Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler (Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken)
The issue of authority has been the quintessential issue of the Enlightenment and especially of the 20th century. This is true for the very simple reason that the Enlightenment, by its very name, celebrated the autonomy of reason and humanity. Until the Enlightenment, philosophers and theologians traveled a single road: Authority Avenue. In the 18th century, however, these travelers came to a fork in the road. The old road was marked with the old sign “authority of revelation.” The new road sign, marking the new fork, was erected by Immanuel Kant and his Enlightenment road crew, and read “autonomy of reason.”
Many travelers who passed that way were so busy practicing their art that they never noticed the fork. No doubt many merely assumed that either road was an equally viable route to their ultimate destination. The Kantian revolution replaced the authority of Scripture with the authority of the autonomous mind. The result was politically, socially, ethically, philosophically, religiously, and homiletically momentous.
Modernism’s collapse has bequeathed us postmodernism. Enlightenment modernity distrusted authority. Radical postmodernity dismantles authority. Edward Farley’s oft repeated statement sums up the scenario at the beginning of the 21st century: “the house of authority has collapsed.”1 For many, great was the fall of it. In Postmodernity, there is nothing certain, nothing objective, nothing absolute, nothing universal and nothing true with a capital “T”. There are only truths with a little “t.”2 Listen to Lyotard as he refers to the Bible as fable with its “despotic deposit of divine utterance.”3
Deconstructionist Mark Taylor says, “Everything inscribed in the divine milieu is thoroughly transitional and radically relative.”4 Homilete Scott Johnston tells us that “to be postmodern is to be post-certain.”5 If one wonders what such post-certainty means for the gospel, Terrence Tilley tells us this lack of certainty is the good news.6 All of this has radical repercussions for preaching.
In light of this, it should come as no surprise that the question of Biblical authority has been the burning issue for theology in the 20th century. This issue of authority and how one construes it has been at the heart of the rise of Neoorthodox theology, Evangelical theology, Revisionist theology, and Postliberal theology. The authority issue has been keenly felt in homiletics as well. Every sermon preached presupposes a certain theology and a concept of authority. David Buttrick highlighted the essence of the authority problem for homiletics when he remarked that “conventional notions of biblical authorityAare no longer tenable,”7 and “we shall have to rethink the nature of authority.”8 Lately, the field of Homiletics has begun to wrestle with the authority issue and like Jacob, refuses to let go without some blessing of authorization.
On the Road with Barth: the Sinister Dichotomy
The story is best told by beginning 100 years ago, for the theological and homiletical harvest which we have at the beginning of the 21st century is the result of seeds sown at the beginning of the 20th century.
With the death of Nietzsche in 1900 and the publication of Harnack’s What is Christianity in that same year, old grandpa liberalism limped into the 20th century already ailing from what would turn out to be a terminal disease. He had lived his life in the far country of subjectivism and had all but squandered his precious reformation heritage through riotous historical-critical living.
Among his progeny, however, was a young man named Karl Barth who came to his senses and sought to return to the Father’s house. Oddly enough, it was Barth’s experience in the pulpit as a young pastor that taught him the bankruptcy of Liberalism.9 To paraphrase Robert Frost in “Mending Wall,” “Something there is about preaching that does not love an unsure word from God.”
Barthian neoorthodoxy got side-tracked and never quite made it completely back home. Barth missed a sign along the road and somehow detoured from Authority Way onto Kant Blvd. It was an easy mistake to make, after all, his roadmap was Kant’s epistemology and most of the other travelers were taking the same road. At first wide and well-paved, it soon began to narrow, potholes appeared, and eventually it lead to a dead end. According to the roadmap, there were certain things which KANT be done, namely, the words of Scripture KANT be the objective revelation of God and hence KANT lead to the Father’s house of Transcendence. It was the old story “you just KANT get there from here!”10
Barth’s major theological faux pas, entailing immense repercussions for theology, and for the so called New Homiletic, was his assertion that the Bible, as a witness to revelation, is not itself revelation.
In the Bible we meet with human words written in human speech, and in these words, and therefore by means of them, we hear of the lordship of the triune God. Therefore when we have to do with the Bible, we have to do primarily with this means, with these words, with the witness which as such is not itself revelation, but only … the witness to it.11
For Barth, as Nicholas Wolterstorff so trenchantly pointed out, this “witnessing” aspect of Scripture to God’s revelation is nothing more than human speech. The witness does not speak in the name of God, nor do the words of the witness (the Bible) give us God’s revelatory speech. Furthermore, the content of the witness is itself not free from error. Nor is the error for Barth restricted to matters of history or science, but can extend even to matters of theological and ethical views of the biblical writers.12
The Scripture becomes the Word of God for Barth when it is taken and used by God to speak to us and when it is heard by us as the witness to divine revelation. Thus, for Barth, God’s speech by way of Scripture is, according to Wolterstorff, “presentational, rather than authorial, speech.”13 Revelation is originally and directly the word of God while the Bible and preaching are derivatively and indirectly so according to Barth.14 This view has significant consequences for a theology of preaching.
