Helmut Gollwitzer (1908-1993) died 21 years ago today. I was first introduced to this amazing theologian by Dr. W. Travis McMaken, in his recommendation of Gollwitzer's The Way To Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis. In the forward, Gollwitzer's amazing life is introduced by the English translator David Cairns, which contains not only amazing names of teachers (such as Karl Barth) and teaching posts Gollwitzer entertained, but also the censorship he received by the Gestapo and his imprisonment in the asbestos mines of Siberia.
Gollwitzer provides an introduction to this collection of sermons that includes the following charge to preachers everywhere on how to preach the Word of God. It's a remarkable introduction to an impressive compilation of sermons that all preachers of the Word are a poverty to live without!
As a way to secure the freedom required if preaching is to be taken seriously, my friends and teachers - here I have especially to name Karl Barth, Eduard Thurneysen and Hermann Diem - recommended in the Reformed tradition text-sermons, that is, the attachment of the sermon to the biblical text. They taught that the Bible text should not be merely a motto placed at the head of the sermon, not merely the occasion for all sorts of associations, not merely a peg on which to hang a theme chosen by the preacher, but should be in concrete control of the preacher. The sermon should make this text more perspicuous to the hearer than it was before. At the same time it should give pleasure, so that one is thankful for it, and be a source of guidance for life today. The preacher's subordination to this text frees him from all other authorities, from ecclesiastical authorities - that was the liberating experience of the Reformation - and from political authorities - that was the liberating experience at the time of Hitler's dictatorship.
For this reason my sermons to this day have always been sermons from a text, and perhaps this makes them sound rather old-fashioned to younger theologians. I wonder at their preference for handling themes, in the service of which the biblical text is then exploited, and do not know whether I ought to admire the courage that is needed to believe that one's own ideas have so much truth-content in them that people should use Divine Worship to expound them. For it is, after all, that same gathering of the congregation, which should equip it, by the handing down of the great story of hope, to be a living cell in the world of men that is being shaken by deadly convulsions. But there can be no law ordaining that sermons should have a text, everyone must see what authorizes him to open his mouth in the name of the living God, and we can only tell each other what helps us to face up to the moment of truth which is the hour of public worship.
In my experience, subordination to the biblical text has a liberating effect also because in this moment of truth which challenges our responsibility to an unusual degree, it sets us free from responsibility for what is to be said here and now. The text takes over the responsibility, and through it, he in whose name these first witnesses spoke, to whom we owe our biblical texts. If I had to preach my convictions, my knowledge, and my experiences, what fills my heart at the present moment, and what stirs my mind, my Christianity and the certainty of my faith, then the responsibility would wholly lie with me, and the question whether I am at this precise moment a believer, and am certain of all these astonishing assertions of the Christian faith, might rightly hinder me from putting my foot on the first step of the pulpit stairs. What makes me go on, and open my mouth, can only be the knowledge that I have not to speak out of the wealth of my religiosity, but rather that I, a poor doubting man, am the first hearer of what the ancient text proclaims and promises to me and to all who sit before me. What is said to me, and what I have to pass on to others, is always much more than what I could say on my own authority, much more than I have already experienced, know and believe. It is always something unbelievable, incomprehensible, inconceivable, that is now to be proclaimed, and something through which in our company, including the preacher as well as the hearers, new beginnings of hope, new hope for beginners, and consequently discipleship of beginners must come into being.
Gollwitzer, Helmut The Way To Life: Sermons in a Time of Crisis. England: T&T Clark, 1981. Trans. David Cairns. xii-xiii. Print.