Review of “Justification Is for Preaching”

Justification Is for Preaching: Essays by Oswald Bayer, Gerhard O. Forde, and Others, ed. Virgil Thompson (Eugene: Pickwick, 2012).

Justification is for Preaching is either not a preaching manual, or it is the most Lutheran preaching manual ever written. It is not a typical preaching manual because it lacks recommended outlines and tips for poise and diction. It is the most Lutheran preaching manual ever written because it repeatedly hammers the point that preaching justification is not a method but a means.

That’s the serious insight from this collection of fourteen essays, published in celebration of Lutheran Quarterly’s twenty-five years. These “greatest hits” contributions come from the likes of Oswald Bayer, Gerhard O. Forde, James Arne Nestingen, and other names familiar to LQ. Virgil Thompson, LQ’s managing editor, edited the volume.

Framing the act of preaching as a means of God’s grace, rather than focusing on methods of exegesis or presentation, takes on radical form in Forde’s entry “Preaching the Sacraments” (one of four Forde essays in this collection). “We have tended to overlook or forget the fact that the Christ whose body and blood is really present in the Supper is also really present in the speaking of the Word,” he writes. “Preaching is to be understood as a sacramental event” (149). This means that the sermon ought to do what the sacraments do. Or, as Forde goes on to explain, “to preach is to give Christ to the hearer.” The thrust of the sermon, then, is not for the preacher to give the hearer something to do but to let the preached word be a means of God doing.

Preaching as a means of an alien word that “does to the hearers” is emphasized by Forde and driven home by Steven D. Paulson in his contribution of “Lutheran Assertions Regarding Scripture.” Paulson points out the offense to individualism that one must still hear the Word of justification from a “local forgiveness person.” The individual cannot learn this word on her own, so the preacher must proclaim this alien Word to all who might hear. When Paulson sums up the offense of the law and the comfort of the gospel, both are an alien word addressed to YOU. “The preacher must learn the proper application of the pronoun: ‘you are the one’ (as Nathan said to David) and ‘given for you for the forgiveness of sins’ (as Jesus said to his betrayers)” (226). These words must be spoken to the one who hears them; they do not come from within the hearer’s own heart.

I wish I had read both of these entries from Forde and Paulson first and then tackled the rest of the collection. Together, they unite the themes of Justification is for Preaching in a way that is both deep and practical. In contrast, the first half of the collection starts with the heavy lifting of surveys exploring the theology of justification and historical trends in the subject. These entries are helpful, but the result is that the book as a whole is frontloaded with its most challenging essays.

Other difficulties are inherent in a collection of essays from across a twenty-five year span. Diverse authors offer diverse opinions, and sometimes they contradict one another. Anachronisms and inconsistencies occasionally rear their heads. When Forde refers to a trend “of late” (148) to deemphasize the sacraments, the reader must refer to the acknowledgments to see that Forde wrote those words in 1984. Editorial remarks providing historical context would have been helpful in such cases.

Inconsistencies appear simply because powerhouse theologians are set next to each other. Forde argues in “Forensic Justification and the Christian Life” that Lutherans must understand justification as forensic; there is no other option. With the turn of a page, however, Wilfried Härle lists the problems with the usual forensic understanding of justification but never directly responds to Forde’s points. As essays originally published separately, this contrast is perfectly understandable. But as adjacent chapters in one collection, the effect is jarring. For this reader, still grasping at the strengths and weaknesses of justification models, this felt like a speed bump. Again, editorial remarks would have been appreciated. Does Härle define forensic justification differently from Forde? I’m not sure—and reading these two essays has left me both more educated and more confused on the matter. But the book itself is worth reading as an introduction to these perennial Lutheran questions, even if some remain unanswered. Lutheran theology is bound up with the task of preaching, and so this text quite naturally explores both the theology and the task simultaneously.

As I begin my third year of my first call, I find the sort of heavy reading materials so typical of my seminary education to be more and more difficult to fit into my schedule of visitation, sermon preparation, worship planning, and other regular pastoral tasks. Justification is for Preaching is the sort of reading that both challenges and fits into my new routine. I offer this as a recommendation with a warning: this book challenged me. It is complex. It is also basic. It deals with the central things of Lutheran teaching, yet it offers no easy answers. But every time I put the book down, slightly overwhelmed by the words of theologians leagues ahead of me in their thinking, that title caught my eye again: For Preaching. Even the academic pursuits of this collection are pursuits of a truth that must be shared with the world!

David C. Drebes is Pastor at Prince of Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Basye/Orkney Springs Parish in northwestern Virginia.


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