Chapter 2: The Pulpit in the Spotlight
In the words of judgment against the pulpit are to be heard the first stirrings of new life for preaching. To be railed against is to be complimented; to be neglected is the final insult and the clear pronouncement of death. Those of us vitally concerned with preaching, perhaps possessed of unjustified hope, tend to interpret the measure of the depth to which the pulpit has fallen as also the measure of the height to which it should and can rise. Would so much time be given to general criticism of sermons if there were not among us yet a high expectation? Disappointment is registered only against a backdrop of expectation.
How is this general expectation of something vital, clear, and significant from preaching to be explained? Why do people week after week return to their hard chairs before dull pulpits to hear a man thrash about in a limbo of words relating vaguely to some topic snatched desperately on Saturday night from the minister’s own twilight zone? Habit? In some measure, yes, but the sermons they have been hearing have been such as to break even the strongest addiction. The survival of the habit can be partially accounted for by the nourishment it receives from a subterranean hope: perhaps today there will be a word from God. This is a hope born of faith in a God who makes himself known through words.
In a time when many speak of “mere words” so pejoratively, it may seem almost incredible that “words” would be a means of God’s giving himself to us. But over against this disregard for words there is in our time a gathering of concerns and explorations into the meaning of language that has no equal in the history of our civilization. The simple and yet profound act of speaking with one another has become the center for a whole constellation of studies philosophical, theological, biblical, psychological, and practical.
Why this self-consciousness about language has arisen at this time is difficult to explain with certainty. The electronic age with its offering of a wide variety of ways to present the human voice has commanded new attention to oral language.1 Perhaps the ascendancy of science and the domination of the scientific method has created such a restricted view of language that a reaction in favor of more dimensions to language is to be taken simply as clear testimony to a general degeneration of meaningful discourse, a degeneration in which the church figures prominently. Whatever the cause or causes, the fact remains,
We can no longer take language for granted as a medium of communication. Its transparency has gone. We are like people who for a long time looked out of a window without noticing the glass — and then one day began to notice this too.2
It is difficult to miss the judgment against so many sermons that this attention upon speech carries. It may be a correct observation that we have to become dumb again in order to learn to use words faithfully once more. But it is also difficult not to see in this concentration upon words the raw material for new preaching with power and significance. What one hears in preaching may be discouraging but what one hears about preaching is most encouraging. For example: “The word is something that happens, an event in the world of sound through which the mind is enabled to relate actuality to itself.” 3 Or again: “Language enters into the history, personal and collective, of man and shapes it for better or for worse; it simultaneously creates understanding and incomprehension, it binds together and it rends asunder.”4 If only the possibilities in discussions about preaching could be realized in preaching!
So full of promise for the pulpit are current studies in linguistics, speech, hermeneutics, and communication that a brief sketch of these various approaches is here offered. The general importance of discoveries about the nature and meaning of human communication will be evident to the reader and will hopefully encourage the preacher. Perhaps one of his greatest needs just now is a “theology of speaking”, a clear conviction about what happens in a speaking-listening situation. In a later chapter, suggestions for the appropriation of these insights and the translation of this theology into a method of preaching will be offered.
In the first place, it should not be assumed that modern studies of language are dances over the grave with hope of a resurrection. In our culture words are not altogether dead; signs of life appear in a number of ways in ordinary experiences. One has only to recall significant moments such as a baby’s first word, a long awaited telephone call, the few nervous words at the marriage altar, the heavy sentence of a judge, or one’s name over the loudspeaker in a hotel lobby to realize anew how much of life is mediated and even constituted verbally. Perhaps more dramatic illustrations are found in hospital wards where a visitor’s warm “hello” turns on the light, opens the shutters, straightens the linens, and brightens the faces; or in rural America where a major business transaction is sealed by one man giving his word to another; or in the quiet guidance of Anne Sullivan who with the one word “water” brought Helen Keller into the world of human experience; or in the nation-shaping speeches of Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill. In all our relationships, though frayed and torn by suspicion and deceit, there remains the vestige of sacredness about one’s word. To face the charge, “But you gave your word” is to be condemned without excuse or appeal. In a sense, all a man has is his word. In certain moments of his life, he is asked to give it. If in those moments he is separated from his word, then he is separated from himself. He may gain many other words, big important words, words that will get votes, win compliments, elicit applause, gain members, or sell real estate, but having lost his own word, he himself is lost. Let no preacher feel embarrassed that he deals with words. Genuine words are the stuff of our life together.
