Preachers Dare: Excerpt V

In October, I published Preachers Dare: Speaking for God, my theology of preaching. Preaching is brave speech drawn out of us because, Deus Dixit, God speaks, as Barth reminds us in the Göttingen Dogmatics, and God is determined to remain in conversation with us through us. For this launch webinar, I will be joined by Old Testament professors and preachers Brent Strawn and Stephen Chapman for conversation. Drs. Strawn and Chapman both generously helped me during the book’s editing process. Time will be allotted for participant questions at the end.

Join us tomorrow January 26 at 7p EST on Zoom: https://duke.zoom.us/s/99173611250

In anticipation of this webinar, here’s the fifth in the series of excerpts selected by my minion Carsten Bryant, a recent Duke Divinity grad and Methodist preacher.

Patristic formulations like the Definition of Chalcedon keep notions of Christ as complex and dynamic as the Scriptures present Christ to be. Chalcedon rebukes preachers who think our task is to simplify and reduce the gospel, adjusting to the limits of human comprehension unaided by the Holy Spirit. Chalcedon encourages our thought about God to be as imaginative as it must be to talk accurately about its divine/human subject. Furthermore, the Chalcedonian imagination protects our congregations from preacherly attempts to abridge the Trinity to the point where we are not talking about the fully human/fully divine Christ but rather an idol cut down to our size.

Revelation is the action of God in history, that is, the story of the God/ human Jesus Christ. We wouldn’t need to be so imaginative and dialectical in our talk of God if God had not come to us as the eternal Logos, Son of God and human being, in our space and time. The Incarnation tests our claims about God by the person and work of Jesus, the God/human. A sermon’s lack of ethical substance is exposed by how often the preacher refers generically to “God” and how seldom the preacher names “Christ.” At the same time, a sermon’s want of theological substance is unmasked by its depictions of Jesus as human exemplar rather than Christ, Judge of and Atonement for humanity. Rigorous adherence to Christology preserves our preaching from rendering God as a merely spiritual something or as the ideal human somebody—God delivered into our hands to use as we please. When human speaking in preaching becomes God’s speaking, it’s the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Mary being most godly—that is, God refusing to be God without initiating and sustaining divine/human conversation. God speaks in human speech in order to instigate meeting, to call humanity into fellowship, subsuming us into Christ’s history. Christ is not God’s Plan B after Plan A fails. Christ is God’s eternal self-determination not to be God without us. Humanity’s interactions with God are determined by the mystery of the Incarnation, God’s binding of God’s self to humanity in a way that, though asymmetrical, is thoroughly intimate, without  any diminution of God or any merging with humanity.

Preachers Dare: Excerpt IV

In October, I published Preachers Dare: Speaking for God, my theology of preaching. Preaching is brave speech drawn out of us because, Deus Dixit, God speaks, as Barth reminds us in the Göttingen Dogmatics, and God is determined to remain in conversation with us through us. For this launch webinar, I will be joined by Old Testament professors and preachers Brent Strawn and Stephen Chapman for conversation. Drs. Strawn and Chapman both generously helped me during the book’s editing process. Time will be allotted for participant questions at the end.

Join us January 26 at 7p EST on Zoom: https://duke.zoom.us/s/99173611250

In anticipation of this webinar, here’s another in the series of excerpts selected by my minion Carsten Bryant, a recent Duke Divinity grad and Methodist preacher. This fourth one is from a section entitled Experienced Preaching:

Peter Hawkins opened his Beecher Lectures with a quotation from the end of King Lear, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” In his lectures, Peter flipped the reference back on his audience, showing how this Shakespearian sentiment is against everything preaching ought to be. Who cares what preachers feel; we preach what we’ve been told.

In the Göttingen Dogmatics, Barth writes, “The promise of the Word of God is the transposing of a [listener] into the wholly new state . . . so that irrespective of [the listener’s] attitude to it [the hearer] no longer lives without this promise but with it. The claim of the Word of God is not . . . a wish or command which remains outside the hearer without impinging. . . . It is the claiming and commandeering of the human being. . . . The person who hears the Word [is] now . . . claimed by God.

The crisis that ignited the Barthian theological revolution began when, in his first parish, young Barth’s academic theology, “talk about self- consciousness and the ‘experience of Jesus’ and whatever . . .” went flat. Preaching is in trouble, not because it can’t find the proper form or style but because it has tried to preach “whatever,” talking about our “experience of Jesus” rather than Jesus.

In the opening volume of Church Dogmatics Barth charged that theologians had exchanged the pious experience of moribund “religion” for living revelation and thereby “theology lost its object.” “Religion” is God on the cheap, substituting lugubrious spiritual practices for the adventure of God–human conversation. “Religion” is defined by Barth as “a vigorous and extensive attempt to humanize the divine, . . . to make it a practical ‘something,’ for the benefit of those who cannot live with the Living God, and yet cannot live without God.” “Religion,” our stand-in for daring encounters with God. Keep Sabbath, plant a garden, work at lectio divina, be mindful, find balance, or do whatever keeps you busy now that God has gone silent. Feuerbach set before us our challenge: when we say “God,” are we just describing ourselves? Modern theology forsook address from God for examination of human experience of God, justifying Feuerbach’s challenge, Barth said. Preachers dare to speak as God has spoken, Deus dixit.

