What is preaching?

I’ve been talking to my dad a little about the hubbub surrounding Hearing Her Voice, my review, and some of the stuff I’ve been suggesting is relevant to how we think about preaching from the thought world of the first century. Dad (and now Mikey) made the interesting point that there’s never really been a solid definition of preaching, as in “what we do in the pulpit in church on a Sunday,” beyond teaching, especially for those influenced by the Knox/Robinson revolution in the Australian evangelical scene.

Here, as a bit of a cheat note, is the relatively pregnant definition I’m suggesting in this post:

Preaching is the persuasive and authoritative proclamation of the good news that Jesus is the Christ, who launched God’s kingdom in his death and resurrection, it relies on the authority of God provided by his word, and the gifts supplied to his body – the church – by the Spirit, to beget and nurture the faith of those God has called.

It’s interesting that the Knox/Robinson ecclesiology, which Mark Thompson has just summed up in The Briefing, seems to influence the understanding of what happens in the pulpit on a Sunday. There is another useful factor that I’ll get to below – but I wonder if the appropriate first principle for figuring out what “preaching” is, particularly in the context of the gathered people of God, is to figure out what church is.

What is church?

I’m a young guy, I have nothing like the runs that either Knox or Robinson had on the board – but I want to humbly suggest that their focus on the internal aspect of church life, appears to have come at the cost of ignoring the simultaneous external aspect of what it means to be the church.

I’ll bold the bit that I think create an unnecessary limit on what church is.

Thus church is Christian fellowship. Like all fellowship it requires as a sine qua non ‘other-person-centredness’, that is, being genuinely interested in the other person as a person, and, in particular, as a Christian person. It will require communication, talking to each other in Christian things, in the things of faith and hope in Christ. Christian church fellowship means not only talking together, but doing together Christian things such as praising, praying, and thanking God. Our fellowship is not only directed towards God, but also towards one another, building one another up as Christians.”

What’s really interesting is what’s missing. If the reformers model of church as mother, the ordinary means of both begetting and nurturing faith, is correct – and I think it is, then an ecclesiology and understanding of what the role of the church is that excludes the process of begetting is slightly lacking.

Also, if the church is incarnational – the physical body of Christ, united to him, and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit – it seems odd to limit its focus like the quote above does. Christ’s ministry, recorded in the gospels, seems to be directed to all people, publicly, in the service of God, with clear demonstrations that he was and is the long promised king bringing the long promised kingdom, ultimately for the benefit of those who put their trust in him, but this definition explicitly suggests the church (and its gatherings) should only really focus on God and other Christians.

It’s not just “missing” – it’s deliberately absent. Here’s how Thompson sums up how both Knox and Robinson conceive of the mission of the church…

“We might discern a slight difference of emphasis between Knox and Robinson at this point, though both consistently argued that “the visible church has no purpose or mission beyond being the church, that is, being the fellowship of Christ’s people”

Thompson says the pay off of this position for who we think church is for is one of the significant contributions Knox/Robinson make for today – and I’d say it’s part of the significant contribution to whatever confusion exists about what the difference is between “teaching” and “preaching”… I’ve heard from someone sharp, and remember, I haven’t read anything by either of these guys, that their emphasis, and thus the emphasis at Moore College is on training Bible teachers, and letting authority rest in the word of God, rather than training preachers.

Thompson sets up, or articulates, what I think is an unhelpful false dichotomy in our thinking about the orientation of our gatherings.

“Some of our contemporary confusion about what we do when we come together, it seems to me, arises from a failure to observe the important distinction between being intelligible to outsiders and being oriented towards outsiders. Paul expected that an outsider might enter the assembly at Corinth and understand what was being said. But he did not expect that all that was being done would be oriented towards the outsider, calculated to remove all that might seem strange to the outsider, or even designed so that the outsider might anonymously observe and feel more comfortable.”

I’d argue that the problem isn’t one of failing to observe an important distinction, I’d say it’s failing to grasp that the thing that both outsiders and insiders need – the one thing – is to know the gospel of Jesus.

