Preachers are avid — even ravenous — readers. Publishers discovered long ago the appetite of the preaching minister for worthy reading.
Though doomsayers in this electronic age seem always ready to offer a eulogy for the printed page, publishers release ever-expanding booklists, and book sales account for a considerable portion of the nation’s Gross National Product. Those impressive national sales figures are certainly assisted by preachers.
Most preaching ministers can readily associate with Catholic reformer Desiderius Erasmus: “When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.” Though few of us appear emaciated or naked, we can sympathize with Erasmus’ priorities.
Others seem not to understand. “Of all odd crazes,” said Augustine Birrell, “the craze to be forever reading new books is one of the oddest.” This “odd craze” is a preacher’s occupational hazard!
Each year Preaching offers a strategic focus on the current offerings most relevant to the preaching task and provides a survey intended for the preacher looking for some of the most significant titles among current releases. This survey, presented with the working preacher in mind, celebrates the emergence of volumes worthy of the preacher’s time and attention.
The current revival of preaching within the church is evidenced by the diversity of denominational groups represented by the authors. Significant works on preaching were penned by evangelicals, mainline protestants, and Roman Catholics. The breadth of this interest demonstrates a renaissance in preaching few could have anticipated just ten years ago.
Aggressively positive and explicitly confident works from a former Archbishop of Canterbury and Catholicism’s foremost expert on preaching indicate that the renewed emphasis on preaching in evangelical protestant ranks has not been an isolated development.
Archbishop Donald Coggan’s Preaching: The Sacrament of the Word (Crossroad Publishing, 1988) is an enlightening and creative work drawn from the richness of the Anglican tradition. Coggan’s distinctive emphasis on preaching as “the Sacrament of the Word” is a suggestive reminder of the centrality of preaching in the life of the church. His definition of preaching as “a manifestation of the Incarnate Word, from the Written Word, through the spoken word,” is cogent and powerful.
Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., offered in Preaching: the Art and the Craft (Paulist Press, 1987) the most helpful monograph from Catholic homiletical thought to emerge in years. Burghardt attacks all preaching which is “vapid and lacking in vitality.” Burghardt’s own preaching and prose are anything but vapid and lifeless — as one might expect from one admittedly “seduced by syllables.” Burghardt writes of Protestant preachers with great respect, and his volume deserves a sensitive reading.
All preachers will be enriched by a reading of Richard Lischer’s Theories of Preaching: Selected Readings in the Homiletical Tradition (The Labyrinth Press, 1987). Lischer’s collection of significant readings ranges from Chrysostum to Fred Craddock. His consistent focus on the theological basis for preaching is reflected in the selections and will enrich the reader’s own theological foundations for the preaching of the Gospel. The recent release of this work in trade paperback will make it more accessible to many readers.
A number of volumes on specific issues in preaching emerged in this period. Westminster Press inaugurated a series of compact volumes with a focus on “Preaching About” selected themes and contexts. This series included Elizabeth Achtemeiers’ Preaching About Family Relationships, Preaching About Life in a Threatening World by Ronald J. Sider and Michael A. King, Preaching About Conflict in the Local Church by Preaching Contributing Editor William H. Willimon, David H. C. Read’s Preaching About the Needs of Real People, and Preaching About Crisis in the Community. Each offers creative insights into the specific contexts and issues addressed by the authors. The volumes are brief, but meaningful treatments of the stated themes.
Alan Walker’s Evangelistic Preaching (Zondervan, 1988) presents in this short volume a responsible and confident approach to evangelistic preaching — an approach with emphasis on both the Gospel content and the human context of the preaching event.
With a different focus, Ronald J. Allen of Christian Theological Seminary offers a model of preaching as a foundation for church growth in Preaching for Growth (CBP Press, 1988). Allen reports: “Studies of growing congregations consistently point to a strong, positive relationship between church growth and preaching.” He offers twenty characteristics of Christian preaching as pointers to an enriching preaching ministry for church growth.
Biblical Preaching: How to Find and Remove Barriers (CBP Press, 1988) is an interesting product from the pen of Richard C. White, Professor of Homiletics at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky. White labels his approach as “diagnostic” rather than ideological and he finds many common homiletical habits suspect: “Much that we preachers regularly do in the study continues to work against historical preaching.”
Stalwart classics remain in the current booklist, ranging from John A. Broadus’ On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (Harper and Row) to H. H. Farmers’ The Servant of the Word (Fortress Press). In addition, new editions of popular contemporary contributions have emerged, including An Introduction to Contemporary Preaching by J. Daniel Baumann (Baker Book House, 1988).
Preaching’s 1989 “Book of the Year” is indicative of the renewed confidence placed in the American pulpit. Best Sermons 1 and the other titles discussed above demonstrate that the preaching task continues to elicit the attention of worthy writers and practitioners. Preachers will find their ministries enriched by the reading of these thoughtful and worthy volumes.
