Paul Scherer was born at Mount Holly Springs, Pennsylvania, on June 22, 1892. He graduated from the College of Charleston in South Carolina in 1911, and from the Mount Airy Lutheran Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, in 1916. He was ordained to the ministry of the Lutheran Church in 1916.
After a short period as the assistant pastor of Holy Trinity Church, Buffalo, New York, he served from 1919 to 1928 as instructor in homiletics at Mount Airy Seminary. At the same time he was pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in New York City, a position he held from 1920 to 1945. From 1932 to 1945 he was the radio preacher on the Sunday Vesper program.
In 1945, Scherer became Brown Professor of Homiletics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, a chair which he occupied with distinction until his retirement in 1960. His interest in homiletics and his desire to teach led him to become Visiting Professor of Homiletics at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., during the academic year 1961-2. At the end of that time he accepted the invitation to occupy a similar post at Princeton Seminary, where he remained until illness forced him to relinquish his duties in 1968. He died the following year.
We may learn much about Scherer’s preaching methods from the Beecher Lectures which he delivered at Yale in 1943 under the title For We Have This Treasure. Scherer insists on the priority of preaching. Because the most creative and critical ages of the history of Christianity have been the ages of preaching, it follows that the first business of the preacher is to assign to preaching in his own thought and practice the dignity that belongs to it.
Yet — as with Phillips Brooks — Scherer was convinced the preaching office cannot be faithfully discharged without the care of souls. When he went to his church in New York he was told that regular pastoral visitation was neither essential nor particularly desired, but after a time he began to make his way in an orderly fashion into as many of the homes of his people as possible, and found that this greatly enriched his preaching.
In the last two of the Beecher Lectures, Scherer reveals his own methods. He needed anywhere from 18 to 20 hours before he had his sermon ready. Much of the modern distaste for sermons, he says, may be due to the lethargy and sloth of many preachers. “It takes muscle and sweat to write a sermon. To fasten a man’s attention and challenge his respect is not done lightly, no matter how worthy your material or how exalted your theme.”
Scherer insisted the morning hours should be reserved for serious study, especially of the Bible, which should be studied in a systematic way, book by book. He suggests that the preacher should always have on hand one book that is a little beyond him, since there is little profit to be had from reading what he himself might have written. “The clear and quick recording of illustrations; the copying out of quotations; the jotting down of some fleeting, suggestive line of thought; such material carefully gathered, preserved, perhaps even entered in a permanent book, not too laboriously indexed, is simply invaluable.”
Scherer believed in beginning sermon preparation on Monday morning. By Tuesday at the latest the theme should be ready, summed up in two or three pointed sentences designed to arrest attention and arouse interest. As a Lutheran he knew the value of the Christian Year, and he did most of his morning preaching on the pericopes, those selections of Epistle and Gospel worked out for all the Sundays of the church year. He would leaf through the sermons he had written for the last six months to see what he had preached about, and would become aware of needs that he had not tried to meet or of truths which called for treatment. He advised that the emphasis of one’s preaching should vary from week to week — expository, doctrinal, pastoral, ethical and evangelistic.
Scherer was in favor of allowing the structure of a sermon to show. The divisions should be two or three, rarely more. Once they have been established, their relationships and sequences clearly indicated, and the points arranged in the most telling order, the introduction and conclusion should be written. A thorough exegetical study of the text needs to be made, since there is little value in preaching on a text that is not there. He advises the preacher to go over each point, setting down any thought that comes to him, and assigning it its proper place in the scheme. There should be a reasonable balance between the various parts of the sermon, in length and content. Once the material has been organized, it should be allowed to stand for a while. Scherer began writing the sermon on Thursday morning.
Scherer was insistent on the discipline of writing. “I would not give a brass farthing, as a rule, for a preacher who does not write at least one sermon a week for the first 10 or 15 years of his ministry. It is a discipline that no man can afford to forgo. To write only the first half and leave the second to God, as one young preacher said was his habit, merely exposes you to the compliment that was paid him: ‘Sir, I congratulate you indeed. Your half is unfailingly better than God’s.'”
