Last week the Evangelical Homiletics Society (http://www.ehomiletics.com/) held its annual meeting at Trinity International University. I don’t attend the EHS conference as often as I should, partly because they meet at a difficult time in the semester and partly because I don’t enjoy traveling (probably more the latter than the former).
This year, however, I not only attended, I presented a paper entitled “Prophet, Priest or Stand-Up Comedian? The Priestly Role of the Sermon.” The environment of the EHS is wonderfully supportive, not at all like some other meetings where academics gather. Perhaps this is because the EHS isn’t made up solely of academics. It is a society of preachers. The atmosphere is collegial and the attendees are interested and encouraging.
Still, I found the experience unnerving. I finished feeling a great sense of ambivalence, torn between a desire to run away and hide in shame and a compulsion to stand at the door with a sheepish grin in a desperate bid for compliments. I walked away promising myself that I would “never try that again.”
But then, if you ever done any preaching, you know exactly how I felt. It’s pretty much the same after every sermon. I finish the message feeling a curious mixture of relief, self-loathing and insecurity. Basically, preaching is like being in the 8th grade…FOREVER. Lately I’ve been thinking about giving it up. But I doubt that would make me feel any better.
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 is an exercise in inflection, one that involves much more than pitch, volume and tone. In the sermon the preacher makes God’s written word incarnate by speaking the biblical author’s words into the contemporary context. This is an inflection not merely of the preacher’s voice but of the text itself. The task of inflection places a dual responsibility upon the preacher. One area of responsibility is to the text itself.
The preacher’s aim in the sermon is to animate the text without altering it. The written word has been detached from its original context but is not freed from it. We who preach must speak to circumstances that the biblical writers did not originally envision. But this does not give us liberty to wrest the Scriptures from their original context and make them say whatever we please.
The other area of responsibility involves the audience. An uninflected text is a dead text as far as the listener is concerned. “Somehow or other, every other agency dealing with the public recognizes that contact with the actual life of the auditor is the one place to begin” Harry Emerson Fosdick chided. “Only the preacher proceeds still upon the idea that folk come to church desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites.” Fosdick’s point has been heeded, perhaps too well, by contemporary preachers. But this does not make his assessment less true.
Inflecting the text requires application and application is local in nature. Despite this, preaching cannot afford to ignore what happened to the Jebusites any more than it can afford to overlook those who are actually present. A sermon which focuses only on the concerns of the contemporary audience and pays no attention to the historical and literary context of Scripture also removes the biblical text from its living voice. Such preaching co-opts the text instead of inflecting it, turning the living and active word into a ventriloquist’s dummy, a caricature whose hollow voice merely echoes the preacher’s own (or that of the audience).
Question: Do you think the preacher is important to the sermon? Why or why not?