Biblical Studies/Exegesis
The process of movement from biblical text to sermon emerges as a constant concern of the preacher. Those who face the regular challenge of biblical exegesis will be pleased to note the emergence of several significant volumes in the fields of biblical studies and exegesis — volumes which will serve as guides for interpretation, resources for study, and as catalysts for creative and effective biblical preaching.
A virtual explosion of quality reference materials marks the current period. Bible dictionaries, long a stolid but solid companion of the student of the Scripture, have attained a new and much-appreciated level of sophistication with the release of The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Eerdmans, 1987) and Harper’s Bible Dictionary (Harper and Row, 1985).
The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary is actually a revision of the 1950 Dutch release, Bijbelse Encyclopedic, first edited by famed New Testament scholar F. W. Grosheide. The new Eerdmans revised edition, edited by Allen C. Myers, represents a marked improvement over the older Bible dictionaries found on many pastor’s shelves. The articles are concise, but competent and informative. The format and updated entries will please the reader.
Harper’s Dictionary of the Bible is actually the first of three major reference works released by Harper and Row over the past three years. Edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, the dictionary is actually a major project undertaken by the Society of Biblical Literature in an effort to bring the fruits of professional biblical studies to a larger audience in the churches. The result is the most comprehensive one-volume Bible dictionary of the current period.
This same emphasis on the part of the publisher has produced The Harper Atlas of the Bible, edited by James B. Prichard (Harper and Row, 1987) and Harper’s Bible Commentary (Harper and Row, 1988), edited by James L. Mays. The atlas, a most useful tool for biblical study, utilized state-of-the-art cartographical technologies to produce maps and charts of the biblical lands in a quality and detail previously impossible.
Harper’s Bible Commentary is the companion volume to their Bible dictionary, and is also a product of the Society of Biblical Literature. As with the dictionary, the purpose of the Society is to bring to the general public the “rich diversity of current biblical scholarship.” That goal finds its expression in a 1344-page volume with individual commentaries on each book of the Bible and several helpful general articles.
The contributors represent a broad cross-section of front-line critical biblical scholarship. Harper’s Bible Commentary will serve the preacher well as a companion volume to more lengthy commentaries, but is, in itself, a major contribution to biblical scholarship.
The interest in the literary study of the Bible has produced several major volumes of interest to the preacher. Among these are Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987), edited by David Rosenberg, and The Literary Guide to the Bible (Harvard University Press, 1987), edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode. Both will serve the preacher well as introductions to the richness and texture of the literary interpretation of the Bible. This promising new development in biblical scholarship is in marked contrast to the atomistic critical methods of the past fifty years, and may indicate a fruitful ground of meeting for biblical scholarship and the task of preaching.
Of special note is the current interest in the study of parables indicated by the differing approaches of John R. Donahue, Frederick Houk Borsch, and Robert Farrar Capon. Donahue, a Professor of New Testament at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, presents a case for the reading of the synoptic gospels as the contexts for the parables of Jesus. In The Gospel in Parable (Fortress Press, 1988), Donahue reviews current work in metaphor, narrative, and parable, and suggests promising interpretations of the parables of the synoptic gospels.
Frederick Houk Borsch, Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University, suggests a means of seeing the parables as Jesus’ way of “telling it slant,” rather than “telling it straight.” His interpretations in Many Things in Parables: Extravagant Stories of New Community (Fortress Press, 1988) are richly suggestive and hold reservoirs of meaning for the preaching event.
With a different, but equally powerful focus, Robert Farrar Capon comes to the parables to discover the part each plays in the message of grace. His newest book, The Parables of Grace (Eerdmans, 1988), holds all the promise of his earlier works, and will invigorate the preacher’s mind engaged in the study of the parables.
Church History/Historical Theology
The heritage and history of the church are areas often neglected by preachers in their reading, who find their preaching and thought impoverished by that neglect. Readers will be pleased to note the release of several promising titles on the history of the church and the development of Christian theology.
Jaroslav Pelikan, who could rightly be acknowledged as “dean” of contemporary historical theologians, continues his long and productive line of works with the release of The Excellent Empire: The Fall of Rome and the Triumph of the Church (Harper and Row, 1987). Pelikan considers the fall of Rome as perhaps the most significant historical paradigm in the tradition of the church. He reviews various interpretations of the event from both patristic and modern sources and suggests the import of each for the contemporary life of the church.
The theological heritage of the Reformation is the focus of another significant historical theologian in Theology of the Reformers (Broadman Press, 1988). Timothy George, Dean of the School of Divinity of Samford University and an established Reformation scholar, brings to Theology of the Reformers a wealth of study in the theological development of the Reformers and their followers. Though the dynamics of economic, social, cultural, and political factors are noted and documented, George’s primary interest lies in the theology of the Reformation — that which George finds as its most basic concern.
Though reference books abound for students of the Bible and theology, few indeed are those covering the history and heritage of the church. Though the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press) is the standard reference work for the English-speaking world, two quality supplements may be found in the Atlas of the Christian Church (Facts on File, 1987), edited by Henry Chadwick and G. R. Evans, and Great Leaders of the Christian Church (Moody Press, 1988), edited by John D. Woodbridge.
