Homiletical Relativism

October 15th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , , ,

A Tale of Two Sermons?

I recently heard two close friends give their opinion of the same sermon—a sermon I did not hear, delivered at a church I have only attended once. These were both seasoned believers who genuinely love God and seek to follow him. One raved about the sermon, touched by the pastor’s humility (and self-deprecation) and the liveliness of the delivery. The other actually preacherwept at the conclusion of the message because she was devastated by the pastor’s self-centeredness and twisting of the text. I was so astonished by the conflicting reports that I wondered if they had even heard the same sermon!

 

In thinking about these two comments, and many more like them given through the years, I began to wonder if there isn’t a touchstone for sermons. Are we hopelessly adrift in a sea of personal preferences, or are some sermons actually better than others? It was a dangerous thought, and one I really didn’t want to pursue—especially since preaching is my craft—but the question has nibbled at me since then, and I feel compelled to reflect (incompletely, imperfectly, with fear and trembling) on it.

 

The Sermon: Your Way, Right Away

We live in a consumerist culture. People want what they want when they want it. If the store doesn’t have what they want, they will go elsewhere—online, if they have to, because you can find everything online. No compromise necessary. Your way, right away.

 

Consumerism’s penetration into the church has been widely documented and loudly bewailed. The great contribution of modernity and its obstreperous stepchild, postmodernity, is the elevation of the autonomous self.[1] In the space of a few short centuries, we moved from “In the beginning, God” to “I think, therefore I am.” That this emphasis on self-determination should permeate a group of people who have committed to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Another strikes me as both ironic and chilling.

 

But it has, and the effects have been discouraging.

 

Since the 1990s, the consumerist approach to Sunday services has tightened its grip on the Western church. Congregants increasingly evaluate the sermon according to individual preferences, rather than an objective standard. Now, let me be the first to admit that some aspects of a sermon may vary according to preferences. For example, how long should a sermon run? I see no command in Scripture suggesting a divinely established length. Jonah’s preaching was blessedly short (Jonah 3:4), whereas Paul occasionally waxed protracted (Acts 20:9).

 

Nevertheless, there are other aspects of preaching that are non-negotiable, and we would do well—as preachers and as congregants—to remember them. The practice of these principles can and should vary from congregation to congregation (see #6), but the principles themselves should never change.  In other words, we do not want to be guilty of homiletical relativism. We do not want to make ourselves the locus of judgment: “what I deem to be a good sermon is a good sermon; what I deem poor is poor.” Just as we submit our lives to the judgment of God’s Word (cf. Hebrews 4:12-13), so we submit our sermons—those we preach and those we hear—to its judgment.

 

A brief caveat before I outline some of the principles: no preacher will do this perfectly every time out, because we are all fallible and finite—myself chief among them! However, we will practice these principles intentionally as surely as we practice them imperfectly.

 

What Makes a Good Sermon?

