The Eloquence of Grace: Joseph Sittler and the Preaching Life (Cascade, 2012)

[1] We may be on the cusp of a minor renaissance in Joseph Sittler studies. The conditions for studying Sittler have been hampered in previous decades by the fact that much of the beloved Lutheran theologian’s output from the late 1930’s until his death in 1987 was in the form of scattered articles, speeches, sermons, and other occasional pieces. Both by circumstance and by theological temperament, Sittler was not inclined to compose large-scale monographs; even his famous books (such as Essays on Nature and Grace) were either essay collections or transcripts of lectures. While the occasional (yet steady) nature of Sittler’s writings lend them a certain vitality in their embeddedness in his ecclesial context, collecting and studying them – or even making the case for doing so – has been a challenge and a hindrance to intensive study of Sittler.

[2] The result has been that Sittler has tended to live on in the memory of his students and those fortunate enough to hear him speak during his life, but has received comparatively little attention in scholarly literature. Theologians interested in environmental topics tend to credit him as a “pioneer” in that field, and he is occasionally noted for his ecumenical work, but his legacy still awaits the substantial scholarly engagement that many of us feel that it deserves.

[3] Happily, this may be changing. The conditions for a series of exciting new publications on Sittler have been supported by the creation in the early part of this century of the Joseph Sittler Archives, currently housed at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago ( A series of researchers in the United States and abroad have been able to take advantage of the fact that hundreds of Sittler pieces, many of them previously unpublished, are now available in physical (and, increasingly, digital) form under the Archives’ auspices.

[4] The Eloquence of Grace: Joseph Sittler and the Preaching Life is perhaps the most substantive scholarly product yet to come out of engagement with this archival material. Richard Lischer of Duke University and James M. Childs, Jr. (emeritus from Trinity seminary) have curated a powerful collection of Sittler sermons, many of which are here transcribed for the first time. Also included are key selections from Sittler’s theology, such as his famed 1961 “Called to Unity” address and various book chapters related to his theology of hermeneutics, engagement with sacred text, and rhetoric.

[5] Lischer and Childs, as a homiletician and theological ethicist respectively, are ideal guides through this material, since for Sittler the task of preaching was inextricable from the preacher’s task of wrestling with the pressing tasks of 20th century theology from the position of the pulpit. For instance, those familiar with Sittler’s ecological theology will know that the impetus behind his engagement with environmental matters and his preaching on the same (most of the key sermons of which are included in this collection) was not simply motivated by his then-prescient sense of the growing problem of ecological degradation; rather, Sittler saw engaging thorny issues around nature, grace, and human intervention to be motivated first and foremost by the theological call to reconceive humanity’s place in nature as one of inextricable embeddedness in the site of God’s redemptive activity – a task made all the more urgent in the face of humanity’s growing technological ability to render nature as mutable and plastic to human intervention.

[6] The sermons also showcase Sittler’s deep engagement with literary themes. For Sittler, the homiletical and theological function of great literature was not simply to be a storehouse for handy sermon illustrations or garnishment for “theological” concepts proper; rather, classic literary works (including films) were primary data as to the nature of human existential wrestling in a given time and place, and should be treated with integrity by theologians and preachers alike.

[7] In reading these sermons, one is left with the impression that Sittler remains valuable not least for his helping preachers begin to wrestle with the sheer scope of God’s work in the world, and the ways in which theology and preaching is called to address the human condition in its full (yet contextually determined) complexity – “nothing less than everything,” in Childs’ apt phrase. Also, in our contemporary context, it is likely that readers may well marvel at the sheer complexity of Sittler’s preaching. He had no patience for “dumbing down” or thinning out theological content in order to fit the pulpit; rather, the pulpit no less than the classroom was for him a venue for proclaiming the gospel in a way that complexifies rather than artificially simplifies the ambiguities of Christian life and discipleship.

[8] Two features of Sittler’s preaching keep this dense content from becoming didactic or “academic” in the perjorative sense. Theologians will recognize the one in the fact that Sittler was able to draw lightly on a whole array of competing theological trends – from the neo-orthodox Barthian and confessional Lutheran currents of his early years to his later immersion in Chicago school empiricism, process, and historicist currents – without being tied to any of them. This lends his Christology in particular a kind of freewheeling creativity that allows it to interact delightfully with his exegesis and cultural commentary.

[9] The other is his emphasis on style, which for Sittler is a theological as much as an oratorical concept. Style, which Sittler (following Oppenheimer) defined as “the deference that action pays to uncertainty,” manifests itself in attention to language that is more evocative than didactic. This is not an excuse for conceptual fuzziness so much as an acknowledgement that, in engaging the reality of creaturely life and Christian discipleship no less than the reality of God, language that evokes a sense of mystery and confluence between human anguish and gospel promise will ultimately be more true to its subject matter than prose that “flattens” matters into master-able chunks. Sittler carried out his work in the belief that a flattening in language was the precursor to injustice; conversely, genuinely rich style in proclamation could open up new horizons of inspiration for humanity to engage the task of recognizing, aiding, and abetting God’s redemptive work in the world. While the allusive style of Sittler’s prose may be frustrating for theologians who wish to systematize a given homiletician’s oeuvre along predetermined theological categories, it serves Sittler’s homiletical nimbleness well across the course of the sermons collected here.

[10] Thus, theologians no less than preachers are in Lischer and Childs debt for their thoughtful curation of these resources, as well as for their acute scholarly work in providing the best conceptual apparatus that we yet have for appreciating Sittler’s homiletical strategies. This book will be a valuable text for our seeing how one key 20th-century theologian overcame the too-common divide between rigorous theology and excellent preaching, and may well inspire future efforts in that same direction.

Robert C. Saler

Robert C. Saler is Research Professor of Lutheran Studies and Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. He is the author of Between Magisterium and Marketplace: A Constructive Account of Theology and the Church (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).