Secondly, in addition to that importance attached to words which remains a vital part of our common experience, the fields of psychology and psychotherapy have been making us increasingly aware of the role of words in healthy personal and social life. And by “words” we do not here refer to printed or written words on a page which give us the isolated individual, alone with his book, separated from his community. Rather we are referring to words in their original form, their purest form, words that pass orally from man to man, words in their native setting in the world of sound. If this perspective seems primitive and pre-literate, it should be remembered that in the electronic age we have become increasingly sensitive to the oral and the aural. “Voice, muted by script and print, has come newly alive.” 5 Written words tend to restrict communication to statements, information, and the increase of knowledge. Of course, this is not totally the case, but those writers who have sought to extend the power of written words beyond this limitation have done so by developing an “oral style”, seeking to involve the reader in conversation. Novelists work diligently to make the written dialogues between characters in the story seem “real”, that is, oral. Certainly the content of communication is important, but it is in speaking words that an event occurs when transcends the informational dimension of the transaction. Something happens, involving at least two people, because spoken words effect participation and communication. “The power of words as an event is that they can touch and change our very life, when one man tells another, and thus shares with another, something of his own life, his willing and loving and hoping, his joy and sorrow, but also his hardness and hates, his meanness and wickedness.” 6 It is not surprising, therefore, that Marshall MacLuhan, a communications theorist, has called speaking a “cool” medium. By this he means that not all is given by the speaker; much has to be contributed by the listener. Active participation by both is required.7
The vitally significant function of spoken words has been shown in work with the deaf. Pedagogical techniques have been developed for introducing deaf-mutes, indirectly of course, to the world of sound because it has been established that if left unattended, the congenitally deaf are more intellectually retarded than the congenitally blind. Parallels are also to be found in the emotional problems of the deaf.
The importance of auditory experiences for the interpretation of reality is proven through observation of deaf children. . .A world without sound is a dead world; when sound is eliminated from our experience, it becomes clear how inadequate and ambiguous is the visual experience if not accompanied by auditory interpretation. . .Vision alone without acoustic perceptions does not provide understanding. Deaf persons are prone to paranoid interpretations of outside events.8
Not only for the deaf but for everyone, silence distorts reality and eventually destroys emotional and social health. Each individual discovers himself and matures in relating to others. These fundamental and essential relationships are developed and sustained by words spoken. By means of the human voice awarenesses are shared; by means of a common language persons are bound into pairs, families, and communities. Words express and incarnate community. This fact is dramatically underscored when words cease, silence falls, and communication breaks down. A husband and wife cease talking with each other and into the gulf of that deadly silence rush suspicion, resentment, jealousy, and misunderstanding. The marriage is ended not only in silence but by silence.
Unlike written words, spoken words create and sustain among us a consciousness of one another and an openness to one another in trust. The reasons are obvious. Spoken words are by their nature dialogical, and in dialogue what one says is not fully predetermined but is in a large measure in response to the preceding comments of the other. The words are never all present at once as in a printed text; on the contrary, words as sound move toward a goal as yet undetermined. Again unlike written words, spoken words are never past or future; sound is always present, always an existential experience. 9 Thus there is in the act of speaking a consciousness of movement, change, uncertainty, openness to interruption, and, of course, insecurity. This is true regardless of how carefully one screens and censors words as they pass from the lips.
Without script or rehearsal, words normally shared in communication are more or less spontaneous, open-ended, and revealing of more than was intended. As a result, with the ascendancy of the spoken word over the written in our electronic age, several developments have followed naturally. In the first place, an open-ended style of life featuring dialogue and discussion of issues, a lack of finality, and the spontaneity of conversation characterizes our way of life. Second, the value of open-ended discussion and conversation has been seen by those who seek to heal faulty self-images and broken relationships; hence, therapy by group dynamics as well as one-to-one conversation. Third, the introduction of openness into the most interior areas of human life, those of faith and value judgment, is on the painful but steady increase in our society. Fourth, pedagogical method has been profoundly affected by the embrace of the spontaneous in the dialogical process. The instructor comes prepared and unprepared, willing to listen to what he could not hear in the privacy of his own study and to respond to it. And finally (for our purpose here) , preaching has been affected by our movement into the oral-aural world. Inevitably the pulpit has been re-visited and re-evaluated by psychologists, therapists, communication theorists, and, of course, by the preachers themselves. 10
While considerations of method will be delayed until a subsequent chapter, still it is apparent at this point that a change is called for. In a world oriented around printed words, the sermon competed for attention by seeking to possess the qualities of a written text: logical development, clear argument, thorough and conclusive treatment. In other words, the sermon carried the entire burden; the listener accepted or rejected the conclusions. Many great sermons of the past were ready for the press shortly after, or even before, delivery because these sermons were essentially unaffected by the contingencies of the situation. They spoke but did not listen; they were completed at the mouth, not at the ear. These sermons presupposed passive audiences, and because other ministers could also presuppose passive audiences, these printed sermons were borrowed for their own pulpits. A speech to an audience can be repeated in many places by many people with a minimal change in effectiveness; speaking with a participating group is unique to each occasion.
