I write those words not only to echo what others across the centuries more eloquently than I have affirmed, but as a play on words because there are certain preaching-related matters that matter immensely-matters that ought to be distinguished and duly appreciated. Three Pauline texts bring these matters to the fore. Before exploring these passages, we do well to account for the philosophical times in which the apostle wrote, as well as our own.
Paul lived in a premodern world. Prior to the 1600s, Western people particularly believed in “God” or some notion of the transcendent. What one believed about this “God” provided a basis for understanding the world and one’s place in it. Generally, premodern people believed in the objective existence of the physical world, the truthfulness of propositional statements that corresponded with the way things “really were,” and a thread of purpose that connected and directed all of history.1
During the modern age that followed, man no longer viewed God but self, science or some such thing as the basis for understanding the world and his place in it. Three hundred subsequent years of exploitation and oppression, ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union, eventually compelled a new generation to conclude that all bases for understanding the world were suspect-whether those bases be divine, human, scientific, psychological, economic, etc.
In this postmodern world, reality became suspect, truth became relative and life became pointless. People who today claim to know the truth and claim an exclusivity about the truthfulness of their truth are viewed as intolerant at best, delusional and dangerous at worst. Skeptics, cynics and sophists are very much at home in a postmodern world.
The skeptics who predated Paul by some 300 years claimed that no criterion for determining truth exists. One’s sensations perceive only the appearance of a thing without yielding an indubitable knowledge of the thing itself. Because our senses can deceive us into believing what is untrue, no one can say for sure what is true.
The cynics of the fifth century B.C. wished to live like dogs, that is, without fear of imposed social, religious and ethical standards. Indifference to worldly things and norms was the ideal. Contact with others was believed to lead inevitably to unhappiness. Rather than seek truth in others, cynics chose to rely on their own individual judgment.
Pre-Pauline sophists were professional disputers whose allegiance to and willingness to defend a given position could be bought. The majority appear to have been skeptics in matters of religion and ethics but pragmatic enough to keep their opinions to themselves. Persuasion by all means available was the name of their game.2
In sum, skeptics considered truth to be unknowable; cynics viewed the opinions of others as untrustworthy; and sophists respected above all else techniques and the prowess to persuade. Asked whether a thing such as preaching matters, skeptics would have disputed the validity of its message; cynics would have dismissed the authority of its messenger; and sophists would have dissected the efficacy of its methods.
Postmoderns who swim in these same philosophical currents continue to voice the same concerns. Paul’s comments on preaching therefore, particularly three passages in his letters to the Romans and Corinthians, are as pertinent and counter-cultural to the postmodern world as they were for segments of his premodern world.
The message preached matters.
Paul writes in
When the Christian faith is reduced to a set of propositions, those espousing that faith often become formulaic in their spirituality and practices. They lapse into a legalism that they readily spot and heartily condemn in first-century Pharisees but not as easily so in themselves.
The postmodern alternative that is increasingly popular within the emerging church is a suspicion, if not outright rejection, of propositional truth statements. God is a person, enshrouded in mystery and desirous of relationship, we are told. Relationships, central to the Christian faith, are dynamic. When one attempts to capture that faith in a formula, the mystery evaporates, God is reduced and the relationship loses life.
Despite the dangers inherent in the attempt to interpret Scripture, I remain in that party that believes trustworthy propositional statements of truth are
possible and necessary. I affirm that God has revealed Himself and His mind in this Book that He inspired. Central to this Book is the person and work of Jesus Christ. Central to His work is His cross. This Christocentric message, which is itself crucicentric, that is, cross-centered, matters immensely.
Paul encountered those in the first century who viewed this message as foolishness. The very people for whom it was immediately intended stumbled over its particulars. Nevertheless, Paul insisted that in this crucicentric-Christocentric message were the power and wisdom of God to save.
The Jewish and Greek worldviews, shaped by their respective cultures, influenced how the people holding those views heard, evaluated and eventually rejected the message preached. Similarly, the postmodern worldview calls the value of the preached message into question.
While it is true that one’s worldview influences his view of preaching, it is equally true that preaching can shape one’s worldview. New England Puritans were so convinced of the importance of preaching for the welfare of church and state that they restricted church membership and voting privileges to those individuals who received unequivocal assurances of salvation.3 Only those who sat regularly under the preaching of the Word and had shown evidence of ordering their lives by the same were deemed fit to lead in either church or state. The message preached shaped the individual’s worldview; and that worldview, it was believed, influenced the individual’s decisions.
The shadow of this conviction has reemerged twice in recent American political history during public debates over the presidential candidacies of John F. Kennedy and Mitt Romney. Americans questioned how Kennedy’s Catholicism and Romney’s Mormonism might affect their administrations.
The worldview-shaping influence of the preached Word takes time to exert itself. Missiologist James Engel’s “Scale of Spiritual Decision” suggests that spiritual growth occurs incrementally.4 It is exposure to the preached Word, to those who embrace it, and the internal work of the Holy Spirit based upon that Word that contribute to one’s growth from one stage of spirituality to the next.
If the salvific effects of preaching upon an individual or society are not immediately visible, it may be because the Word has not had enough time to
penetrate and saturate. Then again, there is always the possibility that the Word will never sink in to make any difference whatsoever. Hearers still have the freedom to reject it. Isaiah’s audience rejected his preaching. Ezekiel’s audience rejected his preaching. The majority of Jesus’ audience rejected His preaching. Their rejection, however, did not negate the truthfulness or value of what was preached. The preached message of Christ still matters for the
salvation of the soul and society.
