The Audacity of Preaching

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Have you ever considered the utter audacity of the authors of the Second Helvetic Confession? They boldly asserted: The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.

Stop for a moment and think about what was being confessed here. The confessors are not saying that preaching is speaking about God’s Word nor, as we evangelicals have been apt to say, are they saying that preaching is something that we do from the Word of God. Preaching of the Word, according to the Helvetic Confession, is the Word of God.

Given the audaciousness of that statement, we don’t have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to assessing this statement. Indeed, it seems to me that we only have three options, and whatever option we choose, the implications of each leaves us with greater audaciousness yet!

Option 1: The  Helvetic Confession is wrong. Preaching is not the Word of God and should not be confessed as such. Preaching is a necessary task given to the Church, but it is always a human task, frought with error and imperfection. At best, preaching seeks to point people to God’s Word, or even attempt to give a summary of God’s Word, but is itself not God’s Word. In other words, we need to keep preaching and God’s Word neatly on two sides of the great theological divide between things human (preaching) and things divine (God’s Word). Even the Confession itself admits that it even if the preacher is “evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.”

The nice thing about going for this option is that it is easy to accept rationally (i.e., it’s obvious, isn’t it, that my words aren’t God’s words!), and takes a lot of pressure off the preacher. We can easily accept that we preachers are not God, and we can breathe a sigh of relief because such a distinction between preaching and God’s Word will prevent us from presuming to speak on God’s behalf, especially in this day and age when so many have said, “Thus sayeth the Lord” when we really know they shouldn’t be saying such silliness. If the Helvetic confessors are  wrong, we can take comfort that we can continue to do our best in our preaching as servants of God, but we don’t have to worry that our preaching is really to be taken as God’s Word. Indeed, we can appeal to our pneumatology and say that as preachers we must trust that God’s Spirit will do his thing even while we do our best to do our thing. 

Of course, we are free to reject the Helvetic assertion, but what is the result if we do?  If we reject the Helvetic confession, have we not essentially bought the essentially theological liberal expressivist view of doctrine and preaching (a la Lindbeck) which essentially says that all human speech about God is finally just that–nothing more than a human expression of that which is utterly beyond being expressed? The uncomfortable question we are confronted with is: What, then, is the point? Why keep preaching at all if our preaching and God’s speaking remain separated by a great ugly ditch that cannot be crossed? Why keep preaching at all, especially since we would be better off admitting that no one speaks on behalf of God anyways.

Let’s just admit it: We can pick option #1, but to do so leaves us in the lurch. For if we completely separate and divide preaching (as a human task) from God’s Word (as a divine task), then is it not utterly audacious to keep preaching at all? Why preach and potentially confuse folks when we ourselves have become convinced that our speech is nothing more and nothing less than that: human speech? If that is the case, we would be better off to do away with preaching altogether; let everyone express what they feel about God in their own way and in their own speech rather than secretly hope that someone will take our word as God’s Word over their own. To keep preaching, if we utterly reject the Helvetic Confession on this point, would be to hike to the heights of human hubris and makes preaching–well, devious.

Option 2: The Helvetic Confession is only metaphorically correct; the “is” needs to be understood in a qualified sense. Preaching and the Word of God are closely related, but should not to be strictly identified. It is something akin to saying,  “We speak of preaching of the Word of God  inasmuch as preaching is the instrument through which the Word of God comes to us and by which humans hear the Gospel.” 

Option #2 has some nice things going for it. To say that the Word of God comes through the instrumentality of preaching has at least one advantage over option 1 above: While agreeing with #1 that a clear distinction between divine and human needs to be maintained, option #2 raises the status and importance of preaching (and presumably the preacher–or so we hope) in the equation. Since preaching is instrumental to the Word, we could even say that preaching is “ordained” or even “sacramental” to people hearing God’s Word. And if so, then it behooves us preachers to do our best to ensure that our preaching is worthy of being the vehicle of God’s Word. And even though option #2 raises the extremely difficult and uncomfortable question about what sort of preaching (or what sort of preacher) it is that can be worthy to be an instrument or vehicle of God’s Word, at least it is a question worth pursuing, even if in the end, we cannot finally conclude that this  form of preaching is superior to that form.

