Speaking God’s Words. A Practical Theology of Preaching

Written by Peter Adam Reviewed By Tony Gray

Both of these helpful studies bring clarify of thought to an important area that is often left untouched in the worlds of theology and religious studies: that is, the why and how of preaching. The two books offer two different and opposing points of view. Peter Adam presents a robust articulation of the theological implications of a God who speaks. A divine revelation spoken by God, written down by his people and re-spoken throughout their history provides a strong basis for our understanding of preaching. On the other hand, David Norrington poses a question many churches may not wish to hear—should we really place such an emphasis on preaching when the Bible gives us little justification for doing so? Whilst not attacking Adam’s thesis (the two were published at the same time and so do not interact), Norrington argues that the sermon was a special, rather than a regular, occurrence in both the OT and the NT. As a teaching method by which we aim to equip the church to grow to maturity, more often than not the sermon fails. On the whole this is not due to untrained preachers, but rather to the way in which people learn and grow. Jesus himself recognized this, and he and the apostles employed many methods to help disciples to grow.

Within Adam’s work there is sometimes a confusion between teaching and preaching. It is unclear whether Paul’s teaching in Acts 28:23 corresponds to our notion of a sermon, and whilst Adam invests this and other examples with a fuller understanding of what the preacher was doing, it may not go quite far enough. When studying the ministry of Jesus, preaching and teaching are linked together in a way that may cover over the radical distinctives of the methods Jesus employed to lead his disciples on. Having said this, in a section analysing the teaching methods of Jesus Norrington may have played down the existence of the ‘inner circle’, so that we concentrate less on the fact that some were trained as special leaders. Yet he is surely right in pointing out the many different methods used to achieve maturity in the NT.

Whatever minor criticisms may arise, according to Norrington the fundamental question is: Why preach? He sees little biblical justification for the use of such speeches. Tradition will not be a sufficient justification, nor will pragmatism. It is at this point that Adam’s biblical theology provides the most thorough defence of preaching. Adam and Norrington are not as far apart as might at first be expected. Norrington concedes that there can still be a place for sermons at some points, and Adam admits that preaching must never be the sole ministry of the church. Both admit that the culture we now live in works against the traditional sermon. Norrington’s case is strongest when he points out how maturity, growth and learning take place in situations other than the preacher-congregation dynamic. In addition, he makes the important point that preaching often de-skills the congregation and so can be self-defeating. Adam is strongest when he provides a theological grounding for preaching, demonstrating that God has spoken and so still speaks. Preaching is one way that God chooses to speak through us to the world; however, as Norrington notes, this should never give it an exclusive or revered position which ignores many different methods, and is in danger of ignoring the many millions who never come to listen.

Anyone interested or involved in preaching should have both of these books on their shelves. One helps, the other challenges, and both should be listened to.

Tony Gray