My 2016 Opening Convocation Address: Homiletical Theology

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

It was in the Spring of 2005 when I received a phone call from my friend and colleague Robert Coleman. Robert, his friends call him Clem, taught evangelism here at Asbury for many years and is back here now as an adjunct teaching once again. But, in 2005 we were colleagues together at another institution. I was professor of World Missions and Indian Studies, and he was the Distinguished Professor of Evangelism. He is, perhaps, best known to many of you as the author of the best-selling book Master Plan of Evangelism which has sold millions of copies in many languages. This is what he said to me that day on the phone: “Tim, I don’t know what your plans are on Easter Sunday, but I thought there would be no better way to spend it than to go down to Harvard Square and preach the gospel in the streets.”

I have spent my entire life preaching and teaching the gospel here and abroad, but I had never in my life just preached the gospel in the streets. I had never just put a box down on the sidewalk and started preaching. I felt scared, apprehensive, and, to be honest, a little foolish. But, I thought to myself, if I can’t preach the gospel in the streets, then the power of the gospel has become domesticated in me, so I must say yes. So, I said, “Clem, I’ve never done this before and I’m a little scared, but I’ll do it.” So, on Easter Sunday 2005—still very cold in New England—we made our way down to Harvard Square, in the heart of Boston, specifically Cambridge, Massachusetts.

You must picture the place. Here is Harvard University in all of its glory, just over there is MIT, the engineering hub of the universe (Cambridge is essentially the little plot of land between Harvard and MIT). Harvard Square is the Cambridge stop of the Massachusetts Transit Authority subway where dozens of people emerge in ten minute intervals from the bowels beneath the city like a volcano belching forth lava. There we stood waiting for them on this little concrete island preaching the gospel. Clem and I took turns—5-7 minute messages—interspersed with a little Salvation Army band which had joined us and they would play for a few minutes between preaching to help gather the crowd. It was an amazing and memorable experience for me and put me in touch with the gospel and our own Wesleyan heritage in a powerful way. For few things mark the distinctiveness of the 18th century Wesleyan revivals than this strange practice of open-air preaching.

At the center of our Wilmore campus is a statue of John Wesley, his hands to the air, a Bible in his left hand, and his hat at his feet. This is not just a modern depiction of Wesley, but a representation of an 18th century lithography of Wesley preaching in the streets, in the open air, from a Market Cross in Epworth. Think about it: At the center of our campus is a statue of John Wesley preaching in the open air. Depicting an open air preacher in the center of an academic institution like Asbury is, in itself, an important lesson for us. You will recall that Methodism was not born in the fields with lay preachers and open air preaching. It was born in the hallowed halls of Holy Clubs in the esteemed rarified academic air of Oxford University. That is their version of Harvard and MIT. The movement from John Wesley, a Charterhouse and Oxford University trained and ordained minister in the Church of England, to a Methodist movement fueled by street preaching and lay, non-formally trained ministers is one of the great chapters of our wesleyan heritage. There are so many lithographs of Wesley preaching in the open air – famously on top of his father’s grave, or in the open market as is depicted here on our campus, or in the brick yards and coal mines. When you see this, you must understand that Wesley was at the heart of a spiritual movement which forced him to think differently about preaching the gospel.

Our statue here on this campus has its origins in February, 1739 when George Whitefield began preaching in the outdoors to coal miners in Kingswood near Bristol. By spring time, George Whitefield was preaching to large crowds of thousands of miners and brick makers in the open fields. Whitfield preached outside for two reasons; first, he was barred from preaching in the pulpits of the church of England. Second, the crowds were far greater than could be physically accommodated in a building. One of the most dramatic scenes of the day, described in several journals, was the face of miners, blackened with soot and coal, but with what they called “white gutters” down their face – lines drawn from the falling of tears—right through the coal soot—under the preaching of George Whitefield. God was moving in a mighty way, but Whitefield had preaching engagements over in Wales, and he also longed to return to America to attend to his ministry here as well as his orphanage work, so he called upon a 36-year-old evangelist, a friend from Oxford who led his Holy Club. That young man was John Wesley. Wesley was invited down to Bristol, England to do something he had never done before: preach in the open air. Bristol was one of the largest cities in Britain in the 18th century. They made bricks there and they mined for brass and zinc. Wesley felt about open air preaching kind of like I did back in 2005 when Robert Coleman called me on the phone. Wesley was a bit uncomfortable with the idea and, in his case, he was not convinced that it was right to preach in any place other than a church building set aside for such a sacred purpose. Wesley was so uneasy about going, he put the problem before the Fetter’s Lane Society to which he belonged. They cast lots and it fell to saying “yes”, so they agreed that Wesley should go!

