George A. Buttrick was born at Seaham Harbour, Northumberland, England, on March 23, 1892. In 1915 he graduated from Victoria University, Manchester with honors in philosophy.
Buttrick began his ministry as a Congregationalist in Quincy, Illinois, going from there to the First Congregational Church in Rutland, Vermont, and thence to the First Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York.
In 1927 he succeeded Henry Sloane Coffin as minister of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, remaining there until 1955. For the next ten years he was Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Preacher to the University at Harvard.
After that Buttrick taught homiletics at Garrett Seminary, Davidson College, Vanderbilt and the Southern Baptist Seminary at Louisville. In his mid-eighties he was still vigorous and creative as a thinker, preacher and teacher.
Almost to the day he died in 1980, Buttrick was in his study working on the next sermon and reading the latest theological book. He combined the scholar’s mind, the pastor’s heart and the preacher’s passion.
He published twelve books but only one book of sermons: Sermons Preached in a University Church (1959). He was very hesitant about publishing these, for three reasons which he gives in the preface. First, the preacher writes for the ear and must now rewrite for the eye. Second, the sermon is an “I-Thou” transaction, in that the congregation makes the sermon almost as much as the preacher.
Third, a sermon is a part of worship, is itself worship. “Remove the prayer-worship, the brooding of the Spirit on the worshipping congregation, and how much of the sermon is left?”
The twenty-six sermons in this book are classified in two main sections: Faith and Doubt and Faith and Life. The headings indicate the two major interests that run through all Buttrick’s preaching: to help the honest skeptic arrive at a valid faith and to strengthen the faith of the Christian by showing the significance of the faith for daily living.
A third and briefer section includes sermons for Advent, Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost.
These sermons are scholarly, brilliant and biblical. Three qualities make them memorable.
1. Intellectual robustness. Perhaps the challenge of a university helps to account for this. As Buttrick says: “Students state bluntly the doubts which other men try to hide.” Here is a keen and honest search for truth and the kind of probing thought which commands respect.
2. Emotional appeal. These sermons reach the heart as well as the mind. They reveal a sensitive imagination and the spirit of a sympathetic counselor. He gives warmth as well as light.
3. Literary quality. The sermons have the style of a literary artist. There is nothing slipshod in his diction. It has both the lucidity and the vividness that characterize writing of the first rank. It has overtones of feeling that intimate something of the mood of the poet.
Buttrick was a preacher who combined artistry with sound interpretation, an expositor who used freely the resources of literature and the freshest of illustrative material.
Edgar De Witt Jones, in his book American Preachers of Today, writes: “The quality which most impresses me in the preaching of Dr. Buttrick is ‘aliveness.’ His sermons suggest both the midnight study lamp and something of the freshness of the morning dew. Rooted in the Scriptures they partake freely of current history, literature, drama: if they begin away in the ancient past they end in the all-absorbing present.”
In an interview with Jones when Buttrick was a minister in New York, he told Jones: “I carry a full manuscript into the pulpit but refer to it only infrequently. For years I have written out every sermon in full. The manuscript is read several times on Saturday night and Sunday morning. In the pulpit I trust it ‘to come again.’ There is no attempt to memorize, but I find that the crucial passages return almost word for word as they were written. I try to keep the morning hours for study and to make twenty to twenty-five pastoral calls a week.”
In 1932 Buttrick delivered the Beecher Lectures at Yale, entitled Jesus Came Preaching. The first lecture was: Is there room for the preacher today? He answers such criticisms as these: “The pulpit is not democratic and has no place in a democracy;” “The preacher doesn’t do anything;” “The pulpit has lost its authority?”
The second lecture asks: Is Christ still the preacher’s authority? His answer is: “Christian preaching has that one Word from which all other words derive their life.”
The third lecture deals with preaching Christ to the mind of today. He argues that the mind of today is a worthy mind, a mind in revolt, a scientific mind, and a skeptical mind. The next two lectures deal with preaching Christ to the social order and to the individual.
Then follows a treatment of the craftsmanship of the preacher which claims that preaching is both an art and a craft. The final lectures deal with the personality of the preacher and the preaching of the Cross. This is a book of absorbing interest in which Buttrick makes full use of his expository, exegetical and homiletical gifts.
In the sixth lecture, Buttrick asks if it is necessary that texts and topics should be drawn only from the Bible. He answers no, but reminds that when Jesus preached in the synagogue at Nazareth he expounded a passage from the prophets. He is our Gospel and He is portrayed in the Book. Many have never found the Bible too narrow a pasture, for it is the world and every man in miniature.
Beginning with the Bible, true expository preaching will carry it to life. But if we begin with life we shall end with the Bible, for the Bible is omnific.
Buttrick believed a preacher need not be limited to the Bible for his texts, but if he stays within the Bible he will still not be limited, for the Bible has no limits. Topical preaching easily becomes repetitive and shallow. The preacher then exploits his own mood and interest and is found threshing over and over the same old straw.
