Lord, I Know Already, Help Me Do

What is the purpose of preaching? Is it to increase knowledge or provoke akSHUN? Randy Nabors thinks the latter:

We don’t need more didactic moments that simply tickle the minds of those who thirst for more information; we need the forming of the heart though great sermons powerfully delivered. People need truth that shapes hearts into the obedience that comes through faith so people can be doers of the Word and not just hearers of it.

But what if the average Christian believer is someone who is prone to think either that sin, temptation, the devil, and the flesh have overwhelmed him the previous week? What sort of sermon does that person need? A call to obedience? Maybe. But can such a call make sense to someone who knows how sinful and weak he is? Might the person in the pew need to hear about God’s work in sanctification even if it is a tad didactic?

Or what about the average believer who lives life like a pilgrim, someone in exile, hardly in command of his affairs, but weak, frail, and in need of a reminder that God has saved him and controls all things?

In other words, Nabors seems to think of Christians as people who are in control of life and need simply to be hectored into living Christian lives. He doesn’t seem to allow that Christians come to church thinking that they believe, but are tempted to unbelief precisely when they take life and its duties into their own hands.

Could Christ Have Preached Christ and Him Crucified?

Rick Phillips introduces a tension — though that was not his intention — between Jesus’ preaching and Paul’s. We have the old was-Paul-the-second-founder-of-Christianity problem.

Here‘s is what Christ preached according to Phillips:

I noted 4 main types of ministry emphases highlighted by Jesus in Mark:

1. Jesus declaring his deity as Messiah, together with his teaching about God and salvation (i.e. theology and redemptive history).

2. Jesus preaching the gospel: pointing out his hearers’ need to be forgiven and God’s wonderful remedy through his saving work. Included here would be calls to prospective disciples to believe and follow Jesus.

3. Jesus training and reproving his disciples, including ethical and spiritual instruction and his call to evangelistic labor.

4. Jesus exposing false teachers and religious opposition. This includes the confronting and correcting of false doctrine.

And here is how Paul described his preaching:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Cor 2:1-2)

Again, I don’t think Phillips is trying to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul, but the way he frames the question does lead in that direction — one that contrasts the way Jesus preached with the way his disciples did (think of Peter in Acts 2). Why isn’t it the case that Jesus is NOT a model for post-ascension preaching — nor is John the Baptist. Until the main event of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, the preaching of biblical prophets is going to be types and shadows. Think Geerhardus Vos.

And also think Marilyn Robinson. This is what can happen if you use Jesus as your model for preaching and leave out Paul:

Since these folk claim to be defenders of embattled Christianity (under siege by liberalism, as they would have it), they might be struck by the passage in Matthew 25 in which Jesus says, identifying himself with the poorest, “I was hungry, and ye fed me not.” This is the parable in hallowed be your name which Jesus portrays himself as eschatological judge and in which he separates “the nations.” It should surely be noted that he does not apply any standard of creed – of purity or of orthodoxy – in deciding whom to save and whom to damn. This seems to me a valuable insight into what Jesus himself might consider fundamental. To those who have not recognized him in the hungry and the naked, he says, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels.” Neofundamentalists seem to crave this sort of language – more than they might if they were to consider its context here. It is the teaching of the Bible passim that God has confided us very largely to one another’s care, but that in doing so he has in no degree detached himself from us. Indeed, in this parable Jesus would seem to push beyond the image of God as final judge to describe an immanence of God in humankind that makes judgment present and continuous, and that in effect makes our victim our judge. Neither here nor anywhere else in the Bible is there the slightest suggestion that our judge/victim would find a plea of economic rationalism extenuating. This supposed new Awakening is to the first two Awakenings, and this neofundamentalism is to the first fundamentalism, as the New Right is to the New Deal, or as matter is to antimatter’.

When Allies Impersonate the Axis

I was surfing around the Internet last weekend, hoping to find a paper by a certain academic theologian, when I came across The Gospel Coalition’s Resources page, which includes a gargantuan list of sermonizers. Much to my surprise I found that I am one of the listed preachers at TGC. @#$%#^&%@!!!

