As Implausible as Father Christmas?
SOLA SCRIPTURA AND EXPOSITORY PREACHING TODAY
The Bible emphasises that its truth is never readily accepted by the human heart. It therefore prepares us not just for physical opposition but also for varying degrees of intellectual misunderstanding and even incredulity. When Paul addresses the Athenians they object that he is bringing them ‘strange ideas’. The same would doubtless have been true had he been preaching in India or China, America or Egypt. Having said that, it is at least arguable that a new type of incomprehension has taken hold in Europe since the 18th century and that this new mindset is almost unique in history. Principally through the Enlightenment’s misrepresentation of science, the entire framework of revealed truth indeed of all religion, is treated as fanciful and without substance. The resultant mindset, particularly when viewed alongside radical changes in life-style most of them technologically induced, creates an unprecedented challenge for Christian ministry. Put simply, the gospel seems as implausible as Father Christmas.
Behind this challenge, of course, lies the issue of Truth. Is Christianity really true? Does it accurately describe the universe in which we live? Is God really ‘there’ and are human beings really his ‘creatures’? Is the message about sin and salvation more than just a set of doctrines? How do we know any of this is objectively true when both God and the supernatural are invisible?
To someone who takes the historic Christian faith seriously the answers are obvious. Yes, the Bible really is true and for that reason at least needs to be communicated worldwide. If it seems implausible to some, no matter: implausibility can never be accepted as a bar to evangelism even if it constitutes a barrier to faith. Yet intellectual difficulties cannot simply be brushed aside. They need to be taken seriously and an attempt made to try to remove them – just as the apostle Paul did. He asks his supporters to pray that he may proclaim the message clearly: he then shows then what he means by this, at least in part. He reasons and argues with his objectors. He tries to persuade them that his message is not just a ‘personal’ and privatised belief but objective truth. ‘I am not mad, most excellent Festus’ he replies to the Roman governor’s impatient outburst, ‘what I am saying is true and reasonable’ (Gk: ‘rational’ - Acts 26:25; see too Colossians 4:4). His ideal in other words is to establish the truthfulness of the Christian gospel over against alternative systems of thought – so that individuals may believe and be saved. He resolves to ‘demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God and to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10: 4,5). He even goes so far as to hold daily discussions in the lecture hall of Tyrannus for the space of two years! (Acts 19:9).
The question at issue in our immediate context, therefore, is how the revival of expository preaching during the past quarter century relates both to the overarching implausibility problem of the west and to the apostolic pattern of discussion and debate. Admittedly this gives the impression of competing models which is already misleading for in scripture they are clearly complementary. On one hand the gospel springs from God’s revelation, not from human reasoning: so it needs to be announced as is appropriate with royal proclamations. At the same time God’s truth is not irrational and God is patient and considerate towards those who find it hard to understand – so Scripture allows for, indeed seems to anticipate the necessity of, discussion and debate.
Of course, not all preaching is ‘expository’ in the technical sense we are considering now. Styles of preaching differ as much as styles of speech, each with its own validity according to use and circumstance. What distinguishes expository preaching and makes it uniquely attractive and compelling is that it follows the sola scriptura principle of the Reformation to its natural end: if all Scripture is given by God, which it is, then all Scripture needs to be expounded as thoroughly as possible. Thus the variety and range of God’s revealed truth ensures that the church listens to the ‘whole counsel of God’ and not just to individual texts here and there.
In short, expository preaching constitutes one of the great treasures of our British evangelical heritage and needs to be protected and preserved. Its recent renewal, therefore, is cause for rejoicing, the more so because other strategies for church renewal these days far from challenging the culture simply imitate it. The ‘look good’, ‘sound good’, ‘feel good’ mentality seems to prevail as much inside the church as outside it. So coming across a contemporary renewal movement that focuses on word rather than image, on exposition rather than excitement, is like striking gold.
