Bonhoeffer's "Postscript" from Worldly Preaching



A. Criteria for Evaluating the Sermon

1. Faithfulness to the Scripture.

A non-textual sermon can still be faithful to the Scripture by being based upon the central message of the Bible as a whole.  Luther often preached without a text at all, but nevertheless scripturally.

2. Faithfulness to the text.

How does the sermon relate to the pastor's exegetical research?  Do the individual parts of the text stand in proper relation to each other?  Has anything important been overlooked?  Is the central meaning of the text apparent?

3. Faithfulness to the Confession.

Was it preached with an interpretation that is in accord with the teachings of the church, or not?  That is, was the Scripture read according to the sola fide [faith alone]?  Was the sermon in order doctrinally?

4. Faithfulness to the congregation.

This is a distinctive homiletical test.  Questions should be asked concerning:

(a) Simplicity in speech and presentation.  Has the imagery of the text been fully utilized; has too much been said in one sentence, too much sentence-packing and too many dependent clauses; or are too many literary and rhetorical intrusions employed?

(b) Transparency in construction.  Even a homily needs the support of paragraphs - it is no mosaic.  Did the interpretation of the text stay on the main track - going off on tangents may be appropriate for exegetical research, but not for the sermon; how well does it lend itself to being remembered and repeated?

(c) Is the direction (it might even be called the attack) of the sermon obvious, i.e., what it seeks to accomplish; where has the fight of the devil been enjoined; did everything get bogged down in a mere textual paraphrase?

5. Faithfulness to the commission (objectivity).

Has the Scripture and the church been used as an excuse to present one's own ideas?  Did the religious virtuoso speak, or the one who is dedicated to the cause of Christ?

6. Genuineness (subjectivity).

This criterion is difficult to apply to the sermons of others!  The preacher must as himself [/herself], "Do I believe what I say? Or am I just making official sounds?"

7. The relationship between the new and the old.

Has the old been said in a new way?  Does it cause someone to want to look again into the text?  Does the sermon include the two characteristics of interpretation and witness in proper relationship to one another?

8. The relationship between the Law and the Gospel.

Has all that has been said finally degenerated into nothing more than legalism? Has the Gospel been presented so that God's liberating claim to men [and women] is audible?


B. Sources of Error

1. Do not pass judgment upon various texts such as "nice," "deep," "true," "correct," etc.  We are not judges of the Scripture.  We should let ourselves be judged by it!

2. Do not overemphasize the contemporary significance of the Scripture. Its present significance is presupposed.  Therefore do not separate the application and explanation of the text, they belong together.  Avoid saying, "This speaks exactly to you and me."

3. Do not defend the Word of God, testify to it.  You are a preacher, not an apologist.

4. Do not get stuck in the summary paraphrase of the text. At the pulpit we do not present "the theology of Apostle So-and-So"! See if you can't say "God says" where you would like to say, "the Apostle John says."

5. Guard yourself against speaking too conditionally, with too many reservations and limitations.  "In Christ" there is no room for conditional sentences.

6. Do not divide the Pauline admonitions according to those which  contain promise and those which contain duties [Gabe und Aufgabe].  Otherwise you will preach nothing but moral sermons.  The Gospel is not a neuter, impersonal force to which a set of directions must be given.  The gift of grace already contains within it New Life.  Within this gift there is already the presupposition of the task, and vice versa.

7. Do not use the Scripture as a club with which to beat the congregation.  That is priestcraft.  We are not to preach sins, but to witness to their overcoming; we are not preachers of repentance, but messengers of peace.

8. Do not indulge in the cataloging of sins and problems within the congregation ("don't we keep on, over and over again"). Do not be deceived into interpreting our piece of history as if it were cut off from A.D. 1-30 and dealing with it separately.

9. Do not terrify men [and women] with the Last Judgment and death. Christ does not overpower, he knocks at the door.  Therefore it is not appropriate for us to be so violent in the sermon.

10. Guard yourself against presenting utopian views in eschatological sermons.  We preach a Mohammedan sermon when we anticipate visions of the times to come.  We cannot say, "Heaven looks like this." The visions of the apocalyptic seer are not that which is promised to us in our time, but rather a view into the kingdom of faith. The eschatological word presently continues to be fulfilled in Christ alone, and in the midst of the apocalyptic stands the figure of the martyred Lamb (Rev. 22).

11. Do not slave over the introduction and conclusion of the sermon.  You can commit  yourself immediately to the Word.  It is a ship "loaded to its capacity."


Notes from Bonhoeffer's final course lecture entitled "Postscript." It is located in Clyde E. Fant, Bonhoeffer: Worldly Preaching (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1975) 178-180.

© 2013-2015 - S.D. Giere - All Rights Reserved