Yet Barth can and does speak of the Bible as the Word of God. It is not the Word of God in an ontological sense as we have seen. In what sense then is it the Word of God? Listen to Barth again: “The Bible is God’s Word to the extent that God causes it to be his Word, to the extent that He speaks through it … The Bible, then, becomes God’s Word in this event, and in the statement that the Bible is God’s Word the little word ‘is’ refers to its being in this becoming.”15 For Barth, like former President Clinton, it all depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is! And clearly this is a functional “is” and not an ontological “is.” Barth consistently avoids ever saying that human speech is appropriated for divine speech in the Scripture.16
Virtually all theologians of a non-evangelical stripe have appropriated Barth’s view as an intransigent axiom of theology. Many of the so called “neo-evangelicals” have also appropriated Barth’s thinking on this point. Bernard Ramm’s After Fundamentalism argues that Barth’s methodology is the answer to the dilemma of being a theological child of the Enlightenment and yet maintaining a historical Christian faith. Evangelical Donald Bloesch has also affirmed a Barthian position. He says quite pointedly in his response article to Elmer Colyer, “I refuse to identify the Bible with divine revelation.”17 Stanley Grenz endorses the identical position in his Theology for the Community of God. He remarks that Ramm has offered a service in raising Barth’s banner within Evangelicalism and says “We cannot simply equate the revelation of God with the Bible.”18 Grenz outlines a three-fold connection of revelation with the Bible. First, following Barth’s language, the Bible is revelation in a “derivative” sense. Second, the Bible is “functional” revelation. Third, the Bible is “mediate” revelation in that it mediates to us the proper understanding of God’s essence.19 Thus, for Grenz, the Bible is derivatively, functionally and mediately revelation, but it is not ontologically revelation. Compare Grenz’s approach with the statement by Thomas Oden, a former liberal Methodist who has returned to the fold of conservative orthodoxy:
That the address of God [in the Bible] is clothed in the language of a particular writer with a particular style does not diminish the force of the moving Spirit that enables the writing. These sentences remain as truly God’s own address as if spoken audibly from Sinai’s burning bush.20
In spite of this dichotomy, Barth and his cadre maintain that the Word of God is still to be found in the Scriptures. But this is precisely the point at issue! Who or what will tell us what is and what is not to be considered as God’s word in the written Word? How is one to know when God has taken up the Bible and spoken through it?
The implications of the above discussion regarding the Barthian position on Scripture for preaching can be illustrated in an exchange which occurred between Barth and Carnell in 1962 at the University of Chicago Divinity School where Barth was lecturing. During the lectures, Carnell directed a question to Barth regarding his refusal to assert the ontological existence of the devil. Barth countered by saying that the attitudes of Jesus and the gospel writers to the existence of Satan cannot be considered sufficient reason for affirming it. Later in the same session Barth gave a detailed analysis of the meaning of hupotasso (submit) in Romans 13:5 and indicated that the Christian is bound to be involved in society by this verse. The problem was succinctly summed up by John W. Montgomery when he concluded “Why bother to milk any N.T. word for its full theological import if the unwavering position of the Gospels with regard to the ontology of the demonic can be discounted?”21
It is interesting to note the correlation between the theological attack on revelation as propositional and the attack of the New Homiletic on expository preaching as propositional. Evangelicals are often accused by their non-evangelical counterparts — and sometimes by those within their own camp — of reducing the text of Scripture to pure propositions. For example, Henry Knight’s A Future for Truth: Evangelical Theology in a Postmodern World offers a one-sided critique of what he calls “propositionalism.”22 Knight writes as though Carl Henry, Ronald Nash, and J. I. Packer had no conception of revelation beyond the kind of propositionalism which he denigrates. The implications of this for homiletics can be seen quite clearly in Donald McKim’s The Bible in Theology and Preaching, especially chapters six and seven.23 Chapter Six is entitled “Neo-Orthodox Theology: Scripture as Witness” and discusses Barth’s position on Scripture as “witness.” Chapter Seven, entitled “Neo-Evangelical Theology: Scripture as Message” (87-99) is interesting for two reasons: 1) McKim does not discuss the wing of evangelicalism that identifies Scripture as the Word of God, and 2) he reveals the fact that he himself is actually more at home with the Barthian neoorthodox position in that the chapter uses the word “message” eleven times but “witness” thirteen times. McKim cannot get away from the neoorthodox shibboleth “witness.” I fail to see much difference in the “neo-orthodox” position of his chapter six and the (moderate to left-wing) “neo-evangelical” position of his chapter seven.
The confusion over propositional revelation continues with homiletician William Willimon and his article in Christianity Today — “Jesus’ Peculiar Truth.” He says when one argues for the objective truth of Jesus a tactical mistake is made because Jesus did not arrive enunciating a set of propositions that we are to affirm. Says Willimon: “Jesus never asks us to agree, he asks us to join up, to follow.”24
But as Douglas Groothuis points out, Jesus did present a set of propositions we are to affirm. Willimon’s viewpoint implies a radical fideism. He confuses a metaphysical claim-that objective truth exists- with an epistemological claim about how knowledge of objective truth is acquired.25 “Willimon muddles matters further by claiming that ‘what the God of Israel and the church promises us is not absolute truth reduced to propositions, but Acommunion with the one who is the way, the truth and the life.’ But truth is propositional by definition. To say it should not be reduced to propositions evidences a deep befuddlement that masks as profundity.”26
In the minds of Barth, Bloesch, Ramm, Grenz, McKim, Willimon and others, evangelicals falsely identify the Word of God with the Word written — Scripture. In reality., it is they who labor under a false linguistic dichotomy, which is at the heart of the Barthian failure to identify Scripture with the Word, speech, and revelation of God. Scripture contains more than mere propositional revelation, but it certainly does not contain less. The work of Vanhoozer, particularly his Is There a Meaning in this Text?, applies successfully Austin and Searle’s linguistic insights in speech act theory to textual interpretation.27 The resultant theological and hermeneutical approach to texts avoids the Barthian dichotomy on the one hand and so called “propositionalism” on the other. This approach bodes well for homiletical theory that wants to maintain biblical authority but also recognize the multi-dimensionality of language.
