Chapter 5: Inductive Movement and the Unity of the Sermon
The most important single contributing factor to consistently effective preaching is study and careful preparation. This must be said repeatedly in considering inductive preaching because the method itself can so easily degenerate into casual conversation with the congregation. Since this method makes such large room for the particular experiences of the hearers, it is possible that some indolent preacher may choose this method as a recess from the books. The fact of the matter is that inductive preaching, because it has in it the possibility of easy detours and is so susceptible to prostitution, actually requires more discipline of thought and study. Confidence that sets one free to preach in this mode is gained in the same way one is confident and free in any method of speaking: know the matter being presented and be convinced of its importance. And it is a mistake to assume that the inductive method’s embrace of the dialogical principle makes such preaching merely the tolerant exchange of differences and indifferences among sophisticated participants. Tolerance is there, to be sure, but like all sharing of the Gospel, inductive preaching seeks to persuade.
There is, then, no substitute for careful preparation. When such preparation is lacking, the preacher gropes about in his frustration for quick confidence to enable him to face the people. He may grab another man’s sermon and handle it well, except for a hollow ring here and there and the subterranean sounds of his own soul crumbling in slow erosion. These sounds have bested the strongest arguments ever offered for filching sermons. Or he may turn to tricks and gimmicks in the pulpit, every Sunday leaping from the pinnacle of the temple, only to learn bitterly that he who begins with a rabbit out of the hat must soon come up with an elephant if he would hold his crowd. Or the unprepared minister may hide behind “style”. If he happens to be blessed (or cursed) with easy words and immediate speech, he may use the high gloss of marvelous verbiage to blind his hearers to the fact that there was nothing on the tablet. On the other hand, he may pass off a real or pretended crudeness of speech as the credentials of the prophet who does not come “with persuasive words of wisdom”, but who humbly brings the treasure of the Gospel “in earthen vessels”. Some American politicians and pulpiteers have made capital of the anti-intellectualism in our society which accepts poverty as goodness, crudity as sincerity, and awkwardness as humility. Or the man facing Sunday morning without a message may sink into a negativism. His morning paper provides something to which he and all God’s saints are opposed and so in five minutes he is prepared to oppose it for twenty minutes. The real dimensions of this tragedy are obscured by the popularity of muckraking, attacking vaguely defined enemies, and firing heavy mortar into empty buildings. But the preacher himself is not fooled by his tactics; he knows he was called to build and running a bulldozer over the lot once a week is hardly an adequate response to that call.
If the preacher is prepared, one of the clearest evidences of that preparation is the unity of his message. Rather than trying to corral several sermonettes hastily gathered under one title, perceptive listeners will be responding to a single theme which governed the selection or rejection of all material bidding for a place in the sermon. If the point has been made that the primary characteristic of forceful and effective preaching is movement, then it should now be said that unity is essential to that movement. There can be no movement without unity, without singleness of theme.
The contribution to the movement and power of a sermon made by the restraint of a single idea can hardly be overstated. This may not be apparent at first to those who have struggled after enough “points” to make their sermons complete. Actually the anxiety to get several points to serve as the basic structure for the sermon is paralyzing. It is better to forget about points. The question is, “What is the point?” Sermons that move inductively sustaining interest and engaging the listener, do not have points any more than a narrative, a story, a parable, or even a joke has points. But there is a point, and the discipline of this one idea is creative in preparation, in delivery, and in reception of the message.
In preparation, the imagination is released by the restraint of one governing consideration. Strange as it may seem, freedom blooms in confinement. Just as Saint Paul, John Bunyan, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote most profoundly about freedom when the usual locomotions of apparent liberty were denied them, so the more confined the topic fixed in mind, the greater the freedom of mental range in pursuing and developing that topic. A broad topic or theme has no center of gravity, it draws nothing to itself, but sits along on the page and stares back sterilely at the composer. But not so the precise and clear thesis. Like a magnet it draws potentially helpful material from current and remembered exposures to people and books. Because the preacher can state his point in one simple sentence, he knows the destination of the trip that will be his sermon. He knows where he is going. Made confident by this fact, a number of structures, or in a better figure a number of avenues for the trip begin to suggest themselves to his enlivened imagination. Some possible ways of beginning so that all the listeners can begin the trip together will appear. All the while, potential illustrative materials will be examined in the light of the central idea of the sermon. Whoever has this one governing theme in mind is in the enviable position of being able to reject a good story because it will not serve the purpose. A good illustration or analogy is an arrogant piece of material, mastering rather than serving. Unless carefully screened by a controlling thesis, a good story heard on Friday will take the spotlight in the next Sunday’s sermon whether or not it has a place. It is the mark of sound preparation to be able to delay the use of good material.
