A Working Theology of Preaching
December 16, 2010 § 1 Comment
As a way to round off some of the discussions about preaching that have been going on here lately, I thought I’d post my (provisional) theology of preaching. I’ve tried to keep it as positive and constructive as possible. It was originally written as my final paper for homiletics class, and I’ve left it relatively unchanged. So here it is, the fruit of a few months of thought on the subject and several hours of writing. I’ll probably rework it as time goes on, but this is where I am right now.
Preaching is the word of God proclaimed, an event wherein God’s word is mediated through the words of a sermon. As an act of divine communication, it has its origin in Christ, its basis in Holy Scripture, its efficacy in the work of the Holy Spirit, its context in the church, and its end in doxology. As an act of human communication, it is a theological address delivered by an individual within a community.
1. The Essence of Preaching
1.1. Preaching as the Word of God
The first epistle to the Thessalonians describes the nature of Christian proclamation in rather startling terms: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (2:13). Preaching is not merely an explanation of God’s word or an application of God’s word but it is God’s word. The Second Helvetic Confession directly affirms this: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” A natural question arises: how can the words of a preacher also be the word of God?
A word is only the word of God if God himself speaks it. We must therefore distinguish between the sermon itself and the act of preaching it. The sermon is an address that has been composed on the basis of scripture and prayer; preaching is the event in which the Holy Spirit mediates God’s word to the church-community through the words of the sermon. Preaching is thus the word of God proclaimed because through it God speaks to the hearts and minds of his people.
1.2. Preaching as Mediation
When we speak of the knowledge of God as coming by God’s word, we understand that it is never immediate, but that it is always mediated. We cannot know God as God knows himself, we can only know God as he has chosen to reveal himself. This means that the knowledge of God must be mediated to human beings in a way human beings can understand. Calvin describes this as accommodation, that God accommodates himself to our limits as an adult does for a child. God has done this and continues to do this through his word, incarnate, written, and proclaimed. It is with the latter that we are currently concerned, yet it will become clear that the proclamation of God’s word is based upon and cannot be separated from the written or incarnate word.
We can say that the preaching of the word of God is the word of God only if we say that it is actually God who speaks through the preacher. This is why the preacher is a mediator, because God speaks his word through the words of the sermon. The preacher cannot manufacture mediation by crafting a particular type of sermon. It is always God and God alone who reveals himself. As Barth says: “God will make himself heard; he it is who speaks, not man. The preacher only has to announce the fact that God is about to speak.”
2. The Nature of Preaching
2.1. Origin in Christ
The preaching of the word of God is the word of God. This means that it has its origin in the first and last word of God: Jesus Christ. Christ is the origin, norm, and purpose of Christian proclamation. We speak because God first spoke to us, and God has spoken most clearly and definitively in his Son (Heb 1:1-2). Preaching has its origin in Christ like rivers have their origin in the ocean: the clouds that rise from the ocean waters rain on the land and fill the rivers that eventually flow back into the ocean. All comes from Christ and flows back into Christ. The preacher’s primary task is not to expound in detail the original meaning of a text, nor to give the congregation five easy steps to a biblical lifestyle, nor to wax eloquent about this or that doctrine; the preacher’s primary task is to preach Christ crucified and risen, to preach that Jesus is Lord. Bonhoeffer is worth quoting at length here:
The proclaimed word has its origin in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It neither originates from a truth once perceived nor from personal experience. It is not the reproduction of a specific set of feelings. Nor is the word of the sermon the outward form for the substance which lies behind it. The proclaimed word is the incarnate Christ himself. . . . The preached Christ is both the Historical One and the Present One. . . . He is the access to the historical Jesus. Therefore the proclaimed word is not a medium of expression for something else, something which lies behind it, but rather it is the Christ himself walking through his congregation as the Word.
To speak of proclamation as Christ himself is simply to accept that the New Testament means what it says when it calls Jesus the Word. Where once the meaning of “the word of God” might have been confounded into ideas of language, now we understand that the Word is a person, Jesus Christ. The act of proclamation is participation the person of Christ. The event of proclamation—the movement of the Spirit from pulpit to pew—is the presence of Christ himself.