Preachers Dare Launch Webinar

In October, I published Preachers Dare: Speaking for God, my theology of preaching. Preaching is brave speech drawn out of us because, Deus Dixit, God speaks, as Barth reminds us in the Göttingen Dogmatics, and God is determined to remain in conversation with us through us. For this launch webinar, I will be joined by Old Testament professors and preachers Brent Strawn and Stephen Chapman for conversation. Drs. Strawn and Chapman both generously helped me during the book’s editing process. Time will be allotted for participant questions at the end.

Join us January 26 at 7p EST on Zoom: https://duke.zoom.us/s/99173611250

For a preview, see this video I did about the book:

On Leading with the Sermon

I was gratified to receive some kind comments about my book, Leading With the Sermon.  Donna Giver Johnston is a Presbyterian pastor in Pennsylvania.  She is currently working on a book on preaching that’s to be published by Fortress Press.  I’m grateful that my thoughts on preaching and church leadership struck a chord with this gifted pastoral leader.


January 8, 2021

Dear Rev. Dr. Willimon,

I just finished reading your book Leading with the Sermon: Preaching as Leadership. I can’t remember the last time I read a book like this; at one moment feeling affirmed, underlining words and writing in the margin “yes!” and the next moment feeling exposed and writing in the margin “ouch!” As I read, I went back and forth between feeling like a competent preacher and courageous leader to feeling like a cowardly preacher and a conciliatory leader. 

You have given me much to ponder and practice. I will mention three points here.

One is the challenge to go beyond caring empathy to daring disciple making. You say that we should not focus on relationships or worry about the people who threaten to leave the church, but preach the truth, even if it hurts. I am one who is not afraid to preach the truth, but I also need to have people to preach to, in order to make disciples to go out and tell, not to mention people who support the mission–and the budget! I think there is a tension between being pastoral and prophetic, between caring for people and confronting people with the truth. 

I heard your recognition of this tension when you said, “good preachers always venture saying more than the congregation wanted to hear,” but you also said, “the twenty-minutes-of-words-worth-saying on Sunday require a preacher who listens” and that sometimes you have to be patient until it’s the right time to preach a word. We pastors live in this tension, which is not always comfortable, but is where I am challenged to be more aware of my strengths and weaknesses, grow as both leader and manager, as well as more dependent upon the grace of God. 

Second, it was jarring to read, “the church is, by its nature, a formula for failure” because so much of what pastors are called to do is have successful churches. But, then I read this striking sentence: “preaching that is faithful is tethered to the One who lived briefly, failed miserably, died violently, and then rose unexpectedly, returning to the same losers who had betrayed and forsaken him.” I understand that it is not about success as much as faithfulness, at least theologically. Practically speaking, we are trying to lead a church, not let it fail. It was helpful to read both the reality that at times “we muddle through,” but with a pastor who engages in persistent practice of transformational preaching and commitment to courageous and fearless leadership, with God, all things, even deep institutional change from a maintenance to a missional congregation is possible.    

Third, you wrote and I underlined “the optimum context for learning the courage to speak the truth is not seminary but in a small, trusting, and trustworthy intentional peer group who covenants to grow together as preachers.” I have decided to take your recommendation and to seek out a few folks to read this book with me. First on my list is the newest member of my staff who recently preached a sermon that offended someone and he threatened to leave. I met with the man asking him to stay. And I talked with her about how to balance prophetic with pastoral preaching. I am re-thinking this now, and have invited her to discuss this book with me, so that we might learn together how to be emboldened to be both prophetic preachers and courageous leaders, for the sake of the church and for the sake of Jesus Christ, who is both the head of the church and the Lord of our lives.

In the end, I agree with your claim: “faithful pastoral leaders find a way to lead from the pulpit” and “the major way that Christians are subsumed into and formed by the gospel story is by preaching.” Yes! And yet, after having read your book, I find myself feeling more anxious about writing my sermon this week, wondering if I am up to the challenge and at the same time knowing that as the one called by God and by my congregation to preach the Word, I will do it, and I pray that with the power and help of the Holy Spirit, it is a transformative word of truth.

For your bold challenge to preachers, your encouraging affirmation that God equips those called, and for your unwavering belief in the power of the gospel to change the world for good, thanks be to God!  

Sincerely and gratefully yours,

Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston

Pastor, Community Presyterian Church of Ben Avon

Pittsburgh, PA

Preachers Dare Review

The Christian Century has published a review by Johanna Hartelius of my new book Preachers Dare with whom I also recently spoke when she interviewed me with Crackers & Grape Juice about the book. She writes:

The most profound insights in the book appear where Willimon traces his title’s assertion that “preachers dare” to the eternally and “lovingly loquacious” God of the Trinity. Even “before God spoke the cosmos, God enjoyed constant colloquy—the Father engaging the Son, the Divine Logos (John 1 doesn’t call Christ ‘the Word’ for nothing) in conversation with the Father, all in the communicative power of the Spirit.” Creation itself is an issuing forth of God’s articulation, the principle of Deus dixit. Humans ask, “Who are you Lord?” and God’s Word of reply is Jesus Christ, the Truth.

More More Christ

Mark Connolly had me back on his More Christ podcast to talk about my book The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything which has recently been republished by Paraclete Press with a new foreword by Lillian Daniel. We talked about what Jesus has to say to well-off folks without needs they’re aware of: he gives them an assignment to be part of the working out of his redemption in the world.