So what is happening when a person hears and responds to Jesus Christ? Two things strike me. The first thing to say is that someone is not acting out on their own bat, so to speak. Every movement towards God is a movement that is already happening inside the triune life, and so it’s a kind of prayer, a listening and participation in the divine conversation. Here I am reminded of a recent sermon by Rowan Williams in which he writes:
When I pray, I ask God to bring me into that mystery of love, to bring me into that pouring out and pouring back of love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I ask to be dropped into that ocean and carried along with its energy, its life.
Out of that, of course, come all sorts of other bits of praying. If you start there it makes sense to acknowledge that you have got things wrong, to acknowledge that you have failed – as in that wonderful song we sang earlier, ‘I am free to fail’, one of the most important messages any Christian can have. If I know that I am dropped into the ocean of God’s love, then I am not afraid to acknowledge just how much I have got wrong, just how much growing I still need to do. As I drop into that mystery I can say, ‘There is no comparison. Your goodness, your love, your abundance, your generosity are so immense that I cannot hold a light to them – I know how awful it must look. But hey, here I am in the ocean anyway. Let it come in, let it flood me through’. That is how our prayer includes confession.
And then in the context of that dropping into the love of God, we can also say to God, ‘You, God, must be passionate for the healing and the peace of my neighbours. You must care for their life, their openness to love and forgiveness. So I bring them to you knowing what you want for them. I put them in your hands because I know you want their life’. That is how we pray for one another, how we pray for peace in the world, and how we pray for our fellowship as a Church. Saying to God, ‘We know what you want for us and our neighbours’. That is the prayer of intersession, as we pray for each other.
The second thing to note is that a miracle has taken place; specifically, a miracle about the nature of Christian preaching itself. As one theologian put it, ‘No one has ever heard the gospel from the lips of a human being’; i.e., from the lips of a human being other than Jesus. If I have heard the gospel, then the who that I have heard is not the preacher but Jesus Christ. This reality describes both the possibility and the impossibility of preaching.
So when a person hears and responds to Jesus Christ (who is the Father’s right hand) one is gathered up by the Spirit (the Father’s left hand) to share in the inner relations of God’s own life and love with Christ by the Spirit in such a way that the very life of God is made to reverberate in us, and our very life is brought to reverberate in the spaciousness of God’s. This is sheer gift. As this happens, the Church recognises her true nature and purpose as centered with Christ in God in such a way that all her faith and obedience is a joyful and thankful sharing in and with the actual mission and ministry of the living Christ.
God doesn’t seem to be too
interested in keeping office hours
and very few sermons are written
when the sun is up.
When it comes, the divine speech
almost always comes sometime during
the third watch. The sermons are
almost always long and taxing;
these are no homilies or ‘thoughts
for the day’. I ebb,
beaten, taken again to the lynching
tree; am wrenched once more
© Jason Goroncy
7 August, 2012
‘When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous’. So penned Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners. In such ecclesiolatrous gogglesness, the Christian artist, O’Connor believes, sacrifices reality birthed and fostered through extra-ecclesial but no-less graced experience in favour of a sole voice very likely to soon sing out of key. And O’Connor calls for an end to what she understands to be a false dichotomy while drawing attention to a genuine tension which is neither false nor one typically handled with due care. O’Connor’s concern, however, is not here to dissolve this tension between what the church sees and what the artist sees; rather, she wishes to understand the nature of the Catholic artist’s responsibility to look with both eyes, as it were. The real vocation of (prophetic) artists, she argues, is to achieve and communicate a wholeness of vision, and to take a stand on such a vision rather than engage in enterprises about which side in the conflict is more correct or more fitting. This can only be done through the artist’s willingness to look at what is there to see – and further, to what is not yet seen. Either way, we are talking about activities of hope. (Here, too, the artist and the preacher have much in common.)
It seems to me that Jacques Maritain is trumpeting an analogous (though not the same) melody in Art and Scholasticism and the Frontiers of Poetry when he writes:
Do not make the absurd attempt to disassociate in yourself the artist and the Christian. They are truly one, if you are truly Christian, and if your art is not isolated from your soul by some system of aesthetics. But apply only the artist to the work; precisely because the artist and the Christian are one, the work will derive wholly from each of them.
To press even further, or perhaps to press backwards, I would still want to argue (with Paul Ricœur and others) for a more pronounced expression of and commitment to communal (ecclesial and other) existence; that the Christian artist – whether a prophet or not – does not carve out her own story ex nihilo, as it were, but rather works both at different levels of consciousness in the streams and side pools of narratives – and of that most basic of all Narratives – into which her existence and vocation have been gathered up and formed, and in a network of relationality in which her existence and vocation find the kind of meaning that is both healing and abiding. There is an acute difference, it seems to me, between disregarding one’s own eyes in favour of those of others alone (so O’Connor’s concern), and abandoning the cloud of witnesses altogether. The former posture is, among other things, a denial of our being-as-responsible. The latter is a performance (understood in its positive sense) of proper humility, hope and love, and an act of faith born of the conviction that whenever Jesus comes to us he always tends to bring his friends along with him as well. In like vein, there is no art without community.
Recently, I read Thomas Long’s What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith. In some ways, the book promises more than it delivers. Where it does deliver, however, is with Long’s persistent reminder and call that ‘preachers do not have the luxury of dismissing in the pulpit a serious question that arises from the pews’. I love that. Given Long’s proven track record in writing some of the best books on preaching around (although my favourite of his books remains Accompany Them with Singing), it is perhaps unsurprising that some of the richest insights shared in What Shall We Say? have to do with preaching. Here’s a taster:
‘Sometimes people assume that preaching works this way: a preacher prepares a sermon during the week, finishes it at some point – maybe Friday afternoon or Saturday night – and then gets up and preaches the finished product in worship on Sunday. This may be the way it appears on the surface, but experienced preachers know better: sermons are never actually finished. There are always loose ends, questions that could have been pursued in more depth, stones left unturned, intriguing aspects of the biblical text unexamined, thoughts not quite fully baked, an untidiness at the heart of things. At some point, though, preachers have to take what they have, stand up, and speak. Preachers do not preach because the sermon is finished; they preach because it is Sunday. The time has come.
That sermons are never finished is actually a good thing. Sermons get presented in incomplete form not because of procrastination or negligence – not most of the time, anyway – but because preaching mirrors the character of faithful theology and of the Christian life itself. Karl Barth once described God’s revelation as “a bird in flight.” By the time we have paused to snap a photo, write a systematic theology, or craft a sermon, the bird has flown on. “All theology is provisional,” said theologian Arthur C. McGill. “It is the movement … from darkness toward the light, so that as movement no point along its way has permanent or final validity.”’
– Thomas G. Long, What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011), 114.
Like most people who hang around churches, I hear a lot of bad sermons. Some of them are my own. And from time to time, I also read some bad sermons. I also read about what makes bad sermons. (Ironically, or perhaps not, these essays are often written by someone who themselves is a dismal preacher.) So when PT Forsyth suggests that ‘with its preaching Christianity stands or falls’, I hope like mad that he’s wrong, even while secretly acquiescing with his assessment of God’s strange ways with us. Anyway, I was recently reading Bonhoeffer’s novella titled ‘Sunday’ which appears in his Fiction from Tegel Prison material (I’m slowly making my way through Bonhoeffer’s works this year). Therein, he offers us one of the best expositions I’ve yet read on the bad sermon, and on the costliness of such. Here’s an excerpt:
Frau Karoline Brake sat upright on the park bench, her eyes lost in the red splendor of blossoms and in the dark green foliage. A few brimstone butterflies fluttered in the hushed stillness of shimmering sunlight. The birds’ soft rustling in the hushes, their voices now almost silenced by the fire of the sun climbing toward noon, the chirping of crickets, the mosquitoes’ fine, bright hum – all these sounds reached her ear, penetrating the stillness. Feeling happy and profoundly thankful, she breathed in the fullness of the summer air.
Suddenly a shadow passed across her face. She had heard another miserable sermon. She had walked out of church in a very bad mood, and only the radiant blue sky and nature’s summery light had made her feel better. But now she felt her rage rising once again within her. What rubbish she had been forced to listen to again. Could one blame the children and grandchildren who, for years now, had let her go to church alone? She could still hear her oldest grandson’s precocious words as he had accompanied her to church for the last time: “You know, Grandma, we’ve outgrown this kind of preacher wisdom just like we’ve outgrown our Latin teachers rattling off Ostermann’s exercises. I really can’t understand how you can bear to listen to it Sunday after Sunday.”
At the time she had replied, “Dear boy, what’s important is not that something is new, but that it’s right. And we need to hear what’s right again and again, because unfortunately we keep forgetting it.”
“I don’t understand,” he had replied. “I don’t forget it at all. On the contrary, I can recite all these sanctimonious clichés backwards and forwards.”
‘‘Yes, you know them in your head and your lips can rattle them off my dear, but the heart and the hand learn more slowly.”
She had said this and yet did not feel right about saying it, for what they had heard in the sermon was neither new nor right. It was sanctimonious prattle, and to her mind that was the worst thing that could happen from the pulpit. Perhaps she should have admitted that openly to her grandson. Perhaps she should have said to him: “You mustn’t confuse Christianity with its pathetic representatives.” But he was a smart boy and would not have spared her a reply: “Anything that has such pathetic representatives can’t have much power left; I’m interested in what is alive and relevant today, not in a dead faith of the past.”
How could one argue with that? To distinguish between original Christianity and the church today was really a feeble attempt to justify it. After all, what mattered was simply whether the Christianity in which Frau Brake had grown up and lived her life still existed today, and whether or not it lives in its current representatives. Every bad sermon was another nail in the coffin of the Christian faith. It could no longer be denied that here, in this suburb in any event, hot air had taken the place of God’s Word.
Frau Karoline Brake no longer saw the bushes in full bloom; she could no longer feel the pleasure of the warm July sun. Instead she saw her children and grandchildren before her mind’s eye and uttered a quiet “Oh, well!” In her voice was a little amazement about the ways of the world, a little worry about her own inability to change them, but also a good bit of that calm assurance with which older people entrust the future to hands stronger than their own. But, as if she had already let herself go too far with this little sigh, Frau Karoline straightened her body with a quick, rather indignant jerk, stood up, and strode resolutely through the park to the street that led to her home.
No, she was not the kind who gave up easily. You could tell from the way she walked that she was making decisions as she went along. She would see that this old windbag of a preacher left this pulpit, or that a second pastor, a preacher of the word of God, would be called to the parish. She rejected the idea of speaking to the windbag again. She had made several attempts, but had been met with nothing but vain defensiveness and hollow officiousness. In fact, she had felt the pastor avoiding her glance since these visits, and she had heard by the grapevine that he had thwarted her reelection to the parish council [Gemeindekirchenrat]. Some said he emphasized that she must be spared because of her age; others said he thought her strange. He even went so far with some as to accuse her of intolerable presumption. There was no doubt about it; he was afraid of her because she saw through him. Despite these events she had continued to go to his church every Sunday, even when she had long since given up hope of ever hearing the word of God from him. She had taken this humiliation upon herself as a salutary discipline. But in the end she had had enough. It wasn’t so much for her own sake; she had learned through the years to ignore the talk and to focus on the few words which contained truth. She could have continued this way for the rest of her life. But more important things were at stake. The congregation, the whole town, her own family was deprived of the word of God and that meant that their whole life must sooner or later lose its center. This could remain hidden for a while yet; memory and tradition could postpone complete disintegration for a while yet.
But her grandchildren’s generation would need to find new ways of its own, and several things these young people had said had led their grandmother to recognize the first signs of protest, even of revolt. It was not the young people’s fault if things were as they were. Rather, the older people let things take their course so unperceptively, without insight or concern. That was the worst thing about it. Frau Karoline Brake had asked herself tacitly whether it could be God’s will to bring judgment over this generation by withdrawing God’s word from them. But even if it were so, she told herself, God would also want people to resist [widersetzen] this judgment, to take God at his word and not let him go until he blessed them. But why was she so alone with her ideas and opinions? Why did hardly anyone who had been in church today, except the old sexton, notice that all they had heard were hollow phrases and cheap clichés? Why did the educated, of all people, fail so completely in their discernment? To be sure, they hardly ever went to church, but when they had to attend a baptism or wedding they always found the “speech” [Rede], as they called the sermon, very lovely, very artistic, very modern, very relevant. The old woman shook her head dejectedly and was totally lost in her thoughts when she heard a voice behind her.
