A wee note on Calvin’s (wordy) sermons

Lest we hastily accuse Calvin of extraneous verbiage, we would do well to recall the distance between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries. In her extraordinary collection of essays The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, Marilynne Robinson notes that ‘Cauvin and his supporters seem to have been intent on consolidating a revolution, one in which religion was as central to the imagination of the project as political liberty would be in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and economics and nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth. Traditionally European societies instructed their members in approved beliefs through rituals, processions, feasts, fasts, pilgrimages, and iconography. Geneva replaced all that with hour upon hour of sermons and lectures, and a system of education that was compulsory for all children and free for the poor … If all these lectures and sermons seem a poor exchange for pageants and altarpieces, it is well to remember the Renaissance passion for books, and for the languages and literatures of antiquity, first of all the Bible. Cauvin’s virtuosic scholarship could be thought of as monumental public art, by analogy with the work of contemporaries like Michelangelo’ (pp. 199–200). And Bernard Cottret, in Calvin: A Biography, recalls that ‘Calvin was never so much a man in his time and of his time as in his sermons’ (p. 289).

This spoken proclamation – which was, in Calvin’s mind, the prime purpose of his preaching – was then transposed into written form as a result of the ‘company of strangers’ who, from 29 September 1549, arranged for Calvin’s sermons to be recorded in shorthand by Denis Raguenier, then transcribed, printed and published. A basic list of Calvin’s sermons is available in Appendix 7 of Cottret’s volume (pp. 354–5). Between 1549 and 1564, Calvin preached verse-by-verse through Psalms, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Micah, Zephaniah, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Daniel, Ezekiel, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Job, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Galatians, Ephesians, Harmony of the Gospels (during his last five years), Acts, Genesis, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 Kings. Some ignorant librarians sold many of the volumes for the weight of the paper. A search of the lost sermons means that we now possess about 1500 of them. Cottret recalls that the Opera Calvini includes 872 sermons, while a further 680 are in the process of being published elsewhere, particularly in the Supplementa Calviniana. The manuscripts are held in the Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire in Geneva, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and Lambeth Palace in London. (See Cottret, Calvin, 289n5).

Those wishing to read more on Calvin’s preaching might consult the following:

By the way, those interested in Calvin’s view of Scripture might check out:

On the ‘expository sermon’

On Monday, I posted from Dietrich Ritschl’s book A Theology of Proclamation, a volume that I recently had reason to return to again. One of the things that I love about this book is the way that Ritschl understands the Word as the dynamic God in the free act of gracious self-unveiling through human speech and deed. God’s Word, through Jesus’ presence in the Spirit, becomes entangled with our word which, by grace, is ‘of no less authority than [God’s] own Word’ (pp. 67-8). He cites 1 Thessalonians 2.13 [‘We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers’] in support of this claim, and then proceeds to note the cruciality of the claim regarding Jesus’ presence in the Spirit:

‘This is not just a “theological formula”. If we left it out, we would have a Word of God that is separated from God; we would make God the prisoner of our thoughts or theologies. We would have a Word with which we could operate, a Word we could “use”, a Word we could judge. But it could not be the Word of God, the Word which operates with us, uses us, and judges us. Our work in the Church, therefore, can only be a service to this one life-giving Word of God. The clearest expression of this truth is the fact that there is no other way to preach than to preach an “expository sermon”, and even this is not a guarantee’.

Some encouragement for preachers: Dietrich Ritschl on the sermon

‘The Word of the sermon is indeed a new Word and not a repetition of last Sunday’s sermon, but this does not mean that each sermon devaluates or extinguishes the previous sermons. If this were so, the New Testament could never speak about a “Church” and Paul could never refer to the message he had brought before … This is true because Jesus Christ’s presence among His people does not consist of appearances discontinuous in time, i.e., which occur …

‘The presence of Christ in the sermon is nothing less than the presence of the eternal Father who speaks in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit His very own Word of judgment and consolation, life and light; but it happens according to the secret of the ubi et quando visum est deo, the free decision of God to reveal Himself wherever and whenever He decides. The identification between God’s Word and the word of the human witness is under no circumstances the work of man, but always the free work of God’.

– Dietrich Ritschl, A Theology of Proclamation (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1960), 72, 73, 77.

Heiko Oberman on Reformed preaching


‘The sermon does not have to try desperately to be actual because it has the highest possible actuality … The sermon is … apocalyptic in the sense that, far from merely referring to the final evaluation of our records, it reveals to us now in time and space the final will of God for the individual Christian: it is God’s last word, to which no syllable will be added. For this reason the Reformation could preach the certitudo salutis, the certainty of salvation, because he who will judge us is the same who fulfilled the law. In the words of Calvin: ‘When a Christian looks into himself he finds cause to be afraid or even to despair … [But] he will win a sure hope of eternal perseverance when he considers that he belongs to Him who cannot fall or fail’. It gives pause to realize that this message which proved to lend the Reformation movement its reconciling and liberating power has virtually disappeared from the Protestant pulpit’. – Heiko A. Oberman, ‘Preaching and the Word in the Reformation’, Theology Today 18, no. 1 (1961), 19.

Preaching Luke 16.19–31

Thinking ahead to this Sunday’s lectionary readings, those preparing sermons on Luke 16.19–31 (not an easy text to tackle, or to be tackled by) may find some help in the following places:

On resisting the chaotic non-conformity of private, virtuoso theologies

‘Throughout the history of the Reformed tradition, the central place both for the ongoing hermeneutic process urged in the confessions, and for the general influence of the confessions in the Church, has been the pastoral office through preaching, teaching, oversight, and leadership. Correspondingly, it is chiefly the minister of the word, among the other ordained ministries, who is held accountable in the constitutional questions for following the leading and guidance of the confessions of faith. Appropriately, theological education was in the past structured by the theology of the confessions. Rather strongly, thus, I wish to remind those of us that find our calling in theological education that it is scandalous for a faculty member in any discipline in the church’s seminaries not to be able to locate his or her work and thought and teaching matter with relation to the confessional teachings. We do not want again the old teaching oath, or any teaching oath at all, and the inevitably stifling conformity it promotes. But neither do we want the On resistsing that leave the relation of thought to life in the empirical church to the improvisation of individual ministers. Further, theological education carried out in programs of continuing education or presbytery projects of many types, should be oriented by a reasonable awareness of what the Church teaches in its confessional and creedal literature.

More broadly, it is the educational ministry of the Church on all levels that should bear the chief responsibility for a confessionally rooted hermeneutic, worship, and mission. The idiom of the tradition, whether in words or ethic, needs to be exercised in spiritual, biblical, theological, and ethical education.

It would be well, we often think, if one might be just a Christian, and not a Presbyterian, Catholic, or Methodist. But so, it might seem, is the case with language. What if we could avoid German or English and just speak language? But it doesn’t work. Esperanto is a wonderful idea, but like Basic English a few years back, it is bereft of the richness of meaning and naturalness of a true language. So a theological Esperanto, or ecumenical Esperanto—for the time being at least—leaves us far from the concrete reality in which we live and speak. The idiom of the Reformed tradition, when fully understood, is the ground and motive both for ecumenical awareness and progress, and for other kinds of reform and advance. Not abandonment, but reform, as new light breaks forth from Scripture and illuminates new situations in our culture and environment and in the world Church, is the promising idiom of our tradition’. – Edward A. Dowey Jr., ‘Confessional Documents as Reformed Hermeneutic’, Journal of Presbyterian History 79, no. 1 (2001), 58.

