1. Preaching and Revelation
The relation of preaching to revelation may be considered first in its negative aspect. It is not the function of the preacher to reveal God or to act as his intermediary. When the Gospel is preached God speaks there is no question of the preacher revealing anything or of a revelation being conveyed through him. It is necessary, in all circumstances, to have regard to the fact that God has revealed himself (Epiphany) and will reveal himself (Parousia). Whatever happens by means of preaching-in the interval between the first and the second coming-is due to its divine subject. Revelation is a closed system in which God is the subject, the object and the middle term.
The practical consequences of this are as follows:
(a) Preaching cannot claim to convey the truth of God; neither can its aim be to provide a rational demonstration of the existence of God by expounding briefly or at length certain theoretical propositions. There is no proof that God exists except that which he himself provides. Nor are we required to display the truth of God in an artistic form by the use of vain images or by presenting Jesus Christ in outpourings of sentimental eloquence. When Paul told the Galatians that he had portrayed before their eyes Jesus Christ crucified, lie was not referring to speeches in which he had used every device of artistry to capture the imagination of his hearers. For him, to portray Christ was to show him forth in plain truth without embellishments. We are under orders to `make no image or likeness'. Since God wills to utter his own truth, his Word, the preacher must not adulterate that truth by adding his own knowledge or art. From this point of view, the representation of the figure of Christ in art, and the crucifix in churches, may be of doubtful value, as may be symbolic images of God.
(b) Neither must the preacher seek to establish the reality of God. His task is to build God's Kingdom and he must work towards a decision. His message must be authentic and alive; he must lay bare man's actual situation and confront him with God. But he is going too far if he thinks of this confrontation as 'a sickness which leads to death' (Kierkegaard). This phrase no doubt presupposes things which are implicit in preaching, but it concerns the action of God and no man ought to intrude in what is not his province.
If it is maintained that a preacher ought to convert others and cause his hearers to share his own faith, this can only be understood in the sense that he should be aware of what is happening when he is bearing witness. The preacher who believes in Christ will never present himself to his congregation in such a way that they will suppose him able to bestow on them Christ and the Spirit, or think that the initiative in what is done is his. God is not superfluous, a Deus otiosus ; he is the author of what is done. We can act only in obedience to the task given to us; neither our aims nor our methods are of our own devising.
Our preaching does not differ in essence from that of the prophets and apostles who 'saw and touched'; the difference is due to the different historical setting in which it takes place. The prophets and apostles lived during that moment of the historical revelation of which Scripture is the record. We, on the other hand, bear witness to the Revelation.
But if God speaks through our words then in fact that same situation is produced : the prophets and apostles are present even though the words are spoken by an ordinary minister. But we must not think of ourselves as uttering prophecies; if Christ deigns to be present when we are speaking, it is precisely because that action is God's, not ours. Since this is the way things happen, the preacher can make no claims for his own programme.
Thus any independent undertaking that is attempted, whether with the intention of developing a theoretical subject, or with the practical purpose of leading one's hearers into a certain frame of mind, can in fact be nothing else but a waiting on God, so that he may do with it what he will. If the preacher sets himself to expound a particular idea, in some form or another-even if the idea is derived from a serious and well-informed exegesis-then the Scripture is not allowed to speak for itself; the preacher is discoursing on it. To put it more positively, preaching should be an explanation of Scripture; the preacher does not have to speak 'on' but 'from' (ex), drawing from the Scriptures whatever he says. He does not have to invent but rather to repeat something. No thesis, no purpose derived from his own resources must be allowed to intervene : God alone must speak. Perhaps, afterwards, he will have to ask himself whether he has allowed himself to be influenced by an idea of his own or has attempted to arrive at a unity which only God could create. He must follow the special trend of his text, and keep to it wherever it may lead him, not raising questions about a subject which may, as it seems to him, arise from the text.
In this connexion it may be pointed out that the choice of a text may present dangers, in that one may choose a text because it bears on a subject one would like to discuss; one may even turn to the Bible in order to find in it something which fits in with one's own thoughts! To have to speak from a particular text to a particular congregation in an actual situation is in itself a dangerous undertaking. It may be that in that situation God will speak and work a miracle, but we must not build on that miracle in advance. Otherwise it would be easy for a preacher to become a sort of Pope, and indoctrinate his congregation with his own ideas by presenting them as the Word of God.
The positive aspect of this matter must now be considered. The starting point is the fact that God wills to reveal himself; he himself bears witness to his Revelation; he has effected it and will effect it. Thus preaching takes place in obedience, by listening to the will of God. This is the process in which the preacher is involved, which constitutes part of his life and controls the content as well as the form of his preaching. Preaching is not a neutral activity, nor yet a joint action by two collaborators. It is the exercise of sovereign power on the part of God and obedience on the part of man.
Only when preaching is controlled by this relationship can it be regarded as kerygma or Gospel, that is, as news proclaimed by a herald who thereby fulfils his function. Then the preacher is omnipotent, but only because of the omnipotence of the one who has commissioned him. The kerygma means therefore to start from the Epiphany of Christ in order to move towards the Day of the Lord. Thus New Testament preaching consists in a dual movement God has revealed himself, God will reveal himself.
From these considerations certain consequences follow:
(a) The fixed point from which all preaching starts is the fact that God has revealed himself, and this means that the Word has become flesh; God has assumed human nature; in Christ he has put on fallen humanity. Man, who is lost, is called back to his home. The death of Christ is the final term of the Incarnation. In him our sin and our punishment are put away, they no longer exist; in him man has been redeemed once for all; in him God has been reconciled with us. To believe means to see and know and recognize that this is so.
