Seeing the preacher as a witness is not a new idea. It has deep roots in the Bible, appearing in such passages as Acts 20:24, where Paul is reported to have said, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to witness to the gospel of the grace of God.”
The New Testament concept of witness grows out of Old Testament precedents. Consider the following passage from Isaiah 43:8-13:
Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
who are deaf, yet have ears!
Let all the nations gather together,
and let the peoples assemble.
Who among them can declare this,
and show us the former things?
Let them bring their witnesses to justify them,
and let them hear and say, It is true.
“You are my witnesses,” says the Lord,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am He.
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me.
I, I am the Lord,
and besides me there is no savior.
I declared and saved and proclaimed,
when there was no strange god among you;
and you are my witnesses,” says the Lord.
“I am God, and also henceforth I am He;
there is none who can deliver from my hand;
I work and who can hinder it?”
Commenting on this passage in an important essay, Paul Ricoeur identified four claims about the witness made by this test:1
1. The witness is not a volunteer, not just anyone who comes forward to give testimony, but only the one who is sent to testify.
2. The testimony of the witness is not about the global meaning of human experience but about God’s claim upon life. It is Yahweh who is witnessed to in the testimony.
3. The purpose of the testimony is proclamation to all peoples. It is on behalf of all people, for their belief and understanding, that the testimony is made.
4. The testimony is not merely one of words but rather demands a total engagement of speech and action. The whole life of the witness is bound up in the testimony.
One can quickly see the relationship between preaching and the idea of witness, and in this light it may seem curious that the witness image has not been more prominent in homiletical literature. There are reasons for this, however. To begin with, the terms “witnessing” and “giving a testimony” have often been associated with some of the more aggressive forms of evangelism. Homileticians have sniffed the odor of manipulation around these words and thus have stayed far away from them. As such, “witness” is a good word that has gotten into some trouble through no fault of its own.
More significantly, homileticians have not been greatly attracted to the witness image because it seems out of place. Witness is a legal term; a witness appears in the courtroom as part of a trial. An aura of law and judgment surrounds the witness idea, and this appears to be at odds with the grace and freedom associated with preaching the gospel.
It is important to keep in mind, though, that the image implies that the preacher is the one bearing witness, not the lawmaker, the police officer, or the judge, and in that light it is precisely the lawcourt origin of the witness metaphor that gives it power as an image for the preacher.
Consider what happens in a court trial. The trial is conducted in a public place because what happens is a public matter. A trial is designed to get at the truth, and the people have a vested interest in the truth.
In order to get at the truth, a witness is brought to the stand to testify. Now this witness is in every way one of the people, but he or she is placed on the stand because of two credentials: The witness has seen something, and the witness is willing to tell the truth about it — the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
In one sense, the personal characteristics of the witness do not matter. The court is interested in the truth and in justice, not in the witness per se. In another sense, however, the character of the witness is crucial. If the witness lies — bears false witness — the ability of the people to discover the truth will suffer a grievous blow.
“False testimony,” writes Ricoeur, “is a lie in the heart of the witness. This perverse intention is so fatal to the exercise of justice and to the entire order of discourse that all codes of morality place it very high in the scale of vices.”2
The court has access to the truth only through the witness. It seeks the truth, but it must look for it in the testimony of the witness. The very life of the witness, then, is bound up into the testimony. The witness cannot claim to be removed, objectively pointing to the evidence. What the witness believes to be true is a part of the evidence, and when the truth told by the witness is despised by the people, the witness may suffer, or even be killed, as a result of the testimony. It is no coincidence that the New Testament word for “witness” is martyr.
What happens to our understanding of preaching when this image of witness is taken as a guide?
1. The witness image emphasizes the authority of the preacher in a new way.
The preacher as witness is not authoritative because of rank or power but rather because of what the preacher has seen and heard. When the preacher prepares a sermon by wrestling with a biblical text, the preacher is not merely gathering information about that text. The preacher is listening for a voice, looking for a presence, hoping for the claim of God to be encountered through the text. Until this happens, there is nothing for the preacher to say. When it happens, the preacher becomes a witness to what has been seen and heard through the scripture, and the preacher’s authority grows out of this seeing and hearing.
Does this mean that the preacher is authoritative because the preacher has more Christian experience than the people in the pews? No, of course not. There may well be many in the congregation whose faith is richer, more mature, and more tested than the preacher’s. In addition, there will probably be people in the congregation who have more education or more common sense, who have a firmer grasp of human nature, or maybe even know more Bible and theology than does the preacher.
To call the preacher an authority does not mean that the preacher is wiser than others. What it does mean is that the preacher is the one whom the congregation sends on their behalf, week after week, to the scripture. The church knows that its life depends upon hearing the truth of God’s promise and claim through the scripture, and it has set the preacher apart for the crucial activity of going to the scripture to listen for that truth.
The authority of the preacher, then, is the authority of ordination, the authority of being identified by the faithful community as the one called to preach and the one who has been prayerfully set apart for this ministry, the authority that comes from being “sworn in” as a witness.
Accordingly, the church prepares and trains its ministers, including sending them to seminaries, not because ministers are better or smarter than other Christians, but because the church needs workers equipped to help the church to know the truth and to live in its light. If the preacher is to be the one sent to listen for God’s truth in the Bible, the preacher not only must be willing to listen to the Bible but also must know how to listen. If the preacher is to be sent on behalf of the congregation, the preacher must also know how to listen to them.
