Preaching by Ear by Dave McClellan: A Review Article

Gregory E. Reynolds

Preaching by Ear: Speaking God’s Truth from the Inside Out, by Dave McClellan, with Karen McClellan. Wooster, OH: Weaver, 2014, xvii + 171 pages, $15.99.

Quintilian (Marcus Fabius Quintilianus AD 35–96), building as he did on those who went before him, has influenced homiletics more than any other ancient rhetorician. His influential magnum opus, Institutio Oratoria, was published near the end of his life (ca. AD 90–95). In AD 68 he was called from his birthplace in Spain to Rome by the Emperor Galba to establish a school of rhetoric (39). “The oral world of Cicero and Quintilian is the oral world of the New Testament” (39).

The great value of McClellan’s work is his extensive application to preaching of Quintilian’s pioneering treatment of the principles of rhetoric in Institutio Oratoria. He uses Quintilian to establish the vital connection between the heart and the mouth in order to encourage preachers to consider the oral nature of preaching (31). As with Aristotle and Cicero the virtue of the speaker (virs bono) is inextricably connected with his message. Included in this virtue is the insight of the speaker into the nature of man and his motivations (41–43). For the preacher this means he must “have an identity before God and the people that is deeper than the preaching role. We must be lovers of God first” (45).

This fine work on orality connects the interior life of the preacher with his preaching. It refers to excellent sources of ancient rhetoric as well as media ecologists such as Ong, McLuhan, and Ellul. McClellan applies Ong’s nine characteristics of oral communications to homiletics.

McClellan insists that preachers must learn to distinguish between oral and written communication. As preacher and homiletician he reminds us:

In the last three hundred years we can trace a move away from oral roots toward an increasing literary structure of the sermon. … While reading and writing were certainly not rare skills in the first century AD, their purpose was fundamentally different. Communication was primarily oral with literacy serving in a backup role. To a large degree those tables have turned. We now think of generating sermons in literacy and then converting them to some form of orality on Sunday. (36, 38)

The greatest problem for the seminary-trained preacher—few men can do without such training—is rigorous literary training, which often translates into an academic approach to the preparation and the act of preaching. We are book, text, and lecture oriented. Lectures are content heavy and meant basically to inform, not to move or persuade. J. C. Ryle emphasized this point: “English composition for speaking to hearers and English composition for private reading are almost like two different languages, so that sermons that ‘preach’ well ‘read’ badly.”[1]

McClellan works with a dimension of Quintilian that has been largely ignored: the place of improvisation in rhetoric.[2] The function of memory in preaching must not be confused with memorizing a sermon text, but rather, as McClellan insists, remembering the pathway of the sermon like the main points of a story, which can then be told without notes (97–98, 132, 136–37). Quintilian observed, “[T]he crown of all our study and the greatest reward of our long labours is the power of improvisation [ex tempore dicendi facultas].”[3] For Quintilian improvisation was the sine qua non of oratory, “The man who fails to acquire this [faculty] had better . . . abandon the task of advocacy.”[4] But improvisation for Quintilian was a learned and high art, acquired only after years of disciplined study and practice, never to be confused with the effusive efforts of mere talent.[5]

Thus, McClellan takes on the perennial debate concerning the use of notes or manuscripts in the preaching moment. He pleads for an oral form used in the pulpit in a way that does not impede vital visual and personal connection with the congregation. Something else a manuscript should not restrict is the openness of the preacher in the preaching moment to add or subtract from the manuscript as the moment demands. McClellan quotes Quintilian’s observation that student orators who have been exposed to good examples of rhetoric

will have at command, moreover, an abundance of the best words, phrases, and figures not sought for the occasion, but offering themselves spontaneously, as it were, from a store treasured within them. (148n4)

McClellan insists:

A reader may be a good reader but can never match the communicative intensity of an orator discovering out loud… To preach well we need to be in a sort of discovery mode, which is categorically different than a reporting mode. (106)

Quintilian insisted that “premeditation is not so accurate as to leave no room for happy inspiration [fortunae locus]: even in writing we often insert thoughts which occur to us on the spur of the moment.”[6]

On the other hand, one of the great weaknesses of preaching without notes is the tendency to stray from the theme of the text and expand minor points in a distracting way. It is all too easy to become so enamored of one’s own facility in speaking without notes that one forgets that his expansion of the sermon may lose or even bore his hearers in the process. McClellan recommends with Quintilian an “artful spontaneity” (147n1).

It is foolish to try extemporaneous preaching< without careful preparation and experience. Richard S. Storrs’s Preaching without Notes is a classic on the subject.[7] Extemporaneous preaching requires as much, if not more, careful preparation as does preaching with a manuscript, just a different kind of preparation. We should distinguish between two kinds of extemporaneous preaching. Some write out a full manuscript and then memorize it word for word. A better way is to memorize the outline, markers guiding you in the right direction, and leave the articulation of the content to the preaching moment, based on one’s study of the text. But, if one uses a manuscript of some kind, what kind should it be? As McClellan notes, Quintilian insists that sticking to a manuscript does “not allow us to try the fortune of the moment” (149). For the preacher that fortune, of course, is directed by the Spirit. McClellan sums up his thoughts on the subject: “It is this balance of both preparation and spontaneity that Quintilian upholds as our standard” (150).

McClellan, in his quest for true extemporaneous preaching, takes issue with homiletician Clyde Fant’s “sermon brief,”[8] as resembling an outline, which McClellan views as artificial. Instead he advocates a “roadmap as the visual and iconic sense to the thought blocks that portrays [sic] a sense of destination toward a specific end, and the resultant ease of transfer to memory” (133n11). I think he overstates his rejection of outlines, since his roadmaps function in a similar way. Fant seeks a slightly different means to achieve much the same end, which is a truly oral set of notes that maps a progression of thought. But this is what a good outline does.

Another contribution of Quintilian that McClellan observes is that he “provides the basis for the Western liberal arts education when he advocates devotion to subjects as impractical as music” (47n15). For example, Quintilian asserts the vital connection in antiquity between music and rhetoric. Music, poetry, and philosophy were considered to be of divine origin. “The art of letters and that of music were once united.”[9] Music, particularly vocal music, has a direct bearing on rhetoric:

Now I ask you whether it is not absolutely necessary for the orator to be acquainted with all these methods of expression which are concerned firstly with gesture, secondly with the arrangement of words and thirdly with the inflexions of the voice, of which a great variety are required in pleading.[10]

McClellan’s contribution to the subject of orality in preaching is significant and much needed in today’s pulpit. I highly recommend this book.


[1] Iain Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1990), 345.

[2] Chris Holcomb, “ ‘The Crown of All Our Study’: Improvisation in Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 31, no. 3 (2001): 53–72 in McClellan, Preaching by Ear, 147n1.

[3] Holcomb, “The Crown of All Our Study,” 53; Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 10.7.1, 133.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 56–58.

[6] Chris Holcomb, “ ‘The Crown of All Our Study’: Improvisation in Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 31, no. 3 (2001): 66; Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 10.6.5–6.

[7] Richard S. Storrs, Preaching without Notes (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1875).

[8] Clyde E. Fant, Preaching For Today (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 166–69.

[9] Quintilian, The Institutes of Rhetoric, 1.10.18, 169. He deals with the place of music in the training of orators in 1.10.9–33.

[10] Ibid., 1.10.22, 171.

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, December 2015.

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Ordained Servant: December 2015

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