Written by: Michael S. Horton
Preaching is too intellectual. It aims at the mind but doesn’t really transform the whole person. Besides, we live in a culture that disdains authorities who tell us what to believe and what to do. It gives the pretense of someone having all the answers. What we need are more conversations. The truth emerges in dialogue, not from a monologue. Besides conversations, we need more practices in community gatherings that envelop all of the senses. Preaching is too static. We need more visual movement and imagery, dance and drama, video clips, and the like. More sounds besides words. Even smells, like incense.
You may have heard some or even all of these criticisms of the centrality of preaching in the church. And minus the video clips, you would have heard a lot of the same criticisms in the medieval church, where the Mass was an awe-inspiring theatrical performance.
Is preaching an indifferent medium that just happened to be available in the era of Jesus and the apostles but can be replaced with more effective media in our day? Or is there something intrinsic to the preached Word that makes it essential to the ministry and mission–indeed, the very existence–of the church?
God’s Effective (Not Just Educative) Word
It is true that sometimes preaching is treated merely as a method of transferring information from one mind to another. Of course, any communication addresses our minds as well as our hearts and bodies. Preaching, however, is not God’s chief means of grace because of any preference for intellectualism. Rather, it is because God gets all of his work done–in creating, sustaining, redeeming, calling, and restoring–by speaking his Word. Forgetting the sacramental effect of the Word as a means of grace, an intellectualist approach reduces preaching to teaching (its pedagogical function). In these settings, the most we can expect is a transfer of timeless information from one mind to another mind. This, however, is not an adequately biblical view of how the Spirit delivers Christ to us through the Word, creating the world of which he speaks. Throughout Scripture, God’s Word is characterized as “living and active” (Heb. 4:12), the means by which the triune God created the world, upholds it, redeemed it, and brings it into his everlasting rest. And it is this Word that we must hear if we are to be saved.
In Reformation teaching, the Word is not only written but preached and not only preached but sung, prayed, and administered in the Sacraments. The preaching of the Word is itself a means of grace. In this sense, Calvin called it “the sacramental Word” (Institutes 4.14.4). B. A. Gerrish observes, “Calvin felt no antagonism between what we may call the ‘pedagogical’ [teaching] and the ‘sacramental’ functions of the word.” He continues, “God’s word, for Calvin, is not simply a dogmatic norm; it has in it a vital efficacy, and it is the appointed instrument by which the Spirit imparts illumination, faith, awakening, regeneration, purification, and so on….Calvin himself describes the word as verbum sacramentale, the ‘sacramental word,'” that gives even to the Sacraments themselves their efficacy. “It therefore makes good sense to us when we discover that in Theodore Beza’s (1519-1605) edition of the Geneva Catechism, the fourth part, on the sacraments, actually begins with the heading ‘On the Word of God.'”
As with baptism and the Supper, the Spirit creates a bond between the sign (proclamation of the gospel) and the reality signified (Christ and all his benefits). The Word is a ladder, to be sure, but, like the incarnation, one that God always descends to us (Rom. 10:6-17). Gerrish further states: “It is crucial to Calvin’s interpretation that the gospel is not a mere invitation to fellowship with Christ, but the effective means by which the communion with Christ comes about.”
We gather each Lord’s Day to hear God, not to see inspiring symbols, express our spiritual instincts, have exciting experiences, or even merely to hear interesting and informative discourses. Furthermore, we come not only to hear this Word proclaimed in the sermon but to hear God address us throughout the service: in the votum (or “God’s Greeting”), in the law, in the absolution (or declaration of pardon), in the public reading of Scripture, and in the benediction. This is why Reformed and Presbyterian churches privilege the singing of Psalms: God not only gives us something to respond to but also our proper lines of response in the script. The purpose of singing in church is not to express our individual piety, commitment, and feelings (though it enlists these). Rather, according to Paul, we “sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” so that “the Word may dwell in you richly, in all wisdom and understanding” (Col. 3:16; cf. Eph. 5:19). Even the Sacraments are “visible words,” ratifying before our physical eyes the promise that we have heard with our ears. The ministry of the Word involves all of these elements and encompasses our whole being in a communion of saints. Although private reading of the Bible is of enormous value in strengthening our faith by deepening our understanding, God has chosen preaching as a social event of hearing that makes strangers into a family.
The Church is a “Creature of the Word”
From this line of thinking it has been rightly claimed that the church is the creation of the Word (creatura verbi). The new birth, as part of the new creation, is effected in the church (that is, through its ministry of the Word), but not by the church. Neither the individual nor the community gives birth to itself, but is born from above (John 3:3-5). The origin and source of the church’s existence is neither the autonomous self nor the autonomous church: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16).
