Rhetoric & Homiletics: The Morphing Of Homiletics

collision.jpeg A Homiletical Collision

I am often confused when preachers quote men like Karl Barth and Eric Bonhoeffer.  Perhaps my seminary education was significantly different from that of today.  Dr. John Whitcomb, my primary seminary professor at Grace Theological Seminary, taught a course on “Philosophy of Religion” where we examined the neo-orthodoxy movement –which was the European imported liberalism of its day — and still persists — though it morphed into the “Emergent Church” and the “Post-modernity” movements.1

Neo-orthodoxy also fostered an extreme approach to homiletics.  This is seen even in Barth’s approach to the sermon . . . .

Basically the sermon should not have an introduction.  Only one kind of legitimate introduction is conceivable.  When a scripture reading precedes the sermon, a link can be made with this, so that in some sense the sermon proper beings with a pre-sermon consisting of a brief analysis of the lesson that leads up to the real sermon.  This is the only possible form of introduction.  All others are to be rejected in principle.

The act of proclamation should begin at once.  Any additional introduction is a waste of time.  Since a sermon cannot go on too long, it is irresponsible.  No doubt introductions offer many opportunities of wit and cleverness, but in any case too much precious time is wasted by intellectual gymnastics of this kind.

As we reject the special introduction, so there can be no independent conclusion; the sermon has to end with the exposition.  If a summary is needed, it is already too late to give it; the mischief has been done.  A theoretical sermon cannot be made more practical by a concluding application.  Address can never come too soon. 2


Faithful preachers are therefore not noted for their creativity; their job is to obediently tell what they have heard, to deliver what they have received, to conform their speaking tot he demands of the Word.  The rest is God’s business.  Barthian preachers, it now goes without saying, have a suspicious disposition  toward various rhetorical schemes and strategies.” — William Willimon 3


We could easily multiply these citations which disparage the use of any rhetorical or communication concepts.4

If you understand philosophical existentialism, then you understand what is happening.  This is what happens when a neo-orthodox theology hits homiletics.  The truth of God will speak for itself in the moment– in the existential moment.

Nevertheless, there may be many evangelical preachers and teachers who have been affected by the neo-orthodoxy movement as it relates to preaching.  Some may assume the same stance as these neo-orthodox theologians — if not in philosophy-theology, in outlook and/or practice — “I am just here to lay out what the Bible says!”


Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are made manifest unto God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences.


And a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures, came to Ephesus.



1. When the philosophy of existentialism hit the field of psychology, it produced Rogerian psychology.  When it hit the field of art, it produced the abstract art of men like Duchamp and Warhol.  Existentialism and literature produced the “Dada-ism.”

AND WHEN — neo-orthodoxy collided with the field of theology, it produced Neo-orthodoxy.

2. “Conversations With Barth On Preaching,” by William Willimon — pg. 161

3. “Conversations With Barth On Preaching,” by William Willimon — pg. 242

4. “Sermons need not more flowery talk, not more words, not more slogans or aphorisms or bromides or statements; they need more reality. . . . I have encountered students who think the biblical text needs no extra help, even as a preaching colleague once told me he thinks stories are unnecessary (he happily went on to tell me that in twenty years of preaching, he had told probably not more than five stories total). Like Karl Barth—who in theory (if not in actual practice) rejected sermonic illustrations—some today think the biblical text is both self-authenticating and self-applying. Preachers who try to help the congregation see itself in the biblical picture are just getting in the Bible’s way. As quoted in William Willimon’s recent book Conversations with Barth on Preaching, Barth asserted that not only are introductions, conclusions, and illustrations in general unnecessary, these things just generally cause “extensive” theological damage. “For what do they really involve at root? Nothing other than a search for a point of contact, for an analogue in us that can be a point of entry for the Word. . . . This is plain heresy.” 2 According to Barth, the preacher can never create a point of contact, because only the word by the Spirit can do that. Stories and analogies in a sermon are just the preacher’s attempt to be wiser than the Spirit.” — “Actuality,” by Scott Hoezee






“The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction,” by Roger Olson



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