Resurrected Living
"What are you going to do with your new resurrected life? This is the heroic question." Richard Rohr

The Power of the Spoken Word in Preaching

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Thomas Oden noted that in contemporary church culture, pastoral care and preaching is often disjoined, though in the past this was not the case (Oden, 28). In particular, the ministry of the Word through preaching and catechesis played a very important role in the development of the church and the care of souls. It should be so today. Preaching–the spoken Word–plays a significant role in how the kingdom of God comes: in Scripture we find the canon of saving speech; in preaching, the ongoing means by which this saving speech generates a new creation is manifest, so that even in this present evil age we “[taste] the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Heb. 6:5).**

So, let’s clear a bit of thinking space and consider the ways in which we might think of preaching as “powerful.”

1) First, preaching is powerful because it ‘clarifies’ the preacher and the Church. Theologian John Webster astutely observes, “Interpretation of the clear word of God is not…first of all an act of clarification but the event of being clarified” (Webster, 379). In other words, the preaching task is inherently clarifying first for the minister as he accepts the text as canonical and authoritative, which in turn obliges him to read our contemporary experiences in light of the text before we may read the text in light of our experience. That is, the text itself indicates the meaning of the context in which it is later preached, not the other way around.

Part of the ‘clarifying’ process of preaching is the self-effacing character of the task. In other words, in not becoming overly focused upon oneself autobiographically, and in admitting the focus of the word of God solely, one sees more clearly into God’s revelation. As Chemnitz notes, “neither his dreams, nor the visions of his heart…but let him who teaches in the church teach the Word of God (1 Pt. 4:11), so that the heart of the ministry is and remains this, Is. 59.21: ‘I have put My words in your mouth,’ and as Augustine aptly says: ‘Let us not hear in the church: I say this, you say this, he says that; but, ‘Thus says the Lord.’” That being said, what effect does preaching have upon the Church itself?

2) Preaching is powerful because, in classical Protestant thought, it has been claimed that the church is the creation of the Word (creatura verbi) (Horton, 751). As the argument goes, just as the individual does not give birth to him- or herself, the community does not give birth to itself; both are from above (Jn. 3:3-5). Not surprisingly, this has garnered much comment from Roman Catholic Scholars, but the view has been summarized well by, in particular, Reformed thinkers:

The church existing as a community in history has been understood and described in the Reformed tradition as a creatura verbi, as “the creation of the word.”…The church, like faith itself, is brought into being by the hearing of God’s word in the power of the Spirit; it lives ex auditu, by hearing. This emphasis upon hearing the word of God had been of central importance in Reformed theology since the sixteenth century. This is why the Reformed have stressed “the true preaching of the word” together with “the right dispensing of the sacraments according to the institution of Jesus Christ” as a decisive “mark of the true church.

Against the appeal to continuity, custom and institution, the Reformed appeal to the living voice of the living God as the essential and decisive factor by which the church must live, if it will live at all: the church, as creatura verbi….the church is the creation of the word because the word itself is God’s creative word of grace by which we are justified and renewed…the community of faith is thus not merely the community in which the gospel is preached; by its hearing and responding to the word of grace, the community itself becomes a medium of confession, its faith a “sign” or “token” to the world; it is itself part of the world transformed by being addressed and renewed by the word of God (Meyer and Rusch, 802).

This transformation is an act of the external word of God, which breaks up and exposes all presuppositions, attitudes, longings, felt needs, pious impulses, speculations, and ideals of individuals and even of the church itself. Preaching, as public communication, is inherently social and reorganizes the creation that it disrupts into the new creation of which it speaks. Conceived in the event of hearing, the church always remains on the receiving end of its redemption and identity (Horton, 752).

Luther noted this tendency for God to create through his proclaimed word; he reasoned that since preaching suits God’s own purpose and intention, God will in due time find listeners for the faithful preacher: “Since God creates people whom He bids to preach, He will no doubt also create and send listeners who will take their teaching to heart” (Quoted in Oden, 32). Certainly one of the most revered moments in preaching, treasured by all traditions in the Christian faith, is Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2—an appropriate example illustrative of Luther’s point. In part, the prelude to Peter’s sermon was the anointing and moment of ‘charismatic legitimation’ promised in Acts 1:4-5, 8. The Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples of Jesus, to begin his work of renewal in Jerusalem, and to make it possible for his salvation to reach “to the ends of the earth” (cf. Is. 49:10). In this moment, what is realized is nothing less than the restoration of Israel.