Preaching on God’s justice as free grace

‘Preaching on justice means speaking about God in the indicative. Faced with the demand which God’s commandment places on us, our task is to deliver “the message of the free grace of God to all people” (Barmen VI). Because, in the Bible, justice is first and foremost a summarized rephrasing of God’s own good works. The Psalms declare: “How wonderful are the things the Lord does … his righteousness endures forever” (Ps 111:2f.). Hence, “the heavens proclaim his righteousness” (Ps 97:6) “and from one generation to the next … shall sing aloud of [his] righteousness” (Ps 145:7).

God’s justice (i.e., righteousness) – that is, his active caring for his creation – is his attentive accompaniment of his people; that is, his saving deeds and his good guidance. Justice – that is, his constant listening to the cries of the suffering – is his strong arm that liberates the captives; and in all this is God’s passionate love for his people, which can rage terribly about their wickedness and stupidity, but which can do nothing else except be “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 103:8). Where the justitia is blind, indeed inevitably must be blind to avoid being dazzled by the specific case at hand, it is said of the God of Israel: he watches, he listens and he yields – he applies the freedom of his love by doing justice to each of his creatures in a way that is conducive to his or her life in his or her particular situation. Justice: that is the way of our God through the time and space of his creation, the way on which he keeps his covenant and faithfulness to Israel unto eternity, and through Israel to the whole world, and never abandons the work of his hands. And hence: In the path of righteousness there is life (Prov 12:28a).

Also in the [Accra Confession], this prae of God’s justice takes precedence before all human endeavour. That is why the statements of faith always start with confessions of belief in God before going on to the rejections of economic injustice and ecological destruction.

In this context, I believe it is important to explicitly praise the confessional character of the Accra Declaration. For, in a very specific way, it corresponds to the fact that for us Christians standing up for justice is not a matter of political belief, but the response to God’s own words and deeds, through which we live and to which we, in faith, bear witness.

In order to make this clear, the sermon will, however, have to make the praise for God’s justice resound more clearly and comprehensively than the Accra Confession did or was able to do. I draw attention again to what was said at the beginning regarding the distinction between confession and sermon. Whereas the Accra Confession recalls God’s action in rather dry theological sentences, the sermon, guided by Bible stories, tells of the salvation work of God in such a way that it becomes clear: what happened at that time is also true today; the (hi)story of God with his people also embraces my world and my (hi)story. God is able to change my world and my life, and he will do so!

Hence, the sermon should avoid speaking “gesetzlich” (which means mixing gospel and the law) about the gospel (Manfred Josuttis). This always happens when the impression is given that human deeds could/should take the place of God’s action, as in: “Easter occurs when we rise up against death…” This kind of sermon does not offer much comfort, for it leaves those hearing it on their own, when they would in actual fact be in urgent need of God’s healing action …

After Accra, our basic task in preaching, and simultaneously our unmistakable Christian contribution is to keep making new attempts to tell about the justice of God and to offer it to our listeners as free grace so that despite all their fears and hardship they will become aware of their wealth; despite all their weaknesses they will become aware of their God-given power (cf. 2 Cor 6:3ff.; 12:9) and so become willing and able to stand up to injustice’.

– Peter Bukowski, ‘Preaching on Justice: The Question of the Homiletic Implementation of the Accra Confession’, Reformed World 55, no. 3 (2005), 236–7, 238.

Thinking with Calvin about the relationship between pulpit, font and table

I’ve just finished giving some lectures on Calvin, part of which consisted of some reflections on Calvin’s understanding of the relationship between pulpit, font and table. I recalled how when Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541, he sought to make the Lord’s Supper the defining centre of community life. His Catechism of the Church of Geneva, penned in 1545 (the year before Luther died), outlines Calvin’s notion that the institution of the signs of water, bread and wine was fashioned by God’s desire to communicate to us, and that God does this by ‘making himself ours’. The signs testify to divine accommodation, to God ‘teaching us in a more familiar manner that he is not only food to our souls, but drink also, so that we are not to seek any part of spiritual life anywhere else than in him alone’. But the signs are not only God’s. They are also human actions, faith’s testimony to the Church’s cruciform identity in the world, to its belonging, its ontology. Moreover, font and table remain places of privilege where believers expect to see, taste, hear and touch the Word’s carnality in ways not expected elsewhere. The drama performed around font and table constitutes the activity of the Church which, together with its pulpit, ‘proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes’. The sacraments ‘derive their virtue from the word when it is preached intelligently’. In his Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, written while in Strasbourg but with an eye on Geneva (where it was printed), Calvin further expanded themes introduced in his Strasbourg liturgy, notably a more christologically-determined epistemology and doctrine of assurance, and the claim that the ‘substance of the sacraments is the Lord Jesus’ himself:

Jesus Christ is the only food by which our souls are nourished; but as it is distributed to us by the word of the Lord, which he has appointed an instrument for that purpose, that word is also called bread and water. Now what is said of the word applies as well to the sacrament of the Supper, by means of which the Lord leads us to communion with Jesus Christ. For seeing we are so weak that we cannot receive him with true heartfelt trust, when he is presented to us by simple doctrine and preaching, the Father of mercy, disdaining not to condescend in this matter to our infirmity, has been pleased to add to his word a visible sign, by which he might represent the substance of his promises, to confirm and fortify us by delivering us from all doubt and uncertainty.

Calvin contended that ‘the singular consolation which we derive from the Supper’ is that it ‘directs and leads us’ to Christ, attesting to the truth that ‘having been made partakers of the death and passion of Jesus Christ, we have everything that is useful and salutary to us’. So in the 1536 edition of the Institutes, Calvin defines sacrament as ‘an outward sign’ which testifies to God’s grace, and which ‘never lacks a preceding promise but is rather joined to it by way of appendix, to confirm and seal the promise itself, and to make it as it were more evident to us’.

Calvin begins his Summary of Doctrine concerning the Ministry of the Word and the Sacraments with the statement that ‘The end of the whole Gospel ministry is that God, the fountain of all felicity, communicate Christ to us who are disunited by sin and hence ruined, that we may from him enjoy eternal life’. And Calvin proceeds to outline that this communication of Christ – which is both ‘incomprehensible to human reason’ and ‘effected by the Holy Spirit’ – is made possible because of God’s desire to ‘communicate himself to us’ through the same Spirit, and involves us being joined to Christ our Head, ‘not in an imaginary way, but most powerfully and truly, so that we become flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone’. This union is effected by the Spirit who, in Calvin’s words, ‘uses a double instrument, the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments’. Moreover, Calvin imagines that the union of believers with Christ involves ‘two ministers, who have distinct offices’. There is (i) the ‘external minister’ who ‘administers the vocal word’ which is ‘received by the ears’ and ‘the sacred signs which are external, earthly and fallible’, and (ii) there is the ‘internal minister’, the Holy Spirit who ‘freely works internally’ to truly communicate ‘the thing proclaimed through the Word, that is Christ’.

