Herman Bavinck on Preaching and Preachers

preaching and preachersI allow myself few reviews during the school semester, but I wanted to take a little pause between papers to highlight a new Herman Bavinck book. James P. Eglinton, lecturer in Reformed Theology at New College in Edinburgh and author of the groundbreaking study Trinity and Organism, has just edited and translated a little volume Herman Bavinck on Preaching & Preachers. In it he collects a couple of lectures on the nature of Eloquence, the place of the sermon, reflections on language and preaching in America, as well as a translation of the only published sermon of Bavinck’s we have. (Apparently Bavinck mostly preached from sparse notes, or without any.) Eglinton also includes a helpful short biography of Bavinck as a preacher, introducing the work as a whole.

We ought to be grateful to Eglinton for filling this gap in the literature. Many of us have benefitted from the translation of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics and have seen it bear fruit in our preaching and teaching. Still, very little on has been available on Bavinck’s own theology and practice of preaching, which grew out of his exposition of the Reformed emphasis on the Word of God as a means of grace.

I won’t give a full-dress review, but a couple of points stand out in Bavinck’s assorted reflections.

First, Bavinck highlights the centrality of good preaching to the practice of ministry. If God works through his Word, then the task of preaching cannot be shirked, minimized, or given short shrift in a pastor’s ministry. Yes, there are differences in natural talents and ability according to God’s providence and gifting, but Bavinck assumes that the call of every pastor is to learn to practice, develop, and grow as an orator in order to present the Word with as much persuasive power to the hearts of their congregations as possible.

Bavinck was troubled even a hundred years ago at the new competition the pulpit had in newspapers, lecture halls, speaker circuits, and so forth. If preachers did not rise to the occasion, the danger is that the Word of God would be drowned out by every other voice under the sun. (One only wonders what he might have made of our new social media order.) Pastors may have other tasks, but they were called to rise to the occasion nevertheless, and strive to proclaim the Gospel with power.

This is not a matter of mere technique, though. “Eloquence” may involve the training of your voice, your delivery, and so forth, but it doesn’t mean engaging in cheap speaking tricks or faux theatrics. Nor is it a matter of a dazzling display of knowledge, stringing quotations and literary references together for grand effect. Bavinck is scathing of the sort of affected mannerisms and arrogant displays of knowledge paraded in many pulpits of the day.

No, eloquence is a matter of the unity of argument, description, and persuasion aimed at the heart which are ultimately effected only when they come from the whole person. In other words, it is knowing something deep in your own bones and honestly using every power at your disposal (linguistic, rhetorical, emotional) in order to convey it with force to the heart of your hearers. Which is why eloquence requires study, practice, a sense of poetry, and an integrity between the preacher and his message that can’t be faked. Eloquence in preaching is a holistic virtue that is developed over time.

Bavinck, of course, sees Scripture itself as central to that task. And not just because it is the matter to be preached. Bavinck sees in Scripture a formative power which, when studied and soaked in, trains a preacher in eloquence. It has the sort of simplicity, emotional resonance with the whole of life, poetic form of course, and moral power which can instill within the preacher a confidence necessary to go up and declare the Word of the Lord to the people of God.

Another striking point about Bavinck’s reflections is how contemporary they seem. In more than one essay he complains about the problems facing the pulpit. Shortened attention spans, the aforementioned competition from other forms of media and opinion outlets, a general sense that the service of God in the Church is less important than getting out there in the world and “doing something,” and so much else.

There are a few ways of learning from this. First, there is the realization that in many ways the challenges of contemporary preaching are less contemporary and more perennial than we realize. There has always been an issue with boredom, with attention-span, with weak attendance, with spiritual listlessness, etc. and so pastors ought not feel uniquely put upon in our age. This is why the wisdom of the past—such as the kind represented in this book—is still of use. Indeed, it can help us slow down and stop from jumping on every bandwagon fad we’re tempted to adopt in our desperation and fear.

Second, in those places where there are some unique challenges in the modern age, it helps us have a sense for how long this has been developing. Also, even in those places where it is dated, it shows us how Bavinck tried to encourage his students to respond on the basis of deeper theological principles which can continue to guide us even as the specifics change.

Finally, for fans of Bavinck, I’ll just say that a lot of the same features you love about his Reformed Dogmatics show up here too. The broadness of mind and learning, the beauty of speech, and the Scriptural basis.

With all that said, I obviously think the book is worth your time if you’re regularly teaching and preaching God’s Word.

Soli Deo Gloria