What is important to note in the theologically pregnant moments recorded in Acts 2 is that the Father accomplishes all things by his Word and in the power of the Spirit. The Word is that living and active energy that creates and recreates. It may harden hearts or melt them, but it is never inert, since it is the Word of the Father, spoken in the Son, made effectual by the Spirit. God’s speech never returns to him empty-handed (Is. 55:11). In fact, it is often prompted by chaos, and by the noetic confusion of humanity seeking. In the crowd’s response to the charismatic anointing in Acts 2, it is the crowd’s reaction that demonstrates the need for Peter’s explanatory sermon, which follows.

The preaching events in this text in Acts are instructive of what the preaching task requires of its practitioners in general (though admittedly Peter is an example par excellence). The apostle first defines what has happened and explains its cause. He proclaims the coming of the Spirit as an eschatological event, fulfilling God’s ancient promise through the prophet Joel (vv. 14–21). Indeed, Peter speaks as a prophet himself—as one who has been filled with the Spirit—insisting that what has happened to the disciples must be related to what happened to Jesus. The real cause of this event is the resurrection and ascension of the Messiah to the right hand of God (vv. 22–35). Jesus is presented as the exalted Davidic ruler and as ‘a greater Moses who ascends to God in order to grant a foundational gift to Israel’. Peter therefore challenges his hearers to change their perception of Jesus and to share the convictions of his followers and their experience of the Holy Spirit (vv. 36–40). Although charged with rejecting the Messiah, who is Lord of the Spirit, the Jerusalem crowd is given another chance to share in the salvation promised to them, and previously offered to them in the preaching of Jesus himself.

3) Preaching is powerful because it is didactic and sacramental. God’s words might be described as ‘event-generating discourse;’ they are not only enlightening or informative, but fulfilled (Horton, 755). Illustrative of this type of discourse is the prophet preaching to the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37, vividly portraying the living and active Word that creates the reality of which it speaks. The Word creates, it brings about its fruitfulness, it pulls people out of their self-enclosed prisons of sin and death, and renews. On Pentecost and repeatedly in Acts, we see that the growth of the church is attributed to the fact that “the word of God spread” and “prevailed” (Acts. 6:7; 13:49; 19:20), and “proclaiming the good news” is the central activity described in this history of the early church. In fact, the spreading of the word (in support of this essay’s thesis) is treated as synonymous with the spreading of the kingdom of God, suggesting that by the Word we are legally adopted, and by the Spirit we receive the inner witness that we are children of God (Rom. 8:12-17).

Thus, preaching involves teaching, but it is much more than that. The sacramental aspect of the preached word, that is, preaching as a means of grace, means that preaching not only calls people to faith in Christ (cf. Rom. 10:10-17) it is the means by which the Spirit creates faith in their hearts. Of course, in many various Protestant theologies, the sacramental aspect of preaching is often marginalized in deference to a purely instructional concept and mode. The danger in conceptualizing preaching only in mere pedagogical terms though is that people will only understand the Word as it is reduced to a base didactic function and there will dawn a longing to encounter God here and now through other means. This, in itself, is not altogether bad, but given the ever-accessible-but-vague bag of contemporary spiritualities that purports to contain God presently and fully, one is warned, and warned with vigor. In other words, the inability to grasp the sacramentalized aspect of preaching means one has never understood its true power. We do well to remember that the proclaimed gospel is “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16).

4) Preaching is powerful because it is a primary shaper in ‘spirituality’ and worship. The day has waned since C.H. Dodd articulated the rigid distinction between “preaching” (i.e. to non-adherents to the faith) and “teaching” (to the church alone) (Dodd, 116). There is an acknowledgement that teaching and preaching would have taken place in the early church in gatherings of the Christian community (Knowles, 13). For example, Paul’s correspondence would have been read aloud to the congregants in the course of their worship gatherings (as 1 Thess. 5:27 and Col. 4:16 indicate). Why was this appropriate? Because as worship is the proper human response to divine self-revelation, so preaching itself is an act of praise. It is doxological in the sense that it arises from and responds to God’s saving action, and insofar as it contributes to doxology by recalling for its hearers their true identity as those who are being transformed by God (Knowles, 13). Since this doxological characteristic of Paul’s (and other’s) letters transcends social and historical particularities, contemporary preachers are able to learn from and to some extent model their own practice on that of one of the early church’s first, most effective, and most influential preachers. So what can Paul teach us?

