First Principles of Preaching: A Forum Like No Other (Part 1)

First Principles of Preaching: A Forum Like No Other (Part 1)

At the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518, it might be argued Martin Luther set out the first principles of evangelical-catholic preaching. Although articulated through 28 theses, Luther summed up a truly evangelical position with these words:

“He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore, he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.” (AE 31:53)

In other words, the one who calls himself a theologian must inculcate, “Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Period.

            Applied to the craft of preaching, we can rephrase Luther to say, ‘Christ and the way of the Holy Cross is the way, the truth, and the life of God: The Law and the Gospel find their semblance and fulfillment in Christ crucified.’ All other ways, all other messages, are of the mind of man who prefers self-justifying works, glory, strength and wisdom.

            Heidelberg opens the gates to Luther’s recovery of Biblical christocentrism and therefore christological preaching. The first principles of preaching come from Christ and focus on Christ. At the time and for centuries to follow, such preaching was refreshing, liberating, and effective in the making and sanctifying of Christians, as preachers were trained to ask themselves about the sermon they crafted: “Was it necessary for God to become incarnate, bear the sins of the world, and be crucified to death and resurrected for me to be able to proclaim this as Christ’s own message to the world?” That, you see, was the litmus test for a Christian sermon: Did Christ have to die upon the cross for me to be able to say this and to say it as His very own message?     All preaching which deems to be Christian, from whatever period, does well to consider Luther’s first principles and to set a hand on this touchstone as the basis for our craft.

            In addition to Luther’s Heidelberg principles, there are other principles for preaching that should be grouped among the first, too. In this and future posts, we revisit some of the forgotten first principles of preaching to help improve our craft.

1.        Preaching must be respected as a unique forum.

Auditors of a sermon listen without responding, that is, responding in the same way one would a lecture, speech, lesson or even an address where there is applause or protest, verbalized questioning or challenging. There is an important difference. At a certain, fundamental level, a sermon is not interactive communication. To be sure, preaching unmistakably summons a response - repentance and faith not only individually but collectively by all auditors. But it does not solicit surface level responses in terms of affirmation or demur during the sermon. There may be a vocalized response immediately thereafter, such as we find in Acts 2 following St. Peter’s Pentecost sermon when the crowd called out, “What must we do to be saved?” Yet, the sermon itself remains uniquely sacrosanct.

            In this way, the auditor in preaching is much like the recipient in Holy Baptism; passive. One receives rather than gives in baptism. Likewise, in preaching the auditor is subject to the Word and work of God, where God Himself is the active agent, applying His Word as Law and Gospel on His subjects. Therefore, it is important to discipline our bodies to listen, and to train our children to listen as well, to help connect the vocabulary of the Scriptures and liturgy with the content of the sermon. Preaching is for children too, so let us keep them in the sanctuary during the sermon and not underestimate the work of the Holy Spirit on them as well. For preaching is principally about eliciting and strengthening faith, not imparting and furthering knowledge.

            Whereas it is now commonplace for protestors to stand with backs turned on a commencement speaker or others to comment/shout during a keynote address, and so divert attention onto themselves and their position or opinion, not so with the sermon. Such incivility and emotional incontinence have not yet fully entered the domain of the sermon, although there are breeches in this forum too. Traditionally speaking, auditors defer to the preacher and respect the forum of the sermon, knowing they are not the object of the sermon but are subject to the sermon. This may be attributed to the fact that, again uniquely, the roles are peculiar in preaching. The preacher receives deference not because he is a “subject matter expert” (although we hope he is so) or the equal of the auditor (who expects reciprocation in another context). Rather, in this one-of-a-kind forum, the preacher fills an office on behalf of an external authority to whom all are to give deference - namely, the rightful King of Heaven and Earth.