If then preaching is dominated by this starting point, the preacher can adopt no attitude other than that of a man to whom everything is given. He knows, without any possible doubt, that everything has been restored by God himself. He is, however, constantly beset by the temptation to denounce man's sin or to attack his errors. Certainly it is necessary to speak of human sin and error, but only in order to show that sin is annihilated and error destroyed. For either it is true that man is forgiven or else there is no forgiveness whatever. Sin cannot be spoken of except as borne by the Lamb of God.
At the same time, to separate the Gospel from the Law in preaching is not Christian. How is it possible to proclaim the Gospel without also hearing the Law which says : `Thou shalt fear and love God'? This error is particularly astonishing in Calvinism.
Moreover, from its first to its last word, preaching follows a movement. This has nothing to do with the preacher's convictions, or his earnestness or his zeal. The movement starts from the fact that the Word became flesh, and the preacher must abandon himself to its guidance. If this rule were observed, how many introductory remarks would become quite unnecessary! The movement does not consist so much in going towards men as in coming from Christ to meet them. Preaching therefore proceeds downwards; it should never attempt to reach up to a summit. Has not everything been done already?
(b) It has already been pointed out that preaching has one single point of departure, which is that God has revealed himself. It should also be recognized that it has one unique end : the fulfilment of the Revelation, the redemption which awaits us.
From beginning to end the New Testament looks towards the achievement of salvation; this, however, is not to deny that all has been accomplished once for all. The Christ who has come is the one who will return. The life of faith is orientated towards the day of the coming (Parousia). The point of departure and the point to which everything tends are summed up in the declaration : `Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever'. And assuming that we await the whole Christ, christology and eschatology may be said to be one. Revelation, therefore, is before as well as behind us.
It follows, then, that preaching moves in an atmosphere of expectation. There is no settling down comfortably in faith and the assurance of salvation, as if divine grace manifested in the past allowed us now to take our rest in tranquillity. Without doubt there is a profound and joyful assurance, but there is also the solemn and earnest concern of one who watches because the end is near. Preaching, like all Christian life, grows to its fullness between the first Advent and the second.
We walk by faith, not by sight (II Cor 5.7); if in this present time we were living by sight, we should have nothing to wait for; there would be neither yesterday nor tomorrow. But we live by faith, that is to say, we come from Christ and are going to Christ. Peace and joy abound on either hand, but on this journey we go from riches to destitution and from destitution to new riches. The preacher must show the real nature of this journey in faith; that is to say he must make it clear that confident assurance is not Christian unless it is shot through with longing for a salvation yet to be realized in its fullness in Christ. Christ has come, Christ will come again and we await the day of his coming : this is the word of command. 'The Word was made flesh' has as its response : 'Amen, come quickly, Lord Jesus'.
The Lutheran tendency is to confine itself to what is past, and for this reason its preaching is always liable to be biased towards dogmatism and religious experience. But Phil. 3 refers to Phil. 2; having described the Christian vocation, the Apostle declares : 'Not that I have already attained .. . but I press on . . .' There is movement even in the tranquillity of faith. The preacher must proclaim with conviction that 'all has been done' but also that 'all must be changed'. We look for a new heaven and a new earth. We know, indeed, that we are reconciled with God, but we still await the fulfilment of the promise : 'See, I make all things new'. That is why preaching rests entirely on hope, for the Christian 'now' is simply the passage from yesterday to tomorrow, from Epiphany to Parousia . From this point of view we are a people that walk in darkness, but we see a great light; 'the night is far spent, the day is at hand'. If the preacher's message is to conform to Revelation, these two fixed points must, be kept in mind.
2. Preaching and the Church
Preaching has its place within the context of what is called the Church; it is bound up with the Church's existence and its mission. Precisely for this reason, preaching must conform to Revelation. But it should be noted that Revelation is set in the framework of the Old and New Testaments and is, therefore, a particular, concrete event taking place at a specific period in history; it is not an idea of general significance which could arise at any time or in any place. Consequently preaching is not concerned with aspects of human existence in its natural state or with the progress of its history; it is not inspired by any philosophy or conceptual view of life and the world; its subject is solely that particular event, the gift of God in the context of history.
Again it must be emphasized that preaching is not man's attempt to add something to Revelation; the movement which proceeds from the first to the second Advent is not initiated by man but is due simply to the action of God's grace. God draws near to men; men cannot, by their own efforts, rise to win for themselves what God has appointed for them.
The task of the preacher can therefore be summed up thus : to reproduce in thought that one unique event, the gift of God's grace. If once he has recognized the impossibility of doing otherwise, then he will see clearly that no philosophical, political, or aesthetic considerations can influence his choice of a field for his activity. In the nature of things there can be only one-the Church.
There a relationship exists which is prior to anything we know on earth-whether of family, society, nation or race; and the nature of that relationship is entirely different from that of the created order. In the Church, where the Word of reconciliation rings out, all other relationships are seen to be stained with impurities, contaminated, submerged in a fallen world and, as such, lying under the stroke of judgment. But the same Word also assures us that our sickness is healed and the whole burden of the consequences of sin is carried away. Moreover, in the Word of reconciliation there is also the message of Creation.
Preaching, when it is true to what God has revealed to us, effects reconciliation; and wherever men receive this Word, there is the Church, the assembly of those who have been called by the Lord. Not general reflections on man and the cosmos but Revelation is the only legitimate ground for preaching. Because this call is sounded and men are able to hear it, the Church exists. Thus the bond which links preaching to the Church results directly from its faithfulness to Revelation.
The foregoing considerations will become clearer if two points are emphasized. The true Church is characterized by the fact that `the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered'.(The translation in Article 19 in the Church of England's 39 Articles, of Article 7 of Lutheranism's Augsburg Confession of 1530, quoted by Dr Barth). These two concepts, sacraments and preaching the Gospel, throw light on the connexion between the Church and conformity to Revelation.
