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The Necessity of Preaching in the Modern World, part 2[1]

Robert Letham

Why Is Preaching Necessary?

A number of factors underlie this commitment, all of which in inseparable combination force the conclusion that preaching is the appropriate means by which the decisive acts of God for us and our salvation are to be transmitted.

The Nature of God

The Christian doctrine of God is summed up by the doctrine of the Trinity. This is the new covenant name of God.[2] The revelation that God is trinitarian is the culmination of God’s progressive self-revelation throughout the Old Testament. It entails that God is one indivisible being, three irreducible persons. All three persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—exhaustively participate in the one being of God. Neither are any more God than the others, nor are the three together greater than any one. In keeping with this, the three mutually indwell each other, occupying the same infinite divine space.[3] The eternal life of the Holy Trinity is one of indivisible union, marked by love between the three. At the heart of this is communication.

God is relational and personal. Jesus talks of the glory he shared with the Father in eternity (John 17:22–24). The Father advances his kingdom through the work of the Son, for it is his will that the Son should have pre-eminence in all things (Col. 1:19). We read of the Father’s love for the Son (John 3:35, 17:23–24; Rom. 8:32). The Son brings honor to the Father (John 17:4). The Holy Spirit glorifies the Son (John 16:14–15). The eternal generation of the Son by the Father tells us that God is not at all lonely even without the world and us.[4] Apart from the generation of the Son, creation would be inconceivable.[5] The eternal vibrance of the living Holy Trinity—an indivisible union of life communicated, received, and mutually possessed, as instanced in the relations of the three, in eternal generation and procession—grounds the free and sovereign determination of the Trinity to bring into existence what is contingent and other. God is life itself, overflowing vitality, inherently fecund.[6]

In short, God is indivisible and personal—communication is at the heart of who he is and what he does. It is in keeping with who God is that in dealing with humanity, who he created in his own image, that communication is basic.

The Incarnation

So much is evident when we consider that, while Adam was created in the image of God, the second Adam, the Word become flesh, is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15, Heb. 1:3).[7] In the incarnation, the eternal Son took our nature into union. Consequently, in answer to the question as to the personal identity of Jesus of Nazareth (exactly who is Jesus Christ?), the reply given by the church is that he is the eternal Son of the Father.[8] This Cyrilline Christology was affirmed at Chalcedon (see the repeated “the same” in its Definition) and even more emphatically at the second Council of Constantinople (553 AD).

Old is correct when he recognizes that the Pauline statement that faith comes through hearing the Word of Christ—and thus Christ speaking through his Word—follows from the doctrine of grace. God saves us because he loves us, and has spoken to us, revealing himself and opening up communion with himself.[9] This is nowhere more evident than in the incarnation, in which our humanity has been taken into permanent, personal union by the eternal Son.

The Personal Nature of Man

The incarnation establishes the point that humans are personal beings. While this is a constantly elusive concept, it indicates that we have been made by God for partnership, fellowship, communion, and union with himself. From this, it underlines the reality that preaching is the means God uses to bring the good news of salvation, as personal address is utterly suitable for the purpose.

Preaching as personal communication is located at the heart of God’s covenant. Central to the whole flow of the history of the covenant of grace is the constantly repeated promise, “I will be your God, you shall be my people” (Gen. 17:7–8; Jer. 11:4, 24:7, 30:22, 32:38, 31:33; Rev. 21:3).[10] This is clearly established in the biblical record. Verbal communication was necessary even before the fall. It provided the meaning of creation and the purpose of human existence.[11] God, having created man, announced to him the nature of his task (Gen. 1:26–29), instructed him about his agricultural responsibilities—a function which may well have been both priestly and kingly[12]—and the outcome if he proved disobedient (Gen. 2:15–17). From the description of the aftermath of the fall, in which God was walking in the garden and calling out to Adam, it appears that such communication was a regular feature in the original setting of creation.