The reasons for taking offense are several. First, I am a four-office fellow, which means that as a rule I don’t preach. And TGC, confused as the allies are liturgically and ecclesiologically, has take the liberty of listing talks and interviews as sermons. Heck, I objected when John Frame likened preaching to a “dramatic” “liturgical” skit. I think we have a case of bait-and-switch.

Second, I am not a member of TGC and have not supported its programs. I believe I have been fairly candid and steady about that opposition. So in the name promoting the programs and aims of TGC, you would think their web masters would not want to list one of their critics as a “resource.”

It reminds me of Ron Wells old line about evangelicalism: I’d give up my membership if I knew where to send in my card. In the crazy world of parachurch evangelicalism, no cards, no membership, just right.

Are Protestants Logocentric? Proudly (in a humble way)

From Luther’s comments on John 3:

What should Christ do, and of what use is the Messiah? What kind of Messiah is He? . . . What does He do? He testifies. If He walks in such weakness and holds on His kingdship no more fimrly than that He testified, is there nothing else that He can do but preach and talk? If He is no soldier, possesses no land (not even the width of His palm) and no people, what does He do? Preach. Yes, such a Messiah are we bidden to accept.

How if it be God’s will that the Messiah should not come like a Caesar? Such an honour He will not grants unto them, that He should come arrayed with power like theirs. But that He comes so unadorned and does nothing but preach, that is unspeakable wisdom and strength, yes, the treasure of wisdom and knowledge, for whosoever believes in Him shall live eternally. But who sees this? You are not meant to see it. His reign and His preaching are a testimony. It is a preaching which testifies to things which no man can hear, see, or read in books of the law or anywhere else in the world. To witness means to speak of what the hearer has not seen. A judge does not judge what he sees. He must hear witnesses. But here He must preach and witness to something which men do not see, and that is how the Lord Christ is a witness to the Father in heaven, high uplifted above all men. He shall do nothing but preach, and His preaching shall be His testimony to the Father, how He is inclined, how He desires to make men blessed and to redeem them from their sins, and from the power of death and the devil. That is His testimony.

Luther might explain why Protestants have stressed sermons as the center piece of worship.

This would explain why Roman Catholics emphasize the Mass:

The Tridentine Decree on Justification is one of the most impressive achievements of the council. The leaders of the council had reported to Rome that “the significance of this council in the theological sphere lies chiefly in the article on justification, in fact this is the most important item the council has to deal with.” But reading it can give one a false impression of the significance of justification within Roman Catholicism. The decree was needed, and the doctrine received the attention that it did, because of the Protestant challenge. For the inner life of the Roman Catholic Church, however, the doctrine was not very important. In 1564 Pope Pius IV promulgated the Creed of the Council of Trent. Justification is mentioned just once in passing: “I embrace and accept each and every article on original sin and justification declared and defined in the most holy Council of Trent.” Shortly afterward, his successor, Pope Pius V, promulgated a Catechismus ex Decreto Concilii Tridentini, the so-called Roman Catechism. This contains only scattered passing references to justification, mostly in the context of teaching on the sacraments. The sacramental system is as central to the catechism as the doctrine of justification is peripheral, and the need to offer satisfaction for sins receives the sustained exposition denied to justification. Justification needed to be treated in response to the Protestant threat, but at the heart of the Christian life in Roman Catholicism is not justification but the sacramental system. The Council fathers turned from justification to the sacraments, and the Decree on the sacraments begins with the observation that all true righteousness begins with the sacraments; having been begun, increases through them; and, if lost, is restored through them. (Anthony Lane, “A Tale of Two Imperial Cities,” in Bruce L. McCormack, Justification in Perspective, 141-42)

Two paradigms, indeed, (but not much reform in the Counter-Reformation).

Ben Franklin: Patron Saint of Applicatory Preaching?