Trying to assemble a sermon without the “releasing limits” of a single germinal idea is a deeply frightening and frustrating experience. Igor Stravinsky has written of his experience in the composition of music. First, he said, is the anguish of unrestricted freedom, but the experience of a creative freedom
consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even farther: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength.1
In delivery, the limitation of the single idea is the key to forceful and effective unfolding of the message. The difference between a moving stream and a stagnant marsh is constraint. Such is the difference between sermons with and without the discipline of the controlling theme. In the process of delivery the difference is experienced by the preacher and detected in a number of ways by the congregation. Hands, face, eyes, voice, the whole body communicates the presence or absence of a clear sense of direction in the speaker. And the speaker knows it. All his energies that should have been harnessed to the one task are scattered and dissipated in the frantic search for a place to stop that will give the semblance of planning to this aimless wandering. Neither pilot not passengers get much from a trip that is made with landing gear down all the way.
And finally, in the reception of the sermon, singleness of theme contributes interest and meaning. One has only to recall the limitation of a forbidden tree in Eden, the midnight hour for Cinderella, or “high noon” in a popular Western drama to be reminded that it is boundary that arouses interest. It is the presupposition of the bounds of monogamy that draws readers’ attention to stories of infidelity. Death is a great creative limitation in the affairs of each generation. The withdrawal of that restriction would be an unspeakable tragedy. So do hearers of a sermon sense very soon whether there has been careful restraint in preparation, whether some things will be left unsaid. If a listener knows something will be left unsaid, he will contribute interest and active participation to what is said. If he senses anything and everything may wander across the preacher’s mind and tongue, he attends to nothing. The difference between the two types of sermons is the difference between a registered letter and a piece of fourth class mail “To the Occupant”. Unity does for the sermon what a frame does for a picture. The hearer, as with the viewer of a picture, has the edges of his attention gathered up and focused by the clear sense of being personally addressed with a definite expectation of some kind of response.
There are, of course, preachers who discount all arguments for the single idea sermon with the insistence that the variety of needs in the average congregation can be addressed only by broad themes and multi-directioned messages. If this response is a cover for a lack of rigorous discipline, then no answer is necessary. If, however, a minister sincerely holds his view, he needs to reflect on several considerations to the contrary. First, he cannot say everything at once. He will, therefore, have to set priorities and accept judgment upon his silences as well as his sermons. Secondly, he should preach as though there will be a tomorrow rather than no tomorrow. He will trust that God will give him occasion to speak again. There is some dramatic force in the “If I had but one chance to preach” psychology, but the pastor who tries to preach on a dead-end street will invariably hang crepe. And finally, he may perceive that in spite of differences of age, culture, education, and social involvement, there are basic problems and needs common to us all. To deal specifically with one of those needs is to feed not one sheep but many. To say one thing each Sunday for fifty weeks is good medicine; to say fifty things each Sunday is to circulate aspirin in the waiting room.
The singleness of theme which we are considering here is not easily achieved. Any minister who has sought to have a point rather than a parade of points in his sermons knows the difficulty. And for him who would take the Biblical text seriously, the difficulty seems to be compounded. In fact, it is sermons regarded by those who preach them as Biblical that are most commonly lacking in unity. Is there a flaw here in one’s use of Scripture or is it in the nature of Biblical materials that singleness of theme can be achieved only by their violation? A number of observations are called for at this juncture.
In the first place, it may be true that the text has a number of ideas in it. However, thorough exegesis of the passage in its context may reveal that all those ideas are really subordinate to and supportive of a larger overarching issue. Only after this exegetical work is the preacher in a position to decide if this larger issue is of such dimension and importance to require treatment in more than one sermon. It may be that the selected text was too large and has within it two or more now discernible pericopae. Too much at once as well as too little may result in a deformation of a writer’s meaning. Only careful study in each case enables one to make proper judgment of this matter.
