We Preach Not Ourselves

Knowles, Michael P. We Preach Not Ourselves: Paul on Proclamation. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008.

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It is my pleasure to bring to your attention a very fine book on Paul’s approach to preaching by a fellow Canadian, Michael Knowles. We Preach Not Ourselves: Paul on Proclamation deserves the consideration of every preacher for two reasons. First, it offers an excellent theology of proclamation based on Paul’s homiletic as described in 2 Corinthians 1:1-6:13. Second, as a commentary on the afore-mentioned passages it provides powerful content to support our preaching from these important texts. I have dabbled in these texts before, but having read this book, I am now planning to make these texts the subject of my own preaching in the new year. With Knowles’ expertise as a guide, it promising to be fruitful, both for me and for my listeners.

Knowles (McMaster Divinity College in Ontario) is both a homiletician and a New Testament scholar. In this book, he marries the two disciplines wonderfully. He contends that contemporary homiletics tends to obsess about form and methodology, while professional biblical studies tends to focus entirely upon content. In this book, Knowles succeeds in not so much bridging this gap, but integrating it. Knowles is a passionate and scholarly expositor. He does not deal so much in the specifics of sermon form, but offers something I found to be much better: a theological framework for thinking about the task of preaching as he finds it in Paul’s writings.

At its core, Knowles describes Paul’s homiletic as “inescapably christocentric and cruciform (p.259).” As such, it embodies the dual principles of death and life at work simultaneously in his own experience: “in repeated rescue from hardship and persecution, in his surprising boldness and trust of God despite overwhelming odds, even in the effectiveness of his ministry among converts who actively oppose him (259).” His challenge, then, to contemporary preachers is to continually integrate the “contours of encroaching death and divine renewal” within our lives and preaching. We rest on the sustaining mercy of God, always avoiding coercion and inviting trust (260).

In sum, “He is concerned to show how the cross and resurrection establish the basic pattern of Christian discipleship, provide the conceptual content of the Christian message, and determine the manner of its proclamation (255).” Knowles cites John Stott who writes, “…the central theme of Paul’s Corinthian correspondence is power through weakness. We have a weak message, Christ crucified, which is proclaimed by weak preachers who are full of fear and trembling, and is received by weak hearers who are socially despised by the world. God chose a weak instrument (Paul) to bring a weak message (the cross) to weak people (the Corinthian working classes), but through that triple weakness he demonstrated his almighty power (255).”

I find this strangely inspiring. Most of us preachers intuitively understand our weakness. But we also understand the paradox that death is swallowed up in victory. It is true we do not preach ourselves, but Christ – and Christ crucified. It is in our willingness to take up this disrespected task in the context of a disinclined world that we find a purpose that sustains us and empowers us. I’m grateful to Knowles for reminding me of this.

As a sample of Knowles exposition, I might suggest his description of 2 Cor. 2:14-17. I have long been fascinated by Paul’s use of imagery in this text. (My own sermon on this text is found on the CD that comes bundled with Choosing to Preach. To some we stink like death. To others we are the fragrance of life. Knowles added something for me by connecting the idea of aroma to the triumphal procession described in verse 14. As Roman soldiers returned with the spoils of battle on parade, we as preachers find ourselves captive to the same “life-giving, death-portending odor of the crucified Messiah (79).” “Triumphal processions evidently included the use of perfume and/or incense. For the Roman soldiers, as well as for the crowds along the parade route, the smell would have signaled victory and the manifest supremacy of Rome’s armies. For the defeated soldiers and their captive commanders, by contrast, the pungent clouds were yet another sign that they were on their way to death (80).” As Christian preachers we similarly represent both death and life. It is through our preaching that we die to self and live again in Christ.

Finally, I might note that some will be put off by the academic look of the book. The Byzantine cover image will not likely help its sales. My encouragement is that you give the book a chance. Let it encourage you in your thinking of your task. Then let it guide you in your preaching of these most valuable biblical texts.

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