Better Preaching in the New Year Please!

Charles Kingsley Barrett is known to many as a New Testament scholar. Ben Witherington wants us to know he was a gifted preacher as well. Ben has been working through Barrett’s sermons and has this to say to us in the New Year… “Better Preaching in the New Year Please!” The following is Ben’s post from January 8, 2017.

In working through C.K. Barrett’s 300 sermons, and comparing them to what I regularly hear traveling around the country, namely sermons that make me wince, I have come to the following conclusion:

Frankly, I have grown weary of sermons that have illustrations which do not illustrate the point of the appointed Biblical text, story sermons only loosely connected to the Bible, and in general sermons based on the perceived wants and needs of the congregation rather than on the substance of the subject matter of the Bible, in short, sermons with little Biblical or Wesleyan content that amount to little more than words of general encouragement or some sort of ethical harangue.

As Mr. Wesley was want to say to his preachers—you are not called upon to preach your experience, however profound, your opinions however lofty, your tradition however noble, or your own logic, however reasonable. No, you are called to preach the Bible in season and out of season, when it is well-received and when it is poorly received. And as CKB was apt to emphasize, it was not about the preacher and his eloquence. If Jonah could put his hand over his mouth and weakly utter ‘repent’ and ‘all Nineveh’ responded to God’s call, then surely it is mostly about the message, the living Word of God, powerful and active, and not so much about the messenger.

Preaching and Atonement Theory

I recently read The Nature of the Atonement, a book where Gregory Boyd, Joel Green, Bruce Reichenbach and Thomas Schreiner participate in lively conversation about atonement theory and the implications of what happened at the cross.  The importance of this conversation is highlighted early in the book with a quote from John Wesley “nothing in the Christian system is of greater consequence than the doctrine of the atonement.”  Later in the book, Joel Green claims that Wesley handed down an “eclectic atonement theology.”  I am curious about how Wesley might respond to that.

The conversations in the book are interesting, stimulating, and help us recognize what God is actively doing in His relationship with people.  Nevertheless, they also remind us that preaching an atonement theory is not the same thing as preaching about atonement.  In our preaching it is ok to find that some texts appear sympathetic to one theory and other texts to another.  The fact is, each of the proposed theories are based on certain texts and our preaching may draw from any of them.  We should recognize that it is ok to re-examine your atonement theory and that we do not need a fixed theory of atonement in order to preach gospel or to follow Jesus.

Is it possible to preach the victory over principalities and powers in the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth without being considered an advocate of Christus Victor theory?  Is it possible to emphasize God’s holiness, the severity of human sinfulness, and the substitutionary death of Jesus without preaching a penal substitution theory?  Is it possible to preach the importance of healing through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus without insisting on a healing theory of atonement?  Is it possible to describe the significance of the crucifixion with multiple images and metaphors without being labeled an advocate of kaleidoscopic theory?  I submit the answer is yes to all of the above questions and encourage preachers to preach the text before them.  Highlight what the text gives and not the presuppositions that come with our favorite atonement theory.

Any discussion about atonement must not isolate the cross from the birth of Jesus, life of Jesus, resurrection of Jesus – any such attempts do a disservice to the Jesus story.  This is a practical danger.  If we can disconnect the cross from the rest of the Jesus story, we can easily disconnect it from our own story as well.  The fact is, we keep trying to convince ourselves that our stories are something of our own design, but the bible keeps bringing God into them.  That is what happens in our discussion about atonement.  We are acting as if things are alright as they are, then one Friday afternoon Jesus shows up on a cross and everything changes.

In the church, we acknowledge that something happened at the cross.  It’s just that we are not always in agreement as to what that something might be.  Still, we should preach atonement – it explains what the gospel does.  Preach that relationships with God have been restored – An “at-one-ness” with God is possible.  Preach that the work of Jesus empowers His followers to be loving, giving, and forgiving.  Preach that Jesus changes the way we interact in the church and with those outside the church.  Preach atonement because it makes a difference.  Here.  Now.

