Preaching derives its authority from the text of Scripture. Our work of correcting, rebuking and encouraging all flow from a more fundamental command: “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 2:4). Without the authority of the biblical text there would be no authority for preaching.
There are some who prefer to point past the text and locate the preacher’s authority in the ideas of Scripture, generally in the gospel or more particularly in the person of Christ. In his book Homiletic, for example, David Buttrick writes: “Of course, when we claim that the Bible is our ‘authority,’ we are pointing past text, and past even the gospel in scripture, to God-for-us in Jesus Christ.” Buttrick admits that there are many who believe that God has conferred authority on the Scriptures themselves and are convinced that “the Bible has been designated ‘Word of God’ by divine fiat to rule the church.” But he clearly sees this as a problem.
Buttrick is right to say that the Scriptures point beyond themselves to Christ. Jesus asserted as much when he told the religious leaders: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). But Jesus also testified to the authority of the biblical text, down to the smallest letter and to the least stroke of the pen (Matt. 5:18). He said that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35).
It is certainly possible to misunderstand the Scriptures. We can intentionally twist the Scriptures. But we cannot put Jesus at odds with the text of Scripture without putting Jesus at odds with himself. To attribute authority to Christ but to deny it to the Scriptures is a contradiction. The Scriptures bear witness to Christ and Christ bears witness to the Scriptures. They both speak of each other and they both speak with the same voice.
The church’s suspicion of the practical value of theology, though misguided, is not without some basis in experience. Helmut Thielicke’s humorous portrait of the young theological student who comes home from seminary and unleashes his learning on an unsuspecting church reflects the perception of many laypeople when it comes to theology: “Under a considerable display of the apparatus of exegetical science and surrounded by the air of the initiated, he produces paralyzing and unhappy trivialities, and the inner muscular strength of a lively young Christian is horribly squeezed to death in a formal armor of abstract ideas.”
In its healthy form the speculative nature of theology can enable us to uncover hidden depths of God’s revealed truth. It is the role of theology to help us probe questions we have not thought to ask. But theology can also take unhealthy forms. It may elevate small points and magnify textual obscurities to the degree where all that the theologian has to offer the church are “paralyzing and unhappy trivialities.”
The use of academic language when discussing theology is only one of the factors which contributes to this. The root problem is the theologian’s aim. The goal of most theological writing today is not to theologize the church. The real prize is the recognition and respect of those in the guild and the best way to obtain these is by doing battle. Consequently, the theologian does not approach his subject like a shepherd who is concerned for the well being of the flock but like a knight arrayed for battle. Theological discussion is a jousting match with other members of the guild.
Furthermore, theology’s preoccupation with the interests of the guild breeds an air of condescension, if not outright contempt, towards those who are not members. The average church member senses this and concludes that the task of theological reflection is beyond his grasp. In this way the guild mentality actually fosters the very theological ignorance it condemns. Since the guild is made up primarily of academics, the perspective of the majority of pastors is excluded from the conversation. As a result, pastors read theology for their own personal benefit but do not know how to draw the congregation into the discussion.
Preaching and theology were lovers once. Though inseparable and mutually devoted to one another at the beginning of their relationship, in these latter days they have become estranged. They are not exactly enemies, but they are hardly friends any more and they are certainly no longer partners.
As is so often the case in these matters, each is inclined to blame the other for the separation. And as is also so often the case, there is some truth in the complaint that they make. Both are guilty of mutual neglect. And both, sad to say, have at times been unfaithful to the other.
Still it must be recognized that if preaching and theology have since found more interesting companions, it was not their original intent. They began their relationship with a common sense of purpose, supported by vows of mutual fidelity. In order to better accomplish their goals, they decided to divide the work between them. Theology was to focus its attention on the higher matters of God, creation and redemption, while preaching would devote itself to the “lower” but equally important concerns of the flock. They did not at first see these tasks as being mutually exclusive. Indeed, they believed that they contributed to one another.
Yet in time the two “grew apart.” The noble questions which first occupied the attention of theology have given way to more obscure matters, many of which prove to be at odds with the bread and butter interests of preaching. Theology prefers the thin air and heady conversation of the classroom and the philosopher’s salon to the dishrag speech and knee scrape anxieties which so often seem to occupy the attention of preaching. Preaching, for its part, has grown impatient with the endless speculation and impractical theorizing that theology loves so much. Preaching criticizes theology for being too detached. Theology accuses preaching of being too parochial.
The sad truth is that neither is very far off the mark.
We are not the first to preach. In view of this, it seems reasonable that we should take our cues from those who have preceded us. Yet it only takes a cursory reading of the gospels to sense that the preaching we engage in week by week sounds very different from the preaching of Christ. How do we explain this?
This is the focus of William Brosend’s interesting book The Preaching of Jesus: Gospel Proclamation Then and Now (Westminster John Knox). According to Brosend, “this study is not as interested in what Jesus said as it is interested in how Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as having said it.”
The rhetoric of Jesus is marked by four characteristics. The first feature Brosend observes is that it is conversational. This is not a feature of its volume or pitch but its responsive nature. According to Brosend: “almost everything Jesus says comes either in response to and/or in conversation with someone else.” Jesus’ conversation is not only with inquirers and disciples, “it is also explicitly with the tradition, and implicitly with the culture.”
At the same time, Jesus’ preaching is proclamatory. The intent is declarative and the tone is authoritative. Brosend explains, “Jesus is not asking, even in the middle of dialogue; Jesus makes claims, theological and soteriological.” In view of this, one wonders how Brosend can separate Jesus’ rhetorical technique from the content of his message. In this case the content of the message shapes the delivery.
It is the third mark which most clearly differentiates Jesus’ preaching and our own. This is Jesus’ apparent reticence to speak about himself. As Brosend puts it, the preaching of Jesus was occasionally self-referential: “The frequent use of self-reference in the Fourth Gospel is one of the main differences between the rhetoric of Jesus in John and in the Synoptic Gospels. But regardless of that comparison, it is striking how infrequently Jesus is depicted as speaking about himself directly in Matthew, Mark and Luke.”
This leads Brosend to characterize Jesus as “a Galilean Jew who proclaimed a kingdom and resisted a crown.” According to Brosend, “Jesus is consistently and persistently depicted as focusing the attention on God and God’s kingdom, not on himself.” The fourth mark of Jesus’ preaching is linked to this: “Jesus never misses an opportunity to elaborate, illustrate, or sharpen his message through metaphor (Matt. 15:24-26), hyperbole (Mark 9:42-50), allegory (Luke 20:9-19), and other rhetorical figures.” Jesus’ preaching is persistently figurative.
Jesus’ reserve in speaking directly about himself in the Gospels was noted by Thomas Dehany Bernard in his 1864 series of Bampton Lectures on the Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament. According to Bernard this reserve was shared by the apostles during the early stages of their ministry, when they were sent out to announce the kingdom but forbidden to tell anyone that Jesus was the Christ. A marked change takes place in apostolic preaching in the book of Acts. The essential difference is captured in the summary statement of Acts 5:42: “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.”
Brosend argues that we can learn much from the rhetorical strategy of Jesus. Our preaching can be like the preaching of Jesus in some measure. But Bernard helps us to see why our preaching must also differ from that of Jesus. Jesus came not only to preach the gospel but to accomplish it. He did not preach a different gospel than ours but his place in those redemptive events put constraints on him that we do not share. There was an element of secrecy in Jesus’ preaching, an intentional obscurity which simultaneously revealed and concealed both his identity and his mission.
This is not true of us. Our task in preaching is to make Christ known.