to explore the story.

Implications for the Story, Message, Gospel
1. the story is not new, it started long ago, we are not making this up
2. the story is presented into a real situation, one that is close and familiar
3. the story will disrupt lives, it may raise intensity, it may receive unexpected or unfavorable results
4. the story demands things to be different from this time forward, things can never be the same
5. the story will not make things easy on the teller, in fact the opposite may be true
6. the story is the battle plan for a new kingdom, this will undoubtedly draw resistance from adherents of the current kingdom

We examined a portion from Acts chapter eight and the preaching of Philip in Samaria as a text to explore the situation of the listener.

Implications for Listeners, Audience, Congregation
1. listeners may include people that were never expected to receive an invitation to the new kingdom
2. listeners are looking for something greater than themselves
3. listeners hear competing stories and are invited to make a decision between other claims of greatness and the Good News of the Kingdom
4. listeners may be amazed by the Gospel yet not understand its implications
5. listeners may be tempted to use the Gospel for their own benefit, to their own advantage
6. listeners may not grasp the seriousness of the matter and be concerned only with their own well being

A Conversation for Karl, William and You

William Willimon credits Thomas Long as saying that preaching’s turn to the listener is the most significant homiletical trend of the twentieth century. Willimon then agrees with that assessment and suggests that our homiletical thought has become more interested with rhetorical, rather than theological concerns. He goes onto add that this “accounts in great part for the impoverishment of contemporary preaching.”

It is no secret that Willimon is enamored with Karl Barth. If there are doubts, then read Conversations With Barth on Preaching. So it comes as no surprise that Willimon brings Barth into this conversation. In the discussion “How to Say What God Says” he concludes that Barth has convinced him that listening to God is so much more interesting than listening to listeners.

Barth has been referred to as a “theological poet” and Willimon himself says that he wrote “theology with style.” While Willimon thinks of Barth as a master rhetorician, he is doubtful that Barth would take that as a compliment. Instead, he credits Barth with the development of a new way of speaking about God, as if he invented a new genre.

His preaching took on an explosive manner. I am reminded that someone once said that his Romans fell like “a bomb on the playground of the theologians.” His concern was not for the hearer but for the subject matter – God. At the very least, we can agree that this move is counter to the way many contemporary preachers think about preaching. In Conversations, Barth comes across as thinking either that preaching is theological or “a trivial endeavor hardly worth the effort.”

Willimon also invites Aristotle into the conversation who believes that “speaking is a politically significant power play that ought to be used with care.” He goes on to say that most preachers “do not think of themselves as powerful people.” He goes on, “yet anyone who has the gift of words has the potential to alter the world.” Then he adds that “Anyone who stands up and utters, ‘Thus saith the Lord…,’ is thrust into a situation where issues of power and language become primary.”

I do not suspect that Willimon cares whether you agree with him on these things. Or that you are in agreement with Barth. I do suspect that he hopes that such conversations with Karl Barth spur contemporary preachers to “a recovery of nerve, of gospel-induced boldness.”

A Text to Deal With

I fear that many sermons today attempt to answer questions that we may be curious about instead of questions that the text may be asking. While a sermon might comfort the listener, I fear that some are intended to make the hearer comfortable. I fear that some preaching tames the text until it becomes something usable for the listener. Something that adds value to what the listener is already doing. And while some sermons may be seeking conversion, I fear that it is the text that is being converted instead of the listener.

In Telling God’s Story, John W. Wright forms a contrast between sermons that simply reinforce the worldview of the hearer vs. those that introduce the worldview of the text.

In the first, Wright claims that the text is used to reassure rather than disturb. The convictions of the hearer remain intact and are even reinforced. The sermon is delivered as an answer to a question that already exists in the mind of the hearer. In contrast, Wright proposes that preaching should be an invitation to the biblical worldview. Preaching invites hearers into a different narrative in which they can live their lives. Into something different from the standard story. Something different from the story of an autonomous individual searching for their own happiness.

Wright calls for preaching that presents a new experience. Something unsettling. Something we do not choose. Something that happens to us. Something that must be dealt with. In this way, the text comes on us like weather. We do not ask for the weather. We simply receive the weather that is in store. The same with the biblical text. Here it is – deal with it.

Instead of reassuring or reinforcing our lives as they are, the text challenges us and demands that we leave the narrative of society and join this new narrative. Preaching calls our present lifestyle into question. Preaching asks the question “what are you going to do with this?”