Which is better a practical or theoretical sermon

Evangelical theology
subject area 06

Sermons as historical sources

1. In previous research, sermons have rarely, if at all, become the subject of historical-critical research. There are many reasons for this. Undoubtedly oriented towards an everyday practical orientation, however, its actual success is hardly measurable, because only a limited number of sources on the reception history of sermons were shown or evaluated.

2. Sermons discontinue literary historyGenre suigeneris, which eludes indexing through the well-known literary and cultural studies, but also historical methods. In addition, there is the problem that the question of the literary character of a sermon as a text that represents a speech has hardly been dealt with so far. This then includes discussions of the motifs, the semantics of denominational sermons, the overriding leading and time-related actual narratives as well as the leading terms that characterize them. This implies the so far hardly conclusively proven claim of characteristic differences in denominational preaching practice.

3. There are several development processes for sermons of all times, which can only rarely be verified by critical sources:

(a) The context in which a sermon was created.

(b) Your character as oral speech or written text (writing) and the interdependent relationship between the two genres.

(c) The community, or rather the audience or readership, is anything but clear. Apart from the compulsory Sunday and parochial ties, the question arises as to whether a preacher-hearer relationship actually existed. How was it heard and remembered? Here, not only the socio-historical analysis is required, but above all questions about the reception of certain sermon statements as well as their actual practical implementation, about the transmission and popular change and much more.

4. In addition, there is the question of the temporal and territorial-historical character of sermons. In addition to the distinction between town and country sermons, there is the question of thematic focus and typical regional occurrences and problems that are addressed.

5. There are also questions about the preacher, his level of education, his rhetorical talent, which also means the articulatory competence to answer the question about a freely given or read sermon. There are first studies in biographical-prosopographical, but rarely with collective biographical exaggeration. For example, the relationship between learned citizens and preachers should be analyzed more closely. Even if in Protestantism the pastor is usually seen as a representative of the educated bourgeoisie, this has to be viewed differently over the centuries.

6. In the postille genre, these problem areas culminate in a special way. First of all, the relationship between the printed text and the oral presentation needs to be clarified, admittedly also that of the printed text, preparation for the sermon and the oral presentation. In addition, there is the fact that numerous postils contain sermon patterns, as it were, which the preachers have to adapt to the situational context and correspondingly transformed. It is not at all surprising that the postil prints commissioned by university scholars and city pastors contain a high proportion of didactic and action-oriented statements on a less concrete level. In numerous postils, learned representatives of the evangelical, clerical class simply want to prove their theological competence. The postils contribute to the staging of a class culture. This also includes the - partly - Latin language version, especially in denominational orthodoxy, and the vernacular reformulation, which is only slowly gaining ground.

7. Another problem arises with the question of denominational character. The assertion that the postils are preferably Protestant, and here in the closer sense Lutheran, is no longer tenable. Therefore, a denominational comparison should be sought.


  • The contribution of the sermon to the formation and perpetuation of denominational practices and rites


Further sub-projects:

  • Sermon in the age of denominational orthodoxy and its dissolution
  • Enlightened sermon
  • Political narratives in sermons of the early 18th century
  • Sermon and Politics in the Early Empire
  • Sermon in war - denominational proclamation in times of crisis between 1914 and 1918
  • (Working group: "Sermon in the Crisis" of the Church History Section of the Scientific Society for Theology e.V.)


Church and war imply a diametrical opposition. At least that is how it is anchored in the consciousness of many contemporaries. Peace initiatives, warnings against war and violence are right at the top of the list of expectations of today's preachers. At the same time, many people also know about the fatal connection between religion and violence. In the discussion of recent years, a thesis has been intensively worked on, according to which the exclusive claim of monotheistic religions gives rise to uncontrollable use of force in a special way. The fact that clergymen not only accompanied the soldiers in prayer during war and stood by them in difficult hours of wounding, recovery or even death, but also promised them the blessing and preservation of God before the battle, seems to fit into this context Arms blessed and made victory a religious duty.

The planned investigation focuses on the following questions:

  1. the sermon in speech and writing - hermeneutical preliminary considerations on the problem of the relationship between spoken speech and the form of the source handed down in writing. Further questions concern the editing of the printed templates, often from third parties. In addition, subject-specific and denomination-dependent approaches to the topic must be reflected on. (see the general introduction to the sermon history project)
  2. Sermon as a religious speech and theologically responsible time announcement. In traditional church historiography, sermons are mostly interpreted as evidence of positions in the history of theology. This focus implies methodological and hermeneutical restrictions that do not do justice to the historical subject. The question is to what extent the traditional sermon testimonies can give information about other and further questions, not only in the theological-historical horizon. In addition to questions of the level of education, global cultural power, everyday and folk culture, problem reports on language development, denominational identity and the history of mentality are also conceivable.
  3. Sermon theory / homiletics: In this context, the denominationally developing theoretical concepts for practical preaching activity as well as for the function of the sermon are to be treated. Here, too, there are numerous narratives in the history of theology and denomination-specific questions that can be opened up in the interdisciplinary dialogue of the conference. In addition to the simple question of the material form of denominational sermons, there are problem areas for the inclusion of further scientific findings in sermon theory, the professional or professionalization of the preacher's training, the editing before printing as well as general historical and social and economic-historical questions.
  4. Sermon and crisis / sermon in war: Church support for people in crises is one of the central markers of identity of the modern claim to Christianity - especially in its institutional form. In this respect, preaching in times of crisis is of great material importance. This is reinforced by the staging of certain theological crisis management strategies in the medium of public sermons.
    1. Especially for the end of the German Empire and the First World War, the churches, and especially the Protestant churches closely integrated into the ideology of legitimation of the Empire, are unanimously reproached for the fact that church-borne militarism is in ominous way with nationalism, colonialism and imperialism as well as grotesque chauvinism connected and made a decisive contribution to the “primal catastrophe of mankind”. In this respect, it makes sense to place an initial focus on the war sermon in the First World War.

