A Trinitarian view of preaching

The church proclaims the gospel by helping people, via Word and Sacrament, encounter Jesus, the living good news of God. In earlier posts, we saw what Trinitarian theologians have written about baptism and the Lord's Supper. Now we'll look at what they have written concerning preaching.

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem" by Tissot (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Thomas F. (TF) Torrance

According to TF (in Gospel, Church, and Ministry),
preaching Christ is both an evangelical and a theological activity, for it is the proclamation and teaching of Christ as he actually is presented to us in the Holy Scriptures. In the language of the New Testament, preaching Christ involves kerygma and didache—it is both a kerygmatic and a didactic activity. It is both evangelical and theological. (p. 220)
Faithful, effective preachers are thus both theologians and evangelists—concerned about Jesus Christ’s being and his doing, or as John Calvin often said, presenting “Christ clothed with his gospel.” TF comments:
[Calvin] meant that Jesus Christ and his Word, Jesus Christ and the truth of his message belong inseparably together and may not be torn apart. With us human beings, person, Word and act are separate, but this is not the case with Jesus, the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth, for in him Person, Word, and Act are one. That is why when we read [in the weekly Scripture readings in church] and interpret the Gospels and Epistles [in the weekly sermon] and let them talk to us out of themselves, we find ourselves having to do directly with God in Christ “speaking to us in Person” as Athanasius and Calvin both used to say. (p. 221)
If in our preaching we divorce kerygma (the evangelical—Christ in his acts) from didache (the theological—Christ in his being), we lose the biblical presentation of Jesus Christ the living Word of God, who is the divine truth of the gospel, which is conveyed to us in the written Word, Holy Scripture. TF comments:
If you cannot preach the gospel didactically as well as kerygmatically, you have to invent your own theology to make these things stick together. But once humpty dumpty has fallen like that, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put him together again—that’s the problem, and it is a far bigger problem than many people realize. (p. 229)
TF also stresses that it is vitally important in our preaching to emphasize the Incarnation—the gospel truth that Jesus Christ remains both man and God…
...for in [Jesus Christ] God himself has come to be with us, really to be with us as one of us and as God for us, who has taken our human nature upon himself, our sin and guilt, our misery and death, in order to save and heal us, and as such really to be our God. How do we put these two facts together, that Jesus Christ is both man of Israel and our God? Everything in the gospel depends on that twofold truth….
I am always overwhelmed with the thought that here in Jesus it is God himself who has come among us, not just as a man indwelt by the Spirit of God like an Old Testament prophet, but actually as a Man. I can never get over this astonishing fact. What bowls me over every time I read about Jesus in the Gospels, is not the wonderful things he did, not the so-called nature miracles in which the wind and the sea obeyed him, or even his making the dead alive again, for if Jesus really is God… one would expect that, for he was the Creator personally present in the midst of his creation. If you really believe that Jesus is God become incarnate you will have no trouble with the miracles. No! What overwhelms me is the sheer humanness of Jesus, Jesus as the baby at Bethlehem, Jesus sitting tired and weary at the well outside Samaria, Jesus exhausted by the crowds, Jesus recuperating his strength through sleep at the back of a ship on the sea of Galilee, Jesus hungry for figs on the way up to Jerusalem, Jesus weeping at the grave of Lazarus, Jesus thirsting for water on the Cross—for that precisely is God with us and one of us, God as “the wailing infant” in Bethlehem…, God sharing our weakness and exhaustion, God sharing our hunger, thirst, our tears, pain and death. Far from overwhelming us, God with us and one of us does the very opposite, for in sharing with us all that we are in our littleness and weakness he does not override our humanity but completes, perfects, and establishes it.
What I find always most breath-taking, however, is that in Jesus the Lord God Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible, stoops down to be so fully one with us that he speaks to us in our human language, and indeed, as Calvin used to say, babbles to us in ways that even children can understand. We don’t know what language God speaks in the communion of the Holy Trinity or speaks to the angels and the blessed departed, but we do learn in Jesus that God actually speaks to us in our creaturely language on earth. In Jesus the Word by whom all things in heaven and earth were created became human and communicates with us and addresses us in this frail creaturely form….
[How do we link together the facts that] Jesus IS Immanuel, Jesus IS God with us? Read the first chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians. Nothing in the whole Bible is more breath-taking than what is written there—the Creator and Upholder of the whole universe of visible and invisible realities is identified with Jesus and in him everything consists and is held together. This truth does not overwhelm or detract from the humanity of Jesus, but has the opposite effect. The transcendent deity of Jesus Christ secures and preserves his humanity in a way that no human questioning or critical research can ever undermine…. [And so I want to stress that] in preaching Christ as Yeshua [Savior] and Immanuel [God with us]: there is an unbroken relation in being and act between Jesus and God. (pp. 230-233)
Though this is a lot to take in, it offers us an important charge as those called to preach the Word and in doing so to show forth Christ: both who he is (in his being in union with the Father and the Spirit) and in what he has and continues to do (his act---his doing---in and by the Holy Spirit). We must not stray from this biblically-faithful, theologically-sound presentation of the apostolic gospel ("...the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" [Jude 1:3, ESV].). Were we to do so, our sermons would cease being a word from God.