Implicit here is the weight which Calvin places on the event of the Supper as a whole, and not just on the sacramental hosts. So Trevor Hart:

It is the ‘ceremony’ as such which constitutes the wider ‘sign’ within which the particular signifying power of bread and wine is located. And the ceremony is, of course, a synthesis in which objects, actions and words are juxtaposed and related to one another. So, while Calvin insists that the material signs are vital, he also refuses to detach their meaning from the accompanying immaterial symbolics of narrative. The bread and wine are ‘seals’ and ‘confirmations’ of a promise already given, and make sense only when faith apprehends them as such. There must therefore always be some preaching or form of words which interprets the ‘bare signs’ and enables us to make sense of them, and the ‘faith’ which apprehends them, while not mere intellectual assent, has nonetheless a vital cognitive dimension (Inst. IV.xvii.39) … This does not, it should be noted, reduce the elements to dispensable visual aids, as if the essential meaning of the Supper could be conveyed equally well in their absence. Calvin’s choice of similes is helpful here. Certain sorts of images (in our day we might cite photographic as well as painted images) may well require some verbal context before we can make appropriate sense of them, yet when viewed in this context they undoubtedly possess a power or force of their own which transcends the limits of meaning to which words alone may take us.

Clearly, for Calvin, the sacraments are essentially another form of the word. They are, after Augustine, the verbum visibile (‘a visible word’), ‘God’s promises as painted in a picture’ and set before our sight. They confer neither more nor less than the Word, and they have the same function as the Word preached and written: to offer and present Christ to us. They are, just as preaching is, the ‘vehicle of Christ’s self-communication … the signs are nothing less than pledges of the real presence [of Christ]; indeed, they are the media through which Christ effects his presence to his people’. And they constitute – no less than preaching – the Church’s ministry of the Word.

The separation of pulpit, font and table, and the prioritising of ‘words’ over the proclamation activities of baptism and eucharist, betray a failure to understand how these three particular activities might inform – and be informed by – theories of semiotics, ritual, dramaturgy and the sociology of knowledge. It is also, and more urgently, a failure to understand the nature and witness of Word in the Church’s ‘two marks’, and of the way the Spirit functions to create faith is us and to make us ‘living members of Christ’. And this has, consequently, sponsored both disproportion between word and sacrament, and a tendency towards binitarianism, both to the detriment of Reformed worship and ecclesiology. Certainly, preaching and the proclamation activities of font and table constitute two parts of the one action. A ‘low’ view of one results in a ‘low’ view of the other. As Joseph Small has noted: ‘If word and sacraments together are the heart of the church’s true and faithful life, neglect of one leads inexorably to deformation of the other, for when either word or sacrament exists alone it soon becomes a parody of itself … Reformed neglect of the sacraments has led to a church of the word alone, a church always in danger of degenerating into a church of mere words’. Why a community claiming to be concerned with the proclamation of God’s good news would neglect to taste the Word in the Supper each time it gathers to hear the Word expounded in human speech truly is an oddity.

While Calvin argued that ‘it would be well to require that the Communion of the Holy Supper of Jesus Christ be held every Sunday at least as a rule’, forlornly, many Reformed churches have propagated a situation wherein the pulpit and its associated wordiness have eclipsed the sacraments, sponsoring an arid intellectualism which has turned the worshipping community into ‘a class of glum schoolchildren’. It is not uncommon to witness Baptism’s reduction to little more than a welcoming ceremony, for the Supper to be celebrated infrequently, and even for fonts and tables to be discarded in favour of a pulpit which stands unbefriended in the centre of the chancel. In more appalling cases, the pulpit has joined font and table as relics on the sidelines, casualties of modernity’s techno gods.

Calvin, conversely, placed sacrament and word together at the heart of the community’s life not because he was a dreary traditionalist or obstructionist but because he ‘regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace’. In other words, pulpit, font, scripture and table function alike as witness to the Word who is the life of the world: (i) proclaiming in bold relief the gospel of Christ in whom we have true knowledge of God, and (ii) communicating Christ’s real presence to us, uniting us to Christ in the power of the Spirit ‘who makes us partakers in Christ’. So Calvin: ‘I say that Christ is the matter or (if you prefer) the substance of all the sacraments; for in him they have all their firmness, and they do not promise anything apart from him’.

I could have gone on (and on, and on) about Calvin, and to recall words from others too who further echo Calvin’s heart on these matters, but even lectures on Calvin must come to an end. Anyway, had I gone on, I may have invited reflection on these two passages:

‘[We understand] the sacraments as pieces of earthly stuff that are meeting places with this [triune] God who exists in ecstatic movements of love. They are doors into the dance of perichoresis in God. [They are a means] of God’s gracious coming and dwelling with us. They are signs which enable us to participate in the drama of death and resurrection which is happening in the heart of God. We share in death as we share in the broken body of the bread and the extravagantly poured out wine, and as we are covered with a threat of hostile waters. We share in life as we come out from under the waters … to take our place in the new community of the body of Christ, and to be filled with the new wine of the Spirit. – Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2000), 281.

‘Both sacraments [Baptism and the Lord’s Supper] declare the gospel of participation in the perfect worship of the Son, who has accomplished what we could not accomplish. When we receive the bread and wine at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we echo the cry of Jesus on the cross: ‘It is finished!’ Christ has done what I could never do … But we do more than engage in a memorial service! The word anamnesis, which translates into remembrance, has rich meaning…[conveying] a sense of re-living the past as if it were real today … Not only do we participate in shared and thankful remembrance of Christ’s perfect self-offering on our behalf, but we also participate in Christ’s continuing self-offering of himself on our behalf. We do not remember just the Christ of history – we remember the living Christ today, and the Christ who carries us into the future … The sacrament powerfully draws past, present, and future together in the life of the faith-community’. – Graham Buxton, Dancing in the Dark: The Privilege of Participating in the Ministry of Christ (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001), 137–8.

A Script to Live (and to Die) By: 19 Theses by Walter Brueggemann

These 19 theses by Walter Brueggemann are the most interesting thing I’ve read all day [to be sure, it’s been a bit of an admin marathon today], an encouraging invitation to those of us striving to live by, and to train others to live by, what Brueggemann calls ‘the alternative script’:

1.        Everybody lives by a script. The script may be implicit or explicit. It may be recognised or unrecognised, but everybody has a script.

2.        We get scripted. All of us get scripted through the process of nurture and formation and socialisation, and it happens to us without our knowing it.

3.         The dominant scripting in our society is a script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socialises us all, liberal and conservative.

4.        That script (technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism) enacted through advertising and propaganda and ideology, especially on the liturgies of television, promises to make us safe and to make us happy.

5.        That script has failed. That script of military consumerism cannot make us safe and it cannot make us happy. We may be the unhappiest society in the world.

6.        Health for our society depends upon disengagement from and relinquishment of that script of military consumerism. This is a disengagement and relinquishment that we mostly resist and about which we are profoundly ambiguous.