2.2. Basis in Holy Scripture
If preaching has its origin in Christ, then it has its basis in Holy Scripture. The Bible can be called the word of God because it testifies to the one who is the Word. The whole Bible is normative for Christian belief and practice—and therefore for Christian proclamation—because by the inspiration and illumination of the Holy Spirit it bears faithful and sufficient witness to the gospel of Christ. Like John the Baptist, the Bible is not itself the light, but it bears witness to the light (cf. Jn 1:8). We can rightly call Holy Scripture the word of God because it has been and is continually taken up by the Holy Spirit, who breathes life into its words. As the word of God written it is the basis for the word of God proclaimed. This is why sermons should have as their basis a certain biblical text. Yet regardless of which text it is, whether from the New Testament or the Old, no matter what its so-called “original meaning” might be, the sermon should always seek Christ in God’s written word. The field of biblical studies might treat historical or linguistic analyses as legitimate ends in themselves, but the congregation must hear the gospel proclaimed.
2.3. Efficacy in the Work of the Holy Spirit
The preacher works hard in the study and in the pulpit, but if the word of God is to be preached it must be God who preaches it. Therefore the efficacy of preaching is in the work of the Holy Spirit alone. Sound biblical exegesis, though indispensable for sermon preparation, will not guarantee that God will speak. Careful organization and delivery, though crucial for the congregation’s comprehension, will not guarantee that people will hear God’s word. Specific contemporary application, though useful for exhortation, will not guarantee that lives will be changed. Unless God says it, it is not the word of God. We cannot preach words and hope that God will add his voice to ours; we must believe that God will speak and add our voice to his. The Holy Spirit, not effective preaching, is the real point of contact between the text and the congregation.
If the goal of preaching is to produce faith and obedience, then it must ultimately be the work of the Holy Spirit. We do not stand above the word as its master but beneath it as its servant. Preaching, though the medium of God’s word, is blind to the event of proclamation. God’s word is not a force to be subdued and controlled but a person to be trusted and obeyed. If the preacher has managed to change minds by sheer force of eloquence, then proclamation has not occurred; it has only been a motivational talk. However, if preaching has resulted in changed hearts despite bumbling words and stuttering voices, then surely the Holy Spirit has spoken.
2.4. Context in the Church
The Bible and preaching are the word of God, but this is true only in the context of the church. This is because all human words, written or spoken, are a dead letter apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. This occurs both at the moment of conception—in ancient words or in the pastor’s study—and at the moment of delivery—during the reading of scripture or at its proclamation. To say that preaching is God’s word only in the context of the church is simply to say that preaching cannot be divorced from Christ. For Christ is the Lord of the church, and his Spirit dwells among his people. Where Christ is preached and believed in the community of faith, there Christ also is. And where Christ is, there is the church. Bonhoeffer puts it this way: “I preach, because the church is there—and I preach, that the church might be there. Church preaches to church.”
This also emphasizes an important characteristic of preaching, namely that it is a communal effort. It is not merely the preacher but the hearers. It is not merely the hearers but the preacher. Preaching must occur within the “being-saved community.” A sermon is not proclamation until it is preached. The actual event of preaching occurs in the church-community when the Spirit takes up the words of the sermon and so uses the preacher as a mediator of the word in the community of the Word.
2.5. End in Doxology
The chief end of preaching is to effect faith and obedience. Paul says that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). These three words, “Jesus is Lord,” are the most concise expression of Christian faith. When the Holy Spirit speaks to the hearts and minds of the church-community through the words of a sermon, the result is a faith that can confess these three words. This confession must lead to obedience, for no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” without saying, “Jesus is my Lord.” Faith and obedience are inseparable: “Only the obedient believe, and only the believer obeys.” This unity of faith and obedience is the expression of doxology. Doxology is the worship of God in spirit and truth, and it is the primary end of preaching. The appropriate response after a sermon is not, “That was interesting,” or, “That was challenging,” but, “Praise be to you, O Christ!” A life of doxology is a life of faith and obedience, a life that believes Jesus is Lord and lives with Jesus as its Lord. Indeed, preaching itself is an act of doxology. The compulsion to proclaim that Jesus is Lord exists only in the one who has already confessed it and continues to confess it. The Holy Spirit, who has worked to produce faith in the preacher and who will work through the words of the preacher to produce faith in the community, is the same Spirit who asks, “Whom shall I send?” The preacher is the one who has responded, “Here I am; send me!” (Is 6:8).