Preaching and Hermeneutics

In Telling God’s Story: Narrative Preaching for Christian Formation, John W. Wright is concerned that many North American sermons simply affirm the narratives that already shape the lives of North Americans. I fear that he is right. Too many sermons resemble more the language of individualistic, therapeutic, and personal fulfillment than the corporate concerns of the biblical narrative. Too many sermons presuppose that the way things are is the only way things can be. Part of the problem as he sees it, is the separation of hermeneutics from homiletics.

His book devotes a chapter to the topic “Homiletics as Biblical Hermeneutics.” There Wright talks about the distance that some have placed between preaching and “the intellectually rigorous realms of academic biblical interpretation, church history, and theology.” He goes on to share his experience that “only trained specialists have the expertise to determine the meaning of a biblical text.” If those things are true, then all that is left for preachers is to “artfully supply the rhetorical packaging of the specialist’s previous work.”

I cannot claim to share this experience. Perhaps this is determined by who introduces one to biblical interpretation and proclamation. (A thank you to those who introduced me to these disciplines). Yet, I am glad that he addresses the issue and am glad for his effort to place preaching in the discussion with hermeneutics. This makes perfect sense to me as I can’t help but see a connection between the two disciplines. Certainly, it is accurate to say that they are compatible and even necessary for one another. Yet, the fact remains, in some circles preaching is viewed as a lesser discipline than hermeneutics and exegesis.

Wright rightly claims that this has not always been this way. He credits the separation to the last three centuries of Western history. (If you are interested in his review of that history involving Schleiermacher, Heidegger, and Gadamer read chapter one of the book). To illustrate how things were not always this way, he includes the example that John Wesley’s sermons were used as the doctrinal standards of the early Methodist societies.

Wright insists that “Homiletics is not the poor country cousin of academic biblical interpretation. Homiletics is professional biblical scholarships older sibling, opening the biblical text to its hearers afresh and anew.” He claims that preaching is “the most concrete practice of theological hermeneutics” and that “interpretation happens when a text breaks into the history of an individual or group. A text is always heard within a specific, concrete situation.” Statements like these insert preaching right into the middle of the hermeneutical conversation.

The proposal that “preaching represents interpretation par excellence” sparks my interest. The fact is, things like exegesis, hermeneutics and homiletics should be working together. In a real sense, preachers are on the front line of biblical interpretation. Interpretation should be encouraging homiletics. Preaching should be connected with hermeneutics. Hermeneuts are us.

A Conversation that Gives Perspective

I suppose that most of us who read scripture with the intent to communicate its message to others may have at some point been interested in what others have had to say and how they say it.  Someone along the way has opened scripture up in a way that calls out to your soul.  Having said that, it would serve us well to spend more time with such people.  After all, there is some reason that you find yourself drawn to the way that particular preachers, writers and interpreters communicate truth.

(I would not limit this exercise to preachers.  Obviously, it would benefit anyone to latch onto someone who speaks to their soul and read anything you can from that writer).

If one of your professors encouraged you to find such a person and make them a lifetime companion, you were blessed with a wise professor.  (I am thinking of the way that Thomas Oden talks about John Wesley).  There are benefits of such a practice.  It is a constant reminder that you do not walk alone.  Conversations with the printed page will likely lead to disagreement and debate.  They will also lead to encouragement and affirmation.  As a result, these conversations will guarantee that you will be less boring.

To liven things up even more, become acquainted with a preacher from another tradition.  Wesleyans, pick up something from someone in the Reformed tradition.  Someone who will stretch you, cause you to think.  Someone you will converse with and who will challenge you.  Learn from this preacher.  Wrestle them, laugh with them, walk along with them in the labor of the Kingdom.  Of this we can be certain – You will become more interesting.

Such an exercise will be good for the soul.  It will revive your imagination.  It will help you to become more aware of your blind spots.  It will expand and challenge your limited perspective of the Kingdom.  It will remind you that you haven’t figured God out.