“Good morning, my dear Frau Bürgermeister, hasn’t the dear Lord blessed us with another beautiful day?” It was the neighbor, Direktor Warmblut’s widow, who was also walking home from church. She had already greeted two or three other women from the neighborhood on their way home and was now hurrying after Frau Karoline Brake to reach her before they arrived at their houses. It wasn’t easy for this short, rather plump woman to catch up to her neighbor, who was ten years her senior. Now she ran breathless with a shiny, red face beside the agile and stately figure, who presented a rare picture of moderation and dignity in her gray dress, gray silk parasol, gray hair, and the dry gray skin of her intelligent face.
“Good morning,” said Frau Brake with her quiet, clear voice. “Yes, the sun does us good; we need it, too.”
“Oh, I do hope things are going well with you. What wonderful health the dear Lord has given you! Well, of course, he loves you and why shouldn’t he? Such a blessed family life, and you their beloved grandmother, the idol of all the grandchildren. Oh, these charming children, and they’re growing up now. But they’re still good, cast in the same mold, and why shouldn’t they be? How fortunate for you, to be surrounded by your family – just think, my dear Frau Bürgermeister, I have had such trouble again the last few days. Oh, I know, the heavier the cross, the closer to heaven, and why shouldn’t it be so? But just think, my daughter Hilde’s husband has left the church and doesn’t want their child baptized. I’ve shed so many tears over it. What would my dear husband, God rest his soul, have said about it? And what will people think of us, and what will become of the poor little wretch? Yes, and I’m almost ashamed to admit it, my Hilde doesn’t seem to mind at all. She says the child can decide later on for herself what she wants. That really hurt me – and coming from my own daughter! And all this to the widow of a man of such an honorable position! I just can’t understand it. I always told her about the dear Lord and prayed with her. She always had to go to church with me, and even at her wedding the pastor gave her such lovely maxims to learn, and she always had the saying over her bed, “Do right and fear no one.” Believe me, dearest Frau Bürgermeister, I haven’t been able to sleep for nights fretting over my daughter. But during the sermon today all that blew over, and now I’m relieved and happy. Oh, and the dear Lord has given us our dear church and our dear pastor, too, who has such a beautiful way with words, so down-to-earth and close to the people. Forgive me, Frau Bürgermeister, I know you don’t always agree with him, but today, don’t you agree, today he outdid himself.”
“Yes, today he really outdid himself, Frau Direktor.”
“You see, you see, oh, I’m so happy that you agree. Didn’t he say it beautifully? Yes – uh, what did he say, anyway? It’s so lovely one could never convey it. But it really doesn’t matter at all, you can just feel it and it’s so uplifting and you don’t even quite know why, isn’t that right, dearest Frau Bürgermeister.”
“Yes, you really don’t quite know why.”
“Well, anyway, he said everyone should live the way they see fit and then it will be the right way, and it doesn’t matter that much to the dear Lord whether the little one is baptized or not, right, Frau Bürgermeister? And it really doesn’t matter that much at all whether my little Hilde goes to church or not. We’re all free people, after all, that’s how he expressed it. Oh, what a wonderful idea! So liberating, so deep, and why shouldn’t it be, right, dearest Frau Bürgermeister? In fact, he had a Bible passage. Now what was it about again?”
“Yes, indeed, what do you think it was about, Frau Direktor?”
“Yes, what was it about, anyway? Oh – you’re getting me all confused, Frau Bürgermeister. But it really doesn’t matter at all, does it?”
“No, it really doesn’t matter at all, because it wasn’t about the Bible passage at all. He wanted to preach about plucking the ears of corn on the Sabbath and about the verse, ‘The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ Instead of saying that Christ may do things because he is Christ, but that doesn’t give us the right to do them by any means, and that if Christ keeps the Sabbath by breaking it, then we first have to learn how to keep the Sabbath holy in earnest, by keeping it – instead of saying that, he babbled on about the freedom of all human beings, and that people may do whatever they think is right, and that we should spend Sunday out in nature rather than in church, and that it doesn’t matter so much at all because the dear Lord is so kind and sweet and good that he isn’t even capable of wrath. My dear Frau Direktor, did it escape you again that the pastor said what you wanted to hear; but didn’t preach the word of God?”
In his wonderful book, Rabbit is Rich, John Updike offers the following observation: ‘Laugh at ministers all you want, they have the words we need to hear, the ones the dead have spoken’. Here Updike is suggesting that religious language, the Bible’s language, or what he calls ‘the words … the dead have spoken’ are the very bread and butter of a ministers vocabulary, words which determine not only the content of a minister’s speech but also the conduct associated with a minister’s speech. Indeed, ministers are permitted to speak only that which has been given. All other words are only waffle, a foul and unholy wind. No wonder that Bonhoeffer said that ‘teaching about Christ begins in silence’. For the words which the dead have spoken are, as Walter Brueggemann reminds us in his book on the psalms, ‘words that linger with power and authority after their speakers have gone’. Brueggemann understands the psalmists and prophets to be the great poets of our tradition, who speak to God out of the fullness of the human condition. He considers the entire psalter as a collection of three kinds of psalms: there are psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of new orientation. ‘Poets exist so that the dead may vote’, said Elie Wiesel, and they vote in the Psalms. ‘They vote for faith’, says Brueggemann. ‘But in voting for faith they vote for candor, for pain, for passion – and finally for joy. Their persistent voting gives us a word that turns out to be the word of life’. Brueggemann is concerned about the kind of exclusively happy-clappy churchianity that exists, saying that ‘the problem with a hymnody that focuses on equilibrium, coherence, and symmetry (as in the psalms of orientation) is that it may deceive and cover over. Life is not like that. Life is so savagely marked by incoherence, a loss of balance, and unrelieved asymmetry’. True poets, painters, musicians etc. take the fullness of creaturely life seriously and, insofar as they do this, open up space in which the Holy Dove of God has room to flutter her wings.
Revelation, healing, hope, forgiveness, worship, prayer, the transformation and redemption of human community – what are these if not fundamentally engaged with the matter of the human imagination. The psalmists new this. The prophets new this. And Brueggemann calls upon preachers today to embrace a like posture with the utmost seriousness. He begins his book The Prophetic Imagination with the following words:
The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act. This enculturation is in some way true across the spectrum of church life, both liberal and conservative. It may not be a new situation, but it is one that seems especially urgent and pressing at the present time. That enculturation is true not only of the institution of the church but also of us as persons. Our consciousness has been claimed by false fields of perception and idolatrous systems of language and rhetoric.
The internal cause of such enculturation is our loss of identity through the abandonment of the faith tradition. Our consumer culture is organized against history. There is a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope, which means everything must be held in the now, either an urgent now or an eternal now. Either way, a community rooted in energizing memories and summoned by radical hopes is a curiosity and a threat in such a culture. When we suffer from amnesia every form of serious authority for faith is in question, and we live unauthorized lives of faith and practice unauthorized ministries.
The church will not have power to act or believe until it recovers its tradition of faith and permits that tradition to be the primal way out of enculturation. This is not a cry for traditionalism but rather a judgment that the church has no business more pressing than the reappropriation of its memory in its full power and authenticity. And that is true among liberals who are too chic to remember and conservatives who have overlaid the faith memory with all kinds of hedges that smack of scientism and Enlightenment.
… The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us … So, my programmatic urging is that every act of a minister who would be prophetic is part of a way of evoking, forming, and reforming an alternative community. And this applies to every facet and every practice of ministry. It is a measure of our enculturation that the various acts of ministry (for example, counseling, administration, even liturgy) have taken on lives and functions of their own rather than being seen as elements of the one prophetic ministry of formation and reformation of alternative community … [I]f the church is to be faithful it must be formed and ordered from the inside of its experience and confession and not by borrowing from sources external to its own life.
So in calling upon preachers to take seriously the role of the imagination, Brueggemann is not asking us to discard our own tradition and to take on something new. Rather, he is inviting us to do what God’s prophets and apostles have always done – to hear and to see and to taste and to touch and to speak the word of God, and to do so with all the powers of new imaginings that God has given to us, even in our own tradition, so that we might wrestle with the Word of God, with the old old story, as if for the first time, and have our lives formed by it.
In another book, Finally Comes the Poet, Brueggemann turns his attention specifically to preachers:
The gospel is too readily heard and taken for granted, as though it contained no unsettling news and no unwelcome threat. What began as news in the gospel is easily assumed, slotted, and conveniently dismissed. We depart having heard, but without noticing the urge to transformation that is not readily compatible with our comfortable believing that asks little and receives less.
The gospel is thus a truth widely held, but a truth greatly reduced. It is a truth that has been flattened, trivialized, and rendered inane. Partly, the gospel is simply an old habit among us, neither valued nor questioned. But more than that, our technical way of thinking reduces mystery to problem, transforms assurance into certitude, revises quality into quantity, and so takes the categories of biblical faith and represents them in manageable shapes.
When truth is mediated in such positivistic, ideological, and therefore partisan ways, humaneness wavers, the prospect for humanness, is at risk, and unchecked brutality makes its appearance. We shall not be the community we hope to be if our primary communications are in modes of utilitarian technology and managed, conformed values. The issues facing the church and its preachers may be put this way: Is there another way to speak? Is there another voice to be voiced? Is there an alternative universe of discourse to be practiced that will struggle with the truth in ways unreduced? In the sermon – and in the life of the church, more generally, I propose – we are to practice another way of communication that makes another shaping of life possible; unembarrassed about another rationality, not anxious about accommodating the reason of this age.
The task and possibility of preaching is to open out the good news of the gospel with alternative modes of speech – speech that is dramatic, artistic, capable of inviting persons to join in another conversation, free of the reason of technique, unencumbered by ontologies that grow abstract, unembarrassed about concreteness. Such speech, when heard in freedom, assaults imagination and pushes out the presumed world in which most of us are trapped. Reduced speech leads to reduced lives. Sunday morning is the practice of a counter life through counter speech. The church on Sunday morning, or whenever it engages in its odd speech, may be the last place left in our society for imaginative speech that permits people to enter into new worlds of faith and to participate in joyous, obedient life.
To address the issue of a truth greatly reduced requires us to be poets that speak against a prose world. The terms of that phrase are readily misunderstood. By prose I refer to a world that is organized in settled formulae, so that even pastoral prayers and love letters sound like memos. By poetry, I do not mean rhyme, rhythm, or meter, but language that moves like Bob Gibson’s fast ball, that jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion, and pace. Poetic speech is the only proclamation worth doing in a situation of reductionism, the only proclamation, I submit, that is worthy of the name preaching. Such preaching is not moral instruction or problem solving or doctrinal clarification. It is not good advice, nor is it romantic caressing, nor is it a soothing good humor.
It is, rather, the ready, steady, surprising proposal that the real world in which God invites us to live is not the one made available by the rulers of this age. The preacher has an awesome opportunity to offer an evangelical world: an existence shaped by the news of the gospel. This offer requires special care for words, because the baptized community awaits speech in order to be a faithful people. What a way to think about a poetic occasion that moves powerfully to expose the prose reductions around us as false! … Because we live so close to the biblical text, we often fail to note its generative power to summon and evoke new life. Broadly construed, the language of the biblical text is prophetic: it anticipates and summons realities that live beyond the conventions of our day-to-day, take-for-granted world. The Bible is our firm guarantee that in a world of technological naivete and ideological reductionism, prophetic construals of another world are still possible, still worth doing, still longingly received by those who live at the edge of despair, resignation, and conformity. Our preferred language is to call such speech prophetic, but we might also term it poetic. Those whom the ancient Israelites called prophets, the equally ancient Greeks called poets. The poet/prophet is a voice that shatters settled reality and evokes new possibility in the listening assembly. Preaching continues that dangerous, indispensable habit of speech. The poetic speech of text and of sermon is a prophetic construal of a world beyond the one taken for granted … This poetic/prophetic utterance runs great risk. It runs the risk of being heard as fantasy and falsehood … The more tightly we hold to settled reality, the more likely the alternative construal of the poet will be dismissed as ‘mere fiction’. The poet/prophet, however, does not flinch from ‘fiction’, for the alternative envisioned in such speech is a proposal that destabilizes all our settled ‘facts’, and opens the way for transformation and the gift of newness.
