February 20, 2010

Piper and Willimon on Preaching

John Piper is a Baptist pastor in Minneapolis with a strong Calvinistic soteriology.  Will Willimon is a United Methodist bishop in Alabama with a Wesleyan-Arminian soteriology.  Despite their different theological traditions and frameworks, they both have deeply Christ centered and God saturated understandings of preaching. 

Piper's book, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, is divided into two parts.  The first outlines a trinitarian understanding of preaching and aims to answer the question of why God should be supreme in preaching.  The four chapters in the first part were originally delivered as the 1988 Harold John Ockenga Lectures on Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  Comprised of three chapters originally delivered as the 1984 Billy Graham Center Lectures on Preaching at Wheaton College, the second part looks to the ministry of Jonathan Edwards for guidance in the task of making God supreme in preaching.

The Willimon book, entitled Proclamation and Theology, is shaped around the concept of the Word to articulate theological task of preaching.  Claiming that "a sermon is a speech that is more," Willimon takes the "more" as the purpose of his book (2).  He sees preaching as a theological act whereby God does business with people through words. 

Given the differences both in theology and polity between these two men, this review will focus primarily on what they have in common with regard to their understandings of preaching.  I intend to briefly highlight three commonalities in their thinking.

1. Neither Piper nor Willimon give take much interest in rhetorical flourish in preaching.  They are both far more interested in the grace of God that is extended in the act of preaching.  In Willimon's view, the discipline of homiletics places too much emphasis on matters of style and technique.  He believes that any problem in preaching today is theological and and is best solved not by becoming a smoother speaker but by simply making God the subject of the message.  Piper's appreciation for and dependance on Jonathan Edwards belies his view on the matter.  Edwards' preaching was not characterized by great rhetoric or engaging style.  Rather, he focused on the theological content of his preaching and God was both present and at work. 

2. Both authors see the death and resurrection of Christ as the basis for preaching.  Piper takes on this matter in chapter two.  He argues that the cross exalts the glory of God and breaks down the pride of man.  The cross is the place where God's righteousness is vindicated and human sin is dealt with.  Preaching the cross brings a glorious and righteous God together with sinful man.  Likewise, Willimon sees preaching essentially as heralding the resurrection of the crucified Messiah.  Preaching is about declaring the salvation that God has accomplished in Christ on the cross and it means that salvation is in God's hands (69).

3. Both see the scriptures as authoritative in setting the agenda for and the content of preaching.  Willimon is particularly critical of preaching that attempts to be relevant by addressing the felt needs of the congregation rather than declaring what God has done in Christ.  Piper agrees saying, "It is not the job of the Christian preacher to give people moral or psychological pep talks about how to get along in the world (15)."  Rather, he sees the preacher's job as declaring the majesty and glory of God every week.  This can only happen if the scriptures that are the self-revelation of God are central to the preaching agenda.

At the end of the day, it is encouraging to see to preachers from different theological traditions come to similar conclusions on preaching.  Preachers from each of these traditions would do well to read both books.

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