In the present atmosphere of open-ended dialogue, sermons in the classical tradition will less and less be accepted. This fact is unsettling to many preachers, of course, because in the traditional method, the preacher was safe, free from all the contingencies and threats of dialogue. Now to be effective, a preacher must expose himself to all the dangers of the speaking (rather than the speech) situation. He not only trusts his words to the hearers but he opens himself to their response. He believes the sermon needs the hearers to be complete. Conversation is not an individual production. The event of the Word of God needs the ear, for faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10:17).
This adjustment to the new atmosphere of the oral-aural world is or will be radical and painful for many who preach, for it demands an altered image of the preacher and of what he is doing when he preaches. Some may feel they have too much to lose to expose themselves; others may feel to do so would be to sacrifice the non-contingent and authoritative nature of God’s Word which calls not for discussion but for decision. Perhaps so; we will have to discuss this later. If, however, the minister laments the loss of former clerical prestige due to the processes of dialogue, he has reason to celebrate the recovery of the sense of the church as community. The words “community” and “communication” must not lose sight of each other. In fact, “the renewal of the preaching ministry is the rediscovery of its communal character”.11
We come now to the third of the converging lines of current study and investigation which put “word” and “speaking” in the spotlight and therefore offer fresh possibilities for new power in the pulpit. We considered first the residue of power in words in all social intercourse in spite of the abuse and degeneration of language. Next the central role of oral communication in personal and social health and in the formation of community was briefly noted. Now we turn to philosophy to survey several significant approaches to the problem of language and the nature of the experience of communication.
The meaning of words and the phenomenon of speaking is at present a pre-occupation of philosophy. Approaches and conclusions differ widely, of course, but there is a general conviction among philosophers that one of their primary tasks is to come to clarity about language, to analyze the uses of language to shed light on the major problems that always confront philosophy. This is not to say that this is entirely a new concern for philosophy. Approaches and conclusions differ widely, of course, but there is a general conviction among philosophers that one of their primary tasks is to come to clarity about language, to analyze the uses of language to shed light on the major problems that always confront philosophy. This is not to say that this is entirely a new concern for philosophy. Precision and clarity of terminology is of critical importance for any respectable discipline. But beyond this, the phenomenon of speech has received special attention. For example, it is generally recognized that sound is the most immediate sensory coefficient of thought, and speaking is very closely related to thinking. 12 If thought is nested in speech, then perhaps investigation would reveal an organic connection between the brain and the vocal folds. Such investigations were once vigorously pursued. Alfred N. Whitehead has called attention to the part of the body from which speech comes to help explain sound as the natural symbol for the deep experiences of existence. 13 Whitehead regarded speech as human nature itself without the artificiality of writing, which is a relatively modern phenomenon. He was prophetic of more recent perspectives on speaking in his well-known comment, “Expression is the one fundamental sacrament.”14
Of the more recent philosophical investigations of language, there are, in the main, two approaches. One approach acknowledges the validity of the scientific method and its insistence that words signify meanings that are verifiable. This perspective is primarily concerned to eliminate nonsensical statements, or at least to distinguish between nonsense (non-verifiable) and sense (verifiable) Under the pressure of this demand by logical positivists, those who speak and write in the field of religion have not only felt called upon to clear up the fuzzy and meaningless jargon that often characterizes their field, but many have relinquished all terms that refer to the non-verifiable. In general, this means neutrality toward, if not denial of, the entire realm of metaphysics. Since the word “God” has been so long associated with metaphysics, it has in some quarters been abandoned.
An interesting and significant variation within this general approach to language is that of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s linguistic analysis. Wittgenstein has insisted that no theory or perspective be forced upon language but rather it should be analyzed in its everyday use. Words and expressions are to be understood when they are at work, not when they are idling, because speaking is part of an activity, a form of life and is to be understood within that context. To illustrate the importance of the “form of life” context for language he imagined the situation of a lion suddenly using familiar human expressions. In such a case, there would be no meaning because of the radical discontinuity between the words and the form of life in which they were used. Wittgenstein classified various language settings and activities as “language games”.15
Wittgenstein’s insight is important for the preacher to the extent that it liberates language from the restrictions of the single perspective of the scientific method. Wittgenstein is, however, still bound by the overarching principle of verification, and the preacher simply must refuse to be thus restricted.
The search for verification, which is the essence of the scientific method, is without a doubt a sign of intellectual responsibility, but when it comes to dominate philosophy, it marks a failure of nerve. Life which is psychologically and philosophically healthy always ventures beyond certainty; lived meaning is never wholly verifiable. A philosophy which is at the service of the enrichment of life dare not become obsessed with the problem of conclusive verification.16
The second of the recent philosophical approaches to language is to a large extent an attempt to overcome the tyranny of the single perspective, to break the domination of empiricism and the insistence that words serve only as signs pointing to the discovered or discoverable data. Convinced that words have a richer and wider range of power than can be understood in any single perspective, there has arisen a strong “primitive” movement in language study. This is an attempt to recover the power possessed by words before they were smothered by a scientific and technological culture, words that once rendered immeasurable services to the human spirit, words that danced, sang, teased, lured, probed, wept, judged, and transformed, words that joined hands artfully into analogies, metaphors, riddles, paradoxes, parables, poems, legends, and myths.