Secondly, the desire to be thorough in treating a text often leads the preacher to move around within the text, with the result that this apparent thoroughness sacrifices both unity and clarity. This temptation to touch all the bases is especially keen in narrative texts that present a number of characters. For example, the parable of the Prodigal Son can be scrambled into ineffective confusion by letting the father and the two sons be “the three points” from which applications and lesson are drawn. Or the dramatic story of the healing of the blind man in John 9 offers a real trap here. Unless one takes time to hear the point of the story and make that point the governing consideration, every one of the characters may receive separate, brief treatment as a launching pad for “a lesson for us today”.
Thirdly, and in this same vein, there are two forms of seduction in a homiletical use of Scripture to which one may fall victim. One is the seduction of the concordance. Suppose the preacher checks his concordance for all the references in which his subject, or at least a key word in his subject, occurs. If the least is measurable, he may feel that a truly Biblical sermon would be the use of all these references with a few comments on each passage. And, regretfully, some of his parishioners will accept this parade of verses as Biblical preaching. The preacher himself should know better. The unity is only apparent, not real. The concordance has led him to mistake common occurrences of certain words for common subject matter. And the various documents, themes, and purposes of the Biblical writers have been leveled in a near word-magic use of the Bible that violates both spirit and letter of all Scripture. Concordances have legitimate functions, but providing sermon outlines is not one of them.
The other form of seduction is that of the easy text. As all Bible readers know, some passages seem to contain prepared and packaged outlines, and sermon-hungry, point-conscious preachers rush upon these as upon oases in a parched desert. How many have come upon John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” and felt they were halfway home in sermon preparation! Unity and structure seem built into the text. This same gift of an instant sermon seems to be offered by Ephesians 3:18, “power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth”. Who could resist this four point outline, free for the taking?
The fact is, all should resist every temptation that promises a sermon without struggle, study, appropriation, and decision, even if that temptation is presented by the Bible itself. Whoever allows himself to be so seduced finds that he does not have a sermon but three or four sermonettes, each related to the others as pegs in a board. In the delivery, transitions are awkward and unity is non-existent. Exegesis of the two passages mentioned as well as others of this type would have made it clear that no one of the apparent points nor the sum of all of them constitutes the point of the text. It may be that the preacher will find the apparent points of some structural value later on in preparation but only after his study has led him to the point the author sought to make. No preacher has the right to look for points until he has the point. And even then, if unity and movement hold deserved priority, he will not think in terms of points at all but of transitions, turns in the road, or of signs offering direction toward the destination. Suggestions in this regard will be given in the discussion of structure in the final chapter.
All this has been to say again that unity is difficult to achieve, but irreplaceable if the sermon is to move. It is a mistake to assume that text or title or outline provides this unity for the sermon. The desired unity has been gained when the preacher can state his central germinal idea in one simple affirmative sentence.
Careful examination will reveal that most sermons rather than possessing unity, fall clearly into two parts, regardless of the number of divisions the outline may contain. This is assuming that the sermons make some effort to take seriously the Scripture and tradition. This broken unity mirrors the di-polar nature of the preaching task and testifies to the tension experienced by the man who preaches. Part of the sermon, often the earlier material, is oriented toward the past, Scripture and tradition, and represents the minister’s effort to share the fruit of his research. The other part of the sermon, usually the later material, is oriented toward the present, the congregation, and represents the minister’s effort to be relevant and prophetic. There is often a great distance between that past and that present, and the negotiation of that distance is the preacher’s hermeneutical task. The task is a difficult one, as the whole history of Biblical interpretation reveals, and full of agony for the minister who would internalize the tension that exists inevitably where honesty toward the past and responsibility toward the present are twin motives. But blessed is the preacher who chooses to live with this tension rather than accept the easy unity that costs the release of one of the poles, sacrificing history for modernity or sacrificing the present congregation in adoration of the past. Perhaps it would be helpful to reflect upon this tension built into the preaching task, not that such reflection will resolve it, but by understanding its nature, it may be that more preachers will be more bold to preach unified sermons without feeling that yesterday or today has been compromised.