Wesley famously describes this in his journal, saying, “I could scarce reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, having been all my life, till very lately, so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin, if it had not been done in a church.” Later when he preached to several thousand in the open air, he decided to preach from the Sermon on the Mount, remarking that that sermon of our Lord was a “pretty remarkable precedent of field preaching.”

Over the next few days he preached around Bristol: Baptist Mills, Hanam Mount, Kingswood, Rose Green, Bath, and Pensford. These were not planned events with a lot of Billy Graham type organizational machinery, but they all drew between 1 to 7 thousand people. His favorite venue for preaching was graveyards and market places. Graveyards were chosen because a tomb could be used as a pedestal, and the church building turned out to be an excellent sound backdrop for amplification in the days before speakers, and it was a nod to the historical ecclesiology out of which they came. Markets were good because there was often a cross at the market. In 18th century England it was not unusual for a cross to be placed in the trading markets as a sign to remind people of the importance of honesty in public trade. So, Wesley could be outside in a very public place, and yet preach under a cross. Local clergy opposed them as an unwarranted and, indeed, illegal intrusion into their parish. People threw mud on them, threw stones at them, jeered at them, set herds of pigs loose to disperse crowds, and so forth, but they kept on preaching knowing that on that final day their preaching would be vindicated. Wesley’s famous line, “All the world is my parish” is rooted in these new realities: Closed pulpits and their decision to move beyond formal parish lines to embrace a rather bold ecclesiology.

A movement was born. A movement which slowly became known as Methodist. This movement had major challenges. Those who were coming in masses were mostly the uneducated poor. Wesley, like Asbury here in North America, eventually had to realize that they were witnessing a whole new church planting movement, but this would take time. At this point, Wesley only knew that an open door was given to him and he was determined to “organize to beat the Devil.” The genius is not found in the fact that they became field preachers per se, but actually in their joining that with discipleship bands and class meetings and truly remarkable peaching, what we call homiletical theology. That is, the content of Christian theology conveyed not through textbooks, but through public preaching and, indeed, through every public expression of their ministry. I want to focus this, my 8th convocation address, on homiletical theology. It was homiletical theology or catechetical preaching which turned a popular spiritual stirring into a major church planting movement which has transformed the world.

An excellent book on this topic comes from the pen one of our own professors, Dr. Ken Collins in his book: A Faithful Witness: John Wesley’s Homiletical Theology. When you begin to examine carefully the content of Wesley’s sermons, what we discover is that today’s preaching in the Wesleyan tradition bears almost no resemblance to the preaching of John Wesley. I believe that this is one of the most important gaps in our homiletical practice today and you, the future leaders and preachers in our wonderful tradition, must take note and re-examine what we have lost. For those students who are not preparing to be preachers, all of this fully applies to what is said in a counseling session, to how we think about church planting, or youth ministry, or a formal teaching ministry. All your future vocations should be expressions of thoughtful reflection which is theologically rich and biblically faithful.

The genius of Wesleyan theology, among other things, is its capacity to bring into a holy synthesis truths which are often thought to be in conflict: the head and the heart; law and grace; divine sovereignty and human free will; depravity and divine/human synergy; personal evangelism and social concerns, etc. The deep capacity of our tradition to hold all these rich biblical truths together is one of the reasons I find our tradition so compelling and rich. It is known as the Wesleyan synthesis which keeps biblical paradoxes paired and powerful, not parted and prioritized. While several of these themes like – divine sovereignty and human will or head and heart are widely discussed and appreciated, I would like to focus on a theme which has not been explored as thoroughly as it should. That is, the synthesizing relationship of theology and preaching in Wesley. This is really one of the crowning jewels of the Wesleyan synthesis. John Wesley was fundamentally a preacher of the gospel.