As an external Word, God’s speech breaks up the presuppositions, attitudes, longings, felt needs, pious impulses, speculations, and ideals of individuals and even of the church itself. Yet as public communication, it 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.
Preaching involves teaching, but it is much more than that. The sacramental aspect of the Word–that is, its role as a means of grace–underlies Reformation teaching. The preaching of the gospel not only calls people to faith in Christ; it is the means by which the Spirit creates faith in their hearts (as expressed in Question 65 of the Heidelberg Catechism). In evangelical theologies, this sacramental aspect of God’s Word is often marginalized by a purely pedagogical (instructional) concept. It is therefore not surprising that when the Word is reduced to its didactic function, there arises a longing of the people to encounter God here and now through other means. By affirming its sacramental as well as regulative (canonical) character, however, we can recognize the Word as God’s working and ruling, saving and teaching.
If faith comes by the preaching of the gospel, and preaching is an inherently social event, then the effect of the preached Word as the primary means of grace is not individualism but real community. Faith does not arise spontaneously in one’s soul, but in the covenantal gathering of fellow hearers. As Dietrich 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 also 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.
In public proclamation, distinct even from my reading of Scripture, “it is another who speaks, and this becomes an incomparable assurance for me.”
Total strangers proclaim God’s grace and forgiveness to me, not as their own experience, but as God’s will. It is in the others that I can grasp in concrete form the church-community and its Lord as the guarantors of my confidence in God’s grace. The fact that others assure me of God’s grace makes the church-community real for me; it rules out any danger or hope that I might have fallen prey to an illusion. The confidence of faith arises not only out of solitude, but also out of the assembly.
This emphasis on the external Word as the medium of God’s saving action is the line that separates the Reformers from what they regarded as the “enthusiasm” common to Rome and the radical Protestants.
Though highly esteemed as divine revelation, Scripture was regarded by both groups as a dead letter that had to be supplemented by ongoing revelation: the living voice of the Spirit through the living church or prophet. With their sharp antithesis between outer and inner, visible and invisible, divine and human, enthusiasts through the ages have appealed to John 6:63 for an alleged contrast between the Spirit and the Word, as if the latter were a “dead letter”: “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” And yet, Jesus immediately adds, “The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.” The Spirit’s role is to make the external Word an inwardly experienced and embraced reality, not to offer a superior gnosis to the Word itself.
“For Calvin as for Luther,” John H. Leith observes, “‘the ears alone are the organ of the Christian.'” Calvin summarized, “When the Gospel is preached in the name of God, it is as if God himself spoke in person.” Leith elaborates, “The justification for preaching is not in its effectiveness for education or reform….The preacher, Calvin dared to say, was the mouth of God.” It was God’s intention and action that made it effective. The minister’s words, like the physical elements of the Sacraments, were united to the substance: Christ and all of his benefits. Therefore, the word not only describes salvation but conveys it. “Calvin’s sacramental doctrine of preaching enabled him both to understand preaching as a very human work and to understand it as the work of God.”
We are embodied creatures, not disembodied minds. Fair enough. That is exactly why God has condescended to us in the “baby talk” of ordinary human language and even now, each week, addresses us through the lips of a finite and fallen minister. It is an affront to God’s generosity to demand more interesting, relevant, and effective methods than he has chosen. God knows that our weakness not only requires him to reveal himself in terms that are far beneath his loftiness, but that our sinfulness generates idols in a multitude of forms and media. In clearly communicating to us through his living and canonical Word, God accommodates to our weakness without capitulating to our sinfulness. We need no other aids than the covenantal speech that God graciously gives us in preaching and its ratification in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Everything else that we do in the public service–at least, if it is limited to the elements commanded by Christ and his apostles–is another form of that ministry of the Word.
For us now, hearing is believing (Rom. 10:17). God still ratifies his covenant through his visible Word–baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Nevertheless, until Christ returns to raise our mortal bodies to immortality, along with the wider creation, “we wait eagerly” (Rom. 8:23). “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (vv. 24-25). Even as God speaks this evangelical Word into this present age, the new creation dawns among us; but it is still largely hidden. For now, however, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).
With the Reformation came a revolution from visual metaphors for knowing–and the tantalizing vision of icons and visual theatrics that downplayed the mediation of Christ’s presence through his Word. Whereas even Augustine subordinated hearing God speak to contemplative vision, as Hans Blumenberg observes, Luther’s De servo arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Will) “plays metaphors of the ear against those of the eye.”
The eye wanders, selects, approaches things, presses after them, while the ear, for its part, is affected and accosted. The eye can seek, the ear can only wait. Seeing “places” things; hearing is placed….That which demands unconditionally is encountered in “hearing.” Conscience has a “voice,” not light.