There are a number of ways to view the two poles which threaten the unity of every sermon and yet which offer the promise of creativity and the possibility of actually speaking God’s Word today. Psychologically, the tension may be said to exist between the tendency toward fixity on one hand and toward flexibility on the other. Some older textbooks in psychology referred to this as the ambivalence between contentment and mastery. More recently Reuel Howe has called this ambivalence, in terms of communication, a desire to speak and yet not wanting to; a desire to listen, and yet a fear of doing so.2 All of us are pulled in both directions, but with more force toward one or the other at different times. Usually the seminary years and the period shortly thereafter is the time when there is greater polarization around flexibility. This is understandable since there is in the academic world an acceleration of questioning and pre-occupation with the problematic. 3 The easy rejection of the past during these years is reflected in sermons which, if they possess unity, are unified too quickly and simply about some issue enjoying such currency as to blind one to its historical antecedents. Likewise understandable is the tendency toward fixity among those whom time has made brittle and whose long buffeted and trampled ideals are exhausted. The unity of sermons from this quarter is purchased at the price of closing all the unsettling modern freeways of thought and re-opening memory land. The sight of relief and relaxation that rises over the comfortable sanctuary may muffle for the minister the clear announcement of his conscience that he has capitulated.
Liturgically, the di-polarity of the preaching task may be referred to as order over against spontaneity. Were this tension confined to the matter of differences in traditions and tastes in worship, it could be dismissed as a problem beyond the province of this book. The issue touches preaching, however, not only because some ministers have eliminated either order or spontaneity from their preaching, but they have tended to identify their own preferences with the Holy Spirit. Does order focus and clarify or does it restrict and reduce? Unless one is prepared to accept both answers and be alerted thereby, his preaching will eventually absolutize either the lectionary or the late news. It is a good practice to discipline one’s pulpit with a planned and ordered preaching calendar. Then when an urgent matter arises and insists upon interrupting the schedule, that matter will have to earn a place by competing with the subjects for preaching already determined. This test of the strength of any intruding topic is healthy; where there is no planned order of subjects for preaching, the blank page for next Sunday hungrily welcomes every passing issue and invites it into the pulpit. Good preaching always gives the impression of dealing with matters freshly chosen from among competing topics and yet which are mellow from sufficient time in the cellar.
From a pedagogical point of view, preaching embraces the tension between an understanding of itself as a content that is given and yet as an activity that is learned. “Preaching” can be properly defined as both “that which is preached” and “the act of presenting the Gospel”. The first definition underscores the fact that the message is given to the preacher and to the church. Such a definition reminds the minister that preaching is a gift and moves him into the posture of the grateful recipient. And yet the second definition can be neglected only at the risk of the demise of the pulpit. This understanding of preaching reminds the minister of his task as communicator, as one called to articulate with interest, persuasion, and clarity. The givenness of the content of his communication does not diminish but heightens his obligation to prepare thoroughly, mastering as fully as possible the media by which he will publish the good news. It is because of the gifts of Brahms and Mozart that the most accomplished pianist is not ashamed to practice his scales. Let a preacher focus solely upon the givenness of the content and we have a Gospel that is forever theoretical and potential because it remains locked within inarticulate lips and hidden in confused speech. And yet let him center upon preaching as a learned act and the measure of his mastery of speech arts will be the measure of his arrogance. Although he cannot resolve them, neither will the minister relinquish either pole of his affirmation, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God” (I Cor. 15:10)
Historically, the tension within preaching is expressed in the relation between Scripture and Church. On the one hand, the Church not only preceded the New Testament chronologically, but the New Testament was produced by the Church, both in its writing and in its selection from among the many available Christian documents. The New Testament is, therefore, the Church’s book and she has the right to lay hands on it in bold investigation. On the other hand, the New Testament is the Scripture for the Church and before it the Church is to sit in obedient submission, open to guidance, discipline, and judgment.
Many Christians have felt this ambivalence in their relation to the Scripture. Because this is Word of God, the Church is not only invited to but urged and obligated to study it. Implied, of course, in this as in all study is the bringing to the material all one’s faculties: questioning, discussing, applying all available tools for prying open the mysteries in the ancient documents. In the process, the Bible takes on the physical characteristics of all well-used textbooks. And yet, because this is Word of God, study is inhibited by reverence. A sense of humble respect stays the student’s mind and turns aside the critical questions of free investigation. The frequent result is study that really is not study, or reverence that is not really reverence.
Especially does the minister, whose task is to embrace both Scripture and Church in his preaching, experience this ambivalence. Regretfully, he may gain a cheap peace by keeping the desk and the pulpit separated. At the one, he operates as the free investigator of ancient writings; at the other he recites the sacred phrases as though proper intonations alone would bring healing to the hearers. Eventually, of course, this schizoid pattern loses momentum, the pulpit with its immovable deadlines winning out over the desk where gathering dust announces the demise of seminary habits.