I came across the follow excerpt while teaching a few weeks ago and it was striking that the self-made man and pursuer of virtue, Ben Franklin, was no fan of doctrinal preaching. I suspect that his objections to the preaching of Jedediah Andrews, the pastor at First Presbyterian in Philadelphia, would have also applied to redemptive historical sermons. Here is what Franklin observed:

Tho’ I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of its propriety, and of its utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual subscription for the support of the only Presbyterian minister or meeting we had in Philadelphia. He us’d to visit me sometimes as a friend, and admonish me to attend his administrations, and I was now and then prevail’d on to do so, once for five Sundays successively. Had he been in my opinion a good preacher, perhaps I might have continued, notwithstanding the occasion I had for the Sunday’s leisure in my course of study; but his discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforc’d, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.

At length he took for his text that verse of the fourth chapter of Philippians, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report, if there be any virtue, or any praise, think on these things.” And I imagin’d, in a sermon on such a text, we could not miss of having some morality. But he confin’d himself to five points only, as meant by the apostle, viz.: 1. Keeping holy the Sabbath day. 2. Being diligent in reading the holy Scriptures. 3. Attending duly the publick worship. 4. Partaking of the Sacrament. 5. Paying a due respect to God’s ministers. These might be all good things; but, as they were not the kind of good things that I expected from that text, I despaired of ever meeting with them from any other, was disgusted, and attended his preaching no more. I had some years before compos’d a little Liturgy, or form of prayer, for my own private use (viz., in 1728), entitled, Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion. I return’d to the use of this, and went no more to the public assemblies. My conduct might be blameable, but I leave it, without attempting further to excuse it; my present purpose being to relate facts, and not to make apologies for them.

This is not meant to be an expression of guilt by association, as if those who want application in preaching share Franklin’s views about religion more generally. I personally continue to be impressed by Franklin in a host of ways — his industry, his humor and style, his remarkable literary interests, and his statesmanship. But he wasn’t right about everything. People are complicated. That likely includes preaching and revivals (he was a fan, after all, of Whitefield).

Missing the Forest for the Pericopes

I have yet to read T. David Gordon’s book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach, but I’m tempted to wonder if part of the reason for Johnny’s homiletical ineptness is that he feels constrained to preach one paragraph at a time. Mind you, I have nothing against the lectio continuo, that is, preaching and reading through entire books of Scripture rather than building homilies out of the three or four different lessons assigned by the lectionary. The former invites expository preaching while the latter encourages pious thoughts on biblical themes (with lots if illustrations from television series). At the same time, when you hear stories of men spending three years in Romans and think that an average Christian in a lectionary church has heard the entirety of Scripture read during the same time, you begin to wonder about the side effects of devotion to bite-sized texts.

One sign of problems with such preaching is to consider whether a pastor loses sight of the original reason for the book of Scripture through which he is sermonizing. During the first two or so chapters into one of Paul’s letters, for instance, the pastor is generally attentive to the context and the particular problems that vexed the Corinthians. But come chapter thirteen, a minister may have grown weary of reminding the congregation of Paul’s original context and so begin to treat the later passages in isolation from the actual situation in Corinth.

This problem leads to another, at least associated with epistles, which is, are letters meant to be read a paragraph at a time? Maybe some lovers will savor each graph of their beloved’s letter, like the last chocolate in the box. But generally speaking, whether for business or personal communication, we read letters from beginning to end. Why, many New Testament experts have said that Hebrews was regularly read in one sitting to the early church. So how much does expository preaching slow down a natural approach to texts?

Is there a solution? Probably not. But I do wonder if ministers might mix their approach to books of the Bible in the same way that they may vary the genres the choose to preach. Why not every third sermon series decide to preach an entire book – and I mean a longer one like a Gospel or Romans – in six sermons? If a pastor did this and was forced to preach through the entire book only six times, how would that organize his thoughts and presentation? Would he miss a lot? Yes. And given the way that some ministers do word analysis in their sermons, covering a pericope at a time is a sprint through Scripture. So the size of sermon texts is relative, just as speed and exposition are in the eye of the behold. But a six sermon allotment would help the congregation to see the entire book and its main points. If the pastor were so inclined, he could come back to certain passages that deserve greater attention. But again, in order to keep before the congregation the overarching point of a specific book, is a seventy-six week series the way to go?

