Although not among the most famous of sixteenth-century Wittenberg students, Siegfried Sack (1527-1596) contributed to the consolidation of the Reformation in several ways. Sack grew up under the tutelage of Luther’s close friend Johannes Spangenberg, the pastor in the imperial town of Nordhausen, and at age twenty departed for Wittenberg, where he spent three years in study. After serving as rector of the school in the village of Nebra, southwest of Wittenberg some 65 miles. He then furthered his studies briefly at the University of Jena before returning to Wittenberg to earn a master’s degree. He was called to service in the schools of the city of Magdeburg, became pastor of the church of Saint Katherine there, and then took on the task of preacher for the canons at Magdeburg’s cathedral, who had remained faithful to the papacy into the 1560s. In 1570 Sack received his doctorate in theology from the University of Wittenberg. In 1589 he published his postil (Erklerung Vber die Sontags Evangelia vnd der fu[e]rnembsten Fest durchs gantze Jahr …, printed by Ambrosius Kirchner in Magdeburg, with at least five subsequent editions to 1600). Sack probably knew that some pastors would simply read his sermons to the congregation if they felt ill-prepared to write their own, but he presumed—or at least hoped— that his sermons would serve chiefly as models that his pastor-readers would use as they developed their own treatments of the texts. Therefore, his collection of sermons introduced its readers to proper preaching and sermon composition in a brief summary of the author’s homiletical principles.
Sack began by condemning those who argued “that sermons need not have organization. They just let loose whatever comes into their mouth. They reject learning the languages and the liberal arts as if they were not necessary for explaining Holy Scripture.” God is, Sack countered, not a God of confusion but a God of good order (1 Cor. 14:33). For a clear outline aids hearers “to digest and retain the sermon better.” Sack had observed that “often simple laypeople, married women and young ladies included, can repeat a summary of an entire sermon if it was delivered in an orderly fashion.” Without such organization, hearers leave the church no wiser than they were when they entered. Well-organized sermons give God honor and edify the church, as Luther and Melanchthon had taught.
Well-organized sermons give God honor and edify the church, as Luther and Melanchthon had taught.
Sack repeated the instructions that Melanchthon had offered students of theology in 1529. Such organized sermons arise from a daily, diligent reading of Scripture. Preachers should gather the fruit of their readings under topics (compose their own loci communes)—make lists of pertinent Bible passages for treating specific themes—with examples and citations from the ancient fathers and more recent theologians as well. This aids them in making proper distinctions and explanations. Preaching promotes clear understanding of God’s message, not the reputation of the preacher, so citing those who have written well-formulated observations on texts should be put to good use.
Preachers must have studied not only theology but also the languages and the liberal arts so that they can interpret phrases and properly assess the emphases and weight placed by the biblical writers on specific words and expressions. The “foundation of interpretation” lies in the command of the “grammatical and historical sense” of the text. Sack urged use of a number of aids for interpreting both Greek and Hebrew, recommending that preachers compare their German and Latin translations with the original.
In faithful Wittenberg manner, Sack commended both logic and rhetoric as sources of tools for good proclamation. Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles all paid close attention to the “forms of presentation” and used them effectively. Sack followed Melanchthon’s outline for a proper sermon: 1) the “exordium” (an introduction that wins the hearers’ interest); 2) a “propositio,” the central idea of the sermon; 3) a summary of the parts of the sermon, its organization or outline; 4) the elaboration of the points of the outline, with a comfirmatio supporting the specific point and a confutatio contrasting it with false views that hearers might have; and 5) a conclusion repeating the most important points of the sermon.
Sack added further pieces of advice. First, it is not necessary for a good sermon “that the preacher preaches everything that he could say.” A sermon should not last more than three quarters of an hour or an hour. That followed an admonition from Luther Sack had heard, though in fact Luther’s sermons—if the verbatim records of some of his students give us a good indication—were often shorter, not more than thirty minutes. Sack quoted Johannes Brenz, the reformer from Swabia, as claiming that he had given the congregation he visited in Dinkelsbühl more in a quarter of an hour than it had heard in ten years, Sack recalled. He condemned “showing off” in the pulpit. Holy Scripture, Luther, Melanchthon, and other theologians had set an example for “a kind of presentation that is simple, and plain … not affected or with ostentatious choice of words.” Paul’s example serves as an admonition: “my words and my sermons were not with clever speech filled with human wisdom but with the instruction of the Spirit and with power, so that your faith rests not on human wisdom but on God’s power” (1 Cor. 2: 4-5).
Sack explained to his readers that a proper “exordium” should briefly and simply explain to “common townspeople, peasants, men, women, servants” what they should expect to hear, so that they could understand the summary or goal of the gospel lesson, its chief point or content.” The preacher should make clear the situation that led to the biblical author’s writing what he did, the context of the text within the entire book, and the geographical and historical circumstances of the author. The preacher should draw out parallels in other gospels.
The “propositio” is to aid hearers in understanding clearly precisely what the message that their preacher is bringing them is, not “wandering from one land into another.” Application to the lives of the hearers was of the highest importance to Sack. Though he advised against following the method of a university lecture in expositing a portion of Scripture, he did believe that Aristotle’s “factors” (causae)—effecting, formal, instrumental, final, etc.—could be used to organize the meaning of the text in the minds of hearers so long as the preacher avoided technical terminology and Latin phrases. Citations from other books of the Bible could offer supporting testimonies and examples that would reinforce the chief points of the sermon. The confirmatio or buttressing of the sermon’s argument should be reinforced with clear antitheses; that aids the hearers’ grasp of the text’s significance for their lives. Above all, pastors must aim their preaching at the people God has placed in the care of the pastor rather than airing pious ideas that did not speak to their situations. Sack recalled Melanchthon’s telling of a village pastor who railed against greed and usury to his poor peasants who hardly had bread in their homes. He should have been giving them the comfort of God’s providence so that they did not despair in their poverty instead of criticizing earning interest, which they never in their lives would do.
Above all, pastors must aim their preaching at the people God has placed in the care of the pastor rather than airing pious ideas that did not speak to their situations.
Sack did not prescribe a particular way of coming to the conclusion apart from advising a closing overview of what the sermon had been intended to convey. It might close with an admonition, or with a short prayer. Luther had sometimes simply said, “Well, that is enough for this time.” He recognized that no sermon is a single event but every sermon is part of an ongoing conversation of the preacher with his people. Sack brought his homiletical instructions to a close by calling on readers to pray: “Ask God the Lord that we all may set forth our teaching to the honor of God and the edification of the Christian church.”
Siegfried Sack had learned in Wittenberg how important the regular proclamation of God’s Word for the church of Jesus Christ is. Taking this central task of the pastor most seriously, Sack followed his instructors, Melanchthon and Luther’s other colleagues, in reproducing Luther’s own thoughts on how preaching should be done. His admonitions to those entrusted with delivering the power of God’s law and gospel to hearers ring true also in the twenty-first century. His prizing effective communication rather than simply repetition of fancy words and ideas that exalt the speaker rather than the One spoken about provides us with a model and a warning that the Holy Spirit takes seriously the delightful and awesome responsibility of those called to carry God’s call to repentance and the absolution that frees for godly living here and gives eternal assurance to his people.