Non-boring preaching?

What is the solution to boring preaching? Barth says there is only one: to start being biblical in our sermons.

Preachers must not be boring. To a large extent the pastor and boredom are synonymous concepts. Listeners often think that they have heard already what is being said in the pulpit. They have long since known it themselves. The fault certainly does not lie with them alone. Against boredom the only defense is again being biblical. If a sermon is biblical, it will not be boring. Holy scripture is in fact so interesting and has so much that is new and exciting to tell us that listeners cannot even think about dropping off to sleep.
(Karl Barth, Homiletics, 80, emphasis mine)

But hold on, here! Is this really true? Will a biblical sermon automatically be prevented from being boring? I’m not sure I am tracking here with Barth. (Yes, I do occasionally disagree!!)

Perhaps much depends on what Barth means by a sermon being “biblical” but doesn’t Barth’s characterization set us out on a dangerous trajectory? I (and I’m sure also you) have heard sermons that are very closely tied to the biblical text that are, well, pretty boring. So isn’t Barth’s characterization in danger of leading one to conclude that a sermon’s biblical veracity is judged by how non-boring it is? But surely it is possible to preach a sermon that is biblically faithful and yet dry as dust?

I’m not sure if Eutychus fell asleep because of the time of day or because Paul’s sermon was boring [Acts 20:9]–but if Paul’s sermon was indeed biblical (and I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be!), then shouldn’t it have been exciting enough to keep poor sleepy Eutychus awake?

Imagine this little (unlikely) conversation between a pastor and one of his congregants:

Congregant: Pastor, I appreciate all the work you put into your sermons, but I just find them–I hope you won’t be offended–irrelevant, and even a bit boring at times. They don’t really speak to where I’m at or the struggles I’m having in my Christian life. I don’t understand what you are talking about half the time, and what you are talking about seems so distant from where I’m at.

Pastor:  But my sermons can’t be irrelevant or boring because they are biblical!! And the Bible is so much more interesting than the little things that you and I face in our lives. Our little problems pale in the face of what the Bible speaks about–God! Perhaps you are just not seeing the grandeur of God. You need to set aside those things in your life each week so you can focus on the really important things.

Congregant: Ah, now I see! Your sermons really weren’t boring after all! It was just me. I guess I’ll try from now on not to feel bored when you are preaching from the Bible and not worry about my problems.

Congregant (thinking to himself): He just doesn’t get it!

Pastor: Atta boy!

Pastor (thinking to himself): He just doesn’t get it!

So either the congregant doesn’t get it, or the pastor doesn’t. Is the sermon boring because the congregant simply doesn’t understand what preaching is all about? (If so, that can change perhaps over time, but the congregant may may still end up feeling bored with the sermon at times, and probably not a little guilty as a result). Or is the sermon boring because the pastor thinks that he is being biblical, but in reality he isn’t? And will this not tempt the pastor to be swayed toward making his sermons more exciting, because after all, boring sermons aren’t biblical!

If we do take Barth at his word and acknowledge that truly biblical sermons cannot be boring, then we are still left with trying to answer the question of what a truly biblical sermon looks like. Simply saying that a sermon can’t be boring because it is biblical doesn’t answer the homiletical question of whether the “boredom” factor should even come into play.

Having said all this, I have a gut feeling that what Barth is saying is probably true after all. Truly biblical sermons won’t be boring, because they speak of life and freedom and abundance in Christ. But I’m also not convinced that Barth (here at least) has done much to give us insight into distinguishing the difference between a non-boring biblical sermon and a non-boring non-biblical sermon.

(Perhaps I’m also missing something of what “boring” meant in Barth’s context. Surely even the concept of “boredom” in our day isn’t the same as what Barth meant by boredom in his day.)

Ladies Optimism, Cynicism and Hope: A Sermon on Isaiah 65

This sermon was preached at Briercrest College chapel on November 9, 2010, by my good friend, colleague, and partner in theology, Dr. Dustin Resch. With his permission, I post it here for your edification!