Blessed is the congregation whose minister offers himself as a frail bridge between Church and Scripture. His sermons will possess the unity not of a monologue of the Church to the Scripture nor of the Scripture to the Church, but the unity that characterizes all genuine dialogue. It is fabric woven of two distinct and always perceptible threads: the situation addressed precedes the Word of God; the Word of God precedes the situation.4
Finally, it may be helpful to conceive the di-polar nature of the preaching task hermeneutically, for the struggle to achieve unity in sermons that deal seriously with Scripture is also the struggle of Biblical interpretation. Just as Biblical sermons tend to fall into two parts (the meaning of the text and its application) so Biblical interpretation has generally divided its task into ascertaining what the text said, and what the text says. Both steps have seemed necessary where both honesty and relevance were prized, but the lack of unity in the process has been less than satisfying. Preaching that involves the highest level of interest and forcefulness possesses unity, but this unity waits upon a hermeneutical method that negotiates the distance between the congregation and the text without radical discontinuity. This is assuming, of course, that preaching must struggle with the Biblical texts, a conviction firmly held here but without the comfort of universal endorsement.
The problem facing the preacher as Biblical interpreter has frequently been framed on the “Word of God — word of man” dichotomy. For a number of reasons this has an unsatisfactory way of conceiving the tension, productive of a host of additional problems. First, this concept has led some preachers and many hearers to divide easily the message into two parts, all Scripture quotations being Word of God and interpretation and application being word of man. This not only guarantees for them the purity of God’s word, but at the same time it disarms the preacher and assures the Church that God will not interrupt with further communiqués. Secondly, this distinction between God’s Word and man’s word has led some to seek the Holy Grail of exact quotations from the Lord. Once in possession of this slim but one hundred percent red-letter edition, all the portions of the Bible consisting of human interpretation could then be reduced to the status of sub-canonical options. Thirdly, the “Word of God — word of man” conceptualization has led to the mystical dismissal of words in a book in favor of the pure immediacy of the Word of God. Or finally, the Divine Word human word dilemma has in some quarters resolved itself into a compromise: the Word of God is the eternally valid content and the word of man is the historically conditioned vehicle by which that content is conveyed. This “kernel and husk” theory permits every interpreter to decide what is kernel and what is husk, a permission of such latitude that it quickly defeats itself as a method of interpretation.
All this is to say the preacher who divides the raw materials of his sermon into the two categories of “Word of God” and “word of man” will, all reverence and sincerity notwithstanding, nullify his own effort and fracture his sermon into two neat but equally useless halves: one with authority and no relevance, the other with relevance and no authority. The reason is that he has done his work on the basis of
the fundamental misunderstanding according to which God’s Word is so to speak a separate class of word alongside the word spoken between men, which is otherwise the only thing we usually call word. God’s Word is here said to be not really word at all in the sense of the normal, natural, historic, word that takes place between men. It is said that, if it would reach men, then it must first be transformed into a human word, translated as it were from God’s language into man’s language — a process in which, as in every process of translation, we have naturally to reckon with certain foreshortenings and distortions. These shortcomings are then exculpated by means of the idea of accommodation, or the process is interpreted as analogous to the incarnation: As God finally took the highest, or lowest step of becoming man, so (it is said) God’s Word earlier, and in another form of course also later, becomes at least a human word. But this is a conglomeration of dreadful misinterpretations. . when the Bible speaks of God’s Word, then it means unreservedly word as word — word that as far as its word-character is concerned is completely normal, let us not hesitate to say: natural, oral word taking place between man and man.5
A more fruitful approach to the di-polarity of the preaching task, set in the hermeneutical frame of reference, is to begin with the understanding that all the words we know are human words. We could not experience non-human words and therefore should not try to work with the assumption that God spoke a divine language which was then translated into a particular human language. Given, then, the assumption that words are words, how are the words in Scriptures to be approached, as content to be traditional, or as address to be heard and shared?
Stating the issue as a sharp either/or question is hardly fair, of course, demanding as it does a simple response to a body of literature that is rich in varieties of forms, moods, and functions. Such a structuring of the question does, however, provide a way of getting into the open the complex issue of interpreting Scripture. And as a matter of fact, the history of the Church’s use of Scriptures in her preaching and teaching has tended to move in an either/or pattern, there being periods of strong emphasis upon the Scripture as the body of authoritative tradition, provoking a reaction in favor of an understanding of Scripture as address to the hearers.