It is essential that the preacher should always keep before his mind’s eye the people to whom he will speak, and say to them what is in his heart. Scherer’s advice on the preacher’s style may be summed up as: Say what you have to say truthfully, simply, pictorially and with clarity. He did not approve of reading the sermon in the pulpit, because this was too impersonal. After two or three hours with his manuscript on Saturday afternoon, with a hasty review on Sunday morning, he found that he could preach letter-perfect what he had written.
He believed in the creative nature of the sermon. It acts, creates, transforms. It must involve whole persons — their intellect, emotion and will — and provide them a confrontation with God. In preparing the sermon, the preacher needs to beware lest he get in the way of God’s Word to His people. He must brood over the text, and not come to it with his own ideas only to determine that the text is expressing them. He must see what it is saying, what questions it is asking, and listen for the answers.
We should ask three questions: How does this text confront me? How does this text judge me? How does this text redeem me? To ask these questions and to listen and hear is to let God’s Word — not one’s own — through the written Word, speak to His people.
The unity of the sermon is of the utmost importance. Related to this idea of unity is that of clarity — the need to let the hearer understand the over-all theme of the sermon and where one is at eachstep. At no point can the outline be assumed to be obvious to the hearer. These three ideas represent the essence of Scherer’s thought on the craft of the sermon: its creative nature, its God-man direction and its unity. He suggests that four questions should be asked about each sermon: What is its central thrust? What is its principal theological concern? What is its relevance? What are the problems in communication?
In his last book, The Word God Sent, published in 1965, Scherer offers the reasons for his faith in preaching and presents the fruits of his wide experience as preacher and teacher. The four lectures in this book deal with the substance of preaching, offering the mature convictions of a master of the art. The 16 sermons that follow translate his principles into performance. They are largely expository and doctrinal. He admits that such preaching is not likely to be popular, and to many it may not even seem intelligible. No other claim is made for it except that it wants to stretch itself out toward ends which Scherer believed to have dropped from view.
The type of preaching which he champions is no moralistic “half-hour homily on handicaps and happiness.” It is not psychological counsel on the well-adjusted life, nor is it an apologetic for religious beliefs. It is a direct testimony to the gospel, centered in the grace of God who in Jesus Christ confronts self-centered man. With many current trends in preaching Scherer had little sympathy. He had no enthusiasm for making contact with man’s interests rather than confronting him with God’s word to man.
In the preface to this book Scherer expressed two convictions that came into sharper focus as he turned from the work of the parish minister to that of a teacher of preaching. One is that the Word of God has never to be made relevant. It is already relevant and was so before we arrived on the scene. The other conviction is that “there is not today, there never has been, and there never will be any adequate substitute for preaching.” He insisted that “we need never have any fear that what the Bible fashions today will be outdated tomorrow. Because the words written on these pages, although they are the words of fallible men, are the words which God has formed. They are taken up in every generation by the Holy Spirit of God to become that Word.”
In the final lecture Scherer presents preaching as a radical transaction. It is radical because it must not omit the offense of the gospel in order to make people good. The gospel as he wished to see it preached means not only an event in history but present conflict. It is not only solace but also challenge, not only succor but also demand, not only summons but also response. He protested vigorously against trimming the gospel in order to make it easier to accept. He says, “In a thousand pulpits the gospel is reduced to a plaintive with a vague promise, held together by a bit of advice.”
Scherer’s published sermons are to be found in four volumes: Where God Hides (1934), Facts that Undergird Life (1938), The Place Where Thou Standest (1942), the product of his parish ministry, and in his final work, The Word God Sent. He had many of the gifts of a fine writer, beautiful English, an active imagination, a flair for pictorial expression, and a wide acquaintance with literature. He showed a deep insight into the teaching of Scripture, and he likewise understood the perplexing problems confronting men today.
He never tried to bring God down to the level of people and of their understanding. He showed them God and let them try to reach Him themselves. Harry Emerson Fosdick said of his preaching: “It has a prophetic quality which springs forth from the depths of the man. The great tradition of the Christian faith is genuinely real to him, and his persuasive power to transmit his convictions to his hearers and to share his experiences with them is extraordinary.”
