Calvin Miller, Spirit, Word, and Story: A Philosophy of Preaching (Dallas: Word Books, 1989), 237 pp.
Evangelical publishing houses have experienced a renaissance of vitality in recent years, and Calvin Miller has become an industry unto himself. His many works cover the waterfront of genres and literary forms, from lyrical retellings of the gospel to volumes on marriage and the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, most casual readers of his popular narrative works are probably unaware that Miller fills a pulpit week to week — and takes preaching as seriously as he takes his writing.
The members of Westside Church in Omaha, Nebraska are well aware of Calvin Miller’s dedication to preaching. He has been their pastor for over two decades, and has seen the church grow from ten to over two thousand members in that period. He preaches across the nation, is a Contributing Editor of Preaching, and recently delivered the prestigious Mullins Lectures on Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Spirit, Word, and Story is intended as a “philosophy of preaching,” not as a comprehensive text on the preaching task. Given the large number of current books in the field, Miller was initially reluctant to offer his own. Gladly, he overcame this reluctance and Spirit, Word, and Story is the promising product.
Preaching, he suggests, is “the subject which both intrigues and embarrasses our world.” Preachers are those who want to be ever better practictioners of this divine foolishness. Miller acknowledges the first question addressed to any book on preaching: Can great preaching be taught? Though he grants the importance of talent and ability, Miller clearly believes that preaching can be taught. Inbred passion may exist in differing degrees from person to person, but instruction is also key. These two ingredients, he asserts, should not be set against one another, “because good preaching contains both.” His conviction is clear: “Whatever our natural bent, all of us are under obligation to refine our craft.”
Before leaving introductory matters, Miller deals with the sensitive issue of time in preaching. “Churches,” he avers, “will seldom grow hardy on fifty-five minute worship services.” Later, in discussing the function of the Spirit, he identifies waiting for power as “the grand allurement of the Spirit in preaching.” The clock can never rule this kind of preaching.
Miller insists that he is not calling for tedious sermons, but indicating the inhibiting role time-consciousness can play in the preaching event. As he states: “It is time that preachers confess the sin of pampering restless congregations with speedy sermonettes.”
The title of the book indicates the structure of Miller’s presentation. His “philosophy of preaching” is based upon the three cardinal pillars of the Spirit, the Word, and the power of Story in the service of the sermon.
The reader will discover quickly the author’s distinction between story preaching and precept preaching. The former tells the biblical story and relates the message to contemporary life. Precept preaching is identified by Miller as the content-oriented, authority-focused form of preaching based in a “notebook theology.” This, he admits, is the standard pulpit fare in many of the largest and fastest-growing churches. This distinction, though discussed in detail only deep within the volume, frames much of the early material in the book.
Preaching should be “otherworldly” and carry this intrigue as the mystery of the sermon. This, Miller admits, requires “seeing the unseeable” and living in the mystery. “People,” Miller is confident, “do not attend churches that answer their questions.” They attend churches which inculcate mystery. Miller celebrates the increasing turn toward contemplative models of devotion in Protestant, and especially in evangelical churches.
Four questions form the grid for the sermon: (1) “What is the need of the congregation?” (2) “What does the Bible have to say about the need?” (3) “What life experiences have I had and what literary insights can I glean from books that might help illuminate the scriptural helps I can offer?” and (4) “How can I break the subject down into easily understandable units that they can easily grasp?”
This set of questions indicates the high degree of preparation Miller models for the reader. Careful exegesis of both the congregation and the biblical text are primary. The life experiences known by the preacher — directly and indirectly — enrich and communicate the message. The message is then broken into units of meaning.
The Spirit, suggests Miller, identifies the needs of the congregation and is the tangible presence of God in the worship/preaching event. The Spirit brings that necessary fire into the sermon, and the comforting presence of God as well.
Evangelical preaching is unrecognizable without the central ingredient of the Word. The author identifies four properties the Bible brings to the sermon: feeding, authority, things necessary to salvation, and biblical relevance in the contemporary milieu. Miller suggests that one of the dangers of precept preaching is the elevation of the preacher’s own authority at the expense of the biblical text. “In such deft displays of biblical skill, God rarely gets the spotlight.”
Urgency is another central interest. All great preaching must communicate genuine urgency — and to be urgent the sermon must make one central point. Miller warns against the pitfalls of meandering, volume, and melodrama in a search for urgency, and warns as well against the preacher’s reliance upon artistry in the pulpit. As he states succinctly: “The sermon must not be cute, but life changing.”
No reader will be surprised by Miller’s confession of his own reliance upon the power of words. He is an accomplished wordsmith and his sermons, as well as his literary works, are peppered with rich and textured language. He acknowledges that wordsmithing can itself become a dangerous form of artistry, but this process is hardly inevitable. Far more preaching suffers from weak and anemic language than from excessive verbal artistry.
Miller also points the reader to the importance of mobility in the sermon. The sermon must move and avoid the static morass of stodgy preaching, avoiding predictability and distractions.
