We Preach Not Ourselves: Paul on Proclamation By Michael P. Knowles (Brazos, 2008)

We Preach Not Ourselves: Paul on Proclamation (Paperback)
by Michael P. Knowles

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This work by Michael Knowles, the G. F. Hurlburt Chair of Preaching at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, is essentially a verse-by-verse commentary on 2 Cor 1:1–6:13, with a focus on preaching. “For some, no doubt, this discussion of Pauline homiletic will prove methodologically inadequate. There are no instructions detailing the correct manner of exegesis, no directions on how to compose a preachable manuscript, and few guidelines on the selection of suitable illustrative material. … Most infuriating in this regard is the fact that Paul’s ample skill as a theologian, pastor, apostle, and preacher of the gospel seems frequently directed to acknowledging the limitations of merely human endeavor” (263). One couldn’t find a better summary! “Paul’s theology of Christian proclamation” (10), therefore, sounds too ambitious a byline for a project that deals with just six chapters of only one Pauline epistle. Nevertheless, this book is an extremely useful tool with which to engage a part of Paul’s thought on proclamation.

The focus of the book is on Paul’s “spirituality” of ministry. According to Knowles, “‘[s]pirituality’ … bespeaks a general disposition and outlook oriented to the spiritual realm.” It is “the direction of mind and will toward the transcendent God of Israel and of Jesus, above all as enabled by Jesus” (13). Inexplicably, there is no substantial discussion of the ministry of the Holy Spirit contributing to such “spirituality.” This, despite at least ten references to the Holy Spirit in 2 Cor 1:1–6:13. Perhaps the reason for this omission is because Knowles sees Paul as articulating “a Jesus-centered spirituality that can best be described as ‘cruciform,’ a spiritual vision essentially shaped by Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection” (15; emphasis added). That sounds, to me, like an incomplete “spirituality.” I was also unclear as to why this kind of “spirituality” was “especially true … for the task of preaching” (15). If anything, in 2 Corinthians, the proclamation ministry of Paul is employed as a paradigm for all Christian ministry engagements; such a “spirituality,” one would think, is no less applicable to nursery-care or youth ministry.

That being said, the book’s recognition of the epistolary emphases on dependence upon God in preaching are helpful: “preaching is first an act of trust directed toward God before it can be an act of persuasion directed to its human audience” (117–8). Knowles is careful “not to obviate the importance of good exegesis, culturally relevant illustrations, logical structure, and persuasive rhetoric.” Paul, utilizing all of these, was “wise enough to know that the effectiveness of his preaching in bringing about conviction, conversion, or spiritual consolation is not dependent on these factors alone” (119). Knowles concludes: “The rhetoric of proclamation by no means seeks to replace divine action in the context of proclamation, but stands alongside it, working ‘together with him.’ The dichotomy between ‘theology’ and ‘rhetoric’ is thus revealed to be false: insofar as God ‘makes his appeal through us,’ the two are brought into cooperation” (252). Marvelously put!  Knowles’ point is well taken: ultimately, “cruciform ministry” is “predicated on the gracious sufficiency of God and the otherwise definitive insufficiency of its human instruments” (163). This is the thrust of 2 Cor 1:1–6:13 (and of this commentary). For those engaged in ministry enterprises—preaching or otherwise—that is a crux is well worth returning to periodically, if not focusing upon constantly.

Rather than establishing ethics and behavior on the basis of what is enjoined by the text, there is a tendency throughout Knowles’ interpretive endeavor to endorse the imitation of Paul. While the text itself does give warrant for adopting Paul’s ministerial “spirituality,” for Knowles preaching is simply to “do what Paul did” and not just “do/say what Paul said.” For example: “What Paul did, therefore, other preachers seek to do” (22). But how many of Paul’s variegated activities (writing in Koiné, traveling extensively in Asia Minor, establishing churches, tent-making, etc.) must Christians emulate—just because the apostle did them? This reviewer, at least, would have preferred to have seen the implications for Christian ministry discerned from Paul’s teaching within the text, rather than from the apostle’s implied exertions and attitudes without it. It is, after all, the text that is inspired, not any action or state of mind “behind” the text.

One also finds distributed throughout the book statements like these: “In particular, properly ‘Christian’ preaching focuses on the person of Christ” (13–14); and “[p]reaching … bears witness to God’s invitation for hearers to enter into the death and life of Christ” (232); etc. While this Christocentricity is a fairly common emphasis in pulpits everywhere, I submit that the hermeneutics of landing every sermon on every biblical pericope upon Christ and the cross needs to be more rigorously examined for its validity.

These issues notwithstanding, this commentary promises to be beneficial aid to sermon preparation; it will certainly find an accessible spot on my bookshelf where I can reach it as soon as an occasion to preach through 2 Corinthians arises.

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 9 (2009): 127–128

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