His sermons are somewhat complicated — not that the words or the outline are unclear but because he says so much in a little space. It may be for this reason that he delivered his sermons slowly. They are thought-provoking and packed with content. Almost every paragraph flashes with searching insight, almost every page contains an arresting quotation. The style is clear, fresh-flowing, warm and imaginative. It often has poetic overtones and is sometimes punctuated with humor or subtle irony.
David Randolph says of his sermons: “They radiate that quality by which W.H. Auden recognizes the true poet: he is one who is passionately in love with language. Paul Scherer seems to polish a sermon until the language is broken through and the face of Christ peers out. His sermons have a strange and haunting power which lingers in the mind, stirring the memory and elevating one with ever new apprehensions of the truth of their claim.”
Martin E. Marty, who has kept his finger on the pulse of modern preaching, points out that all too much of it exhausts itself in “well-meant moralisms,” seldom letting “the weight fall on Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God.” In Paul Scherer’s sermons is the antidote to all such emasculated preaching. It is always preaching of the Word of God, which is both law and gospel, judgment and grace. His sermons are always Bible-centered, and yet pregnant with contemporary reference. They have theological backbone without being stiff, evangelical ardor and weighty substance of thought. The biblical message and human experience are brought together. It is the meeting of the two about which he invariably speaks.
Paul Scherer did emphasize some of the social implications of the Gospel. He took a stand on the problem of war. As a pacifist he supported members of his congregation who were conscientious objectors in World War II. He protested against the manufacture of hydrogen bombs in the United States because of the moral issues involved. With Fosdick he deplored the Korean conflict in 1953.
As the “new theology” repudiated much of the liberalism from which it emerged, Scherer repudiated many of his earlier ideas about God and man. In his third book of sermons the biblical content is handled more firmly than in the earlier volumes and the dictum that the biblical situation is our situation is beginning to assume its central role in his thinking. As one student of his writings has observed: “The sharp change in theological thought in America which Dr. Scherer reveals was a reaction to the preaching of the 20s and 30s which centered in the ethical and social but avoided the theological. The old emphasis was essentially humanist and sermons were topical rather than textual. The new trend in preaching was toward theology and biblical content. The pulpit pendulum which had swung in some instances far to the left in social justice swung back toward the right nearer the center and also nearer that distinctive basis which alone can make a sermon Christian.”
Scherer’s Beecher Lectures are considered as one of the chief influences in the trend toward biblical preaching of the American pulpit since that time. He pointed out the weakness of both Modernism and Fundamentalism — the one seeking to discover in reason the seat and source of the only unchallenged authority that is available, trimming the sails of Christianity to every passing wind of science, the other being a slave to the letter, and stopping the soul of the Bible dead in its tracks.
He pleaded for a return to the Bible as bearing on it the witness of our own experience and carrying written on its back what Paul calls the Divine “Yes” in Christ. Those who directed their efforts solely in the direction of situational changes he considers “superficial optimists in our pulpits, however devoted and able, who go all out for building a new world first, and having somewhat to do privately with Jesus of Nazareth a little later.”
He sought not to change social conditions with the gospel, for to him there was no such thing as a social gospel but a gospel with social implications. He sought not to further a society of justice and righteousness but to enable individual men and women who had been redeemed to give themselves to the task of building such a society out of the ruins of the time.
In a sermon on Protestantism, its liabilities and its assets, Scherer said this at the close: “You cannot deplete human existence morally and spiritually as the last four centuries have depleted it, to the point not of high tragedy but of dismal triviality and farce, and then expect to transform it with a United Nations. You cannot transform it with anything less than a faith that has a cross in the middle, and the kind of people gathered round that God Himself will underwrite.”
With his mastery of words and language Paul Scherer could have been a great novelist. Instead, he used his genius for great preaching, expressing religious truths in new, fresh language to capture and hold the interest of his hearers. His sermons are close to life, close to God, close to the needs of modern man as well as being close to the Bible. They represent a strenuous grappling with the real problems of thought and life, to the facing of which a high intelligence is brought.
Martin E. Marty has stated that “the mid-20th century has experienced a profound theological recovery which makes it the most theologically conscious era since the Reformation.” To that recovery Paul Scherer made one of the most important and significant contributions.