Scripture contains a wealth of literary form, but every form has propositional content. Regardless of the parables, allegories, emotive phrases and rhetorical questions used by biblical writers, their literary devices have a logical point which can be propositionally formulated and is objectively true or false.28 The proposition is the irreducible minimum of communication but it certainly does not exhaust all that inheres in language, meaning, metaphor, use and the communication event.
As McGrath points out, a propositional approach to revelation does not exclude other approaches. “To assert that revelation involves information about God is not to deny that it can also involve the mediation of the presence of God, or the transformation of human experience.”29 Those who regard propositional revelation as reflecting an outmoded modernist approach to theology “confuse the effects of revelation with its nature when they claim that revelation comes through the community of faith and the experience of ChristiansA”30 Cornelius Plantinga helpfully points out the inescapable reality of propositions for preaching and the undesirability of any sermon attempting their elimination.31
To opt for the Barthian dichotomy regarding the Word of God and the words of Scripture is to become inextricably entangled with inconsistency. Indeed, as J. I. Packer put it: “all who link the assertion that God genuinely communicates through Scripture with the denial that the written text as such is God’s utterance become incoherent sooner or later.”32
If the Barthian position which most homileticians in the New Homiletic advocate is true, then there is an inescapable loss of biblical authority because we are left in an epistemological quandary. Barth may consider the biblical idea of Satan to be false while we consider it to be an accurate reflection of the Word of God in the written words of Scripture. Who arbitrates such disputes? In Barthian theology, there is no one to arbitrate; the epistemological foundations have been undercut. In addition, the hermeneutical foundations have been undercut as Barth’s system aids and abets textual indeterminacy with its concomitant pluralism of textual meaning as well as theological assertions.
The reluctance on the part of many to equate Scripture with the Word of God in an ontological sense is the heart of the issue of biblical authority and was once the hallmark distinction between evangelical and non-evangelical theologians. Barth’s dichotomy of the Word of God and the words of Scripture is indeed a sinister dichotomy for theology, and since it is not supported by Scripture itself, must be rejected by evangelicals. It belongs in the right wing of postliberalism, not the left wing of evangelicalism.
The Barthian dichotomy is also at the heart of the distinction between evangelical and non-evangelical preaching in my view. This is the heart of the issue for homiletics. If the written words of Scripture are not to be considered as God’s revelatory speech, then the preaching of the Bible in an expositional manner becomes less important — which is exactly what we see in much of the so called New Homiletic. Wayne Grudem is right on target concerning the impact of the very “words” of Scripture in the sermon and the resultant authority for preaching:
Throughout the history of church the greatest preachers have been those who have recognized that they have no authority in themselves and have seen their task as being to explain the words of Scripture and apply them clearly to the lives of their hearers. Their preaching has drawn its power not from the proclamation of the their own Christian experiences or the experiences of others, nor from their own opinions, creative ideas, or rhetorical skills, but from God’s powerful words. Essentially they stood in the pulpit, pointed to the biblical texts and said in effect to the congregation, ‘This is what this verse means. Do you see the meaning here as well? Then you must believe it and obey it with all your heart, for God himself is saying this to you today!’ Only the written words of Scripture can give this kind of authority to preaching.33
On the Road with the New Homiletic: Let’s Create An Experience34
What is the present state of affairs in the House of Homiletics relative to biblical authority? Few address the issue at all. But it is clear that there is an underlying assumption that the evangelical view of biblical authority has been discredited and needs no ink spilt in refutation. A fixed tenet of the New Homiletic is that discursive, propositional revelation is out. Never mind that this was the unwavering view of the church until the last century. Neibuhr and Tillich have single-handedly driven a wedge between propositional and personal revelation and this dichotomy is uncritically accepted today by most theologians and homileticians.
The birth of the New Homiletic occurred in 1971 when Craddock’s As One Without Authority: Essays on Inductive Preaching was published. He initiated a move away from the so called “deductive, propositional” approach to a more inductive concept. The goal is the creation of an “experience” in the listener which effects a hearing of the gospel.
Seven years later Craddock’s Overhearing the Gospel appeared where, building on Kierkegaard’s concept of communication by indirection, he placed the audience instead of the text in the driver’s seat regarding the sermon’s purpose. What is that purpose? To effect a pattern for a process whereby the audience can come to hear and act on the gospel as they follow the lead of the preacher. Craddock believed that churches were “saturated” with the gospel content and hence traditional (expository) preaching was not getting the job done. The communication of information was counterproductive in a gospel and Bible saturated church community.
