David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 487 pp., $24.95, cloth.
The preaching world has long anticipated the magnum opus rumored to be lurking in the study of David Buttrick, Professor of Homiletics and Worship at the Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. Two salient characteristics of the project were part and parcel of the rumor; the book was said to be both comprehensive and massive. In this case, the rumors were demonstrated to have been well-founded.
The release of Homiletic reveals a volume which, in the words of the publisher, is “the most substantial work on the subject since the nineteenth century.” This statement is unlikely to be questioned.
When challenged by Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, Amos, a humble shepherd with a word from the Lord, answered that he was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, thereby relinquishing all claims to the prophet’s mantle. David Buttrick has no such retreat; he is both a homiletician and the son of a preacher.
In his preface, Buttrick mentions two primary homiletical influences: his father, George Buttrick, and Paul Scherer, two of the most popular preachers in America in the mid-twentieth century. Nevertheless, the influence of numerous others is apparent, primarily the challenge of contemporary hermeneutical theory and the science of communications.
Buttrick acknowledges that his approach may be described as “phenomenological.” That is, he is intentionally interested in the actual process of preaching and the manner in which the sermon forms in the human consciousness. Homiletic is not a lighthearted primer for preachers; it is a serious and occasionally ponderous work intended for homileticians, theologians, and those preachers most serious about the preaching task.
Buttrick identifies a “homiletical circle” in which anyone who would speak of preaching must operate: “You cannot talk of sermon design without some glimmer of what sermons are made of, and you cannot comprehend the internal parts of a sermon without a grasp of sermon design….” Thus, the two parts of the book: “Moves,” which deals with the internal components of the sermon, and “Structures,” which concerns the structural theory of the preaching task.
The latest moves in the field of hermeneutics, biblical and general, concern the absolute centrality of words to the human mind. These words have gained a rather bad reputation in recent years, yet there is no escaping them. Buttrick begins with an essay of appreciation for words, with which we can name the world and tell a story.
Preaching, says Buttrick, is “a story transformed.” Nevertheless, it is always more than a story, for it reaches beyond the lingual to the realm Buttrick identifies as “the symbolic-reflective.” Christian preaching “tells a story and names a name.”
Bemoaning the trap of dividing sermons into “topical” and “biblical,” Buttrick pursues a dialectic between the two. Topical sermons may identify what God is doing in the world — the “God-with-us” dimension — but fail to deal with the biblical narrative. So-called “biblical” preaching may tell a biblical story, but fail to connect the story to the hearer’s world.
By speaking of the components of sermons as “moves,” the author is intentionally avoiding the common designation of sermon sections as “points.” “The word ‘point’ is peculiar; it implies a rational, at-a-distance pointing at things, some kind of objectification,” he observes.
Language, however, is words in motion, a patterned sequence best described in terms of moves rather than points. Buttrick speaks of these moves from a background informed by rhetoric, the study of words in motion. Rather than joining the contemporary neglect of rhetoric, Buttrick demonstrates the necessity of an understanding of rhetoric for effective preaching.
Moves, says the author, have an internal design determined by theological understanding, an eye for oppositions, and actualities of lived experience. These factors require a rhetorical strategy.
In successive chapters Buttrick deals with moves in terms of framework, images, language, and words in the church. Each chapter reveals a disciplined mind at work, and in conversation with the relevant disciplines.
For readers not familiar with the hermeneutical and theoretical movements behind and underneath Buttrick’s approach, a section on further reading will prove helpful, but the reader will miss precise documentation. The most massive work on homiletics of the century includes no footnotes.
In writing of framework Buttrick had two essential homiletical moves in mind: introductions and conclusions. Introductions give “focus to consciousness” and form a “hermeneutical orientation.” It is not an ingratiating preface to the sermon but a disciplined move into the sermon proper. The focus is similar, Buttrick suggests, to the function of a camera lens; it will bring a particular subject into focus out of the greater field of meaning.
Conclusions, on the other hand, serve to bring the sermon to the point of intention and then stop. “Conclusions are acts of obedience; we are doing what is intended. They are practical matters; we stop.
Images, language, and the form of words in the church form three final chapters in “Moves.” All three chapters demonstrate a careful integration of hermeneutical theory to the discipline of preaching.
The centrality of images and metaphor to understanding, the function and operation of illustrations, and the meaning of these for the preacher are explored. Further, the very nature of homo sapiens as homo loquens — the speaking being — is considered.
After an extensive review of approaches to language, Buttrick concludes that the language of preaching is “a connotative language used with theological precision.”