But if we push option 2 to its (theo)logical end, do we not have to admit that it essentially agrees with the fundamental assumption of option 1, mainly, that preaching isn’t really God’s Word at all, but is only a middle ground, a channel, a bridge, or even a sacrament, by which we receive God’s Word, but that preaching itself is finally not God’s Word? We may hope and pray that in our preaching God would himself cross the bridge which we have constructed in the study and delivered in the lectern, or that God himself will pass through the channel that we have opened up, pastoral staff in hand, in the Great Sea separating us from him. But again, I ask: Is it any less audacious to think that our bridge, or our channel to God’s Word is a better way for God’s Word to come to us than by God’s own delivery of his Word by himself directly by his Spirit? Is it not utterly audacious to think that our efforts at preaching are finally better as a form of the meditation of God’s Word to us than his one and only Son–the one mediator between God and man? (1 Tim 2:5) Is this option really any less audacious than the first?

Option 3: The Helvetic Confession is right; the preaching of the Word IS the Word of God. Of the three options, this option takes the word “is” utterly seriously and admits that despite our inability to understand how it is that our preaching is the Word of God, it nevertheless is. To preach really is to speak God’s Word to the people before us.

The advantage of this option is that preaching actually accomplishes what people come to church for–to hear God speak (Willimon, Proclamation and Theology). Let’s face it: If people ultimately came to church to be entertained, to be solaced, or to find solutions to their familial or financial woes, most would eventually figure out that there are better places than church to get those needs fulfilled: the theatre, the therapist, and the thoroughbred track might be better options. No, I think people ultimately come to church because they really want to hear God speaking (but correct me if you think I’m wrong). And in some curious way, they expect that they will hear God at some point in the service, and more often than not, when the preacher is speaking, however good or bad he or she may actually preach.

But as you can see, even in option 3 we still have not escaped the audacity of preaching. The only difference is that in some way and in faith in Christ’s mediating work on our behalf, we preach because we believe that God speaks when preachers speak. Now that is audacious!

William Willimon once said (I am quoting from memory), “If preaching is not about God, it is silly.” WIth this I agree. But let me massage that a bit and ask whether the other way of putting might not also be true: “If preaching is not silly (i.e., audacious?) it is likely not God’s Word.” 

1 Corinthias 1:17-19

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
   “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
      the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

 

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13 thoughts on “The Audacity of Preaching

  1. Dustin

    Great reflections, David. I wanted to say something about how that was one “Helvetic”-of-a-post, but I will refrain…

    One question, though. Is it not possible to treat the “is” with the utter seriousness you mention under option 3, even though we also nuance what we mean by the term “is” in a manner something like what you say in option 2? For example, when Barth (or Cyril, for that matter) discusses John 1:14 (“The Word became flesh”) he quickly explains that by the term “became” he means “added human nature in a way that preserved the divine nature of the Word immutably.” That is to say, it is true that Jesus is the Word of God, but it is also true to say that Jesus is the Word of God in the flesh; adding “in the flesh” does not lessen the seriousness of the “is” but clarifies the manner in which it is so. In a similar way, can we not understand “Preaching is the Word of God” with a similar nuance that gives due weight to the fact that the human words are there in all their glory and that it is God alone (and not human means) that allows preaching to be the Word of God? Something similar could be said of Scripture and, in their own way, the sacraments. It’s all still rather audacious…

  2. To be sure, even the Helvetic Confession (HC) itself qualifies the whole statement. The second line after the aforementioned line says, “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 . . .” Though in this second line, they qualify the “whom” of preaching (“preachers lawfully called.”)

    I’m sure there are more options than I’ve laid out and maybe there is a way to qualify the “is” but still take its “reality” utterly seriously. But in the end, both Barth and Cyril are ready to say (in the case of Christ), that the man Jesus is God–in all the utmost seriousness; and yet, with Chalcedon, maintain the distinction of the human and the divine. So your qualification, I think, is pretty important.