Thereafter, this is pervasively evident. In the Old Testament, preaching became embedded at the heart of worship. The prophets constantly engaged the community by word written or spoken. Old remarks that over the centuries preaching developed “both theological depth and literary refinement.”[13] In the New Testament, more than thirty verbs describe it.[14]

We recall that once upon a time, documents such as the New Testament Gospels and letters were read aloud in public to groups. This was the case in the primitive church. Later, with the invention of the printing press and the wider spread of books, reading became increasingly a private, individual, and silent matter. However, in earlier days, preaching would have regularly accompanied the reading of the biblical books.

The Suitability of Speech

Hence, speech is the normal means God uses to communicate to us. This is in marked contrast to the ideas of Gregory of Nyssa, in his Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book, 44, where he argues for the primacy of sense knowledge over the intellectual, of the visual in creation over words, which, he suggests, are inherently ambiguous.

All that appears, or that is conceivable in respect to us, depends on a Power who is inscrutable and sublime. This is not given in articulate speech, but by the things which are seen, and it instills into our minds the knowledge of Divine power more than if speech proclaimed it with a voice. As, then, the heavens declare, though they do not speak, and the firmament shows God’s handiwork, yet requires no voice for the purpose, and the day uttereth speech, though there is no speaking, and no one can say that Holy Scripture is in error—in like manner, since both Moses and David have one and the same Teacher, I mean the Holy Spirit, who says that the fiat went before the creation, we are not told that God is the Creator of words, but of things made known to us by the signification of our words.[15]

Indeed, Gregory continues, visible objects are more readily comprehensible, while God needs no words to make known his mind.[16] Gregory’s argument has had ongoing effect in the Eastern Church, where worship is very strongly visual, with icons everywhere, the comings and goings of the priest into and out of the sanctuary symbolizing Christ coming to feed his people, the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, the opening of the gates of paradise, and so on.[17] However, this is counter to the normal way God communicated to his people. In reference to his appearance to Israel at Sinai, it is recorded that “the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deut. 4:12).

Whereas the visual can be evocative, it is inherently ambiguous. If the President of the United States were to declare war on a particular country, it is unlikely he would disclose this to the nation by means of a troupe of dancers, or actors performing a skit. A matter of such seriousness would demand direct, personal, verbal address, with clear explanations.

Speech-act theory reinforces this argument.[18] Words are uniquely adaptable. Any number of illocutions—types of speech—are available. Words can promise, warn, encourage, rebuke, inform, elicit, express sorrow or thanksgiving, praise, advise, or command—and many other things. In turn, words can effect actions and bring about change; what are termed perlocutions. The urgent shout, “Fire!” will usually result in a rapid exodus from a building; an inconsiderate comment will produce anger or bitterness; a tenderly, soothing whisper, “I love you,” will sometimes accomplish the intended aim.

How Far Is There Confessional Support?

The French Confession (1559), in which Calvin played a central role, stresses the importance of preaching in no uncertain terms: “We detest all visionaries who would like, so far as lies in their power, to destroy this ministry and preaching of the Word and sacraments” (section 25).[19]

The Scots Confession (1560), drawn up by John Knox, asks, “Of the Notis, be the quhilk the trewe Kirk is decernit fra the false, and quha sall be judge of the doctrine,” and answers, “The notes therefore of the trew Kirk of God we beleeve, confesse, and avow to be, first, the trew preaching of the Worde of God” (Article 18).[20]

The Belgic Confession (1561) agrees, stating that “the marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein ... ” (Article 29).[21]

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) places preaching in the context of our deliverance from sin. “Question 65. Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence comes this faith? A. The Holy Ghost works it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy Sacraments.”[22]

The Second Helvetic Confession (1566), 1:2, declares in a celebrated passage

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 preached, and received of the faithful (credimus ipsum Dei verbum annunciari et a fidelibus recipi); and that neither any other Word of God is to be feigned, nor to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; who, although he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God abides true and good.[23]