            There remains, then, in dignified Divine Services and Masses, a decorum or posture of receptivity and politeness, indeed, an expectation of civility perhaps unseen elsewhere. While informality seems to hold the day in contemporary evangelical services (evocative of TED talks where the speaker is a “subject matter expert” or motivator) and a spirit of unpredictability within Pentecostalism and charismatic churches (where impromptu or solicited dialog between speaker and auditors punctuates the format making it more of a conversation, rather than a declaration), Biblical, historical, and liturgical preaching commands deference and respect because the words being declared are not truly those of the preacher, but the Sovereign’s words to His people. In this way, a sermon is not a speech, but a declaration and an announcement. The only comparable thing for Americans (since we do not have a monarchy) is the rendering of a judgment in a court of law. But the concept of a monarchial decree is better suited since the principal metaphor in Scripture is kingdom. The King (Jesus) issues forth His royal decree (the Gospel). It is to be conveyed by His royal ambassadors (preachers) amidst His embassy (the Church). The deference and decorum one finds during the sermon is born of this sometimes overt, sometimes latent, kingdom contextualization. The King now speaks; let all mortal flesh keep silent.

            This deference and decorum, however, is something learned and conditioned. When preaching is perceived to be like other contemporary modes of communication, that is, when the topography of preaching is flattened to the level of teaching or instructing, the conditions and conditioning will prove different. As a result, preaching is sometimes challenged and some call to expunge it from the service. More frequently still, however, the conditions surrounding preaching and the conditioning of auditors have been altered by technology, particularly visual technologies - tools typically understood to aid teaching, not preaching.

            Here, then, we detect a shift in emphasis from primary speech (a declaration or proclamation for you stating what is in fact the state of affairs) to secondary speech (an explanation or information to you which explains a state of affairs). The difference between declaration and explanation is all the difference between preaching and teaching. To be sure, the two are not mutually exclusive, but secondary speech in preaching is only to serve and facilitate the clarity of primary speech: the explanation yields proclamation. Today, however, secondary speech (our words) has displaced primary speech (Christ’s words), and the employment of technological arts evidence this fact in spades. Secondary speech dominates the church landscape and so the conditions for the sermon approximate shires to technology, further conditioning auditors towards teaching from teachers on Sundays, as opposed to preaching from preachers. The roles and the message have accommodated the shift from primary to secondary. So much so, one frequently cannot discern a difference in content between the Sunday School Bible Study lesson and the sermon.

For all intents and purposes, the uniqueness of the forum as primarily an auditory one during preaching has been supplanted by teaching and teaching technologies. And teaching the Gospel, it must be said, is not the same thing as preaching the Gospel.

            One might go so far as to say that if technological means are necessary to convey the message, then the preaching is not clear enough. The for you declaration should be that straightforward, that simple: this is for you. The employment of technology, unmistakably associated with teaching, conflates primary with secondary speech, minimizing or perhaps losing the impact of the former. Perhaps at a minimum, when the teaching or discovery component of the sermon has concluded, the preacher could disassociate the proclamation from technological dependence and so liberate the sermon from being limited by the conditions of teaching. Turn off the projector, monitor, and digital display. Let the people experience the unique forum of listening to the declaration of God, without tethering it to the classroom, lecture hall, or auditorium. Let them experience being in the sanctuary, an utterly unique preaching forum, in which a preacher has a unique role. Spatially heighten the drama of the sermon by assuming the pulpit or ambo, in the same way a royal ambassador would stand behind the symbol or shield of the regent, commanding respect and deference, signifying representation of the sovereign, and intimating seriousness, rather than sauntering about with laissez faire informality which bespeaks nothing of the regality, momentousness, or juridical nature of the proclamation.

            One cannot but think that if modernity was to undermine the sermon as a proclamation from Christ to needy sinners, it would render preaching indistinct from teaching, blur the lines within the forum itself, and condition the expectations of auditors differently. Yet, this is what has happened in countless churches. Fortunately, it is easily reversible by a fundamental recognition that preaching is a unique forum. Such thinking opens all kinds of vistas on how to craft a sermon which clearly proclaims Christ crucified in a for you declaration, and so gifts the Church with better a preacher, rather than a teacher.

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