Professor Bible: Lessons from Scripture for Better Preaching

The Bible is, among other things, a literary masterpiece.

Further, the Bible is a literary work with oral roots. Indeed, many of Scripture’s literary devices and forms arose at least in part from an oral culture. Therefore, given the Bible’s literary greatness and ties to orality, it makes sense for preachers to turn to Scripture for guidance on improving preaching. Indeed, the Bible is a homiletics professor who teaches by example. One priceless lesson a preacher can learn from Professor Bible is how to use literary devices with greater effectiveness to enhance proclamation.

Parallelism is plentiful in biblical poetry. The most common form is a two part sentence in which the second part somehow echoes the first. A famous example is Psalm 85:10: “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; / righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” The second part of the statement reflects the first. The Book of Proverbs, especially, depends upon parallelism. For instance, Proverbs 10:1b teaches, “A wise child makes a glad father, / but a foolish child is a mother’s grief.”

The preacher can learn from Professor Bible’s examples how to use parallelism to bolster proclamation. For instance, consider this sentence that one could easily find in a sermon: “The death and resurrection of Christ give us eternal life and forgiveness of sins.” Although there is nothing wrong with this sentence theologically or grammatically, there is nothing exceptional about it, either. Consequently, it is unlikely that the sentence will make a strong impact on listeners (of course, factors such as delivery and context affect impact). However, with little revision the statement can be made parallelistic, such as in this way:

The death and resurrection of Christ give us eternal life;
Good Friday and Easter grant us forgiveness of sins.

The repetition in this revision is more likely to linger with listeners than would the first sentence.

Many preachers use parallelism automatically, but a careful, conscientious study of biblical parallelism and how to apply it will prove much more fruitful than an unreflective usage of the device.

Professor Bible loves anaphora, the repetition of a word, phrase, or clause at the beginnings of successive sentences, phrases, or clauses. A famous example is the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-12, in which each statement begins with “Blessed are [ . . . ]” The repetition helps to unite the statements as well as helps listeners to remember them. Also, anaphora is generally aesthetically pleasing.

While preachers tend to use anaphora already, few do so in a deliberate way arising from the examples of Scripture. Given that the overuse of the device can reduce its effectiveness (such is the case with all literary devices), the preacher would do well to scrutinize how Scripture uses anaphora and to employ it with great care.

For example, part of what is stunning about the anaphora in the Beatitudes is that it does not obviously fit with what follows it. That is, Jesus pronounces blessing on people who traditionally are not associated with blessing. Thus, the anaphora, the repetition of the blessing promise, is shocking, even radical.

A preacher could go and do likewise. For instance, imagine a sermon on the Beatitudes in which the preacher declares,
Happy are those who are sick with grief over the world’s sin.
Happy are those who put aside trying to beat the competition.
Happy are those who would rather be God-weak than world-strong.

Like “anaphora,” these words are fancy terms for common devices. Polysyndeton is the use of “and” more than is grammatically necessary. Asyndeton is the omission of “and” when grammar calls for its usage. Again, as with other devices, polysyndeton and asyndeton become weaker when used carelessly.

1 Corinthians 13 provides noteworthy examples of each. In verse two, for instance, Paul writes, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” This use of polysyndeton (which is also in the Greek) has a piling-up effect. The device adds one item after another, building and building, only to obliterate it all with the piercing yet blunt statement about love at the end of the sentence. Thus, the polysyndeton strengthens the force of the love-assertion.

By contrast, in verse seven is an example of asyndeton: “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” The absence of “and” (again, this is also in the Greek) has the effect of underscoring the no-nonsense force of love.

The preacher can do likewise. For instance, note the differences among these sentences. The first follows conventional grammatical construction while the second uses polysyndeton and the third asyndeton:
God loves us by giving us Word and Sacrament, prayer, and one another.

God loves us by giving us Word, and Sacrament, and prayer, and one another.

God loves us by giving us Word, Sacrament, prayer, one another.

Continuing Education
The Bible contains alliteration, punning, the acrostic structure, chiasm, hyperbole, metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and more. The astute preacher can learn from Professor Bible how to use these devices to create sermons of greater, more memorable power. Opening the Bible is entering the classroom.