  1. It centers on God’s words. We need to hear God’s words, not a preacher’s words, because only one has power to transform. God describes the efficacy of his word in a famous prophecy of Isaiah: “It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (55:11). God’s words accomplish his purposes—warning, correcting, teaching, promising, inspiring faith—perfectly and without fail. What preacher among us can say the same of his words? The word of God is “alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). My words, however, are dead unless God gives them life; they lack the precision, power, and perfection to cut to the heart of my audience. God’s words never have that problem. A good sermon proclaims God’s words in God’s power in order to accomplish God’s ends.
  2. It points to Christ no matter the text. This follows necessarily from the first point. If, as Jesus himself taught, every text points to him (Luke 24:27; John 5:39), then every text we preach will point to him as well. A narrative from the Old Testament, an exhortation from the New Testament, a psalm or proverb—these all point to or are grounded in Christ’s finished work. To preach the narrative or exhortation, psalm or proverb, without preaching Jesus, is to miss the heart of the message. To be sure, this must be done carefully. Some preachers will do the “Jesus bit” in every sermon, but fail to remain faithful to the text at hand. If every passage points to Christ, then a preacher should be able to unearth what is already in the text, without having to import Jesus from somewhere else. Gospel threads—rest, exile, temple, kingdom, exodus, covenant, wisdom, and many others—run throughout Scripture. A faithful sermon will see the thread running through the passage at hand and draw it out for the sake of the congregation.
  3. It proclaims the gospel. As a sermon draws out the gospel thread, it will proclaim the richness of the gospel week in and week out. Paul’s resolve at Corinth—to know nothing while he was with them “except Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2)—sets the standard for every sermon. The gospel is the power of salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16). A faithful sermon proclaims the twin graces of the gospel—justification and sanctification—in delicate balance. As Paul writes to his protégé, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good” (Titus 2:4-8; cf. Ephesians 2:8-10). God saves us by his mercy, not according to what we have done—we are justified by grace; God renews us by his Spirit so that we devote ourselves to doing what is good—we are sanctified by grace. Preaching justification alone leads to libertinism: spurious salvation by cheap grace alone. Preaching sanctification alone leads to legalism: climbing a ladder of our own making to reach a heaven of our own imagining. Preaching neither at all is just self-help, moralism, or banal psychotherapy. Would to God we heard the gospel instead!
  4. It proclaims a multi-faceted gospel. The gospel message is clear, simple, and unchanging on the one hand, but it is endlessly rich and multi-faceted on the other hand. Scripture presents not only a wide array of gospel threads, but also a variety of “atonement grammars,” as Tim Keller calls them. Given our cultural heritage in the West, today we are most familiar with the “legal” grammar: Our sin demands a righteous judgment, which Christ Jesus takes on himself; he is declared “guilty” in order that we might be called “righteous.” This is a powerful grammar, and one that we need to hear regularly. Nevertheless, it is not the only way to speak of the atonement! Throughout the Bible, we read of the atonement in language taken from the battlefield (Jesus has secured our victory), the marketplace (Jesus has purchased our freedom from slavery), the temple (Jesus purifies us so that we can draw near to a holy God, cleansing our guilty consciences), and the exile (Jesus was cast out so that we could be brought in, welcomed back home).[2] Different grammars speak to different people; different texts highlight different grammars. If every sermon drills the same theme, it will likely speak to only one segment of the congregation, and will only address one element of our despair apart from God. If the gospel is endlessly rich, each new sermon should sound a different note that resonates with a hitherto untouched corner of our hearts.
  5. It strikes the heart. Jonathan Edwards rather famously emphasized this aspect of preaching. He saw that in his day too many preachers aimed at our thoughts, feelings, or will, rather than striking the heart, which is the source of all three (cf. Proverbs 4:23; Matthew 15:18-19). Sermons that strike the mind only produce a dead orthodoxy. Sermons that strike our feelings only produce a shallow emotionalism. Sermons that strike the will only produce moralism or legalism, and ultimately despair. However, sermons that strike the root of all three—the heart—will lead to transformed thoughts, feelings, and wills, producing theological orthodoxy, relentless joy, and loving obedience from the inside out.
  6. It addresses the audience. No sermon is preached in a vacuum. It addresses real people at a specific time and in a specific place. Even in our shrinking world, with the advent of technological globalization, differences between cultures and sub-cultures are marked. Preaching the same passage in the same way regardless of the audience is sheer folly. The urban intelligentsia in Manhattan does not need the same message as migrant workers in rural California. A faithful sermon considers its culture carefully, and contextualizes the unchanging truth for a changing population.

 

As always, I’m sure this list is not only incomplete, but also imperfect. Nevertheless, I hope it will stimulate sustained reflection and increased discernment—never a critical spirit—and ultimately charitable engagement.

 

[1] Some would prefer to speak of “late modernity” instead of postmodernity, because both modernity and postmodernity share this fundamental characteristic. Views on epistemology have shifted, yes, but at their individualistic core, they remain the same.

[2] Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012): 131.



One Size Fits All?

September 25th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , ,

My kids are at that point in their lives when they have to buy uniforms—lots and lots of uniforms. Inevitably, a handful of these uniforms are “one size fits all.” I’m not sure who came up with this concept, because it is manifestly absurd. The children who need these uniforms are very different dimensions, and my peanut-sized children often swim ridiculously in clothes that fit other children quite nicely. I am not a fan of the one-size-fits-all approach—neither for children’s uniforms nor for gospel ministry.