Of course, not all who are here called “primitives” are saying and doing the same things, but they hold at least two common convictions. First, there is the suspicion of speculative metaphysics with its terminology charting ideal or ultimate reality. Instead, the primary concern is human existence, the concrete, lived experiences of individuals and societies. This philosophical stance is both creative of and expressive of the general orientation of our time, although an existential preoccupation with the present is fading before a growing appetite for words about the past and especially about the future. Second, there is a general acceptance of the priority of words or speaking in the constitution and expression of reality. “Man is a speaking animal” is the beginning definition. Words are regarded as transcendent in that they create and give meaning to human experience against the background of mute nature. Jean Paul Sartre appropriately entitled his autobiography, The Words. Georges Gusdorf, a leading French existential phenomenologist, has said that whoever finds and speaks the right word is involved in creation out of chaos, and whoever keeps his word creates value in the world. 17 In a similar vein, J. L. Austin has reminded us of the creative or performative power of words. Words not only report something; they do something. Words are deeds. Illustrations are shared abundantly: words spoken at the marriage altar, by the judge passing sentence, in the ceremonies of christening and knighting, to name only a few.18 These examples of dynamistic and creative functions of language are the residue of a primative view of the power of speech before words became impoverished.
A reading of one of a number of excellent surveys of the role of words in primitive societies 19 would help the preacher recover respect for the words he often handles carelessly. Such reading takes one into primitive cultures where magic dominates. Here one meets the power of a word to effect change in earth, sky, and man. In a way defying rational clarification, words were believed to contain something of the object for which they stood. Hence a man’s name was indissolubly linked to the man himself so that his name was his property to be carefully guarded and cautiously used. The survey leads to Egyptian and Babylonian creation myths in which the pre-creation chaos is described as a time of the “unspoken”, when there was no name for anything. Likewise in India, the Spoken Word was exalted above the gods, for on the Spoken Word all gods, men, and beasts depend.
And, of course, this study leads into the Bible itself. Here, too, it is the Word of God that brings order out of chaos, separates light and darkness, and produces the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1; Psa. 33:4, 6, 9) Man shared in this creation, taking physical and intellectual possession of the world by his giving names to all living creatures (Gen. 2:19) Throughout the Old Testament, in ordinary and sublime statements, in magic or prophecy, Israel took as her starting point the conviction that a word possesses creative power. 20 Therefore, the Word of Jahweh is an event, a happening in history. Perhaps the most comprehensive as well as one of the most beautiful expressions of this understanding is found in Isaiah 55:10-11:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it spring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
Later Judaism, taking a philosophical turn in its dialogue with Hellenistic religion, came to speak of Word as an hypostatic entity separate from God, but mediating in the business of creating, sustaining, and guiding the world. 21 These speculations on the Divine Word were to be significant in forms of Hellenistic Judaism and in early Christianity. This could hardly have been the case had not ancient cultures the preparation, recognition, and appetite for such an elevated view of Word. The idea of the primary significance of the Word was durable enough to survive transitions from philosophy to mythology and back again.
The spoken word is of such vital importance in the ministry of Jesus and the apostles and is so crucial for understanding the New Testament itself that a subsequent portion of this chapter will be devoted to it.
We are at present calling attention to the return by certain philosophers to primitive understandings of the spoken word in order to revive language smothered under the small heading of verificational analysis. Perhaps foremost among these primitives is Martin Heidegger. For Heidegger, language is not a bag of tools, a pile of raw material to be used by man, the master of his world. For him, the capacity to hear and speak language is primordial. In his later writing, Heidegger has become more passive, more receptive, more concerned with man as listener and not so much with man the interpreter, for he has come to believe that Being itself comes to us in a “clearing-concealing” through language. In language, Being itself is at stake, not just our use of words to discuss Being. Language precedes man; language is the loudspeaker for Being. Reality is linguistically constructed, for language is “the house of being”. Quoting Hölderlin, Heidegger says, “Therefore has language, most dangerous of possessions, been given to man. . .so that he may affirm what he is.” 22 Language is, therefore, not only “the supreme event of human existence” but the very being of man is founded in language. In short, “Man is a conversation”.23
Naturally some critics of Heidegger feel that he has become too mystic in his view of language, that his turn to poetry as the clearest means of establishing man’s being through the word represents capitulation in the philosophical quest. Whether or not this is the case will not be debated here. It may very well be that he has unwarrantedly blurred any distinction between “mode of being” and “mode of expression”, actually replacing a metaphysic of substance with a metaphysic of sounds. Perhaps the more cautious W. M. Urban is to be followed here:
Reality is, in a sense, doubtless beyond language, as Plato felt so deeply, and cannot be wholly grasped in its forms, but when, in order to grasp reality, we abandon linguistic forms, then reality, like quicksilver, runs through our fingers.24
Whether one prefers Heidegger’s or Urban’s formulation of the importance of words is immaterial here; what is central is the recognized irreplaceable value of human speech in laying hold of and bringing to expression Life itself. The preacher can expect to hear nothing more humbling nor more elevating than Heidegger’s affirmations concerning Being’s coming to expression in words. It approaches, or is, a sacramental view of speaking; provided, of course, the speaker is a listener.
