Every text a road

19 February 2016

David Winter on a US preacher’s approach

Preaching: Communicating faith in an age of scepticism
Timothy Keller
Hodder & Stoughton £16
(978-1-444-70217-0)
Church Times Bookshop £14.40

 

THE author of this book is a distinguished preacher in the United States and oversees a growing family of churches in New York. He is a preacher, in the American sense of the word: it is his passion and his calling. One imagines the congregation arriving to hear him on a Sunday morning, Bibles and notebooks at the ready, expecting a substantial and scripturally based address that will nourish their discipleship for the coming week.

Judging by the breadth of his reading, his shrewd insight into the modern mind, and his deep commitment to expository preaching, they do not often leave disappointed. His aim — and he is frank about this — is great preaching. As he tells us, he does not want his wife saying to him over Sunday lunch: “That was OK, but not one of your great ones.”

There are probably hundreds of preachers like him in the US, and tens of thousands of people in their congregations. The problem for the British publishers of his book is that there are probably barely a dozen such in the UK. Our largest churches are mostly of a more Charismatic style, and few of them have been built on a diet of long Bible-based sermons.

Anglican Evangelical churches, for instance, generally follow the pattern suggested long ago by the late Donald Coggan of “the sacrament of the Word”, pulpit and holy table, each in its unique way proclaiming the gospel message. You would not know from this weighty book (more than 300 large pages) that there were any sacraments — or the very notion of a lectionary. A whole chapter is devoted to deciding which biblical passages one should preach on — whole books, or themes? For him, the year is seasons (spring, summer, fall, and winter) rather than Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and so on.

That is not by any means to say that we have nothing to learn from Keller. He is passionate about expository preaching, and, whatever interpretative tools we bring to it, this is still surely the heart of the preacher’s calling. He is a good guide to the post-modern mind and the social miasma through which people hear the preacher’s message. He is interesting and engaging on the place of rhetoric in the pulpit. He is challenging over the preacher’s own devotional life, and the work of the Holy Spirit in Christian ministry.

I suspect, however, that many British readers will be uneasy about his demand that we literally “preach Christ from all the Scriptures”. Following a suggestion by C. H. Spurgeon that “in England every town has a road that leads to London, so every Scripture has a road that leads to Christ”, Keller sets out to demonstrate that every part of the Bible, no matter how apparently irrelevant, can be used to lead the hearer to the Messiah.

It is a great theory; but when one sees the examples he gives (Abel, Job, Esther, and Jonah, to name but four), one marvels at the ingenuity, but questions the validity of the exercise. His “proof text” for the practice is the road to Emmaus, where Jesus interpreted to the two disciples “the things about himself in all the scriptures”. Even then, though, it says that he “began with Moses and all the prophets”. Not quite “all the scriptures”, then.

 

Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC.

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