 

8589130452787-kids-playing-at-school-wallpaper-hdThe gospel contains truths about the triune God—his character, his work, his purposes—that are fixed, timeless, and supracultural. With an unchanging message, one would suspect the method of communicating the message would be similarly fixed. We could adopt a one-size-fits-all approach here, even if it doesn’t work for children’s soccer teams. Unfortunately, such is not the case, for a simple reason: truths that are constant regardless of time or place or people must nevertheless be shared with a particular people at a particular time in a particular place. This requires contextualization.

 

Contextualization is, in Keller’s fine definition, “giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may or may not want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.”[1] Let me make two quick points on contextualization before returning to the issue at hand.

 

  1. Contextualization is inevitable. As soon as gospel ambassadors choose a language in which to speak, they have contextualized the gospel, reaching a certain group (who speak the same language) while excluding others (who cannot speak the language). When we make decisions about our ministry practices—length of service, preacher’s clothes and preaching style, building and grounds, worship music style—we are contextualizing the gospel for our community. The fact that many of us do so unwittingly, and regard our ministry practices as fixed and supracultural like the gospel, may explain why the overwhelming majority of churches in the United States are in a state of decline.

 

  1. Contextualization is biblical. The book of Acts provides many examples of gospel ambassadors—notably Paul—contextualizing the gospel for the audience. Compare Paul’s speeches to God-fearers in Antioch (Acts 13:13-43), rural pagans in Lystra (Acts 14:6-16) and the philosophical intelligentsia in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), and you will see how he contextualizes unchanging truths in a changing culture. In fact, in his letter to Corinth, Paul outlines his approach to and reason for contextualization explicitly: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:20-23).[2]

 

Now we see why a one-size-fits-all approach to gospel ministry is foolhardy: by assuming a consistent culture (or neglecting to think of culture at all), it adopts a consistent ministry. A quick glance at demographics across the country—never mind the globe—exposes the fatal weakness in this tactic. I’ve lived in three different suburbs in Chicago, and no one of the three bears more than a slight resemblance to the others demographically. And that was just within the suburbs of one city! Imagine how different the culture and sub-cultures would be moving from a suburban to an urban or a rural environment, or from Chicago to New York or L.A. or Portland or a city in the Bible belt, or from the United States to Colombia or Sri Lanka or Uganda.

 

All of this presents a very practical challenge for those of us who seek to minister the unchanging gospel compellingly to a particular people at a particular time in a particular place. Have we unconsciously adopted a one-size-fits-all mindset? Have we brought our ministry practices with us wherever we go—the preacher has to wear a tie (or has to wear jeans and flip-flops), the music should be lively (or reverent) and traditional (or contemporary), adult education should meet at this time and cover this material, small groups should follow this model, and don’t forget AWANA on Wednesday nights!—even though we might have gone to some very different places?

 

This lesson has come home to me recently. In the past few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my ministry practices. In my first ministry position, I served as a chaplain in a small Christian school in Bogotá, Colombia. After seven years, I left to become the discipleship pastor at a medium-sized church in suburban Chicago. Although I made some adjustments to my ministry practice owing to the switch from school to church, I thought very little about the difference between Bogotanos and Napervillans, and my ministry suffered accordingly. Little by little I made tiny alterations until the “uniform” fit, so to speak—or at least fit better.

 

What about you? Are you doing what you’ve done everywhere you’ve gone? When you arrive somewhere new, do you immediately implement the same basic practices and procedures, even before you’ve done the hard work of learning your new community and contextualizing the gospel within it? By the grace of God, for the sake of the gospel, I hope we will all strive to become all things to all people—and to become this thing for this people—so that by all possible means we might save some.

 

In other words, one size does not fit all. It never does.

 

[1] Tim Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012): 89 (emphasis his). For much more on contextualization which I couldn’t say here, see pp. 89-134.

[2] Interestingly, especially in light of the common charge that contextualization ineluctably distorts the gospel, Paul says he contextualizes “for the sake of the gospel” (v 23). Contextualization is in service of—not in opposition to—the gospel.



