Review: Evening Bells at Bethany

Madson’s sermons are not literary works or academic treatises. They are pastoral. But he shows great facility with the English language. He makes use of literary allusions. Neither flowery nor drab, he preaches in a lively, engaging style.

My father, Robert David Preus, was the first graduate of Bethany Lutheran Seminary in Mankato, Minnesota. He attended Luther Seminary in St. Paul but chose not to graduate from Luther. Luther belonged to the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) and he did not want to join the ELC because of their teaching of synergism and other errors. So he transferred to the newly established Bethany Seminary in Mankato for his final semester. He graduated in 1947. Norman Madson was his teacher at Bethany Seminary. My father frequently praised Madson’s preaching, telling me that he was the best preacher he ever heard. He preached the sermons in Evening Bells at Bethany from 1947 to 1952. Reading these sermons has confirmed my father’s opinion. Madson’s influence on my father’s preaching is evident.

Madson shows deep knowledge of Christian doctrine. His sermons teach. He presents the teaching of the text in a clear, simple, and straightforward manner. Madson used to say that the truth is simple. It is error that is complicated. His sermons illustrate this belief. To bring one’s theological erudition into service to fatherly, pastoral care is a skill that every good preacher cultivates. Madson exemplifies this.

Madson makes generous use of the great hymnody of the church. He frequently cites the great Lutheran hymns from Germany and Scandinavia. He quotes stanzas from both “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” and “Salvation Unto Us Has Come” in the same sermon, concluding the sermon by quoting this beautiful stanza from the hymn, “One Thing Needful.”

Jesus, in Thy cross are centered
All the marvels of Thy grace;
Thou, my Savior, once hast entered
Through Thy blood the holy place;
Thy sacrifice holy there wrought my redemption,
From Satan’s dominion I now have exemption;
The way is now free to the Father’s high throne,
Where I may approach Him in Thy name alone.
(Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, 182:8)

Madson also makes generous use of American and English hymns and incorporates the poetry and history of our Anglo-American heritage. While reflecting the piety of Norwegian Lutheranism in America in which he was raised, he also shows an eclectic spirit of inclusion of what is good and useful, regardless of its pedigree. He was a practical preacher.

My father is known for emphasizing that all theology is practical theology. This truth is evident in the sermons of his teacher. Madson does not simply parrot theological truths. He brings God’s Word to bear on the hearers. His sermons feature the following:

  1. A clear explanation of the doctrine that the text under consideration teaches
  2. A persuasive appeal to this doctrine with application of the same
  3. Speaking plainly in language accessible to his hearers
  4. Emphasizing the pure doctrine centered in the Gospel of Christ’s atonement and God’s gracious forgiveness of our sins
  5. An appeal to the certainty of faith and the assurance of eternal life in Christ

A sermon is practical when it teaches. Madson appeals to the text. In his sermons, it is the biblical text that teaches. To teach what the Bible teaches in plain words that people will understand is what preaching is all about. Madson’s emphasis on pure doctrine was not the “bravado of orthodoxy” to which conservative Lutherans can succumb. He joined doctrinal certainty to the certainty of salvation. His sermons teach the vicarious satisfaction. They teach justification through faith alone. They teach Christ. Pure doctrine is food for the soul. Preaching Christ brings the assurance of eternal life in Christ. As I read through these sermons, I was reminded of the final thesis in C. F. W. Walther’s Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel: “In the twenty-first place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching.” It certainly predominates in these sermons.

The gospel of justification is central in Madson’s preaching. He preaches it thoroughly and often. He is no gospel reductionist, reducing the divine truth to an imagined “gospel in the narrow sense” that cannot be articulated. His sermons are filled with exhortations to live the Christian life to which we are called when God justifies us. With antinomianism influencing so much preaching within the Lutheran Church today, Madson’s sermons provide an evangelical Lutheran corrective.

Madson engages his hearer in all aspects of life. He doesn’t avoid controversial assertions. He does not hesitate to identify the pope as the antichrist, and to warn his listeners of the threat of Islam. In a sermon preached in 1950, he shows remarkable prescience: “The storm clouds which are gathering in the Moslem world are anything but reassuring” (Vol. 2, pg. 42).

Madson’s sermons are not literary works or academic treatises. They are pastoral. But he shows great facility with the English language. He makes use of literary allusions. Neither flowery nor drab, he preaches in a lively, engaging style. He uses alliteration: “horrible hideousness of hypocrisy” (Vol. 1, pg. 65). His sermons are catechetical. He cites Luther’s Small Catechism, assuming his hearers are familiar with it. He quotes the Formula of Concord, though his students would most likely not be familiar with it. Speaking clearly in plain language does not preclude speaking of high and holy mysteries. Madson’s sermons raise the listener upward without dumbing down the doctrine that is preached. He achieves this by patient explication and by constant repetition. He teaches the teaching of the text by asking and answering questions. Reading Madson’s sermons reminded me of what my father used to say about teaching theology. It consists in defining words. Words are defined by both saying what they do mean and saying what they don’t mean, always clarifying. For those weary of dull, shallow, cliché-ridden homilies, or flowery moralism that ignores sin and gives only lip service to Christ’s saving work, these sermons will be refreshment for the soul. They are clear Gospel preaching that a child can understand, and an old man can treasure.

Evening Bells at Bethany (Two Volumes)
Norman A. Madson
Published by Lutheran Synod Book Company


Rev. Rolf David Preus

Rev. Rolf Preus is a retired parish Pastor of 41 years.

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