And so Brueggemann encourages us to think of preaching as ‘a poetic construal of an alternative world’, the purpose of which is to ‘cherish the truth, to open the truth from its pervasive reductionism in our society, to break the fearful rationality that keeps the news from being new … After the engineers, inventors, and scientists, after all such through knowledge, “finally comes the poet”. The poet does not come to have a say until the human community has engaged in its best management. Then perchance comes the Power of poetry – shattering, evocative speech that breaks fixed conclusions and presses us always toward new, dangerous, imaginative possibilities … This speech, entrusted to and practiced by the church, is an act of relentless hope; an argument against the ideological closing of life we unwittingly embrace’.
It is precisely this posture towards and way of thinking about the poetic and fantastic (i.e., from fantasy, fiction, etc.) nature of reality and the shape of divine revelation that is just so imperative, not only for preaching but also for prayer, for pastoral encounters, for crafting liturgy, for choreographing church leadership structures and meetings, etc. Surely one of the main roles for leaders of faith communities is to help transform and foster our imaginations with the rich and fundamental traditions and texts that have formed us as a people, and to help God’s people to hear those afresh, as if for the first time. And for leaders of Christian faith communities, this means fostering an imagination baptised in the promises and stories of the Bible, seeing and hearing and tasting them as God’s ever-new speech.
And what art encourages is the opening up of hermeneutical space wherein our questions are taken seriously, where we can feel safer to explore them with God and with God’s people. Such a posture is something of a confession too; a confession that (i) there is truth that desires to be known; and (ii) we do not and cannot monopolise and control the truth of things.
Brueggemann reminds us that the meeting of the community of faith is an odd kind of speech meeting which ‘has the potential of evoking a new humanity’. And he suggests that in order for the new reality to be birthed, four partners need to be present:
1. The first partner in the meeting is the text. The congregation gathers with a vague memory of the text – a memory that has the text mostly reduced, trivialized, and domesticated.
2. The second partner in the meeting is the baptized. The community, he suggests in Finally Comes The Poet, ‘gathers to be shaped by a text that addresses us, an articulation of reality that lies outside of us that we cannot conjure and need not defend. The ones gather have been baptized. They may understand in an inchoate [i.e., tentative, embryonic, etc] way, but they have in fact made some vague decision about the cruciality of this text. They do not have a clear articulation of the text’s authority. Or they have a clear articulation that has become so scholastic as to be without use. Nonetheless, they are prepared to accept, in a general way, that this text is their text, the voice of life addressed to them’. He continues:
The baptized then, have been struggling with this text. The ones gathered are those who have either been other texts and have found them wanting, or have greatly resisted other texts and need this text reiterated Once again. Either way, out of compromise or resistance, the community gathers not for entertainment or private opinion, even for problem solving, but for the text made available yet again. They gather to hear the text that is shamelessly theological, candidly kerygmatic, and naively eschatological. The community waits for the text that may be a tent for the spirit. It waits with the hopeful yearning that the ‘house of authority’ is still intact. But if the text is to claim authority it will require neither the close reasoning of a canon lawyer, nor the precision of a technician, but it will require an artist to render the text in quite fresh ways, so that the text breaks life open among the baptized as it never has before.
3. Third, Brueggemann avers, there is ‘this specific occasion for speech’. Here he notes that ‘when the music stops and the rheostat is turned down, then there is this precious, awesome moment of speech’:
It is not time for cleverness or novelty. It is not time for advice or scolding or urging, because the text is not any problem-solving answer or a flat, ideological agent that can bring resolve. This moment of speech is a poetic rendering in a community that has come all too often to expect nothing but prose. It is a prose world for all those who must meet payrolls and grade papers and pump gas and fly planes. When the text, too, has been reduced to prose, life becomes so prosaic that there is a dread dullness that besets the human spirit. We become mindless conformists or angry protesters, and there is no health in us. We become so beaten by prose that only poetic articulation has a chance to let us live.
Into this situation, in this moment, the preacher must speak. She does not get to speak a new text. She must speak an old text – the one everybody knows. From the very first syllable, the ending is already known. But it is a script to be played afresh, so that in this moment of drama the players render the play as a surprise to permit a fresh hearing, a second opinion. It is an artistic in which the words are concrete but open, close our life but moving out to new angles of reality. At the end, there is a breathless waiting: stunned, not sure we have reached the end. Then there is a powerful sense that a world has been rendered in which I may live, a world that is truly home but from which I have been alienated. The speaker must truly be a poet. After the scientist and the engineer, ‘finally comes the poet’ (which Israel calls prophet) – to evoke a different world, a new song, a fresh move, a new identity, a resolve about ethics, a being at home.
4. Brueggemann’s fourth and final cadence concerns the fact that in the voice that takes the old script and renders it to evoke a world we had not yet witnessed (cf. Isa 43.19), a ‘better world [is] given as fresh revelation’. ‘Something’, he insists, ‘is revealed’, and ‘we know not how’. He continues:
A probe behind the closed parameters of religion too-long settled and politics too easily comfortable. It is not only truth disclosed, but it is life disclosed. Life unclosed, Life made open, certitudes broken so that we can redecide, images moving, imagination assaulting ideology. We find new configurations of life yet unformed, unthought, but now available. The old slogans sound unconvincing. I thought I had come for certitude, but the poetic speech does not give certitude. As I am addressed by the gospel, I hear anew that possibility overwhelms necessity in my life. The only available absolute given me is a ‘fiction’ to which I must trust myself – a gracious ‘fiction’ on which I stake my life, authored by God who also authors the text and the speech.
The congregation departs. Same old quarrels in the car on the way home. Same old tensions at dinner. Same tired beginning on Monday. Now, however, there is disclosed a new word, a new hope, a new verb, a new conversation, a new risk, a new possibility. It is not a new truth, but rather one long known that had been greatly reduced. That long-known truth is now greatly enhanced in riches, texture, availability, demand. My life is mapped in mystery and I accept that new life; but it is also mapped in vulnerability and it frightens me. The mystery gives regal authority and freedom in the face of an IRS audit. The vulnerability permits me to come out from behind my desk, my stethoscope, my uniform, my competence, my credentials, my fears – to meet life a little more boldly. Yet again, as the word is spoken one more time, we move through the wearisome death-ridden days of our life and come back once again to Easter to be stunned into disbelief, and then beyond disbelief, to be stunned to life, now filled with fear and trembling.
The meeting involves this old text, the spent congregation believing but impoverished, the artist of new possibility, the disclosure. The Prince of Darkness tries frantically to keep the world closed so that we can be administered. The Prince has such powerful allies in this age. Against such enormous odds, however, there is the working of this feeble, inscrutable, unshackled moment of sermon. Sometimes the Prince will win the day and there is no new thing uttered or heard. Sometimes, however, the sermon will have its say and the truth looms large – larger than the text or the voice or the folk had any reason to expect. When that happens, the world is set loose toward healing. The sermon for such a time shames the Prince and we become yet again more nearly human. The Author of the text laughs in delight, the way that Author has laughed only at creation and at Easter, but laughs again when the sermon carries the day against the prose of the Dark Prince who wants no new poetry in the region he thinks he governs. Where the poetry is sounded, the Prince knows a little of the territory has been lost to its true Ruler. The newly claimed territory becomes a new home of freedom, justice, peace, and abiding joy. This happens when the poet comes, when the poet speaks, when the preacher comes as poet.
Gospel of a Saviour who even dies just to impress us with His love, instead of surprising us with joy as we discover Him going to the business of our case and really acting for us with God and against our enemy, captor, and accuser … must be ineffective on all but the weak. It is an æsthetic Gospel; sympathetic at best, and at worst sentimental; it is not action, it does not work; and it is part cause, part effect, of that green mould of sentimentalism which is sapping so much popular religion, and sinking adult men to read novels of mawkish piety that sell in tens of thousands and madden the manly mind to refuge in Tom Jones.
– P.T. Forsyth, ‘The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ. [VII:] The Meaning of a Sinless Christ’. The Expositor 8th Series, 25 (1923), 304.
The full text of the sermon from which these words come can be found in my forthcoming book ‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth (Eugene: Pickwick Publications).
Many Barthians, non-Barthians and anti-Barthians alike like to quote and debate the so-called ‘impossible possibility’ in conversations about soteriological universalism and about das Nichtige. But a more pressing ‘impossible possibility’, for Barth, concerns the fact that the Word of God might be unveiled ‘through the foolishness of our proclamation’ (1 Cor 1.21). I was reminded of this again recently while reading Barth’s wonderful chapter on ‘The Task of the Ministry’ in The Word of God and the Word of Man wherein Barth sums up the pastor’s dilemma thus: ‘As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory. This is our perplexity. The rest of our task fades into insignificance in comparison’ (p. 186). I am also reminded of the ’impossible possibility’ when I read Arnold Kenseth’s poem ‘Sunday’s Hour’:
Comes Sunday’s hour, and speech hangs itself
On God’s red tree. Preacher, word-monger, I
Defy the interdict, naming dark Yahweh, taking Him
And His fire in vain. O havoc, cry havoc! Sigh
His deep blue breath into phrases and praises.
Still, it is impossible. He will not dwell half
Or anywhere in my capture. Yet I must draw home
The net, try to catch somehow His graces.
For it is by grace we live, and all the people
Must be told. So I could wish my body more
Contained Him, that my walks more shaped, here
And there, His amble. How ill beneath a steeple
I incarnate! Despite me, then, come now,
Let His enlightening strike us row by row.
It would be fair to say that I am not known for my speediness. That confessed, I am currently racing to finish off a wee manuscript on the sermons of PT Forsyth (hence the relative paucity of posts here at Per Crucem ad Lucem). So I’ve been thinking much of late not only about Forsyth but also about preaching. And in regards to the latter, it’s been fun to revisit some of my old reading notes on preaching. Here’s one from the pen of Helmut Thielicke that I wanted to share:
‘The aim of the sermon, after all, is to create something living and set it in motion. Consequently, it should be directed not only at the intellect, but must at the same time also be aimed at the conscience, will, and imagination. It is addressed to the whole person! Corresponding to the complexity of this goal are the wealth of reflections in which one is absorbed before one makes ones way to the pulpit.
The extremely pluralistic composition of my audience forced me to still further reflections. The different levels of education and social background necessitated an inquiry into that aspect of human nature that is common to all human beings, that center of their being in which – each in his own different way – human beings are moved by fear and hope, by their finitude, by ambition, desires, the search for meaning, by the burden of guilt and torment of conscience. My goal – and I strived to attain it at least partially – had to be above all to ensure that everyone could say afterwards (because he had been personally touched in this center of his being, “I was the subject of this sermon, he meant me.”
In order to find associations with the text for my sermon and so to illustrate it with images, stories, and a human touch, I constantly kept an eye open during my varied reading for anything I could use in the pulpit. I started various collections in files and card indexes in order to have suitable quotations and other material at hand. If this material then nevertheless failed to hit the mark, I could at least comfort myself with the fact that I had done all that I could.
I did not, by the way, keep to the prescribed readings, that is, to the texts stipulated for use in church sermons. At best these prescribed texts have one useful function, namely, they safeguard the preacher from misusing the text by preventing him from choosing a text simply as a motto for his pet ideas. Preachers who do this quickly preach themselves dry. Their only achievement is to cause deadly boredom – probably not only to the audience but also to themselves – by their constant rummaging through the remnants of a crop that has long since been completely harvested. A prescribed text is certainly the best protection against the law of inertia taking effect in this way. It is also possible for the preacher himself to build a defensive wall against this temptation. This can be done in the following way.