And if we could preach entire books in greater speed, maybe we could also introduce catechetical preaching, which would give a summary of the entire Bible’s teaching – if you’re following Heidelberg – in one year.

I also wonder if giving more attention to the high points of the Bible and its books would be a way to prevent some of the balkanization that goes on in conservative Reformed circles when pastors take on pet doctrines or harbor beloved themes. If preachers had to look more to Paul or God to organize their thoughts than to their own abilities to find three or four points in a paragraph, maybe conservative Presbyterians would get along. As it stands, our manner of preaching splits up texts in ways that seldom bring unity to the very words we revere.

In Defense of Pessimism

I came across a great passage in Machen in preparation for yesterday’s lesson in adult education. I read most of it and so the audio that Camden Bucey is posting here at oldlife will have it. But for those who want the print version, here it is:

If you accept the Bible as the Word of God you will have one qualification of a preacher. Whatever be the limitations of your gifts, you will at least have a message. You will be, in one respect at least, unlike most person who love to talk in public at the present time; you will have one qualification of a speaker – you will at least have something to say. But what is it that you will have to say? What will be the kind of message that God has given you to proclaim?

In the first place, it will unquestionably be a message of warning: you will be called upon to tell men of evil that is to come. That will no doubt make you unpopular. Men like encouragement; they like to be told, with regard to the Ramoth-Gilead of their pet projects, to go up and prosper, for the Lord will deliver it into the hand of the king; they do not like to see gloomy visions of all Israel scattered upon the hills as sheep that have not a shepherd. It is not Micaiah the son of Imlah but Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah that often has the favor of the crowd.

I am going to venture, however, to say a brief word in defense of pessimism. There are times when pessimism is a very encouraging thing. Last summer I took a voyage down the New England coast one foggy afternoon and night; it was one of the thickest nights that I have ever seen even on those fog-bound waters. Now I am glad to say that the captain of each of the two boats won which I traveled was a thorough pessimist. For a time the boat would plow along at full speed; but then, for no apparent reason, she would stop and rock quietly upon the gentle swells, and then proceed at a snail’s pace. Presently the mournful sound of a buoy would be heard and then the buoy would come into sight. The buoys were usually exactly where the captain expected them to be; but unless he saw them he took a thoroughly pessimistic view as to their whereabouts. The result of such pessimism was good. The sound of the fog-horn was, indeed, lugubrious and hardly conducive to repose; but at least we got safely into Boston in the morning.

There are ship-captains who are less pessimistic than the captain of that boat. Such an one, for example was the captain of the ill-fated Titanic. He hoped that all was well, and kept the engines going at full speed. I am certainly not presuming to blame him. Perhaps every captain not gifted with superhuman vision would have been as optimistic as he. But, whether excusably or not, optimistic he certainly was; and his optimism was fatal to many hundreds of human lives. The great ship plowed onward through the night; and now she lies at the bottom of the sea. Of, that no mere weak mortal but some true prophet of God had been upon the bridge that night!

That disaster is a figure of what will come of optimism in the churches today. Superficially our ecclesiastical life seems to be progressing as it always did: the cabins are full of comfortable passengers; the orchestra is playing a lively air; the rows of lighted windows shine cheerfully out into the night. But all the time death is lurking beneath. In this time of deadly peril there are leaders who say that all is well; there are leaders who decry controversy and urge peace, declaring that the Church is all perfectly loyal and true. Bod forgive them, brethren! I say it with all my heart: may God forgive them for the evil that they are doing to Christ’s little ones; may the Holy Spirit open their eyes while yet there is time! Meanwhile, in the case of many of the churches, the great ship rushes onward to the risk, at least, of doom. (“Prophets False and True,” a sermon from 1 Kings 22:14, in God Transcendent, pp, 112-13)