He was also a very thoughtful, insightful theologian. It is interesting that the sermons of Wesley are as rich a source of theology as is his formal theological writings. Indeed, for Wesley, the theological task and the homiletical task were not, in Wesley, two things, but one thing. Wesley, we might say, is one of the giants of what we are calling ‘homiletical theology.’ For Wesley, theology was not primarily intended to resolve various philosophical problems – which has been the driver of many standard works of theology. Rather, theology was designed to serve the church. Randy Maddox points out that we should not think that because Wesley did not produce a systematic theology like, for example, John Calvin’s Institutes, he was, therefore, disinterested in theology. We must delete that file! Rather, Maddox says Wesley understood that his preaching – what Maddox calls “catechetical homilies” actually served to restore theology to its proper place; not merely resolving conceptual biblical structures or theological systems, but as a handmaiden to the church for the purpose of the salvation of the world. It is soteriologically-driven theology!

To understand Wesley’s approach to preaching and empowering the early Methodist movement we must go back to the 16th century. When Henry VIII died, his only son Edward VI (1537-1553) became King. He has the distinction of being the first English monarch raised as a Protestant. Edward VI opened the door to the Reformation in a full way. Most of you will be familiar with the most famous publication under his short reign, the Book of Common Prayer published in 1549 and the Thirty-Nine Articles derived from his work which was finalized in 1563. You must understand that pastors in the 16th century had no precedent for preaching sermons as we know it today. They only knew the Latin Mass and the short exhortations which might be given at Lent, but no real robust tradition of weekly preaching. It was Edward VI who authorized the preparation of a set of sermons which could be used in the church to teach the faith. The recovery of preaching—preaching as public catechesis—exposition of Scripture for the laity – was at the heart of the Reformation recovery of biblically formed faith. Thomas Cranmer produced 12 sermons which became standard sermons to be used in church. These sermons—known as the Edwardian homilies—laid out the key doctrines of the Reformation. For example, the first four sermons reinforced the theme of sola scriptura—the authority and trustworthiness of God’s Word. Other sermons set forth the doctrine of justification by faith, the role of works in the Christian life, sanctification etc. In 1547 Edward VI issued a Royal Injunction which required every parish church in England to have the following:

  • Whole Bible in English (Tyndale’s NT published in 1526)
  • Erasmus’ Paraphrases on the books of the NT (esp. Gospel and Acts) 1517-1524
  • Cranmer’s 12 homilies (1547)

There was a short supply of trained, ordained preachers, which later happened again with Francis Asbury here in the colonies and, arguably, we are there again. These homilies provided the “grammar of evangelical doctrine and life.” In 1571 Bishop John Jewel added 21 more sermons which were more practical: prayer, sacraments, fasting, marriage, gluttony, drunkenness etc.

The 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England mandated in article 35 that certain homilies or sermons be delivered in the churches. John Wesley was very influenced by the Edwardian homilies of Thomas Cranmer and how they were used for faith formation. Wesley produced a slightly revised version of the 39 Articles and a revised version of the Book of Common Prayer and, most importantly, Wesley, following the example of the Edwardian homilies, produced a collection of sermons in 1746, 1748, 1750, and 1760.

