The End of Homiletics?

By “homiletics” we mean nothing more or less than the applied convergence of biblical exegesis, the cure of souls, and ascetical theology.

Preachers who want to be interesting want to be interesting because they were taught that interesting is the summum bonum of Christian preaching. They weren’t told that, of course. Instructors in homiletics are not crass people, and they don’t teach people to be self-aggrandizing performers. Homiletics taught that by accident because, if homiletics is true to itself as a discipline, it must teach that. So preachers who want to be interesting, will often preach sermons they can’t preach instead of the ones that they could have. And the sermons they might have preached instead would have nourished their people.

 

The end of preaching is the edification of God’s people gathered in worship. Preaching can perform numerous other functions, many of them noble, but if it does not edify, it fails to fulfill its end. Listeners might be moved, inspired, informed, entertained, and impressed, but preaching that does any or all of that but does not bear the fruits of repentance and righteousness in the preacher and listeners, still fails. A lot of exceptional preaching — the best preaching we have ever heard — fails.

Here I want to ask whether the telos of preaching might be better served by the terminus of homiletics.* Since not everyone dwells in seminary-land, note that homiletics is the discipline that studies and teaches preaching. I think we have to agree that is a fascinating discipline, integrating an extraordinarily diverse set of interests: rhetoric, pastoral psychology, hermeneutics (biblical and otherwise), liturgics, and, naturally, public address, if not even thespian arts. People who teach homiletics are often very good preachers themselves, not always, but that does not mean that they cannot teach the craft well. Indeed, some who are exceptional preachers may have to work even harder to help others learn to do what they do themselves with such apparent ease. Homileticians are not so hard to find as they are hard to employ in the teaching of the discipline. Those who “do it” really well may rather prefer preaching to teaching about it, on the one hand, and there is the perpetual quandary as to the proper terminal degree that should count as the union card for such a professor. In any case, God bless the gallant souls who teach preaching when it is actually easier just to preach, and usually outstanding preachers are better compensated than those who teach others.

So what’s my beef with homiletics? It’s not with homiletical art. I am enamored of homiletical art. That’s my beef. This art is too alluring. If homiletics is a self-respecting discipline, then it should never rest until it perfects its end. And the end of homiletics is homiletical art, well-crafted oratory. I love that sort of thing, and I aspire to it. The question is whether and how that aspiration becomes an act of Christian discipleship. I know that my “best” sermons serve me well; do they serve the listeners well also?

Let’s say — and I think this is about right — that there are three kinds of preachers. There are preachers who are interesting. There are preachers who imagine themselves interesting. There are preachers who aspire to be interesting.

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