I want to introduce to you three fair maidens. They are the ladies Optimism, Cynicism and Hope. Now, I suspect that the first two maidens will be quite familiar to you. You can see them anywhere—on the street, in your dorm, in churches, on TV—anywhere. The third one, however, is hard to find. She is the kind of woman you you’d want to bring home to your mother. She is beautiful, virtuous and kind. Unless Disney has totally misrepresented princesses, little birds land on the palm of her hand and sing to her. There is a problem, however. Lady Hope is so hard to find, that many a person have settled for ladies Optimism and Cynicism instead. But when you meet Lady Hope—really meet her in all of her glory—the other two just don’t compare. Our passage from Isaiah today describes for us a beautiful vision of Hope, and one that can lead us to a truer understanding of what Christian hope is all about. Before we gaze into this vision, let’s consider what the other two ladies are like.

First, let’s think a bit about optimism. Optimism is one of Hope’s cruel step-sisters. If Optimism had her way, the maiden Hope would remain locked in the basement forever. Lady Optimism sees Hope’s beauty and tries to copy it, but she can’t. The radiance of hope does not come naturally to her. Lady Optimism says, “In spite of what looks like evil in the world, things are still really good. And, if they feel bad right now, it’s only temporary and they will soon get better.” Optimism, you see, suffers from poor eyesight. She cannot accurately perceive reality. She distorts her vision of the world in order to cope with difficulty. Lady Optimism is the sort of woman who nervously sweeps the difficulties of life under the carpet, or stows suffering in the broom closet when guests come over. She doesn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable, so she makes sure that no one sees the filth in her house. “Don’t worry,” Optimism says, “things are not as bad as you think, and they will only get better.”

Sadly, Christians have often mistaken optimism for hope. When Christians ignore the evil in the world and refuse to acknowledge human suffering and sin, they have courted Lady Optimism instead of embraced Hope. The same is true when they try to escape from their own guilt by dreaming about the ideal world or the ideal heaven. It was against a Church enamoured with mere optimism that Karl Marx wrote his scathing critiques. He charged that the Christian view of heaven was used by the church as a way to justify all of the wrongs done on earth. It was a Church in the embrace of Lady Optimism that caused Marx to see this garbled treatment of hope as opium that sedated oppressed peoples and allows the domination of the oppressor. Marx believed that people were made docile to evil and to suffering because they were blinded by the myopic vision of optimism. In fact, optimism actually participates in violence and evil because it removes real human suffering from our view, and certainly from our sense of responsibility. By dulling us to evil and suffering—even our own evil and suffering—Optimism shows herself to be an imposter.

Hope has another step-sister. This one, however, does not come close to bearing the same sort of resemblance to Hope. If you were to see Lady Optimism from a distance, it is quite possible that you may mistake her for Hope. This is not the case with Hope’s other sister, Cynicism. Cynicism sees Hope’s beauty and does not try to copy it. She already knows she can’t and Optimism just looks stupid when she tries. Instead, Lady Cynicism has rejected entirely all that looks like Hope and plunges herself into rebellion. Whereas Lady Optimism avoided sin and suffering because it made her queasy, Cynicism prefers to see nothing but. She has given up on looking for the good in things and has retired to the comfortable, even if pathetic, life of wallowing in a mire of darkness. Now, to be truthful, I didn’t really find Lady Optimism to be all that tempting. In fact, she kinda got on my nerves. Lady Cynicism, however, is quite the looker. How easy it would be to resign oneself to the idea that the world continues to spiral into the toilet and we can’t do anything about it. Besides, it is a lot more fun and a lot less work to sit back with Lady Cynicism and joke about the stupidity of the optimists, as they scramble around trying to avoid all of the garbage. It was probably one of Lady Cynicism’s German lovers who wrote the proverb, “Hope is a ship with a mast of straw.” This is saying that even those who intend to be hopeful will have their spirits broken as soon as affliction arrives. Hope is a vessel just waiting to sink. True hope was so rare that she didn’t often fare well in German proverbs. But Cynicism shows herself to be a fraud when we see her ingratitude. She cannot bring herself to be thankful because she cannot acknowledge the presence of God in the world. To do so would presume that there was something good to hope for. That she cannot be thankful proves that she is a fake.

