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Martin Luther on Preaching

From Andrew Pettegree’s wonderful Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion, we have these reflections on Martin Luther’s view of preaching:

Central both to Luther’s concept of the preacher’s art and his extraordinary skill was careful preparation, above all through the reading the Scripture. ‘Some preachers’, he wrote in 1542, ‘are lazy and no good. They do not pray, they do not study, they do not read; they do not search the Scripture… In truth, you cannot read too much Scripture, and what you read you cannot read too carefully’. Luther’s sermons were built round a careful exposition of the Scripture text. He followed the text from first to last, usually in a continuous sequence of sermons that dealt over a longer period with a whole book or Gospel. This method would become the leitmotif of the great reformers, many of whom have left, as a principal legacy of their writings, great series of such expository sermons. It was not necessary, with such a structure, to give equal attention to all parts of the text. Luther, in particular, is distinguished by a relentless attention to the central message, the heart or kernel of the text, to which he would return again and again. To Luther, this method of preaching became a living vindication of the central principle of the Gospel movement, the return to Scripture, Rein Evangelium.

In his later reflections on preaching Luther would scorn what he regarded as the oratorical tricks of the pre-Reformation church. He spoke scathingly of the rhetorical repertoire of those who preached to impress the great: alliterative phrases, plays on words, balance and polish. He was particularly merciless in denouncing those who looked for popularity through a wild theatricality of delivery: a preacher should strive rather for simplicity and clarity. Above all he must realize that he spoke with God’s voice. The fear of the young priest, overwhelmed with the responsibility of representing the Almighty through his words, never entirely left Luther.

It was not then Luther’s pulpit manner that most obviously impressed contemporaries (though his celebrity no doubt gave his appearances in the pulpit an unmistakable aura). Luther conquered his audience through the careful, systematic exploration of Scripture in terms finely tuned to their lives and understanding. Luther’s sermons are intercut with imagined dialogue, often with both parties represented in the first person. Here, for instance, is Luther on marriage, imagining the horrified objections of a reluctant inner voice, Natural Reason:

Takes a look at married life, she turns up her nose and says, ‘Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that take care for my wife, provide for her, labour at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involve? What, should I make such a prisoner of myself?’

…And what does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all insignificant, distasteful and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels.

This search for the common voice was entirely intended: Luther advocated simplicity in preaching with all the authority of a man who had debated with the best technical minds on equal terms. ‘He who teaches most simply, childishly, popularly, that’s the best preacher.’

Complicated thoughts and issues we should discuss in private with other clever people. I don’t think of Dr Pomeranius [Bugenhagen], Jonas, or Philip in my sermon. They know more about it than I do. So I don’t preach to them. I just preach to Hansie and Betsy.

~Andrew Pettegree, Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion (Cambridge University Press, 2005) 18-20

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.