He teaches us, in part, that preaching is a function not primarily of form, of communicative medium, or of any particular concept or theory, but of ‘spirituality.’ “Spirituality,” although not a term the apostle would have used, speaks to the way in which preaching, in its outlook, is oriented to the spiritual realm. By this we mean or imply that preaching is, over and above an interest in the inner self for its own sake, an engagement of the human “spirit” with God. Used here then in an explicitly Christian context, the term “spirituality” refers to the direction of mind and will towards the transcendent God of Israel and of Jesus. The term “worship” then denotes the various concrete physical behaviors that express this broader ‘spiritual’ orientation such that preaching is informed by and intends to sustain spirituality. It alerts listeners to various dimensions and implications of the divine-human encounter and relationship. In particular, preaching emphasized the implications of Jesus Christ while at the same articulating and encouraging various kinds of responses. In its most basic but proper orientation, “Christian” preaching focuses on the person of Christ as instrumental to the relationship between God’s creation, God’s creatures, and their Creator (Knowles, 13-14).

5) Preaching is powerful because the preached word creates community. There are many things that we as Christians may do in private. We may meditate on Scripture in private. We are enjoined to private prayer, even by Jesus’ own examples (Ps. 6:9; 54:2; Mt. 6:5-13; 26:36; 1Th. 5:17; Eph. 6:18). Many of our acts of discipleship and fellowship can be done by us rather than to us, without needing to gather as an assembled people. But if the church gathered is to be more than a voluntary association, God’s saving action must be enacted, both publicly and socially, by his active and living Word. Bonhoeffer explains:

If there were an unmediated work of the Spirit, then the idea of the church would be individualistically dissolved from the outset. But in the word the most profound social nexus is established from the beginning. The word is social in character, not only in its origin but in its aim. Tying the Spirit to the word means that the Spirit aims at a plurality of hearers and establishes a visible sign by which the actualization is to take place. The word, however, is qualified by being the very word of Christ; it is effectively brought to the heart of the hearers by the Spirit.

To summarize, the word is the sociological principle by which the entire church is built up…both in numbers and in its faith. Christ is the foundation upon which, and according to which, the building of the church is raised (1 Cor. 3; Eph. 2:20), and “with a growth that is from God” (Col. 2:19), “until all of us come to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13), and in all this growing “into him who is the head, into Christ.” The entire building begins and ends with Christ, and its unifying center is the word (Bonhoeffer, 158).

Not only entrusted with the gospel, the church is itself created and constantly renewed and corrected by this living and active Word. Thus preaching creates community. Insofar as the Church speaks God’s Word, its authority is not illusory or an exercise in arbitrary power.

So, if you made it this far—congratulations—let’s now ask: why is this important? It’s important because I think that if one is going to undertake the audacious act of preaching, one must realize that the spoken word…preaching…is invested with great power. Of course, anyone who has preached more than about three times knows that not every sermon is a home run. Nevertheless, there is power. Why? Because if the preacher is truly gifted (by God) for the task, then the Holy Spirit greatly empowers our preaching.

Of course, perhaps one is not called to preached or has not been gifted to do so. One recalls the wisdom of A.W. Tozer here:

“Let me shock you at this point. A naturally bright person can carry on religious activity without a special gift from God. Filling church pulpits every week are some who are using only natural abilities and special training. Some are known as Bible expositors, for it is possible to read and study commentaries and then repeat what has been learned about the Scriptures. Yes, it may shock you, but it is true that anyone able to talk fluently can learn to use religious phrases and can become recognized as a preacher. But if any person is determined to preach so that his work and ministry will abide in the day of the judgment fire, then he must preach, teach and exhort with the kind of love and concern that comes only through a genuine gift of the Holy Spirit–something beyond his own capabilities” (Tragedy in the Church: The Missing Gifts, 21-22).

Nonetheless for those who have been called (an altogether different but important topic), as we think about the power of the preached word we begin to appreciate that the Holy Spirit’s role is to make the external Word an inwardly experienced and embraced reality—thus there is power—despite us and our sometimes lame efforts. Remember, the proclamation of the Word is not simply teaching concerning Christ, but the address of Christ himself through which the Spirit delivers Christ to us and unites us to him. That seems to be Paul’s point in Romans 10, when he says that we do not have to ascend to heaven to pull God down to us or descend into the depths to raise Christ from the dead. Rather, “the word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim)” (v. 8). Paul’s logic appears clear: “But how shall they believe him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? (vv. 14-15). Preachers are sent by the King to herald the message. When they speak, in Christ’s name, it is Christ’s voice that they hear (v. 17). The gospel, when preached by word of mouth, does more than churches often simply offer and contend. The Word itself is the power of God, God’s kingdom.

