New Interpreter's Handbook of Preaching

New Interpreter's Handbook of Preaching

by Paul Scott Wilson (Editor)

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The New Interpreter’s Handbook of Preaching is a major reference tool for preaching, with articles on every facet of Christian sermon preparation and delivery. This resource is both scholarly and practical. It focuses on the most distinctive feature and greatest strength of homiletics as a discipline: It is rooted in interdisciplinary scholarship and it develops theory geared to practice. Its theory arises out of the study of both excellent preaching past and present and actual sermon preparation and composition. When theory and practice critique each other, it is possible to produce guidelines that assist greater excellence and economy in preaching the gospel. Excellence in standards is an area in which homiletics needs to grow, and this project will be both a means to encourage and develop it. A guiding question throughout will be, Will it preach? The answers will be offered in the sense that “here is something that works well,” rather than “here is something to try.”

Preachers will turn to this resource with the expectation that they will find scholarly treatment of topics, brief bibliographies of relevant key books and articles, along with practical methodological suggestions for preachers to employ. The contributors are homileticians, preachers, and writers in various disciplines who are committed to the pulpit through practice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780687055562
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 12/01/2008
Series: New Interpreter's
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 540
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 10.50(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Paul Scott Wilson is Professor of Homiletics at Emmanuel College of the University of Toronto. He is one of the most respected and recognized teachers of homiletics in North America. He is the author of a number of books, including The Practice of Preaching, Imagination of the Heart, God Sense: Reading the Bible for Preaching, and The Four Pages of the Sermon, all published by Abingdon Press. He is the General Editor of The New Interpreter's Handbook of Preaching.

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The New Interpreter's Handbook of Preaching

By Paul Scott Wilson

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2008 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-05556-2


Part 1 Introduction: Choosing and Delimiting the Text

Stephen Farris

In some Christian traditions it is common for preachers to read texts in church but to preach on something entirely different with little or no use of any scriptural text. Whatever the merits of such preaching, the focus of this entry is the pattern of preaching on some part of one or more texts read aloud during the liturgy. In such preaching the sermon grows out of the preacher's study of the text. Here the importance of choosing and delimiting the text cannot be overstated. It is the primary step in responsibly interpreting that text for preaching. A preacher who irresponsibly chooses and delimits the text can make the text say what it was never intended to say. By contrast, the preacher who carefully chooses and delimits more likely allows the text to speak its own word rather than a word imposed upon it.

Though choosing and delimiting a text are two aspects of the same process and frequently happen simultaneously, they will be treated here as separate steps. First, there is the matter of choosing a text. A traditional method is to search in Scripture until one finds a text that seems appropriate to the situation of the congregation or season. The possible advantages of this method include relevance to the contemporary context and the room it may give to the work of the Holy Spirit. (Though surely, the Holy Spirit can also work through a more disciplined method!) In practice, however, preachers may lose precious time vacillating among texts or may choose texts they like or ones that seem to say what they have already decided they want to say. There is the possibility of creating over the years a personal mini-lectionary of texts that say only what the preacher already knows and believes.

A better choice is to follow a lectionary of the wider church, the Revised Common Lectionary. (See LECTIONARY AND THE CHRISTIAN YEAR.) Although the selection of texts in the lectionary has been criticized, it covers a wide variety of texts, and its christological and seasonal focus is as likely to be as acceptable as anything else that could be devised. In many denominations it can be used simply as a tool to facilitate the choice of lessons. There are considerable advantages to preaching the lectionary. The preacher need not waste time wandering through Scripture in desperate search of a likely text for the coming Sunday. Moreover, the lectionary forces one to study and preach on texts that one would not willingly choose. The spiritual discipline of preaching difficult texts may lead to the perception of more light and truth. Furthermore, there are many lectionary-based resources available in books and journals and online. Those resources often provide prayers, other elements of the liturgy, children's stories, and appropriate hymns for the service. There are even lectionary-based Christian education curricula. Many communities have lectionary study groups, and if these are lacking locally, they can be found online. There is an embarrassment of riches available for the lectionary preacher.