We pause to note it is becoming increasingly obvious that our discussion is moving us farther and farther away from those exercises referred to as “getting up a sermon or “preparing a speech” and “giving a sermon” or “making a speech”. Those expressions already seem gross and insensitive violations of the high task of which we speak, that of “saying the right word”.
We come now to the fourth and last of the lines which converge upon the pulpit and, potentially at least, elevate it into prominence: that of theological and biblical studies. Here again the speaking of the Word is the center of discussion. Preaching may not welcome all this attention from the scholarly world, but after years of being shunted to the back of the catalog under a few faded listings taught by “staff”, it should provide occasion for celebration.
Theological and biblical studies are here considered together for two reasons. Historically they belong together because any discipline within the Christian orb must deal primarily with word the word of revelation, the Word of God. Against a background of silence, in a world where men lifted hands of prayer to Silence. Christianity came announcing. proclaiming. Silence is broken by Good News. As Ignatius of Antioch expressed it. Christ is “his (God’s) word proceeding from silence” (Magn. 8:2) “He is the mouth which cannot lie. by which the Father has spoken truly” (Rom. 8:2) It is inherent in the nature of the Christian faith that its adherents not keep silent. Theologians and exegetes are concerned about the word that has been and is to be spoken.
Secondly, characteristic of theology and biblical exegesis in our time is the focus upon hermeneutics. Two disciplines that have often in the past pretended lack of awareness of each other, dogmatics and exegesis, now share a preoccupation with principles of interpretation. And what is most significant from our present perspective is that this general concern with interpreting the word is not confined to the written word: it is in the spoken word that the interest is most keen. By “spoken word” we refer not only to the long oral tradition back of the texts of Scripture, but the word spoken in the proclamation of the church today.
For if its aim is. that what it has proclaimed should be further proclaimed, then the hermeneutic task prescribed by the text in question is not only not left behind when we turn to the sermon, but it is precisely then for the first time brought to its fullest explication. The problem of theological hermeneutics would not be grasped without the inclusion of the task of proclamation; it is not until then that it is brought decisively to a head at all. 25
In spite of the intramural scuffling over the extent to which preaching is theology and theology is preaching, there is a widespread acceptance of the inseparable relation of theology and preaching. Theology is responsible reflection on the proclamation. Expressions of gratitude and responsibility are due, each to the other.
The two men about whom theological discussions for the last three decades have revolved, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, entered into their monumental labors in the service of the sermon. That God’s Word be a living word, a real summons of a real God to real persons has been the central concern of both. To the differences between them in the achievement of this end some attention will be given in the next chapter, but these differences in no way abrogate for either their common subscription to the Later Helvetic Confession: “Preaching the Word of God is the Word of God”.
Why this attention on the Word and preaching at the present time? It is in large measure, of course, the heritage of the Reformation with its concentration on the Word of God. This concentration inevitably conferred importance upon hermeneutics and proclamation. But this focusing of attention on the Word of God gave new prominence to the oldest nemesis of preaching: how can the distance, geographical. intellectual, psychological, and linguistic, between the Scriptures and modern hearers be negotiated without the sacrifice of either? All the old attempts: allegory, levels of meaning, symbolism, literalism, mysticism, seemed unsatisfactory. Although warned by the heresy of Ebionitism against sacrificing the present for the past, post-Reformation biblical scholarship let its course be determined by the most intensely felt need of the hour: a ground of authority from which to debate with Rome. The Scriptures, against their own will, intention, and warning, became the “paper pope” with the result that the present was sacrificed, immediacy in preaching was lost, and congregations became accustomed to being sacrificed weekly on the altar of “sacred history”
During this period we learned more about the Bible than we had known, thanks to new biblical disciplines: literary, historical, textual, and form criticism. All subsequent Christian scholarship would be, and is, profoundly indebted to this period of scientifically critical biblical investigation. But the sad fact in the midst of it was that all this attention on the Bible moved it farther and farther from those with whom it was shared in lesson and sermon. A deep resentment and discontent began to emerge in the churches as many sensitive Christians rejected that “Divine economy” which the situation implied: in Bible times the people had God; we have only the Book. No one can be content bearing the brunt of some cosmic joke that says “You were born too late to be where God’s action is”. Imaginative preachers tried: “This morning let us go back to old Jerusalem”, but the benediction burst the bubble and the sanctuary doors opened upon a world that looked precisely like it did prior to the sermon. Pentecostal movements arose, as they always do in such barren times, hopeful that the strong winds of God would blow the dust from the sacred book and sacred desk. On a more sophisticated level, liberal Protestantism refreshed weary spirits with the announcement that all those ancient obscurities in the Bible were really intended to say no more than that we should love, forgive, be charitable, promote justice, and usher in the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God. Some pulpits embraced this idea and momentarily came alive with new “relevance”, but most preachers knew that major problems are not really solved by winking at them.