In 1985 Craddock’s Preaching_was published where he furthered his thinking on the importance of the audience for determining what the sermon should be like. The sermon becomes a communication event in which the audience, along with the preacher, co-creates the sermonic experience. Impartation of knowledge is secondary, even tertiary; affecting an experience is primary in Craddock’s approach.
Interestingly, in the same year as Craddock’s seminal work As One Without Authority, Stephen Crites published an article that would prove to be of some significance for theology and homiletics: “The Narrative Quality of Experience.”35 Here Crites placed narrative at the very heart of human life. For the past three decades, in theology as well as many other disciplines, the assumption has been that narrative is the universal condition of human consciousness. Theologians began to take note of the fact that much of the Bible is presented in narrative form. Perhaps narrative dominates the Scripture because it is the fundamental mode of human existence. God’s great plan for humanity is unfolded in a story, in fact, in THE story — the story of God’s redemption through Jesus Christ.
Hans Frei’s momentous work The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative became a major catalyst for those engaged in Biblical studies to reexamine the narratives of Scripture from a literary perspective while bracketing out the question of historicality. The goal became to see the narrative texts as “realistic narrative” and to enter into the world of the texts by conforming one’s own world to that of the text. Thus, partly as a result of the labors of Barth and Frei, the Jacobean blessing sought by the New Homiletic seems to have been given in the form of narrative preaching. Like its father, narrative theology, and its mother, narrative hermeneutics, narrative homiletics maintains a strong family resemblance.
There can be little doubt that narrative theology and narrative hermeneutic function as the foundation for narrative homiletics. The shift which Craddock began has been continued by Buttrick and a host of others. In his Homiletic: Moves and Structures, Buttrick explored how ideas are formed in human consciousness and the role which language plays in the process.36
In what way does the New Homiletic differ from a more traditional homiletic? Two foundational tenets under gird the New Homiletic. First, discursive, deductive, propositional preaching is no longer a viable method of communicating with today’s postmodern audiences.37 Second, the goal of preaching is not the communication of information (which is secondary or tertiary at best and according to Craddock was counter-productive) but rather the evocation of an experience. The sermon is a communication event in which the audience, with the help of the preacher, creates or discovers “meaning” and is led to a new way of seeing the world which the gospel creates.38 The theological underpinning for this concept harks back especially to Emil Brunner and H. Richard Niebuhr.39 If human experience is inherently narrative and temporal, a sermon should be designed to be experienced and to create an experience rather than to assemble thoughts according to Eslinger.40
The shift which has taken place in homiletics was summarized by Thomas Long when he noted that in the past, preaching sought to communicate meaning in a propositional way. Today a fundamental axiom of most homileticians is that it is the audience and the preacher together who create the experience of meaning.41 Reed, Bullock and Fleer have shown that the goal of the New Homiletic is to reach the will through the imagination rather than through reason.42 It is the privileging of individual experience of narrative and imagination over rational discourse that is the essence of the New Homiletic.43
These two key elements, the rejection of so called deductive, propositional preaching in favor of a narrative structure and the goal of preaching being that of evocation of an experience in the listener, form the bedrock of the New Homiletic. Lowry notes in his The Sermon: Dancing the Edge of Mystery that the issues being raised by postmodernism are “crucial” for the developing sermonic principles of the New Homiletic.44
The impact, with a low view of biblical authority coupled with a rejection of propositional communication and the focus on creating an experience, is evident in the writings of many within the New Homiletic. Buttrick’s A Captive Voice (1994) drew some criticism from Paul Scott Wilson in a review of the book in the moderately liberal journal Homiletic.45 Wilson felt uneasy about Buttrick’s distinction between Scripture and word of God “as though the two are somehow separable in tradition, God’s word being apart from Scripture that attests to it, or as though we reserve word of God to identify only those passages within scripture that function for us to speak God’s truth.”46 But Wilson himself still accepts the old neo-orthodox distinction between words of the Bible and word of God. He cites affirmatively Buttrick’s point that biblical authority in Scripture rests not with its ontological truthfulness as being the word of God, but rather is subsumed under the authority of Christ. Evangelicals continue to point out that such a dichotomy between the authority of Scripture and the authority of Christ is unfounded theologically and historically. Wilson sums up his review saying that Buttrick’s vision for a 21st century homiletic is “the best that we have; his dream is biblical,” and the book is “thoughtful and wise.”47
Butrick, in A Captive Voice, says that “what the Bible offers is narrative with an elaborate mythic beginning-creation and fall, Cain and Abel, Noah’s ark, the tower of Babel (17).” Furthermore, the idea that scripture is the Word of God is a “groundless notion of biblical authority (30).” He reveals his dependency upon the Barthian paradigm when he says that “neither Scripture nor preaching is word of God per se. The Bible can be God’s word because it can speak redemptively. Otherwise the Bible is no more than a distinguished literary compendium (31).” “Christian Preaching must play on ‘the edges of language’ where metaphor brings out redefinitions of human experience (66-67)” “There is no pure gospel; no, not even in the Bible. To be blunt, the Christian Scriptures are both sexist and anti-Semitic (75).” Buttrick’s universalism comes through in statements like we are starting to realize that the gospel is bigger than something called personal salvation … Clearly the Christian Scriptures see Christ as a cosmic savior; he doesn’t just merely save souls, a gnostic heresy at best: he saves the entire human enterprise, indeed, the universe (108).