Biblical hope is not like either of these imposters. Instead, she is something radically different than both. Our text from Isaiah today paints this wonderful portrait of hope. As we will see, her beauty puts her step-sisters to shame. As we approach our text, it may be helpful to remember that Isaiah 65 presents this vision of hope as given to Israel in exile. Israel went into exile as God’s punishment for their continued and obstinate rebellion. Israel sinned, sinned, and then sinned some more, and rather than returning to God in repentance and contrition, Israel dug its heels in even deeper. And so, off to exile they went. And yet, even in their exile God repeatedly left hints of the promise of their return. Even amidst the clear denouncement of their transgression, God tells them of a time of forgiveness. Isaiah 40:1-2 reads, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” When we get to the vision of hope in Isaiah 65, we encounter a vivid description of Israel’s life back in the land of promise after the restoration has taken place.

Essentially, the vision is one in which Israel and God will finally live together in total peace—Shalom. Isaiah 65 is a portrayal of that peace—that Shalom. It describes life as “the way it’s supposed to be.” The people are back in the land, their sins are forgiven and they exist in holy fellowship with God, with one another, and even with the natural world. As verse 17 says, there is a “new heavens and a new earth.” The waste and spoilage of the way things were will give way to the way things ought to be. Isaiah’s is a vision of Eden re-visited.

Let’s look a little closer at some of the elements of Isaiah’s vision of Shalom. The first thing we note is that “the former things shall not be remembered,” verse 17. Isaiah’s vision of hope is one in which the forgiveness of sins has done away with the animosity between Israel and God. Israel’s sins did not simply slip his mind for a time only to be remembered later; rather God has actively chosen not to remember them. All things are truly made new! Next, verses 17 and 18 describe this new work of God as one in which Jerusalem will delight and be delighted in. Not only do the people of God rejoice in God, but God himself rejoices in his restored people. This circle of mutual delight is astounding. We think often of human beings rejoicing in God, but here God is also rejoicing in his people! In this vision, God’s creation has become what it was intended to be: a partner in a fellowship of mutual delight!

Also note Isaiah’s description of the sort of robust and vibrant life that will characterize Israel in the restoration. There are no more pre-mature deaths here (verse 20); rather, as verse 22 explains, “like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be.” We get this sense of the people of God as a rooted and stable tree that doesn’t topple over with just any breeze through its branches. Even Israel’s labour will flourish and bear fruit: “They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat…and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands” (verse 22). With the vivid memories of being uprooted from their homes and their livelihoods by the exile, this vision addresses the hope for meaningful work. This is the sort of work that flourishes and bears much fruit for the worker himself. There is no longer such a thing as being alienated from one’s labour! Rather, the people of God now get to enjoy the work of their own hands!

What is more, this human flourishing occurs in direct connection with Israel’s intimacy with God. Rather than Israel begging and pleading for God to help them, Isaiah declares that even “Before they call, I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear” (verse 24). This robust life does not take place outside of relationship with God. Rather, it is precisely in the life of prayer that the abundant life occurs. There is no longer a wide gap between sacred and secular. Finally, like icing on the cake, the vision of Isaiah depicts the restored life of Israel in perfect harmony with the natural world. Verse 25 reads that “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox” but “the serpent—its food shall be dust.” Unlike Eden, in which the serpent seduced Eve to temptation and was cursed by God, in Isaiah’s vision of the restored Israel, the curse upon the serpent renders him entirely harmless! This vision of Isaiah’s is of a time and a land in which those elements that encroach upon human thriving are done away with. Violence is transformed into peace.  This picture of Shalom, this picture of hope, is one in which human beings and God live in a wonderful, vibrant, robust fellowship with one another. Life becomes what it should be.

This is not all. Isaiah’s vision is not confined to restoration from the exile. The writers of the New Testament looked to Isaiah to provide them some of the imagery and substance for their versions of hope. Listen to how the writer of Revelation describes the hope of Christians:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. For the first things have passed away (Revelation 21:1-5).