The Atlas of the Christian Church is a unique and useful volume which belongs in every preacher’s library. It presents the historical development of the church in a lucid and colorful manner, with careful attention to the diversity of the tapestry of Christianity. Woodbridge’s Great Leaders is a biographical handbook to the major figures in the history of the church. It is a good primer for those looking for a concise refresher course in church history and, though heavily weighted towards evangelicalism, provides generally sensitive readings on the fathers and mothers of the church.
Among the leaders of the Christian church, few have received the attention currently focused on John Calvin, the Genevan Reformer. The Luther Celebrations of 1983 produced a considerable number of works on Luther, the German Reformation, and the Lutheran tradition. Nevertheless, the past year has seen the release of two major works on Calvin.
John Calvin: a Sixteenth Century Portrait (Oxford University Press, 1988) is the most recent product of the pen of William J. Bouwsma, a Renaissance scholar at the University of California. The book is a weighty volume, and bears the marks of the author’s outstanding scholarship in the period.
Joining that volume is the recent English translation of The Young Calvin by Alexandre Ganoczy (The Westminster Press, 1987). This significant work, translated by David Foxgrover and Wade Provo, brings Calvin to life in the context of his earliest theological development, from 1523 to the first edition of the Institutes.
The preacher will discover in these works a taste of the theological richness of the church, the dynamics of its development, and the poverty of its neglect.
Contemporary Theology and the American Church
The theological output of the past ten years has been prodigious and diverse. The European projects of Jurgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Eberhard Jungel, and other university theologians continue to unfold even as the influence of Karl Barth rises anew on both sides of the Atlantic.
In America, revisionist models of theology range from feminist theology to various liberation models and the projects of figures such as David Tracy, Langdon Gilkey, and Shubert Ogden. “Post-liberal” and “postmodern” models are suggested by George Lindbeck, Paul Holmer, Ronald Thiemann, and Thomas Oden, each with a fertile and productive focus.
Meanwhile, an eruption of significant theological contribution appears on the evangelical horizon. Major works by Millard Erickson, Alasdair Macintyre, Clark Pinnock and others indicate something of the possible shape of evangelical theology in the near future.
In the midst of these developments, the New Dictionary of Theology (InterVarsity Press, 1988), edited by Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, and J. I. Packer, is a welcome companion. Billed as “a concise and authoritative resource,” the dictionary is just that. The 205 contributors and over 630 articles are, in the main, well-matched and representative of the breadth of the evangelical movement.
The current developments in the evangelical movement and the wider American church have occasioned several works of great interest to the preaching minister. Among these are two works of particular interest to preachers on either side of the Atlantic.
The first, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton University Press, 1988), is a major interpretive survey by Princeton’s Robert Wunthnow of the past four decades of American religion. It is a weighty volume, and considers the changing role of religion in American public life and the growing polarizations between liberals and conservatives in American churches.
The second is The Futures of Christianity (Hodder and Stoughton/Morehouse Barlow, 1988) by David L. Edwards, Provost of Southwark Cathedral in London and former editor of SCM Press. Edwards, perhaps the foremost observer of religious life in Great Britain, surveyed possible futures of Christianity throughout the world. The volume grew out of an extended world tour Edwards undertook in 1982. Futures is insightful even as it reveals Edwards’ own interpretation of the church. Both books should command the attention of the thoughtful preacher.
Mainline religion is the focus of an important contribution by Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney. Both established researchers in the field of American religion, they bring in American Mainline Religion (Rutgers University Press, 1987) a “mapping” of the mainline Protestant scene, along with the resurgence of Roman Catholicism, conservative evangelicalism and vigorous secularism.
The dynamic of American evangeliscalism is the subject of George Marsden in Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1987). Marsden, currently of Duke University, is one of the foremost scholars of American fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Reforming Fundamentalism is far more than the history of Fuller Theological Seminary; it is a fascinating chronicle of the emergence of the New Evangelicalism out of fundamentalism. It is an important contribution to the study of evangelicalism.
So is The Evangelical Movement: Growth, Impact, Controversy, Dialog (Augsburg, 1988) by Mark Ellingsen. Associate Professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, Ellingsen has produced the most comprehensive history of the evangelical movement ever published. Though flavored by his Lutheran perspective, the book covers an incredibly broad evangelical landscape with great care and insight. It should be a part of the thoughtful preacher’s reading agenda.
Any brief survey of significant current books is doomed to the sin of omission and prone to be arbitrary. One is tempted to say with Abraham Lincoln: “For people who like that kind of book, that is the kind of a book they will like.” Nevertheless, preachers are about the business of reading in order to be more thoughtful, more learned, and more creative in the task of preaching. For preachers who like those kinds of books, these are a few of the kind they will like! As the voices said to St. Augustine, “Take … Read!”

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