Clyde E. Fant, Preaching for Today. Revised Edition (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987). 292 pp., $18.95, cloth.
First released in 1975, Preaching For Today has enjoyed wide popularity as a thoughtful and innovative guide to the preaching task. In a new and expanded edition the volume is likely to reach an even larger readership.
Fant, formerly Professor of Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastor of First Baptist Church, Richardson, Texas, brings a wealth of experience to the volume. Currently Dean of the Chapel and Professor of Christian Studies at Stetson University, Fant writes as one very much engaged in the demands of preaching.
Fant writes as a self-acknowledged generalist in the science of preaching. He expresses appreciation for specialists in the field, but has directed this volume against the “atomization or fragmentation” of the field which sometimes results.
Preaching For Today is, in Fant’s words, “an attempt to unify the practice of preaching, from sermon construction to pulpit delivery, within a meaningful theology of proclamation.” The preaching task must not be relegated to either theological abstraction or purely practical matters such as voice, rhetoric, and form. “The divorce between theology and practical homiletics is a primary reason for the parish minister’s ongoing frustrations with preaching.”
Fant begins the volume with an essential but often neglected question: “What can preaching do?” After a consideration of the context of the question, Fant suggests that preaching can perform six rather significant functions: it brings Good News, allows us to hear from the historic community of faith, introduces us to the Word become flesh, tells us the way things are, offers a doxology to God, and creates the church and sends it into the world.
In a most interesting chapter Fant considers “The Stubborn Pulpit.” Most comprehensive volumes on preaching give some attention to the history and heritage of the preaching tradition, but Fant’s treatment is unique.
Preaching, he suggests, has a double stubbornness: “it is stubbornly the same and it is stubbornly there.” Fant clearly rejects the notion of a golden age of preaching, though he does identify a cycle of preaching’s popularity. Clearly frustrated with a fixation on the Victorian era as “The Golden Age of Preaching,” Fant presents a list of articles from the nineteenth century lamenting the sad estate of preaching. Though demonstrating appreciation for these preachers, Fant has high regard for many twentieth-century preachers as well.
“None of this should be understood as saying that all centuries are alike in the quality of their preaching or in the reception accorded to it. That is obviously untrue…. But it does say that every generation of preachers tends to romanticize the heroic past and to be overly pessimistic about the present,” he observes. Nevertheless, Fant takes the contemporary criticisms of preaching seriously and responds to them throughout the volume.
In this first section, “The Promise of Preaching,” the author gives serious attention to the theological foundation of preaching and roots the stubborn persistence of the sermon in the stubborn hope of the Christian faith when authentically Christian and theologically significant.
In a new chapter not found in the first edition, Fant surveys the contemporary theological scene and finds a rich array of catalysts for preaching. Using Paul Ricoeur’s distinction between theologies of proclamation and theologies of manifestation, Fant compares the more kerygmatic theologies of Barth, Bonhoeffer, and others with the manifestation theologies of Eduard Schillebeeckx, David Tracy, Langdon Gilkey, and others. This section is provocative, though Fant never suggests precisely what role these theologies can play in the homiletical task.
He then turns to “theologies of action” with more apparent linkage of preaching and praxis. Theologies of liberation, feminist studies, and Black preaching inform this section, though Fant writes clearly as a homiletician and not as a systematic theologian. His suggestions provide the needed foundation for the central thrust of the first section, “Toward Incarnational Preaching.”
In the earliest pages of the volume Fant indicated his dedication to incarnational preaching; that is, the Word made flesh in the act of preaching. Though Fant clearly has a very high view of this process, he does not confuse the preaching event with the unique incarnational event in Christ. Nevertheless, the author does see preaching torn between the two poles of the human and the divine. After considering several “homiletical heresies,” Fant points to a midpoint of communication between the Gospel and the world.
The second major section, “The Person Who Preaches,” considers several dimensions of the human being who must stand in both the Word and the world. Fant offers no apologies for the humanity of the preacher, but instead calling for a full humanity which prevents despair and permits testimony.
He gives considerable attention to the issues of the preacher’s personality, credibility, and charisma. Personality should be the natural embrace of a caring and sympathetic personhood. Credibility is linked to the twin concerns of expertness and trustworthiness, both of which are essential to the effective preacher.
Expertness is measured primarily by “relational intelligence,” though Fant does call the preacher to careful study and a mastery of the content of preaching. Nevertheless, “Some preachers display dazzling factual competence and unbelievable relational ignorance.”
Charisma, the author suggests, is derived from possession to a purpose greater than ourselves and a charismatic community. Since both of these are surely required of the preacher and the Christian congregation, charisma should be a natural part of every preacher’s ministry.