7.        It is the task of ministry to de-script that script among us. That is, to enable persons to relinquish a world that no longer exists and indeed never did exist.

8.        The task of descripting, relinquishment and disengagement is accomplished by a steady, patient, intentional articulation of an alternative script that we say can make us happy and make us safe.

9.        The alternative script is rooted in the Bible and is enacted through the tradition of the Church. It is an offer of a counter-narrative, counter to the script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism.

10.    That alternative script has as its most distinctive feature – its key character – the God of the Bible whom we name as Father, Son, and Spirit.

11.    That script is not monolithic, one dimensional or seamless. It is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent. Partly it is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because it has been crafted over time by many committees. But it is also ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because the key character is illusive and irascible in freedom and in sovereignty and in hiddenness, and, I’m embarrassed to say, in violence – [a] huge problem for us.

12.    The ragged, disjunctive, and incoherent quality of the counter-script to which we testify cannot be smoothed or made seamless because when we do that the script gets flattened and domesticated and it becomes a weak echo of the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism. Whereas the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism is all about certitude, privilege, and entitlement this counter-script is not about certitude, privilege, and entitlement. Thus care must be taken to let this script be what it is, which entails letting God be God’s irascible self.

13.    The ragged, disjunctive character of the counter-script to which we testify invites its adherents to quarrel among themselves – liberals and conservatives – in ways that detract from the main claims of the script and so to debilitate the focus of the script.

14.    The entry point into the counter-script is baptism. Whereby we say in the old liturgies, “do you renounce the dominant script?

15.    The nurture, formation, and socialisation into the counter-script with this illusive, irascible character is the work of ministry. We do that work of nurture, formation, and socialisation by the practices of preaching, liturgy, education, social action, spirituality, and neighbouring of all kinds.

16.    Most of us are ambiguous about the script; those with whom we minister and I dare say, those of us who minister. Most of us are not at the deepest places wanting to choose between the dominant script and the counter-script. Most of us in the deep places are vacillating and mumbling in ambivalence.

17.    This ambivalence between scripts is precisely the primary venue for the Spirit, so that ministry is to name and enhance the ambivalence that liberals and conservatives have in common that puts people in crisis and consequently that invokes resistance and hostility.

18.    Ministry is to manage that ambivalence that is crucially present among liberals and conservatives in generative faithful ways in order to permit relinquishment of [the] old script and embrace of the new script.

19.    The work of ministry is crucial and pivotal and indispensable in our society precisely because there is no one except the church and the synagogue to name and evoke the ambivalence and to manage a way through it. I think often I see the mundane day-to-day stuff ministers have to do and I think, my God, what would happen if you took all the ministers out. The role of ministry then is as urgent as it is wondrous and difficult.

[These theses were presented at the Emergent Theological Conversation, September 13-15, 2004, All Souls Fellowship, Decatur, GA., USA]

‘The proclamation of the word … has no functional equivalents in secular culture’

‘Most ministers were “set apart for the gospel”, as Paul says of himself … The preacher’s vocation was once a kind of circle that began and ended in the word. Whatever it was that made you a minister was aimed at its eventual public expression. The minister’s whole existence was concentrated to a point of declaration. Today, however, the circle has been broken.

Our culture devalues proclamation while elevating other associated forms of ministry such as counseling or community work …

But the proclamation of the word cannot be professionalized. It has no functional equivalents in secular culture. It cannot be camouflaged among socially useful or acceptable activities. Its passions are utterly nontransferable. The kerygmatic pitch, as Abraham Heschel said of the prophet’s voice, is usually about an octave too high for the rest of society. If you are filling out a job application, see how far it gets you to put under related skills: “I can preach”.

When ministers allow the word of God to be marginalized, they continue to speak, of course, and make generally helpful comments on a variety of issues, but they do so from no center of authority and with no heart of passion. We do our best to meet people’s needs, but without the divine word we can never know enough or be enough, because consumer need is infinite. We are simply there as members of a helping profession. We annex to our ministry the latest thinking in the social sciences and preface our proclamations with phrases like ‘modern psychology tells us,’ forgetting that the word ‘modern’ in such contexts usually indicates that what follows will be approximately one-hundred years out of date. What we lack in specialized knowledge we can only offset in time by making ourselves compulsively available to anyone in need.

I am convinced that no seminarian or candidate sets out to minister with such reduced expectations, and not everyone succumbs to this scenario, but ultimately the marginalization of the word of God fractions it into a hundred lesser duties’.

Richard Lischer, The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence (The Lyman Beecher Lectures in Preaching). (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), 22-24.

[H/T: Kim Fabricius]

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part III, On Homiletical Gridlock

‘Like most preachers, I grossly overestimated the importance of my part in the sermon. When I thought of preaching, I did not consider it to be a congregation’s reception of the word of God, but a speaker’s command of the Bible’s hidden meanings and applications, which were served up in a way to showcase the authority and skill of the preacher. In those days the gospel lived or died by my personal performance. My preaching was a small cloud of glory that followed me around and hung like a canopy over the pulpit whenever I occupied it. How ludicrous I must have appeared to my congregation.

In my first sermon I explained the meaning of an epiphany, not the Epiphany of God in the person of Jesus – no, that would have been too obvious – but the category of epiphanies in general. To this end, I drew at length on the depressing short stories of James Joyce in Dubliners. “Each of these stories has one thing in common,” I said. “In each the central character comes to a deeper and more disturbing understanding of himself. Nothing really happens in these stories except that in the midst of the daily routine a character is unexpectedly exposed to the predicaments of estrangement in his own life. One man realizes that his wife has never loved him. Another recognizes that he is trapped in his vocation. Another finds himself to be a hopeless failure. The human condition is full of such epiphanies …”

Before I could talk about Jesus, I apparently found it necessary to give my farmers a crash course in the angst-ridden plight of modern man. With the help of clichés from Joyce, Heidegger, Camus, and even Walker Percy, I first converted them to existential ennui so that later in the sermon I could rescue them with carefully crafted assurances of “meaning” in a meaningless world. Along the way I defiantly refuted Marx’s view of religion as an opiate that permits us to escape the hard realities of existence. It didn’t concern me that the problem of meaninglessness had not occurred to my audience or that Marx’s critique of religion rarely came up for discussion at the post office.

It’s not that I minimize the importance of the major themes of modernity. No doubt my parishioners would have understood themselves better had they opened their eyes to the intellectual context of their lives. But they did not and could not. The giants of modern thought – Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre – and the movements they unleashed, would never touch New Cana. My parishioners lived in a prison whose view was limited to the natural world and the most obvious technologies of the twentieth century. Aside from formulaic complaints about Communists, perverts, and radicals, they did not engage the modern world.

But then I did not bother to engage their world either. It did not occur to me that I needed a new education. I treated the rural life as an eccentric experience in ministry. I was a spectator once again, as I had been in college, watching a slide show of interesting scenes and odd characters. And since I was the viewer and they were the viewees, I was in control. When I preached, I always stood above my parishioners and looked down upon them.