The sacrament, with all its wealth of meaning, may first be considered, for it is impossible to understand what preaching is without understanding what the sacrament is. There is indeed no preaching, in the precise meaning of the term, except when it is accompanied and illuminated by the sacrament. What is the sacrament? Unlike preaching or any other ecclesiastical activity, the sacrament goes back to that action of the Revelation which founded the Church and constitutes her promise, for the sacrament is not merely a word but an action, physically and visibly performed.
Baptism confers of a man the seal of belonging to the Church, for his life begins not with his birth but with his baptism. To be baptized means that a relationship between the Revelation and a man has been established and is made actual in a specific situation (Rom. 6.3). If baptism represents the event which is the point of departure, the Lord's Supper, on the other hand, is the sign of the same event but turned towards the future which we all await (I Cor. 11.26).
Preaching, then, is given within that Church where the sacrament of grace and the sacrament of hope are operative; but each partakes at once of the character of grace and hope for neither sacrament nor preaching has significance except within the Church, where each is authenticated by its relation to the other. Preaching in fact derives its substance from the sacrament which itself refers to an action in the total event of Revelation. Preaching is a commentary on and an interpretation of the sacrament, having the same meaning but in words. If this fact be recognized it will be clear that preaching is impossible except within the territory of the Church, in that setting where, in baptism and the Lord's Supper, man is chosen by God himself to belong to the body of Christ, to be nourished and protected during his journey to eternal life. And we should know that all those who hear are baptized and called to partake of grace, and what has been thus begun in them will be fulfilled.
In this way, by reference to baptism and the Lord's Supper, the origin and the aim of preaching, and the course it pursues, are more clearly defined and the place of the messenger of the Word is more plainly seen.
Having discussed these theoretical questions let us consider what goes on in the evangelical Church. At the outset something appears to be lacking. In those circles which embraced the Reformation, the sacramental Church of Rome was replaced by a Church of the Word. Very soon, preaching became the centre of worship and the celebration of the sacrament came to occupy a more restricted place, so that today in the Roman Church, the Church of the sacrament, preaching has little significance, while in the Reformed Church the sacrament, while it exists, does not form an integral and necessary element of worship. These two positions are in effect a destruction of the Church. What meaning can there be in preaching which exalts itself at the expense of the sacrament, and does not look back to the sacrament which it should interpret? Our life does not depend on what the minister may be able to say, but on the fact that we are baptized, that God has called us. This lack has indeed been recognized, and attempts have been made to fill it by various means (reform of the liturgy, beautifying worship with music, etc.). But these palliative measures are bound to fail because they do not touch the real issue.
Those who advocate such methods of renewing the forms of worship take their stand - mistakenly - on Luther. But he, seeking to retain all that was of value in the Roman liturgy, gave first place to the Lord's Supper. Calvin, also, constantly emphasized the necessity for a service of Communion at every Sunday worship. And this is precisely what we lack today : the sacrament every Sunday. The order of worship should be as follows : at the beginning of the service, public baptism; at the end, the Lord's Supper; between the two sacraments, the sermon, which in this way would be given its full significance. This would indeed be preaching the pure Word and duly ministering the sacraments !
So long as the true significance of evangelical worship in its totality is not understood, no theological efforts or liturgical movements will be efficacious. Only when worship is rightly ordered, with preaching and sacrament, will the liturgy come into its own, for it is only in this way that it can fulfil its office, which is to lead to the sacrament. The administration of the sacraments must not be separated from the preaching of the Gospel, because the Church is a physical and historical organism, a real and visible body as well as the invisible, mystical body of Christ, and because she is both these at once.
There is no doubt that we should be better Protestants if we allowed ourselves to be instructed in this matter by Roman Catholicism; not to neglect preaching, as it so often does, but to restore the sacrament to its rightful place. It is open to question whether the motive for our liturgical efforts is anything more than a desire to approach nearer to the 'beautiful services' of the Church of Rome. But what is rightly to be sought is not an elaboration of the liturgy but the true significance of the sacrament in the Church. A good Protestant will allow himself to admit this, and at the same time will insist on good preaching.
In preaching all that is necessary is to recount again what concerns the prior event of Revelation. And in order to distinguish the two actions to which Revelation refers, the preacher may point to the sacrament on the one hand and Holy Scripture on the other; the one looks back to the act of Revelation which God accomplished : the other refers to the nature of the Revelation. It is idle to oppose sacrament to preaching; they cannot be separated since they are two aspects of the same thing.
The Divine act of revelation took place at the heart of human life and history. The Church, however, cannot hand it on directly. In Holy Scripture the truth and actuality of the Revelation are preserved, for Scripture represents the testimony of chosen intermediaries, the prophets and apostles. The Church rests on the foundation of witnesses individually called to be apostles. When witness is borne to the Revelation-that is to say, when Scripture is read and expounded - the Church should understand that she does not live for herself alone; her life is not her own nor does it rest on its own foundation; but the Church is founded on the sole and unique action of God accomplished in Israel and in Christ-those two centres of Revelation : a people and a Saviour. On the one hand that erring people who, through their inability to keep the Law, so frequently lapsed into sin, but were never abandoned by God; on the other, the overflowing of grace, the Saviour of the people, the fulfilment of the Law and, in consequence, the Gospel.
It is clear that Revelation is not to be thought of as a general principle, regulating the relations between God and the world. On the contrary, it is one unique event. Scripture, therefore, has a concrete quality and is not an intellectual system. The fact of holding closely to Scripture bears witness to the unique character-unique in time and in method-of Revelation.
In her relationship with God the Church represents not human kind in general, but men gathered together by the work of Revelation; for this reason she is based on the Scriptures. If, then, the Church is constituted by the testimony of the apostles, the mediators of Revelation, what, in this context, is the function of preaching? It is, simply, to make this witness understood.
