Fredrick Houk Borsch, Many Things in Parables: Extravagant Stories of New Community (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 167 pp., paper, $12.95.
Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 184 pp., cloth, $15.95.
_____, The Parables of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 181 pp., cloth, $15.95.
John R. Donahue, The Gospel in Parable (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 235 pp., cloth, $19.95.
John Drury, The Parables in the Gospels (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 167 pp., paper.
Eugene L. Lowry, How to Preach a Parable: Designs for Narrative Sermons (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 173 pp., paper.
Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 465 pp., cloth.
Living and preaching in the Gospels means dealing with parables, and most preachers find parables to be a strange mixture of fascination and vexation. The parabolic form existed prior to Jesus’ ministry, and the rabbis were known for their aphorisms, parables, and riddles. But Jesus raised the parable to a new art form and His parables soon became foundational stories for interpreting life on earth and in the Kingdom of God.
Debates and arguments over the form, structure, and meaning of the parables have existed for centuries. Modern biblical exegesis has attempted to understand the parables through a variety of methodologies, from historicism to structuralism and narrative hermeneutics.
The parables defy any methodological categorization, however, and remain living stories with a relevance no exegete can explain and no preacher can fully expound. Those who take the preaching task seriously will appreciate several recent works which cast light on the parables, their meaning, and the potential in their proclamation.
Few students of biblical exegesis are unaware of the contributions to the study of parables made by Adolf Julicher, Joachim Jeremias, and C. H. Dodd. Fewer may be aware of the more recent work produced by Robert W. Funk, Dan O. Via, John Dominic Crossan, and Bernard Brendon Scott. The four modern parable scholars are all deeply influenced by contemporary narrative hermeneutics and literary exegesis.
Scott’s Hear Then the Parable is the most comprehensive commentary on the parables to emerge in twenty years and will set the stage for the debate in parable-studies for some time. The Darbeth Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Phillips Graduate Seminary in Tulsa, Scott has established a reputation for careful and detailed exegetical studies in the parables. His exegetical method involves reaching into the historical background of the sayings, understanding the social context (using contemporary sociological methods), reconstructing what he terms “an originating structure” of each parable, its textual history, and function in the preaching ministry of Jesus.
In so doing Scott brings the full force of modern narrative, structural, literary, and sociological exegesis to the parables. The result is a massive volume which includes considerations of every parable found in the New Testament (and/or in the Gospel of Thomas). Preachers will find Scott an engaging and ambitious scholar who offers a wealth of suggestions for preaching, and for understanding the basic issues of interpreting the parables.
John Drury, dean of King’s College, Cambridge, traces the origins of the parabolic sayings in the Old Testament, follows through the development of the parabolic tradition in early Christianity, and then turns to consider each parable in light of its context in a canonical text. Each book of the Bible, Drury proposes (following F. C. Baur), has a tendenz, “a theological character and aim of its own.” Thus, Drury attempts to understand the parables as they exist in the context of the canon, and not as isolated Jesus-sayings. Thus, Drury stands in contrast to more traditional parable-scholars, who, he charges, were prone to remove the parables from their canonical context and treat them as a separate genre. His book is organized, therefore, into considerations of parables in the Old Testament, in apocalyptic literature, and in each of the four gospels.
A somewhat similar approach is taken by John R. Donahue, who teaches New Testament at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California. Donahue proposes that each parable contains a Gospel in miniature, even as they construct the gospel of which they are a part. “To study the parables of the Gospels is to study the gospel in the parables,” he suggests.
Donahue, like most contemporary parable-scholars, is greatly influenced by literary and narrative exegesis but, like Drury, he places considerable importance on the canonical function of each parable. Donahue’s contribution is a major book-length study and he admits that several worthy studies already existed. “Yet the parables … are ever old and new and resist capture by any one movement or period, not to say by any one book,” he acknowledges.
Donahue reminds the preacher that the parables are “open-ended” stories, thus “exegesis exhaust those possibilities of fruitful interpretation and appropriation which extend the original meaning of the text.” This is not a call for exegetical relativism, but for the relevance of the parables in a culture far removed from first-century Palestine.
If the more didactic and historical portions of scripture make their point by “telling it straight,” Fredrick Houk Borsch suggests that the parables do the same by “telling it slant.” The process brought about by the parables is what Borsch describes as “reorientation by disorientation. “As Borsch suggests: “This process of having, losing, and finding, of having, losing, and then being given a new opportunity for choosing, parallels the great central theme of the Bible ….”
As Borsch suggests, the narrative power of the parables is often tied to Jesus’ intentional use of exaggeration or extravagance. “The parable’s extravagance presses the audience to recognize that the story cannot work well as a simple instructional or illustrative tale,” he insists.
Many Things in Parables includes considerations of eighteen parables grouped into fifteen themes ranging from “the resilient rascal” to “waste and grace.” Borsch, who serves as dean of the chapel at Princeton University in addition to his duties as a professor of religion, demonstrates a feel for the parables in the context of the sermon.