Consequently, my sermons carried too many prerequisites to be effective. About 90 percent of my listeners had not graduated from high school; the majority of that group had not attended high school. There was no one with a four-year college degree in the church with the exception of a regular visitor named Darryl Sheets, our Lone Intellectual, who was principal of the high school in nearby Cherry Grove. Darryl regularly cornered me in long and fruitless conversations on the possible meanings of the Hebrew word for “young woman” in Isaiah 9:14 and how they all pointed to “Virgin.” But the truth is, Darryl and his wife Marvel didn’t drive all the way to Cana because of my expertise in Hebrew or the intellectual content of my sermons. Darryl was a tongue-speaking, fire-anointed charismatic who for some reason suspected that I might be one, too. It didn’t take him long to figure out he was wrong, and then we saw quite a bit less of Darryl and Marvel.

My audience paid a heavy price for the gospel. The farmers had to swallow my sixties-style cocktail of existentialism and psychology before I served them anything remotely recognizable. I implicitly required them to view their world and its problems through my eyes. All I asked of them was that they pretend to be me.

The only person who appreciated my sermons was my wife, who, like me, lived from books. Tracy was completing her course work for a Ph.D. in English and, therefore, considered poetry and literary allusions to be the most natural of all forms of communication. What’s a sermon without, “Perhaps Milton said it best when he wrote …” But among the rest of the congregation my preaching produced a standoff of sensibilities: If the idea for a sermon did not come from a book, I was not interested in pursuing it. If it did not emerge from life, my parishioners were not interested in hearing about it. In a few short months we had achieved homiletical gridlock’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, pp. 73–5.

I tidied up the kitchenette, I tuned the old banjo …

(Essential) books for preaching

preachAnna Carter Florence, over at The Christian Century, recently listed her 7 essential books for preaching. Her suggestions?

I think it’s a great list and, in addition to that growing list of ‘essential’ reading for the minister, and to some books on preaching I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I would want to suggest some further nominees:

I have here, on the main, deliberately chosen to not list books that attend primarily to issues of homiletical method (there are a plethora of excellent studies available on this) but rather to draw attention to those in which the evangelical content of preaching is the main concern. This decision was made because it is here at this point that the church faces its greatest crisis. We have loads of ‘excellent speakers’ and ‘gifted communicators’ who have absolutely nothing to say that’s worth hearing, let alone the Word of God. Recently, Ben Myers’ excellent review, titled Dietrich Bonhoeffer in New York, bore witness to this crisis. Reading my American Patriot’s Bible or my New Spirit-Filled Life Bible or my Green Bible (as opposed to my Green Chile Bible) will never be quite the same again.

Apologies (LOL) for another lengthy list, but Per Crucem ad Lucem is, after all, ‘a theology site on steroids’. Thanks Rick.

Dietrich Ritschl on sermons

‘The Word of the sermon is indeed a new Word and not a repetition of last Sunday’s sermon, but this does not mean that each sermon devaluates or extinguishes the previous sermons. If this were so, the New Testament could never speak about a “Church” and Paul could never refer to the message he had brought before … This is true because Jesus Christ’s presence among His people does not consist of appearances discontinuous in time, i.e., which occur’. – Dietrich Ritschl, A Theology of Proclamation (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1960), 72, 73.

John Calvin: Servant of the Word

Calvin's pulpit in St-Pierre cathedral

Calvin's pulpit, St-Pierre Cathedral, Geneva

Short of the Lord’s return, or of some unforeseen event, Monday will see me deliver a paper on ‘John Calvin: Servant of the Word’ at the Calvin Rediscovered conference in Dunedin. Here’s my opening paragraph, and if you’re around consider coming along to hear the rest. It really does look like it’ll be a worthwhile gig.

While the Church had known schism before, its program of reform in the sixteenth century led to its fragmentation the likes of which it had not known since the ‘Great Schism’ some five centuries earlier. The magisterial reformers were understandably concerned about the centrifugal force that their program encouraged, and they did not dismiss lightly Rome’s sharp indictment that disunity indicated defect. This concern is evident in one of the more ‘catholic’ of the Reformed confessions, the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) penned by Huldrych Zwingli’s student Heinrich Bullinger: ‘We are reproached because there have been manifold dissensions and strife in our churches since they departed themselves from the Church of Rome, and therefore cannot be true churches’. In response, and by way of marking some distance from more radical wings of the reformation, the magisterial reformers reminded Rome of her own history of conflict and fragmentation, and, more substantively, addressed the question of what constitutes ‘true church’. Their conclusion, précised by John Calvin, is well known: ‘Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists’. These two ‘marks’ function not as boundaries so much as ‘directional signs that point to the core of faithful church life’. And they recall that no matter how frequently or intentionally the Church may engage in additional practices or activities, the most basic, indispensable and controlling hub of its life remains its witness to the one Word of God from pulpit, font and table. This paper will mainly be concerned to attend to the place that the former occupied in Calvin’s ministry and thought, and it asks what remains serviceable about Calvin’s homiletic for those who preach – and for those who hear and taste – the Word of God today.

On the relation between the pulpit and the academy

pulpit‘[I]f God speaks, and if God speaks in the church, then on some subjects sermons are not popularized products of more basic scholarly reflection. Rather scholarly reflection is an academized product of the more basic proclamation of the gospel … Thus, for the Christian community, sermons are a first-order, not a second-order, activity … As worship is more fundamental in the church than theology, so kerygmatic proclamation is more basic and often more pertinent than scholarly reflection’. – Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 46.

By the way, I’ve succumbed: readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem can now follow the blog via Twitter.

[Update: Rick has posted a great rant reflection on this Partee quote here]

On searching for the perfect preacher

preacher parking‘Farel excelled in a certain sublimity of mind, so that nobody could either hear his thunders without trembling, or listen to his most fervent prayers without feeling almost as it were carried up into heaven. Viret possessed such winning eloquence, that his entranced audience hung upon his lips. Calvin never spoke without filling the mind of the hearer with the most weighty sentiments. I have often thought that a preacher compounded of the three would have been absolutely perfect’. (‘The Life of John Calvin’, in Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, Volume 1 (trans. H. Beveridge; Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1844), xxxix).

However, it was none of these things that impressed Uncle Karl who, when he came to recall Calvin’s preaching, wrote:

‘How this man is grasped and stilled and claimed – not too quickly must one suppose by his experience of conversion, or by the thought of predestination, or by Christ, or even, as is commonly said, by passion for God’s glory – no, but in the first instance simply by the authority of the biblical books, which year by year he never tired of expounding systematically down to the very last verse!’ (Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion (trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; vol. 1; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991), 54).

Encouragement for pastors to be pastors

eugene-petersonEugene Peterson is always worth listening to, and his writing on pastoral ministry is enormously encouraging. Here’s some snipperts from a Leadership interview with this pastor to pastors:

‘The most important thing a pastor does is stand in a pulpit every Sunday and say, “Let us worship God.” If that ceases to be the primary thing I do in terms of my energy, my imagination, and the way I structure my life, then I no longer function as a pastor. I pick up some other identity. I cannot fail to call the congregation to worship God, to listen to his Word, to offer themselves to God. Worship becomes a place where we have our lives redefined for us. If we’re no longer operating out of that redefinition, the pastoral job is hopeless. Or if not hopeless, it becomes a defection. We join the enemy. We’ve quit our basic work’.