This can be seen in the shift in accent in Biblical interpretation prompted by the work of Karl Barth following World War I. Prior to his initiation of a new approach, the Bible was being approached primarily as a body of content from the Judeo-Christian tradition. To understand more thoroughly that body of literature, a host of helping disciplines had arisen: historical, literary, form, and textual criticism. And very helpful they were. The preacher should not look upon these disciplines as otherwise, for the Bible as a collection of ancient documents surely deserves the compliment of objective examination as much as other literature. A refusal to make use of these tools to ascertain the proper text reading, its relation to other literature, and the cultural-historical milieu out of which it arose, is a move toward dishonesty prompted either by a fear of what might be discovered or by an impatience to get a sermon that cannot tarry at books that are not heavy with homiletical fruit.
A problem arose for the Church’s preaching not because of these methods of Biblical study but because of an unlimited confidence in the total adequacy of these methods, eliminating any need to attend to the Scriptures for anything other than what these tools were able to dredge up. To discover what a writer said to his intended readers is demanded, of course, by honest research, but this discovery alone is inadequate if the Bible is to function as the Scripture of the church. Needless to say, this ascendancy of historical-literary criticism produced a pulpit that was full of research properly footnoted but which fed the congregation a steady diet of remote yesterdays, hardly digestible even if the nutriments were there.
Karl Barth was dissatisfied with this approach which understood the task of the Biblical interpreter to be fulfilled when he, as a subject, has properly understood the text as an object. His dissatisfaction was that of a preacher, but he was wise enough to know that satisfaction would not come with some new and clever way of approaching the past. Homiletical appropriations of the past through allegory, gnostic flights out of the confines of history, archaizing the present, modernizing the past, reduction of texts to universal principles, and a host of other devices, were thrown out as failures to take either past or present seriously enough in the effort to hear the Word of God. The problem lay rather in the whole subject-object diagram upon which Bible study took place. If the text wrestles with serious questions and if the reader does also, then the reader’s own questions are not extraneous intrusions upon a “pure understanding” of the text but vitally involved in a proper understanding of the text. The text is not, therefore, to be approached with the arrogance which accompanies the notion that the present is always superior to the past nor with that acquiescence which marks the opposite view. Rather the reader listens as one engaged in serious conversation about ultimately serious matters. Because the reader may not really be serious, he may come under the judgment of the text and discover that he, not the text, has been the “object” interpreted. 6 In this encounter with the text, the Word of God is not simply the content of the tradition, nor an application of that content to present issues, but rather the Word of God is the address of God to the hearer who sits before the text open to its becoming Word of God. Most importantly, God’s Word is God’s Word to the reader/listener, not a word about God gleaned from the documents.
This all-too-brief statement concerning interpretation, on the one hand, that sees its task as thoroughly grasping historical content, and, on the other, interpretation that hopefully comes to a hearing of God’s Word addressing the interpreter is not intended to lead the reader to a choice and to prejudice him in that choice. On the contrary, this statement is merely to illustrate that he does not have to choose; indeed, he must not choose. Karl Barth did not choose. They err who have regarded him as the champion of anti-intellectual Bible-listening, his commentaries on Romans and Philippians being proof enough. Bringing one’s own problems and questions to the text does not replace thorough study; it rather gives study the proper posture and a compelling reason. The point of our present consideration is simply that the preacher must not, in his longing for unity in his messages and in his, whole modus operandi accept the easy victory that comes with either/or. Both approaches to Scripture sketched above participate in the struggle to understand, not just a text, but the will of God and the meaning of being Christian in one’s context. This understanding is the goal of interpretation and this understanding gives unity to the sermon. Unity short of this is pre-mature and more apparent than real.
There have been other ways of framing the issue of the fundamental tension that exists between the views of Scripture as content and/or as address. Joseph Sittler has labeled the two poles of the hermeneutical struggle “narrative” and “kerygma” locating the tension within the literature of the New Testament itself. 7 Kerygmatic declarations are found primarily in Paul and John where the accent is not upon a Jesus of Nazareth enmeshed in historical relativities but upon the crucified and risen Christ who now calls men out of death into life. Such declarations can be termed “address”. Narrative materials, on the other hand, such as are found in the Synoptic Gospels, present more of the historical account. However difficult the grappling with the historical elements within “gospel” records, the presence of the first three Gospels in the New Testament testify to the Church’s recognition of the essentiality of the temporal, historical contingencies within her story of redemption. These narratives can appropriately be called “content”.