Whether intended or not, the first edition of Preaching For Today was discussed primarily in relation to Fant’s call for an “oral manuscript.” Likewise, the revised edition draws the reader to the third major section, “The Shape of the Sermon,” in which the author expands his argument for incarnational preaching.
“The ultimate test for incarnational preaching,” Fant suggests, “comes at that moment when proclamation ceases to be theoretical and takes on flesh and blood as the sermon.”
No traditional form of preaching can guarantee this process. Expositional preaching, life-situation preaching, topical sermons, and all other traditional forms may become incarnational preaching, though none can be considered automatic. Authentic incarnational preaching requires attention to both the substance and the shape of the sermon.
“Like a satellite trapped within the gravitational pull of a planet, preaching has been locked into the Gutenberg galaxy. The sermon must break out of this orbit if it is to be able to communicate with its own medium.”
With this proposal Fant begins his argument for a new shape of the sermon by means of an oral manuscript. Communication, Fant suggests, has been transformed from an essentially literary art to an oral medium. The manuscript sermon has become “the art form of preaching.”
Most training in preaching, Fant avers, is based upon the assumption that the principles of written and oral communication are alike. This he believes to be demonstrably unsound.
Communication intended for the ear and that intended for the eye are two very different styles. Outlines, paragraphing, and formal syntax mark the style of written communication. Nevertheless, the ear does not read this style, but hears best a message formed orally from the onset.
This leads Fant to his proposal for an oral manuscript, a process as demanding of the preacher as the written document, but much more appropriate for the oral presentation of the Gospel.
The process begins with initial study — just as if one was to write a manuscript. At the next step, however, the material takes the form of a rough oral draft. The suggested directions from the initial study lead to a rough oral presentation which forms the basis of the sermon. During this process the basic content of the sermon is set, along with the introduction and conclusion. Transitional sentences and rearrangement of the narrative lead to the final form of the oral manuscript.
Fant’s proposal offers rich possibilities for most preachers trained in the written manuscript tradition. Though some preachers who deliver written manuscripts from the pulpit succeed in communication, Fant suggests that this is in spite of the manuscript rather than because of it. The greatest virtue of the proposal is that the preparation of the sermon is in the same medium of expression as the delivery.
The oral manuscript leads to “the sermon brief,” a short and uncluttered content and transition summary of the sermon. It is not an outline, though it appears much like one. The brief is taken into the pulpit as a pointer to the direction of the oral presentation.
Later chapters in this section consider suggestions for the minister’s study habits, other dimensions of the sermon, and sermon planning. New to this edition are chapters on narrative preaching and what Fant terms “worldly preaching.”
The influence of narrative preaching is one of the hallmarks of the revised edition. Even the sections in the oral manuscript demonstrate interaction with new directions in narrative thought. Fant is clearly pleased with the turn to narrative in the past ten years. He demonstrates considerable dialogue with the literature and practitioners in the field.
There is general agreement, he suggests, on the benefits of a narrative approach. These include the fact that the nature of human life is itself narrative, that many biblical texts are inherently narrative in form, and that plots in sermons are superior to outlines.
Nonetheless, Fant is aware that the story is more than narrative, having also possibilities for meaning outside the actual narrative. In other words, the story has a point. In this regard Fant has performed a considerable service by pointing to a middle ground which he terms a “contextual sermon.” This form takes the best insights narrative has to offer and leads to “narrative-like” incarnational preaching. Similarly, Fant’s suggestions concerning “worldly preaching” — which moves from the “this world” of human existence to the “real world” mediated by the Gospel — are most promising.
Two noteworthy chapters are found in the last section, “Saying the Sermon.” A consideration of Jesus as communicator offers keen insights into the effectiveness of Jesus’ communication and the possibilities of our own improvement.
Any presentation of this volume must include reference to Fant’s clever focus on what he terms “upper and lower garble,” two unfortunate results of “our futile attempts to sound less like ourselves and more like God.” Few preachers will escape finding their own feeble attempts laid bare within this discussion.
Preaching For Today is one of the very few books on preaching with a proven track record which justifies a revised edition. The revisions are not merely cosmetic.
Fant demonstrates considerable interaction with current literature in homiletics as well as theology, literary studies, and related fields. In fact, the volume is a good entre for many into the diversity of contemporary homiletical thought.
Generally, however, Fant is successful in his attempt to construct a unified whole. Preachers will find his proposals suggestive and catalytic — reason enough for reading the volume.
Book Notes
Fred C. Lofton, compiler. Our Help In Ages Past: Sermons From Morehouse (Elgin, Illinois: Progressive Baptist Publishing House, 1987). 184 pp., paper.