Isaiah has made us familiar with the idea of a “new heaven and new earth.” Revelation, however, bumps up the imagery even more. In addition to human flourishing in perfect fellowship with God, Revelation shows how even death itself will be done away with. If Isaiah’s serpent gets a mouth full of dust, Revelation’s serpent gets tossed in the lake of fire! If Isaiah’s babies grow up to lead fruitful lives, Revelation’s kids never shed a tear! Life is the way it is supposed to be, but this time there is no end in sight!

So what can we learn from here about the contours of Christian hope? How would we compare her to her two step-sisters, the Ladies Optimism and Cynicism? I offer the following points. First, Christian hope is all about proper life with God and with one another. It is about righteousness—Shalom.  This means that Christian hope is not “other-worldly.” Christians who hope do not need to take their eyes off of what is in front of them. Christian hope is for the renewal and transformation of the earth. It is earthy and earthly. Because Christian hope does not need to look away from the earth, it can afford to call “a spade a spade.” It sees evil and calls it what it is. It does not hide behind a veneer of optimism to try to avoid the truth about the world. Christians who hope call out injustice and work toward reconciliation in the world, in their churches, here at Briercrest, and even in their own lives. Christian hope makes Lady Optimism face the dirt.

Second, Christians who hope acknowledge that only God can bring about the Shalom they wait for. They know that life won’t be the way it is supposed to be until Christ returns. So, even though Christians who hope work for Shalom every day, they know that there is no one-to-one correlation between their work and the arrival of their hope. Rather, they work IN hope, waiting for and knowing that God will come. Christians can have no part with Lady Cynicism because lady cynicism does not recognize God working in the world.

Third and most important, Christians who hope do so because God HAS already established Shalom on the earth. In righting the supreme evil of the murder of Jesus by his resurrection, God has already established peace and righteousness. We look to the return of the resurrected Christ to finally realize the Shalom established in him. However, it is precisely because God has established Shalom in THIS world, in the Christ who took on OUR flesh, that we can have hope during this time while we wait for his return. As Karl Barth explained, the great hope of the coming of Jesus Christ allows us also to have “little hopes” day to day. Christians can have a realistic hope about ordinary life precisely because the Son of God assumed our ordinary flesh and raised it up with him, making right all that is wrong with it. The light of hope of the resurrected Jesus shines into our lives even today. It gives us “little hopes” as we wait for the big hope. Not only will Jesus come back to make all wrongs right, but maybe the God who raised him from the dead will heal our bodies of the illness we face today; maybe he’ll address our loneliness today; maybe he’ll right the injustice in our society today; maybe he’ll reconcile us to our estranged family member today. With this great hope, and with these little hopes, we can work, serve and live without fear.

Pondering Christmas Preaching with Karl Barth

With Christmas just around the corner, here’s “three points” which Karl Barth emphasized about Christmas, and which I think those who have Christmas preaching responsibilities to fulfill will do well, like Mary, to ponder deeply in our hearts in preparation for the Christmas sermon.

1) The inclusion of Bethlehem, Caesar Augustus, and Quirinius in the Christmas narrative reminds us that this not a myth, a legend, or fairy tale, nor even a morality tale of “peace and goodwill to all men.” Indeed, the real “meaning” of Christmas is missed if it is preached in order to evoke a general feeling of humanitarian goodwill to the less fortunate in society of whom we dutifully are reminded year after year. On the contrary, the story of Christmas, with its specific historical referents (Bethlehem, Quirinius, etc.),

signifies that when the Bible gives an account of revelation it means to narrate history, i.e., not to tell of a relation between God and man that exists generally in every time and place and that is always in process, but to tell of an event that takes place there and only there, then and only then, between God and certain very specific men.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/1, 326.