‘I don’t ever want to convey that our primary job as pastors is to fix a problem. Our primary work is to make saints. We’re in the saint-making business. If we enter the human-potential business, we’ve lost our calling’.

‘I begin with the conviction that everything in the gospel is experience-able. As a pastor, whatever the person’s situation, you’re saying to yourself, This person can experience the gospel here. I haven’t a clue how it’s going to happen, but I’m willing to slog through whatever has to be slogged through and not give up. I will continue to keep the gospel clear on Sundays; I will continue to be a companion with this person on Fridays’.

‘You cannot go to a pulpit week after week and preach truth accurately without constant study. Our minds blur on us, and we need that constant sharpening of our minds. And without study, without the use of our mind in a disciplined way, we are sitting ducks for the culture’.

‘I get my job description from the Scriptures, from my ordination vows. If I let the congregation decide what I’m going to do, I’m as bad as a doctor who prescribes drugs on request. Medical societies throw out doctors for doing that kind of thing; we need theological societies to throw out pastors for doing the same thing. And if you give up prayer and study, you will soon give up the third area: people’.

‘Listening, paying attention to people is the most inefficient way to do anything. It’s tedious, and it’s boring, and when you do it, it feels like you’re wasting time and not getting anything done. So when the pressures start to mount, when there are committees to run to and budgets to fix, what’s got to go? Listening to people. Seeing them in their uniqueness, without expecting anything of them. You quit paying attention, and people get categorized and recruited. It doesn’t take long for pastors to become good manipulators. Most of us learn those skills pretty quickly. If you can make a person feel guilty, you can make him or her do almost anything. And who’s better at guilt than pastors?’

‘The person who prays for you from the pulpit on Sunday should be the person who prays for you when you’re dying. Then there’s a connection between this world and the world proclaimed in worship. Classically – and I have not seen anything in the twentieth century that has made me revise my expectation – a pastor is local. You know people’s names, and they know your name. There’s no way to put pastoral work on an assembly line … Pastoral care can be shared, but never delegated. If the congregation perceives that I exempt myself from that kind of work, then I become an expert. I become somehow elitist; I’m no longer on their level. Elitism is an old demon that plagues the church’.

‘The church is not a functional place. It’s a place of being’.

‘It’s odd: We live in this so-called postmodernist time, and yet so much of the public image of the church is this rational, management-efficient model. If the postmodernists are right, that model is passe; it doesn’t work any more. In that sense, I find myself quite comfortably postmodern. I think pastors need to cultivate “unbusyness.” I use that word a lot. My father was a butcher. When he delivered meat to restaurants, he would sit at the counter, have a cup of coffee and piece of pie, and waste time. But that time was critical for building relationships, for doing business. Sometimes I’m with pastors who don’t wander around. They don’t waste time. Their time is too valuable. They run to the tomb, and it’s empty, so they run back. They never see resurrection. Meanwhile, Mary’s wasting time; she’s wandering around. To be unbusy, you have to disengage yourself from egos – both yours and others – and start dealing with souls. Souls cannot be hurried’.

‘For me, being a pastor means being attentive to people. But the minute I start taking my cues from them, I quit being a pastor’.

‘Most pastoral work is slow work. It is not a program that you put in place and then have it happen. It’s a life. It’s a life of prayer’.

To read the whole interview: Part I; Part II.

Stanley Hauerwas on ‘Preaching As Though We Had Enemies’

dog2I am just postmodern enough not to trust “postmodern” as a description of our times, for it privileges the practices and intellectual formations of modernity. Calling this a postmodern age reproduces the modernist assumption that history must be policed by periods. Just as modernity created the “middle ages,” which we all then knew could be safely left behind, “postmodern” is far too comforting since it gives the illusion that we know where we are – in contradiction to the postmodernist’s epistemological doubt that such knowledge is available.

Modernity was created by a deliberate rejection of the past, but ironically modernity is now our past. Accordingly, as J. Bottum puts it (“Christians and Postmoderns,” FT, February 1994), “postmodernity is still in the line of modernity, as rebellion against rebellion is still rebellion, as an attack on the constraints of grammar must still be written in grammatical sentences, as a skeptical argument against the structures of rationality must still be put rationally.” Or as Reinhard Hutter observes, “it belongs to the ironies of modernity that exactly those who are most modern increasingly claim postmodernity as modernity’s most recent advance.”

I confess I take perverse delight as a theologian in the controversies surrounding postmodernism. Modernity sought to secure knowledge in the structure of human rationality, and relegated God to the “gaps” or denied Him all together. Modernity said that God is a projection of the ideals and wants of what it means to be human so let us serve and worship the only God that matters – that is, the human. Postmodernists, in the quest to be thorough in their atheism, now deny that the human exists. Postmodernists are thus the atheists that only modernity could produce.

I do find it puzzling, however, to watch theologians, both conservative and liberal, come to the defense of the human, the rational, objectivity, the “text,” “moral values,” science, and all the other conceits the modern university cherishes in the name of “humanism.” It is as though Christians have forgotten that we also have a stake in atheism. Christians do not believe in the “human”; we believe in God – a God we believe, moreover, who intends to kill us all in the end. So we Christians do not oppose nuclear weapons because they threaten to destroy “mother earth,” but because the God we serve would not have one life unjustly taken even if such a killing would insure the survival of the human species. Indeed, it is not even clear that we Christians know what the human species is or what status it may have since we have surer knowledge that we are creatures than that we are human.

Christians, therefore, have little stake in the question of whether we live in a postmodern time. For us, any divide in history, the way we tell the story of how we have come to the place where we are, requires a reading of God’s providential care of God’s creation through the people of Israel and the Church. Israel and the Church are not characters in a larger story called “world,” but rather “world” is a character in God’s story as known through the story that Israel is the Church. Without them there is no world to have a story. From my perspective, “postmodernism” merely names an interesting set of developments in the social order that is based on the presumption that God does not matter.

The imperialistic character of these claims for the significance of the Church does not mean that it is unimportant for Christians to understand the peculiar development called modernity. Rather, as I just suggested, we must narrate the modern story on our terms. That, I fear, is what we have not done in modernity. Christians’ attitudes toward modernity have primarily been characterized by a sense of inferiority. As John Milbank observes, “the pathos of modern theology is its false humility.” Our preaching and theology has been one ceaseless effort to conform to the canons of intelligibility produced by the economic and intellectual formations characteristic of modern and liberal societies.

Christians in modernity thought their task was to make the Gospel intelligible to the world rather than to help the world understand why it could not be intelligible without the Gospel. Desiring to become part of the modernist project, preachers and theologians accepted the presumption that Christianity is a set of beliefs, a “worldview,” designed to give meaning to our lives. In the name of being politically responsible in, to, and for liberal social orders, the politics of Christian discourse was relegated to the private realm. We accepted the politics of translation believing that neither we nor our non-Christian and half-Christian neighbors could be expected to submit to the discipline of Christian speech.