This notable selection of sermons is dedicated to the memory of the late Benjamin Elijah Mays, longtime President of Morehouse College. These twenty sermons range from William P. Digg’s consideration of “A Perverted Religion,” to Mose Pleasure, Jr.’s suggestive title, “Preaching: A Paradoxical Calling with Paradoxical Provisions for Dispensing Paradoxical Power.”
Edited by Fred C. Lofton, Pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Memphis, the volume is an excellent compilation of some of the best representatives of the black preaching tradition. Included in the edition are sermons by the late Yale Beecher Lecturer Kelly Miller Smith and current Morehouse School of Religion Dean Edward L. Wheeler. Our Help In Ages Past is a rare volume and a significant collection of powerful sermons.
Gail R. O’Day. The Word Disclosed: John’s Story and Narrative Preaching (St. Louis: CBP Press, 1987). 105 pp., $7.95, paper.
Preachers, O’Day suggests, often neglect to give serious attention to the rich possibilities within the Gospel of John. “The task of preaching a Fourth Gospel text is often the true test for a preacher, because the Fourth Gospel texts are so different from what we have come to expect Gospel texts to be like.” O’Day’s purpose is “to provide fresh access” to the richness of John’s Gospel.
The passages chosen for consideration follow the Lenten lectionary for year A from the Gospel of John. In the four selections included in this volume, O’Day demonstrates the purpose of the Gospel author in bringing us the stories of Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus and the Samaritan woman, Jesus and the man born blind, and Jesus and Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
In these passages Jesus is revealed respectively as the teacher, the prophet, the healer, and the life-giver. The narrative considerations O’Day suggests will enrich those who follow the lectionary — and those who do not.
Warren W. Wiersbe. Real Worship (Nashville: Oliver Nelson, 1986). 183 pp., $12.95, cloth.
Real Worship is a fresh and somewhat surprising book from one of the most prolific pens in the evangelical world. Wiersbe, author of some eighty books, is currently General Director of the Back to the Bible Broadcast, a position he has filled since his retirement from the pulpit of the great Moody Memorial Church in Chicago.
Wiersbe believes the church to be in need of transformation and suggests a transformation of worship as the best prescription. The author is himself from the rather non-liturgical “free church” tradition and in this volume gives evidence of his own quest for vitality in worship within that tradition.
Business as usual will no longer do: “Now it is time that we returned to God’s way and tried worship.” Wiersbe defines worship as “the believer’s response of all that he is — mind, emotions, will, and body — to all that God is and says and does.” In a very suggestive chapter Wiersbe deals with preaching as an act of worship — a word all evangelicals will want to hear.
Herbert O’Driscoll. A Year of the Lord (Wilton, CT: Morehouse-Barlow, 1986). 143 pp., paper.
Herbert O’Driscoll, rector of Christ Church, Calgary and former Warden of the College of Preachers, has provided a unique homiletical guide to the Common Lectionary. The small volume is less a preaching program than a series of insightful exegetical suggestions following the pattern of the church year.
William Powell Tuck. The Way For All Seasons: Searching Reflections on the Beatitudes (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987). 203 pp., $9.95, cloth.
Though series preaching has become increasingly popular in the past few years, few hardy souls have undertaken a comprehensive series on the Beatitudes. Tuck, formerly Professor of Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and currently Pastor of St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville, has accepted this task with considerable aplomb.
Nine chapters deal with the Beatitudes — including “the forgotten Beatitude,” Acts 20:35. Throughout the volume Tuck demonstrates his very literate style and keen insight. Those considering the challenge of this difficult assignment or those seeking to understand the Beatitudes anew wil find the volume helpful.
John MacArthur, Jr., MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 8-15 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987), 483 pp., $14.95, cloth.
John MacArthur, Jr., pastor of Grace Community Church in Panorama City, CA, is a preacher who has become widely-known for his verse-by-verse exposition through radio and tape ministries. This Commentary follows in that expositional style, and offers exegetical notes blended with practical application.
George R. Beasley-Murray, Word Biblical Commentary: John (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 418 pp., cloth.
The 21st volume published in Word’s scholarly commentary, Beasley-Murray’s volume will be welcomed by those who seek a commentary that blends scholarly critical studies with an evangelical spirit and commitment to the authority of the Scripture.
Any preacher who wants to deal faithfully with John’s Gospel in the pulpit will benefit from this outstanding treatment.
Leslie C. Allen, Word Biblical Themes: Psalms, and Gerald F. Hawthorne, Word Biblical Themes: Philippians (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 130 pp. and 110 pp., $6.95 paper and $8.95 cloth.
In contrast to the scholarly, detailed treatment of the Word Biblical Comentary series, these volumes offer a brief introduction to their respective books through a summary of several major themes of the book. According to the publisher, this series will seek to share with a broader audience many of the insights of the more scholarly commentary series.

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