There is here a marginal reference—praedicatio verbi Dei est verbum Dei (the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God). We note the important point that the efficacy of preaching is not dependent on the minister but on the Word of God itself. Another significant stress here is on the lawful calling of the preacher. Therefore, there is a twofold check, preventing the idea that any fool standing up and spouting off about the Christian faith can say that he is preaching the Word of God. First is the comment “when this Word of God is now preached” which directs us to the content of the preaching; it must be within the boundaries of the rule of faith. Second, it is done “by preachers lawfully called,” referring to at least licensure and probably ordination, and thus church authority. In this, it is in harmony with the New Testament correlation of the Holy Spirit and the church, as in Acts 13:3–4, in which the sending of Paul and Barnabas by the church is equated with their sending by the Holy Spirit, and the comment of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15:28 that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) 1.1 refers to the propagation of the truth, later defined as through the ministry of the Word, as the revelation by the Lord which has been committed wholly to writing in the Scriptures: “It pleased the Lord ... to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church ... to commit the same wholly unto writing.” In this the preaching of the church, properly understood, is not to be seen in detachment from the Lord’s revelation of himself and his will to the church, nor from the written record of that revelation in Scripture, which in turn is wholly identified with that prior revelation.

We conclude that preaching is absolutely central to the being and well-being of the church. This is established on biblical grounds and it has found expression in the creeds and confessions of the Reformed churches.

Apart from the Perennial Matter of Sin, What Barriers Exist to Preaching Today?

A point Old makes repeatedly in his massive work on the reading and preaching of the Scriptures in the worship of the church is that the church’s health is directly related to the vibrancy of its preaching. In turn, the quality of the preaching is largely dependent on the level of education in society.[24] Referring to the Benedictines and their cultivation of learning, Old remarks, “If the Church was to worship as it always had, there needed to be a steady supply of young men who knew how to speak in public, how to use words, and how to read and understand a written text. If there was to be a ministry of the Word, then the culture of words, the arts of literature, and the preservation and distribution of books had to be cultivated.”[25] There is no point in pietists praying for revival if one cannot speak the language of the people or put together a decent sentence, let alone a thought.

Besides a lack of education, there is another barrier to preaching in our day. This is the hostility towards all forms of authority that pervades contemporary culture. Reynolds remarks that in our age, when authority of all kinds is being repudiated, the monologue is anathema. However, he adds, biblical preaching has never been acceptable to the autonomous mind.[26]

However, preaching—as presented in Scripture—is not principially a monologue. It is dialogical because it is covenantal.[27] It is personal address by God that demands a response from the hearer. Hence, as Carrick sagely comments, the interrogative is as much a vital element of preaching as the indicative and imperative.[28] We conclude that, where preaching lacks this element, it is on the way to losing its identity.

Indeed, as face-to-face encounter, preaching is in vivid contrast to the direction of today’s social media. As Reynolds observes, these are marked by an attempt to transcend space and time.[29] Electronic technology connects us to remote locations but is in itself disincarnational. It aims to transcend the limits of human finitude but at the expense of normal human relationships. Recent social media have encouraged connections remotely but have undermined face to face human contact. At my older daughter’s wedding in the USA a few years ago, a social media event live on Twitter and Facebook (her husband a graduate in film from the University of Southern California, with his own film production company), friends remarked that at the reception no one at their table was speaking to each other; all were busy texting. In contrast, preaching is inescapably personal. We can close a book, switch off the TV or computer, exit email or Twitter, but the Word of God penetrates to our innermost being (Heb. 4:12–13).

Alan Strange remarks that the plays of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus were very popular in the ancient world, but the apostles made no use of such a medium.[30] The same can be said for the Greek predilection for rhetoric and oratory.[31] This, as part of the trivium, was handed down by the classical educational system. Paul makes a point of saying to the Corinthians that he gave no attention to such matters but rather preached simply and directly, relying on the Holy Spirit to give understanding (1 Cor. 1:18–2:5). There was plenty of intellectual content, but it was shorn of extraneous adornments, devoted entirely to presenting Christ in as clear and direct a manner as possible.