Then the existentialism of the early Heidegger seemed to provide the key to the problem of interpreting Scripture meaningfully for modern hearers. It appeared now that preachers no longer had to choose between Scriptural sermons or relevant sermons, thanks to the epoch-making work of Rudolf Bultmann. By existentially interpreting the New Testament, the texts could now be shared with immediacy and with the conviction that the Gospel was being preached, not first-century pre-scientific perspectives on the world, demons, the abyss, descents, ascensions, etc. The preacher had found a scholarly friend, no doubt about it.
However, there were areas in Bultmann’s program that gave cause for anxiety. Why the pre-occupation with Paul and John to the exclusion of much that is in the New Testament, however unappetizing? Does everyone have the right to frame a canon within the canon? Is what Paul says to modern man really what Paul said? In other words, what we see as myth did Paul see as myth? Would it not be more honest just to disagree with Paul than to make everything he said so existentially relevant? And why the almost abnormal fear of historical exploration into the career of Jesus? Certainly we are saved by faith, not historical legitimization, but does not opening the door to the contingencies of historical discovery make more, not less, room for unsecured faith? Making a place for faith beyond the support of historical research is also removing faith from the threat of historical research, which means security par excellence. But most disturbing of all was the spectre of anthropocentrism. “Modern man”, whoever he was, seemed to be the measure of all things; he took his chair first, then the biblical furniture was arranged accordingly. Something upon which Karl Barth had insisted seemed to be needed: the Word of God precedes us; certainly we interpret, but first we listen.
Interestingly enough, it was Heidegger again who offered help. In his later years Martin Heidegger has focused more and more upon language, not as a tool of man for apprehending and articulating Being and Truth, but language as it belongs to the nature of Being itself. That which is ultimate, Being itself, comes to expression in language. It is not a case of our understanding and then finding words: the words precede the understanding. Life for us is linguistically constituted and that man can hear and speak words is his primary gift. If, however, Being or Reality comes to expression in words, then the primary posture of man is that of listener, concerned to know the reality that comes to understanding through words.
Applied to biblical studies and to preaching, 26 a shift from Bultmann’s approach is evident. Here we meet the primary concern not of understanding language but understanding through language. One does not begin with the idea that we have in the New Testament verbal statements that are obscure into which we must introduce the light of understanding; rather, one listens to the word hopeful that it will shed light on our own situation which is obscure. The Word of God is not interpreted; it interprets. Here a radical reversal in the direction of traditional hermeneutics occurs. The goal of biblical study is to allow God to address man through the medium of the text. 27
Three implications for the preacher need at this point to be fixed clearly in mind. First, if God addresses man through the text, the Word of God must, by its very nature, be spoken. The church is compelled by its own understanding of a God revealing himself through words to share its message through the personal contacts effected most basically by the spoken word. The church is driven by the Word to achieve at all times maximum communication. The burden this lays upon the preacher is obvious, but the point here is, he is not to see himself stammering along in some peripheral exercise. In and out of the pulpit his primary business is to communicate. Let those who oppose the preaching ministry with phrases such as “the acts of God” and “salvation events” recall the role of spoken words within those events that gave them their character and the role of spoken words in sharing the benefits of those events. There is in our experience no event so profound as speaking one with another. At the time of this writing, a nation weary with an ambiguous war waits prayerfully and hopefully for a good word from “the Paris talks”. The clearest prophecy of a cease-fire is the fact that the delegates are speaking with each other.
The second implication for the preacher from what has been said about hermeneutics is that he see himself first of all as a listener to the Word of God. Granted the extreme difficulty of this posture for him, its importance cannot be overstressed. The preacher has often seen the congregation as the listeners; they tune in on his broadcast. He prepares sermons for them; he interprets the Scriptures for them; he tells them what God wants them to do. He retails what he has somewhere, somehow, gotten wholesale. But one hardly needs the new hermeneutic to know that prior to all meaningful expression is impression. Paul outlined the plan of world evangelization. beginning not with the preaching but with the listening. “Faith comes by hearing” (Rom. 10:17) Robert Funk has succinctly expressed it: “He who aspires to the enunciation of the word must first learn to hear it: he who hears it will have found the means to articulate it.” 28 But this is not new insight; the prophet of Israel reflected the same sensitivity when he wrote:
The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him that is weary.
