A Review of Preaching by Tim Keller

This review was to fulfill a course requirement for my Preaching class at BTSR.

Keller, Timothy. Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Viking, 2015.

Keller’s Preaching is a great, concise, winsome treatise on communicating the Word and Gospel of God.  Coming in at only 210 pages for the main text, this is certainly not a comprehensive step-by-step guide to preaching or a how-to on writing a sermon.  In fact, in the appendix (which this review does not cover), Keller states this very thing: “[t]his volume is far from a complete textbook on preaching…I’ve spent most of my time on why a certain kind of preaching is needed and what preaching looks like in principle and example.”  The main text is divided into three main sections, “Serving the Word,” “Preaching Christ to Culture,” and “In Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power.”  Across these three sections Keller lays out his why and what of preaching, encouraging the reader to consider new insights, to compare Keller’s theology of preaching to her own, and finally to embrace the challenges to his own preaching that Keller may have posed.

There were several new insights that I gleaned from this text.  First was about the very nature of preaching itself.  I had always considered preaching to be that moment when an individual stepped to the front of a congregation and spoke, at length, about a particular biblical passage.  This was the totality of preaching for me.  However, in the introduction, Keller lays out three level of preaching.  The first level would be informally conveying and teaching the Word on to another.  The second level is concerned with what Keller identifies as being connected to what Paul describes as the gift of “speaking.”[1]  This is more formal than level 1 might not yet at what we might traditionally consider preaching.  Teaching, instructing, counseling, and evangelizing either one-on-one or to a group, might all fall under this level.[2] Finally, there is level 3, that form of preaching that we are the most aware of and think of most readily when thinking of “preaching.”  More formal than the other two, and for Keller explicitly about the exposition of the scripture.[3]  While Keller states that the book will be primarily concerned about the second and third levels of preaching, the fact that he has thought about preaching as something more than just the preaching event on Sunday morning is informative to me.  Keller has turned preaching from an event, and often a highly ritualized one, into a form of communication.  If this is the case, then the emphasis changes.  It is no longer about the ritual, it is about communicating the information that one has to communicate as clearly and efficiently as possible.

This leads to further insights gained.  If it is about communication and not ritual, then one has to think deeply about we the audience/congregation is to whom one is preaching.  This would lead to engaging culture and the social location of the audience/congregation in ways that might not have been previously considered.  All of the Part Two of the Preaching is taken up with this challenge.  Keller encourages the preacher to deeply and honestly engage with the culture.  He writes specifically about allowing the culture to exposit its own baseline narratives which the preacher can then subvert with an exposition of the Gospel and its values.[4]

In examining Keller’s theology of preaching, it is not entirely different from my own.  Both Keller and I believe that the primary purpose of preaching, at least at level 3, is to expound and exposit the Word of God.  Both of us agree that the text must be the beginning place for any preaching.  Keller and I also agree that all Christian preaching should be rooted in as well show the Gospel: “Every time you expound a Bible text, you are not finished unless you demonstrate how it shows us that we cannot save ourselves and that only Jesus can.”[5]  This is also tied to Keller’s idea that all of the Bible is telling the story of Jesus, that we have to put on Jesus tinted glasses when we are reading and preaching the text.  While I don’t think that this is a total one-for-one correlation, this is isn’t that different from the declaration in the Baptist Faith and Message (1963) that “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”[6]

There are challenges that Keller presents to my own preaching.  First, is this very idea of different levels of preaching.  If one takes this as a base for thinking about preaching, that thinking will change, as mentioned earlier.  If preaching is about communication and not ritual, then I, as a preacher, must thinking deeply and thoroughly about what it is that I am communicating and how I am communicating it.  Am I being clear?  Am I meeting people where they are in terms of the cultural narratives that have a hold on their lives.  We exactly is in my audience and how and I going to make sure that each of them hears the gospel every time I preach?

[1] Keller, 2.

[2] Keller, 3.

[3] Keller, 2.

[4] Keller, 115

[5] Keller, 48.

[6] Baptist Faith and Message, 1963

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