Wesley’s 1760 edition included 43 sermons, but a 44th was added in a later publication of the 1760 edition. These have become known as the canonical sermons. In 1763 Wesley adopted what is known as the Model Deed which would de-frock any pastor who taught doctrines inconsistent with the Christian tradition as set forth in Wesley’s Notes to the New Testament and the Sermons of John Wesley. Today, tragically, all such doctrinal boundaries in Wesleyan preaching have evaporated. Indeed, Methodist preaching is generally speaking not particularly Wesleyan. It is often not particularly driven or framed theologically or even attentive biblically at a deep level. We even have quite a bit of preaching which falls outside the boundaries of historic Christian orthodoxy. The 43 sermons were required to be preached by all Methodist pastors. This would assure a basic doctrinal content to all preaching and serve as a formation guide both for these unschooled, un-ordained lay pastors, but also the newly emerging Methodist societies and bands which were emerging across the country. By Wesley’s death he had published 151 sermons. Again, two of our Asbury professors, Jason Vickers and Ken Collins, have republished Wesley’s sermons, arranged not chronologically, but soteriologically so you can easily see how careful Wesley was to insure that his sermons, and therefore the preaching of the entire movement, was framed biblically and theologically. Wesley scholar from Duke, Richard Heitzenrater, is correct when he says that Wesley’s canonical sermons were designed to provide a solid doctrinal basis and boundaries for uneducated preachers and newly emerging congregations.

This morning, I am publicly calling our movement back to doctrinally-oriented preaching. Like Wesley’s day, our post-Christendom context has spawned vast numbers of church goers who have no real understanding of the Christian faith. Their knowledge of the Bible is weak and their ability to think theologically is almost non-existent. Therefore, this stands as a fresh mandate for us to put aside the light hearted, casual preaching which has become so characteristic of our movement. As noted, this is not about rhetorical style. Whether you preach topically, narratively, exegetically, or expositionally is not the point. In fact, Wesley’s written sermons as found in the canonical sermons are not the same style as they are presented under a tree, or on the edge of coal mine, but the content was the same.

Your preaching classes here will help you to flourish in a range of styles, but you will also be taught the deeper point which is the driving content which finds its locus in solid and rich, biblical and theological sermons. We must cut as a cancer out of our homiletical vision the 
“I-just-put-the-cookies-on-the-bottom-shelf” approach to preaching. Preaching is not “infotainment.” A post-Christian culture will not be transformed by light hearted fluff with a sprinkling of vague spirituality and God-talk. If the truth be told, the congregations you will serve are tired of being spoken to like children. They are tired of going into a sermon with low expectations. They are tired of hearing sermons which were cobbled together on Saturday night. They long to be fed! They want to be challenged! They want to think deeply about things. They actually want to know what passages of Scripture mean and how it applies to our context. Is it any wonder that we have encouraged people to come to church in shorts and baseball caps and drink coffee during the service – because we ourselves have almost lost our memory that corporately assembling into the presence of the living God is a holy, sacred enterprise. We have almost forgotten that proclaiming the Word of God is a high calling and the most sacred discourse in any culture in the world.

In the wider culture, our social and political discourse has been coarse, crude, and infantile. Civil discourse has been slain, and demagoguery is on the throne of public discourse. Most media outlets have succumbed to this and it has become difficult to encounter thoughtful, principled reflections on almost any topic that confronts our society today. We must position ourselves as a striking alternative to what goes on in the broader cultural discourse. We must be thoughtful and insightful and prepared, because preaching and, indeed, all ministry, is a holy and sacred responsibility.

Despite the popular narrative that “no-one-goes-to-church-anymore,” the number one corporate activity of Americans in any given week remains church attendance. Between 25% and 37% of Americans attend church regularly. The NFL, in contrast, which has passed baseball as the most popular sport still only draws 17% of Americans to an event. With apologies to Ellen Marmon church attendance even outranks NASCAR! The point is, we still have an enormous privilege which we collectively assert in the life of our nation. This privilege is also present for our brothers and sisters from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and Oceania. Preaching remains at the heart of Christian worship all over the world, and it must be taken very seriously.

Wesley’s canonical sermons were designed to equip the church and form the church in faith and practice. Although Wesley was preaching to largely uneducated masses in the open air, his sermons are filled with rich, powerful and thoughtful content. I am not suggesting that we at Asbury create a canon of 43 sermons which every graduate should preach. However, I am suggesting that as a part of our homiletical process we think more deeply about what great doctrine of the faith we are seeking to communicate. If our sermons and other expressions of ministry are not richly reflective of and shaped by the doctrines of creation, of redemption, of soteriology, of Christology, of the work of the Triune God, of ecclesiology, or biblical ethics, of the global mission of the church, then, perhaps, we need to start rewriting our sermons and re-thinking our ministries. We should certainly familiarize ourselves deeply with Wesley’s sermons, noting carefully the rich theological foundations found there. We also need a more intentional overall plan in our preaching and ministries which, over the long haul, accomplish the purpose of the sacred trust which we have been given.