This leads to a consideration of preaching from a text; the text will always be from the Bible and will relate at once to the sacrament and to the Word of the prophets and apostles. No reasons can be given for preferring the Bible nor is it necessary to justify the choice. The starting point is the fact that the Church is the place where the Bible is open; there God has spoken and still speaks. There we are given our mission and our orders. By taking our stand on the Bible we dare to do what has to be done. These writings which lie before us are prior to our testimony, and our preaching must take into account what has already been given. We can no more liberate ourselves from the Bible than a child can liberate himself from his father.
In conclusion it may be said that the ecclesiastical character of preaching is guaranteed so long as it is inspired by the sacrament and is faithful to Scripture.
3. Preaching and Doctrine
It has already been shown that preaching is subject to an order; it is a mission and a command, and therefore has a relation to doctrine.
In setting out to educate men, it is possible to follow a scheme and determine one's aim. This method could be applied by the preacher also if it were the Church's task to educate humanity and make human beings into real men. But if the true function of the Church be understood, it cannot proceed thus. The Church is not an institution intended to keep the world on the right path nor is it dedicated to the service of progress. It is not an ambulance on the battle-fields of life. On the other hand, it must not seek to establish an ideal community, whether of souls, hearts, or spirits. No doubt all these things have their value and should engage one's attention. They can, moreover, be accessories to preaching and can play a part in it, as they do in ordinary life. The preacher, like other Christians, lives in the world and cannot avoid these things. But the moment he makes them his chief object, the preacher ceases to have any justification for preaching.
This is becoming more and more obvious today when all the various civilizing agencies have been taken over by organizations other than the Church. If the Church were to disappear-a point of view expressed by Richard Rothe, for example, who advocated the progressive fusion of Church and State the press, the radio, social welfare schemes, psychology, and politics would suffice to care for the life of the family and of the soul. As regards public morals and similar preoccupations, the children of this, world know more about them than the Church does and have access to more efficient methods. In these circumstances the Church is merely the fifth wheel of the carriage -and not even a spare wheel !
It is necessary, therefore, to consider seriously the mission laid upon the Church. What is needed are men who are obedient to an order given to them from outside themselves, to a necessity prior to everything which determines our earthly existence, such as birth or death. The Church is obliged to recognize precisely that an order has been given which must be carried out. The Church can justify her existence only in so far as she understands that she is founded on a call. Therefore she has no plan - for the plan is God's - but only a task to fulfil. Preaching, set within the frame of worship, should be the proclamation of the Church's obedience to the task committed to her by Christ.
From all this the following considerations emerge
a. Preaching must faithfully adhere to doctrine, that is, to the Confession of our faith(E.g the Augsburg Confession (Lutheran), or the Westminster Confession (Presbyterian), which is not a summary of the religious ideas drawn from our own inner consciousness, but a statement of what we believe and confess because we have received it and have heard the Word of Revelation. The Confession is man's response to what God has said and every sermon is a response for which the preacher is responsible.
Preaching, therefore, has nothing to do with any scheme or notion which the preacher has wrought out in his own mind. Here only obedience is required; in other words, having heard the Word of God he responds in accordance with the Confession of faith. Naturally one is not required to preach confessions of faith, but to have as the purpose and limit of one's message the Confession of one's Church, taking one's stand where Church stands.
b. A second, practical consequence concerns the element of edification; what is to be built up? Clearly, the Church itself. But building up the Church is not to be understood in the sense given to it in The Shepherd of Hermas (This dates from the second century in Rome), where it means 'to go on building', 'to build upon an edifice in course of construction'. To build up the Church means to rebuild each time from foundation to roof. The Church has to be re-making itself continually; continually the orders given have to be accepted, obedience has constantly to be learnt again. 'From obedience to obedience' is the journey of the Christian. The Church is a community placed under Revelation and built up by hearing the Word of God, built up by the grace of God in order that it may live. In this context then, 'but only there, can one speak of educating men, of giving moral and spiritual help to humanity; there is a place for such secondary structures in the shadow of the main building. 'Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness'; 'one thing is needful.'
4. The Example of the Apostles
At the heart of the Church which is commissioned to proclaim the good news, an individual emerges from the midst of the community to bear witness before it to man's redemption and salvation in Christ. In connexion with the question of doctrinal fidelity already discussed, there arises the problem of the legitimacy of this individual action. Apart from the responsibility of the apostolate, there is no special emphasis in the New Testament on the function of the preacher. From the indications given concerning those appointed to this duty by the apostles and recognized as such by the community, no doctrine of the function of preaching can be elicited.
The apostolic function is always linked with the foundation and the existence of the Church. In Matt. 16.18-19 (cf. Matt. 18.15-20) the Church is represented as established according to a specific order. Peter represents the apostles and the community is distinct from the apostolate.
In the period after the apostolic age, the Church is described as one and holy (ecclesia una sancta), one, that is, in so far as it is at once teaching (ecclesia docens) and listening (ecclesia audiens); and wherever the Church is, the same situation exists. The conditions of its origin are not repeated because the apostolate was constituted only once. But those men who, following in the footsteps of the apostles, are called to that mission, must continue to do as the apostles did. In so far as the Church is the Body of Christ, the preacher is, in a sense, successor of the apostles and vicar of Christ. The preaching and the Church are one, for 'there can be no Word of God apart from the people of God' (Luther).
Following the apostles, the preacher, as a minister of lower rank, does in one particular community what the apostles did for the whole Church. When God himself invests a man with the office of 'vicar of Christ', the question of the particular individual who receives this charge is of secondary importance. What is important is to be sure that the Church is indeed the Church of Jesus Christ; that when someone speaks the Word and others hear it, it is indeed the Word of God that is heard and received by the action of the Holy Spirit. Luther said : 'Wherever this Gospel is sincerely preached, there is the Kingdom of Christ. Wherever the Word is, there is the Holy Spirit, whether in the hearer or in the teacher.'