Ironically, the attempt to make Christianity intelligible often sought support from those philosophical and literary theories that attempted to protect discourse from translation-the most prominent example being New Criticism. Under the influence of New Criticism, some thought that Christianity could be conceived as a beautiful poem that is its own justification. Such a poem, of course, could and should illumine the human condition, but exactly because the poem provided such illumination, all attempts to make the poem “do something” must be condemned as crass. Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, in quite different ways, gave theological warrant to the high humanism intrinsic to the powerful set of suggestions associated with such formalist theories. What could be more comforting to modern consciousness than to discover that “ultimate concern” and “sin” are essential and unavoidable characteristics of the human condition? You do not even need to go to church to learn that. Reading Shakespeare will do just as well if not better.

The humanistic presumptions of New Criticism nicely fit the aestheticism of the middle class that dominates Christianity in America – at least the Christianity that produces intellectuals like us. That is why I take it that contemporary preaching is still dominated by formalist presumptions even if preachers think they have theoretically left such theories behind. New critical habits are hard habits to break because they fit so well the class interests that dominate the seminary cultures in which many of us are located.

In particular, new critical assumptions hide from us how our theological presumptions are shaped by class interests. Frank Lentricchia, in his Modernist Quartet, makes the fascinating suggestion that the modernist writer defined himself against the standards of the mass market by becoming the champion of radical originality and the maker of a “one-of-a-kind-text.” He observes, however, that “the modernist desire in Frost and Eliot – to preserve an independent selfhood against the coercions of the market, a self made secure by the creation of a unique style – is subverted by the market, not because they wrote according to popular formulas, but because they give us their poems as delicious experiences of voyeurism, illusions of direct access to the life and thought of the famous writer, with the poet inside the poem like a rare animal in a zoo. This was the only commodity Frost and Eliot were capable of producing: the modernist phenomenon as product, mass culture’s ultimate revenge on those who would scorn it.”

In like manner, the preaching and theology shaped by new critical presumptions to illumine the human condition hid from us that the human condition we were illuminating was that of the bourgeoisie. That is why the sermon meant to illumine our condition, which is often eloquent and profound, is also so forgettable and even boring. Insights about the human condition are a dime a dozen. Most days most of us would rightly trade any insight for a good meal.

The high humanism of contemporary theology and preaching not only hid the class interest intrinsic to such preaching, but also reinforced the presumption that Christians could be Christians without enemies. Christianity, as the illumination of the human condition, is not a Christianity at war with the world. Liberal Christianity, of course, has enemies, but they are everyone’s enemies – sexism, racism, homophobia. But liberal versions of Christianity, which can be both theologically and politically conservative, assume that what it means to be Christian qua Christian is to have no enemies peculiar to being Christian. Psalms such as Psalm 109, which ask God to destroy our enemies and their children, can appear only as embarrassing holdovers of “primitive” religious beliefs. Equally problematic are apocalyptic texts that suggest Christians have been made part of a cosmic struggle.

“Cosmic struggle” sounds like a video game that middle-class children play. Most of us do not go to church because we are seeking a safe haven from our enemies; we go to church to be assured we have no enemies. Accordingly, we expect our ministers to exemplify the same kind of bureaucratic mentality so characteristic of modern organizational behavior and politics. I sometimes think that there is a conspiracy afoot to make Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the manager in After Virtue empirically verifiable.

That the manager has become characteristic of liberal politics should not be surprising, but I continue to be taken aback by the preponderance of such character types in the ministry. Of course, I should not be surprised that a soulless church produces a soulless ministry devoid of passion. The ministry seems captured in our time by people who are desperately afraid they might actually be caught with a conviction at some point in their ministry that might curtail future ambition. They, therefore, see their task to “manage” their congregations by specializing in the politics of agreement by always being agreeable. The preaching such a ministry produces is designed to reinforce our presumed agreements, since a “good church” is one without conflict. You cannot preach about abortion, suicide, or war because those are such controversial subjects – better to concentrate on “insights” since they do so little work for the actual shaping of our lives and occasion no conflict.

I confess one of the things I like about the Southern Baptists is that they have managed to have a fight in public. Fundamentalists at least believe they are supposed to have strong views, and they even believe they are supposed to act on their convictions. The problem with most of the mainstream churches is that we do not even know how to join an argument-better, we think, to create a committee to “study the issue.”

If postmodernism means anything, it means that the comforting illusion of modernity that conflict is, can be, and should be avoided is over. No unbiased viewpoint exists that can in principle insure agreements. Our difficulty is not that we have conflicts, but that as modern people we have not had the courage to force the conflicts we ought to have had. Instead, we have comforted ourselves with the ideology of pluralism, forgetting that pluralism is the peace treaty left over from past wars that now benefits the victors of those wars.

One hopes that God is using this time to remind the Church that Christianity is unintelligible without enemies. Indeed, the whole point of Christianity is to produce the right kind of enemies. We have been beguiled by our established status to forget that to be a Christian is to be made part of an army against armies. It has been suggested that satisfaction theories of the Atonement and the correlative understanding of the Christian life as a life of interiority became the rule during the long process we call the Constantinian settlement. When Caesar becomes a member of the Church the enemy becomes internalized. The problem is no longer that the Church is seen as a threat to the political order, but that now my desires are disordered. The name for such an internalization in modernity is pietism and the theological expression of that practice is called Protestant liberalism.

In contrast, I am suggesting that our preaching should presume that we are preaching to a Church in the midst of a war – a position you may find odd to be advocated by a pacifist. I hope the oddness, however, might encourage you to reexamine your understanding of Christian nonviolence – which, if you are like me, was probably shaped by Reinhold Niebuhr. Who more than the Christian pacifist knows that Christians are in a war against war? Moreover, as a pacifist, I do not need something called the human condition illumined when I am preparing to face the enemy. Rather, I need to have a sense of where the battle is, what the stakes are, and what the long-term strategy might be. But that is exactly what most preaching does not do. It does not help us locate our enemy, because it does not believe that Christians should have enemies. In the name of love and peace, Christian preaching has reinforced the “normal nihilism” that grips our lives. We have a difficult time recognizing the wars that are already occurring or the wars that should be occurring because we think it so irrational that some should kill others in the name of “values.”

James Edwards has argued in his The Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in An Age of Values that nothing characterizes the nihilism that grips our lives better than the language of “values.” Nihilism is not a philosophical conspiracy designed by Nietzsche and some French intellectuals to undermine the good sense of liberal Americans – indeed Nietzsche was the great enemy of nihilism. Rather, nihilism is now the normal condition of our lives to the extent that we all believe that our lives are constituted by what Edwards calls “self-devaluating values.” All our values are self-devaluating because we recognize their contingency as values. As Edwards puts it, “normal nihilism is just the Western intellectual’s recognition and tolerance of her own historical and conceptual contingency. To be a normal nihilist is just to acknowledge that, however fervent and essential one’s commitment to a particular set of values, that’s all one has: a commitment to a particular set of values.”