“Insurance policy preaching, urging people to come find Jesus and ensure an eternal future, isn’t Christian at all; it is merely an appeal to narrow self-interest (109).” Finally, I turn to Buttrick’s The Mystery and the Passion: A Homiletic Reading of the Gospel Traditions and discover that the resurrection of Jesus apparently was not a literal, bodily, historical event, but rather is the mytho-poetic story of the early church to explain their faith.48 Unless I have misunderstood Buttrick’s treatment of the resurrection, there appears to be little difference in him and Bultmann on the subject.
Paul Scott Wilson’s notion of biblical authority is scarcely different from Buttrick’s. He appeals to Buttrick for support of the statement “the authority of Scripture derives from the nature of preaching as divine event.”49 This is a total reversal of the historic orthodox position.
Ronald Allen, referring to the Red Sea escape of the Hebrews in Exodus, says “we can no longer determine exactly what happened at the Red Sea. Apparently a small band of Hebrew slaves who were escaping from Egypt were on the verge of capture … Something made it possible for them to escape.”50 How would a sermon making these assertions fare? Apparently quite well in today’s postmodern climate, we are told, because authority no longer rests in the pulpit or in the Bible, “but in the conversation of gospel, preacher, and listening community.”51 If the preacher or the listening community or both find the biblical account too fantastic to believe, well, so be it.
According to Joseph Webb, the biblical text is in some ways more “ideological than theological”! It needs to be probed in such a way that the preacher does not “let the text off the hook” with what it may appear to say on the surface.52
One can ask the text to demonstrate its ideology … If this sounds somewhat devious, it is not … This is a way, how-ever, that the preacher can, with honesty and integrity, analyze and eval-uate a text, and shall we say, reject it — not “out of hand,” but “for cause.”53
When one preaches this way, one’s preaching takes on a sparkle that instead of demeaning the Bible, will actually give the Bible a vitality that it can receive in no other way.54
Ron Allen rejects truth as correspondence then affirms that the preacher can “confidently proclaim that the text is true” because the claim of the text corresponds to the experience of the congregation.55 Joseph Webb is a thoroughgoing advocate of pluralism a la Cobb and his book Preaching and the Challenge of Pluralism seeks to tell preachers how one can preach to a pluralist culture. His purpose in writing the book is to quell the fear among preachers that, once we give up the “certainties” of the Christian tradition, we will have to give up preaching. Webb believes such a fear is unjustified.
Taking his queue from process sociology developed at the Chicago School of Sociology, Webb constructed his approach to pluralism and preaching which is the theme of his book. Pertinent to our discussion is Webb’s final chapter “Pluralism and the Gospel: Prophetic Otherness for the Postmodern Pulpit.” When we ask the question “what is the gospel?” we are forced, Webb says, to respond that there is no consensus concerning a single answer. Traditionally, Christianity has been based on an absolute sense of the gospel. This was, according to Webb, a mirage.
What we have believed, particularly about Jesus, we can continue to believe as a way to give spiritual meaning and substance to the lives we live. We can even take our beliefs as ultimate for our own lives, as we choose to do. But it is no longer tenable for us to assert our beliefs about Jesus — about divinity, about resurrection, about his being the only path to God — as final, complete, and unalter-able for every human being everywhere.56
Webb also suggests that although the prophetic model of preaching after the Hebrew prophets is no longer viable, prophetic preaching is still needed. He redefines it as preaching in a pluralist vein which becomes a “call to uncertainty.”57 So much for Peter’s “more sure word of prophecy” in II Peter 1:19. Now we have “a more unsure word of prophecy.”
The last chapter of Allen’s book Patterns of Preaching: A Sermon Sampler is entitled “Preaching in a Postmodern Perspective” and includes a sermon by John McClure on Philippians 2:5-11. Allen’s introductory remarks to the sermon include the following: This sermon … makes use of the postmodern decentering of the self to reinterpret Paul’s language of self-emptying in Philippians 2.”58 McClure states in his sermon that Christ emptied himself of his desire to use his power for domination; to use others for his own ends. He further states that, being born in human likeness, “Jesus had no assurance that he could empty himself of these evil patterns of dominating power.”59
I had to do a double take too when I first read it! It would be difficult to imagine a more convoluted Christology resulting from such a low view of biblical authority.
Problems also surface in the New Homiletic with regard to the purpose of preaching as “evoking” an experience in the listener rather than to “inform” as was supposedly the case in the old traditional paradigm. Let me illustrate. I was privileged to sit under the expositional preaching of Jerry Vines (now pastor of the First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Florida) in the late sixties and early seventies. In the midst of all the “discursive” and “propositional” information about God and the Bible I learned, his expository sermons “evoked” an experience with God for me that was life transforming. But it was through the content of the text, not around it, that the experience was evoked. (I should add that Vines’ passion in preaching coupled with his imagination produced some remarkably evocative sermons even when he was dealing with the non-narrative genre of the Scripture.)
Claims by those like Eugene Lowry who argue that the preaching of the Bible should be in a narrative mode and not expositional in nature do not increase the likelihood of the listener experiencing God, but rather make it less so! Lowry notes that when dealing with the “ineffable,” the church is called toward the “eloquence of the provisional:”
Such speech declares the truth, all the while knowing the truth cannot be uttered. The travelers on the Emmaus road found that out. After they instructed the stranger about the truth, the real truth got revealed in the breaking of bread, and — wouldn’t you know it — the moment they thought they were going to get their hands on it, the presence of the truth disappeared.