He evidences a high regard for the biblical text, and a keen interest in relating the biblical message to the lives of his hearers. Nevertheless, his conception of the formal authority of scripture must not be eclipsed by the material authority of existential concern. Miller holds fast to his commitment to biblical authority, but it is not quite clear how he conceives the role of the biblical text in addressing questions to the congregation.
To be human is to be part and parcel of a story — and to fulfill roles in countless stories. Miller is possessed by an infectious story-consciousness which drives his unique homiletical style. His narrative ability is documented by the sales of his many story-books. That his preaching is shaped by this narrative ability and confidence does not come as a surprise.
Here again, Miller’s basic distinction between story preaching and precept preaching is critical. Precept preaching is closed, rigidly organized, and static. Story preaching links the worlds of scripture and life with a narrative bridge across the chasm of meaning. Story, unlike precept, can communicate ultimate truth.
Story assists in the establishment of relationships, in the acknowledgement of authenticity and truth, and underlines the event-character of the preaching event. Miller provides suggestions for the telling of stories within the sermon, and for the narrative shaping of the sermon.
Spirit, Word, and Story has been anxiously awaited and will not disappoint the reader. Preachers will find his style invigorating, his energy infectious, and his suggestions both creative and faithful. Miller’s criticism of precept preaching is often insightful, and he does indicate that story and precept must work together for the pupose of the sermon. Yet his indictment of precept preaching may be unduly harsh, for many precept preachers are skillful narrators even as they allow the precepts to form the skeleton of the sermon.
Miller’s intuitive perception of Narrative time and narrative space assists him in the telling of stories — and of the story. He is surely correct in his confidence that some of this narrative skill can be learned, even as he concedes that passion — even narrative passion — may not be a function of education or learning.
Preachers will relish Miller’s skill with words; his description of preaching as “glory made wise with compassion,” and his sympathetic identification with the preacher’s task and calling.
Sheldon A. Tostengard, The Spoken Word, Fortress Resources for Preaching (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 106 pp.
Preachers who think seriously about the problem of language will find The Spoken Word an intriguing and probing study. Tostengard, Professor of Practical Theology, Ministry, and Homiletics at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, argues for the power of the spoken word, and for the centrality of the word in preaching.
Tostengard’s Lutheran background is apparent throughout the short volume. The Lutheran focus on the spoken word and more recent developments in the Lutheran tradition form the background of the study. Luther himself stressed the primacy of the spoken word over the written word. The church was to be a “mouth-house” rather than a “pen-house.” This conviction held Luther, but it did not prevent him from writing thousands of pages of text and commentary.
The church is thus an oral community, “a group of people gathered to hear the gospel and speak it to the world.” The spoken word is the appropriate vessel for the gospel, for “the gospel is immediate, arresting, and something that we cannot control.”
Nevertheless, the church speaks its words in the midst of a crisis in the church. The church is “swimming against the stream” in western culture and society and its words may fall silent on secular ears. Tostengard argues compellingly that the church has always “lived on the edge of a language crisis,” but he sees the current crisis in language a unique challenge for the church.
How does an oral community share its faith and life in the midst of a culture which disparages all words? As Tostengard comments: “Speech is simply not thought to be a high form of communication, and the spoken word is not held to be a lively bearer of the truth.” He has identified one dimension of the challenge the church must face in a media and video age.
It has become common in sociological circles to hear the indictment of the media age and a sense of sadness that the printed word no longer carries the influence it held in the pre-video era. Tostengard points preachers back even to the pre-printing press era — and underlines the priority of the spoken word over the printed word. He calls for a theology of language which would affirm the “reasonable correlation between God’s revelation as the word of Christ and our situation.”
Tostengard takes his readers through a brief history of communication and language, and draws from prominent language theorists such as Susan Langer and Walter Ong. Preachers may have missed any familiarity with these issues, and Tostengard provides brief and relevant essays for his intended readers.
Luther appears again as Tostengard lays out his positive agenda for preaching in this age. Luther’s incarnational theology — rich in practical application — forms the philosophical framework for his argument. The gospel word, Tostengard allows, is not identical with common language, “yet it is in our everyday words about Jesus that the gospel does come to us.”
The gospel word, clothed in everyday language, comes as “the very message of grace,” and as personal, qualitative, and absolute. Luther’s insistence that the Bible be translated into the vernacular takes on a new significance in this light.
Tostengard’s essay is dependent upon the recent theological movement among Lutherans in Germany concerned with the word as a “language-event.” Associated with figures such as Gerhard Ebeling and Ernst Fuchs, the “language-event” school has spawned a hermeneutical system and now, with the publication of Ebeling’s three-volume work, a systematic theology.
Behind this school is the assumption that words are not merely static creations, but themselves constitute and create a reality all their own. The sermon must therefore create a living reality — and come as an event in the midst of life. The biblical text must become a living event for the congregation.
