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Preaching Insights and Values from the New Homiletic

Exploring the Work of North American Preacher Fred B. Craddock

In my preaching courses here on Theodemy I put to good use the lifelong work of North American homiletician Fred B. Craddock, who passed away in March of 2015. I was introduced to Craddock’s contributions to homiletics (preaching) a little more than a decade ago while preparing for my doctoral studies in the UK. For my thesis I desired to produce something that combined my passion for biblical studies together with preaching that would ultimately result in a homiletic appropriate for postmodern listeners.

Despite the fact that his landmark work As One Without Authority was produced in the early 1970s, Craddock noted at that time the early onset of postmodernism in North America (even though he did not make use of that term then). In the prevailing anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment attitude of the day, Craddock’s work was an incisive—and insightful—critique of the problems inherent within the church as a well-entrenched institution in Western society. He also gave a valuable appraisal regarding the use of time-honoured traditional methods of deductive preaching, proposing in its stead what he termed ‘inductive’ preaching.

In the intervening four decades since that initial writing, and despite many critiques by homileticians and scholars, nonetheless Craddock’s work has stood the test of time. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, while his work may have formed a particular ‘school’ of the New Homiletic, much of his original insights and original values for which he stood have been overlooked. I discovered, by a close and careful reading of his works, that a case could be made for a homiletic and a leadership ethos appropriate both for postmodern audiences and emerging generations of church leadership. In effect in my doctoral work I became a ‘Craddock apologist’, bringing back into the modern day his original and valuable ideas.

Insights and Values

Craddock valued the notion of a more dialogical and less authoritarian preaching and leadership style, one that was more open to discussion and ultimately respectful of the listeners. He argued that if indeed there was a loss of clerical prestige on the part of the leader and preacher, this cost was more than offset if it resulted in building more authentic biblical community. Moreover, the notion that by opening up the biblical text for discussion and dialogue by following an inductive methodology, while certainly riskier than traditional deductive and propositional preaching modes, allowed the listeners freedom to own the various applications engendered by the sermonic process.

A second book of Craddock’s that proved to be of tremendous help for my doctoral work was his work Overhearing the Gospel. In it he built upon the insights of philosopher Soren Kirkegaard and unpacked his concepts of how communication itself functions. Much of traditional preaching, argued Craddock, could be described as ‘direct communication’ which, although useful in conveying blocks of information directly to the hearers, tended to be highly disrespectful of the listeners since it involves more of a confrontational, ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ style. Much of traditional preaching still follows this model of communication today and puts the listeners in a bind: their only choices are either to agree or disagree with the interpretative conclusions (and applications) already reached by the preacher. He noted on the other hand the ways in which Jesus himself communicated involved much more the ‘indirect’ model of communication—such as his use of parables, for example. This mode of communication, while riskier in terms of potential misunderstanding on the hearer’s part, positively carries the value of increased ownership, dialogue and engagement by the listeners. The Bread of Life, he noted, can only be broken and offered up; it is up to each individual to choose whether or not to partake. Anything else, he believed, does not truly constitute an authentic choice.

Ultimately, Craddock maintained that a balance between both direct and indirect styles is what is needed. A steady diet of any one communication model—regardless of how effective it may be initially—will eventually become boring and mundane. So how can preachers avoid falling into a rut of one preferred preaching style? This is where I discovered a final element in Craddock’s body of work that proved to be extremely valuable to my work and preaching style: the notion that Scripture itself models not only what to preach, but moreover how to preach also. Most preachers, Craddock noted, go to Scripture for the content of their sermons, often paying little attention to the original literary forms and genres and seeking to ‘mine’ the text for ‘nuggets of propositional truth’ that they can in turn convey propositionally to the listeners via the sermon. This is then delivered utilizing the ‘direct form of communication’ model. He argued to the contrary that the original literary types, genres and forms in Scripture should have a major influence upon the eventual form of the sermon itself.

Conclusion

Building upon these insights and values developed by Craddock has become much of my life’s work thanks to his many contributions to the discipline of preaching. Craddock ignited my passion to combine the two disciplines of biblical studies and homiletics together into a productive unity. I have been striving toward this goal for the last decade in the attempt to work out in practical ways how preachers can not only understand the text of Scripture better as literature in its own right, but moreover to allow the literary types, genres and forms of the biblical text to have more of a controlling influence over sermon form. Ideally this can result in both a homiletic and a leadership format that is appropriate to postmodern listeners, who desire participation and dialogue rather than being told ‘what to believe and think’ by an authority figure standing in the pulpit and using (or possibly abusing) a particular homiletic to reinforce his or her authoritative, and authoritarian, statements.

 

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October 4, 2016
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