I forced myself to give series of sermons oriented towards a sequence of biblical texts or a single subject. This is how the aforementioned series on the Lord’s Prayer, the parables, the biblical creation story, the pastoral conversations of Jesus, the creed, and many others came about. I also gave openly “didactic” sermons, which were a sort of catechism lesson for adults, in which I explained, for instance, the theological significance of historic-critical textual research and allowed the congregation to take a look into the workshop of academic theology. This principle of preaching series of sermons proved to be fruitful for both sides. It was fruitful for the preacher because it subjected him to a salutary constraint and safeguarded him against arbitrarily choosing texts on his own authority. It was fruitful for the audience because their interest was sustained by the continuity and development of a particular subject or train of thought, as a result of which they always looked forward eagerly to the next sermon.
The fact that I brought current events into play in my sermons should not be taken to mean that I had been talking politics in the pulpit. In my opinion, there are two types of degenerate sermon, both of which, although very different in themselves, are today having a ruinous effect on the life of the church service.
The first of these decadent forms is the transformation of the sermon into a set political speech proclaiming a particular political position as the Christian position. In my experience, this mostly gains the upper hand among people whose spiritual substance is too diluted for them to give a rousing proclamation of the Gospel. They are then forced to give their sermons a political shot in the arm to lend their dead spirituality the appearance of life. But this form of sermon has no permanence. People very soon wonder why it should need the circuitous route of the pulpit to get this political message across and whether they could not get the same thing cheaper and without the Christian paraphernalia simply by going straight to a political meeting.
The second type of degenerate sermon is a certain ritualism that suppresses or at least obscures the personal faith of the individual through the excessive use of time-honored phrases and traditional musica sacra.
This brief look into the “theological laboratory” has not yet touched on what goes on inside the preacher. This remains hidden to outside eyes. I can only give the following hint at where one should look for an answer. Whoever sees so many eyes directed towards him is in great danger. He may believe that they are directed towards “him,” whereas he is in fact only the ambassador of another. In the sacristy of the Church of St. Michael there is a little altar where the preacher prepares himself to approach the pulpit and arms himself against the temptations that threaten him. This is all that I wish to say about this matter’.
– Helmut Thielicke, Notes from a Wayfarer: The Autobiography of Helmut Thielicke (trans. David R. Law; New York: Paragon House, 1995), 291–93.
It might well be argued that before he was anything else, PT Forsyth was principally a preacher. It would certainly not be going too far to say that the greatest portion of Forsyth’s public life was given over to preaching, and to encouraging preachers. To be sure, and by any standards, his literary output was significant. But by far the majority of the words in his published articles and books are sermons, or were ideas developed from sermons. And even those that are not betray the rhetorical form of one shaped by the pulpit and the task that attends that space. And this is not so strange, for Forsyth believed in preaching.
I too believe in preaching. I also believe that Forsyth has much still to teach us about preaching. To be sure, not everything about his own manner or approach remains helpful today, or is particularly worthy of emulation. (But of whom might that not be true!) Still, regarding the things that really matter, it is difficult to go past the likes of one like Forsyth. (We could add here too the names of Karl Barth, Eduard Thurneysen, James Denney, Helmut Thielicke, Paul Tillich and others.)
I have suggested before that one of the real gifts that the Aberdonian bequeaths to the Church is the encouragement of her pastors to forego the ‘sin of bustle’ that would see them running errands for the culture motivated in no small part by an attempt to convince the world – and the church! – of the use, value and worthiness of their vocation, and to instead give themselves to preach the Gospel, to believe in that divinely-ordained foolishness – what Forsyth calls ‘the folly of the cross’ – and to trust its effects to God.
Those who carry the burden – a joyous burden to be sure, but a burden nonetheless – of preaching week after week will no doubt be familiar with that anxiety that attends the final read through the manuscript, the fruit of one’s wrestling with the very real possibility of God’s communication – which is nothing less than God’s self-disclosure – to those not only desperate to hear the Word of life but also to those long-deafened by the drums of seemingly-endless counter words, that Saturday-night feeling that, despite all one’s best efforts, things for tomorrow’s sermon just don’t seem right, that the fire that burns so freshly in the heart of the biblical witness has all but been snuffed out by the time the sermon was penned, and perhaps the best that one can now hope for is to simply trust that something that one says might find fertile soil. To be sure, to believe in preaching is to believe in miracles; or, more properly, it is to believe in One who not only already longs to speak but who also ‘gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist’ (Romans 4.17). Moreover, to believe in preaching is to believe that such calling into existence occurs via the irresponsible method of liberally sowing seeds whether in places where there is no soil, or on rocky ground, or among thorns, or in fertile and productive soil.
I’m in the near-final currents of preparing a manuscript of some unpublished, and hard to find, sermons of Forsyth’s. This will be published by Wipf & Stock under the tentative title of ‘Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History’: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth. To those who also believe in preaching – or who wish to believe in preaching in spite of all appearances – I hope that the words of this volume might come as as much an encouragement to them as they have been for me.
As I write, I’m thinking about why people read Forsyth, why they should, and what strikes them when they do. One of my friends, who has himself published on Forsyth, has suggested that the answer lies somewhere in the fact that ‘Forsyth loved the Lord, knew the scriptures, and understood ahead of his time the pitfalls of both a vague liberalism and an obscurantist fundamentalism. He also knew the difference between theology and anthropology. And he could turn a phrase’. Another has been struck by the ‘affective tone of the whole; the desire to really embrace the Triune God in all the beauty, terror, majesty and mystery’. I agree with both of these statements, and the latter reflects too what Forsyth so appreciated about Jonathan Edwards’ theology, and Calvin’s for that matter. I will post some more thoughts in due course, but for now I’m very keen to hear yours. If you’d prefer to email rather than leave a comment online, then you can reach me here.
I’m sure to think of other topics, but in my haste I fired back the following suggestion: ‘The sermon and the responsibility of, and invitation/command to, the hermeneutical community to hear the Word of God; i.e. how do we hear the sermon’.
How would you answer my friend?
[Image: Dave Walker]
There can be little doubt that one of the real gifts that P.T. Forsyth bequeaths to the Church is the encouragement of her pastors to forego the ‘sin of bustle’ that would see them running errands for the culture motivated in no small part by an attempt to convince the world – and the church! – of the use, value and worthiness of their vocation, and to instead give themselves to preach the Gospel, to believe in that divinely-ordained foolishness, and to trust its effects to God.
Those who carry the burden – a joyous burden to be sure, but a burden nonetheless – of preaching week after week will no doubt be familiar with that anxiety that attends the final read through the manuscript, the fruit of one’s wrestling with the very real possibility of God’s communication – which is nothing less than God’s self-disclosure – to those not only desperate to hear the Word of life but also to those long deafened by the drums of seemingly-endless counter words, that Saturday night feeling that, despite all one’s best efforts, things for tomorrow’s sermon just don’t seem right, that the fire that burns so freshly in the heart of the biblical witness has all but been snuffed out by the time the sermon was penned, and perhaps the best that one can now hope for is a decent night’s sleep and to simply trust that something that one says on the morrow might find fertile soil. To be sure, to believe in preaching is to believe in miracles or, more properly, it is to believe in One who not only already longs to speak but who also ‘gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist’ (Romans 4.17). Moreover, to believe in preaching is to believe that such calling into existence occurs via the irresponsible method of liberally sowing seeds whether in places where there is no soil, or on rocky ground, or among thorns, or in fertile and productive soil (see Matthew 13).
To those who so believe – or who wish to believe in such things in spite of all appearances – I hope that these words of Forsyth’s from a sermon on Ezekiel’s prophecy to the dry bones, and to the Spirit, preached over a century ago might come as an encouragement:
‘God takes the man of little faith, takes him like Ezekiel, carries him back in spirit through history to the dark ages of Europe; plants him beside a church with its faith dried and enterprise dulled into mere orthodoxy beneath the Pagan empire. He sets you in the valley of the dark ages, when the Spanish Moors had more light and life than the Christians of Europe. He asks you, “Can these bones live? You cannot say, but God’s answer is the wonderful eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. The past was not dead; the Church is never without its recuperative power somewhere. As the body of Christ, it must rise, and cannot be holden of death, howsoever long the torpor may be.
Or again, God takes you onward, and sets you in another dismal valley, the church of the Borgias and Medicis, amongst the parched bones of faith, when the former revival had shrunk to a mere renaissance, when Paganism was not in the Empire but in the Church’s own heart and head. He points you to the wicked Church of all the cultures at Rome in the valley of the fifteenth century, when the faithful had all but ceased to be. “Can these bones live?” You see not how. God’s answer is Luther, Calvin, and the sixteenth century, the rediscovery of St. Paul, the coronation of faith, the vitalising of Europe, Puritanism, the birth of democracy, the rise of constitutionalism, Free Churchism, and the dawn of modern times. No, the past is not dead.
And once more He plants you by the English Church of last century, with Deism outside, and drought within, but no thirst. Can they live? God’s answer is Wesley and the Evangelical revival, Newman and the Oxford revival, and much more that I cannot name because I must single out the feature which has gathered us here – modern missions. I doubt if any such answer has ever been given to the prophet’s question as this. We have the answer before our eyes. The world has it, and it is often as smoke in its eyes. But the men who first faced the problem, and first moved in these missions had not this answer before their eyes, they had it before their faith alone. They were prophets indeed, in the true inspired line, for they had it in their souls only. They had it surer there in their faith than many of us who have it in our sight. They lived in the valley of the eighteenth century, but their souls stood upon Pisgah; they saw the Promised Land, and all things delivered unto Christ of the Father. They had Imperial minds, but they had also holy methods. They saw the bones stirred and clothed, and men trooping from their living graves at the call of the Spirit alone. They saw races roused, rescued, civilised by the Gospel. Nay, they saw more; they saw the Church itself converted to missions, a bony Church quickened, fleshed, and marshalled anew. They saw that the Church must be reconverted if it was to survive, but they also saw that it would be reconverted, because they had the Spirit that makes the Church, and felt the first flutter of His breast. And the Church did need this reconversion. There was not among the heathen more contemptuous opposition to missions than these men met sometimes in the Church at home. When we speak of the great effect of the Church on the heathen, let us not forget the great blessing of the heathen to the Church. The receiving of them has been to the Church itself life from the dead. The Church has more faith in its own Gospel because of its proved power abroad; it is more sure of its own word, and it feels that it is not only a mighty word, a true word, but a more genial and pitiful word. The old bones live again in a humaner life. Every missionary is preaching to the Church that sent him no less than to the churches he found. When we speak of the action of grace, think also of the reaction of grace, the force of its recoil; deep calleth unto deep. The Gospel’s word to the world includes also its echo to the Church. Missions are an integral part of the Church and a source of new life to it, and the missionaries are prophets that call flesh upon our bones. To convert the heathen is to bless and serve the Church. These missionaries are not hobby-riders that the Church patronises; they are organs, agents, and deputies of the Church itself. They do not act alongside of us, but for us; they are the long arms of the Church and the limbs by which it covers the breadth of the world. The man to whom missions are a fanatic fad, and not his own concern, has yet to learn the soul of the Christian Gospel and the secret of the Church’s life …
Some members of the Church – yea, some Churches themselves – make a greater problem than even the world or the heathen does. They make us ask, “Can these bones live?” These people who go to church, who uphold their Church, who would fight for their Church, would make civil war for its privileges, who have more fight than faith in them, whose souls are exceedingly filled with contempt, and they have a name to live, but are spiritually dead, who care for their Church chiefly as partisans, or because it is a centre of social rank or of juvenile amusements – can they live? What preacher but is cast into occasional despair by that question as he looks upon many spiritual skeletons around him? What preacher has not many a time to answer with Ezekiel that they can only live by some miracle of God; he, poor son of man, has failed, and is hopeless. He is preaching, perhaps, out of duty more than inspiration; he often prophesies in obedience rather than in hope. Well, preach hope till you have hope; then preach it because you have it. “Prophesy over these bones; call out to the Spirit,” says the Lord. At the Lord’s call, if not at your own impulse, call; call with a faith of life when the sense of life is low; speak the word you are bidden, and wait for the word you feel; and then the matter is the Lord’s, and you win a new confidence in the midst of self-despair.