That context is the specific interest of Eugene L. Lowry in How to Preach a Parable. Lowry, well-known to most who follow contemporary preaching, is professor of preaching at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri. The author of The Homiletical Plot and Doing Time in the Pulpit, Lowry brings an established reputation for insight into narrative possibilities in the pulpit to this consideration of the parables.
“Two concerns gave rise to this book,” Lowry relates, “first, that some preachers may shy away from preaching on the parables – believing their literary form too difficult for the ‘average’ preacher to handle, and, second, that not a few preachers believe only the rare and gifted preacher can preach narrative sermons.” Lowry points to the parables as particularly powerful material for narrative preaching.
After surveying the impact of modern biblical scholarship, Lowry turns to four model sermons by leading preachers. The sermons are printed in full, with a running commentary by Lowry and a consideration of what narrative capabilities, techniques, and norms aided the movement of the sermon. The sermons are suggestive and worthy models. “Praying Through Clenched Teeth,” by Fred B. Craddock, is worth the price of the book, its graced communication of parabolic truth the product of a life open to seeing the gospel in the mundane. Other worthy sermons were contributed by Leander Keck, Lowry, and the late Dennis M. Willis.
Readers familiar with Lowry’s two previous books on narrative preaching will find How to Preach a Parable a continuation of his call for preachers to find a comfortable narrative style, however they judge their innate narrative gifts.
A different approach is taken by Robert Farrar Capon, whose writings have found their way into many homiletical libraries but who is not, technically speaking, a homiletician. He is an Episcopal priest, free-lance writer, and former professor of Greek and dogmatic theology. His most well-known works have been religious fiction such as The Third Peacock and Hunting the Divine Fox. Having written an earlier book on the parables of the kingdom, Capon has now turned to the parables of grace and judgment.
Following, in general, the synoptic order, Capon identifies the first parables (those prior to the feeding of the five thousand) as the parables of the Kingdom, the second division (those between the feeding of the five thousand and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem) as the parables of grace, and the third division (between the entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of the passion narrative) as the parables of judgment.
This division of the parables, taken alone, is suggestive for biblical preaching. But Capon has released a powerful trilogy covering these parables, with the two final volumes available just in the past two years.
The parables of grace, which run from the account of the coin in the fish’s mouth to the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, convey the unique and surprising vision of grace which characterized this period of Jesus’ ministry. Grace comes both surprising and sufficient through these, perhaps the most loved of the parables of Jesus.
Capon links the parables of grace to Jesus’ consciousness of death and resurrection, a consciousness he ties to the death of John the Baptist early in Jesus’ ministry. This is, he suggests, the necessary stage-setting of the parables of grace: “with a paradoxical Messiah standing in the wings fully cognizant of death and resurrection as the modus operandi of his saving work.”
The Parables of judgment takes as its backdrop the parables of grace, for grace remains the final word. Jesus did not reject grace in favor of judgment; He turned judgment into an instrument of grace, where the open heart could be found. Capon describes the touchstone of the parables of judgment as “inclusion before exclusion.” He acknowledges that the theme of judgment (as the theme of grace) is found throughout the ministry of Jesus. On the other hand, he demonstrates that the theme of judgment rises to a new level of prominence and with a powerful urgency in the period of Jesus’ ministry between His entry into Jerusalem and the course of His passion.
Capon demonstrates the action of Jesus in extending grace in the midst of judgment, but does not flinch from the stern words of judgment spoken by Jesus as He anticipated His own death. The Parables of judgment includes discussions of several texts not generally considered parables, but historical narratives. Capon demonstrates the parabolic force of those events and actions and relates them to the context and the themes of grace and judgment.
Preachers will find these books worthy additions to their working libraries and helpful resources for preaching the parables. As is immediately apparent, the authors are not in complete agreement concerning the nature of parables, the role of allegory, narrative, and context in interpreting the parables, and on the meaning of some parables in and of themselves. But these books will prod the reader on to a more intensive and insightful personal engagement with the parables.
The exegetical and hermeneutical methodologies reflected in these volumes are often on the “cutting edge” of modern biblical scholarship. Applied wholesale to biblical texts, these methodologies may contort and distort the natural meaning of the texts, though this is not the intent. Furthermore, these methods may include presuppositions evangelicals will find unworthy of historical texts.
Nevertheless, these methods cast a unique light on the parables. Though the techniques used to understand modern fiction, narrative, and literature may distort those portions of scripture which are inherently didactic or historical, they can be of considerable benefit when applied to the parables.
In so doing, these books reveal vast resources for powerful preaching on Gospel parables; that is, for preaching willing to rely on the power of these graced stories to change lives and determine meaning.
BOOKNOTES
Phillips Brooks, The Joy of Preaching (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1989), 237 pp., cloth.
