Not an Overbold Beginning
“It is, perhaps, an overbold beginning, but I will venture to say that with its preaching Christianity stands or falls.” Thus did the Scottish theologian, Peter Taylor Forysth, begin his Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale in 1907. The book that emerged from those lectures, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, for all of its flaws, remains a -- perhaps the -- classic on the theology of the proclaimed Word in Protestantism.
What Forsyth does so well in that book are two things. First, he makes it clear that the direction of the action in preaching is from God to the person in the pew. Preaching is not a conversation. Preaching is not a lecture. Preaching is not primarily the imparting of information. Rather, preaching brings a word from God to bear upon the people of God who have gathered in His name.
It is only a few years ago that one of the then most influential preachers in North America was recommending a study of stand-up comedians as good preparation for the preaching ministry. That this comment on its own did not immediately destroy his credibility is an indictment on the state of the church, for it represented a confusion of preaching with (at best) communication and (at worst) entertainment. Forsyth, by way of contrast, makes this comment:
The Christian preacher is not the successor of the Greek orator, but of the Hebrew prophet. The orator comes with but an inspiration, the prophet comes with a revelation. In so far as the preacher and prophet had an analogue in Greece it was the dramatist, with his urgent sense of life’s guilty tragedy, its inevitable ethic, its unseen moral powers, and their atoning purifying note.
The understanding of any task is important to its proper execution. To see stand-up as analogous to preaching is to misunderstand the task. It is to fail to see that the message of preaching cannot be accommodated to a flippant medium without loss of a significant part of its substance. Of course, humor can be deployed pedagogically in a sermon; but if the content is supposed to be prophetic, the medium must reflect this at some profound level.
The second thing which Forsyth does, and that with a refreshingly cavalier brashness, is dismiss the notion that the preacher should worry overmuch about the tastes and convictions of the world which he is addressing. As he himself puts it, ‘[t]he preacher has to be sure of a knowledge that creates experience, and does not rise out of it.’ The preacher takes his cue from God’s Word, not from the world around him. This is the sole basis upon which he can speak with authority, for to do otherwise would doom him to preaching nothing but social work or psychology. By starting with God’s action, with God’s revelation, he speaks for God. His task is not to improve this world or my experience. It is to confront this world and my experience with the claims of the God who speaks and acts.
With all of the current discussion of how the church should face the challenges of this new era, where sexual politics dominate the landscape and the gap between a Christian ethic and what the world considers ethically plausible is as great as it has ever been and growing greater, the temptation is to panic. Yet what we now see before us is merely a more accurate representation of what has been true all along: the gods of this age and the God of the Bible are not the same and are indeed opposed to each other as they always have been. Thus, even as circumstances change, we must not allow ourselves to be mesmerized by this change into thinking the odds are any more insurmountable for the church today than at points in the past.
Only the incidentals of our current situation have changed. The underlying principles remain always the same, and thus the church’s task remains the same: to declare with a ‘This saith the Lord!’ that this age is passing. Now is not the time to lose confidence in the very mode of God’s action in this world, nor is it the time to put men in pulpits who lack the conviction, the calling, and the skills for the task. Now is the time to focus more than ever on the training of those who can speak with authority from the pulpit because they speak with the authority of God himself.
It is surely not an overbold beginning for how we might face the current challenges by suggesting that we do so by preaching the Word, in season and out of season.