Normal nihilism is not, however, a condition that grips only intellectuals, but rather forms everyone in liberal social orders. Edwards, for example, suggests that one could not want a better exemplification of normal nihilism than the regional shopping mall. In the mall, one not only sees alternative values tenuously jostling one another, but our very participation as consumers means we also indirectly act as the creator of those values. “In air-conditioned comfort one can stroll from life to life, from world to world, complete with appropriate sound effects (beeping computers; roaring lions). Laid out before one are whole lives that one can, if one has the necessary credit line, freely choose to inhabit: devout Christian; high-tech yuppie; Down East guide; great white hunter. This striking transformation of life into lifestyle, the way in which the tools, garments, and attitudes specific to particular times and places become commodities to be marketed to anonymous and rootless consumers: they are the natural (if also banal) expressions of our normal nihilism.” Nihilism is the result of having so many compact discs from which to choose that, no matter which ones we choose, we are dissatisfied because we cannot be sure we have chosen what we really wanted.

The moral threat is not consumerism or materialism. Such characterizations of the enemy we face as Christians are far too superficial and moralistic. The problem is not just that we have become consumers of our own lives, but that we can conceive of no alternative narrative since we lack any practices that could make such a narrative intelligible. Put differently, the project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they have no story. Such a story is called the story of freedom and is assumed to be irreversibly institutionalized economically as market capitalism and politically as democracy. That story and the institutions that embody it is the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching.

I am aware that such a suggestion can only be met with disbelief. You may well think I cannot be serious. Normal nihilism is so wonderfully tolerant. Surely you are not against tolerance? How can anyone be against freedom? Let me assure you I am serious, I am against tolerance, I do not believe the story of freedom is a true or good story. I do not believe it is a good story because it is so clearly a lie. The lie is exposed by simply asking, “Who told you the story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you have no story?” Why should you let that story determine your life? Simply put, the story of freedom has now become our fate.

Consider, for example, the hallmark sentence of the Casey decision on abortion: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This is exactly the view of freedom that John Paul II so eloquently condemns in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor. A view of freedom like that embodied in Casey assumes, according to John Paul II, that we must be able to create values since freedom enjoys “a primacy over truth, to the point that truth itself would be considered a creation of freedom.”

In contrast, John Paul II, who is not afraid to have enemies, reminds us that the good news of the Gospel, known through proclamation, is that we are not fated to be determined by such false stories of freedom. For the truth is that since we are God’s good creation we are not free to choose our own stories. Freedom lies not in creating our lives, but in learning to recognize our lives as a gift. We do not receive our lives as though they were a gift, but rather our lives simply are a gift: we do not exist first and then receive from God a gift. The great magic of the Gospel is providing us with the skills to acknowledge our life, as created, without resentment and regret. Such skills must be embodied in a community of people across time, constituted by practices such as baptism, preaching, and the Eucharist, which become the means for us to discover God’s story for our lives.

The very activity of preaching – the proclamation of a story that cannot be known apart from such proclamation – is an affront to the ethos of freedom. As the Church, we stand under the word because we know we are told what we otherwise could not know. We stand under the word because we know we need to be told what to do. We stand under the word because we do not believe we have minds worth making up on our own. Such guidance is particularly necessary for people like us who have been corrupted by our tolerance.

The liberal nihilists are, of course, right that our lives are contingent, but their account of contingency is unintelligible. Contingent to what? If everything is contingent, then to say we are contingent is simply not interesting. In contrast, Christians know their contingency is a correlative to their status as creatures. To be contingent is to recognize that our lives are intelligible only to the extent that we discover we are characters in a narrative we did not create. The recognition of our created status produces not tolerance, but humility. Humility derives not from the presumption that no one knows the truth, but rather is a virtue dependent on our confidence that God’s word is truthful and good.

Ironically, in the world in which we live if you preach with such humility you will more than likely be accused of being arrogant and authoritarian. To be so accused is a sign that the enemy has been engaged. After all, the enemy (who is often enough ourselves) does not like to be reminded that the narratives that constitute our lives are false. Moreover, you had better be ready for a fierce counteroffensive as well as be prepared to take some casualties. God has not promised us safety, but participation in an adventure called the Kingdom. That seems to me to be great good news in a world that is literally dying of boredom.

God has entrusted us, His Church, with the best story in the world. With great ingenuity we have managed, with the aid of much theory, to make that story boring as hell. Theories about meaning are what you get when you forget that the Church and Christians are embattled by subtle enemies who win easily by denying that any war exists. God knows what He is doing in this strange time between “worlds,” but hopefully He is inviting us again to engage the enemy through the godly weapons of preaching and sacrament. I pray that we will have the courage and humility to fight the enemy in Walter Rauschenbusch’s wonderful words, with “no sword but the truth.” According to Rauschenbusch, “such truth reveals lies and their true nature, as when Satan was touched by the spear of Ithuriel. It makes injustice quail on its throne, chafe, sneer, abuse, hurl its spear, tender its goal, and finally offer to serve as truth’s vassal. But the truth that can do such things is not an old woman wrapped in the spangled robes of earthly authority, bedizened with golden ornaments, the marks of honor given by injustice in turn for services rendered, and muttering dead formulas of the past. The truth that can serve God as the mightiest of his archangels is robed only in love, her weighty limbs unfettered by needless weight, calm-browed, her eyes terrible with beholding God.” May our eyes and our preaching be just as terrible. Indeed, may we preach so truthfully that people will call us terrorists. If you preach that way you will never again have to worry about whether a sermon is “meaningful.”

[Source: First Things, May 1995]

Forsyth on the current claptrap against theology

forsyth-13‘It is doubtful if anywhere so much ability is going to seed as in the pulpit, if so much toil, ingenuity, intelligence, and feeling are being wasted anywhere as in the thousands of sermons that go to their drawers as to their last cradle and long home, week by week, to haunt as feckless ghosts the preacher’s soul. Hence the restlessness that is observable in the ministry in various quarters, the sense of ineffectiveness, the desire to try a new soil with the same seed, in the hope that the Spirit may at last reward the effort and bring back His sheaves with Him. But it is not a change of sphere that is required most. That may but foment the unquiet, or else become the soul’s narcotic, It is a change of note that is needed, and a change that no new place can bring. If the lack is power, the cause of the lack is the absence of a definite, positive, and commanding creed which holds us far more than we hold it, holds us by the conscience, founds and feeds us on the eternal reality, and, before we can do anything with it, does everything with us. Every Church and every preacher is bound to run down without such a creed, and no amount of humane sympathy or vivid interests can avert the decline. In every direction, the Church is suffering from the inability to know its own spiritual mind, or to strike a stream from its own rock, and from its indisposition to face the situation or its impotence to fathom it. For a generation now we have been preaching that experience is the great thing, and not creed; till we are losing the creed that alone can produce an experience higher than the vagaries of idiosyncrasy, or the nuances of temperament, or the tradition of a group, or the spirit of the age … The current claptrap against theology is only an advertisement of the lack in religion of that passion of spiritual radicalism and mental veracity which will settle nowhere but at the very roots of things, and must draw its strength from the last realities of the soul’s intelligent life. The result of the defect is a vague sense of insecurity as to foundations and an insidious dubiety which, unconsciously to the preacher, conveys itself to his flock, and generates a malaise that nobody can explain’. – PT Forsyth, ‘Veracity, Reality, and Regeneration’, London Quarterly Review 123 (1915), 194, 195.