Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A theology of preaching

I was asked to write a brief paper developing a theology of preaching for my homiletics course. Because I haven't posted anything in a while, I figured I would share it with whomever manages to stumble across my blog.


What can be said about the theology of preaching? In the same way as a theology of ecology draws from the words of Scripture to discern lessons from God about the proper care of the environment, so also a theology of preaching analyzes the nature of preaching from the point of view of the revelation of God. In fact the preacher is an apostle of God, a woman or man sent to bring the message of God’s salvation or judgment, a message which the apostles themselves brought to us, to some group of people graced to have the concern of God. This great calling comes with incredible responsibilities and duties, as well, and so the preacher must always keep watch over herself; she will never be worthy of the appointment she has received, but she must nevertheless strive to present herself a fitting and worthy servant of the Lord. These, then, are the elements of a theology of preaching: it is an apostolic, evangelical, and ethical.

The metaphor by which the biblical tradition has chosen to describe God’s creative and providential activity is that of speech. “In the beginning was the Word,” the words of God which spoke into darkness, chaos, and disorder, bringing light, order, and life. The author of the opening chapter of Genesis invites us to imagine the creation in this way: the LORD spoke out the imperative, “Fiat lux!”, and there was light (Gen 1.3). Likewise we learn from the psalmist that God “sends out his word” and thus he melts the snow, frost, and hail (Ps 147.16-8). Now this power of effective speech is given to human beings as well, which are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1.26-7). Of course, human beings have long known other animals have methods of communication unique to them—cats meow, cows moo, dogs bark, birds sing. Yet human communication is uniquely powerful, and most closely resembles the creative power of God’s word. With only a word or two, “a great forest is set ablaze by a small fire” (Jas 3.5), or alternatively the weary may be sustained and strengthened (Isa 50.4). The preacher, as one who speaks, is a participant in the divine nature by virtue of his exercise of his communicative faculties. He speaks the word of the Lord, and in this way he may do great good or great harm; he may build up or he may destroy. In all these ways, then, the preacher is a like a little god in the congregation of God’s people: he speaks and the people are formed, either into the image of Christ or else into some other image. Alternatively phrased in a more Eastern vernacular, preaching is a means of theosis, a method used by God for turning mere humans into little gods.

Now it is common to more or less all persons to speak and to communicate. The preacher, on the other hand, is specially chosen by God for the purpose of speaking to his congregation. In this way, preaching is an apostolic exercise, in the sense that the preacher is sent by God to speak out. As Paul writes about Christ, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers” (Eph 4.11-12). All of us have shared painful experiences of discernment, when it became clear to us that someone simply was not called to be a preacher. But not only is the position of the preacher received; he also receives his word from God who sends him: “Now I have put my words in your mouth” (Jer 1.9). Thus the preacher does not speak any old word which comes to him, but those which come from God. The divine origin of a word, moreover, is discerned by its function and its goal: if Paul writes that the gifts were given “for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph 4.12-3), then no word can be from God which aims to accomplish the opposite. The message must be a message about Christ, and so it cannot be anything else but a message from his holy apostles, who have shared him with us. They were witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem (Acts 10.39). If we are to know anything at all about Christ, we must learn it from them, and thus from the Scriptures. But what is the word about Christ which they gave us? This leads us into the second, evangelical element of a theology of preaching.

Now if the preacher is a participant in the divine nature through his speaking God’s word, what kind of word is it that God through his apostles has for the world and for the church? Does the preacher always give a message of hope, or does he have occasional messages of destruction and doom? To my mind, what is important is that a concern for salvation always be present, regardless of the external form of the sermon. At this point our conceptions of the divine nature may differ one from the other. My conviction is this: “[H]is compassion is over all that he has made…. The LORD is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds…. The LORD is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings” (Ps 145.9, 13, 17). It is noted throughout scripture that God’s concern above all is that the world be saved and turn to him. Ezekiel learns that, even if God should say to a person “You shall surely die,” yet these certain and unambiguous words will go unfulfilled if only the person repent and keep from evil (Ezek 33.14-6). Likewise Peter condemns his listeners on the day of Pentecost for the murder of the Son of God himself, and yet answers their subsequent questioning with encouraging words about forgiveness and baptism. Addressing “you that are Israelites” who “crucified and killed [Christ] by the hands of those outside the law,” he says: “the promise [of the Holy Spirit] is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away” (Acts 2.22, 23, 39). God’s promise of the Holy Spirit is for the very persons who killed the Son of God. T.F. Torrance wrote that, in light of God’s willingness to give his Son for us, we infer that “God loves us more than he loves himself” (A Passion for Christ: The Vision that Ignites Ministry, p. 14).  Consequently, even when delivering the fieriest message of judgment, the preacher must always remember that her goal is that of God, “who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2.4). There is a time and place for an unfriendly and unpalatable message of judgment, but God’s goal is always that we be saved, because he does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek 18.23, 32). He has shown us this through the death of his Son.

The evangelical nature of preaching—namely, that it is concerned for salvation, just as God is himself working to bring all things together in Christ (Eph 1.9-10)—leads naturally into its ethical aspects. Jesus’ repeated condemnations of the hypocritical Pharisees who “do not practice what they preach” (Mt 23.3) should be a warning to all who obey God’s call to share his word with the congregation. It is obvious that our moral exhortations to better living will carry no force if we don’t present ourselves as examples from which others may learn. When the Pharisees object to Jesus’ disciples eating with unwashed hands, he does not even entertain their arguments; rather he engages in scathing polemics, accusing them of abandoning the Law of God through their worthless traditions (Mark 7.1-13). In the same way, no one has any obligation to hear the preacher’s words, if she does not take them seriously herself. But more than that, it seems to me the preacher must engage in his task out of a genuine concern and desire for the salvation of his listeners. Thus he follows the example of the apostles, who said: “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1.4). They were not satisfied enjoying the true fellowship of the Father and the Son (v. 3) if there were any excluded from this fellowship; it was not enough for them to have the Holy Trinity, if others should go without. So they wrote and communicated this gospel message with as many as would listen, praying all the while “for the peace of the whole world . . . and for the union of all men,” as sung in the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. In the same way, the preacher must approach her task and her congregation from a posture of compassion and sincere concern. Her fervent desire ought to be that her listeners be saved. With these qualities, she can “never stumble” (2 Pet 1.10).

Preaching therefore has these different facets. In the first place, it is an apostolic enterprise, insofar as the preacher is chosen and sent by God to preach the message about Christ, received from his holy apostles themselves. Second, it is an evangelical enterprise, because God’s goal in all things (including through the work of the preacher) is to bring all people to salvation. Third, it is an ethical enterprise, because it makes clear ethical demands on the preacher. Of course, there is nothing uniquely preacherly about all these things. All Christians receive the apostolic message and are sent by God to serve Christ in some way or other; all of them are being used by God in some way or other to accomplish God’s goal that all things be brought together in Christ (Eph 1.9-10); all Christians have ethical demands imposed upon them by the Lord. Rather it seems to me that the preacher is a kind of public Christian who is given an opportunity to speak, and others sit and listen to learn from her. The preacher is a Christian who speaks a very special word, and so exercises his God-given ability to shape the world through words in a unique way.