At the same time Scripture urges us to be constructively self-critical, to identify and try to change whatever limits the usefulness of expository preaching. Which is what this paper attempts to do, to strengthen and enlarge what has already been achieved and to enhance what is already precious. Given, too, that the scale of the West’s plausibility problem easily overwhelms us all and that easy answers just don’t exist, the paper is intended to highlight a key issue and promote further discussion.
The main area of concern, we suggest, involves a subtle and doubtless unintended distortion of the sola scriptura principle.
At first glance all seems well. The Bible is honoured and given pride of place as in the 16th century when the principle was first enunciated. Each of its different sections is respected and treated with integrity. Meaning is sought through the time-honoured rules of literal and grammatical exegesis. The gospel is uncovered, salvation declared, sinners saved. What could be wrong?
Similarities, however, can be deceptive. A furred domestic water system may continue to produce hot water even though years of neglect have reduced its flow and made it less effective. What appears to be the same is in fact different for a vital ingredient has changed. So today: what appears at first sight to be simply a reaffirmation of the original principle of the Reformation turns out on closer examination to be something else. Public engagement has almost disappeared. By contrast sixteenth century preachers expounded the Bible with prophetic authority such that the intellectual and social foundations of Europe were challenged and Kings and governors made to tremble as a result. For example, with ample scriptural authority they challenged the medieval divide between secular and sacred – and simply obliterated it, transforming in the process millions of ordinary peoples’ lives and even recasting the ideals of European art. Similarly they won their hugely popular public debates hands down because ‘Roman’ teaching across the board could be decisively refuted.
What was true of Paul, in other words, was true of the Reformers. They challenged and debated the intellectual consensus of their day just as he had. Their understanding of sola scriptura was simply an application of his: that the Bible was not merely the sole authority for doctrine and life, but needed to be applied to all human thought and practice. It was a case of ‘sola scriptura supra omnes ’- ‘scripture alone authoritative over all’ – over science and politics as much as over church services and creeds, over trade practices and wealth as much as over prayer and preaching. No surprise, therefore, that the Reformation became a major stimulus in the development of ‘modern science’ and in due course challenged political autocracy as well. True, the Reformers quite properly preached the works of God in creation, fall and salvation and applied these to the individual heart, but this never meant a neglect of the public struggles of society.
Evidently something has changed. At the very least the disparity between old and new indicates that something is missing. Perhaps a subtle shift in the very concept of sola scriptura has occurred which, like metal-fatigue, has created a systemic defect increasingly apparent over time. Perhaps ‘sola scriptura supra omnes’ has devolved into ‘sola scriptura in vacuo’ – the authoritative Bible within a vacuum, scripture’s natural ‘flow’ reduced by a restriction of her universal vision and thus leading to an uninspiring and somewhat predictable ‘small-circumference-sermonising’ - bible passages expounded faithfully within their contemporary contexts but with little relation to our own. Why? Because contemporary preaching issues from a less than Biblical mind and fails to express the fullness of God’s Word. So, just as in nature water cannot rise above its own level, the preacher’s mind determines the usefulness of preaching. Allow the mind to be narrowly developed and the preaching will inevitably be narrow, be it never so orthodox in doctrine or expository in style.
The Necessity of a Christian Mind:
By contrast a truly Christian mind is a mind schooled by careful intellectual training and experience so that it becomes familiar, amongst other things but very specially today, with the difficulties which attend the plausibility problem. ‘The spiritual man judges all things’ Paul says (1Corinthians 2:15). He insists that every believer, to the level he or she is capable, should understand the thinking of the day and take up arms against it. He argues for an educated and gracious polemic in which falsehoods are not merely exposed but refuted and in which moral evils, public and private alike, are challenged. This is a biblical requirement incumbent upon every believer but especially on those who preach. Not that sermons then become philosophical lectures or tirades against social injustice. No, the focus of the sermon never changes; it remains exposition of the text and dwells chiefly on the fundamentals of sin and salvation for that is the clear bedrock of the whole Bible. Almost imperceptibly, however, since references to the supernatural framework of the scriptures, or to the final judgement of God, or to the exclusiveness of truth inevitably stir up intellectual difficulties today - the plausibility problem again - the preacher makes clear that there are good and sufficient reasons intellectually for believing such doctrines. Frequent asides or parentheses demonstrate the impossibility of alternative worldviews. Notice is served that the problems are understood and manageable. Then, to reinforce the fact that no believer need be intellectually or practically ashamed of the gospel, the preacher provides other occasions than the pulpit for more extended and detailed discussion, as Paul did in Ephesus.