Morning by morning he wakens,
he wakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught. (Isa. 50:4)
The third implication for the preacher is the underscoring of what has been said earlier: the primary and fundamental nature of word is spoken word. The spoken word is never an isolated event; it takes place where at least two or three are gathered together. It presupposes that which it also creates: community. Spoken words that do otherwise are disruptive and violate the very nature of the church. Paul so informed the speakers-in-tongues at Corinth (I Cor. 12-14) Speaking is to be in love, he said, for, properly understood, speaking and love travel the same street — from person to person. The homiletical definition of love is communication. Spoken words also set in motion intellectual activity. The sounds mean something is going on; there is movement and change. Spoken words thus belong, as our lives do, to time, not space. The Hebrew feeling for word is legitimate and sound: word means primarily the spoken word, not a lifeless record but an action, something happening. 29
This recovery of the oral quality of words has stimulated lively new approaches to the Scriptures, making “listening” a real possibility again. From the beginning oral speech has not only had a primal role in the spread of the Gospel; it had a theological significance as well. In contrast to writing, speaking is direct, personal, engaging, and demanding. In addition, speaking, unlike writing, is committed to the time being, existing only in the present. A spoken word is, therefore, precarious, without secure continuities with past or future. Spoken words were thus appropriate to the nature of Jesus’ life, his announcement that the time of the Kingdom is now, and the terms he issued for discipleship.
Of course, the oral style of Jesus and his early followers eventually submitted to the need to preserve and to repeat correctly. Written records appeared.
But even when the face-to-face rhetorical forms of the beginnings give way to the conventionality of written records and letters, these are still characterized by a perennially dramatic element which goes back to the very nature of the Christian religion. The Christian styles tend to evoke or restore the face-to-face encounter. 30
Ernst Fuchs has pointed out that Jesus wrote nothing and Paul wrote with reluctance. When Paul did write it was as a speaker rather than as a writer. He repeatedly expressed regret that he was not present to speak in person and almost invariably spoke of his coming soon, to complete and to clarify. 31 Paul understood that the Word was not just a certain content of meaning but an act, from person to person, which did something, which effected change.
In view of these insights into the inseparable relation of the Gospel and the forms of its communication, the preacher would do well to ask with Amos Wilder, “What modes of discourse are specially congenial to the Gospel?” 32 Wilder himself has offered invaluable aid in the pursuit of his own question by analyzing the modes and genres of New Testament discourse. In further detail Robert Funk has analyzed the parable and the epistle as oral speech.33 It will not take a lengthy exposure to such studies of the lively modes of discourse used by Jesus and the early Christian evangelists to cause the average preacher to look upon his own standardized sermon outline with a new lack of appreciation. When he begins to ask himself why the Gospel should always be impaled upon the frame of Aristotelian logic; when his muscles twitch and his nerves tingle to mount the pulpit, not with three points but with the Gospel as narrative or parable or poem or myth or song, in spite of the heavy recollection of his training in homiletics, then perhaps the preacher stands at the threshold of new pulpit power. When he ceases to wail about preaching being sick and confesses that his preaching is sick, then the preacher will be willing to do something constructive: not simply choosing more controversial topics and more clever titles to divert attention from his monotonous method of outlining, but choosing a mode of discourse appropriate to the content to be shared and the experience he hopes will occur.
It should be said that there is no attempt here to imply that significant and fruitful insights into preaching are limited to Protestant scholarship. Prior to and especially in the wake of the attention upon preaching in the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholic contributions are numerous and noteworthy. Thomas Aquinas’ dictum, “The primary duty of the priest is to preach the Word of God”, is circulating again, and to render the new preaching more effective, excellent studies in the theology of preaching are appearing. 34 As would be expected, these studies are following those lines that must be considered if room is made for a strong sense of the significance of preaching: church and Scripture in preaching, the faith and character of the priest and the efficacy of preaching. word and sacrament, and the perennial problem of archaic language. Most of these issues are not peculiar to the Roman Catholic church, of course, but they are addressed vigorously within that fellowship. The central issue is, what happens in preaching? Is there an affective grace operating here or are the contingencies too great to speak with certainty about anything happening’? In other words, is preaching a sacrament? There seems to be at present a tendency to speak of preaching as sacramental in the sense that Christ is present speaking his Word, but not a sacrament in the sense of ex opere operato. Preaching lies very near the sacrament and is to be understood as opening mind and heart in faith to receive the sacrament. But since the Word is effective in itself, the function of preaching is not merely preparatory. Unlike the sacrament, the contingencies related to the speaker and the hearer assume greater significance in defining what takes place. Hence the priest who preaches must give attention not only to the Word of God as though repeating sacred words would in itself be efficacious, but also to the words of man. The Word of God comes in the ordinary vernacular; hence the priest is responsible for choosing his words and preparing carefully his sermon. This view of preaching is incarnational: as The Word came in the flesh, so the Word comes in the form of human speech.