Expository preaching built on a faithful study of the Bible and applied with reality to life will partake of the Bible’s inexhaustible freshness and variety.
How are texts and subjects to be found? They are not found. They come of themselves. They jump from between the lines of the book you are reading, though it may be a secular book. The best preaching is the overflow of a ripe mind.
Series of sermons wisely planned will deliver the preacher from a frantic searching for texts. They will also save him from harping on one aspect of the message. Five or six is enough for a series. Buttrick suggests series on the beatitudes, the hilltops in the life of Christ, the characters of Holy Week, the questions Jesus asked, the questions asked of Jesus.
The preacher should read his Bible not merely for preaching but for the edifying of his own mind. He should read it until he has mastered it, until its music rings within him and its pictures haunt his mind.
The text must be studied in its own setting and a preacher must be honest with what he finds there. The mood of the sermon must be congruous with the mood of the text, Buttrick asserted. If the text pleads, the sermon must plead; if it sounds a challenge, the sermon should sound the challenge.
Study the text in commentaries and in the world of one’s own experience. The ideas that occur should be jotted down, if at first they seem to have little worth. There must be no waiting for the inspired moment. There is no inspiration for a lazy mind.
Buttrick believed a preacher should brood on the sermon; let the unconscious mind play its part. Imagination is a preacher’s indispensable ally. Many a promising sermon is stultified because it is woven of concepts instead of pictures. A sermon beginning with some simple incident at once enlists the attention.
The sermons of the great preachers have always shown a visual imagination. The preacher must think in pictures. The greatest thing a preacher ever does is to see something and tell what he sees in a plain way.
The sermon must be written, Buttrick noted, not as an essay is written, but with the eyes of a congregation — wistful, eager, hungry, sad or indifferent — looking at the writer over his desk. Only if the sermon is written can a proper balance be achieved.
The introduction must be brief, its phrases terse and vibrant, not pitched in too high a key lest the rest of the sermon should seem an anti-climax, but warm with human interest, linking the text to present life.
The transitions should be made smoothly. The congregation has some right to know where a preacher is travelling, said Buttrick. He should at least indicate the milestones. It is often wise to allow the people to sit down awhile on a milestone and rest. A judiciously placed and chosen illustration will serve that purpose. The appeal at the end can be made searchingly, tenderly and with finality.
Only in a written sermon can the illustrations be properly placed and aptly phrased. A trite or hackneyed illustration may creep in unchallenged in the heart of an extempore utterance. It will creep out shamefacedly from a manuscript. Only in a written sermon can the thought be clarified and the diction cut until it shines with facets like a jewel.
When the sermon is written, Buttrick observed, let the redundancies be pruned away with an unsparing hand. Let the commonplace phrases be given short shrift. Let them yield to phrases that glow and let the cumbersome words of Latin origin be pushed aside. Let the long sequences of juicy adjectives be cut away.
Preaching must be real. Why do men use a pulpit voice? Why do they imitate other preachers when every man has his own gift? Why do they use phrases from old theologies which were vital to our fathers because born of their experience but which often are not vital to us? Why do preachers discuss problems and sufferings with which they have not yet come to grips and in which they have not lived? Defects in preaching skills and sins in preaching method will be pardoned if the preacher himself is sincere and if his voice rings true.
Buttrick returned to Yale in 1940 to give one of the six lectures contributed by as many speakers. The title of his lecture was “Preaching the Whole Gospel.”
The heart of the lecture is in the last paragraph where he said: “A small statuette of Thorwaldsen’s Christ stands on a bookcase top in our living room. Slowly it drove away from that shelf the pictures and the clock, because no picture can compare with Him, and He has no parley with time.”
“An elder took issue with us about that scattering. He said Christ would gather round Him, not drive away; He would redeem, not banish. Now the surrounding treasures have been returned, for was He not ‘found in fashion as a man’?
“On most Sundays when sermons have been preached, there is no shining in those eyes. The only good sermon a man ever preaches is on his way home from church — or on his knees. Often the sermon becomes badly entangled with the preacher, but sometimes the eyes seem to smile, as if he were saying, ‘I do believe that one day, a million years from now, you may learn. Feed my sheep.’
“Then the room is like that high tower above an ageless sea where a man saw the Holy Grail, ‘blood-red with beatings in it.’ The whole Gospel requires that we so speak and pray and live that Christ rules the room of this world, and calls us, when this adventure is ended, to an Upper Room beyond our eyes and time.”
The final power of preaching, Buttrick said, is the power of the Christ who joins us in prayer, in our study, in the crafting of the words, and in the moment of proclamation. The most important question of the sermon should be, “Did you encounter the Christ this morning?”
Frederick Buechner speaks of his conversion during a sermon preached by Buttrick at Madison Avenue Church through the extraordinary use of words, when Buttrick said that Christ is crowned King in the heart of the believer “amid confession and tears and great laughter.”

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