In other words, Christmas preaching has little to do with the morality of peace and goodwill, but has everything to do with God’s good will of appearing in Jesus of Nazareth in the midst of our human history to bring us peace with him. Christmas isn’t a churchly Aesop’s fable extolling humility, peace, and general goodwill, but an astounding recollection of the unparalleled and mysterious in-breaking of God into the world! Consequently, preachers need to be wary of proclaiming the Nativity as if it were a lovely children’s story that highlights shepherds and donkeys and managers which gives hearers a warm, fuzzy nostalgic feeling about their childhood Christmases when the world seemed more peaceful and quiet than it really was. Rather, preachers must boldly tell the story in such a way as to heighten its significance for what it is: an unexpected intrusion into the status quo of our everyday lives–lives lived almost entirely on the safe predictability of cause and effect. The Christmas story is not yet proclaimed as Gospel if it only draws us back into the memory of “Christmases past” instead of leading us into the unknown future life of Christian discipleship, where it is the unexpected things of God which shatter the comforts of everyday religious routine, yet which is really the origin of true peace, shalom, with God and with our fellow human being.

2) Not only is Christmas a mystery of God with us, it is a miracle of God with us. True, Christmas is a time to announce the coming of God to us in Jesus at a specific time and place to specific people (and therefore to be proclaimed in historical terms), but Christmas is also the time to announce an utterly “new event” (a novum) unlike any other event and understood as something transcending historical understanding. Indeed, Christmas is, in the first instance, to be understood in light of Barth’s basic understanding of a miracle: as something which occurs in history, but which cannot be understood as arising from or having its origin in the normal course of historical events. In the section entitled, “The Miracle of Christmas,” Barth describes revelation (and therefore, the event of Christmas) as something which

comes to us as a Novum [“new thing”] which, when it becomes an object for us, we cannot incorporate in the series of our other objects, cannot compare with them, cannot deduce from their context, cannot regard as analogous with them. It comes to us as a datum with no point of connexion with any other previous datum. It becomes the object of our knowledge by its own power and not by ours. … In this bit of knowing we are not the masters but the mastered.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2, 172.

Barth regularly connects the “mystery and miracle of Christmas” with the doctrine of the Virgin Birth (CD I/2, pp. 173ff.) because it is in the Virgin birth that we come face to face with a miracle–something that comes to us in the normal course of our history (“Virgin birth“) but also as something  which cannot be incorporated into our history in the normal or expected way (“Virgin birth”). As he says, the Virgin birth is the doctrine which the Church posted “on guard…at the door of the mystery of Christmas” (CD I/2, 181) and which, if rushed past, most certainly leads us to miss its utterly miraculous character. Indeed, to seek to explain away the Virgin Birth is to fail to receive Christmas both as a mystery and as a miracle. On the contrary, the Virgin Birth  “can be properly understood…only as a sign wrought by God himself,  and by God Himself solely and directly, the sign of the freedom and immediacy, the mystery of His action, as a preliminary sign of the coming of His Kingdom.” (CD I/2, 181)

Christmas preaching, then, affirms the miracle of Jesus’ birth from the Virgin, not as a means of protecting him from the historical transmission of sin (this never seems to be the concern of the biblical authors, though this is how the doctrine has very often traditionally functioned), but as an affirmation and sign that Jesus comes to us both as God with us (i.e., as a man in the normal course of history) and as God with us (i.e., as a surprising personal presence outside of the normal course of history).

3) “The message of Christmas already includes within itself the message of Good Friday.” (CD II/2, 122.) The Christmas story, while already the Gospel of God’s coming,  is only the first in a series of events in God’s self-giving revelation and salvation. The Christmas story, while fully Gospel, is not yet the full Gospel. Rather, Christmas is prototypical of the whole act of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For in Christmas, we first find out, again surprisingly,  that God’s arrival with us is in a spiritually personal presence: in Jesus of Nazareth by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is, Christmas is but the first historical lesson repeated also in Jesus’ baptism, temptation, transfiguration, death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, and someday, the final parousia. For in the full life of Jesus, we see over and over again that the coming of God is always personally in Jesus and spiritually in the Holy Spirit.

