John T. Pless
Irvine, CA: New Reformation Publications, 2020. 539 pages. Hardcover. $22.95.
Reviewed by Jason D. Lane on 03/23/2022
Pastors who care for souls are in constant need of refining their craft. That craft is more specific than “continuing education.” Surely, pastors need to grow in their knowledge of God’s word and sound doctrine, just as surely as they must, through suffering, learn the way of the cross in the school of experience. However, to hone their craft, pastors also need other pastors to strengthen them through the ministry of the gospel, the power of the keys, and “per mutuum colloquium et consolationem fratrum” or “the mutual conversation and consolation of the brothers” (SA III 4). Those of us who have been blessed these past twenty years to have John Pless as a professor will know the treasures this volume contains. Those who are new to Pless will discover a fellow theologian of the cross with whom you can carry on that mutual conversation and consolation. It may seem odd that a book should serve as a conversation partner, but I think any pastor who reads Pless senses immediately that he is a guide for the pastoral life and one to whom we can return with questions about our craft and find answers. Any pastor who has gone back to read the sermon preached at his ordination or gone back to study the ordination rite to find strength to carry out his vocation will find similar resources of pastoral care here.
The book is a collection of Pless’s sermons and essays, most of which he wrote in his current vocation as a professor of practical theology at Concordia Theological Seminary. It is divided into three parts. The first part is a collection of sermons that includes Pless’s ordination and installation sermons for former students, as well as an anniversary of ordination sermon. These sermons address the duty and responsibility of the man in the office, but they also beautifully tie together the purpose for which Christ established the office of the ministry, namely, “that they may have faith” (AC V). They are filled with great comfort for preachers. Part one also includes several chapel sermons from CTS, occasional sermons, such as sermons for pro-life gatherings and a sermon for the dedication of his former parish, University Lutheran Chapel, on the occasion of its renovation, as well as funeral sermons for the Rev. Dr. Lowell Green, the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Korby, and Maggie Karner.
Part two is a collection of his online essays published for “The Craft of Preaching” at www.1517.org (www.1517.org/sections/craftofpreaching). These short and accessible essays revolve around the church year to help pastors prepare for their seasonal preaching. These essays would be excellent resources for pastors who want to plan out their preaching by season or are looking for theological insights into each step of the church year. Part Three is the largest section and includes previously-published essays or presented theological papers. The subject matter of these essays reveals how Pless understands the duties and responsibilities of the pastoral office. They deal with the nature of the office of the ministry and the work of pastoral care in preaching law and gospel and administering the absolution. Pless holds up Hermann Sasse and Wilhelm Löhe as good examples of pastoral theologians and demonstrates their lasting contributions to Lutheran theology. Readers will also find essays on confessional integrity and the need for the church’s clear public confession of Christ, essays on the liturgy, on doctrine, life, and the mission of the church. To name just one, his essay, “Can We Participate Liturgically in the Atonement?” is particularly helpful in critiquing some of the romantic tendencies among liturgical Lutherans that would place our action or participation in the liturgy at the center of worship. As Pless argues, “[l]iturgical forms should not simply be evaluated by standards of ecumenicity or antiquity, but by faithfulness to the gospel of God’s grace in Christ Jesus given to sinners to be received by faith alone” (407).
This volume will be a great blessing to pastors and thus to the church. Educated lay people, especially elders, who want to better understand the duties and responsibilities of their pastor will also benefit greatly from this book, just as so many seminarians have benefitted from Professor Pless’s faithful and patient instruction these past two decades.