Luther on the Marks of a Good Preacher II

The sixth, seventh, and eighth marks of a good preacher are, for Luther, that he should know when to stop, he should be certain and diligent in his subject, and he should put his life, limb, possessions and honour into it,  There is a ninth mark, but we'll come to that in a moment.

Of the three listed above, the seventh is straight forward: essentially, the preacher should study to know his subject so that he can speak with the confidence and certainty that he knows that about which he preaches.

The sixth is undoubtedly the most painful for preachers to hear.  All preachers, like teachers, like the sound of their own voices and all labour under the illusion that everybody else is as interested in listening to what they have to say, and, of course, to them saying it, as they are themselves.  If it were not so, they would scarcely have the confidence to preach but, as is often the case, the strength which the Lord can use to great effect is also the signal weakness that can just as easily do great harm.  There are few things more disheartening as a congregant than hearing a forty minute preacher preach for fifty minutes, a thirty minute preacher preach for forty minutes, or a twenty minute preacher preach for thirty minutes.  Somehow, that last ten minutes can weaken and even destroy the impact of all that has been said in the sermon to that point.  There is no virtue in length for the sake of it.  I think I've heard two preachers in my entire life who could preach for an hour; and most preachers I know would be much better if they shaved at least five or ten minutes off their typical length.  Get up there, say what you've got to say as clearly as you can, and then sit down again.  That's all that's necessary.   As Luther says elsewhere in Table Talk (2643a), `I hate a long sermon, because the desire on the part of the congregation to listen is destroyed by them, and the preachers hurt themselves.'   And, as usual, Luther got it right. 

On the eighth mark, the commitment of life and all to the cause of preaching, I suspect Luther is here pointing to the need for the preacher to be so existentially involved with the task that this flows over into his sermons, not as constant references to self but as passion.   

I thought of this a few weeks ago when visiting at another church.  At the time when the sermon was meant to be preached, the pastor gave a fine lecture on the Bible a good, redemptive historical exposition of an Old Testament passage.  The congregation waited politely for the abracadabra-hey-presto! moment when, like a bunny from a magician's top hat, Jesus is pulled as if by magic from the chosen  Old Testament passage.  And, hey presto, there he was, right on cue, where he'd never been seen before! -- though there were no gasps of amazement, as the congregation had, I presumed, seen the trick performed a thousand times before with other texts.  The old `I bet you never saw Jesus there before' gets a bit predictable and tiresome when its the only application, I guess. This was truly a lecture and no sermon.  

Now, I may not be able to articulate precisely the difference between lecturing and preaching, but, like defining art and pornography, my inability in this regard does not mean that I don't recognise it when I see it.  And a fascinating Christological lecture on a passage from the Old Testament that leaves me merely impressed with the ingenuity of the speaker and not confronted with the living Christ is just that, and no more.

It struck me as ironic that, in a place where talk of law-gospel was common, where Luther was honoured, where justification was a central doctrine, the lecturing could be so far from Luther's preaching -- not in terms of its exegetical method (no comparison -- Luther's exegesis was often completely nuts by modern standards), but in terms of its absolute lack of existential confrontation, of any element of surprise and wonder, and of the awesome bringing home of God as God rather than simply as an idea.  Everything said was right and true, but only in the way that, say, the laws of gravity, or the advice that it is advisable to change one's underpants on a daily basis, are good and true.   So what?   Sadly, the modern Reformed penchant for cliched phrases and blather such as `the indicative is the imperative blah-de-blah-de-blah' seems more often used an excuse for boring lectures pretending to be sermons than as a basis for passionate, confrontational preaching of the Luther kind, a kind truly built on an understanding of the doctrine of justification as a living, personal reality, not a mere concept, and which in turn actually built a Reformation.  And before somebody trots out the old `we don't do legalism' line, nobody can accuse Dr Martin of confusing the gospel as good news with the gospel as inspirational pep talk.  The law and gospel were objective declarations -- and yet they tore hearers apart and put them back together again as they were preached, a point of which Luther was only too personally aware and which flavoured everything he did in the pulpit, from overall sermon structure to tone of voice and all points in between.

Of course, we are not Donatists.   The word is powerful because it is the word; God can use boring lecturers as he can use Luther to extend his kingdom; but the fact that delivery is not everything does not mean that style and delivery are not important at all; and that element of urgency, of existential confrontation which permeates the New Testament accounts of sermons and Paul's letters -- and the sermons of Luther -- is much more than a mere matter of style. Boring lecturers pretending to be preachers kill churches.  Period. End of story. And interesting lecturers pretending to be preachers kill churches too -- not necessarily in terms of numbers (a lecture can, after all, be fascinating and pull in the intellectual punters week after week) but in terms of the formalism they engender -- precisely the kind of formalism against which Luther raged so effectively.

Lecturing is not preaching.  That's what Luther is getting at when he flags up the life or death commitment it requires.   On this score, some of the modern Reformed Vosians, who take not only their theological cue from Vos (with which I am in substantial agreement) but also seem to see him as a model for preaching (oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.....), bring to my mind Lord Byron's criticism of William Wordsworth, "who both by precept and example shows / That prose is verse, and verse is merely prose."  Sorry, friend -- prose is not verse; lecturing is not preaching; and if, as a preacher, you can't tell the difference, please resign and do something else with your life before you do any more damage.  Congregations deserve better than long-winded lecturers with more time on their hands than good sense between their ears.

Well, I'm guessing quite a few of the Truly Reformed will be lurching for their keyboards to express violent disagreement with some or all of the above.  And that, coincidentally, brings me to Luther's ninth mark: the good preacher should be willing to accept ridicule from everyone.  So if there is anyone out there who is about to have a go, please bear that in mind. 

As usual, Luther got that one right as well.