We have our own work to do as a theological community. This is not a burden which can or should be borne by our homiletics department alone. We need a holy alliance between IBS, and exegesis classes, and church history, theology, praxis classes, our homiletics department, our Chapel, conferencing, life long learning, the Beeson Center for biblical preaching and church leadership, life-long learning, and Seedbed’s preaching collective. We must see this as a shared goal in keeping with our mission statement. When I was a seminary student I took, for example, an exegesis course in the minor prophets. It met three hours in a single session every week. The first was spent translating the passage from the prophets from Hebrew to English and wrestling with various textual and translation issues. The second hour was spent examining the historical setting of the passage and understanding theological import of the passage. After a fifteen break we would come back and the professor would preach a 20 minute message on the passage and we would discuss how the passage applied to the life and witness of the church. So, in three hours we went from Hebrew to grammatical, historical exegesis to homiletics all in one class. I still had preaching classes, but they were being supported by the larger enterprise. Because the homiletical collapse of the Methodist tradition is not a simple technical problem which can be solved by our fine homiletics professors. This is an adaptive problem where we all come together to change the DNA of Methodist preaching.

Brothers and sisters, there are serious flaws in the foundations of contemporary evangelical preaching. Our theological underpinnings are too weak, our knowledge of church history is too vague, our understanding of the text of Scripture too superficial, our being formed in the practice of ministry insufficiently reflective, and our sacramental life too weak. This is why you came to seminary. Every day invested here will pay you back 100 fold for the rest of your life. Don’t miss this. Our faculty, under God’s care, is leading an entire new generation of Christian leaders back to the fountainhead of sustained, theologically formed, biblically faithful, historically rooted ministries. In the midst of the twitterization of all knowledge, we need profound, thoughtful, nuanced, men and women who are, to use the language of our mission statement, “theologically educated” and who will bring that to the service of Christ’s holy church. We need sustained theological reflection, in contrast to Thomas Friedman’s description of our digital world as “continuous partial attention.” Without this deep reflection, the gospel will simply be one more commodity on offer in the marketplace of autonomous choices at the smorgasbord of spirituality and personal fulfillment.

If you could go back in time and visit the Foundery where Wesley lived and had his London base you would find a large room which could seat 1,600 people, dedicated to the preaching of the word. There were smaller rooms dedicated to 60 class meetings per week for theological and formational instruction. You also would find a book salesroom, like our Seedbed, distributing materials. There was a school for 60 needy children, and an infirmary for medicine. It is a pattern, not so much in size, but in scope which provides the basic grammar of what it means to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the world.” All these diverse ministries were held together by a shared commitment to homiletical theology. It was a biblically framed and theologically robust movement. That is our mission and we cannot fulfill our mission unless and until we are committed to a rebirth of homiletical theology. So, when you pass John Wesley’s statue which stands at the heart of our campus, let it be a daily reminder to you of the important role of theology in preaching. That statue is our permanent reminder of the central role of homiletical theology—doctrinally rich but practically aimed for the life and faith of the church and the salvation of the world. Amen.

Comments

  • Tim Whitaker says:

    Dr. Tennant has spoken an astute and powerful word to all servants of the Word. As always, he is attentive to the identity and mission of the church of Jesus Christ in the larger context of the new era of post-Christendom when the church can no longer play the role of the religion of the culture, but must recover its role as a distinctive community called to be the messianic, pilgrim people of God.

  • Bob Brooke says:

    I confess that my preaching at times is a little too “fluffy.” I was reminded here of the great doctrinal preaching upon which I fed in my early walk with the Lord. That kind of preaching is hard work. Have we gotten too soft in spirit to do the studious calling of rightly dividing the word of God? For many of us the woeful answer is “yes.”