You don’t have to choose between “seeker” and “believer” oriented – because both seekers and believers receive their mothering in the same way – the gospel. Sure. The full significance of the gospel is something that bites with time – which is why Paul can say he gives the Corinthians “milk, not solid food” (1 Cor 3:2), but I don’t think his preaching ever goes beyond “Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 1:22-24) and the wonder of being united with Christ and having our status as children of God restored in him – and the impact that has on how we understand what it means to be human (which seems to be part of the solid food he serves up in Romans).

To know how Jesus, the long awaited Christ, is foretold in the Old Testament, and to know what the kingdom he launched at the cross is, and how we can be a part of it. Clear, authoritative, gospel proclamation, based on the authority of the Scriptures (including the apostolic deposit) – aimed at persuading (both those who are already persuaded, and those who aren’t), will serve both believer and unbeliever, doing the “mother” thing the reformers saw as so key to what the church was on about.

Also, if we assume that part of being the church isn’t just wanting to have fellowship with one another and to do things together as we worship God, sacrificially, with the gifts he gave us, as the Body of Christ, under his head, but see this role extending to something like seeking to be, actively, his representatives on earth – as his ambassadors, as participants in his mission – then not letting this impact how we gather, such that our gatherings make the gospel message as clear as it possible can be (which in turn benefits the insider), is a bit odd.

While I think Knox and Robinson made some incredible contributions to how we think of the church using appropriate theological categories, I suspect their desire not to meddle with the harmful stuff the ecumenical movement was doing meant their picture of the church as an entity with some sort of outwards focus was a little weak.

Thompson says:

“Of course we should recognize the danger of alienating those who visit our churches with obscure language, unexplained rituals and general insensitivity or rudeness. However, the outsider is visiting or entering a fellowship that has a particular character that marks itself out from other gatherings. Not all ‘strangeness’ is bad, especially when we consider how distant our contemporary culture has become from gospel priorities. The desire in some circles to transform church into something which resembles other gatherings (theatres, cafes, etc.) needs a better justification than it is often given.”

And again, sets up an interesting dichotomy. Strangeness isn’t bad, unless it obscures the gospel. Unexplained rituals or obscure language is bad because it obscures the gospel. You don’t have to jump from an unexplained ritual to theatre though – a better place on the spectrum might be doing whatever it takes to make the message of the gospel, as it relates to the revealed word of God, as clear as possible – using the gifts God has given his body to make his Christ, Jesus, known.

What is “preaching”?

This definition is a bit of a work in process, it brings together the essence of a few previous posts, I’ll provide links here and you can read them, or not, at your leisure, at times I’ll assume premises that I’ve argued for in these posts:

In yesterday’s post (the last one in that list) I tried to show that when the New Testament uses the word preaching it brings with it the idea of proclaiming Jesus as the Christ, and proclaiming the kingdom of God.

I’m also assuming the legitimacy of a Biblical Theological framework that is something like Goldsworthy’s (while recognising that attempts to apply one central motif, rather than seeing many strands contributing to a rich picture of fulfilment in Jesus, is a bit reductionist). Such a framework also sits in the Reformed tradition, where it is understood that for any passage of Scripture to be appropriately understood by a Christian audience, as Christian scripture, it needs to be understood through the lens of Jesus being the Christ.

On this basis all faithful “Bible teaching” points to Jesus being the Christ. You can certainly “teach” about the Bible both the Old Testament, and narrative bits of the Gospels that occur before the cross, and its meaning for its first, pre-cross readers, but that’s not preaching.

Harking back, for a second, to the Knox/Robinson model of church – because they rightly want to place the emphasis on the authority of Scripture, they saw teaching (as I understand their position) as expositing Scripture faithfully, with the preacher and his congregation sitting under the authority of the word – rather than the office of the preacher. And there’s a real rightness to that. In this way “teaching and exercising authority” was one act – the act of standing in front of the congregation and presenting the authority of God, and it was limited, by Paul’s instruction, to men.