These activities require a right spirit, but they also require special preparation. Seminary training does not equip one to be a professor in the church but, rather, a trustworthy witness. An unreliable witness does not make the truth any less true, but the community’s quest to encounter the truth is undeniably damaged by false or unreliable witnesses.
2. The witness image embodies a way of approaching the Bible.
Witnesses testify to events, and the event to which the preacher testifies is the encounter between God and ourselves. This event is the same one proclaimed in Isaiah, “that you may know and believe me and understand that I am [God].” One of the essential ways that we come to “know” God is through the scripture, not because the Bible speculates about the nature of God in a metaphysical sense but because the Bible is itself the faithful witness to the interactions of God with the whole creation. We come to know God as the central “character” in the story, as a “Person” in relationship with human beings, as One who creates, judges, saves, loves, destroys, builds, forgives, and renews.
“The primary focus [of the Bible] is not on God’s being in itself,” claims Lindbeck, “for that is not what the text is about, but on how life is to be lived and reality construed in the light of God’s character as an agent as this is depicted in the stories of Israel and of Jesus.”3
We go to scripture, then, not to glean a set of facts about God or the faith that can then be announced whenever and wherever, but to encounter a Presence, to hear God’s voice speaking to us ever anew, calling us in the midst of the situations in which we find ourselves to be God’s faithful people.
The picture of the preacher sitting alone in the study, working with a biblical text in preparation for the sermon, is misleading. It is not the preacher who goes to the scripture; it is the church that goes to the scripture by means of the preacher. The preacher is a member of the community, set apart by them and sent to the scripture to search, to study, and to listen obediently on their behalf.
So, the preacher goes to the scripture, but not alone. The preacher goes on behalf of the faithful community and, in a sense, on behalf of the world. Their questions and needs are in the preacher’s mind and heart. The preacher explores the scripture, faithfully expecting to discover the truth of God’s claim there and always willing to be surprised by it.
Those who have sent the preacher have questions and concerns, and sometimes the text will speak directly to those questions. The text may, however, call those questions into question. The truth found there may resolve a problem, and then again it may deepen that problem. The truth found there may generate a religious experience, but it may also create the experience of God’s absence. Whatever needs of church and world have been brought to the text by the preacher, when the claims of God through the scripture are seen and heard, the preacher turns back toward those who wait — and tells the truth.
3. The witness image carries with it guidance about the rhetorical form of preaching. The witness is not called upon to testify in the abstract but to find just those words and patterns that can convey the event the witness has heard and seen. One can even say that the truth to which the witness testifies seeks its own verbal form, and the responsibility of the witness is invited to “tell your story”; thus the prominence given to narrative in the storytelling image is also implied in the image of witness. On other occasions, though, the truth will demand another form.
Preaching, in other words, will assume a variety of rhetorical styles, not as ornaments but as governed by the truth to which they correspond. The shape of the witness’s sermon should fit the character of the testimony.
4. The witness is not a neutral observer.
The truth is larger than the witness’s own experience of it, and the witness is always testifying to a gospel larger than the preacher’s personal faith, but the witness preacher has experienced it at some depth and is thereby involved in it. This is especially true of the New Testament concept of witness, in which witnessing takes on an acted as well as a verbal form.
The witness often testifies to hard truths, unpopular truths, and sometimes at great risk. As Paul Ricoeur has commented, “This profession [of a witness] implies a total engagement not only of words but of acts, and, in the extreme, in the sacrifice of a life.”4
The witness is also not a neutral observer in the sense that where one stands influences what one sees. The location of the witness, in other words, is critical, and the preacher as witness is one who stands in and with a particular community of faith, deeply involved in the concrete struggles of that community to find meaning, to seek justice, and to be faithful to the gospel.
If the community of faith to which the witness belongs and from which the witness comes is urban or rural, black or Asian, rich or poor, powerless or powerful, these circumstances firmly shape the character of the preacher. We have recognized, through the work of liberation and feminist theologians among others, that a “disinterested” reading of the gospel is neither possible nor desirable.
Effective preaching has an invested local flavor because the preacher as witness participates in the mission of a specific community of faith, goes to the scripture on behalf of that community, and hears a particular word for them on this day and in this place.
5. The witness image also underscores the ecclesiastical and liturgical setting of preaching.
Though it is not always apparent, the worship of the church is a dramatic enactment of a great and cosmic trial in which the justice of God is poised against all the powers that spoil creation and enslave human life. In this trial Christ is the one true and faithful witness. “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:27),
All human testimony is authentic only to the extent that it remains faithful to the witness of Christ. “You also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:27).
“It is only with the day of the Lord,” writes Richard Fenn, “that all accusation ends, and the trial is over.” He goes on: “It is for that reason on the Lord’s Day that the people of God celebrate a mock trial, in which the law is read, confession and testimony obtained, and the verdict once again given as it was once before all time.”5
“I give thanks to God always for you,” wrote Paul to the Corinthians, speaking of the relationship between witness and the life of the Christian community, “because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him with all speech and all knowledge — even as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you” (1 Corinthians 1:4-5).
Notes
1. Paul Ricoeur, “The Hermeneutics of Testimony,” in Essays on Biblical Interpretation, ed. Lewis S. Mudge (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), p. 131.
2. Ibid., pp. 128-129.
3. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theologian Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), p. 121.
4. Ricoeur, “The Hermeneutics of Testimony,” p. 121.
5. Richard K. Fenn, Liturgies and Trials (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982), p. 27.
Excerpt from “What Does It Mean to Preach?”, from The Witness of Preaching, by Thomas G. Long. (c) 1989 Thomas G. Long. Reprinted by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press.

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