All those marks of an authentic ministry which can be listed are relative because they can only be human criteria. Nevertheless four of these criteria may be retained, because on them may be said to depend, from the human point of view, the legitimacy of the preacher's function.
(1) The preacher must be conscious of an interior call. He must experience the imperative pressure of a vocation and accept it with all his heart. But this 'I cannot do otherwise' raises all kinds of questions. For example, the alleged interior necessity could perhaps be the satisfaction of a personal desire. It may be noted that the interior call which we think we recognize is not decisive unless it derives not from our knowledge or feeling but from that commanding voice which is God's.
(2) The passages in ,the Pastoral Epistles (I Tim. 3.1-7, 8-13; II Tim. 4.1, 5-9) concerning bishops and deacons contain lists of Greek-sounding virtues and rules relating to the man who assumes the function of a preacher. 'He must be above reproach', he must not compromise his function by a way of life which runs counter to contemporary morals and customs. He must not, by any eccentricity of behaviour, draw attention to himself and thereby divert it from the Gospel. These ethical precepts are evidently intended as a reminder that the minister of the Word is responsible before God. But if it is recognized that these orders proceed from the Law of God the preacher must realize that he is constantly at fault. He is able to stand before God only because he is justified in Christ by faith.
(3) On the other hand, in the Pastoral Epistles again, the preacher is required to be skilled (I Tim. 3.2; II Tim. 2.24). The Church has been accustomed to understand by this a systematic training in theology. The preacher has no right to rely on the Holy Spirit in matters for which he is responsible, without making any effort himself. With all modesty and earnestness he must labour and strive to present the Word aright, even though he is fully aware that only the Holy Spirit can in fact 'teach aright'. The Church, therefore, if it is conscious of its responsibilities, cannot admit that anyone, whoever he may be, has the right to preach the Word without theological training. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that true preaching is learnt from the Holy Spirit, theological training being subordinated to him.
(4) It has already been pointed out that the office of the preacher is different from that of the apostles; he is placed in the position he holds by the will of the community. The function he exercises belongs to the Church; it derives from the community and is exercised within it. But the fact of being appointed by the community does not make it less necessary for him to have been called to this duty by God.
We have already noted four characteristic marks of God's calling, but it is not for us to fix the limits of that call. God has founded the Church, and has instituted the ministry; he chooses the man who is to exercise it, acting in this matter where and how he wills. Nevertheless, such a man must always answer to the four qualifications which are the marks of God's calling, which itself remains the ultimate question for him. The divine call gives to these human criteria whatever weight they have, while at the same time emphasizing their merely relative character. On this point there can be no dispute; we can only hear the call and give effect to it by going forward, accepting the ministry with all the demands which it entails. Thus, through our obedience, the Revelation and the Church, whose responsibility it is to preach the Word, are made visible.
When the preacher regards his ministry in this light, he will not seek the satisfaction of his own interests or inclinations, of his own convictions or his own desires. But even if considerations of this sort do enter in, one reality must be apparent in his every action : God has spoken and he speaks. Wherever human will and action are brought into subjection to the will and action of God, there legitimate Christian preaching is found.
How is the preacher to be faithful to the example of the apostles? The hearer earnestly hopes to learn something of the great work to which the preacher to whom he listens is dedicated, though he is only a man limited by his human nature and condition. But the activity in which he engages is problematical and even, in a sense, impossible. It is a fact, however, that it has pleased God to intervene on the human plane by means of a man, in spite of the inherent weaknesses of human nature. The preacher who strives to be faithful to the example of the apostles is aware of the inevitable imperfections in what he does, but he will not allow himself to be paralysed by his weakness; he finds his strength in the reality of God's revelation of himself. He knows that the divine will, which has made itself known and which is active on the human level, will clothe his feebleness and his wretchedness and will endue his action with a quality which he himself cannot give it.
Drawing life from God's forgiveness, he will carry out his task simply in obedience, without letting himself be intimidated, because he knows that God has commanded it.
It is important to note that this faithfulness to the apostolic example cannot be characterized by any single psychological quality either in the preacher or his hearers. Simplicity or objectivity may give a clue; or perhaps effectiveness, for example, an awakening in the community. But such things cannot be regarded as valid criteria. The only thing that counts is to make the Word of God heard. And it is not possible to know what happens at that point, because the effect produced by the Word depends on God. So we leave it in his hands, trusting in him and in what he has done.
It was pointed out above that the Church needs to be constantly renewed; it is always being created by the preaching and hearing of the Word. Thus the organized Church is the expectant Church; it is moving along the road where the event which creates the Church takes place.
The same point of view applies to the man who is singled out from the rest of the community in order to exercise in it a particular ministry. This act is efficacious by virtue of the vocation bestowed by God. Ordination, therefore, is not an act of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, but a recognition of the divine call. Naturally, the man who is ordained must receive the Word of God which is expressed in ordination, a Word which he must constantly receive afresh in his ministry.
The appointment of a man to the ministry is a question, not of theology, but of ecclesiastical practice. It is obvious that behind this calling, in the narrower sense, there must always be the total vocation of God.
Thus, as regards the government and order of the Church, the four criteria which we have discussed must be taken into account. The Church cannot allow anyone to arrogate to himself a function unless he meets the requirements of these criteria. At the same time, in addition to the `ordinary' vocation there may always be the possibility of a vocation which is 'extraordinary'. God is not limited by the Church's ordinance; he may be pleased to call a man from outside the ecclesiastical organization to preach his Word. But the vocation of such a man will have to be examined and tested by the Church in relation to its faithfulness to Scripture.