A first review of mostly printed sermons and church statements during and on the course of the war between 1914-1918 shows the following picture:

The majority of the texts were written by educated, conservative, state-loyal preachers. Their educational biographies still resemble each other even if they come from different milieus of the bourgeois middle class. Theologically, the interpretation of war as a God-given temptation predominates, in whose school faith and piety are purified and given a deeper foundation.

Politically, the texts are characterized by great loyalty to the emperor and empire as well as the soldiers among the people. The war broke out in Germany and was not the fault of the emperor or his empire. Rather, it is an Allied aggression and provocation that must be responded to with all determination. The military as well as the political leadership can be sure of God's support and help in victory.

Depending on the genre and target group, either the theological-biblical or the cultural-Protestant-political accentuation of the general interpretation predominates.

Even in the event of ongoing acts of war and worsening domestic political distress, the basic statement in the examined texts does not change. In some cases, the current events take a back seat to the biblical pastoral consolation statement. The events of the war, which dragged on with weapons of mass destruction and high casualties, are also not echoed in the speeches and tracts.

So far, only extremely few testimonies have been examined that address the collapse of the theological-historical interpretation of the present and the theologically founded hope for the future derived from it. In the texts examined, there is little noticeable of the fundamental shaking of the pastor by the experience of the acts of war, as it was accentuated in later church historiography in connection with the emergence of so-called dialectical theology in the environment of Karl Barth.

Overall, the examined texts are characterized by a great continuity of motifs and conceptual history with the theological statements of representatives of cultural Protestant theology in the wake of Albrecht Ritschl's school as well as their academic-intellectual formations of Adolf von Harnack, Wilhelm Hermann or Ernst Troeltsch or the more popular forms of one Adolf Stöcker and others. At the same time, a closer look reveals a wide range of content and topics, which is insufficiently described with the keyword of a liberal-conservative Neo-Lutheranism or its unified expression in the form of Prussian court theology. What about other church traditions, such as denominational Lutheranism in Franconia or Pietism in Württemberg? How do the revival movement, religious socialism and other popular church currents relate to the established liberal-Protestant attitude that is claimed to be the main stream? In particular, the thesis of a seamless continuity between national-conservative circles' enthusiasm for war and Nazi followers - as has been documented in a number of cases - needs to be re-examined in numerous other cases.

The widespread judgment of general Protestant support for imperial politics and the entry of the empire into the war is to be made on the basis of a more detailed analysis of sermon sources and the theological motive statements contained therein, which further differentiates this picture. It is to be contrasted in a further working document with contemporary church traditions in other media (synodal files, church board minutes, church documents, daily statements in church magazines and leaflets, etc.).

  1. A second focus of work will then examine the war sermon in World War II.
  2. In a third work step, a decision would then have to be made, more historically, war sermons from the Wars of Liberation up to 1813 or the Franco-German War of 1870/71, or church positions in the medium of sermons in current crises (Algeria, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq - and wars from Afghanistan to Syria)
  3. Aim of the work - knowledge-guiding interest: The aim of the investigation of sermons from the time of the First World War is to reproduce the woodcut-like image of an evangelical theology and piety that ultimately behaves agonally in uncritical loyalty to the emperor and empire, whose hurray patriotism is destroyed on the battlefields and does not seem suitable for rebuilding after the surrender even in negative reverse. This (wrong) judgment, which extends into the current school and textbook literature, needs to be corrected in several ways:
    1. Even the uncritical enthusiasm for war and victory proves to be difficult to justify theologically. How have the resulting contradictions been overcome and the antagonisms mastered with reasonably gifted minds?
    2. The judgment roughly outlined above is in the larger context of the derivation of the fatal entanglement of numerous representatives of the Protestant churches and German Protestantism in reactionary-conservative and later fascist contexts. The representatives of the Prussian and other churches are often accused of having advanced to become grave diggers of the Weimar Republic, because they either mourned the idealized, glorious days of the unity of throne and altar in a secular society or the right-wing conservative activities in the hope of a new one Hour of the Evangelical Church in Germany. From a historiographical point of view, a construction seems to be present here retrospectively that can be verified on the basis of a broader source finding.
    3. So far, the failure of the conservative-national basic attitude of Protestant Protestantism outlined above has hardly been worked out and has been reconstructed in terms of sources. In this context, the narrative of the fundamental shaking caused by the experiences of mass extinction and worldwide destruction should be critically raised and criticized.
    4. The interest of the investigation that guides the knowledge does not amount to saving the honor of the cultural Protestantism, which ideologically prolongs itself into political contradictions and the suffering of war, as well as to a retrospective criticism of the basic theological prerequisites for its political use and instrumentalization. Rather, what guides knowledge is a historiographical interest in defining master narratives, which overlay the historiographical and with it also the theological coming to terms with the past in the context of everything overlyingmaster narrative of Germany as the victim of a misguided policy of both the foreign aggressors and of the ruling cliques of a bygone age who reacted inappropriately to this provocation. This attitude is in remarkable continuity with the attempts to cope with the recent past in the context of the Second World War and later crises of the young democracy (ies) Germany. It is therefore important to critically reflect on the determining narrative of Germany's role as a victim and to supplement or replace it sensibly with theologically justified alternative interpretations.

Project manager:Prof. Dr. Markus Wriedt in collaboration with Prof. Dr. Ursula Roth and Prof. Dr. Tilman Schroeder (Stuttgart Hohenheim)