They were left with only a glimpse in the corner of their eyes. But its power turned them around nonetheless. In matters theological it is unbecoming for us to stare at the truth eyeball to eyeball. Evocation never works that way.60
Really! Lowry needs to eyeball the Lukan passage to which he refers once again.
The Emmaus disciples only recognized Jesus after He revealed who He was “according to the Scripture.” In other words, as Kevin Vanhoozer points out, His identity was “textually mediated.”61 It was also historically mediated. They recognized Jesus in the breaking of bread because they had seen Him do that at the last supper. They knew Him because they remembered previous experiences with Him.
Also, there were other post-resurrection appearances of Jesus where His disciples caught more of Him than a “glimpse.” He “conversed” and “taught” the disciples, rather than “vanishing” when they knew who He was. Finally, by what hermeneutical principles does Lowry equate Jesus’ appearance to the Emmaus disciples with our experience of Jesus today? They saw him in the (resurrected) flesh; we do not.
In matters theological (and homiletical I might add) we are face to face with the living Word, Jesus, when we are confronted with His written word (the Scriptures) because evocation does not work apart from textual content, but through it.
Homiletics at the Fork: A Biblical Road or a Postbiblicist Dead End?
Edward Farley agrees with Buttrick’s negative assessment of the text of Scripture when he says:
In a postbiblicist paradigm of preaching … While the passage may serve to explore something in the world of the gospel, more often than not, because of its isolation, it turns the preacher away from the world of the gospel … Accor-dingly, in the new paradigm for preaching, the tyranny of the passage over the sermon will give way to a multivalent use of scripture.62
Think of it! A postbiblicist paradigm of preachingAThe tyranny of the text of Scripture must be overthrown so as not to “turn the preacher away from the world of the gospel.” Something about that statement takes my breath away! Must we be postbiblicist in our homiletic to be postmodern? Is this to be the road upon which homiletics travels in the new millennium? Is there no sure word from God in the text anymore? Is there no “thus saith the Lord?” Is the idea that the words of the Bible are the very speech of God no longer tenable?
Cannot the “sense” of the text connect with its reference in a way that is both historical and yet leaves room for the multi-dimensionality of language? Cannot the revelation of God be both propositional and personal at the same time without reducing to a static “propositionalism” or evaporating into an esoteric encounter with the ground of being that has no cognitive content? May we not respect metaphor and narrative in the Scriptures without reducing them to “pure propositions” and at the same time affirm that since they all appear in Scripture then God inspired them all?
Cannot we respect the narrative structure of Scripture without neglecting other discourse genres or placing them on a procrus-tean bed of narrative? May we not maintain both the Christological center and the doctrinal center of truth while also recognizing that though we know in part, we may in fact know truly? There is, there must be, another road for homiletics than Farley’s “postbiblicist” road. Indeed there is –Jeremiah’s “old path” (Jeremiah 6:16); a road nowadays less traveled, but once traveled by many.
The Scripture itself presents God as it’s ultimate author not only in such texts as II Timothy 3:16, but in the fact that “God” and “Scripture” are often viewed by the biblical writers as interchangeable terms via metonymy when quoting the Old Testament. God is often viewed as the author of a scriptural citation when he is, in fact, not the speaker (Matt 19:4-5). Likewise, “Scripture says” is a phrase that is sometimes used when God is the direct speaker (Rom 9:17). God is seen by the biblical writers to be the author of all Scripture. What Scripture says is in fact the Word of God. In at least three places, Paul refers to the Scriptures as God’s speech (Gal. 3:8, 22; Rom. 9:17). Furthermore, both the form and the content comprise the very Word of God. In other words, the Word comes in words! The writer to Hebrews, when quoting the Old Testament, mentions the human authors only twice while in all other occurrences it is God or Christ or the Holy Spirit who is speaking (note the often used present tense in Hebrews citation formulae as well).
Evangelicals must not allow William Temple to put asunder what God has joined together.63 God’s revelation to us is personal, propositional, and inclusive of several other language categories as well (metaphor, etc.). God’s words are inseparable from his self-revelation. I agree with Peter Adam: “Without God’s words there can be no ministry of the word … The first great theological foundation for preaching, then, is that God has spoken.”64
God has spoken to us in His Son (Heb. 1:1-2), the living Word, and He has spoken to us in the Scriptures, His written Word. If, to use J.I. Packer’s famous phrase, Scripture is “God preaching,”65 then the best method of preaching must be that of expository preaching. It would be in this sense that we could affirm the statement found in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566): “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”
A high view of biblical authority creates a solid foundation for expositional preaching. Such exposition will respect and reflect the various literary genres in which God was pleased to reveal his Word. I think Haddon Robinson is absolutely correct in his recent interview in Preaching when he indicates that expository preaching is primarily a matter of sermon philosophy rather than sermon form. Expositors are not restricted to a homiletical strait jacket that is purely deductive. On the contrary, as Robinson suggests, the form of the sermon should reflect the form of the text.66
The view of biblical authority advocated here requires that the umbrella term for preaching today should not be “narrative,” “topical,” “symbolic” or any approach to preaching other than the expository method. Listen again to Robinson: “So if you ask why is expository preaching more important today, it is that we don’t have the authority that preachers had in the past … Therefore in a postmodern age one reason that we work with the biblical text is to have the authority of the text-and behind that the authority of God–behind what we say.”67 Biblical exposition week after week from the pulpit is the logical outcome of a high view of biblical authority and the most effective means of fulfilling Paul’s mandate to “Preach the Word!”