3. The Practice of Preaching
Formally, preaching is unavoidably a form of public address, an act of communication. To say that God speaks his word through the words of the preacher is not to say that the preacher can simply say any words and hope that God will speak through them. (Of course, God can and does choose to speak through whatever means he sees fit, but just because God can speak through a bad sermon does not mean that this is what we should endeavor to produce.) Preachers are both passive and active, passive because they have no control over if and how God’s word will be spoken to the people, but active because their task is one of faithful and obedient proclamation of the gospel.
As an act of communication, preaching is practical theology. This is because theology is the human attempt to communicate intelligibly about the word of God, and a sermon is the attempt to proclaim the word of God. Theology gives us the language; preaching is the conversation. All theological reflection must therefore be normed by event of proclamation. Theology leads directly into preaching, which leads directly into faith and practice. When theology goes bad, preaching goes bad. Any theology worth doing is worth preaching, so when theology cannot be preached, it should be seriously questioned.
As public address, preaching takes the form of an individual speaking in a community. It is not an abstract set of propositions delivered to an abstract group of people; it is a real human person communicating with other human persons. Oration and rhetoric are for the detached individual speaking at a group; honesty and humility are for the person who speaks within a community as one of them. Preaching a sermon in context means knowing the context both of the biblical text and of the ones who will hear it. A sermon attempts to communicate God’s word in a specific community at a certain time. That is why you can never really preach the same sermon twice. God’s word remains the same, but the world in which it is preached is in constant flux. As soon as the preacher becomes detached from the community, preaching will suffer. If we believe that God speaks through his word—incarnate, written, and proclaimed—then we must hold that God speaks through his word to us today. Therefore, preaching can never be divorced from the people who hear it.
Thus far, we have asserted that preaching is God’s word proclaimed precisely because it is God who proclaims it. Yet the readiness of God to speak should never produce laziness in the preacher. On the contrary, the fact that God might speak should terrify the preacher all the more. For if God indeed is ready to speak through a sermon, the preacher should fear lest God’s word be drowned out with the noise of human words. In the end, the words of the sermon should seek to be transparent to the word of God; the voice of the preacher should endeavor to be silent before the voice of God. Far from making preaching an easy task, the reality of God’s word means that preaching will be an unavoidably rigorous exercise. Perhaps the best advice is this: “Pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit—and then work like stink.”
*1* All scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
*2* The Second Helvetic Confession, ch. 1. It explains as follows: “Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good” (http://www.ccel.org/creeds/helvetic.htm, accessed 30 November 2010).
*3* A lengthy discussion of this assertion can be found in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. II, part 1, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. T. H. L. Parker, W. B. Johnston, Harold Knight, and J. L. M. Haire (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2010), 9ff.
*4* For example: “The truths of revelation are so high as to exceed our comprehension; but, at the same time, the Holy Spirit has accommodated them so far to our capacity, as to render all scripture profitable for instruction” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson, vol. 2, Calvin’s Commentaries 500th Anniversary Edition 5 [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009], 239).
*5* This is the well-known trifold expression of the Word of God as described at great length in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. I, part 2, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2010).
*6* On preaching as mediation, see David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 251ff.
*7* Karl Barth, Prayer and Preaching (London: SCM, 1964), 66.
*8* Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Proclaimed Word,” in Clyde E. Fant, ed. and trans., Bonhoeffer: Worldly Preaching (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1975), 126 (emphasis added).
*9* So, Bonhoeffer: “The word, to be specific, is present in the church-community as the word of scripture and of preaching—essentially as the latter. There is no intrinsic difference between these two forms, for they remain a human word so long as they are not inspired by the Spirit of the church-community. The Spirit is not linked with the word of the Bible like a substance. Thus effective preaching is possible only within the sanctorum communio” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss and Nancy Lukens, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 1, Wayne Whitson Floyd Jr., general ed. [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998], 232).
*10* So, Calvin: “Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the church of God has some existence” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge [Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008], 678 [4.1.9]).
*11* Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Causality and Finality of Preaching,” in Bonhoeffer: Worldly Preaching, 138.
*13* Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 4 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 68.
*14* Haddon Robinson appropriately quotes an old adage: “The text without the context is a pretext” (Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 2nd edition [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001], 59).
*15* Kim Fabricius, Propositions on Christian Theology: A Pilgrim Walks the Plank (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic, 2008), 147.