But in jumping on “teaching” as the vehicle for authoritative instruction in the church, without really adequately defining or emphasising what “preaching” is – such that any trained monkey can be taught to teach – they’ve robbed us a little bit, I think, when it comes to supplying a definition of what preaching is.

Here’s my working definition – hopefully tying up nicely where I’ve been heading in the last few posts:

Preaching is the persuasive and authoritative proclamation of the good news that Jesus is the Christ, who launched God’s kingdom in his death and resurrection, it relies on the authority of God provided by his word, and the gifts supplied to his body – the church – by the Spirit, to beget and nurture the faith of those God has called.

Preaching is multi-genred, as the Scriptures are, and includes, I think, exhortation, teaching, rebuking, prophecy, and anything that helps people to see who Jesus is. It’s multi-media, it is communicated through the word – primarily, as it is adorned by the character of those who speak it, the way they speak it, and through the work of the Spirit (in the gifts supplied to the speakers, and the work the Spirit is doing in conforming the speaker to the image of Jesus, and in his work in the lives of the hearers).

If I ever get up in the pulpit on a Sunday and what I’m doing isn’t achieving that end, I feel like I’m wasting my time.

It’s interesting that Broughton Knox, in this quote from the Thompson piece, appears to agree with the essence of the sermon.

“We who are members of Christ’s church should lift our thoughts to where Christ is, and remember that the purpose of Christ’s gathering us in his presence is for fellowship with him and with one another by our hearing his voice which comes to us in the preaching of the gospel within that fellowship…[34. Knox, ‘Church’, p. 22.]”

I’d just add that it’s also for the purpose of bringing other people into the fellowship that we enjoy as we participate in the task of glorifying God by declaring his good news in a clear and persuasive way.

3 Comments What is preaching?

  1. Pingback: On Church gathering: preaching, rights, the sacraments, and authority | St. Eutychus

  2. Mikey Lynch

    re: Calvin – Sidney Greidanus in “Preaching Christ from the Old Testament” (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1999, 145-148) balances out your quotes above with the observation:

    “In the light of [these comments]…. it is suprising that his sermons on the OT can, in general, best be described as God-centred rather than Christ-centred. This is not to say that he did not deliver any Christ-centred sermons on the OT….
    But on the whole, Calvin’s sermons ont he OT are best described as theocentric. In introducing Calvin’s ‘Sermons from Job’, Harold Dekker write, ‘One of the most noticeable features of Calvin’s preaching is its utter theocentricity…. Very significantly, most of the OT sermons make no specific mention at all of Christ.’ Not even the word of Job, ‘I know my redeemer lives,’ warrat a reference to Christ. The same holds true for many of Calvin’s sermons on Deuteronomy.”

    Greidanus goes on to reflect on why this might be. Interesting, huh?

    1. Nathan Campbell

      Hi Mikey,

      I’m not sure what post I tried to make this distinction in – but I reckon, following my learned friend Kutz, I’ve got to give him credit for this (but I think maybe some other smart people think it to), that Calvin was into “Christotelic” if not “Christocentric” preaching from the OT – and I’m fine with that. My understanding of the Trinity is such that Christotelic/Christocentric sermons will always be Theocentric – because God is the God who planned to send Jesus, and create everything around him.

      There’s a quote from Calvin in one of the other posts in this series (I’ve fixed the link in the third dot point above to go to the right place), where he says:

      “This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father. If one were to sift thoroughly the Law and the Prophets, he would not find a single word which would not draw and bring us to him. . . . Therefore, rightly does Saint Paul say in another passage that he would know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

      It’s interesting how what he does might look different in practice – if Dekker is right… I wonder if part of that is driven by his audience – who were largely culturally “churched” – and whether we might need to make more of the connections explicit rather than implicit. But not so explicit that we feel the need to turn every passage in the Old Testament into a springboard to the cross – I think we can proclaim Jesus without doing a paint by numbers “add two ways to live to the end of each sermon” deal.

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