How the contemporary model of preaching came to replace the older model makes a useful further study. But certainly it has to be distinguished from its predecessor despite superficial resemblance. For example, it teaches that sinners need salvation so it includes, ipso facto, all human experience for all mankind is sinful. In this limited sense, then, it applies to the whole of life. However, the similarity ends there, for, outside of a common set of foundational truths, many expository sermons today appear to be suspended outside culture. If they refer to culture and contain illustrations from culture, which obviously they do, they rarely engage with culture, certainly not with its ideas. Since naturalistic thinking saturates almost everything we see and hear today, one would expect frequent references to it in the pulpit. This would alert church members to its weaknesses and teach them how to engage with it and even refute it. But how often does this happen? Rarely. Which may explain why many otherwise skilfully crafted sermons seem narrowly conceived.
Some teachers even give the impression that preaching is the principal way to communicate with non-Christians and hence that ‘gospel ministry’ is superior to secular employment. Both views are insupportable biblically, but could the fact that preachers miss the ‘big picture’ like this and fail to understand the nature of the crisis today, explain in part why the pulpit is largely disregarded within the public domain? As the historian John Roberts puts it, specifically with the failure of the church in mind, ‘the hungry sheep look up and more and more they are not fed’ (J.M.Roberts ‘The Triumph of the West’ BBC 1985 p 367).
Interestingly the Bible itself contradicts this sort of intellectual detachment. Everywhere its writings are related to specific cultural issues. When Paul addresses the Colossians he knows his readers are being influenced by incipient Gnosticism, so he makes sure his teaching of the ‘simple gospel’ is directed towards it. When Isaiah denounces idolatry he trenchantly denounces it as mere intellectual folly (Is 44). When Jesus challenges the Pharisees he exposes their ‘traditions’ as much for their intellectual sophistry as for their practical hypocrisy. ‘You blind fools!’ he says, ‘which is greater, the gold or the temple that makes the gold sacred?’ (Mt 23: 17)
The absence of this apostolic/reformation polemic within evangelical preaching today - though as always with notable exceptions – has been a costly mistake. What suffers most in the end is evangelism. The church appears to be speaking in a different language, the language of Zion, and as a result deluded Babel barely hears her voice. It is almost as if she were speaking off-stage or, worse still, offering yet one more route to ‘contentment’ and ‘happiness’ in this shopping mall of alternative worldviews. As Luther warned five centuries ago, although she sincerely proclaims God’s truth she barely escapes the charge of trivialisation for want of engagement with the prevailing consensus around, namely implausibility.
In the final analysis, as we know from experience, the act of preaching is not the most important element in the process of communicating God’s Word. Who the preacher is in life and thought is decisive. Techniques are helpful but of limited value. It is the preacher that has to be developed more than the preaching, meaning by that both the preacher’s heart and the preacher’s mind but with special emphasis for the purpose of this article on the latter. Train the mind to ‘judge all things’ and repeatedly and almost unconsciously in sermons it will express itself in ways which open up the surrounding culture to those who listen and encourage and enable them to become confident about the glories of God’s truth.
So, while commending and being grateful for all that is good within the renewal of expository preaching today a gentle but urgent appeal accompanies it. Let us strengthen expository preaching so that, under God, it begins to realise its true potential as in earlier days. Amongst other things let our training be as concerned with the proper application of the earlier ‘sola’ principle as with the techniques of biblical exposition. Both require careful and continuous attention.
Ranald Macaulay, 24/11/2006
Registered Charity 1076750