Phillip Brooks earned a lasting place in the homiletic hall of fame. His ministry at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia (1862-1869) and Trinity Church, Boston (1869-1893) established him as one of the most popular preachers ever to grace the American scene. His 1877 Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale comprise this volume, and in the lectures he suggests his famous definition of preaching as “the bringing of truth through personality.” Preachers will find the reprinting of these lectures a genuine service and an opportunity not to be missed. Over 10,000 people gathered outside Trinity Church for Brook’s funeral in 1893. Many times that figure have profited by reading his lectures.
James T. Clemons, ed., Sermons on Suicide (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), 160 pp., paper.
Few congregations will escape the pain of suicide in their midst, and preachers are often perplexed when faced with the issue. Clemons, professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, has edited a volume of sermons dealing with suicide. Most were preached as a response to a specific suicide, and they demonstrate a range of approaches and treatments of the issue. Clemons acknowledges the factors which cause preachers to be reluctant in face of the issue, but suggests that “none of these factors, singly or together, can outweigh the responsibility of religious communities to provide that combination of thorough exegesis, prophetic urgency, and pastoral direction which can best be given from the pulpit.”
Alan F. Johnson and Robert E. Webber, What Christians Believe: A Biblical and Historical Summary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989), 480 pp., cloth.
The publication of this weighty volume is a welcome sign in the midst of a theological desert. So much of what is published by evangelical publishing houses these days gives little attention to doctrine, favoring practical concerns instead. What Christians Believe is not an evangelical summa, but it is a handy compendium of basic doctrinal issues considered from both biblical and historical perspectives. Johnson is professor of New Testament and Christian ethics and Webber is professor of theology, both at Wheaton College. Johnson brings the perspective of a biblical scholar and Webber adds his expertise as an historical theologian. The authors seek to “affirm both the unity of the various confessions and the validity of diversity in matters of secondary importance.”
J. D. Douglas, Walter A. Elwell, and Peter Toon, The Concise Dictionary of the Christian Tradition: Doctrine, Liturgy, History (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989), 419 pp., cloth.
Pastors and students seeking a concise dictionary of ecclesiastical history, liturgy, and theological terms will find The Concise Dictionary of the Christian Tradition a welcome desktop friend. The almost 3500 articles range from “A Cruce Salus” to “Zwinglianism.” Each is truly concise, and the reader will glean only the most basic information, but this will whet the reader’s appetite for a more lengthy consideration of issues as they arise. The volume pales before the authoritative Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, but it has the advantage of concision and a less expensive price. The greatest liability of the volume is a complete lack of bibliographical references, but the volume is intended as a first source of reference, and not the last.
Stanley J. Grenz, Prayer: The Cry for the Kingdom (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1988), 114 pp., paper.
“The greatest challenge facing the church of Jesus Christ today is motivating the people of God to pray, and to do so sincerely, honestly, and fervently.” So says Stanley Grenz, currently professor of theology and Christian ethics at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Grenz, who has written previously on devotional themes, evidences a central concern for prayer in the life of the Christian and in the life of the church.
Max Lucado, Six Hours One Friday: Anchoring to the Cross (Portland, OR: Multnomah Publishing House, 1989), 236 pp., cloth.
Max Lucado is not yet a household name among preachers, but his writings are quickly becoming some of the most popular books among preachers and lay Christians. Lucado has a dexterity with words and language which will impress and move any preacher. Images, emotions, and application all conspire within the lines of his text. Pulpit minister of Oak Hills Church of Christ in San Antonio, Texas, Lucado offers powerful and poignant devotions in this beautifully produced volume.
Jerrien Gunnink, Preaching for Recovery in a Strife-Torn Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989), 125 pp., paper.
Gunnink, pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Manhattan, Montana, cites research which reveals that “At least ten percent of the churches in the United States and Canada are presently embroiled in internal conflict so large that their witness has been nullified.” This indictment of the church is addressed by Gunnink, who reveals his conviction that preaching is an important part of recovery for congregations. In his words, “preaching heals.” Gunnink discusses various dimensions of the issue of church conflicts, relates these to preaching, and includes a list of suggested sermon texts and titles for preaching in the midst of congregational strife.
Richard J. Mouw, Distorted Truth: What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Battle for the Mind (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), 168 pp., cloth.
The “battle for the mind” is part and parcel of life at the end of the twentieth century. Christians cannot evade this battle, nor the thousands of skirmishes which come day by day. Mouw, a careful thinker and scholar, has taught ethics and theology at Fuller Theological Seminary for the past several years, and was most recently appointed provost of the seminary. Distorted Truth considers several philosophical rivals to Christian theism, including relativism, monism, nihilism, humanism, and the New Age Movement. Mouw is never shrill, nor does he evade the central issues. In addition to considerations of intellectual rivals to faith, Mouw also suggests a model of intellectual and missionary engagement with devotees of these schools of thought, a model he terms “pilgrimage analysis.” Mouw is everywhere honest and nowhere hysterical.

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