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Pilgrimage of a Presbyterian: Collected Shorter Writings

By John Leith, Charles E. Raynal,ed.
Geneva. 2001. 363 pp. Pb. $29.95. ISBN 0-664-50151-6

— reviewed by Richard A. Ray, Bristol, Tenn.

In 1949, John Leith included these words in a sermon on race relations preached in Nashville:

"It is hard to be a Christian. But after all, it is about time that we should get into our thinking that this business of being Christian is and always will be an arduous and dangerous business. It is not made for cowards and for the weak."

This handprint of courageous confrontation with the issues of the day characterizes these brief pieces even more than Leith’s larger historical and doctrinal work. And it is this boldness that becomes impressive and contagious as one reads through this material.

We see examples of this boldness from his earliest sermons to the last ones included in the volume. Leith stepped forward in times that were very difficult for our country, and his sermons were deliberately concerned with the way in which the Christian gospel had an impact on the burning social, political and economic issues. Organized gambling, the quest for racial integration, economic imbalance, capital punishment and political leadership were all addressed. He thus demonstrated how a Reformed preacher ought to speak within the historic context of congregational life. Notably, in a sermon preached in Princeton in 1990, he spoke of the coming challenge of Islam.

There are several important things that should be learned from this collection. The first is that it provides a rhetorical history of the Presbyterian Church, as seen through the lens of a single preacher who attempted to speak prophetically into the circumstances that characterized the second half of the 20th century.

The second thing to be learned is the ways in which preachers should provide guidance for their congregations on important church issues. Church union, the admission of baptized children to the Lord’s Table, the meaning of ordination to the ministry, human sexuality and many other concerns have continued to confront us. Leith provides models for the ways in which preachers can tackle specifically ecclesiastical issues. What is important is to see the way in which an historically and theologically informed perspective provides the foundation for dealing with such challenges.

The third benefit from reading these works, most of them sermons or addresses on special occasions, is that they provide a sense of clarity, and simplicity, in addressing important issues. This unique style may be one of Leith’s most important gifts to forthcoming preachers. It is a teaching style, but it is shaped by the angular perspective of one who was more of a Presbyterian Reinhold Niebuhr than many people may realize. Leith says what he thinks. He does not mince words, but he does this with a skill that has much to teach us today.

The fourth benefit is that Leith is a very articulate spokesman for what we should call the responsible Christian life. It is life lived within the framework of a covenant made with God and sealed by Christ. One does not simply grab at life’s pleasures and achievements. Life under God’s will is neither cavalier nor bland. It is instead a life that is governed by a joyful and reverent sense of obligation. Leith forms his position and makes his decisions with great care, as we can sense, because he knows that his life is lived with accountability to the Lord.

There are three superb bonuses that alone ensure this book’s unique value. These are the “Questions and Suggestions for the Study of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion,” the “Syllabus for the Course: History of Christian Doctrine” (1984) and a very useful list of Leith’s publications from 1942 to 2000. As I read this book, I can hear his impassioned voice again urging us, as a coach would his players, to get in there and to make our time count. We had better get down to work. We had better resume the task.

As editor of the volume, Charles Raynal has organized the material in a careful and informative manner.