Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism
Timothy Keller. Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Viking, 2015. pp. 309. ISBN: 9780525953036
Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by pastor Timothy Keller is not so much a “how to” guide to Christian preaching as an exploration of the “why and what” of preaching. In other words, Keller’s answer to the question “What is good preaching?” is almost exclusively focused on the content of preaching rather than on its structure or rhetoric, and this, I think, is why I find this book so satisfying, stimulating, and challenging.
For preaching to be good preaching, Keller says, three things must happen, and these three things dictate the structure of the book. First, the preacher must “serve the Word by preaching the text clearly and preaching the gospel every time.” Second, the preacher must “reach the people by preaching to the culture and to the heart.” The third thing is something only God can do: “He brings the Word home to our hearers through ‘the demonstration of the Spirit and of power’ (1 Corinthians 2:4).” All of these things happen, Keller says, when we preach Christ. So good preaching ultimately must always point to Christ, though exactly what that means is perhaps more flexible than it might sound.
The first section is dedicated to the first element of good preaching: “Serving the Word.” In three chapters, Keller’s main points are that all preaching must be grounded in the text of the Bible, regardless of its structuring logic. His purpose isn’t to make a sustained argument for expository preaching versus thematic preaching. Rather, he says that different kinds of sermons all have their place, though expository preaching ought to have a place of priority. But regardless of what kind of sermon a preacher is preaching, it must teach the Bible. In order to teach the Bible, a preacher must do two other things. First, he should preach Christ every time. A passage may seem remote from Jesus, and, indeed, a sermon inject Christ artificially, but if Jesus is who we say he is, that is the eternal Logos, then all of the Bible, if it is indeed God’s special revelation, must by definition somehow point to Christ. The task of the preacher is to find that genuine route to Christ. The second part of teaching the Bible is to teach the whole Bible. Keller suggests several ways to do this, including “Preach Christ Through Every Theme of the Bible”, “Preach Christ in Every Major Figure of the Bible”, and “Preach Christ from Every Major Image in the Bible”. Ultimately, Keller says, it is important not to be too rigid in our path to Christ, but to rely on instinct and intuition in finding Christ in our text. The important thing is to find that genuine path to Christ.
I really appreciated Keller’s position both on what constituted “biblical” preaching and on preaching Christ in every passage. I am one who desires deep biblical investigation in every sermon, but I know from personal experience that expository preaching that is little more than a verse-by-verse commentary tends to wander from topic to topic and often fails to really connect with its hearers. The solution to non-biblically based topical self-help sermons isn’t necessarily straight expository preaching. Rather, topical sermons can actually be deeply grounded in Bible exposition, and in fact the best sermons I’ve ever heard have been just that. I am also the kind of person who wants fidelity to the text in preaching. In other words, I’m perfectly happy to hear about Jesus, but don’t tell me that verse X is about Jesus when it only appears to talk about Jesus when taken out of context. But I am happy to go along with Keller’s more nuanced approach to finding a genuine approach to Christ in every part of the Bible, because it is consistent with various strands of New Testament high Christology.
The second part was originally the most interesting to me: “Reaching the People”. Again consisting of three chapters, in this section Keller describes an approach to preaching that confronts contemporary culture without being unduly shaped by it. The problem with some ideas about contextualizing the gospel is that they render Christian theology entirely reactive: the world becomes the defining reality, the Church must adapt to provide an answer for whatever question the world may be asking at that moment. But the fact is that the world isn’t simply finding the wrong answers, it’s actually asking the wrong questions. So when we confront the culture, we don’t merely present Jesus as the answer to the world’s problems, we actually present Jesus as an entirely different reality that exists in competition with the world.
On the other hand, if we don’t contextualize the gospel at all, we run the risk of taking a presentation of the gospel that effectively confronted a particular time and place in the past and assuming that it effectively confronts the here and now. In other words, if we preach in a way that confronts minds fundamentally in agreement with Enlightenment principles (or, worse, in a way that assumes Enlightenment principles), we will find that our presentation of the gospel does not effectively confront our postmodern culture.
What does this mean practically? It means that we must take post/late modern concerns seriously without capitulating to them. We acknowledge rational objections to our gospel assertions and we address them with honesty and kindness but also with a firm commitment to the objective truth of the gospel. We use “accessible and well explained vocabulary” rather than undefined jargon. In a manner like Paul on Mars Hill, we employ respected cultural authorities in support of our position. It means we must be able to perceive the baseline narratives of our culture and understand how the gospel of Jesus stands in opposition to those narratives. Chapter five, in particular, is helpful in identifying these baseline narratives and demonstrating how one confronts them in preaching.
Reaching the people means that we are preaching not just to the mind, but to the heart, and this is the subject of chapter six. Preaching to the heart involves preaching on both an emotional and intellectual level (without creating an artificial distinction between these two realms). It involves preaching with emotion and imagination, using good rhetorical techniques and memorable language, and making sure to apply the message of the sermon to real life. Keller has several useful suggestions for how to cultivate the ability to preach to the heart.
In the last chapter of the main part of the book, Keller turns his attention the work of the Spirit in empowering the preacher. He talks about how we can invite the Spirit’s work in our preaching, and he suggests that the fruit of the Spirit in our lives is far more important in the effectiveness of our preaching than whether or not we are naturally dynamic public speakers. He addresses a preacher’s different potential subtexts for preaching and urges his readers to let their motivation be only to exalt Christ. Finally, while the book is not intended to be a “how to”, an appendix includes Keller’s suggested method for writing expository messages.
In short, Preaching by Timothy Keller is a quick but powerful read that contains many important and useful observations about what constitutes good preaching, focusing largely on preaching’s content, motivation, and posture towards the culture rather than on the nuts and bolts of sermon construction. As always with anything Keller writes, I found myself challenged, encouraged, and generally convinced, and that is about the best thing I can say of any book.