    Interestingly, in the paragraph prior to this in the HC cites 1 Thess 2:13:

    “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.” (NRSV)

    In that regard, the audacity of preaching nevertheless remains.

  3. Perhaps the question is when or where does the preaching become the Word of God. Is it in the preaching or in the hearing? Both perhaps?

    Preaching devoid of the active work of the Holy Spirit can surely only be mere human words. Likewise, hearing devoid of the work of the Holy Spirit relies solely on the hearers judgment of what has been heard. When God in the person of the Holy Spirit is active in both the preaching and the hearing, then God has certainly spoken. One might even argue that any “hearing” that the Holy Spirit is active in illumination in the hearer is God speaking.

    As for preaching, is it preaching at all (as in 1 Cor. 1:17-19) if it is devoid of the Holy Spirit’s work? Is it not then merely “words of human wisdom”? In the very least, if God is merely a spectator in the preaching event it truly would be audacious to declare the what I say in the pulpit is the Word of God. On the other hand, if God in the person of the Holy Spirit is active in the preaching event, then who am I to say that the Word of God has not been spoken? In the end, just because it is spoken from a pulpit does not make it the Word of God, rather it is God that makes it God’s Word.

    I leave you with two passages worth considering.

    John 3:34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.

    1 Corinthians 2:12-13 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

    …and you thought you were rid of me…not so fast 😮

  4. John Valade

    I think Bill makes a very good point. Preaching needs to be qualified by much more than the “lawfulness” of the appointment of the preacher. According to what law? Is is the word of God if a preacher preaches from his human nature? How do we “formulate” the work of the spirit into a statement like that? No doubt the Helvetian confessors had a host of preconceptions about what preaching means as they made that statement.

    As for the audacity of preaching, to purport to speak the word of God is to be judged by God. Preaching under that proviso is certainly audacious – and not to be done lightly! 😮

  5. What kind of preaching did they have at that time and place that they were willing to say this? I think Dustin’s qualifications are pretty important. I would question Bill: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it still make a sound?

    having preached myself, and with the state of preaching today, I would have a hard time saying this confession. I would probably say it without the capital “W” on the second “word”. Or, I’d mutter under my breath some words in the middle: “The preaching of the Word of God wants to be the Word of God.” Or, I’d put it this way: “The preaching of the Word of God, if it is the preaching of the Word of God, is the Word of God.”

    Or else my understanding of “is” would carry some of the qualifications Dustin raised, and David showed us from the following phrases. (Although, to the “lawfully called” I might add something about the being spirit-led, after all, the Word is our authority, but this is exercised through Scripture, the Spirit, and the community).

    Maybe that is even more audacious of me to change a confession, but I have problems with option #3. That “is” can’t be an “equals sign”. The problem with option #1 is that it sounds like preaching can never be the Word of God. I think God still speaks through preaching. So I’d probably take some form of option #2. Sure, it is “audacious to think that our bridge, or our channel to God’s Word is a better way for God’s Word to come to us than by God’s own delivery of his Word by himself directly by his Spirit”, but we didn’t make it that way, God did. The ascension and pentecost have invested human action with a lot of meaning. That doesn’t mean we can mechanically do things as though we are God, but it does mean that whenever he wants (in my case, usually with my “worst” sermons), God may speak through our speech. This is our hope.