Of the incarnation of the Word of God we may truly say both that in the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit and His birth of the Virgin Mary it was a completed and perfect fact, yet also that it was continually worked out in His whole existence and is not therefore exhausted in any sense in the special event of Christmas with which it began. The truth conveyed by the first conception is that the formation and ordering of the flesh in the flesh is represented in the New Testament as a procedure which unfolded itself as it did with a necessity originally imposed upon Jesus. “I have meat to eat that ye know not of .… My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work” (Jn. 4:32f.). “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Lk. 2:49). He must work the works of Him that sent Him, while it is day (Jn. 9:4). He must be lifted up from the earth (Jn. 3:14; 12:34). He must go to Jerusalem, to suffer many things, and be killed, and rise again, as the Synoptic predictions of the passion repeatedly say. This is the necessity of His action given at the beginning in the person of Jesus—the incarnation as an already completed fact.  (CD III/2, 337)

Christmas preachers, then, must be careful to ensure that Christmas is not presented as a self-contained story that stands merely as an introduction to the Jesus’ life, after which it can be left behind as ancient history. Rather, the Christmas story, while the particular history of a particular “new man,” is a theologically pregnant story which is repeated again and again in the life of Jesus, and which continues to be repeated again and again by analogy in every new man or woman who enters Christ’s body by the conception of the Holy Spirit. Christmas, in other words, is the true prototype of every new beginning, of every new creation in Christ Jesus. Christmas tells us that because of that day when God became flesh, today is always a new day in which the cause/effect of the decaying sinful history of man born into sin under Adam is abruptly broken into through the new birth of the Holy Spirit who leads us into union with Christ, the second (but really, first) Adam.

The Word of grace tells us . . . [that] the future has already begun, not an empty future still to be fashioned, but a future already filled and fashioned in a definite way, the future of the man who lives here and now just as the old past was his past, the future into which he here and now has the freedom, capacity and power to enter as his own most proper future. This future has begun with the fact that God has fulfilled His covenant with man, that He has loved the world and reconciled it with Himself, that He has introduced the justified and sanctified man as the second Adam (who was before the first). . . .The new man is born. It is worth noting that our Christmas carols tell us this in every possible key. If only our Christmas preaching would bestir itself no less distinctly to say the same! Since the enslaved man who was can be no longer, all that is needed is that he should now be the man he is.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/1, 246.

Did you read Scripture (publicly) today? (pt. 2)

In my first post reflecting upon the importance of “public reading of Scripture” as part of the Pauline triad mentioned in 1 Tim 4:13, namely, reading, preaching, teaching, it was assumed that in the first instance, “public” reading meant reading Holy Scripture in the context of corporate worship. That is, “public” was assumed to mean “ecclesial” (literally, reading in the context of churchly gatherings). Now I have no doubt that Paul intended this at a very minimum. But is that the only implication? In other words, is the reading of Scripture necessarily an event limited to Christian gathering, or are there other ways in which Scripture itself can become part of a larger, decidedly, non-ecclesial public hearing? 

On the one hand, it may be possible to accomplish public reading of Scripture in a very direct way. Direct applications of public reading of Scripture might include reading the Bible to any and all who may listen (or even to those who do not) in public settings (e.g., on the street corner, over the radio waves, at the bus-stop, on the steps of Parliament, or who knows where and how else creative minds may accomplish this). Some evangelical mission organizations, like HCJB, have included public Bible reading as part of their ministry for years. Interestingly enough, Bob Seale (a good friend and theological father to me), pointed out to me today that in the coming week, the entire Bible will be read continuously over Italian state radio at the prompting of Pope Benedict XVI and at the outset of a synod of 200 bishops to discuss the place of Scripture in the world today. (Read more about it here and here and here.) Talk about taking the directive to being devoted to the public reading of Scripture!

On the other hand, as important and effective as these direct options for public reading of Scripture may be, I also want to suggest that public reading of Scripture may enter into the public hearing also in more indirect, and therefore somewhat more subversive, ways as well. When I was teaching my Truth and Method class a couple of weeks ago, we spent some time reflecting on the nature of ecclesial confession, guided in part by Eberhard Busch’s important lecture delivered on the 70th anniversary of the Barmen Declaration.