A choice still faces lectionary preachers: Which of the four texts will they preach from, or will they attempt to preach upon a link among two or more texts for the day? Finding a link among all four texts is often difficult. Connections that may be identified among four texts often seem forced. Moreover, attempting to address four texts in the sometimes brief span allotted to the sermon may mean that none of these texts is treated adequately. It is frequently the case, however, that there is an obvious and compelling connection between two readings for the day. To address the connection between these readings can be a valuable option. To preach entirely from one of the texts remains the primary option for most preachers; however, in some circles there appears to be an expectation that the sermon will be preached on the Gospel text. To preach the Gospel text invariably or nearly so may leave the congregation ignorant of the rest of Scripture. It may even turn preachers into practical Marcionites. Marcion was a 2nd-cent. heretic who repudiated the authority of the OT for Christians. Never or rarely to preach on a section of Scripture is effectively to deny its authority. Moreover, the psalm for the day, though sometimes passed over even by lectionary resources, ought not to be ignored. Psalms, with their raw human emotions and sometimes disturbingly direct language, can be marvelous preaching material.

The lectionary is not the only disciplined approach to choosing a text. Another practice, LECTIO CONTINUA, has an ancient history in the church and, before it, in the synagogue. (Although patterns of reading Scripture in the synagogues of NT and earlier times cannot be fully determined, it seems likely that lectio continua was a common practice.) This is the practice of reading and preaching through a biblical book in order. This approach enables the congregation to hear the preaching text in its canonical context. Texts are always heard and interpreted in relation to their contexts. The lectionary creates its own context because each text is inevitably heard by worshipers in relation to the other lections of the day that are read aloud with it. This process may do particular damage to OT texts that may be radically reinterpreted, not always for the better, in light of the christological context in which the lectionary generally places them. A fair and sustained treatment of OT texts on their own terms may sometimes require abandonment of the lectionary. Another advantage of lectio continua is that the preacher may be able to amortize the investment of time and energy in understanding the background and situation of a biblical book over a number of preaching Sundays. Lectio continua may deepen the congregation's knowledge of and respect for Scripture. Some lectio continua is present in the lectionary itself at certain times. Where this is the case, the advantages of lectio continua belong to the lectionary also.

Preachers may also organize their work around doctrinal series, such as a study of the Apostles' Creed or another summary of Christian doctrine. Some preachers choose to begin with human need, popular questions of the day, or contemporary social issues. The number of potential organizing principles for a sermon series is limited only by the creativity of the preacher. In all these cases, the choice of the text is a secondary task. A text is chosen primarily because of its apparent relation to the topic of the day. A common variant of this approach is to select from the reading a particular verse or portion of a verse and to preach not so much the text itself, but the doctrine addressed in the verse. In such sermons the preacher is likely to move to other texts throughout Scripture that address the same doctrine rather than to consider extensively the canonical context of the verse in question. Doctrinal preaching probably requires some such use of Scripture. Biblical preaching ought not to be conceived so narrowly as to prevent the preacher from addressing doctrines in their wider biblical context. The doctrine addressed, however, ought to be a major concern of the text, not something touched on in passing. The question here is whether the preacher has misrepresented the meaning of the text that is the starting point for the doctrinal reflection. In preaching as in systematic theology, good doctrine does not grow from bad exegesis.

Once a text is chosen, it must be delimited. If not adhering rigidly to the lectionary, the preacher must decide where to begin reading and where to stop. Where there is an identifiable pericope, as is often the case in the SYNOPTIC GOSPELS and in the prophetic books, the pericope ought generally to be the unit read and preached. Pericopes may be identified by their form, such as miracle stories, pronouncement stories, parables, and laments. Where this is the case, the delimiting of the text is easy. Pericopes usually have a clear beginning and end; the preacher should respect these. A number of markers may be noted in determining the limits of a text. A time marker may appear at the beginning of a text, such as "On a Sabbath" or simply "Then." There may be a change of scene, characters, or subject matter. If the passage is a story, one may easily observe plot features such as the problem, increasing tension, and denouement. Where such characteristics are present, the preacher should typically begin at the beginning, carry on to the end without leaving anything out, and stop reading and preaching at the end of the unit.

