In addition to teaching two theology courses at Tyndale Seminary in the upcoming fall semester, I am also going to be teaching the “Basics of Preaching” course at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. In preparation for my foray into the homiletics classroom, I’ve been revisiting many of the preaching books I’ve read over the years. One such book is The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel against the Wisdom of the World by the late Episcopalian priest Robert Farrar Capon.
Encountering Capon’s trilogy on the parables—Kingdom, Grace, Judgment—while a student in seminary was truly a transformative experience. Alert readers will recognize Capon’s influence in several of the sermons in my book Leaps of Faith, particularly the pair of sermons on the parable of the Prodigal Son. The sermon, “My Daddy was a Pimp!” also has a certain Capon-esque flair to it. My respect for Capon’s work in some ways resembles Karl Barth’s famous assessment of the importance of Kierkegaard—“I consider him to be a teacher whose school every theologian must enter once. Woe to him who misses it—provided only he does not remain in or return to it.”1 Now, I would actually advise returning to Capon’s work as it draws readers into an inescapable encounter with the radicality of the grace of the Gospel and is therefore essential reading for all preachers. However, I am concerned that those who dwell in Capon’s house run the risk of imbibing the attractive aroma of his subtle anti-nomianism.
While his book on preaching probably does not quite reach the same heights as his trilogy on the parables or even some of his other works, there are still moments where his tremendous facility with words combined with his emphasis on the priority of the activity of the divine Word in the practice of preaching make for stimulating reading. Below are a few of Capon’s aphorisms that preachers would do well to keep in mind, followed by one of his tastier extended quotations on the preacher’s relationship to Scripture.
“Topical sermons are like topical anesthetics: they don’t go deep.”2
“Prayer is just talking with Someone who’s already talking to you.”3
“the toughest passages make the best preachers.” 4
“Don’t bracket the bountiful meal you’re going to serve with plattersful of appetizers for the cocktail hour and uranium-density chocolate bombes for dessert.”5
“No work of art (at least as far as the artist is concerned) is ever finished; he or she simply abandons it.” 6
“Above all, though, trust your God-given ear for windiness — and turn it on yourself with a vengeance. Delete! Delete! Delete! until your soporifics have been banished, and only crispness is left.”7
“Well, like a cook, you have to spend a lot of time dipping your finger into the sauce of Scripture just because you like to dip. There’s nothing worse than preachers who come to a Bible passage thinking they have to get something out of it, or worse yet, trying to work into it some concoction they’ve had in their freezer for years. The only way they can become decent preachers is to be willing to taste everything in the Scriptures with a clean palate. Once they start down the road of deciding whether they approve of something, or can make popular use of it, they’re doomed — right along with the congregations they serve — to a diet of nothing but leftovers.” 8
- Karl Barth, “A Thank You and a Bow—Kierkegaard’s Reveille,” in Fragments Grave and Gay, ed. Martin Rumschiedt, trans. Eric Mosbacher (Glasgow: William Collins and Sons, 1971), 100-101. ↩
- Robert Farrar Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel against the Wisdom of the World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 63. ↩
- Ibid., 68. ↩
- Ibid., 71. ↩
- Ibid., 91. ↩
- Ibid., 91. ↩
- Ibid., 130. ↩
- Ibid., 60. ↩