Ray Anderson

In The Shape of Practical Theology: Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis, Dr. Anderson emphasizes that our approach to preaching is radically determined by how we view Jesus Christ:
If the [written] Word of God stands only as an abstract or existential possibility, separated from the historical context in which it originally came, then the ministry of proclamation will have no dogmatic basis for its content. Scripture will necessarily be appropriated to the latest style of cultural interpretation and hermeneutics, the act of making meaningful will itself be the primary source for revelation. Proclamation will seek to actualize all possibilities in hope of producing an event of revelation. 
On the other hand, for those who take the incarnation seriously, proclamation has already occurred in the Word made flesh. All subsequent proclamation has its possibility based on this actuality. The event of revelation does not rest on the inspiredness of the proclaimer or the existential moment for the hearer, but exists in human language and historical event as the dogma of Jesus Christ incarnate. As Karl Barth so well put it, “It is not [Christ] that needs proclamation, but proclamation that needs Him.” 
…In preaching the gospel of the kingdom, Jesus opens up his own life of fellowship with the Father as the avenue on which the weary, the crippled, the blind and sinners can walk in grace and glory. He breaks down partitions between races and ideologies, and creates new bonds of fellowship for old enemies. Through him the reconciliation of the world to God actually occurs (2 Cor. 5:19). The ministry of reconciliation given to the church has its possibility firmly rooted in this actuality. Otherwise it would be a cruel hoax.
Thus God upholds the event of revelation from both sides. The ministry of disclosing the Word to the world is upheld by the reality of the incarnate presence of Christ in the world. All exegetical, hermeneutical and homiletical work as the proper theological activity of the church is supported and made possible by this incarnation. The ministry of reconciling the world to this Word of revelation is upheld by Jesus’ incarnate life of obedience and faithful response to this Word. All of the healing, teaching and saving ministry of the church is supported and made possible by this incarnation. (pp. 72-74)
Thus for Anderson, it is vital that as preachers we know that as we preach we are proclaiming the living Word, Jesus Christ—we do so as participants in his ongoing ministry through the Holy Spirit to the world in fulfillment of the Father’s kingdom mission.

Andrew Purves

In Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological FoundationDr. Purves presents preaching as inherently "apostolic and priestly... grounded at all points in the vicarious humanity of Christ and enabled... through our union with Christ by the power and act of the Holy Spirit" ( p. 156). He notes that preachers often mistakenly think of preaching primarily in terms of techniques and tools, whereas it should, above all, be viewed as participation with Jesus Christ in the proclamation of the Word of God as it is being addressed to the congregation. In this proclamation, the preacher's primary goal is not merely to illustrate the Word or to show its application, but to proclaim it clearly in all its inherent power. Purves comments:
Through union with Christ, the proclamation of Christ Jesus as the living Word of God to and for us speaks on its own terms as Christ's Word…. The proclamation of the Word is God's gift to the congregation—a gift not within our power to engender or manipulate... a happening that is not ours to control. (p. 156)
As the apostle Paul discovered, the proclamation of the Word (which for him had to do with announcing the Lordship of Christ) is...
...the means by which the living God reached out with his love and changed the hearts and lives of men and women.... When Paul announced [the] gospel message, it carried its own weight, its own authority, quite independently of the rhetorical or linguistic skill of the herald. (pp. 156-157, where Purves is quoting N.T. Wright)
According to Purves, the sermon is "an enfleshment in speech today of the one historical and always eternal and living Word of God." The sermon is thus a "theological act... whereby God speaks [his] personal and actual word of address to the people gathered through the voice of the minister" (p. 157). For Purves, preaching, at its core, is the "announcement of the gospel... [whereby] the preacher tells about Jesus... as he is attested by Scripture" (p. 157). He notes that the content of this gospel message is summed up by Paul in 2 Cor. 13:14 (NKJV): "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit."

