The Sermon; The Untouchable Apologetic

By Paul Koch


In the summer of 1999, I arrived at the Seminary to begin my studies in preparation for the pastoral office. I was somewhat shocked that the academic catalogue was void of a single class that dealt with Christian Apologetics. I had studied under the inspiring leadership of Dr. Rosenbladt and even had spent a summer in France with Dr. Montgomery at the International Academy for Apologetics, Evangelism and Human Rights. My appetite to acquire the tools of evidential apologetics and employ them in my conversations with my neighbor on the barstool next to me was just beginning.

The words of Dr. Montgomery were fresh in my mind, “Under no circumstances should we retreat into a presuppositionalism of a fideism which would rob our fellow men of the opportunity to consider the Christian faith seriously with head as well as heart. Our apologetic task is not fulfilled until we remove the intellectual offenses that allow so many non-Christians to reject the gospel with scarcely a hearing. We must bring them to the only legitimate offense: the offense of the Cross.” (Faith Founded on Fact, 41-42). How was I to learn how best to remove intellectual offenses if my formal training in apologetics was coming to an end?

Brian Hillegas_flickrcommons

Perhaps, I ought to have been prepared for this. Montgomery himself points out that the typical position within the Lutheran tradition is summed up by the great dogmatician, J. T. Mueller, when he says, “The best apology of the Christian religion is its proclamation… Christian apologetics has therefor only one function: it is to show the unreasonableness of unbelief. Never can it demonstrate the truth with ‘enticing words of man’s wisdom.’” (Christian Dogmatics, 71). If I was to become a preacher of the Word, what need did I now have of the study of evidential apologetics? The whole focus of my vocation was directed toward faithful proclamation and my studies shifted accordingly. Sure, I would always have the training I had acquired before the seminary; I could hand on what I had learned to those teenagers we sacrifice to the public universities every year in hopes that they might be able to withstand the attacks on their faith. But I was left with a lingering question, is there really a divide between proclamation and apologetics?

Lately, I revisited this question. I want to offer an idea about a particular form of apologetic that might bridge this gap. If the study of philosophical systems and categories aids in removing the intellectual offenses that prohibits one from hearing the preached Word, could a study of rhetoric also help to remove roadblocks within the task of preaching? Could we encourage a rhetoric apologetic that would, say, study Cicero’s five cannons of persuasion so that the hearers of the Word would more easily be carried along to the proclamation of the Cross? Is there a place for a study of Aristotle’s rhetoric to craft sermons that remove emotional as well as rational obstacles to hearing the Word?

luther preaching

If a preacher views his preaching as his craft, shouldn’t he always strive to be better at that craft? We’ve all heard sermons that are filled with correct and faithful content. Yet that content is arranged so poorly and proclaimed with such indifference that many of the supposed hearers are no longer hearing. In other words the Words are not getting to them, not because they have a rational objection to what is being said, but because they’ve simply tuned them out and are making their grocery list in their heads. A rhetorical apologetic would take seriously these problems within the hearts and minds of the many who sit in the pew and are subjected to sermons. It would endeavor to overcome them and carry the hearer to the gift of proclamation.

I’m not saying that the Spirit doesn’t work through bad preaching; he does and will continue to do so. I am saying that our apologetic concern doesn’t stop when I stand in the pulpit.