One of my mentors once said that “preaching is the crowning discipline”, because no matter what other subject in theological education that we might be studying, eventually we are going to have to preach it. What he probably should have also said is that while preaching might, in some sense crown theology, it most definitely rests upon theology. That is to say that a healthy understanding of preaching and its effects, builds necessarily upon a strong theology that gives our preaching its foundation.
For that reason, I am grateful for John Koessler’s Folly, Grace, and Power, which is, in my view, the most helpful expression of a theology of preaching that I have seen in many years. In his preface to the book, Koessler refers to Richard Lischer’s A Theology of Preaching, which had impressed itself on me almost twenty years ago. Lischer’s sense that “Preaching suffers a certain theological homelessness” is a claim that has been rectified, in some measure by Koessler’s thoughtful and courageous engagement with this “mysterious act” that we call preaching.
Koessler is the chair of the Pastoral Ministries department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and so serves as a trustworthy guide for this engagement with some of the thornier questions in homiletic theology. Why does God entrust something so precious as his will to fallen and finite human messengers? How is preaching both a human and a divine Word at the same time? How does the preacher animate the text without altering it? How is the authority of preaching affected by the quality of the preacher’s hermeneutic? How does the priestly nature of the sermon connect with its prophetic element? How does imagination function in relation to realism in our preaching? If you have every tried to preach with care, you will understand the challenge of these questions.
Koessler adopts an integrative, both/and perspective to these questions. Preaching is both human and holy. It is both the word of the preacher even as it communicates the very word of God. I love that Koessler takes a high view of preaching, without diminishing the involvement of the human listener. “Those who preach do not give advice,” he say, “they declare (57).” Preaching is proclamation in that it challenges us to see that “the lived theology of the biblical text becomes the experienced theology of the congregation (128).”
Preaching, in Koessler’s hands, is not a simple, exercise in polite communication. “Lord, what could you possibly have been thinking,” is the missing question from many of our sermons, he believes (p.99). We communicate God’s Word not so much to make us comfortable, but to astonish or even to dismay. “The prophetic nature of preaching gives us authority to make demands of the listener. The priestly nature of preaching obligates us to make demands of the text (96).”
Buy this book and clear some time. Read it slowly and let it revolutionize your preaching. I know my students will. I’ll be assigning it to them!
Koessler, John. Folly, Grace, and Power: The Mysterious Act of Preaching. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.