Preachers who dare to be helpful...

Concerning the preaching of the Church Fathers, in one of his lectures Princeton biographer and Covenant Seminary church history prof David Calhoun says this:

The Church Fathers are difficult to read, not only because they are long-winded, but also because they tend to go into all kinds of digressions. They really do not stick to the point. Gregory the Great, toward the end of the period of the Church Fathers, said:

“This is how a preacher should preach. A preacher of the sacred Word should imitate the manner of a river. For if a river as it flows through its channels comes upon valleys upon its banks it immediately flows with full force into them, and when it has filled them up it at once returns to its course. This is exactly the way the preacher of the divine Word should be so that when he is discussing something, if perhaps he finds an occasion near at hand to be edifying, he should, as it were, force the streams of his tongue to the neighboring valley, and when he has filled up the plain with his instruction he may return to the course of his main topic.”

Now, you will not be taught that manner of preaching at Covenant Seminary--or any place else, as far as I know. Homileticians tell us to have a point and stick to it. But the Church Fathers did not like to do that. One topic will raise another topic and they will follow all those ideas. 

If a man's preaching is bad in the sense of being timid and suggestive, only rarely moving out to the bold frontier of the indicative (and never to the imperative), then two or three points and you're done is a kindness and should be cultivated. And if that's the sort of preaching you want, Professor Calhoun says that Covenant Theological Seminary is the sort of academic institution that will work for you.

But brothers...

read the sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Jonathan Edwards, and John Calvin. Read Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Read the Apostle Paul's letters--they're endless parenthetical statements! And speaking only for myself, I find the sermons of these men very helpful. You too?

This week I've been reading a sermon by Calvin on Titus 1:5,6 (from Calvin's sermons on the Epistles to Timothy and Titus). What wisdom! What food! What challenges!

As I've said before, any pastor could not do better than to buy Calvin's commentaries (I'd buy the Torrance New Testament set AND the Calvin Translation Society set on the whole Bible) and as many volumes of Calvin's sermons as you can find, reading Calvin and Lloyd-Jones and Matthew Henry and J. C. Ryle in preparation for preaching a text (books recommended for preachers including Kindle versions here). Don't waste your time on more than one modern commentary per sermon. You only read modern commentaries to keep the dogs at bay.

Homiletics classes and the scientific apparatus of exegetes have ruined preaching today. I remember my Dad saying forty years ago that Westminster Seminary men couldn't preach. Today, Covenant Seminary men have joined their ranks. (And if you say that's not true because your own pastor preaches well and he's a Covenant grad, please allow me to explain once again that categorical statements allow for those exceptions that prove the rule.)

At the Clearnote Pastors Conference last week, our theme was pastoral care and my own title was "Preaching and Pastoral Care." Once we give up preaching as performance; once we kill until it's dead-dead-dead our desire to become pulpiteers gracing tall steeple church pulpits holding memberships in the country club and Chatham House gatherings; once we turn our backs on the suits and their honorariums and royalties; once we settle for the simplicity of exhorting, encouraging, warning, refuting, admonishing, and rebuking; the sheep in our flock may begin to find us simply helpful. For a pastor there's no higher goal.

So say yes to tangents. Give yourself to parenthetical statements. Go whole-hog into asides. You'll never get royalties. You'll never be honored by an invitation to present the annual preaching lectures. But your sheep will have tears of repentance and it may someday be said of you what they said of Jesus at the end of His Sermon on the Mount:

When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:28, 29)

(TB, w/thanks to Michael)


I agree wholeheartedly, as long as your asides are pointed and not meandering. We can do this in a way that is clear, and does not take us away from the passage. If the passage deals with something incidentally or tangentially, and it is an area worth pursuing, or an area of sin or weakness in your congregation, then I would say, make it clear that this is what you are doing and why.

I agree that tepid and timid application (or no application at all) is really the bane of modern PCA preaching, regardless of camp.

I will say, in my own experience, that doing away with notes (which requires a heap more preparation) has really freed me in this regard. I still drive relentlessly towards the point of the sermon, but I don't feel constrained by what is on the page. Not saying everyone should do that, but it worked for me.

I agree, and also would emphasize what Ken has said. Far too many preachers either meander aimlessly (more like a swamp than a river), or simply repeat the same basic points of the text over and over, or provide an exegetical lecture (like a commentary) rather than a sermon.

The minister must be about the work of application in his preaching. I continue to strive for that, even if I do not always succeed.

I also agree that manuscript preaching makes this nearly impossible. I won't go as far as Ken - I like my brief outline - but there has to be room for the Spirit to guide.

I always love it when my pastors stop and talk about something that they know needs to be addressed because they know the flock. I think a lot of times it's where they go off-notes (sometimes they'll even say "Did I say that in the first service?") and I know it's higher risk for them (you can tell they know it too because they hesitate before proceeding), but I love 'em. They're helpful.

I am working through Chrysostom's sermons on Ephesians. He is fun and does the same thing as Calvin and the other guys. He meanders through the text, stopping here and there to make points and exhort. What I found especially funny was that he applied "clamor" from Ephesians 4:31 specifically to women. A whole sermon application devoted to women who yell at their children and their maidservants. In the middle of his application he says to the women, "Why do ye blush?" The footnote says, "This is what we call direct preaching." Where has the preaching gone that makes men and women blush?

" In the middle of his application he says to the women, 'Why do ye blush?'"

This may be too far off the reservation for further comment, but I leave this observation for any who wish to ponder it. I know I'm pondering it these days ...

What effect, if any, should it have on a preacher's pulpit craft if he should be blind? What if he cannot see whether or not the women blush? What if he cannot even see any women?