But it is not with bones or mummies that the preacher has chiefly to do. He comes, let us say, and lifts a vital voice. He is a man of parts and force; he collects a following, he is the centre of an interesting congregation. It looks well, comfortable; it is no skeleton crowd, it has flesh and blood. What is lacking? Perhaps the things that are not revealed to flesh and blood, the unearthly lustre in the eye, and movement in the mien, the Spirit of life. It is a congregation possibly, not a church; it is not dry, but it is not inspired; it is cultured possibly, but it is not kindled. The spirit has not come to stay, and there is not amongst them the shout of a king. So far, perhaps, it is only education, culture, that the preacher has supplied; it is mere religion, not regeneration. The bones are clothed, but not quickened; they know about sacred things, but they do not know about the Holy Ghost.
So prophesy once more, Son of man, saith the Lord. Prophesy to the Spirit of life; preach, but, still more, pray; invoke the abiding Spirit to enter these easy forms. They are less dismal than they were, but still too dull. Court for their sake the spirit and cultivate the discernment of the Spirit. Amid the many airs that fan them, amid the crowd of vivacious interests that tickle them as they pass, make the Spirit of a new life blow on them. Above every other influence woo and wait upon the Spirit. Trace and press the Spirit of God; in every providence seize the Divine grace, subdue the spirit of the age to the Spirit of Christ; set up among the critics the Judge of all the earth. Preach the Spirit which not only clothes the skeletons decently and comfortably, but set them on their feet in the Kingdom of God. Preach what cast down imaginations and high things to the obedience of Christ; proclaim that Spirit which turns mere vitality into true life, mere comfort into the mighty peace; turn your worldly skeletons, by all means, into living congregations, but, above all, turn your congregation into a living Church.
And how shall you do that if your appeals to men have not been preceded by your cry to the Spirit, if your action on them is not inspired by your wrestling with God? Only then can you turn a crowd into a people, and a people into the Kingdom of God. That is the way to turn your Aceldama into the habitation of a multitude, and your multitude into a spiritual phalanx. Prophesy no more to the bones, preach no more as if it were dead worldlings you had; pray to the Spirit of God and preach to the spirit of man. Preach as to those who have begun to live and seek life. Never mind about current literature, mind the deep things of God. Preach to them great things. Let the trivial rubbish alone that occupies too much of our Church interest. It is possible to lose the soul in the effort to win souls. Dwell less upon the minor truths, dwell more upon the mighty truths which grow mightier by iteration. Take care of the spiritual pounds, and the current pence will look after themselves. Preach character by all means more than has been done, but preach it through a Gospel which takes the making of character out of your hands. Preach the Lord’s Supper more often, and the tea-meetings less, as the Church’s social centre and family hearth. Do not preach about goodness less, but about grace more. Do not preach self-denial, preach a cross that compels self-denial. Don’t mistake fervour and ardour for the Holy Ghost; do not take the flush for the blood or the blood for the life. Bring to men the Spirit, prophesy to the spirit in them; bring to them great demands – it is the demands of life that make men, is it not? Tax them, ask of them great sacrifices. We grow up as we lay down. Sacrifice before faith? No, first the sacrifice which is faith. There is no such tax on self-will as faith, no such sacrifice of our self-satisfaction as true faith, faith of the right kind, faith which is a cross as well as a trust in a cross and a resurrection, too. Trouble them, trouble them with the stir of a higher life. Living water is always troubled, it is an angel’s trace upon the pool. Leave them not at ease; do not stop with putting on the flesh that just saves them from being skeletons. Infuse the flesh with the spirit; propose a great task, a thing incredible, and keep it before them till they rise to it. Does not the spirit make demands on us which no preacher can venture to do? Does not something in our own soul as he prophesies stir us, rebuke us, exact from us more than we dare? All the movements the true prophets store escape beyond their dreams and demands’.
– from Jason A. Goroncy (ed.). Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, forthcoming.
‘Facebook presents far more danger than the cultivation of lowercase first-person “i”s and emoticons :). The real threat posed by Facebook is not that it ruins writers’ ability to punctuate or encourages them to replace words with pictures. The problem with Facebook is that it nurtures one of writing teachers’ greatest foes – the teenage fantasy that writers write only to themselves and to those who are just like them.
Although Facebook is properly classified as “social software,” it is more accurately categorized as mirror-ware, a whole new kind of social that consists only of us and our self-projections. And it is that mirror, that seductive invitation to reflect us and only us back to ourselves that damns us.
On Facebook, we post pictures to represent ourselves: our best, shiniest, toothiest, happiest/sexiest ponderer/wanderer/adventurer. The fairest ones of all. Or we post some other person or object as icon. Puppy, baby, six-year old self. The poor person’s version of identity airbrushing. To deepen the portrait, we post our status, likes and dislikes – bananas, skiing, taxes – and photo albums of grand vacations, graduations and celebrations. To our walls we announce opinions, as they come. What we find good, stupid, evil, sexy.
Facebook writers expect homogeneity from their audience. All readers read the same observation, and insights in the same way, regardless of who they are, what they know, what they need to know or even what they seek. Facebook writers do not select, shape or color moments and thoughts for particular readers. They trade the pleasure of imagining the absent reader for the imagined adoring gaze of selves. And they expect their friends to “like” their posts, pictures etc. immediately, and to shower them publicly with praise.
With Facebook, we don’t need to explain why Obama should be elected or gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry or a hundred seagull photos merit viewing. If birds bore our friend Gerard, too bad. If Gerard didn’t vote for Obama or has a male partner, that’s too bad, too.
Although our Facebook friends include those we haven’t seen in years, decades, even, we can pretend that they share our experiences, our views, and our general disposition towards life. No justification, no explanation.
On Facebook we never think outside the four walls of the self, and we need never imagine readers different from us. We expect neither argument nor curiosity nor challenge. Just a thumbs up or down.
Teachers spend years working to broaden students’ intellectual worlds beyond their own virtual backyards. We challenge them to discover ideas that come from individuals who might be very unlike them; people they would never conceive of friending, or if asked to friend would be more than likely to ignore. Or who don’t have computers.
So is Facebook truly the new scourge of writing? Maybe not. Like all tools of such ubiquity and power, Facebook must be recognized for what it is – a medium that invites carefully polished reflections of our favorite self. But writers generally write for readers other than that self. We need, then, to provide contexts that allow our students to know and consider those readers. How often do we ask students to hear, read and truly understand a viewpoint different from their own? How often do we expect them to think of someone, anyone, other than themselves? The ability to imagine a perspective other than our own – the idea of an audience consisting of curious minds rather than adoring fans – defines our most effective writers’.
While I’m not buying everything at Café Lebduska, there are some important implications here for pastors and teachers (and theo-bloggers). Too few of us, it seems, intentionally read literature which challenges profoundly our own worldview and practice and, at least in the circles most commonplace to me, seek and/or create opportunities to speak into hostile environments where swords might be sharpened by the wrestle (Eph 6.12; 1 Tim 1.18; 6.12; 2 Tim 4.7) rather than dulled by the all-too-common proclivity towards the cozy, the monotonous and the pedestrian – what Lebduska names ‘the teenage fantasy’ and what I simply call ‘the boring’. There are, of course, those who seem to go out of their way to speak only to Babylonians, and sometimes preaching to the choir, as it were, might be just that too. For what it’s worth, it seems to me that the focus for most pastors/teachers/theo-bloggers should be given to bearing witness to the for-ness rather than against-ness announced in the gospel, but there remains an against-ness which must be discerningly spoken as well. Moreover, there can be no question here that both strategies are undertaken in love for the other and for the truth. But if Ernest Hemingway is right when he says that ‘there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed’, and if the great Salvation Army preacher Samuel Logan Brengle is also right when he avers that ‘the great battles, the battles that decide our destiny and the destiny of generations yet unborn, are not fought on public platforms, but in the lonely hours of the night’, then there remains something poisonous about the Facebook ‘mirror-ware’ which threatens to undermine, at the very least, the task of the writer, and preacher.
And speaking of mirrors, it’s not as if they’re all destructive; for there is, of course, another mirror where those so called might look – namely, into the mirror of our election, Jesus Christ, who is both our friend and enemy, and who both thumbs us, our ministries and our statuses ‘up’ and ‘down’, although the later only that he made do the former (Rom 11.32).
In Luke 12, Jesus tells his ‘little flock’ a number of things: He tells them (and here I’m following Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase) to not fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in their closet are in fashion. He directs them to look at the ravens, free and unfettered, to not be tied down to a job description, and to be carefree in the care of God. He commands them to be generous, to give to the poor, and to keep their shirts and lights on waiting for the master to return. To all of which Peter replied, ‘Master, are you telling this story just for us? Or is it for everybody?’ And the Master said, ‘Let me ask you: Who is the dependable manager, full of common sense, that the master puts in charge of his staff to feed them well and on time? Blessed is the person who is doing their job when the master shows up’.
In light of this Lukan text, Robert Farrar Capon (in Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus) suggests that preachers labour under three distinct requirements:
First, they are to be faithful (pistoí). They are called to believe, and they are called only to believe. They are not called to know, or to be clever, or to be proficient, or to be energetic, or to be talented, or to be well-adjusted. Their vocation is simply to be faithful waiters on the mystery of Jesus’ coming in death and resurrection. What the world needs to hear from them is not any of their ideas, bright or dim: none of those can save a single soul. Rather, it needs to hear – and above all to see – their own commitment to the ministry of waiting for, and waiting on, the only Lord who has the keys of death (Rev. 1:18).
Second, the clergy are to be wise (phrónimoi). They are not to be fools, rich or poor, who think that salvation can come to anyone as a result of living. The world is already drowning in its efforts at life; it does not need lifeguards who swim to it carrying the barbells of their own moral and spiritual efforts. Preachers are to come honestly empty-handed to the world, because anyone who comes bearing more than the folly of the kerygma – of the preaching of the word of the cross (1 Cor. 1:21, 18) – has missed completely the foolishness (mōrón) of God that is wiser (sophōteron) than [human beings]. The wise (phrónimos) steward, therefore, is the one who knows that God has stood all known values on their heads – that, as Paul says in 1 Cor. 1:26ff., [God] has not chosen the wise, or the mighty, or the socially adept, but rather that [God] has chosen what the world considers nonsense (ta mōrá) in order to shame the wise (sophoús), and what the world considers weak (ta asthené) in order to shame the strong. The clergy are worth their salt only if they understand that God deals out salvation solely through the klutzes (ta agené) and the nobodies (ta exouthenéména) of the world-through, in short, the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead. If they think God is waiting for them to provide them with classier help, they should do everybody a favor and get out of the preaching business. Let them do less foolish work …
[And thirdly], … preachers are stewards whom the Lord has ‘set over his household servants to provide them with food at the proper time.’ After all the years the church has suffered under forceful preachers and winning orators, under compelling pulpiteers and clerical bigmouths with egos to match, how nice to hear that Jesus expects preachers in their congregations to be nothing more than faithful household cooks. Not gourmet chefs, not banquet managers, not caterers to thousands, just Gospel pot-rattlers who can turn out a decent, nourishing meal once a week. And not even a whole meal, perhaps; only the right food at the proper time. On most Sundays, maybe all it has to be is meat, pasta, and a vegetable. Not every sermon needs to be prefaced by a cocktail hour full of the homiletical equivalent of Vienna sausages and bacon-wrapped water chestnuts; nor need nourishing preaching always be dramatically concluded with a dessert of flambéed sentiment and soufléed prose. The preacher has only to deliver food, not flash; Gospel, not uplift. And the preacher’s congregational family doesn’t even have to like it. If it’s good food at the right time, they can bellyache all they want: as long as they get enough death and resurrection, some day they may even realize they’ve been well fed. (pp. 243–5).