  6. Jon, your last line in the second paragraph, I think, does come near to hitting it. “The preaching of the Word of God, if it is the preaching of the Word of God, is the Word of God.” I don’t think the confessors wanted to say that all events in which someone claims to preach are necessarily the Word of God. But those events in which the Word of God is preached can legitimately be received as the Word of God. (Again, cf. 1 Thess 2:13)

    In contrast to you, Jon, I think we shouldn’t reject the possibility of a strong “is” in option 3 until we are sure what we are rejecting. Notice the confession does not say that “preaching is the Word of God” but “the preaching of the Word of God IS the Word of God.” The confession does not make the simple mistake of asserting that if someone is preaching, or if there is preaching going on of any kind, that therefore said preaching is the Word of God. The qualification needed (and I think we all want to qualify it in some way) is contained in the confessional statement already and answers the question: What is being preached? Preach anything but the Word of God, and it is NOT the Word of God. But that of course begs the question, what does it mean to preach the Word of God? Whatever that means, it means that when it happens, and assuming that it is possible for humans to preach the Word of God at least some of the time, even if not every time there is preaching, then in that instance, it IS the Word of God. Full equal sign, full stop.

    It is interesting to me that Scripture usually (with some exceptions) does not speak about preaching of Scriptures, but preaching of the Word, or preaching of the Gospel, or preaching of Christ, or preaching of the cross. Yet have not evangelical concepts of preaching focused primarily on “preaching the Bible” rather than “preaching Christ of the Bible”?

    I wonder if we have focused so much either on the performance of preaching (homiletics) or on the preparation for preaching (exegesis) that we haven’t paused long enough or often enough to ask about the subject matter–the WHAT (or more accurately, WHO) of which we are preaching. What ARE we really preaching about?

    What if the Helvetic Confession means this: The Preaching of the Word of God [Christ] is the Word of God. In other words, if we are preaching Christ, however good or bad, however eloquent or not, however short or long we are doing it, is it not the case that this is in fact the Word of God and should be received as such?

    BTW, this is one area where Karl Barth has, I believe, hit upon the issue in both preaching and exegesis, for he is one who believes that the “content” [Die Sache] of the Bible is none other than God himself. In other words, exegesis does not seek what the author thought about God, or the historical circumstances surrounding the writing of the text, but seeks GOD. I am convinced more and more that our strictly historical-critical methods of exegesis have been at least partly (maybe even largely?) to blame for our own lack of confidence in our preaching and teaching ministries. We have focused so much on teaching and preaching the Bible, that we have forgotten that the goal is finally to teach and preach Christ.

    [If you want a challenging book that will change the way you think about hermeneutics and exegesis (and by implication, preaching) I highly recommend Richard Burnett’s book, Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis.
    If you want to see a review I wrote on it for The Presbyterian Layman, see it here: http://www.layman.org/layman/news/2008-news/book-review-a-fascinating-foray.htm
    DG

  7. …as I take a break from writing a sermon…

    David, regarding your suggest that “The Preaching of the Word of God [Christ] is the Word of God” I would have to say that I get this sense from Paul. I’m not convinced, however that this is exclusive. Paul “preaches Christ” but he also preached with the authority of Christ. Certainly we accept that the authority of Paul’s teaching is rooted in the Spirit’s inspiration (leaving aside the larger inspiration question). In that sense, was what Paul preached/proclaimed the word of God specifically because of God’s work in the person of the Holy Spirit?

    The claim that preaching of the Word is the Word of God leads us to the simple (yeah right) question of is the “Word” the “inspired Scriptures” thus to preach them faithfully is to preach the Word of God, in other words “historical inspiration”, or is it a present work of God –should I say present Word of God, Jesus Christ. If it is a present work, then when we preach Christ, the Trinity is active in the event–not because we preach rather our preaching is founded in God’s election–remember Barth 😉

    Is the “Word of God” a historical, past but not present revelation? Or is the “Word of God” a present, active self revelation of God? If I where an open theist I would have little trouble with the first, but I’m not. While the incarnation was an event in time past and Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, Christ did not cease to exist. He lives but our communion with Him is currently mediated (if I may use that term) by the Holy Spirit. (David, you had to know the ascension would appear somewhere here).

    Allow me to sum it up this way. If Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not some how active in the proclamation of the Gospel, than it is merely human wisdom and understanding speaking. If, however, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are active in the proclamation of the Gospel, than God has spoken.