I'm not there yet. But, my vision is now sufficiently damaged that I can no longer read facial expressions on the visages of my listeners as I have been able to do for 90 percent of my years of preaching. If someone eners the sanctuary late, I do not know who they are. I can see that a human body has entered, I can usually tell if its a man or woman (unless she's dressed mannishly). But, that's about it.

I don't claim that this sort of feedback has been of huge utility; it has come in handy from time to time. The biggest help has been when I've seen a room of sorely puzzled, confused faces -- a sure sign I've failed to communicate.

Anger in faces? Well, that can be a telling bit of feedback, so long as I have confidence that those behind the angry faces have accurately understood me. One of the surest signs over the years -- most useful when speaking to men -- is when all the faces are completely blank, so blank as to be deliberately drained of expression by their wearers. This is an almost infallible sign that I'm holding a hot poker shoved deeply into nether regions. Men loathe to show fear or consternation or anguish or grief in formal public settings.

But, what if you can't see the faces any longer? What then?

I can't see any of YOUR faces, of course. So, it's not hopeless. Still, I'm wondering about this a lot as I look from the pulpit into faces that for me are uniformly smeared into featureless blurs.

So, amongst the books listed as having something to do with David Calhoun, is there a logic to the inclusion of "A Pocket Guide to Injectable Drugs"? To help you through the sermon? Sermons by infusion?

Just kidding. Seriously, though, it sounds as though seminary is the place to go for the guys who hear Farel's plea and say, "No, sir--it's off to Strasbourg for me." They love Calvin and everything he did and wrote. But they are scrupulous about not doing what he did.

I ought not dare suggest I could actually preach well, but after reading this, I am heartened that I do not, when leading family worship, try to find a "central theme or two", but rather note all kinds of interesting things in the text.

Now to work more on applications!

I don't preach; I lecture on economics, but some things are the same. One reason for digressions is that actually talking in front of an audience makes me think about the topic differently--- I can think more like my audience--- and so I find ways to improve over my earlier plan.

Another is that I can change my plan based on the look on the student faces. Most of them are too timid to ask a question or make an objection, especially if they're totally confused, but they will intentionally or unintentionally use their faces to talk to me.

Fr. Bill, you ask a good question. One thing you could do is ask for people to put their hands up in answer to questions ("Have you ever felt like that? Does this passage puzzle you too?) since that's easier to see. Another thing is to induce auditory responses-- maybe answers to questions, or maybe ask for Amens, or, like Tim Bayly did last week, see what happens when you try to get people to sing along with you (it did work last Sunday, Tim, hand motions and all, for that Build Your House on a Rock--- and you were a brave man to try it.)

It suddently occurs to me that a modern tech device for teaching would be great for sermons. In some large classes, each student gets a "clicker". They can press a button for Yes or No, or Answer 1,2,3,so the prof can ask questions and see how many get the right answer. It's also a way to detect how many are awake.


I'm a preacher who graduated from Covenant Theological Seminary in 1995 but did not learn to preach there. I read Bryan Chapel's book about the same time as I started preaching while doing a pastoral internship several years after seminary and came to the conclusion that what was called "redemptive historical preaching" evacuated the text of scripture of much its content and replaced it with a watered down version of the plan of salvation--a nonconfrontional presentation of it of course. And so I looked elsewhere for other takes on the work of the preacher in delivering God's word to His people.

Have I been blessed by reading Calvin (his sermons on Deut. for instance): Yes. Have I been blessed by reading Spurgeon: By all means. But at the end of the day, my job as a preacher is to stick as closely to the text of scripture as possible--and to give a smattering of illustrations and contemporary applications as I go along. I preach lectio continua so as to avoid hobby-horses. But in all things my goal is to be textually driven and then push the applications of that text up into the little nooks and corners of our lives, inasmuch as the Spirit has given me understanding up this particular point in my preparation and my walk with the Lord.

I'm not sure to what extent preaching can be taught; but this much I know, I have learned a great deal by just getting out and doing it. The delivery aspect became for me the relatively easy part. The more difficult exgetical spade work is what remains every week. And if any good, any blessing, any benefit has come from my mouth to my listeners, then that is the work of the Holy Spirit who deserves the credit and the Son who deserves the glory.

Dave Queener

Pastor, St. Paul Presbyterian Church

Knoxville, Tennessee

One's angst for Covenant Seminary is undeniable when even David Calhoun is not exempt from being dissed...

Having the great privilege of sitting under Dr. Calhoun's sage teaching, and then picking up and reading as many of the church fathers as I could, he was speaking specifically about the kind of meandering the church father's did. The kind Edwards, Spurgeon, and others did, and indeed some of what other responders are speaking about- and I myself will do at times (despite sucking as a preacher because I went to Covenant)- isn't what Dr. C was referring to avoiding. He was making specific reference to the church fathers version of meander, which is quite a display.

I liked this discussion and find the subject of preaching something always worthwhile for fellow preachers to discuss. I always learn from other preachers.

The regular need to diss Covenant en route to developing a good discussion, however, is unfortunate and tiring.

>>when even David Calhoun is not exempt from being dissed...

Dear Pastor Felich,

Prof. Calhoun wasn't dissed. He was quoted and what he is quoted as saying here commends him to me and I'm assuming our readers, also. But we started this post already holding him in the highest esteem.

>>The regular need to diss Covenant...

There's a difference between dissing Covenant Seminary and warning the sheep and future shepherds against the place. Let's see, Jerram Barrs's failures on the the purpose and meaning of sexuality, David Jones's failures on sodomy, Jack Collins's failures on Creation and evolution; and we've only just begun.

No one needs to diss Covenant. Her employees do a fair job of it themselves.


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