‘[Calvin] the preacher does not so much move forward from point to point as be borne onwards by the movement of his author’s thought. Even so, this is not a simple, uncomplicated stepping from clause to clause; for within each clause there is movement and counter-movement of one sort or another. The sermons are like rivers, moving strongly in one direction, alive with eddies and crosscurrents, now thundering in cataracts, now a calm mirror of the banks and the sky; but never still, never stagnant. Calvin’s intention (like that of the medieval theology lecturers) was to expound each passage. Usually this entailed the continuous exposition of sentence by sentence, sometimes of clause by clause. After a brief preface to remind the congregation of what the previous passage had said, and thus to set the present verses within their context, he would embark on the exposition of the sentences, usually rendering them in a slightly different (sometimes very different) form from the head text; this partly because he was translating direct as he went along, partly for the sake of clarification by paraphrasing. The exposition will consist where necessary of simple exegesis and the unravelling of any difficulties (perhaps discrepancies with other passages of Scripture, which, again like medieval lecturing, had always to be reconciled); after this he will apply the place to “our” use so that “we” may profit from it and be “edified”’.
– Thomas Henry Louis Parker, Calvin’s Preaching (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992), 132–3.
Time again for another ‘Who said it?’ competition. From whose mouth/pen did the following words come:
‘The Sacrament of the Word … is the distinctively Protestant Sacrament, and it invests the pulpit with the dignity, if not the solemnity which elsewhere is bestowed on the altar. Among other regrettable tendencies of the hour is the disposition to depreciate the power of the spoken word. It exists both in the pew and in the pulpit itself. I know preachers who regard their Sunday duty with a contempt (which is evident), compared with the so-called practical work with which they fill five days of the week. And we are constantly pressed with the demand for short sermons. I believe myself that short sermons are mostly themselves too long. The man whose preaching is simply tolerated has no right to preach as long as ten minutes. The man whose preaching is welcomed has no right to be always as short as twenty. We listen gladly to political speeches of an hour, and the reason is that we have an interest, amounting to a passion for the subject. Let us have enough knowledge of the subject of religion as to choose only competent men for ministers, and let it be so real and passionate to us that we can take pleasure in what our prophet or expositor has to say for an hour if he likes. I don’t hint that all sermons should be an hour long. But I do think short sermons are killing the pulpit and sending the people to the altar or the platform’.
Let’s say a Friday deadline.
Update: The answer is PT Forsyth.
Lest we hastily accuse Calvin of extraneous verbiage, we would do well to recall the distance between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries. In her extraordinary collection of essays The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, Marilynne Robinson notes that ‘Cauvin and his supporters seem to have been intent on consolidating a revolution, one in which religion was as central to the imagination of the project as political liberty would be in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and economics and nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth. Traditionally European societies instructed their members in approved beliefs through rituals, processions, feasts, fasts, pilgrimages, and iconography. Geneva replaced all that with hour upon hour of sermons and lectures, and a system of education that was compulsory for all children and free for the poor … If all these lectures and sermons seem a poor exchange for pageants and altarpieces, it is well to remember the Renaissance passion for books, and for the languages and literatures of antiquity, first of all the Bible. Cauvin’s virtuosic scholarship could be thought of as monumental public art, by analogy with the work of contemporaries like Michelangelo’ (pp. 199–200). And Bernard Cottret, in Calvin: A Biography, recalls that ‘Calvin was never so much a man in his time and of his time as in his sermons’ (p. 289).
This spoken proclamation – which was, in Calvin’s mind, the prime purpose of his preaching – was then transposed into written form as a result of the ‘company of strangers’ who, from 29 September 1549, arranged for Calvin’s sermons to be recorded in shorthand by Denis Raguenier, then transcribed, printed and published. A basic list of Calvin’s sermons is available in Appendix 7 of Cottret’s volume (pp. 354–5). Between 1549 and 1564, Calvin preached verse-by-verse through Psalms, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Micah, Zephaniah, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Daniel, Ezekiel, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Job, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Galatians, Ephesians, Harmony of the Gospels (during his last five years), Acts, Genesis, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 Kings. Some ignorant librarians sold many of the volumes for the weight of the paper. A search of the lost sermons means that we now possess about 1500 of them. Cottret recalls that the Opera Calvini includes 872 sermons, while a further 680 are in the process of being published elsewhere, particularly in the Supplementa Calviniana. The manuscripts are held in the Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire in Geneva, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and Lambeth Palace in London. (See Cottret, Calvin, 289n5).
Those wishing to read more on Calvin’s preaching might consult the following:
- Brian G. Armstrong, ‘Exegetical and Theological Principles in Calvin’s Preaching, with Special Attention to his Sermons on the Psalms’ in Ordentlich und Fruchtbar: Festschrift für Willem Van’t Spijker anlässlich seiner Abschieds als Professor der Theologischen Universität Apeldorn (ed. W.H. Neuser and H.J. Selderhuis; Leiden: J.J. Groen en Zoon, 1997), 191–209.
- Dawn DeVries, Jesus Christ in the Preaching of Calvin and Schleiermacher (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).
- Dawn DeVries, ‘Calvin’s Preaching’ in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin (ed. Donald K. McKim; Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 106–24.
- John H. Leith, ‘Calvin’s Doctrine of the Proclamation of the Word and Its Significance for Today’ in John Calvin and the Church: A Prism of Reform (ed. Timothy George; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), 206–29.
- Olivier Millet, Calvin et la dynamique de la parole: étude de rhétorique réformée (Bibliothèque littéraire de la renaissance; vol. 28; Geneva: Editions Slatkine, 1992).
- Wilhelmus H. Th. Moehn, ‘God Calls Us to His Service’: The Relation Between God and His Audience in Calvin’s Sermons on Acts (Geneva: Droz, 2001).
- Erwin Mülhaupt, Die Predigt Calvins: Ihre Geschichte, ihre Form und ihre religiösen Grundgedanken (Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte; vol. 18; Berlin/Leipzig: Walter de Gruyter, 1931).
- Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church. Volume IV: The Age of the Reformation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002).
- Thomas Henry Louis Parker, The Oracles of God: An Introduction to the Preaching of John Calvin (London/Redhill: Lutterworth Press, 1947).
- Richard Stauffer, Dieu, la création et la Providence dans la prédication de Calvin (Berne: Peter Lang, 1978).
- Anne T. Thayer, Penitence, Preaching and the Coming of the Reformation (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002).
- Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament (Edinburgh/London: Oliver and Boyd, 1953).
- J. Mark Beach, ‘The Real Presence of Christ in the Preaching of the Gospel: Luther and Calvin on the Nature of Preaching’, Mid-America Journal of Theology 10 (1999): 77–134.
- John R. Walchenbach, ‘John Calvin as Biblical Interpreter: An Investigation into Calvin’s Use of John Chrysostom as an Exegetical Tutor’ (PhD, University of Pittsburgh, 1974).
- Thomas Henry Louis Parker, Calvin’s Preaching (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992).
- John T. McNeill, ‘The Significance of the Word of God for Calvin’, Church History 28, no. 2 (1959): 131–46.
- Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996).
- Darlene K. Flaming, ‘The Apostolic and Pastoral Office: Theory and Practice in Calvin’s Geneva’ in Calvin and the Company of Pastors: Papers Presented at the 14th Colloquium of the Calvin Studies Society, May 22–24, 2003, the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana (ed. David L. Foxgrover; Grand Rapids: CRC Product Services for the Calvin Studies Society, 2004), 149–72.
By the way, those interested in Calvin’s view of Scripture might check out:
- H. Jackson Forstman, Word and Spirit: Calvin’s Doctrine of Biblical Authority (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962).
- John I. Thompson, ‘Calvin as a Biblical Interpreter’ in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin (ed. Donald K. McKim; Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 58–73.
- Brian Albert Gerrish, The Old Protestantism and the New: Essays on the Reformation Heritage (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), 58–68.
- Thomas Henry Louis Parker, Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1986).
- Thomas Henry Louis Parker, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993).
- David L. Puckett, John Calvin’s Exegesis of the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995).
- Hans-Joachim Kraus, ‘Calvin’s Exegetical Principles’, Interpretation 31 (1977): 8–18.
- Thomas F. Torrance, The Hermeneutics of John Calvin (Monograph Supplements to the Scottish Journal of Theology; Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1988).
On Monday, I posted from Dietrich Ritschl’s book A Theology of Proclamation, a volume that I recently had reason to return to again. One of the things that I love about this book is the way that Ritschl understands the Word as the dynamic God in the free act of gracious self-unveiling through human speech and deed. God’s Word, through Jesus’ presence in the Spirit, becomes entangled with our word which, by grace, is ‘of no less authority than [God’s] own Word’ (pp. 67-8). He cites 1 Thessalonians 2.13 ['We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers'] in support of this claim, and then proceeds to note the cruciality of the claim regarding Jesus’ presence in the Spirit:
‘This is not just a “theological formula”. If we left it out, we would have a Word of God that is separated from God; we would make God the prisoner of our thoughts or theologies. We would have a Word with which we could operate, a Word we could “use”, a Word we could judge. But it could not be the Word of God, the Word which operates with us, uses us, and judges us. Our work in the Church, therefore, can only be a service to this one life-giving Word of God. The clearest expression of this truth is the fact that there is no other way to preach than to preach an “expository sermon”, and even this is not a guarantee’.
‘The Word of the sermon is indeed a new Word and not a repetition of last Sunday’s sermon, but this does not mean that each sermon devaluates or extinguishes the previous sermons. If this were so, the New Testament could never speak about a “Church” and Paul could never refer to the message he had brought before … This is true because Jesus Christ’s presence among His people does not consist of appearances discontinuous in time, i.e., which occur …
‘The presence of Christ in the sermon is nothing less than the presence of the eternal Father who speaks in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit His very own Word of judgment and consolation, life and light; but it happens according to the secret of the ubi et quando visum est deo, the free decision of God to reveal Himself wherever and whenever He decides. The identification between God’s Word and the word of the human witness is under no circumstances the work of man, but always the free work of God’.
– Dietrich Ritschl, A Theology of Proclamation (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1960), 72, 73, 77.
‘The sermon does not have to try desperately to be actual because it has the highest possible actuality … The sermon is … apocalyptic in the sense that, far from merely referring to the final evaluation of our records, it reveals to us now in time and space the final will of God for the individual Christian: it is God’s last word, to which no syllable will be added. For this reason the Reformation could preach the certitudo salutis, the certainty of salvation, because he who will judge us is the same who fulfilled the law. In the words of Calvin: ‘When a Christian looks into himself he finds cause to be afraid or even to despair … [But] he will win a sure hope of eternal perseverance when he considers that he belongs to Him who cannot fall or fail’. It gives pause to realize that this message which proved to lend the Reformation movement its reconciling and liberating power has virtually disappeared from the Protestant pulpit’. – Heiko A. Oberman, ‘Preaching and the Word in the Reformation’, Theology Today 18, no. 1 (1961), 19.
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.2 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. H. Knight, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1960), 603–4.
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.2 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. G.W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1958), 440.
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. G.W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 337–39.
- Karl Barth and Eduard Thurneysen, God’s Search for Man: Sermons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1935), 78–92.
- Richard Bauckham, ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus: The Parable and the Parallels’, New Testament Studies 37 (1991), 225–246.
- Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1978), 89–90.
- Walter Brueggemann, The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness (ed. C.L. Campbell; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 136–43.
- Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988), 152–59.
- Duncan B. Forrester, On Human Worth: A Christian Vindication of Equality (London: SCM, 2001).
- Howard Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian (Exeter: Paternoster, 1970), 141–44.
- Stephen I. Wright, ‘Parables on Poverty and Riches (Luke 12:13–21; 16:1–13; 16:19–31)’ in The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables (ed. R.N. Longenecker; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 217–39.
‘Throughout the history of the Reformed tradition, the central place both for the ongoing hermeneutic process urged in the confessions, and for the general influence of the confessions in the Church, has been the pastoral office through preaching, teaching, oversight, and leadership. Correspondingly, it is chiefly the minister of the word, among the other ordained ministries, who is held accountable in the constitutional questions for following the leading and guidance of the confessions of faith. Appropriately, theological education was in the past structured by the theology of the confessions. Rather strongly, thus, I wish to remind those of us that find our calling in theological education that it is scandalous for a faculty member in any discipline in the church’s seminaries not to be able to locate his or her work and thought and teaching matter with relation to the confessional teachings. We do not want again the old teaching oath, or any teaching oath at all, and the inevitably stifling conformity it promotes. But neither do we want the On resistsing that leave the relation of thought to life in the empirical church to the improvisation of individual ministers. Further, theological education carried out in programs of continuing education or presbytery projects of many types, should be oriented by a reasonable awareness of what the Church teaches in its confessional and creedal literature.
