By Louis Venden
While the place and importance of preaching in the life of an Adventist pastor or congregation hardly seems in jeopardy, there may be value and perhaps even need for asking why this is the case. A clearer understanding of the why of preaching; i.e. a biblical theology of preaching can strengthen the foundation on which this practice is built.
Reasons for a Theology of Preaching
Pastors need a theology of preaching to determine the priority they will give to sermon preparation and delivery in their practice of ministry. With more to do than can ever be done, on what basis will they allot time, attention and energy to their ministry of the Word?
Adventist preachers need a theology of preaching to develop and evaluate their homiletical methodology. "Using the Bible" to prepare sermons or "preaching the Bible" can be radically different perspectives on what goes into sermon construction.
A theology of preaching has crucial implications for the understanding of what is happening in and through preaching itself. It will keep homiletics from settling for a purely rhetorical model (public speaking on a religious topic with the purpose of instructing and persuading) while being open to valid speech insights into effective communication. A theology of preaching will keep the preacher from becoming either a “salesman or a showman.” It will recognize and celebrate the fact that after everything has been done to remove barriers and anything that would detract and after every effort has been made to communicate clearly; effective communication is ultimately the work of God.
Adventist homiletics needs a theology of preaching in order to understand the place of preaching in the worship life of the Church. A theology of both preaching and worship is vital to keep the sermon from becoming a performance (or entertainment) with other elements relegated to the function of “preliminaries” to the “main event” and the congregation serving primarily as spectators.
Finally, both preacher and congregation need a theology of preaching to determine what should be expected from preaching and the criteria by which preaching will be judged.
Movement of the Word
As an anchor point for exploring the why of preaching, we begin with that thoughtful phrase derived from Isaiah which von Rad calls “prophecy’s most comprehensive statement about the word of Yahweh and its effects.” (Old Testament Theology, vol. 2, p. 93)
For Israel the Word partakes of the cosmic power of the Creator God. It is powerful because it is a declaration of the will of the divine sovereign. In Isaiah 55 the Word is seen as going forth, moving like a swift messenger to establish the divine will with full authority, and then returning to God again.
It should be noted that the Old Testament recognizes two aspects of the Word. On the one hand, it is thought of as static and unalterable in the form of law, as primarily noetic in function. On the other hand, it is also viewed as the dynamic movement of the word of prophecy and there are times when both perspectives may be combined. (Eichrodt. Theology of the Old Testament, 2:74)
While acknowledging the importance of the Word of God as “law,” it is of equal importance that we recognize the biblical perspective of God’s Word as dynamic—and understand something of the process and means by which the “movement of the Word” occurs.
Fundamental to the biblical understanding of God is the idea that along which His mighty acts, it is by His Word that He reveals himself as the living God. Yahweh is set in contrast to the pagan gods by His Word on the one hand and their silence on the other. (e.g. Isaiah 46:7; also 41:21; 43:9; 45:20 ff.)
Implicit in this idea is God’s desire to be heard, understood and responded to. And humankind, as the crowning act in God’s creation, is created with the capacity for relationship, for communion. Adam and Eve can hear, understand, and respond. The Word goes forth, it reaches out, it moves in order to draw in, to unite in fellowship. It is not just an idea, a statement of a fact, but it has the dynamic of personal address and reply.
The Word from God and its dynamic movement continues as that word is written, transmitted, translated, and preserved as the Hebrew Scriptures.
With the New Testament we come to the time when the God who “spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets” now speaks by his Son, the incarnate Word. God’s thought becomes audible and visible in Jesus Christ. He was the Word speaking the word. In His life, word and act are intertwined.
And what human beings saw and touched, that which they heard and handled—the Word as person in the fullest and highest sense—they proclaim. The gospel Word moves out, through Jerusalem, then to Samaria and on to the uttermost parts of the earth in order that all people might know and experience the fellowship for which the Word was intended and given.
We really saw and heard what we are now writing to you about. We want you to be with us in this—in this fellowship with the Father, and Jesus Christ his Son. We must write and tell you about it, because the more that the fellowship extends the greater the joy it brings to us who are already in it. (1 John 1:3, 4 J.B. Phillips)
With the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, the New Testament Church, under the direction of this Promised Teacher, reflected on the fuller meaning of all that had happened in their world and in them—on what they have seen, heard and known of the Word as alive and continuing to move in their lives. Then through them that Word moved out into their world. Their preached word also became the written word, but whether in spoken or written form; as simple testimony, powerful proclamation, or written epistles, the Word continued to move, to be heard, understood, and to create the possibility of and call for a personal response of faith.
This understanding of the Word of God undergirds the WHY of preaching; i.e. provides the bedrock for a biblical theology of preaching.
Other Key Elements in a Theology of Preaching
We should seriously consider the apostolic and early Church’s faith and practice. Preaching can be seen as an act of obedience and respond to the command, prediction and promise of Jesus Christ. (Matthew 24:14; Mark 16:15) Preaching does not emerge from the church’s experimentation with communication techniques. The early church does not somehow conclude that this is a good idea or an effective strategy. Preaching happens because of a divine command. It is a commission, a charge! It is not a human invention, but a creation of God. It is a central part of His revealed will for the Church.
