"Paul's Theology of Preaching" by Duane Litfin. A Review

Paul's Theology of Preaching: The Apostle's Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient CorinthPaul's Theology of Preaching: The Apostle's Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient Corinth by Duane Litfin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A dear friend of mine sent it as a gift about Christmas time. After three months I finally got around to reading it and was elated with this thoughtful treasure trove! The gem I’m referring to is the paperback, “Paul's Theology of Preaching: The Apostle's Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient Corinth.” Here are 400 pages of careful expeditions into the ancient development of rhetoric and expansive reflections on 1 Corinthians 1.18-4.21. This masterful historical and theological work is penned by Duane Litfin, author and previous president, the seventh, of Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. It is a compilation, expansion and reworking of his doctoral thesis, articles and speeches from the past decades. The book is ideally suited for preachers, liturgists and homiletics professors.

The first third of “Paul’s Theology of Preaching” spends a whole nine chapters delving and deciphering ancient Greco-Roman rhetoric. Litfin cites a wide variety of sources from Isocrates to Cicero to Augustine. The middle portion of the material methodically works through and works out 1 Corinthians 1.18-4.21, showing the apostolic distinction between “words of eloquent wisdom” (1.17) and the “word of the cross” (1.18). The final section and five appendices delve into applications of Paul’s principle.

The aim of “Paul’s Theology of Preaching” is to explore “the origins of a crucial Pauline insight for ministry” (20). Specifically, how the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 1.18-4.21) saw Christian preaching differ from classic rhetoric, why it mattered and why it still matters. Litfin tirelessly builds the case that “Paul’s difficulty was not that” the principles of classic rhetoric “were inherently immoral but that they were dependent on an essentially human dynamic” (358). That “essentially human dynamic” is the emphasis on doing what it takes to get the desired results. The author’s contention is that the ancient rhetoricians took the persuader’s stance – playing to the audience to get them to yield, whereas Paul saw his task as being a herald – proclaiming the Gospel and calling for repentance and faith without falling into the trap of nickels and nose; “The success of the herald cannot therefore be determined by measuring the listener’s acceptance of (yielding to) the message. It can only be measured by the degree to which the herald has satisfied the commissioner’s instructions” (280).

The gift of “Paul’s Theology of Preaching” was quite timely as I was beginning a new sermon series on 1 Corinthians. Though at times the historical aspects were beyond my ken and specialization, all together the work has been a valuable asset in my studies. And beyond the immediate research and preparations, it has been a constructive companion as I think, and rethink, my vocation as a preacher/pastor. Without hesitation I commend this book!

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