Now for those of you who are a bit fuzzy on what a “confession” is, let me simply say that it is not the same as a statement of faith, a doctrinal statement, or a creed, and certainly not the same as a “vision statement” or “statement of values” that so many churches seem to have adopted as of late. (You might guess that I’m not overly thrilled with these latter concepts, but that’s a whole different post!) As Busch puts it, a confession is first and foremost a confession of the Christ of Scripture (and not particular doctrines concerning Christ), and secondly, a confession is a declaration that “stands in the service of action, which is more powerful than the situation in which it is being confessed, and thus is not bound to it.” (182). This is in contrast to a reaction where a text is bound to the situation which gives the delcaration its impetus (and which therefore binds it more closely to that time and situation). Such texts usually appear as “statements” upon a particular issue and as such, usually are necessarily reactive in nature. In contrast, as Busch beautifully put it, a confession (such as the Barmen Declaration) is not timeless, but it is also not timebound. (182)  

As important as all that Busch says (and really, you have to read the article), what is crucial to this present discussion is to notice the structure of the Barmen confession (and many other confessions, for that matter). That is, as a genre, a theological confession has three essential parts: 1) a text of Scripture; 2) A positive affirmation following from the Scripture; 3) A denial or rejection as a corollary or follow-up of what is affirmed.  In this latter part–the rejection part of the confession–Busch notes that the “Yes” of a confession’s affirmation always brings with it, whether implicitly or explicitly, a “No” indicating that which must rejected. In other words, you cannot say “Yes” to something without explicitly or implicitly saying “No” to something else. The problem is, I think, is that we often want to say yes without saying no. Granted, our job is primarily to say Yes in Jesus (cf. 2 Cor 1:20), but we can never neglect to say the “no’s” that our “Yes” necessarily implies. You cannot, for example, eat of the table of the Lord, and partake also of the table of demons (1 Cor 10:21).

 Now as important as all that Busch had to say in the article, it dawned on me during my class that the structure of a Churchly Confession corresponds, more or less, to the Pauline triad of reading, preaching, and teaching commanded in 1 Tim 4:13. That is, a confession moves from Scripture (=reading) to affirmation (=preaching, i.e., the “positive” proclamation of what Christ has accomplished) to negation (=teaching, i.e., distinction between truth and error in doctrine, and by which we properly live our lives before God. Notice the corresponding emphasis on “life and doctrine” in 1 Tim 4:16). So in other words, Paul is saying to Timothy that the church will not neglect its essential mission whenever she understands herself primarily as confessors in this threefold way: 1) Showing in every way possible that Scripture is our formal authority for all matters of life and doctrine, i.e., actually reading Scripture before and in the context of preaching and teaching and debating and wherever else questions about what a Christian  believes, says, or does arises; 2) Proclaiming in every way possible that Jesus Christ is our material authority–our actual authority and Lord, and not only ours (the Churches) but Lord of the whole world at every level, including the political; and 3) showing in every way possible that a “Yes” to Christ means a “No” to many other gods, that to confess Christ also means to reject and renounce those things which do not cohere with Scripture as that by whom we come to obey Jesus Christ. (This last part is probably the most uncomfortable notion of all, especially for us Canadians who tend never to want to reject anyone or anything for the sake of some kind of deference to universal notions of tolerance and respect.)

But how does “confession” accomplish the reading of Scripture “publicly” and indirectly and subversively? As I think of many of the “moral” debates which Canadians have and are facing in public policy debates, I want to suggest that as valuable as it may be to find a common ground with other religious groups, or even in political concepts such as freedom or rights, the Christian church must not fail to take her stance as a people who are 1) guided by a Holy authoritative Book, 2)  who are unashamedly willing to publicly identify herself with Jesus Christ; and 3) who humbly but firmly reject gods, ideologies, ideas, and ways of living that are explicitly anti-Christ.  That is, we fail to ensure that Scripture is heard publicly when our strategy for having a voice in the public forum seeks primarily a common ground with other non-Christians (as important as common grounds may be) rather than primarily and unabashedly affirming that we are who we are as people bound to obedience to the Christ of Holy Scripture. If we happen to have common ground, fine and good. But this is a consequence and a product, not a starting point for Christian speech in the political realm.  And perhaps one of the ways we can begin to learn how to do this is to recover and relearn and begin to call for a truly evangelical confession that is more concerned about proclaiming Christ than reacting to the situations in which we continually find ourselves. In so doing, we will likely not accomplish a “timeless” Christian confession, but we may also find that we are less “time-bound” to the winds of the endless political and public policy discussions which we find ourselves so often reacting to.