This statement about the general direction of Roman Catholic studies in preaching is unjustly brief, but it is given with a strong urging that the Protestant minister read in this area. It may be that the sacramental and incarnational approaches will aid him in dealing with the primary question in his own preaching ministry: what happens in the preaching event itself?
This particular essay is suggesting that it would be fruitful if the minister would explore the profundity of the ordinary experience of conversing, talking, listening-speaking. It is not illogical to look for the God-man encounter within the channels that are already available and are already serving the most human experiences we have. And by no means should speaking be disparaged because it is so “every dayish”. That same criticism could be leveled against the Bible, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Church in her better moments. Is this not the point of it all?
Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead) But what does it say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach) (Rom. 10:6-8)
We have surveyed the several lines of scholarship that converge upon the pulpit today and provide the minister with adequate raw material for the framing of a theology of preaching which will not only withstand the current ridicule of the pulpit but which will perhaps effect improvement sufficient to silence it. Perhaps this attention upon the primacy of the spoken word has prepared us to hear the word of Jesus in this regard.
For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matt. 12:34-37)
In Matthew’s Gospel this strong teaching regarding the eternal significance of what one says is prefaced by an even stronger one: the passage concerning the unpardonable sin. (Matt. 12:31-32) This statement has served as a cannon to blast every foul and loathsome sin that ever crawled up into the human heart. Most likely the passage circulated in the early Christian community in defence of the function of the Christian prophet whose preaching was in the Spirit, announcing the Word of the Lord in a given situation. But what is surprising and awesome here is that the one sin placed by the New Testament beyond the reach of forgiveness is a sin of the mouth: “But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit”. Set against this text, the worn expression “mere words” steals away in embarassment.
We move now in Part Two to a series of considerations related to a method of preaching that seeks to heed the warning and implement the insights that have been shared.
1.Ong, op.cit.. pp.292-293.
2. Iris Murdoch. Sartre (New Haven: Yale Univ Press, 1953) p.27.
3.Ong, op. cit., p.22.
4.Funk, op. cit., pp. 1-2
5.Ong. op. cit., p.88.
6.G. Ebeling. The Nature of Faith. trans. R. 0. Smith. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press. 1961) p. 186.
7.Understanding Media. (New York: McGraw-Hill. 1964) pp. 22-23.
8.Clemens E. Benda, Language, Consciousness, and Problems of Existential Analysis,’ American Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 14.no. 2 (April, 1960) , quoted by Amos Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric. The Language of the Gospel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970) , p. 19.
9.Ong. op. cit., pp. 200-299.
10.For pursuit of these directions consult The Journal of Pastoral Care, Pastoral Psychology, and Edgar N. Jackson, A Psychology forPreaching. (Great Neck, N.Y.: Channel Press, 1961)
11.Albert H. van der Heuvel, The Humiliation of the Church. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966) p. 71.
12.Ong. op. cit., pp. 138-144.
13.Modes of Thought. (New York: Capricorn Books. 1938) pp. 45-57.
14.Religion in the Making. (New York: MacMillan, 1926) p. 131.
15.W. D. Hudson, Ludwig Wittgenstein. (Richard: John Knox Press, 1968) pp. 46-47
16.Sam Keen, Gabriel Marcel. (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1967) p. 47.
17.Speaking. trans. Paul T. Brockelmann. (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1965) pp. 119-127.
18.Philosophical Papers. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961) pp. 222-224. Also, How to Do Things with Words. ed. J. 0. Urmson. (New York:Oxford Univ. Press, 1965)
19.Cassirer, Gusdorf, Austin, all referred to earlier, give such surveys.
20.Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology. trans. D. M. G. Stalkes (New York: Harpers, 1965) Vol. II. p. 86.
21.Cf. espec. Wisdom of Solomon. chs. 6-9.
22. Existence and Being, trans. Stefan Schimanski. (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1949) p. 270.
23.Ibid., p. 277.
24.Language of Reality. (London: alien and Unwin, 1939) p. 49.
25. C. Ebeling, Word and Faith. trans. James W. Leitch. (London: SCM Press, and Philadelphia: Fortune Press, 1963) P. 329.
26. Especially by Ebeling and Funk (cf. above) , and by Ernst Fuchs of the University of Marburg.
27. Funk, op. cit., p. 11.
28. Ibid., p. 7.
29. Ong, op. cit., pp. 12-13.
30. Wilder, op. cit., p. 24. cf. pp. 18-24.
31. Ibid., p. 22.
32. Ibid., p. 11.
33. Op. cit.
34. Cf. the bibliography in Domenico Grazzo, Proclaiming God’s Message. (South Bend: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1965).