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.”