Why I Preach Expository Sermons

June 3rd, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
Tags: , , ,

Sermon PreparationAttend a few different churches in your area in rapid succession, and you will undoubtedly discern some striking differences. Some sing hymns with organ accompaniment, others choruses with a rock band; some follow a traditional liturgy, others follow the modern liturgy of sing-sermon-sing again.

 

At some point someone will stand up to preach a sermon. That’s a widespread similarity. But once he starts talking, we face a whole new slew of differences. Is the series based on a passage from Scripture or a topic from life? Does he proceed methodically through the text or does he use the passage as a launching pad for reflection? Do his points follow the structure of the text or does he reorganize the passage to fit his points?

 

In a nutshell, where does he land on the spectrum from topical to expository sermons?

 

What Is Expository Preaching?

For the sake of simplicity, let’s define expository preaching as preaching that is not only based on but driven by the passage at hand. Once a pastor selects his passage—whether in an expository or topical series—he works diligently to determine the structure and thrust of the passage in its original contexts (historical, literary, generic) and then contextualizes that message for his modern audience. He does not know what he will say on the subject—again, whether in an expository or topical series—until he first completes his exegesis of the passage. Once he preaches, he follows not only the emphasis of the passage, but the structure as well, trusting that God inspired the message and the medium.

 

How Do I Know If It’s Expository?

Determining if a pastor is preaching an expository sermon is not difficult. It doesn’t take technical training or special insight. A few key questions will usually suffice.

 

  1. Does the pastor read the whole passage (either all at once or in chunks) instead of merely alluding to key points along the way?
  2. Do his points follow the structure of the passage (e.g., verses 1-7 for point one, verses 8-12 for point two, and verses 13-19 for point three) without omitting or reorganizing any verses?
  3. Does he proceed methodically through the passage, commenting thought by thought (clause by clause, verse by verse, or paragraph by paragraph, depending on the scope of the passage) rather than drawing implications from the whole only or with indirect reference to the thought-flow of the passage?
  4. Does his sermon closely resemble not only the message of the passage but also its tone and approach? That is, does he warn from warning passages and encourage from encouraging passages rather than remaking the message according to his determination?
  5. In some ways, the easiest question to answer is simply: After listening to the sermon, do I feel like I could explain the original sense of the passage to someone else easily and clearly?

 

I’m sure there are other indicators, and I’m sure someone could answer those questions in the affirmative and still be guilty of rank eisegesis[1]. But overall those are good gauges.

 

Why I Preach Expository Sermons

Of course, determining what sort of sermon you’re preaching/hearing is very different from determining what sort of sermon you should be preaching/hearing. Does it matter which preaching approach we take?

 

I won’t speak for everyone, but here are seven reasons why I preach expository sermons. (This list is not exhaustive, nor is it in any particular order.)

 