The major words, which the New Testament uses for preaching, provide a basic insight into its nature and purpose. The words kerussein, euangelizesthai, and katangellein all include the idea of action, movement and process. The emphasis is on something “happening” in preaching. The divine Word that comes through preaching is a creative force. Preaching accomplishes what it announces. While God has spoken in creation, through the prophets, through Christ, and through Scripture, he continues to speak through the word of his preachers.
Jesus himself in commissioning the seventy spoke of this truth. Whoever listens to you, listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me. (Luke 10:16 NRSV)
And Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, puts it this way:
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. (1 Thessalonians 2:13 NRSV)
Paul, in Romans 10:8-17 underscores proclamation as the means by which the message, i.e. Christ, is communicated, with faith, meaning a personal response of trust, as the result.
So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ. (Romans 10:17)
And in clearest terms, God's activity in preaching is set forth in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20. Paul points out that God’s act in reconciling the world in Christ also involves the institution of a ministry of reconciliation which is centered in the proclamation of the message of reconciliation.
The preaching, then, is not just a later imparting of the news of the act of salvation: it is an essential part of it. The authority of the message rests on the fact that Christ Himself speaks in the word of His ambassador, or—and it amounts to the same thing for the apostle—that God Himself uses the apostle as a mouthpiece to utter his own admonition. See TDNT on presbeuo (to be “an ambassador”) vol. VI pp. 682, 683.
Thus Paul declares, “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” In the word of his ambassador Christ himself speaks. Thus the apostle represents Christ, not as though he was absent, but as present and at work through his servant. For Paul, not only here but also elsewhere, true preaching conveys power. It not only communicates a new idea or understanding, but it creates a new situation. To preach is not only to proclaim, but also to bring about a new reality. A preacher is an instrument in the hand of God and through preaching Christ carries on his saving action.
Other crucial perspectives following from this understanding of preaching call for careful examination. Implicit, I believe, is affirmation of the central place of Scripture to the preaching mission. Proclamation of God’s message should be anchored in and judged by Scripture. His word is to be source, substance and judge of the preached word. God calls the church to speak of Him on the basis of His words and deeds. Therefore Christian preaching must be biblical preaching.
A sampling of Adventist homiletical practice made up of ninety sermons presented by fifty-four Seventh-day Adventist preachers in the context of the regular Sabbath morning worship services of forty-three different congregations raises serious concern about the place and function of Scripture in Adventist preaching. Scripture is "used" but is it "preached?"
Inherent in the theology of preaching we have explored are other insights worthy of further consideration. A couple of these can only be sketched briefly.
Preaching as "Incarnational"
There is an important sense in which the Word again becomes flesh in the preacher. This is not intended to imply that the preacher becomes another Christ, but rather that the preacher serves as an essential living human instrument through which God acts in preaching.
In preaching the preacher is neither dominant nor passive. The preacher does not initiate or control God’s action nor is she/he a “hollow trumpet” through which God speaks nor a messenger whose roll is simply to “pass it on” without personal involvement or interest.
The preacher plays an essential role which involves the entire person in giving particular form to and in embodying the message of God for a specific time, locality and congregation. Such “incarnational” understanding provides a valuable meeting place for theological and rhetorical concerns and for appreciation of the contribution to preaching that the social and behavioral sciences can make.
Preaching as "Sacramental"
There is also the possibility for preaching to be understood as an “essential means” whereby God himself is communicated, and not simply information about Him. That is to say that Christ is present in the ministry of the Word as well as in the ministry of the Lord’s Supper or baptism.
Adventists shy away from the word “sacrament” because of its association with the idea that invisible grace and visible signs are mechanically and substantively bound together in the sacraments. Reformation thinking on the subject would remind us that God acts by His choice and that a preacher’s thoughts and words, when they are faithful to the word of Scripture, may become the Word of Christ at His choice—not ex opere operato.
The understanding of preaching outlined here stands in contrast to the view that preaching is basically human speech about God (or religious topics). It also is significantly different from a view of preaching as primarily a matter of the interpretation and application of Scripture.
It calls in question any thinking of preaching as a “means” to humanly determined ends, i.e., persuasion, or behavioral change, or “souls won,” or goals reached, or programs promoted. In reality such concepts are based on the idea of preaching as an action of the preacher with God as the topic/subject.
Beyond the proclamation of religious or even biblical ideas, preaching is to be seen as a continuation of God’s redeeming act in Jesus Christ. It is God’s call and opportunity to come to know and love Him as He is revealed in Jesus and to respond to His mercy and grace in a commitment of joyful loyalty and discipleship.
But perhaps Paul says it best in 2 Corinthians 4 when he talks most personally about who he is and what he does:For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2 Corinthians 4:5-7 NRSV)
Louis Venden, PhD, Professor of Theology and Ministry, Faculty of Religion, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, CA. Better Sermons © 2005-2008. Click here for usage guidelines.
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