It is time to return to Jeremiah’s “old path” of biblical authority, the road once traveled by many. And what more can I say, for time would fail me to tell of the many who once traveled that road; of Paul, Peter and John, of Chrysostom and Augustine, of Wycliffe, Savanarola, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Whitfield, Knox, Jasper, Moody, Spurgeon, King, and Criswell, to name only a few, who through preaching, subdued kingdoms, stopped the mouths of critics, and launched reformations.
Some were beheaded, others were crucified upside down, exiled on a lonely isle in the Aegean Sea, or entered heaven at the point of an assassin’s bullet. Some were burned at the stake for their preaching, others languished in prisons, though the word of God which they preached was not bound. Some preached in pulpits and others in the fields. Some preached under the banner of Calvinism, others under the banner of a more Arminian persuasion. These all died preaching — either with tongue or pen or life.
Therefore, seeing we are surrounded by a great cloud of preachers, and laying aside every inadequate view of language and any homiletic that does not properly acknowledge Scriptural authority, let us preach the word, having our eyes fixed on Jesus the Logos of God, who is indeed, according to Hebrews 1:1,2, ontologically, epistemologically, soteriologically and eschatologically God’s final revelation.
The way ahead for homiletics is to go back to the fork in the road and take the way marked “Authority of Revelation.” This should be the highway for homiletics in the new millennium. It’s the only road that leads to the Father’s house.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference” (Robert Frost “The Road Not Taken”)
1Edward Farley, “Scripture and Tradition,” Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks, (2d ed.; eds. Peter Hodgson and Robert King; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985) 76.
2Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2000) 11.
3Jean-Francois Lyotard, “Retortion in Theopolitics,” Toward the Postmodern (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities, 1993) 122.
4Mark C. Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984) 16.
5Ronald Allen, Barbara Shires Blaisdell and Scott Johnston, Theology for Preaching: Authority, Truth and Knowledge of God in a Postmodern Ethos (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997) 28.
6Tilley, Story Theology (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1985) 212.
7David Buttrick, “On Doing Homiletics Today,” Intersections: Post-Critical Studies in Preaching, (ed. Richard Eslinger; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) 91.
8Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987) 239.
9Barth was twenty-five years old when he began his pastorate in Safenwil in 1911 and he stayed there ten years. It was during this time, through his study of the book of Romans and his experience in attempting to preach a bankrupt liberalism that Barth shifted to a more conservative theological position. The publication of his commentary on Romans in 1918 and its subsequent second edition in 1921 was the bombshell that shook the theological world. A good survey of Barth’s preaching can be found in A Treasury of Great Preaching, vol. 10, 95-107.
10Postmodernity’s loss of objective knowledge and meaning is traceable directly to Kant’s epistemology. See Royce Gruenler, Meaning and Understanding: the Philosophical Framework for Biblical Interpretation, Vol. 2 of Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation (Moises Sylva, ed., 1991) for the best explanation and critique of Kant.
11Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, (eds. G.W. Bromiley & T.F. Torrance, Translated from the German by G.T. Thomson and Harold Knight; Edingurgh: T & T Clark, 1956) 463. For Barth’s view of Scripture as witness to revelation, see especially Klaas Runia, Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1962) 15-86.
12Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 68. This work is an excellent critique of the Barthian, Ricoeurean and Derridian programs. Wolterstorff’s critique of Barth’s dichotomy between the words of the Bible and the Word of God is quite incisive.
13Ibid. 71.
14Barth, CD I/1 117.
15Ibid. 109.
16Ibid. 513; Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse 73-74. Wolterstorff suggests two reasons why this is the case. First, Barth never rejected higher criticism and believed that its results made an inerrant text impossible. Second, Barth believed, as do most non-evangelical theologians today, that if God speaks by way of authoring Scripture then His sovereign freedom is compromised.
17Bloesch, “A Response to Elmer Colyer,” Journal for Christian Theological Research [] 1:2 (1996). See Gary Dorrien’s The Remaking of Evangelical Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) 190-193 where he offers a good discussion of Bloesch on this issue, showing his dependence upon Barth, and Evangelical Theology in Transition, (1999), Chapter four by Dulles.
18Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994) 511,514. Postmodernity’s loss of objective knowledge and meaning is traceable directly to Kant’s epistemology. — See Royce Gruenler, Meaning and Understanding: the Philosophical Framework for Biblical Interpretation, Vol. 2 of Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, 1991 for the best explanation and critique of Kant.
19Ibid. 516-517.
20Thomas Oden, Life in the Spirit, Vol. 3 in Systematic Theology (San Francisco: Harper, 1992) 69.
21John W. Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1970) 192.
22Henry Knight, A Future For Truth: Evangelical Theology in a Postmodern World (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997) 86-87.
23Donald McKim, The Bible in Theology and Preaching: How Preachers Use Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994).