    …back to writing a sermon…or am I really writing it 😉

  8. you’re right. it does say “the preaching OF THE WORD OF GOD is the Word of God.” (Thank God!) It would have to be said that way, and sought-after/received as such. That Jesus Christ would be present in our preaching is a God-send; a work of grace, and I long for it.

    I wonder how homiletics and exegesis should change.

  9. Dustin

    “The Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”

    I heard a sermon today.

    Theologically, the sermon was fairly innocuous. I didn’t detect any heresy (though the preacher made some passing statements I wouldn’t have made myself). But he also didn’t say anything really substantial about God; Jesus was brought in merely for illustrative purposes. The exegesis of the text was similarly innocuous. I didn’t sense any obvious “exegetical fallacies.” But I didn’t think that the text of Scripture was particularly illuminated either. The sermon was a basically a moral exhortation to love others in the parish, and so I could hardly disagree with the “ethics” put forward in the message. In terms of my subjective experience, I “felt” reminded a couple of times that I should probably do better to show love to those around me and work harder to avoid some of the common pitfalls to love that our Rector had mentioned (and probably lifted from his background in social work).

    Was this preaching event the Word of God? Which part? The couple of times I felt convicted, the baptized psychology, or that which I judged to be “sound” theology and exegesis? Was this preaching event not really the preaching of the Word of God because the preacher missed something in his prayer life, study or delivery? Was this preaching event truly the Word of God but I just failed to receive it as such because of God’s election, my abundance of sin, or my lack of attention span? Was this preaching event the Word of God and I simply need to confess that it was so in faith, but just refrain from making any claims about what the precise content of the Word of God was for me/us?

    The audacity of the Second Helvetic Confession is no less audacious on Sunday afternoon.

  10. Dale Harris

    Maybe part of the problem here is that we’ve been focusing(as per the title of this post) particularly on statement’s implications for preaching. But maybe it’s not so much a statement about the audacity of preaching as it is a statement about the audacity of the Word of God– namely that He would use our feeble, imperfect, human words to so communicate His reality, grace, presence and truth– to so effect new creation in the reality of his people. If the statement is indeed an equative construction, perhaps we might ask a question about which clause is best read as subject and which as predicate: does the statement say something primarily about the human act of preaching or about the necessary initiative of God? Perhaps the really sobering implication of the HC statement is that “Only when it IS the Word of God is our human speech actually to be considered preaching(and for this it waits on God’s free initiative and depends entirely on his gracious empowering).” (A possible fourth option, or at least a subset of option 3).

  11. I had to smile at Dustin’s comments. They echo some of Barth’s comments here:

    “Christian preachers dare to speak about God. This is the given fact with which we start. Think of some sermon you liked, perhaps the one, I assume, that you heard yesterday. Recall, if you would, the sorriest murmuring or the crudest shouting or the worst idealistic moralizing or the most dubious claims to supernatural power that you have heard in your lives under the name of preaching. . . .
    “Preachers dare –and it is no wonder that we are not sure whether they themselves believe what they are saying . . . they dare . . . to toss out words such as eternity, assurance, victory, forgiveness, righteousness, Lord, and life, as though they could and should do so. This, at any rate, is what they do, and no homiletical or theological stupidity, ineptitude, or perversion can alter the fact. . . . They do it. They dare to speak about _God_.” (Karl Barth, Göttingen Dogmatics, 45, 46, 47)

    I, perhaps, am less concerned these days about defining where the Word of God is in preaching, and even when we know we have heard it, as I am reeling as I ponder the audacity of preaching. Yes, even on Monday morning…it is still audacious that we preachers and theologians and yes, everyday Christians, think that we can and ought to speak about God, and even expect that sometimes, at least, someone will hear God’s Word when we preach and teach and speak.

  12. Perhaps the true audacity is a twin. The first being, when we dare to speak beyond what God has revealed about Himself. The second being, when we dare to presume to speak of God (or the Word of God) as though He were an object that we judge and evaluate. Surely in either case, that is idolatry for we elevate ourselves above God as though we are the transcendent one.

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