The language of preaching, Buttrick argues, must be the ordinary language of human conversation. He estimates that the ordinary seminary graduate will have a vocabulary of about 12,000 words while the average church member will have one of about 7,500 words.
“At the onset then, there will be many words we will not sing out in our preaching — eschatology, hierophany, noetic, kairos, kerygma, soteriological, and any number of German imports ending with ‘-geist.'”
The shared vocabulary of the preacher and congregation Buttrick estimates at about 5,000 words. This, he suggests, forms the “sophisticated, simple language of preaching.”
Buttrick speaks also of preaching inside and outside the church. Inside, we preach to the baptized faithful. Outside, we preach to the unbeliever and unbaptized. In another section the author speaks of the need for a preaching more apologetic than in the day of Barth and Brunner.
Buttrick suggests at the onset that either of the book’s two sections may be read first. The “homiletical circle” renders any order unnecessary. Nevertheless, the printed sequence of the sections is probably wise, for the hermeneutical excursions of “Structures” are made more meaningful after the homiletical case is set in “Moves.”
This is not to suggest that “Structures” is any less important to preaching than “Moves.” To the contrary, Buttrick considers some of the most meaningful and strategic matters of homiletics in his second section. Chapters entitled “Hermeneutics,” “Homiletics,” “Structures,” and “Theology” form the skeleton of the section.
Buttrick opens the section with a consideration of authority in two dimensions: power and wisdom. The very issue of authority is a sensitive issue these days.
Buttrick proposes a model of preaching authority as mediation. “Preachers talk of God to people.” As interpreters preachers also mediate between meanings. This function the author explores under a division entitled “Preaching as Hermeneutics.”
Under “Homiletics” Buttrick reviews the components of plot and intention, both of which are necessary for effective preaching.
Central to this last section is the author’s distinction between two modes of preaching: the immediate and the reflective. When preaching in the mode of immediacy we hear the story and form “immediate analogies of experience by which we understand and respond to the story as it moves along.” The focus is not on contemplation but action.
On the other hand, preaching in the reflective mode focuses on contemplative reflection on the meaning of contemporary existence in light of biblical revelation. It is less focused on action than on meaning.
After an essay on preaching and praxis Buttrick turns to “A Brief Theology of Preaching.” In asking the question “Why do preachers preach?” Buttrick answers:
– “Our preaching, commissioned by the resurrection, is a continuation of the preaching of Jesus Christ.”
– “In our preaching, Christ continues to speak to the church, and through the church to the world.”
– “The purpose of preaching is the purpose of God in Christ, namely the reconciliation of the world.”
– “Preaching evokes response: The response to preaching is a response to Christ, and is, properly, faith and repentance.”
– “Preaching is the ‘Word of God’ in that it participates in God’s purpose, is imitated by Christ, and is supported by the Spirit with community in the world.”
The simple listing of these moves is necessitated by space limitations, but does violence to the fullness of Buttrick’s treatment of these themes.
Buttrick concludes with suggestions for further reading, a very helpful and incisive listing of sources. Homiletic functions as a good entre into a world of scholarship and thought not immediately accessible to the parish minister.
The emergence of Homiletic must be greeted with excitement and gratitude. The two recent volumes by Cox and Craddock will probably find their way into most introductory courses in preaching at the graduate level. Likewise, they are both fine refresher courses for preaching ministers.
Homiletic is another animal altogether. It never gets to a consideration of delivery, worship, or other matters often found in major works on preaching. On the matters it covers, however, Homiletic is the most encyclopedic work in the modern period.
Preachers deadly serious about the challenge of effective preaching will find their way into its pages — prolix and profound as they are — and reap the rewards of serious interaction with the model of a master sermon craftsman. Though technical and theoretical, the book gives evidence of Buttrick’s great personal love for preaching.
He concludes: “There is a kind of secret astonishment to preaching: We work hard, we study, we explore the Mystery of God-love and, then — with the naivete of a trusting child, or the desperation of broken people who have to ask of wholeness, or both — we cast ourselves on grace alone.
“What else? We have been chosen to speak God’s own Word. No wonder, year in, year out, preaching is terror and gladness.”
Book Notes
Richard L. Eslinger, A New Hearing: Live Options in Homiletic Method (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987), 189 pp., $9.25, paper.
The homiletical explosion of recent years has caught many preachers by surprise. Presented with a set of three or four models in their ministerial training, many are unfamiliar with the several options which have emerged in the last few years. After the malaise of the sixties and the fadishness of the seventies a matrix of serious options has emerged.
Richard Eslinger, formerly professor of Christian Worship at Duke University and currently pastor of Wallingford United Methodist Church in Seattle, has provided preachers with a helpful introduction to these new options in preaching.