Though preachers certainly need to develop their craft in terms of knowledge (e.g. homiletics and hermeneutics) and skill (e.g. rhetorics, public speaking), they must always be aware that the power of preaching is not in themselves, or in particular techniques, but in the Word of God itself. Thinking otherwise shows "a lack of confidence in the efficacy of Word and Sacraments"—the primary means by which Jesus, the living Word of God, is "present with us in truth and power" (p. 159). As Purves notes, "homiletical skills must at all points be controlled by the subject matter, the gospel to be proclaimed, that by God's grace is proclaimed, and that is the content of God's address whereby people are brought to faith and into the church" (p. 160).

Daniel Migliore

In Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Dr. Migliore reminds us that preaching and theology are mutually related, with preaching serving theology by being a major stimulus to theological reflection, and theology serving preaching by "testing its faithfulness to the gospel, by reminding it of the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, by urging that preaching be more compelling, more concrete, more self-critical, less trivial [and] less intimidated by dominant cultural assumptions" (p. 274). If this challenge feels intimidating, take comfort in Migliore's reassurance that the effectiveness of preaching depends ultimately not on the preacher, but on God:
The preacher does not become superhuman when he or she mounts the steps of the pulpit. If the words of a preacher truly convey the Word of God, that is not due to the preacher’s brilliance or eloquence but to the sovereign and free grace of God the Holy Spirit…. Honest acknowledgment of human limitations and prayerful confidence in God’s grace are thus essential presuppositions of the proclamation of the Word of God…. As Karl Barth states, “As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize our obligation and our inability, and by that very recognition give God the glory. (p. 275)
Migliore goes on to emphasize that faithful preaching is always “based on the witness of the scriptural text” (p. 275). Scripture, being the written Word of God, rightly understood, proclaims the living Word of God (Jesus Christ). Thus faithful preaching (the spoken Word) uses Scripture to proclaim Christ, the living Word. How that occurs, is what Migliore next explains:
The claim that preaching should be based on the witness of Scripture is certainly intended to reject a view of preaching as arbitrary invention. But it also differs from the idea that preaching is the mere repetition of biblical words or ideas. Proclamation is re-presentation; it is proclaiming the same message the apostles proclaimed, but proclaiming it in different words in a different time and place. Authentic proclamation requires reflection and imagination. Restatement of the gospel is necessary if the preacher is to be faithful to the apostolic gospel. Proclamation is new witness in the here and now to the promise and claim of God addressed to the world in a covenant history with Israel and supremely in Jesus Christ. (p. 275)
Though this proclamation of the apostolic Word necessarily uses human language (which often is rich and deep), the message it conveys is fundamentally simple, as Migliore notes:
[The message preached] is the gospel, the “glad tidings” of God’s astonishing faithfulness to humanity and the entire creation in all their sin and brokenness. The task of proclamation is to present this “gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1), the announcement of God’s gift of forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ, in all its inner consistency, intelligibility, and clarity, in all its inexhaustible fullness, irresistible appeal, and liberating power. The content of Christian proclamation is not “whatever Scripture says,” but “what Scripture is all about”—that is, the central biblical message.
Although the gospel is fundamentally simple, it is not simplistic; while affirmative, it is never trivial or cheap. The gift that it announces is accompanied by a call for [a] disciplined life of love and service and by a warning of judgment…. God’s Word to the world in Jesus Christ is a strong and unambiguous Yes (2 Cor. 1:20), but it is a Yes that contains both promise and direction. At the center of Christian preaching… [is] the message of the free grace of God in Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected for our salvation. This message both liberates and empowers us for the love of God and others…. Only if preaching focuses on the whole Christ of the biblical witness will it avoid both… moralistic preaching… and the preaching of a gospel that lacks direction for the new life in Christ. (pp. 277-278)  
We conclude this post with Migliore's reminder that preaching, though centered on a timeless message (the gospel), always occurs within a specific context, and thus is a living Word delivered to real people in a particular time and place:
It addresses a particular situation here and now with a specific message. It calls men and women to concrete decision and concrete action. Christian proclamation is not vague, neutral, safe discourse about God, but concrete witness to the gospel with aims at a concrete response. The Christ attested in Christian proclamation is, to be sure, “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8), and loyalty to this person is essential in all Christian witness. But as the living Lord, Jesus Christ addresses us as the gift and claim of God in ever-new and context-specific ways, and his voice must be heard and obeyed anew. When the contextuality of proclamation is lost, so also is the presence of the Spirit, who alone gives life to the written or spoken Word (2 Corinthians 3:6). (p. 279)
_____________________
This post is excerpted from a lecture on preaching given by Ted Johnston in his Practice of Ministry course at Grace Communion Seminary

Comments