  1. I believe the Word alone is living and active. I have read a lot of good books and heard a lot of good messages in my life, and some have left a lasting impression on me. And yet only the Word of God is living and active, capable of bringing about the transformation we seek (Hebrews 4:12). God does not promise that any other word will accomplish its purposes, but he does promise that of his Word (Isaiah 55:11).The Word of God alone is God-breathed and therefore useful for the full equipping of every Christian (2 Timothy 3:16-17). God speaks—which is a wonder in itself!—and what he says we need to hear. Why would I think to offer a congregation of believers (and unbelievers, undoubtedly) anything else on Sunday morning? What do they need to hear more than this?
  2. I don’t trust myself. I am far too aware of my own shortcomings—and based on conversations with those who have been at this far longer than I, that isn’t going to change before glory. I don’t know enough, I’m not wise enough to speak to the many issues the average person faces every day. So why would I trust myself to say what needs to be said on any given topic? Quite simply, I don’t. I don’t want to teach, correct, rebuke, train, warn, promise, encourage except what comes directly from Scripture. I have no authority in myself, and I know it. But if I faithfully teach the Word of God—as faithfully as I can, given how prone I am to misinterpretation and carelessness—I can speak with derivative authority at least. The authority of any preacher is directly proportional to how faithful to God’s Word he is.
  3. I have my hobby horses. I have axes to grind, and left to my own devices, I will grind them every single week. Certain sins appear to me more heinous than others, undoubtedly because they are related to my greatest strengths or my greatest weaknesses. Even as an expository preacher, I suspect many in my audience would quickly discern what these are: relational disciple-making and the importance of the mind on the side of my strengths; sins of pride and lust on the side of weakness. I’m not sure I’ve ever preached a sermon that didn’t touch on at least one, and more often all of these. But if I bind myself to the passage at hand, I am far more likely to broaden my horizon, to see without my own personal filter, to address what God sees as most important at that moment.
  4. I think the message and the medium belong together. This may spring from my artistic temperament, but I don’t think one can divorce the message and the medium. I think certain musical styles and tunes are inappropriate for certain lyrics, as an example. The same is true—much more decidedly so—of God’s Word. There is a reason God reveals himself in a wide variety of genres: narrative, poetry, apocalyptic, prophecy, reasoned argumentation. In marked contrast to this wondrous diversity, we tend to preach everything like an epistle (or worse, like an Enlightenment lecture). I think this can be especially true when it comes to tone. I, for example, find my emotional tone ranges from sobriety to indignation (I have lots of issues, obviously); I don’t preach wonder well. But if I can imitate the tone of the passage, I can paint with the full biblical palette of emotions—a richer portrait indeed. When we strive to match our sermon to the message and the medium (tone, style, structure), we express tacit confidence in God’s modes of revelation. (And I suspect our hearers will appreciate the variety too!)
  5. I want to preserve the tension. I wrote recently about tendentiously preserving the tensions that run throughout God’s Word. Expository preaching more than any other exercise will help us do just that. Imagine, both Reformed and Arminian preachers have the privilege of preaching Hebrews 6:4-6 one week, and then Hebrews 7:25 a short while later. That will surely temper our hardline approaches to the assurance debate! Pentecostals and cessationists get to preach 1 Corinthians 13 before coming to tongues and prophecy in the next chapter. Those strong on sanctification (would-be legalists) spend the first four chapters of Galatians declaring the wonder of salvation by grace alone through faith alone; those strong on justification (would-be libertines) then get the final two chapters to expound on what it means to keep the Law of Christ. I don’t want to preach only half the counsel of God on any subject—and expository preaching keeps me in line.
  6. I can tackle hard issues with less fear. Some topics preachers never want to bring up. What pastor wants to preach on supporting pastors financially (Galatians 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:17-18)? It sounds unconscionably mercenary. There are many topics that we would gladly shun because we know they will open up a floodgate of angry e-mails regardless of how faithfully we preach the text. It’s like touching an electric fence: I don’t care how much you desire to honor God, you’re going to be wary of grabbing hold a second time! But if you are preaching expository sermons—and expository series especially—you have no choice. You can’t get to the next pasture without passing by the electric fence, shocks and all. You have to face your fear, reaffirm your faith in God’s wisdom, and trust that your congregation needs to hear the whole counsel of God—even when the subject is touchy.
  7. I get to interrogate the text. Expository preaching forces the preacher to exegete, interpret, and expound on whatever passage lies before him, no matter how opaque, unfamiliar, or superficially uninteresting. In other words, the parts we skip over or skim quickly in our daily reading, we now have to face with microscope and megaphone. We have to interrogate the text to know why God included it in sacred Scripture and how it relates to our hearers today. Without question, the passages I know best are the passages I have preached. What a perk for pastors! And yet, if we eschew expository preaching, we cut ourselves off from this tremendous spur to deep understanding. If I weren’t blessedly forced to wrestle with new passages, I would soon find myself running to the same passages time and again; soon, I would have nothing new to say at all (just repackaged in the latest buzzwords). I thank God for any impetus to greater depth and breadth of true understanding.


[1] A preacher engages in eisegesis (from two Greek words meaning “lead” and “into”) when he invests the passage with his own meaning; in contrast, preachers should strive to do exegesis (from two words meaning “lead” and “out of”), drawing out the meaning of the passage and then contextualizing it appropriately.



The Office of Preaching

February 19th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , , ,

I wrote recently about the “flip principle” as regards church leaders and the congregation: the congregation desires authority which by grace has been given to the leaders alone; the leaders alone perform works of ministry which by grace have been asked of the whole congregation. I trembled as I wrote the words—as I tremble when writing almost anything pertaining to God, his Word, and the life of the congregation—for fear that I had gone too far, had spoken too directly, had diminished the priesthood of believers in order to exalt an office I hold.