The medium of preaching matters.
Paul writes in
On either historical side of Paul’s epistle to the Romans lived two of Rome’s greatest orators and rhetoricians-Cicero and Quintilian, who borrowed heavily from Aristotle who preceded them by 300 years. All three agreed upon the importance of a speaker’s ethos for effective persuasion.5
When Paul wrote his foregoing words to the Romans, he did so to a group of people who, for the most part, believed that the messenger, particularly the messenger’s character, mattered. Residual cynicism may have caused some to believe otherwise, but they were in the minority.
Ironically, the apostle spoke of the significance of the preacher in a letter he wrote. As important as his letters were to the churches of his day, Paul was not content to remain at Tarsus and pen his messages to fields abroad. He longed for face-to-face meetings with his audiences (
One might assume that in the present carefully coiffed, camera-ready age, people would view every messenger suspiciously and be less inclined to be swayed by him. Consider as a case in point that field of candidates who were recently vying for election to our nation’s “bully pulpit.” They employed staffs of people to assist in their persuasive efforts. We know this, and one would think that such knowledge would cause us to look beyond their carefully scripted and rehearsed speeches before casting our votes. CBS News correspondent and political analyst Jeff Greenfield would have us to think again. He recently asked, “Today, in a time of Webcasts and podcasts, when the media assault us with billions of bits and bytes, could it be that this oldest of political weapons-the spoken word-is still the most powerful? [He then answers his own question.] Yes.”6
Wisconsin professor Stephen Lucas noted that people thought radio would kill the effectiveness of the presidential speech, but it did not. Next, people thought television would kill oratory, but it also failed. Today, experts question whether the Internet will do the job. Lucas proceeded to suggest that none of these media either have or will destroy the place of political oratory because “there is no substitute for face-to-face communication between a speaker and audience.”7
Phillips Brooks in his 1877 Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale University famously defined preaching as “truth through personality.”8 One hundred years later, Haddon Robinson defined expository preaching in his seminal work Biblical Preaching as the “communication of a biblical concept…, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to his hearers.”9 In both definitions, one of preaching generally and the other of a particular kind of preaching, the message is paramount and the messenger essential.
The methods of preaching matter.
Returning to Paul’s first Corinthian letter, we read from
Luke’s synopses of Paul’s sermons in Acts provide ample evidence that the apostle altered his homiletic when speaking to different types of audiences. His sermon on Mars Hill (
The subsequent history of preaching shows remarkable diversity and adaptation in methodology corresponding to contemporary cultural currents. During the 20th century alone, preaching underwent multiple adaptations, responding to the late 19th-century eschatological and biblical conference movements, the popularity of early 20th-century revivalists like Billy Sunday, the mid-century advent of the therapeutic revolution, and a resurgent late-century politically motivated fundamentalism. The changes have continued to come at an increasingly staggering rate. Within as little as 20 years, preaching methods are developed, refined, disseminated to the point of ubiquity, then jettisoned for the next suggested method.
The sophists of Paul’s day were renowned for their practical handbooks on effective speech. Critics might claim that the only difference between those men and today’s homileticians is the advent of moveable type.
I am not such a critic. I believe that flexibility, adaptability and a cultivated sensitivity to what connects with a contemporary audience are biblical and right.
If Paul’s letters in any way reflect his homiletic, they demonstrate that he respected the techniques for communication common to his day. His epistle to Philemon, for example, bears the marks of a judicial speech. In it he does more than appeal to Philemon’s sense of honor and desire for advantage. He advances a rhetorical argument.10
In conclusion, I believe that preaching still matters, particularly as to its message, medium and methods, despite its postmodern detractors. I know that Paul thought preaching mattered in his day despite the skeptics, cynics and sophists who dotted his premodern audiences.
William Pitt was Great Britain’s youngest prime minister; he enjoyed a lifelong friendship with famed abolitionist William Wilberforce. When young Wilberforce was torn over whether to serve the Lord as a minister or to continue with his political career, Pitt, as depicted in the movie Amazing Grace, asked, “Do you intend to use your beautiful voice to praise the Lord or change the world?”11 What Pitt failed then to see-as so many of preaching’s critics today fail to see-is that preaching can do both. It must do both.
1. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, second edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 160-161.
2. See, Michael H. Briggs, Handbook of Philosophy (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959); Paul Oliver, 101 Key Ideas: Philosophy (Chicag McGraw-Hill, 2000); and Dagobert D. Runes, Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: Bonanza Books, 1960).
3. John C. Miller, The First Frontier: Life in Colonial America (New York: Dell, 1966), 54.
4. James F. Engel, What’s Gone Wrong with the Harvest? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975).
5. Andre Resner, Preacher and Cross: Person and Message in Theology and Rhetoric (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 17-37.
6. Jeff Greenfield, interviewer, “CBS News Sunday Morning,” Jan. 20, 2008.
8. Phillips Brooks, The Joy of Preaching (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), 25.
9. Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 20.
10. F. Forrester Church, “Rhetorical Structure and Design in Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” Harvard Theological Review 71 (1978), 25.
11. Michael Apted, director, Amazing Grace (motion picture, 2006).