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No. 89: Of Preaching and Newspapers

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 89
November, 1996
Copyright 1996 Biblical Horizons

Sermons are rarely more tiresome than when they strive for relevance. Drawing from the latest headlines transforms the preacher into a one-man MacLaughlin Group, a Crossfire without the cross though perhaps with some of the fire, and leave the congregation thinking, "If I wanted Meet the Press, I could have stayed in bed." I spent an hour or so recently searching for the source of the exhortation, "Preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other." My search was unsuccessful, which is doubtless just as well, else I might be tempted to follow an uncharitable impulse to construct a contemporary Purgatorio in which the author of that statement was forced to listen, unto ages of ages, to some of the sermons he inspired.

To be sure, there are times when one wishes the preacher were a bit more up-to-date. On Easter, the preacher at King’s College Chapel insisted that the "scientific" question of the resuscitation of Jesus’ body was no big deal and that Jesus did not go about showing off his body to "prove" He had risen from the grave. One wonders if he ever read of how Thomas’s famous doubts were put to rest, but then "Thomas" was probably a product of the "Fourth Evangelist’s" or his "community’s" imagination anyway. One marvels too at the sheer intellectual dishonesty of such preaching; the unbeliever is far more honest, commonsensical, and, in fact, more Pauline when he says, "If the whole structure of Christian faith and practice is built upon a fabrication or delusion, chuck it." If only the preacher at King’s had spent the week before Easter reading Time and Newsweek instead of German theology, he would have known that this "scientific" question remains, even for theologians, a very important one indeed and is, for most ordinary Christians, the very heart of true religion.

Centered on recent events, preaching inevitably loses most of its transformative power. From apostolic times, the task of preaching has never been a matter of providing a "religious insight" into what’s going on, a new slant on what everyone already knows. The purpose of apostolic preaching was to announce an event that, according to Paul, no one could know without a preacher. The point of preaching is not to answer questions that are already circulating. The point is to challenge the entire worldview that gives rise to those questions, and to announce the reality of a new world in which all the old questions have to be reformulated or discarded altogether. Genuine sermons are necessarily application of Scripture to the world as it is; in that sense, as John Frame has argued, Scripture and the world are correlative. The question is, how does this application proceed? Do we start by finding the world full of square holes and search the Bible for appropriate pegs? Or do we let the Bible tell us what shape the holes are to begin with? At the same time, we should recognize the possibility that observation of the world will teach us something about the questions that the Bible asks and answers.

With a little sympathy, one can understand why preachers might prefer contemporary texts to the ancient ones. Let a modern preacher start talking about dead bodies rising from their graves, the sun standing still, seas splitting in two, prophets spending three days in the bellies of fish, and odds are the mental health folk will start sniffing around. By contrast, the modern world is quite content to let preachers offer pious commentary on current events, since such commentary assumes that what the Times says is real, is real. Preachers thus have a choice: They can preach the Biblical witness in all its fantastic oddity and be branded paleolithic if not insane, or they can preach from the newspaper in terms that modern elites can understand and be met with that mixture of pity, respect, and relief extended to those who are religious but not fanatical.

There is a larger point here, which goes to the heart of the church’s uneasy relation with modernity. From the beginning of the modern age, the church as a whole, and especially theologians, were presented with the same dilemma that faces the preacher. The scientific discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo and the historical implications of the discoveries of the age of exploration challenged traditional interpretations of the Bible’s cosmology and chronology. As in the period following the Aristotelian renaissance, the church was faced with the threat of a theory of "double truth," which implied that the Bible might be theologically but not historically and scientifically true. Thomas rescued medieval theology from this fragmentation, but no Thomas was to appear in the early modern period to synthesize the Bible with the new science and history. Instead, Descartes resolved the contest of faith and reason decisively in favor of reason. As Klaus Scholder tells the story in The Birth of Modern Critical Theology, orthodox Dutch theologians recognized at the time that what was finally at stake in the abstract discussion of the relation of philosophy and theology was the authority of God over man.

In this intellectual climate, what has come to be known as "higher criticism" offered a tempting bargain to theologians and to the church: By making the Bible accountable to "public" standards of rationality and historicity, the church could be saved from the obscurantism and marginality that would follow from continued insistence on the historical accuracy of Scripture and from idiosyncratic typological methods of interpretation. Public standards, however, are far from religiously neutral, and the triumph of Cartesianism meant that the public standards were profoundly rationalistic. In making the Bible accountable to standards of rationality whose assumptions were directly contrary to the standards of the Bible itself, higher criticism left Christians with a wrenching but often unrecognized dilemma: To accept this accountability was to concede the argument before it began but to refuse was to be condemned to the backwaters of intellectual life.

By no means were these narrowly hermeneutical or theological concerns. It is no accident that the major works of both Hobbes and Spinoza incorporated both a political theory and a biblical hermeneutics. In both cases, according to John Milbank’s account, the goal of the new hermeneutical method was to preserve the secularity of the public realm, and to achieve this both Hobbes and Spinoza launched pointed attacks on the traditional "Catholic" reading of Scripture that highlighted allegory and typology. The public presence of a Bible interpreted according to "subtle" and "private" canons meant the continuing presence of "divine communication into the process of human historical becoming," which must "forever escape from sovereign mastery." To preserve the secular as a realm of autonomous human reason, typology had to be replaced with a rationalistic reading of Scripture, a reading that, not incidentally, emphasized submission to political authorities. In attacking this "Catholic" hermeneutics, it must be emphasized, early modern theorists were in fact attacking the New Testament’s reading of the Old, not a method invented by Alexandrian or medieval neo-Platonists.

Seen in the light of this history, some ironic shadings and shadows emerge in the profile of the Religious Right. As one of the most anti-modernist sectors of American life, the Religious Right is engaged, in part, in trying to reassert the Bible’s position in the public square. I am strongly inclined to support this effort. I do not believe that Christians should feel compelled to translate the moral and political claims of Christianity into what Jeffrey Stout calls "moral Esperanto" when they enter the public arena. Indeed, the central moral and political claims of Christianity cannot be so translated. There is simply no way to translate away the offensive particularity of the apostolic claim, "There is another King, one Jesus." But there are forms of translation that tend to escape notice. Historically, Christian political theory grew out of a typological interpretation of Scripture. Gelasius’ theory of "two powers" was intimately linked to an elaborate typology, developed in various letters, between Melchizedek and Christ; Bernard likewise exhorted political leaders to protect the Pope by referring to the common notion that in Jesus the tribes of Levi and Judah, of priesthood and royalty, are united and mutually supportive. The Religious Right rarely deploys the Bible in this way, preferring a more straightforward and apparently commonsensical reading. Instead of reading the first chapters of Genesis in terms of the Pauline typology of the First and Last Adams, for example, those chapters become source material for family or environmental policy. It is not so much that all the conclusions that the Religious Right draws are wrong, or that the interpretations of the patristic and medieval political theologians were always right. Rather, the problem is that when the Religious Right brings the Bible into the public realm, it accepts the rules of the language game of modern politics that prohibits appeals to "irrational" typology in public discourse. Accepting the rules, the Religious Right perpetuates rather than challenging a subtle form of what D. A. Carson has recently called "the gagging of God." And, further, it was submission to these same rules that shaped destructive liberal interpretations of Scripture.

All of which suggests that if you scratch a preacher with a newspaper, you might well discover a higher critic lurking beneath.