More broadly, it is the educational ministry of the Church on all levels that should bear the chief responsibility for a confessionally rooted hermeneutic, worship, and mission. The idiom of the tradition, whether in words or ethic, needs to be exercised in spiritual, biblical, theological, and ethical education.
It would be well, we often think, if one might be just a Christian, and not a Presbyterian, Catholic, or Methodist. But so, it might seem, is the case with language. What if we could avoid German or English and just speak language? But it doesn’t work. Esperanto is a wonderful idea, but like Basic English a few years back, it is bereft of the richness of meaning and naturalness of a true language. So a theological Esperanto, or ecumenical Esperanto—for the time being at least—leaves us far from the concrete reality in which we live and speak. The idiom of the Reformed tradition, when fully understood, is the ground and motive both for ecumenical awareness and progress, and for other kinds of reform and advance. Not abandonment, but reform, as new light breaks forth from Scripture and illuminates new situations in our culture and environment and in the world Church, is the promising idiom of our tradition’. – Edward A. Dowey Jr., ‘Confessional Documents as Reformed Hermeneutic’, Journal of Presbyterian History 79, no. 1 (2001), 58.
‘Preaching on justice means speaking about God in the indicative. Faced with the demand which God’s commandment places on us, our task is to deliver “the message of the free grace of God to all people” (Barmen VI). Because, in the Bible, justice is first and foremost a summarized rephrasing of God’s own good works. The Psalms declare: “How wonderful are the things the Lord does … his righteousness endures forever” (Ps 111:2f.). Hence, “the heavens proclaim his righteousness” (Ps 97:6) “and from one generation to the next … shall sing aloud of [his] righteousness” (Ps 145:7).
God’s justice (i.e., righteousness) – that is, his active caring for his creation – is his attentive accompaniment of his people; that is, his saving deeds and his good guidance. Justice – that is, his constant listening to the cries of the suffering – is his strong arm that liberates the captives; and in all this is God’s passionate love for his people, which can rage terribly about their wickedness and stupidity, but which can do nothing else except be “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 103:8). Where the justitia is blind, indeed inevitably must be blind to avoid being dazzled by the specific case at hand, it is said of the God of Israel: he watches, he listens and he yields – he applies the freedom of his love by doing justice to each of his creatures in a way that is conducive to his or her life in his or her particular situation. Justice: that is the way of our God through the time and space of his creation, the way on which he keeps his covenant and faithfulness to Israel unto eternity, and through Israel to the whole world, and never abandons the work of his hands. And hence: In the path of righteousness there is life (Prov 12:28a).
Also in the [Accra Confession], this prae of God’s justice takes precedence before all human endeavour. That is why the statements of faith always start with confessions of belief in God before going on to the rejections of economic injustice and ecological destruction.
In this context, I believe it is important to explicitly praise the confessional character of the Accra Declaration. For, in a very specific way, it corresponds to the fact that for us Christians standing up for justice is not a matter of political belief, but the response to God’s own words and deeds, through which we live and to which we, in faith, bear witness.
In order to make this clear, the sermon will, however, have to make the praise for God’s justice resound more clearly and comprehensively than the Accra Confession did or was able to do. I draw attention again to what was said at the beginning regarding the distinction between confession and sermon. Whereas the Accra Confession recalls God’s action in rather dry theological sentences, the sermon, guided by Bible stories, tells of the salvation work of God in such a way that it becomes clear: what happened at that time is also true today; the (hi)story of God with his people also embraces my world and my (hi)story. God is able to change my world and my life, and he will do so!
Hence, the sermon should avoid speaking “gesetzlich” (which means mixing gospel and the law) about the gospel (Manfred Josuttis). This always happens when the impression is given that human deeds could/should take the place of God’s action, as in: “Easter occurs when we rise up against death…” This kind of sermon does not offer much comfort, for it leaves those hearing it on their own, when they would in actual fact be in urgent need of God’s healing action …
After Accra, our basic task in preaching, and simultaneously our unmistakable Christian contribution is to keep making new attempts to tell about the justice of God and to offer it to our listeners as free grace so that despite all their fears and hardship they will become aware of their wealth; despite all their weaknesses they will become aware of their God-given power (cf. 2 Cor 6:3ff.; 12:9) and so become willing and able to stand up to injustice’.
– Peter Bukowski, ‘Preaching on Justice: The Question of the Homiletic Implementation of the Accra Confession’, Reformed World 55, no. 3 (2005), 236–7, 238.
I’ve just finished giving some lectures on Calvin, part of which consisted of some reflections on Calvin’s understanding of the relationship between pulpit, font and table. I recalled how when Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541, he sought to make the Lord’s Supper the defining centre of community life. His Catechism of the Church of Geneva, penned in 1545 (the year before Luther died), outlines Calvin’s notion that the institution of the signs of water, bread and wine was fashioned by God’s desire to communicate to us, and that God does this by ‘making himself ours’. The signs testify to divine accommodation, to God ‘teaching us in a more familiar manner that he is not only food to our souls, but drink also, so that we are not to seek any part of spiritual life anywhere else than in him alone’. But the signs are not only God’s. They are also human actions, faith’s testimony to the Church’s cruciform identity in the world, to its belonging, its ontology. Moreover, font and table remain places of privilege where believers expect to see, taste, hear and touch the Word’s carnality in ways not expected elsewhere. The drama performed around font and table constitutes the activity of the Church which, together with its pulpit, ‘proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes’. The sacraments ‘derive their virtue from the word when it is preached intelligently’. In his Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, written while in Strasbourg but with an eye on Geneva (where it was printed), Calvin further expanded themes introduced in his Strasbourg liturgy, notably a more christologically-determined epistemology and doctrine of assurance, and the claim that the ‘substance of the sacraments is the Lord Jesus’ himself:
Jesus Christ is the only food by which our souls are nourished; but as it is distributed to us by the word of the Lord, which he has appointed an instrument for that purpose, that word is also called bread and water. Now what is said of the word applies as well to the sacrament of the Supper, by means of which the Lord leads us to communion with Jesus Christ. For seeing we are so weak that we cannot receive him with true heartfelt trust, when he is presented to us by simple doctrine and preaching, the Father of mercy, disdaining not to condescend in this matter to our infirmity, has been pleased to add to his word a visible sign, by which he might represent the substance of his promises, to confirm and fortify us by delivering us from all doubt and uncertainty.
Calvin contended that ‘the singular consolation which we derive from the Supper’ is that it ‘directs and leads us’ to Christ, attesting to the truth that ‘having been made partakers of the death and passion of Jesus Christ, we have everything that is useful and salutary to us’. So in the 1536 edition of the Institutes, Calvin defines sacrament as ‘an outward sign’ which testifies to God’s grace, and which ‘never lacks a preceding promise but is rather joined to it by way of appendix, to confirm and seal the promise itself, and to make it as it were more evident to us’.
Calvin begins his Summary of Doctrine concerning the Ministry of the Word and the Sacraments with the statement that ‘The end of the whole Gospel ministry is that God, the fountain of all felicity, communicate Christ to us who are disunited by sin and hence ruined, that we may from him enjoy eternal life’. And Calvin proceeds to outline that this communication of Christ – which is both ‘incomprehensible to human reason’ and ‘effected by the Holy Spirit’ – is made possible because of God’s desire to ‘communicate himself to us’ through the same Spirit, and involves us being joined to Christ our Head, ‘not in an imaginary way, but most powerfully and truly, so that we become flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone’. This union is effected by the Spirit who, in Calvin’s words, ‘uses a double instrument, the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments’. Moreover, Calvin imagines that the union of believers with Christ involves ‘two ministers, who have distinct offices’. There is (i) the ‘external minister’ who ‘administers the vocal word’ which is ‘received by the ears’ and ‘the sacred signs which are external, earthly and fallible’, and (ii) there is the ‘internal minister’, the Holy Spirit who ‘freely works internally’ to truly communicate ‘the thing proclaimed through the Word, that is Christ’.
Implicit here is the weight which Calvin places on the event of the Supper as a whole, and not just on the sacramental hosts. So Trevor Hart:
It is the ‘ceremony’ as such which constitutes the wider ‘sign’ within which the particular signifying power of bread and wine is located. And the ceremony is, of course, a synthesis in which objects, actions and words are juxtaposed and related to one another. So, while Calvin insists that the material signs are vital, he also refuses to detach their meaning from the accompanying immaterial symbolics of narrative. The bread and wine are ‘seals’ and ‘confirmations’ of a promise already given, and make sense only when faith apprehends them as such. There must therefore always be some preaching or form of words which interprets the ‘bare signs’ and enables us to make sense of them, and the ‘faith’ which apprehends them, while not mere intellectual assent, has nonetheless a vital cognitive dimension (Inst. IV.xvii.39) … This does not, it should be noted, reduce the elements to dispensable visual aids, as if the essential meaning of the Supper could be conveyed equally well in their absence. Calvin’s choice of similes is helpful here. Certain sorts of images (in our day we might cite photographic as well as painted images) may well require some verbal context before we can make appropriate sense of them, yet when viewed in this context they undoubtedly possess a power or force of their own which transcends the limits of meaning to which words alone may take us.
Clearly, for Calvin, the sacraments are essentially another form of the word. They are, after Augustine, the verbum visibile (‘a visible word’), ‘God’s promises as painted in a picture’ and set before our sight. They confer neither more nor less than the Word, and they have the same function as the Word preached and written: to offer and present Christ to us. They are, just as preaching is, the ‘vehicle of Christ’s self-communication … the signs are nothing less than pledges of the real presence [of Christ]; indeed, they are the media through which Christ effects his presence to his people’. And they constitute – no less than preaching – the Church’s ministry of the Word.
The separation of pulpit, font and table, and the prioritising of ‘words’ over the proclamation activities of baptism and eucharist, betray a failure to understand how these three particular activities might inform – and be informed by – theories of semiotics, ritual, dramaturgy and the sociology of knowledge. It is also, and more urgently, a failure to understand the nature and witness of Word in the Church’s ‘two marks’, and of the way the Spirit functions to create faith is us and to make us ‘living members of Christ’. And this has, consequently, sponsored both disproportion between word and sacrament, and a tendency towards binitarianism, both to the detriment of Reformed worship and ecclesiology. Certainly, preaching and the proclamation activities of font and table constitute two parts of the one action. A ‘low’ view of one results in a ‘low’ view of the other. As Joseph Small has noted: ‘If word and sacraments together are the heart of the church’s true and faithful life, neglect of one leads inexorably to deformation of the other, for when either word or sacrament exists alone it soon becomes a parody of itself … Reformed neglect of the sacraments has led to a church of the word alone, a church always in danger of degenerating into a church of mere words’. Why a community claiming to be concerned with the proclamation of God’s good news would neglect to taste the Word in the Supper each time it gathers to hear the Word expounded in human speech truly is an oddity.
While Calvin argued that ‘it would be well to require that the Communion of the Holy Supper of Jesus Christ be held every Sunday at least as a rule’, forlornly, many Reformed churches have propagated a situation wherein the pulpit and its associated wordiness have eclipsed the sacraments, sponsoring an arid intellectualism which has turned the worshipping community into ‘a class of glum schoolchildren’. It is not uncommon to witness Baptism’s reduction to little more than a welcoming ceremony, for the Supper to be celebrated infrequently, and even for fonts and tables to be discarded in favour of a pulpit which stands unbefriended in the centre of the chancel. In more appalling cases, the pulpit has joined font and table as relics on the sidelines, casualties of modernity’s techno gods.