Sometimes, the boundaries of texts are fluid and unclear, as is often the case in Paul's letters or in collections of sayings. In other cases, such as the discourses of the Gospel of John, the limits may be clear but the individual units too long to be easily read aloud in most contemporary churches. Practical considerations ought not to overrule integrity of interpretation, but they certainly have their place. Wise preachers respect the limits of their listeners' capacity to hear intelligently. One may distinguish here between the "read text" and the "effective text." The "read text" is the one read aloud in church. The "effective text" is the text that is actually preached. The two should overlap but need not be identical. In some complex passages, the preacher may rightly concentrate on one aspect of the text. In other cases, the preacher may preach on the connection between neighboring texts or on a theme that connects a series of texts in a book. In some cases, it is impossible to preach a sermon on a specific text within a longer story without retelling the story as a whole. One cannot, for example, preach on Nathan's rebuke to King David without also recounting the story of David and Bathsheba. The principle here is that the preacher need not be strictly limited to the text that is read aloud. In earlier generations the effective text seems often to have been a verse or part of the verse. In contemporary preaching the effective text seems to be growing longer, approaching the length of the text as it is read aloud.

This matter takes us back to the lectionary. The weakest feature of the lectionary may be the way it delimits texts. It often leaves out parts of texts or even parts of verses. Similarly, the lectionary may omit the end of a story. These excisions are often of materials that are trouble. In these excisions the texts may express anger, hatred, self-righteousness, or perhaps anti-Jewish sentiments. To edit out trouble is, however, not only a misrepresentation of the text; it is homiletically disastrous. People can most often connect to the text precisely in the trouble. Some homiletical theorists suggest that identifying trouble in the text may be the first move in effective preaching. Moreover, if one is to address anger, hatred, or self-righteousness in the contemporary world, it is probably best not to cut it out of the word from the ancient world. The uniformly and obviously edifying is usually boring. The solution to difficult or disturbing feelings in the text is not excision but intelligent preaching. Where the tradition of the church allows some freedom with respect to the lectionary, the preacher might consider restoring the excisions. Where the tradition is to follow the lectionary exactly, the effective text of the preacher may well include the material omitted in the lectionary. Whether using the lectionary or not, the primary concern in delimiting a text must be to avoid misrepresenting its contents with artificial or tendentious boundaries. Choosing and delimiting a text is, like all other aspects of interpretation, an art rather than a science. There is no sure way to tell when the preacher has got this process right. But it is usually obvious when the preacher gets it badly wrong. (See DOCTRINAL; EXEGESIS; THE FOUR PAGES OF THE SERMON; LECTIONARY AND THE CHRISTIAN YEAR; TOPICAL.)

Bibliography: Stephen Farris. Preaching That Matters: The Bible and Our Lives. (1998); Eugene Lowry. Living with the Lectionary: Preaching Through the Revised Common Lectionary. (1992).

* * *

African American Biblicali Nterpretation

Dale P. Andrews

The tasks of biblical interpretation in preaching involve core beliefs that determine the mission and ministries of the black church. For black preaching traditions, as with most Christian traditions, the obvious sources of authority are centered in theological claims concerning sacred Scripture and divine inspiration. Scripture is both a historical and a metahistorical deposit of divine revelation that the church discerns with some difficulty. Divine inspiration functions as authoritative revelation specific to the activities of preaching, inclusive of sermon preparation and the preaching event itself. Mirrored in the divine sanction of Scripture, then, are theological claims of God's activity in preaching that seek to interpret Scripture for contemporary life. Herein lie critical questions for preachers.