Let me also say that to its credit, evangelicals in Canada may actually be in a better position actually to begin to move toward writing such a series of confessions than any other Christian religious grouping. Evangelicals, we say? They can’t agree on anything, we are told. Well let me say (and I’m certainly not the first, but I will say it boldly): Balderdash!! This is a lie that we evangelicals are continually told about ourselves and which is simply not true. True, we can’t always agree on doctrine, but if there is a common commitment to Christ, this is no where better illustrated than in evangelicals’ ability to work together and cooperate when it comes to mission. Indeed, the whole “evangelical parachurch” culture (John Stackhouse, Jr. has been an important voice noting this), as quirky and theologically problematic as it may be, is nevertheless living proof that evangelicals, when it comes to confessing Christ, are able to look past many of our differences and act in as a unified way as any WCC ecumenist could wish. Why? Because evangelicals have always held Scripture up as our authority (even if our doctrines of Scripture are sometimes a bit contrived) and we have always wanted to point people to Jesus (even if our own following of him is also lacking and lukewarm at times), and we have always been concerned about right doctrine (even if sometimes we have allowed this to become the dominant issue even over following Jesus). Perhaps it is time to start asking, Will the evangelical Church in Canada fulfill her mission by a threefold commitment to reading, preaching, and teaching, particularly as we think about the important function that an otherwise largely unexplored theological genre among evangelicals–the confession–might play in making God’s Word (written and living and preached) heard in the public sphere?

Hear the Word of the Lord / Awake

The command, “Hear the Word of the Lord!” is common in the OT (e.g., 1 Ki. 22:19; 2 Ki. 7; 2 Chr. 18:18; Isa. 1:10; Jer. 2:4; Ezek. 13:2; Hos. 4:1;Amos 7:16, etc. ) but as far as I can tell, such a command does not occur in the NT, though there are other occurrences in the NT where it is said that people “heard the word of the Lord” (Act 13:44; 19:10., and see esp. Act 19:20- “So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed”).

Now also observe that in the OT, it is curiously common in the poetic and prophetic literature to call upon God to “awake!” (e.g., Psa 7:6; 35:23; 44:23; Isa 51:9 [esp. urgent here!], etc). Yet curiously, as Oliver O’Donovan has pointed out, “Nowhere in the New Testament is God called on to awake. One might say, God is there presented as having already awoken, already acted.” (This same thing, I would add, could be said of the absence of the command “hear the Word of the Lord” in the NT; one might say, to paraphrase O’Donovan, that God is there as having already spoken.”)

On top of this all, we have the rather odd statement of Paul (who is apparently quoting someone else) in Ephesians 5:14, “Therefore it says, ‘Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.'” (NRSV)

So there we have it:

-In the OT, the prophetic call is to hear the Word of the Lord, but in the NT there appears (esp. in Acts) to be great evangelical confidence that the Word of the Lord is being heard and “prevailing mightily.”

-In the OT, the saints called upon God to Awake!, but in the NT we are called upon to awake, for God has already spoken in Christ (Deus Dixit). [On Deus Dixit, see especially the discussion by Karl Barth in Göttingen Dogmatics, §3, “Deus Dixit”, pp. 45-68]

And in that self-awakening (which O’Donovan calls “attending carefully to being attentive”) , the issue is not, “Has the Lord spoken?” or even “Where and through whom has the Lord spoken?” but perhaps more tellingly, “Why haven’t we heard? What is keeping us from hearing?”

If the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God, the problem may not be in how often (or how little) God speaks through the preacher, but in how poorly attentive we are to hearing that Word. And, for what its worth, I believe a major contributing factor (and by no means the only one–there are many others I am sure) to inattentiveness to the Word of God in preaching is, ironically, our own theo-critical adeptness. We are so good at noting exegetical and theological problems in preaching (not that these problem are excusable as much as we allow ourselves so easily to be distracted by them) that we are thereby prevented from hearing–not because we are inattentive per se, but because we are attentive to things other than an attentiveness/wakefulness to Deus dixit.


The Audacity of Preaching

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.”