In considering the constituent elements of preaching it will be well to define a term already used above. Mention has been made of 'an attempt' which the Church has been commanded to make. The question suggested by the word 'attempt' invites consideration of the provisional nature of preaching.
5. The Provisional Character of Preaching
The word 'provisional' (vorläufig) is used here in a wider sense than it ordinarily has. It signifies also 'that which has not yet attained its end'. By preaching's 'provisional' or 'antecedent' character should be understood the fact that it precedes something of which it is the harbinger, as the herald (Vorldufer) precedes (vorauslaufen) a king.
Here we approach the point where justification leads to sanctification. Preaching is a human activity and thus stained with sin, but it is also both commanded and blest by God and therefore a promise is attached to it. The following sections will deal with preaching in relation to ethics and the law and will involve the dogmatic concepts of justification and sanctification.
If preaching is considered as a human activity, immediately man's incapacity and unworthiness in relation to God are clearly seen. And yet this activity is of the greatest import-not indeed, in itself, because the fact that the preacher has performed his task does not confer on him any sort of title. His title derives from the concepts of Revelation, the Church, faithfulness in doctrine, faithfulness to the apostolic example, discussed above. This means that the preacher, precisely because he, a sinner, has performed his task, is driven back to Christ, the Lord of the Church, by whom he is justified. He, most of all, is confronted by the necessity of living by that divine action which justifies him, by the faith which is summed up in the words : 'Fear not, only believe.'
Nevertheless, it is not to be supposed that thereby a transformation is effected in him; or that he is infused with a new nature deriving from a superior being and enriching him. By no means : justification is the light of God's countenance shed on a man who still remains a man. In this context, new life means contemplating that light and living by it. Salvation, in the eschatological sense, abolishes the opposition between the old and the new; salvation is to be understood as the fulfilment, in the future, of what we now have and are by the promise. Preaching is an attempt undertaken with human means, which are, in all respects, inadequate. Here a man cannot rely on his own resources. But, in the eyes of God, who raises the dead and brings to life that which is not, this attempt is a 'good work' to which his promise and his blessing are attached. But only in so far as it is in fact undertaken by his command.
Another aspect of the question presents itself : how can a man's action be good and holy? What is the situation of a sinner who, having been forgiven, is called to preach the Word? There is no question here of virtue, but only of obedience in face of the goodness of God. The basis of preaching-a human action sanctified by God-is a demand made by God. The preacher has a part in the new life because God wills to take him to himself, he claims him for himself. Anyone who attempts to set limits of any kind to that demand clearly has not understood what has happened; a man has been summoned by God, he has been taken prisoner, he hears his Word. This is the sanctification of the messenger of Jesus Christ.
The preacher, like every Christian indeed, is not an isolated individual. Even though, after his call, he is the same man that he was before, he is set in an entirely new situation. Nothing that we can say about the revivifying power of the Word of God can adequately describe the perturbation and the peace which possess a man who has been laid hold of by the call of Jesus Christ. When God thus turns towards man, all things inevitably become new !
But then a man's mind turns to his own conduct and way of life. What will this new thing, this new life become in his own life? At all events his life is no longer at the mercy of chance; he is no longer in command, no longer his own master; he is the servant of a Lord. He no longer goes through life heedlessly exposed to all kinds of danger; he is called to walk in obedience to the commands of his Lord.
This emphasis on its provisional nature brings us to the central problem of all preaching. The Church is the handmaid of Christ on earth. Our situation is described in a passage of the Bible which is of particular importance for the preacher-Psalm 119. In its 176 verses one theme is discussed in all its aspects: a man is summoned, is justified, and rejoices because there is a commandment, a law, and a way.
This 'provisional character' becomes precisely the field of battle and of labour. How is it to be done? An answer to this question will now be attempted.
6. Preaching and the Scriptures
The purpose of preaching is to explain the Scriptures. What ought to be set forth in this human discourse? Since the only reason for preaching is to show God's work of justification, the preacher is not required to develop a system of his own, to enlarge on what he thinks about his own life and that of his neighbour, his reflections on society or the world. If he lives by justification he cannot take account of human ideologies. Men do not live by the intrinsic values of things. If we ask what we are justified by, we are always recalled to the four keynotes of Holy Scripture, which bears witness to Revelation, establishes the Church, hands on the mission (the power to bear witness) and creates vocations. There is, therefore, nothing to be said which is not already to be found in the Scriptures. No doubt the preacher will be conscious of the weight of his own ideas which he drags after him; but ultimately he must decide whether he will allow himself to compromise or whether, in spite of all the notions at the back of his mind, he will accept the necessity of expounding the Book and nothing else.
In order to avoid being submerged in general considerations, we shall discuss, under five heads, the behaviour and the qualities proper to a Christian preacher.
(1) First, quite simply, to put his trust in Scripture. All that is required of a preacher is to keep to the text and confine his discourse to expounding it. If he feels that the Bible does not provide everything necessary for living and that he must add some practical instruction, then his trust is not complete.
(2) To explain Scripture means to respect it, in the sense of the Latin respicere (to have regard for something to which one looks for help). All discourse must issue from such respect. The preacher is concerned with something other than himself, and he has no thought for anything besides. He may be compared to a man who is reading something with great difficulty and is astonished by the discoveries he makes; his lips move, he spells out rather than reads, he is all eyes, he is possessed by a deep conviction : `this is not the work of men.'
(3) Close and detailed attention to the text is indispensable. Perhaps `zeal' rather than `attention' would better describe the effort of concentration which he must apply to getting at the meaning of the passage he is studying. This will require scientific exegetical methods, involving accurate historical and linguistic study, for the Bible is a historical document which came into being in the context of human society.
From beginning to end the Bible is concerned with one unique theme which is, however, presented in many different ways. As a result of this variety each passage, at every period of time, speaks to man's needs. Thus, not only is linguistic study needed, but it is also necessary to search in the Scriptures for God's message for society.