One of the main features of Reynolds’s argument is that the medium shapes the thoughts, the actions of those exposed to it. Before the invention of the printing press, an oral culture prevailed. In New Testament times, Paul’s letters would have been read to the assembled church. The medium brought people together in community. Once the printing press entered, and books were widely distributed, reading took place privately and silently, by individuals. It shaped the society and the culture.[32] Hence, we might add, the proliferation of hymns such as this, by Mary A. Lathbury, 1877:

Break thou the bread of life, dear Lord, to me ...
Bless thou the truth, dear Lord, to me, to me ...
Thou art the Bread of Life, O Lord, to me ...
O send thy Spirit, Lord, now unto me ...

Me, me, me, me, me, my dear Lord and me. Television accentuated this individualism, and has even been shown to have a physical impact on the human brain, introducing passivity.[33] The social media and the lightning speed of technological developments today are creating very new challenges to which attention must be given.

Endnotes

[1] Adapted from a lecture given at the International Conference of Reformed Churches, Cardiff, August 2013.

[2] Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004), 411–12.

[3] Gerald Bray, The Doctrine of God (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1993), 158.

[4] Barth, CD, II/1, 139–40.

[5] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 2: God and Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 420.

[6] See Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2012); Robert Letham, “The Doctrine of Eternal Generation in the Church Fathers,” in a forthcoming symposium, as yet untitled, to be published by Crossway.

[7] See Robert Letham, Union with Christ: In Scripture, History and Theology (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2011), 13–14; Richard B. Gaffin Jr,, The Centrality of the Resurrection: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978); Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1989), 281–86.

[8] See John Anthony McGuckin, St. Cyril of Alexandria: On the Unity of Christ (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladmir’s Seminary Press, 1995); Thomas G. Weinandy, “Cyril and the Mystery of the Incarnation,” in The Theology of St. Cyril of Alexandria: A Critical Appreciation, eds. Thomas G. Weinandy and Daniel A. Keating (London: T.&T. Clark, 2003), 23–54; Donald Fairbairn, Grace and Christology in the Early Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 63–132; J. Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975).

[9] Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures: Volume 1, 183.

[10] See Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1966), 285–336; Robert Letham, The Work of Christ (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1993), 39–49.

[11] Gregory Edward Reynolds, The Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures: A Resource for Preaching in the Twenty-First Century (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2001), 316.

[12] John V. Fesko, Last Things First (Fearn: Mentor, 2007).

[13] Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures: Volume 1, 102.

[14] Klaas Runia, “Preaching, Theology Of,” in New Dictionary of Theology, eds. David F. Wright, Sinclair B. Ferguson, and J.I. Packer (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 527–28.

[15] Gregory of Nyssa, Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book, 44, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, second series, ed. P. Schaff (reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 5:273.

[16] Gregory of Nyssa, Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book, 45–46.

[17] Robert Letham, Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy; A Reformed Perspective (Fearn: Mentor, 2007), 143–62.

[18] J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures Delivered in Harvard University in 1955 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976).

[19] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966), 3:374.

[20] Schaff, Creeds, 3:460–61.

[21] Ibid., 3:419.

[22] Ibid., 3:328.

[23] Schaff, Creeds, 3:237, 832.

[24] See, inter alia, Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: Volume 3: The Medieval Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 190.

[25] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: Volume 2: The Patristic Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 400–401.

[26] Reynolds, The Word, 335.

[27] Ibid., 335–36.

[28] Carrick, The Imperative of Preaching, 56–81.

[29] Reynolds, The Word, 340.

[30] Alan D. Strange, “Comments on the Centrality of Preaching in the Westminster Standards,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 10 (1999): 194 n. 12.

[31] Strange, “The Centrality of Preaching,” 217 n. 28.

[32] Reynolds, The Word, 191–201, 325–35.

[33] Ibid., 248–58.

Robert Letham, a minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales, teaches Systematic and Historical Theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, Bridgend, Wales. Ordained Servant Online, November 2013.

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