Rev. Cornelius “Neal” Plantinga Jr., retired president and professor emeritus of theology at Calvin Theological Seminary (CTS), presented the prestigious Warfield Lecture Series in late March at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Titled “Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists,” Plantinga’s lectures drew from the wide range of “imaginative reading” he has done for more than 40 years, ever since he pastored his first church.
Plantinga also spoke about the importance of being a keen observer of everyday interactions and a curious, lifelong learner.
The lecture series is named in honor of Annie Kinkead Warfield, wife of Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, a professor of theology at the seminary from 1887 to 1921.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of people, Plantinga says, he has always turned first to reading the Bible.
But he has also tried to expand his capacity for compassion by reading novels of all kinds, as well as nonfiction books and articles on myriad topics and on hundreds of people and their experiences.
Writers and other artists help preachers see and feel the complexity of life and help them speak to people in their congregations about the Bible in ways that can touch, comfort, and encourage them, Plantinga said.
In his lectures, Plantinga said that reading forms his sermons. But he uses the reading as background information, referring sparingly to novels and other books, since his focus is always on the Bible and on God’s mercy, righteousness, and grace.
Reading both the Bible and other materials with an intuitive and discerning eye, he said, can awaken a preacher both to ambiguity and to enduring truths in the world, and the need to keep those in mind when standing in the pulpit.
“One of the reasons for reading is to discover [that] life is way more complicated, merciful, horrible, messed-up, decent, and full of grace than you had imagined,” he said in an interview before the lecture.
“You also are able to see how God’s grace keeps showing up in the most unpredictable people in the most unappealing circumstances.”