24William Willimon, “Jesus’ Peculiar Truth” Christianity Today (March 4, 1996), 21.
25Groothuis, Truth Decay 140-145.
26Ibid. 144-45.
27Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text: The Bible, The Reader and the Reality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998). See especially 208-213 and 243-252.
28Carl F. H. Henry, God Who Speaks and Shows, Vol. 3 in God, Revelation and Authority (Waco, TX.: Word, 1979) 453.
29Alster McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction_(Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 155.
30Groothuis, Truth Decay 115.
31Cornelius Plantinga, “Dancing the Edge of Mystery,” in Books and Culture (September/October 1999) 19.
32J.I. Packer, “Infallible Scripture and the Role of Hermeneutics,” Scripture and Truth, (eds. D.A. Carson & John Woodbridge; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983) 347.
33Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994) 82. See also Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Word: A Practical Theology of Expository Preaching (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 1996) 15-26.
34My remarks here and throughout should not be construed as a wholesale rejection of the new homiletic, narrative theology, or narrative preaching. There are many elements of value in narrative preaching. One must also make a distinction between narrative preaching and preaching the narrative genre of the Scriptures. While there is much to be learned from the new homiletic, theologically and homiletically there are serious problems, which I am at pains to illustrate. Note the balanced critique of narrative preaching by Larsen in his Telling the Old Old Story 13-32. See also the excellent critique by James Thompson, in Preaching Like Paul (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001) 9-19.
35Stephen Crites, “The Narrative Quality of Experience,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 39, (1971) 291-311.
36Buttrick, Homiletic 125.
37A plethora of books and articles could be listed addressing one or more aspects of the New Homiletic. The following is a limited, but helpful, listing. Richard Eslinger, A New Hearing: Living Options in Homiletical Method (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987); Mark Ellingsen, The Integrity of Biblical Narrative: Story in Theology and Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990); Richard Eslinger, Narrative and Imagination: Preaching the Worlds that Shape Us (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995); Robert Stephen Reid, “Postmodernism and the Function of the New Homiletic in Post-Christendom Congregations,” Homiletic 20:2 (1995) 1-13; Robert Reed, Jeffrey Bullock and David Fleer, “Preaching as the Creation of an Experience: The Not-So-Rational Revolution of the New Homiletic,” Journal of Communication and Religion 21.2, (1998) 1-9.
38See especially Reed, Bullock and Fleer, “Preaching as the Creation of an Experience” on this point.
39Emil Brunner, Truth as Encounter (2nd ed. Rev.; trans. by David Cairns & T.H.L. Parker, from Wahrheit als Begegnung; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964); H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1941).
40Eslinger, Narrative and Imagination 7.
41Thomas Long, “And How Shall They Hear? The Listener in Contemporary Preaching,” Listening to the Word: Studies in Honor of Fred B. Craddock (eds. G. R. O’Day and T. Long; Nashville: Abingdon, 1993) 167-188.
42Robert Reed, Jeffrey Bullock and David Fleer, “Preaching as the Creation of an Experience: The Not-So-Rational Revolution of the New Homiletic,” Journal of Communication and Religion 21.2, (1998) 1-9.
43Ibid. 7.
44The Sermon 28. It should not be inferred that discursive reasoning has absolutely no place in the New Homiletic, but rather that it is subordinated to narrative, symbol, metaphor and the like. The questions of truth and historicality in this schema are secondary to the experience evoked by the sermon which is grounded in a narrative and symbolist approach to preaching.
45Paul Scott Wilson, Review of A Captive Voice, Homiletic 19.2, (1994) 9-13.
46Ibid. 10.
47Ibid. 11.
48David Buttrick, The Mystery and the Passion: A Homiletic Reading of the Gospel Traditions (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).
49Wilson, The Practice of Preaching 137
50Allen, Contemporary Biblical Interpretation for Preaching (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1984) 65.
51Barbara Blaisdell Theology for Preaching, 47
52Joseph Webb, Preaching and the Challenge of Pluralism (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1998)
54Ibid. 101-102
55Ronald Allen Theology for Preaching, 66, 169
56Preaching and the Challenge of Pluralism, 103-110.
57Ibid. 108.
58Ron Allen, ed., Patterns of Preaching: A Sermon Sampler (St. Louis: Chalice, 1998) 247
59Ibid. 249-250.
60Eugene Lowry, The Sermon: Dancing the Edge of Mystery (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997) 47.
61Is There a Meaning this Text? 381.
62Edward Farley, “Toward a New Paradigm for Preaching,” Preaching as a Theological Task (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996) 174-175.
63Temple’s oft-quoted statement appears on page 322 of his Nature, Man and God (London: Macmillan, 1934).
64Adam, Speaking God’s Word 25.
65J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979) 97.
66Michael Duduit, “Expository Preaching in a Narrative World: An Interview with Haddon Robinson,” Preaching (July/August, 2001; Vol. 17.1), 4-13. Robinson’s Feature article in this same edition of Preaching is entitled “The Shapes Sermons Take” and is reprinted from the second edition of his Biblical Preaching. It is a much-needed reminder to homileticians of all stripes from one whom many would call the “dean” of evangelical homileticians that good expository preaching can be deductively, semi-inductively, or inductively arranged.
67Ibid. 4-5

Share This On: