Book Review: Of Seeds and the People of God

Michael P. Knowles. Of Seeds and the People of God: Preaching as Parable, Crucifixion, and Testimony. Eugene: Cascade, 2015.*

Michael Knowles, a professor of mine at McMaster Divinity College, previously wrote a masterful book on Paul’s theology of preaching (We Preach Not Ourselves: Paul on Proclamation. Brazos, 2008). This more recent book builds from that book, looking at Paul again, but spending more time on Jesus parables, the Gospel according to John, and homiletic theory (focusing on Augustine, Barth, Brueggemann, and Ricoeur) to expand the thesis which is foundational in Knowles’ teaching of homiletics and missional theology- that both the content and the form of preaching must be formed in a cruciform way, that is, anchored in the self-emptying love of Christ demonstrated in the incarnation and death of Christ, which provides the hope of sharing in his resurrection. The message of the Gospel which is preached must also be embodied in the life of the preacher, and the act of preaching, or as Knowles repeatedly reminded us “preaching is predicated on spirituality”. What this means for the preacher, is that preaching must an act of self-emptying, of setting aside self to elevate Christ, and allow the Holy Spirit to bear fruit through our obedient acts. In a world of celebrity preachers, and the never-ending temptation to preach in such a way as to impress the audience and build a reputation as skilled orator, this approach to preaching is sorely needed. Throughout this book, Dr. Knowles skillfully hammers home this point, and over and over again calls preachers to take up their crosses and imitate Christ in their ministry of proclamation.

Knowles begins with the parables, suggesting that one pervasive theme in many parables of Christ is surprising (even at times absurd) results, which are beyond the control of the participants- the gracious Divine provision of abundance. Knowles links this with Paul’s theology of preaching, which declares that in his weakness, in his self-abasement, God produces a harvest; that the success of his ministry has nothing to do with his own skill or strength, but with a surprising divine provision of grace, and the results themselves are evidence of the grace he proclaims. Knowles suggests that the parables point us to a striking conclusion: that the act of preaching is actually meant to serve as a parable for the message it proclaims. We proclaim a Gospel of God’s provision of grace through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, to meet our need, and the act of preaching itself should embody this. In the same way we cannot come to salvation of our own abilities, but require the intervention of God. Fruitful preaching cannot be of our work, but must be an expression or incarnation of God’s grace at work through the preaching of the Gospel.

Knowles then combines this with Jesus’ own statements about his own ministry, especially in the Gospel According to John, that he does nothing of his own accord, but only that which the Father sent him to do, and he does not speak his own words, but those of the Father, and he does not glorify himself, but is glorified by his Father through his own complete obedience and self-abandonment to the will of the Father.

The section on homiletic theory was, for me, the weakest section. It dragged quite a bit, and grappled with technical, abstracted theory, which I sometimes appreciate, but is not where Dr. Knowles is strongest (and I think he’d admit that).

The concluding chapters brings all this together to emphasize that preaching is an act of bearing witness and “Parabolic Testimony”, that is, both in the content of the message (we testify to the Gospel which we’ve heard, and received) and the method of presentation, we testify to what we have encountered and experienced. To preach a message of the grace of God, we must first know the grace of God, and rely on that in our proclaiming of that grace. Preaching is not an act of devising clever and persuasive arguments, but should resemble the testimony eyewitnesses in a courtroom bring. The Apostles announced what they saw and heard- that the promises they had heard announced in Scripture had been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the pouring out of the Spirit to the Church. Their message, and method of preaching directed attention away from themselves, and towards Christ, and demonstrated that the message was not their own, but empowered by the Spirit. Knowles uses this as a paradigm for modern preachers- that the ultimate fruitfulness of our work comes from the Spirit-empowered preaching of the message of Christ crucified and raised, bearing witness to the grace poured out to the preacher who must be crucified with Christ in each act of preaching.

This book is best read together with We Preach Not Ourselves, but is, I believe an important work which in many ways runs counter to so much of modern homiletic teaching. The theology of cruciformity is well established now, and Knowles application of that to preaching makes a vital connection which has been explored by some more broadly in terms of mission and discipleship, but not to the ministry of preaching specifically. Dr. Knowles has thus effectively filled a void with a book which sums up and reflects his years of work bringing together biblical theology and homiletics. Having been a student of Dr. Knowles, I’m incredibly thankful for his books now, as they build on the foundations he provided, which made (and continue to make) me a better preacher and pastor. I’d strongly recommend this book to all preachers, as it is both meaty (in regards to biblical theology, spiritual theology, and ministry praxis) but also highly encouraging and relevant to our weekly schedule of tasks and expectations. If absorbed and lived out, Dr. Knowles suggestions will make better preachers, and more fruitful local congregations; of that I am quite certain, not because Dr. Knowles is brilliant (though, of course, he is), but because he faithfully bears witness to Christ, and his commitment to forming better preachers has always reflected it. His words carry even greater weight for those of us fortunate enough to know his character and faithfulness; his life and his words align, testifying to the truthfulness of his words.

*Wipf & Stock/Cascade kindly provided a free reviewers copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks.

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