No preaching is acceptable if this preparatory work has obviously not been thoroughly done. Moreover, a respectful regard for the text, constantly renewed, is also necessary. This is where the minister who is absorbed in practical activities has to struggle against intellectual laziness. In the pulpit on Sunday this negligence becomes apparent, for at that moment all the zeal that he may display cannot make up for indolence. In this connexion, the congregation ought to allow the preacher more leisure to prepare his discourse, for adequate preparation demands plenty of time. On the other hand, the Church should see to it that only properly prepared sermons are delivered from the pulpit.
(4) The duty of avoiding pretentiousness. The Scriptures provide the answer to man's questions, and he should be content with that. There is no need for him to put himself forward by displaying his own aptitudes, however good. If the preacher is attentive he will always find an answer in the Scriptures; he is driven to the limits of his own thinking, he is brought face to face with the prophets and apostles. Then he, and his own views and spiritual insight, must retreat.
However alert his mind, man always tends to tread in the well-worn paths. For this reason, even after the most fruitful study and in spite of all the efforts of imagination, one still does not know what one has to say; one is at most prepared for the situation in which the Word of God has to be spoken. In fact, in that situation, a man is already filled, although he has not yet realized it. It is possible to speak, for example, of the exalted morality, the power of the language and thought of the Bible, and many other topics. But this is not the Gospel, for the Gospel is not to be found in our thoughts or in our hearts, but in the Scriptures. The most cherished habits, the purest intentions must all be renounced in order that one may be able to hear; nothing must be allowed to stifle those living things which spring from the Bible. Again and again one must submit to being thwarted, must yield oneself to be made use of, must abandon everything which stands in the way.
The danger of pretentiousness is a reason for exercising some caution in regard to the sermons of Luther, for example. Modesty was not always his strong point. After his great discovery he felt impelled to dwell on the unique idea which inspired him. He neglected whole pages in the Bible - for example, those concerned with the Law and rewards - because he was in a sense bewitched by the revelation of justification by faith.
Ideas which occupy the mind must be subject to correction by the text of Scripture; one must not adopt the demeanour of one who knows in advance what the truth is. What sort of modesty is that?
(5) The preacher must yield himself to the movement of the Word of God. It is easy to say, or to have read somewhere, that the Bible is the Word of God without knowing what this really means. It is in fact not true in the sense that the Civil Code embodies the thought of the State. A more precise statement of the truth would be to say that the Bible becomes God's Word, and when it becomes this for us, then it is so.
The preacher is called to share an experience with the Bible; a perpetual exchange takes place between himself and the Word of God; the preacher must be submissive to the movement of that Word, allowing himself to be led through the Scriptures.
The 'Canon of Scripture' is indeed a guarantee, but it means merely that the Church takes these writings to be the place where the Word of God is to be heard. Finally, as regards the 'doctrine of inspiration', it is not enough to believe in it; one must ask oneself : am I expecting it? Will God speak to me in this Scripture? This expectation must be active; it means giving oneself to the Scriptures, seeking in order that one may be found.
The five points which have been considered, and which characterize the biblical quality of preaching, do not represent simply a theological point of view which may or may not be taken account of. Rather they describe a discipline to be submitted to. It is not possible to avoid it without at the same time relinquishing one's profession.
It remains to draw attention to three very serious consequences which may result from neglecting the requirements described above.
(a) The preacher should never be so puffed up by the consciousness of his mission and his function or his theology, as to feel himself inspired by the Holy Spirit to represent God's interests to the world. There is no antidote to this disease except the strength which springs from a true understanding of Scripture. Where Holy Scripture reigns supreme no seed of sacerdotalism can grow. But the preacher can never rest in a false security or cherish selfsatisfaction.
(b) The preacher must not be a visionary, soaring into an unreal world, though his mind may be, no doubt, full of good intentions and noble ideas. Faithful preaching is not visionary, for Holy Scripture was shaped in a very real world. He may, at times, feel himself to be a solitary, but he should never let himself be carried away by dreams and raptures.
(c) The preacher must not be tedious. For long enough the words 'minister' and 'boredom' have been regarded as practically synonymous. Congregations often believe that they have known for years everything which is said from the pulpit, and this is not entirely their fault. Here again, the remedy is to preach the authentic truth of Scripture. If preaching is faithful to the Bible it cannot be tedious. Scripture is in fact so interesting, it has so many new and startling things to tell us, that those who listen cannot possibly be overcome with sleep.
There is still a question which requires an answer : how should the preacher deal with the Old Testament? The Old Testament mainly concerns us through its relation to the New Testament. If the Church is represented as the successor of the synagogue, then the Old Testament witnesses to Christ before Christ (but not apart from Christ). The Old and New Testaments are related to one another as prophecy to its fulfilment, and the Old Testament should always be regarded in this light.
Historical exegesis should not be neglected, but it is always necessary to consider whether an interpretation based on the historical situation takes account of the unity of the two Testaments. Even in a sermon on Judges 6.36, for example, it will be possible to adhere to the literal meaning of the text, and at the same time to point towards Jesus Christ. The Old Testament, though a completely Jewish book, none the less refers to Christ.
In considering how far the use of allegory is legitimate, the relation between the Old and New Testaments provides guidance. In order to avoid the temptation to give to a passage a meaning which is not there, it is wise to keep to what is actually said in that passage, while bearing in mind that the Church adopted the Old Testament because of Christ. At the same time historical and Christian interpretations should not be opposed to one another. The Old Testament looks forward, and the New Testament speaks of the future while looking back, and both look to Christ.