Eslinger presents five major models: Charles Rice and the storytelling method; Henry Mitchell and the black narrative method; Eugene Lowery and the narrative/inductive method; Fred Craddock and the inductive method; and David Buttrick’s phenomenological method.
With each Eslinger includes an essay on method and a sermon illustrating the best use of the preaching option. Those tired of “three points and a poem” will turn gladly to Eslinger’s creative and helpful volume.
George Sweeting, Special Sermons (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 723 pp., $14.95, paper.
George Sweeting, president of Moody Bible Institute and former pastor of the Moody Memorial Church in Chicago, has offered in this volume the fruit of decades of pulpit ministry.
Seventy-four sermons are arranged according to purpose. Eighteen cover the church year from New Year’s Day to Christmas. Another fourteen concern “Special Sermons on Special Issues” which range from abortion to the poor. Three other sections include “Special Sermons on the Family,” “Special Sermons on Major Bible Doctrines,” and “Special Sermons for Evangelism.”
Warren J. Hartmen, Five Audiences: Identifying Groups in Your Church “Creative Leadership Series,” edited by Lyle Schaller (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987), $8.95, paper.
Churches recognize the need to divide members into groups reflective of their needs and interests. Bible study groups, Sunday School classes, fellowship groups, and committees are all subgroups of the congregation divided because of their interests, ages, or needs.
Nevertheless, these groupings are grossly inadequate to explain the underlying complexity of the average congregation.
Warren J. Hartmen, Executive Secretary of Research of the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church, has pioneered a new and interesting model for identifying audiences within the congregation. These audiences range across denominational lines and will be immediately familiar to all preachers.
Hartmen identifies five audiences: the fellowship group, the traditionalists, the study group, the social action group, and the multiple interest group.
Though the book is directed primarily at church programming, it is immediately helpful to the preacher as the listening congregation is considered. Those same audiences for whom programming must be designed also warm the pews during the sermon. Any sermon would be more effective if these five audiences were visualized during the process of sermon preparation and delivery.
Richard E. Wentz, Why Do People Do Bad Things in the Name of Religion? (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1987), 87 pp., $9.95, paper.
Richard Wentz, professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University, raises a question sure to plague the mind of every serious believer: Why do religious people do the most horrendous (and embarrassing) things in the name of religion?
Actually, Wentz suggests, religions exist because people do bad things. He suggests life as a pilgrim, described by Luther as both saint and sinner.
Wentz’s point, made from the standpoint of a social scientist and historian of religion, will inform the preacher. It is true, he suggests, “that those who are most liberated from the errors of religion are those who take it seriously, not those who attack it or rule it out of court.”
William Muehl, Why Preach? Why Listen? (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 95 pp., $4.95, paper.
William Muehl, attorney, theologian, preacher, and professor, brings all of his hats to bear on the issue of preaching in this short volume. In one of the most creative and incisive essays of recent years Muehl explores the interaction of pulpit and pew and the need for a theology of preaching which takes the secular world seriously.
The vast majority of church members and sermon hearers are in that world most waking hours. Muehl challenges preachers to maintain a theological perspective which will grow with the challenge and be responsive to the hearers.
Muehl considers themes such as condemnation and reconciliation in light of this challenge. Ample illustrations and a fluid style complement the volume.
Michael Williams, Preaching Peers (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1987), 40 pp., $4.95, paper.
This small booklet offers a guide for creating clergy study groups — small covenant groups of pastors who work together to improve their preaching ministries.
The author is Director of Preaching Ministries in the Section on Worship of the General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church, but the guide can be used by pastors in any denomination who are interested in this approach to continuing education and professional development.
An accompanying set of four videotapes by Fred Craddock is available for $179.95. Both the booklet and tapes can be ordered from the publisher at PO Box 189, Nashville, TN 37202.
J. B. Fowler, Illustrated Sermon Outlines (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), 132 pp., paper.
Unlike most books of sermon outlines, this small volume includes at least two illustrations with each of its sixty outlines.
If, like most pastors, you’re always on the lookout for good sermon illustrations, you’re likely to find some useable material here.
R. Earl Allen and Joel Gregory, compilers, Southern Baptist Preaching Today (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), 603 pp., paper.
Here’s a diverse collection of sermons from 49 Southern Baptist pastors. In addition to sermons, the volume includes a brief essay by each contributor on his personal approach to preparation for preaching. There is also a short biographical sketch of each contributor.
As could be expected from a volume this broad (even though limited to a single denomination), an individual reader will find that some sermons “ring the bell” while others leave them cold. Every preacher will find material here, and Southern Baptists especially will want to have this book on their shelves.

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