Calvin, conversely, placed sacrament and word together at the heart of the community’s life not because he was a dreary traditionalist or obstructionist but because he ‘regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace’. In other words, pulpit, font, scripture and table function alike as witness to the Word who is the life of the world: (i) proclaiming in bold relief the gospel of Christ in whom we have true knowledge of God, and (ii) communicating Christ’s real presence to us, uniting us to Christ in the power of the Spirit ‘who makes us partakers in Christ’. So Calvin: ‘I say that Christ is the matter or (if you prefer) the substance of all the sacraments; for in him they have all their firmness, and they do not promise anything apart from him’.
I could have gone on (and on, and on) about Calvin, and to recall words from others too who further echo Calvin’s heart on these matters, but even lectures on Calvin must come to an end. Anyway, had I gone on, I may have invited reflection on these two passages:
‘[We understand] the sacraments as pieces of earthly stuff that are meeting places with this [triune] God who exists in ecstatic movements of love. They are doors into the dance of perichoresis in God. [They are a means] of God’s gracious coming and dwelling with us. They are signs which enable us to participate in the drama of death and resurrection which is happening in the heart of God. We share in death as we share in the broken body of the bread and the extravagantly poured out wine, and as we are covered with a threat of hostile waters. We share in life as we come out from under the waters … to take our place in the new community of the body of Christ, and to be filled with the new wine of the Spirit. – Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2000), 281.
‘Both sacraments [Baptism and the Lord’s Supper] declare the gospel of participation in the perfect worship of the Son, who has accomplished what we could not accomplish. When we receive the bread and wine at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we echo the cry of Jesus on the cross: ‘It is finished!’ Christ has done what I could never do … But we do more than engage in a memorial service! The word anamnesis, which translates into remembrance, has rich meaning…[conveying] a sense of re-living the past as if it were real today … Not only do we participate in shared and thankful remembrance of Christ’s perfect self-offering on our behalf, but we also participate in Christ’s continuing self-offering of himself on our behalf. We do not remember just the Christ of history – we remember the living Christ today, and the Christ who carries us into the future … The sacrament powerfully draws past, present, and future together in the life of the faith-community’. – Graham Buxton, Dancing in the Dark: The Privilege of Participating in the Ministry of Christ (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001), 137–8.
These 19 theses by Walter Brueggemann are the most interesting thing I’ve read all day [to be sure, it's been a bit of an admin marathon today], an encouraging invitation to those of us striving to live by, and to train others to live by, what Brueggemann calls ‘the alternative script’:
1. Everybody lives by a script. The script may be implicit or explicit. It may be recognised or unrecognised, but everybody has a script.
2. We get scripted. All of us get scripted through the process of nurture and formation and socialisation, and it happens to us without our knowing it.
3. The dominant scripting in our society is a script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socialises us all, liberal and conservative.
4. That script (technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism) enacted through advertising and propaganda and ideology, especially on the liturgies of television, promises to make us safe and to make us happy.
5. That script has failed. That script of military consumerism cannot make us safe and it cannot make us happy. We may be the unhappiest society in the world.
6. Health for our society depends upon disengagement from and relinquishment of that script of military consumerism. This is a disengagement and relinquishment that we mostly resist and about which we are profoundly ambiguous.
7. It is the task of ministry to de-script that script among us. That is, to enable persons to relinquish a world that no longer exists and indeed never did exist.
8. The task of descripting, relinquishment and disengagement is accomplished by a steady, patient, intentional articulation of an alternative script that we say can make us happy and make us safe.
9. The alternative script is rooted in the Bible and is enacted through the tradition of the Church. It is an offer of a counter-narrative, counter to the script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism.
10. That alternative script has as its most distinctive feature – its key character – the God of the Bible whom we name as Father, Son, and Spirit.
11. That script is not monolithic, one dimensional or seamless. It is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent. Partly it is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because it has been crafted over time by many committees. But it is also ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because the key character is illusive and irascible in freedom and in sovereignty and in hiddenness, and, I’m embarrassed to say, in violence – [a] huge problem for us.
12. The ragged, disjunctive, and incoherent quality of the counter-script to which we testify cannot be smoothed or made seamless because when we do that the script gets flattened and domesticated and it becomes a weak echo of the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism. Whereas the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism is all about certitude, privilege, and entitlement this counter-script is not about certitude, privilege, and entitlement. Thus care must be taken to let this script be what it is, which entails letting God be God’s irascible self.
13. The ragged, disjunctive character of the counter-script to which we testify invites its adherents to quarrel among themselves – liberals and conservatives – in ways that detract from the main claims of the script and so to debilitate the focus of the script.
14. The entry point into the counter-script is baptism. Whereby we say in the old liturgies, “do you renounce the dominant script?”
15. The nurture, formation, and socialisation into the counter-script with this illusive, irascible character is the work of ministry. We do that work of nurture, formation, and socialisation by the practices of preaching, liturgy, education, social action, spirituality, and neighbouring of all kinds.
16. Most of us are ambiguous about the script; those with whom we minister and I dare say, those of us who minister. Most of us are not at the deepest places wanting to choose between the dominant script and the counter-script. Most of us in the deep places are vacillating and mumbling in ambivalence.
17. This ambivalence between scripts is precisely the primary venue for the Spirit, so that ministry is to name and enhance the ambivalence that liberals and conservatives have in common that puts people in crisis and consequently that invokes resistance and hostility.
18. Ministry is to manage that ambivalence that is crucially present among liberals and conservatives in generative faithful ways in order to permit relinquishment of [the] old script and embrace of the new script.
19. The work of ministry is crucial and pivotal and indispensable in our society precisely because there is no one except the church and the synagogue to name and evoke the ambivalence and to manage a way through it. I think often I see the mundane day-to-day stuff ministers have to do and I think, my God, what would happen if you took all the ministers out. The role of ministry then is as urgent as it is wondrous and difficult.
[These theses were presented at the Emergent Theological Conversation, September 13-15, 2004, All Souls Fellowship, Decatur, GA., USA]
‘Most ministers were “set apart for the gospel”, as Paul says of himself … The preacher’s vocation was once a kind of circle that began and ended in the word. Whatever it was that made you a minister was aimed at its eventual public expression. The minister’s whole existence was concentrated to a point of declaration. Today, however, the circle has been broken.
Our culture devalues proclamation while elevating other associated forms of ministry such as counseling or community work …
But the proclamation of the word cannot be professionalized. It has no functional equivalents in secular culture. It cannot be camouflaged among socially useful or acceptable activities. Its passions are utterly nontransferable. The kerygmatic pitch, as Abraham Heschel said of the prophet’s voice, is usually about an octave too high for the rest of society. If you are filling out a job application, see how far it gets you to put under related skills: “I can preach”.
When ministers allow the word of God to be marginalized, they continue to speak, of course, and make generally helpful comments on a variety of issues, but they do so from no center of authority and with no heart of passion. We do our best to meet people’s needs, but without the divine word we can never know enough or be enough, because consumer need is infinite. We are simply there as members of a helping profession. We annex to our ministry the latest thinking in the social sciences and preface our proclamations with phrases like ‘modern psychology tells us,’ forgetting that the word ‘modern’ in such contexts usually indicates that what follows will be approximately one-hundred years out of date. What we lack in specialized knowledge we can only offset in time by making ourselves compulsively available to anyone in need.
I am convinced that no seminarian or candidate sets out to minister with such reduced expectations, and not everyone succumbs to this scenario, but ultimately the marginalization of the word of God fractions it into a hundred lesser duties’.
Richard Lischer, The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence (The Lyman Beecher Lectures in Preaching). (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), 22-24.
[H/T: Kim Fabricius]
‘Like most preachers, I grossly overestimated the importance of my part in the sermon. When I thought of preaching, I did not consider it to be a congregation’s reception of the word of God, but a speaker’s command of the Bible’s hidden meanings and applications, which were served up in a way to showcase the authority and skill of the preacher. In those days the gospel lived or died by my personal performance. My preaching was a small cloud of glory that followed me around and hung like a canopy over the pulpit whenever I occupied it. How ludicrous I must have appeared to my congregation.
In my first sermon I explained the meaning of an epiphany, not the Epiphany of God in the person of Jesus – no, that would have been too obvious – but the category of epiphanies in general. To this end, I drew at length on the depressing short stories of James Joyce in Dubliners. “Each of these stories has one thing in common,” I said. “In each the central character comes to a deeper and more disturbing understanding of himself. Nothing really happens in these stories except that in the midst of the daily routine a character is unexpectedly exposed to the predicaments of estrangement in his own life. One man realizes that his wife has never loved him. Another recognizes that he is trapped in his vocation. Another finds himself to be a hopeless failure. The human condition is full of such epiphanies …”
Before I could talk about Jesus, I apparently found it necessary to give my farmers a crash course in the angst-ridden plight of modern man. With the help of clichés from Joyce, Heidegger, Camus, and even Walker Percy, I first converted them to existential ennui so that later in the sermon I could rescue them with carefully crafted assurances of “meaning” in a meaningless world. Along the way I defiantly refuted Marx’s view of religion as an opiate that permits us to escape the hard realities of existence. It didn’t concern me that the problem of meaninglessness had not occurred to my audience or that Marx’s critique of religion rarely came up for discussion at the post office.
It’s not that I minimize the importance of the major themes of modernity. No doubt my parishioners would have understood themselves better had they opened their eyes to the intellectual context of their lives. But they did not and could not. The giants of modern thought – Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre – and the movements they unleashed, would never touch New Cana. My parishioners lived in a prison whose view was limited to the natural world and the most obvious technologies of the twentieth century. Aside from formulaic complaints about Communists, perverts, and radicals, they did not engage the modern world.
But then I did not bother to engage their world either. It did not occur to me that I needed a new education. I treated the rural life as an eccentric experience in ministry. I was a spectator once again, as I had been in college, watching a slide show of interesting scenes and odd characters. And since I was the viewer and they were the viewees, I was in control. When I preached, I always stood above my parishioners and looked down upon them.
Consequently, my sermons carried too many prerequisites to be effective. About 90 percent of my listeners had not graduated from high school; the majority of that group had not attended high school. There was no one with a four-year college degree in the church with the exception of a regular visitor named Darryl Sheets, our Lone Intellectual, who was principal of the high school in nearby Cherry Grove. Darryl regularly cornered me in long and fruitless conversations on the possible meanings of the Hebrew word for “young woman” in Isaiah 9:14 and how they all pointed to “Virgin.” But the truth is, Darryl and his wife Marvel didn’t drive all the way to Cana because of my expertise in Hebrew or the intellectual content of my sermons. Darryl was a tongue-speaking, fire-anointed charismatic who for some reason suspected that I might be one, too. It didn’t take him long to figure out he was wrong, and then we saw quite a bit less of Darryl and Marvel.
My audience paid a heavy price for the gospel. The farmers had to swallow my sixties-style cocktail of existentialism and psychology before I served them anything remotely recognizable. I implicitly required them to view their world and its problems through my eyes. All I asked of them was that they pretend to be me.
The only person who appreciated my sermons was my wife, who, like me, lived from books. Tracy was completing her course work for a Ph.D. in English and, therefore, considered poetry and literary allusions to be the most natural of all forms of communication. What’s a sermon without, “Perhaps Milton said it best when he wrote …” But among the rest of the congregation my preaching produced a standoff of sensibilities: If the idea for a sermon did not come from a book, I was not interested in pursuing it. If it did not emerge from life, my parishioners were not interested in hearing about it. In a few short months we had achieved homiletical gridlock’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, pp. 73–5.
- Peter Leithart on why we need to be ‘something like’ Biblicists
- David Guretzki has a fantastic post on Christmas preaching with Karl Barth
- John Mark Reynolds posts Ten Reasons for Calvinists to be Cheerful This Christmas
- Ben Myers announces a Sydney symposium on ‘Sarah Coakley and the Future of Systematic Theology’
- Cynthia Nielsen introduces Hans-Georg Gadamer (Part I, II)
- The latest Journal of Reformed Theology is out, and includes an essay by fellow-blogger David W. Congdon titled ‘Jesus and Faith: The Doctrine of Faith in Scripture and the Reformed Confessions’
- Trevor Faggotter reflects on the relationship between church and compost