7. Originality in Preaching
At the beginning of this study, among certain basic definitions, it was stated that a man is concerned 'to proclaim to his fellow men what God himself has to say to them by explaining, in his own words, a passage from Scripture which concerns them personally'. The phrase 'in his own words' leads to a consideration of what may be called originality in preaching. The preacher, a sinful creature, is called to expound a text faithfully; but fidelity to his text is not a screen behind which he disappears. His words do not express ready-made ideas which he has swallowed whole - somewhat in the manner of the 'infused grace' of some theologians. The man who speaks is a real man of flesh and blood, with a personality and a history and a background of his own, whom God has laid hold of in the actual situation in which he is placed.
The minister must not pose as a Luther or a Calvin or a prophet; when he is explaining his text let him be simply himself. His sermon is the message of a man of his own time and he is responsible for it. One who has heard the Word is called upon to repeat what he has heard, and it is important that he should be himself, as he is, especially when he bears an apostolic responsibility. It is not fitting that he should act a part, dress up his ideas in a spectacular fashion, deck his discourse with ornaments. A mission is entrusted to him, not as minister or theologian nor as a man who enjoys special privileges, but as a servant. He should then fulfil his task simply and naturally.
In this connexion, however, a warning is called for; the word `originality' has dubious and even dangerous associations. It does not apply to one who imagines himself to possess, by virtue of some sort of religious experience, a certain independence in relation to God. It can be applied to a man who lives continually in the consciousness that his sins are forgiven. It does not refer to a so-called 'existential attitude', for this fantasy of existentialism is simply the old Satan, who has disguised himself under a new mask to deceive humanity.
The following practical directions bear on the subject of this chapter.
(a) The preacher, having thoroughly prepared himself, comes before his congregation, first and foremost, as a man who has been pierced by the Word of God and has been led to repentance in the face of divine judgment; but also as a man who has received with thankfulness the Gospel of forgiveness and is able to rejoice in it. Only in this progression through judgment and grace can preaching become genuinely original.
(b) Then he must have the courage to tell others what this experience means to him; the testimony he offers to his hearers will be the fruit of his own study and meditation. He is called on to speak of what he lives by and this he will do within an authentic biblical setting, but not in the form of an exegetical discourse. His very first sentence must be a challenge addressed to the individual hearer, but also an integral part of his text.
(c) His preaching must be personal. A preacher may, perhaps, draw his inspiration from a model, but once in the pulpit he should be simply himself. He is the one who has been called, he it is who must speak; the finest thoughts, once they have been borrowed and transformed on the lips of another, are no longer what they were. Let there be no posturing in borrowed plumes !
(d) Let him speak in the way that is natural to him, rather than assuming in the pulpit the cloak of an alien speech. Even the language of the Bible or of poetry, as also the ringing tones of an impressive peroration, are unsuited to the task he has in hand.
(e) Let him be simple. Those who are engaged in this enterprise should follow the path on which the Bible leads them, should see things as they are and as they unfold in actual experience. This will preserve them from displays of doctrinal erudition which are of no great importance. Christian truth is always new when it is set in the context of daily life.
8. Adapting Preaching to the Congregation
A preacher is called to lead to God the people whom he sees before him; God desires him to preach to these people here present. But he must approach them as people who are already the objects of God's action, for whom Christ died and has risen again. He has to tell them, therefore, that God's mercy avails for them as truly today as at the beginning of time. That is what is meant by adapting preaching to the congregation, from which it follows that
(1) The preacher will love his congregation and feel that he is one with them; his constant thought will be : 'These are my people and I long to share with them what God has given to me.' To speak in the most eloquent language, even with the tongues of angels, will avail nothing if love is lacking.
(2) Because he loves it, the preacher will live the life of his congregation, placing himself on their level. He does not have to be the wise man of the people, the village diviner who lays bare the innermost thoughts of men's hearts, but the question of what their thoughts really are is always in his mind.
(3) Preaching is not intended to be simply a clearer and more adequate explanation of life than can be arrived at by other means. Certainly this aspect must be taken into account, but it should be kept in the background. The congregation is waiting for the meaning of life to be illumined by the light of God, and not to be offered high-sounding speeches.
No doubt the preacher will give heed to all these things, and no one will surpass him in heartfelt sympathy, but the faithfulness of his preaching will most clearly be seen in the way he lives.
(4) Tact-knowing what it is permissible to say to each individual-is indispensable. Frequently it seems that something ought to be said, and that the Bible provides justification for doing so, whereas, in fact, the motive is pride. Then good relations become needlessly embittered.
In this connexion, it may be pointed out again that, in a sermon, biblical criticism should take a subordinate place and be exercised only in a humble and reverent spirit; there is no need to make an idol of truth.
(5) Here Tillich's phrase 'awareness of the present moment' is important, if given its right place. What demands does the contemporary situation make on the preacher and his congregation? Together they are sharing an historical experience; the words of the preacher must be relevant to the immediate preoccupations of his hearers. If this were understood, preachers would be on their guard against continuing to discourse on topics which have long ceased to be important.
These notes on how to adapt one's preaching to one's congregation should suffice to show that preaching is not a service performed for clients. Neither is the preacher a dictator, nor an orator, nor yet a hermit dwelling apart from his congregation.
9. The Inspiration of Preaching
Preaching is `God's own Word', that is to say, through the activity of preaching, God himself speaks. If it were not so, the preacher who acted on what has been said so far, would have laboured in vain and would be but an unprofitable servant. This ministry of the Word depends entirely on what God wills to make of it. Therefore it follows that the preacher must be clothed with humility; that, because of his function as a human mouthpiece, he will be discreet and sober; that, since preaching is, by definition, concerned solely with God, it is not possible to preach without praying that the words spoken may become the call of God to men; and, moreover, the whole congregation should join in this prayer.
The present discussion has now reached the limit of what human speech can express, the point where the Holy Spirit himself must intercede for us `with groanings that cannot be uttered'.
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