Luther shifted attention back to founding utterances going forth from God’s mouth rather than primordial ideas in the divine mind that remain eternally still. Oswald Bayer explains concerning Luther’s view, “The new creation is a conversion to the world, as a conversion to the Creator, hearing God’s voice speaking to us and addressing us through his creatures. Augustine was wrong to say that his voice draws us away from God’s creatures into the inner self and then to transcendence.”
As the Westminster Larger Catechism teaches, it is “especially the preached Word” that is a “means of grace,” since by this method God confronts sinners in their self-enclosed existence, “driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Answer 155). This Word calls us out of our subjectivity and renders us extrinsic, extroverted, and social creatures who hold fast to Christ in faith and to our neighbors in love.
Stephen Webb goes so far as to suggest that the Reformation represents “an event within the history of sound,” an event of “revocalizing the Word.” Instead of a chiefly visual event–a theatrical display–that fills the spatial distance between transcendent Lord and the people separated by a screen, public worship became a verbal event. This ministry of the Word occurred not only in the sermon but in the public reading of Scripture, in the prayers and singing, in confession and absolution–indeed, throughout the entire liturgy from God’s greeting to the benediction. Even Communion was a vocal pledge from God that the whole covenant community received and to which it responded in celebration. As Webb notes,
This follows from Calvin’s belief that God’s Word accomplishes what it commands. It is covenantal speech, active and full of life. Even in its stuttering, it has the power to give what it asks. God’s Word called the world into being, and it continues to uphold the world through the speech of the Spirit-filled church.
Where medieval worship subordinated speech to sight, the Reformation (capitalizing on humanist concern for history and exegesis in the original languages) sought to expose the people to God’s voice. “This was a verbosity caused not by the need to explain an image or to make a moral point. Rather, it was a verbosity intended to convey grace through sound.”
Luther led the way in recovering this emphasis on hearing over seeing. “Our Western philosophical tradition has given the intellect prominence among our human faculties,” notes Oswald Bayer. “Luther, however, says that ‘there is no mightier or nobler work of man than speech.’ We are not rational beings first of all; we are primarily speaking beings.”
This is not a slight point for Luther. “For Luther everything depends upon the Bible; hearing, using, and preaching it as the living voice of the gospel (viva vox evangelii).” This is in contrast to Augustine, for whom “the external Word is a sign (signum) that simply points us to the [thing itself] (res).” Webb reminds us, “For Augustine…the Word that God speaks is heard internally before we give it an external voice….Consequently, faith, like thought, begins in the interior recesses of the heart, where it is silent before it makes a sound.”
In the words of the Second Helvetic Confession, “The preached Word is the Word of God.” In Scripture we find the canon of saving speech; in preaching, the ongoing means by which this saving speech generates a new creation, so that even in this present evil age we “taste of the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Heb. 6:5). This is how the kingdom comes. The hypostatic Word became flesh–not a vision or a video clip or an experience, but a person. And the spoken Word comes to us normatively in the language of prophets and apostles, committed to a written canon, which is then proclaimed to the world. Throughout the book of Acts, the advance of Christ’s kingdom is announced with the words, “And the word of God spread.”
More than the Sermon
One generation put all the emphasis on the sermon, as if it were not only the primary but the only conveyer of the Word. And now their adult children are wondering whether we need the sermon at all. Bit by bit, the Word of God is being heard less in our churches. Besides the sermon, “the public reading of Scripture” that Paul regarded as essential (1 Tim. 4:13) seems to have vanished from many services. It’s not surprising that there is so much ignorance of the most basic biblical stories, themes, and teachings. No one has to say, “We don’t believe the Bible anymore.” The point of even many niche “study Bibles” is to find relevant points rather than to convey the actual content of the Scriptures. Regardless of our professed view of Scripture, do we have liturgies, songs, and sermons substantial enough to convey it to us? We have to be wise in the way we think through changes to the liturgy, the songs, the prayers, and other means through which the Word is communicated from generation to generation.
Many people today raised in evangelical churches do not even have a stock of memorized passages. Will the snippets of verses sung repeatedly in choruses today make the Word of Christ dwell richly in us and future generations, with all wisdom and understanding? It is indeed a kind of intellectualism for a pastor to assume that his only job is to preach a sermon, while passing the rest of the service of the Word off to a worship committee. The Word is not only taught but caught, and those who grow up in the church often learn more by repeated exposure to the songs and liturgy than by any particular sermon they can recall.
Not only are critics of preaching wrong when they look for “more relevant” media, we are wrong when we reduce the ministry of the Word to mere instruction. It’s a big day whenever God arrives to speak a new creation into being. Until Christ returns, faith will always come–and come again–through the hearing of the gospel.
Issue: “Recovering Scripture” Jan./Feb. Vol. 19 No. 1 2010 Pages 27-30, 35