Tostengard recognizes the danger of subjectivity in this event-character, and warns against the privatization of interpretation. He finally calls for a sermon model based upon a form of dialectic “with a Lutheran twist.” This dialectic operates by meeting every objection and obstacle so that in the resolution of the sermon the gospel appears as the only alternative left.
The Spoken Word is a helpful essay on language and homiletics. Preachers will find themselves reminded of the centrality of language to the preaching task — and reminded of the event character of preaching.
Richard L. Thulin, The “I” of the Sermon, Fortress Resources for Preaching (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 86 pp.
The recent interest in narrative preaching has turned to an increasing concern for the power of personal stories. James McClendon has provided a look at the power of biography in preaching and theology while others have considered a range of narrative techniques. Richard Thulin may be the first to give serious attention to the role of autobiography in preaching.
Thulin, Ulrich Professor of the Art of Preaching at Lutheran Theological Seminary, Gettysburg, has dared to go where homiletical angels have feared to tread — into the dimension of autobiography. He begins with the concession that opposition to autobiographical preaching is the standard fare in most Protestant pulpits and seminaries.
Indeed, most preachers are reluctant to rely on their own stories for the force of their messages. Preachers are a strange combination of ego and self-denial anyway. Thulin asserts the fact that preaching exists to preach Christ — not to focus on the preacher. Yet, he reminds, “the preacher cannot hide.” The congregation looks to the preacher for a personal validation of the gospel message — “a clear and honest word from the one who speaks.”
The preacher’s authority is, he suggests, a personal authority. It is granted by congregations to those who link the biblical story to their own personal stories — and not usually to those who “simply talk about their lives per se.”
Four types of personal stories are discussed within the short volume: illustration, reminiscence, confession, and self-portrayal. Illustrations are brief narratives in the first-person singular which serve to clarify or confirm a general principle. The reminiscence is a more detailed personal narrative “which tells its own story.” By confession Thulin seeks to describe the most personal narratives which provide an example for the hearers. The most expansive category of narrative is the self-portrayal, which includes the dimension of relationships and points to the self “as thinking, feeling, and willing.”
Thulin’s volume is a creative consideration of the role of autobiography in preaching. It is not likely to convert many preachers who bring a prior rejection of autobiography to their reading of the book. He is careful to indicate how autobiography can be dangerous, if it becomes a privatization of the gospel.
In the end, however, the use of autobiography in preaching is as problematic as ever. Thulin is surely correct when he points to the necessity of the preacher’s own confirmation and confession of the gospel — and therefore of some use of autobiography in the pulpit. Beyond this, however, lie great difficulties. No preacher’s autobiography can confirm, confess, or struggle with the whole of the biblical message. We are called to preach the whole of the biblical counsel, and autobiography is far from enough for this task. Yet it is at other times indispensible, and therein lies the blessing and the curse.
Book Notes
John Killinger, Christmas Spoken Here (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1989), 141 pp.
John Killinger has brought his considerable homiletical gifts to many Christmas seasons. Christmas Spoken Here is a collection of fourteen messages preached by Killinger during the Christmas season.
He is at his best with these sermons and preachers will find in them both encouragement for their own Christmas preaching and a model of careful sermon integration. Killinger, formerly Senior Minister at First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, is now Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
Harry Farra, The Sermon Doctor: Prescriptions for Successful Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 194 pp.
This is easily the most unusual book on preaching to be released in a long time. Farra, chairman of the department of speech communication at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, has written a wide-ranging book on preaching and communication. The book is based upon a fictitious encounter between a “Sermon Doctor” and three frustrated preachers. Through means of a Socratic dialogue the four discover homiletical wisdom from great preachers and homileticians, and help as well from communication theorists.
The volume is clever and revealing. Farra’s approach is catalytic and creative. Preachers will find it both amusing and instructive.
Warren W. Wiersbe, Classic Sermons on the Attributes of God (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1989), 158 pp.
Warren Wiersbe’s enthusiasm for the pulpit is evident in his several collections of sermons from great preachers. This volume includes twelve sermons from recognized pulpit masters, all focused on the attributes of God. Spurgeon preaches on God’s omniscience, Wesley on His omnipresence, Beecher on His comfort.
Each provides an example of serious doctrinal preaching — and of effective pulpit communication of theological truth. Though these sermons are from a different era, they proclaim a timeless gospel.
F. Forrester Church, Everyday Miracles: Stories from Life (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 162 pp.
Forrester Church is one of America’s most popular pulpit communicators — and is fast becoming the most familiar Unitarian preacher in the nation. Minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, Church is the son of the late Sen. Frank Church and the author of several popular books including The Devil and Dr. Church and The Seven Deadly Virtues. He has reached a new level of visibility through an appearance on Bill Moyer’s series, “The Power of Ideas.”
Everyday Miracles is a powerful collection of stories first published in Church’s weekly column in the Chicago Tribune. Each is a vignette from everyday life told by a skilled and sensitive narrator. His stories are worth the reading.

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