 

Then I read Bonhoeffer, as I am wont to do, and found my words soft, indirect, even diminishing the office of preaching in the face of the congregation—perhaps because of my own acquiescence to American democratic egalitarianism!

 

In his magisterial Ethics, he writes concerning the commandment of God in the Church:

 

[The office of preaching] is instituted directly by Jesus Christ Himself; it does not derive its legitimation from the will of the congregation but from the will of Jesus Christ. It is established in the congregation and not by the congregation, and at the same time it is with the congregation. When this office is exercised in the congregation to its full extent, life is infused into all the other offices of the congregation, which can after all only be subservient to the office of the divine word; for wherever the word of God rules alone, there will be found faith and service. The congregation which is being awakened by the proclamation of the word of God will demonstrate the genuineness of its faith by honouring the office of preaching in its unique glory and by serving it with all its powers; it will not rely on its own faith or on the universal priesthood of all believers in order to depreciate the office of preaching, to place obstacles in its way, or even to try to make it subordinate to itself. The superior status of the office of preaching is preserved from abuse, and against danger from without, precisely by a genuine subordination of the congregation, that is to say, by faith, prayer and service, but not by a suppression or disruption of the divine order by a perverse desire for superiority on the part of the congregation.

 

All this seems well in line with the teaching of Scripture, especially in its emphasis on true church leadership and the distinction to be maintained between leaders and congregants, the priesthood of all believers notwithstanding. (Indeed, I think the strongest statement of the priesthood of all believers comes directly after Paul’s distinguishing leaders from congregants in Ephesians 4:11-6.)

 

But Bonhoeffer presses on, as he is wont to do, and challenges our reactive Reformation approach to the Scriptures within the congregation:

 

The office of proclamation, the testimony to Jesus Christ, is inseparably bound up with Holy Scripture. At this point we must venture to advance the proposition that Scripture is essentially the property of the office of preaching and that it is the preaching which properly belongs to the congregation. Scripture requires to be interpreted and preached.[1] By its nature it is not a book of edification for the congregation. What rightly belongs to the congregation is the text of the sermon together with the interpretation of the this text, and on this basis there is a “searching of the Scriptures, whether these things be so” (Acts 17.11), that is to say, whether they are really as the preaching has proclaimed them to be; in certain unusual circumstances, therefore, there arises the necessity for contradicting the preaching on the basis of Holy Scripture. But even here it is presupposed that Holy Scripture belongs essentially to the office of teaching. If individual Christians, or groups of Christians, seize hold of the Bible, appealing to the equal right of all Christians, to the right of the faithful to speak for themselves and to the self-evident truth of the scriptural word, it is by no means a sign of special reverence or special scriptural understanding for the essential character of the divine revelation. In this lies the source of a great deal of presumption, disorder, rebellion and scriptural confusion. Respect for the holy character of the Scripture demands recognition of the fact that it is only by grace that a man is called upon to interpret and proclaim it and that it is also by grace that a man is permitted even to be a hearer of the interpretation and proclamation. The book of homilies and the prayer-book are the principal books for the congregation; the Holy Scripture is the book for the preacher; there can be little doubt that this formulation correctly represents the divinely ordained relationship between the congregation and the office. It must at the same time be borne clearly in mind that these ideas do not spring from a clergyman’s desire to schoolmaster the laity; they follow from the revelation of God himself.[2]

 

These are tough words, flying in the face of much contemporary thinking, but I suspect Bonhoeffer’s last assertion is true: this is the revelation of God himself throughout the New Testament. Many of the errors of both theory and practice in the local church spring from a diminished view of the office of proclamation and an elevated view of the role of the congregation.

 

One needn’t agree with every jot and tittle of Bonhoeffer’s work in order to gain mightily from reflection on the problem he exposes. To that reflection I challenge you—both preachers and congregants—to commit yourselves.



[1] A future series will detail the many ways we can misconstrue Scripture, and why interpretation and proclamation proves so necessary.

[2] Ethics, trans. N.H. Smith, 1st Touchstone ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995): 289-290. Emphasis is his throughout.