Whether churches have been formed in response to crises or out of inherited traditions depicting God's engagement with humanity, black churches approach biblical interpretation from and in response to distinctive black experience or exigencies upon black life. Black preaching hermeneutics builds upon at least two predominant ways of employing biblical texts: first, to discern the ways of God; and second, to discern God's presence in our midst. These elements provide for a pastoralprophetic dialectic in black preaching as sharing in the Word of God and telling the story. The Bible is the Word of God because it gives witness to God's activity in human history. It witnesses to the character and faithfulness of God. The Bible's power in black preaching is as a living Word. With the essential tools of modern exegetical studies (i.e., historical, source, literary, rhetoric, etc.) in hand, we meet the God of the Bible in our preaching events because of God's self-disclosure in our unfolding history. The Bible has its heritage and its future as the Word of God living among the people of God. While the significance of human experience in the formation of churches is certainly not unique to black churches, the starting point of black experience in biblical interpretation cannot be overstated. How do black humanity and the black community encounter God and respond? This question is as much pastoral as it is prophetic.

From the perspective of pastoral biblical interpretation a primary task is the development of faith identity. The pastoral preacher is deeply committed to the interpretation and formation of meaning in the lives of believers and seekers. The tasks of preaching along these lines may involve interpreting theological doctrine, historical traditions, and the symbols of faith that connect people and therefore shape community. Pastoral leadership, though, is not limited to framing discipleship; it also engages ultimate questions that challenge us in times of crisis. African American preaching seeks also to tell the story of God's care for all humanity, which gives expression to faith identity in our specific human contexts. Storytelling in black preaching offers an important point of pastoral agency to biblical interpretation. Storytelling requires reconstructing redemption history within the lives of persons gathered in community. The task is to interpret life within a meaning-making process. The dialogical nature of the preaching event cannot help but to focus upon human struggles for meaning in life and the need for community.

From the perspective of prophetic biblical interpretation a primary task is to expand the preaching enterprise more deeply into meaning and relationships. God's care for humanity and response to human need are communal as much as personal. The community of faith is called to respond no less than the individual person. In turn, prophetic preaching attempts to address social contexts of human need and God's care communally. The prophetic enterprise engages the world with God's care; therefore divine self-revelation is evidenced through that care. It speaks from God's unfolding story with humanity through the community of faith. Beyond the formation of the church, this story is God's encounter and care for the world. Biblical interpretation in preaching participates in the divine encounter and care for the world. That care for the world pursues liberation in justice and relief from suffering.

African slaves and early African Americans faced immediate demands to reinterpret their encounter with brutal slavery and Western racism. Theological worldviews were at the core of the clash and were central to reinterpreting African American history in terms of God's interests and involvement with humanity. With the destruction of African oral folklore, sacred ancestry, proverbial wisdom, and religious practices, the Bible became a resource that provided familiar worldviews and spiritual values. In short, the ancestral faith narratives and wisdom literature from the Hebrew Bible and the gospel narratives from Christian Scripture were integral to interpreting African American history and reinterpreting Western Christianity. Black preaching appropriated biblical traditions and sacred heritage. The Bible, with its own historical oral culture, functioned as the living Word of God. Continuity between the Bible and the strongest assets of African oral culture and spirituality allowed the slaves and early African Americans to bridge the chasms created by the prohibitions to education or even literacy. African Americans learned and reinterpreted biblical narratives and teachings through the oral and aural encounter of worship. Biblical interpretation would translate central narratives or sacred themes into formulae for the preaching event, as well as for singing spirituals, relating God's faithfulness to and on behalf of an oppressed people of faith.


Excerpted from The New Interpreter's Handbook of Preaching by Paul Scott Wilson. Copyright © 2008 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


General Editor's Preface,
How to Use the Handbook of Preaching in a Homiletics Classroom,
Weekly Sermon Preparation Using the Handbook of Preaching,

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