Amos Wilder has analyzed the content and/or address character of the preacher’s message as it is being discussed in recent hermeneutical circles from a different perspective. 8 He has raised the issue of the nature of man and has asked whether the New Testament when viewed solely as content or solely as address has a message capable of redeeming the whole man. He regards it as an inadequacy of the Bultmannian approach that in viewing the Gospel as address, man is viewed simply as a volitional being, called upon to decide and nothing more. Man, Wilder rightly insists, is also a noetic being who needs explanations and meaning, who cannot make a “pure” decision apart from his whole social and cultural context. Social, historical, and psychological factors are not accidental to the man who is addressed and are therefore to be regarded positively in understanding God’s action in time and place rather than negatively or at best neutrally and as inconsequential to the decision for or against the addressing Word of God. To be sure, the introduction of historical and cultural content into the Gospel message raises the fear of the loss of immediacy and threatens the church with an archaic and history-trapped pulpit. But the alternative raises the charge of reducing the Word of God to a decision at the moment and reducing the man to a “decipher”, abstracted from a context of meaning which the doctrine of creation so positively asserts.
Is the preacher, then, to regard the Gospel as content in response to which he seeks belief? If so, he can do no better than to work through his New Testament in order to arrive at a full summary of the items included in the Gospel. The best and most influential study of this type is still C. H. Dodd’s The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development. 9 Professor Dodd arrives at a digest of the kerygma of the early church after careful analysis of the sources in the New Testament, especially Acts and I Corinthians. But if this content is preached, how is the preacher to escape Bultmann’s charge that his sermons are history lessons calling for consent, a consent which lacks the courage of faith because it requires the support and legitimization of historical evidence before it will say “yes”?
Is the preacher, then, to move away from historical considerations in search of the immediacy Bultmann has found in regarding the preaching event itself as the eschatological occurrence, the end-time for the man who hears Christ address him in the sermon with the threat of death or the promise of life? This immediacy, this sense of the eternal significance of the present is for the preacher more precious than rubies. But how shall he escape Dodd’s charge that his sermons are gnostic evaporations of history and departures from the tradition which Paul and others, having received it, were careful to pass along to others?10
It was said earlier that unity is essential to movement in preaching, and that movement is the first essential to interest and effective power in preaching. However, it was further pointed out that the principal reason for the breakdown of the unity of the sermons of men who prepare for the pulpit is to be found in the di-polar nature of the preaching task itself. At no point is this di-polarity more evident and more difficult to negotiate than in the effort to create sermons that have Biblical texts as a primary raw material. The geographical, linguistic, psychological, cosmological and chronological gulf between the ancient Near East and modern America yawns frighteningly wide. It is small wonder that some preachers turn away in their sermons either from the ancient Near East or from modern America, while others dutifully grant equal time to “Background” and to “Application”.
We have come, then, to the unenviable position of having asserted that the absence of serious interpretation of the Biblical text endangers the Christian character of the sermon while the presence of such Biblical interpretation endangers the movement of the sermon, and the unity essential to that movement, both qualities being requisites for maximum effectiveness. Obviously the next step in our consideration must be in the direction of a use of Scripture that is supportive of the thesis regarding inductive movement and yet a use which does not violate the honest exegesis which the text demands as the Scripture of the Church.
1. Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970) , p. 87.
2. Op. cit., p. 59.
3. See the perceptive discussion of this problem in Sittler, op. cit., pp. 1-11.
4. van den Heuvel, op. cit., p. 66.
5. Ebeling, Word and Faith. p. 325.
6. James M. Robinson, “Hermeneutic since Barth”, New Frontiers in Theology (New York: Harper’s 1964) Vol. II, pp. 1-77.
7. Op. cit., pp. 20ff.
8. “The Word as Address and the word as Meaning”, New Frontiers, Vol. II, pp. 198-218,
9. London: Holder & Stoughton, Ltd., 1936.
10. For an excellent discussion of the Dodd-Bultmann tension cf. William R. Baird, “what is the Kerygma?” Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957) , pp. 181-191.