What are our challenges?

Taylor Mali, in Def Poetry Season 2, suggests that we live in the midst of “the most aggressively inarticulate generation to come along since, you know, a long time.” Sadly, as the brilliant video to follow makes clear, the “tragically hip interrogative tone” that he mocks here occupies too many of our pulpits and public speech about God. It should not be so.

Far from being an invitation to “the bandwagon of my own uncertainty,” preaching ought truly to proclaim something. As an exercise, compare some contemporary preaching with some of the Old Guard: Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, etc. See what you find. At the very least, you discover that the fellas were not shy about proclaiming something. Odds are that they believed in the power of the preached word. Having examined all the points above about why preaching is powerful (of course, having not nearly exhausted the subject) how can we not proclaim the word boldly?

So go on then, preach like you mean it. As Kevin DeYoung asserts (http://tinyurl.com/7kqx5rv):

The only hope we preachers have for success in the ministry is the power inherent in the word of God. We can have no other confidence. The only things really worth happening in your church will only happen by the power of the word. The word may seem slow or foolish or irrelevant, but it will not disappoint. It cannot return empty.

Critics like to say about evangelicals, “You worship the Bible, a dead letter, words on a page, blah, blah, blah.” Don’t mind those critics. Satan uses their critiques more than God does. The devil wants you to think there’s no power in the word, that it’s not living and active, that it’s not sharper than any two-edged sword, that it’s not the imperishable seed by which men and women are born again. The devil wants you to believe you are fruity and fruitless for wasting your time in study and wasting your breath on Sunday. The devil wants you to voice your cynicism, your skepticism, and your sophisticated reasons for supposedly worshiping Jesus by revering the Scriptures less than he did. Don’t buy it. Look at every preacher worthy of emulation from any century and you will find a man preaching with authority.

So preach with confidence and conviction this Lord’s Day. Preach as if you were utterly and completely dependent on the word of God to do the work of God. “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Titus 2:15).

Go on. Preach like you mean it. 

Matthew Dowling is the preaching minister for the Monmouth Church of Christ in Tinton Falls, New Jersey.  Matthew has a B.S. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Oklahoma and is completing a Master of Divinity from Oklahoma Christian University. Matthew and his wife Rachel have been married since 2000. They have two sons named Gabriel and Gideon. Matthew enjoys preaching and studying God’s word, reading great books, and spending time with family. You can read more of Matthew’s writing at Desposyni

Blog Post Notes and Bibliography (and Further Reading):

**Nota bene: The church affirms that the Word of God is not just a generic concept, but refers to at least three specific forms, all of which are addressed in preaching and are vital to the life of the church: (1) first, and foremost as Jesus Christ, the hypostatic (i.e. incarnate) Word, who is one with the Father in essence, and (2) the canonical Word, which is neither God’s essence nor merely a created effect, but the living and active energies of the triune God in the form of communication by which he creates, sustains, redeems, renews, and rules, constituting a community of redeemed sinners by means of an authoritative canon—Holy Scripture. Some have, especially Lutheran and Reformed theologians, referred to the canonical Word as the “sacramental Word”: that is, the Word as a means of grace. (3) Third, and closely allied to (2) is the proclaimed word of God based upon this normative canon, which serves as the basis of contemporary preaching—a medium for Christ’s saving activity in the world. It is this final mode that has been the focus of this blog post.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Vol 1. Edited by Joachim von Soosten; English edition, edited by Clifford J. Greens. Trans. By Reinhard Krauss and Nancy Lukens. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.

Dodd, C.H. The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development. London: Houder and Stoughton: Fortress, 1936.

Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrim’s on the Way. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011.

Knowles, Michael. We Preach Not Ourselves: Paul on Proclamation. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008.

Oden, Thomas C. Ministry through Word and Sacrament. In Vol. 2 Classic Pastoral Care. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987.

Peterson, David G. The Acts of the Apostles. In The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

Webster, John. “Biblical Theology and the Clarity of Scripture.” In Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation. Edited by Craig Bartholomew et al. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.

World Council of Churches. “Reformed-Roman Catholic Dialogue.” In Growth in Agreement Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level, 1992-1998. Edited by Jeffrey Gros, Harding Meyer, and William G. Rusch. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

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