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Preaching the Gospel by Norman Pittenger


Dr. Pittenger, philosopher and theologian, was a senior member of King’s College, Cambridge for many years, then Professor of Christian Apologetics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, before retiring in 1966. Published by Morehouse-Barlow Co., Inc., Wilton, Connecticut, 1984. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 8: Preaching, Theology, and Ethics


Preaching is not a theological exercise, as if the preacher were delivering an informed lecture on the subject. Neither is it an exercise in moral teaching, as if the preacher were only discussing the best way for human living. I have already made this point and I shall not labor it again. Yet it is equally necessary to remember that all sound and proper preaching, when done responsibly by the one designated to proclaim the ‘good news’, has its theological and moral presuppositions and consequences.

For this reason I shall now proceed to set down what seem to me to be the basic convictions which are affirmed in the Christian tradition. The discussion which follows is not intended to be complete; it is suggestive and fairly brief, yet it is concerned to make plain what the agelong Christian tradition, the ‘social process’ which is the living community we call the Christian and Catholic Church, has come to believe. The task of theology as such is to give as coherent and consistent an account as is possible for the finite human mind, of what faith entails. In the language of the middle ages, fides qua creditur -- the continuing act of believing -- leads to fides quae creditur -- ‘the faith’ by which the community lives and which it believes to be as true as any such human statement can be. There has been development, to be sure, but it has been continuous with the past and seen to be relevant in the present. So also with the subject called morality. The specifically Christian emphasis is upon what is implied and suggested, even demanded and required, if the affirmations of ‘the faith’ are taken with utmost seriousness. Once again there has been development. But also once again there has been a continuity of past and present; once again there is the conviction that here is something which is relevant to the lives of men and women today as in earlier days. So let us now proceed to set forth those basic convictions and the moral consequences which they are said to entail.

First, as I have urged again and again in our discussion, God is at the center of the theological enterprise, precisely as God is at the center of a working Christian faith. God is ‘that than which no greater can be conceived’, as Anselm phrased it; as such God is the supreme reality, living and active and loving. What the ancient compline prayer calls God’s ‘eternal changelessness’ is not a matter of a supposed metaphysical immutability and impassability; rather, it is a matter of the utter faithfulness of God, the divine dependability, the divine resourcefulness, the divine excellence. This God, who is the one and only God, is above and transcendent to the creation -- inexhaustible and beyond our human grasping. This God is active within the creation, enabling its response to the divine intention -- here is the divine immanence. This God is also alongside the creation too, disclosed by act in the affairs of the world; here is what I like to name the divine concomitance. And ‘the nature and name’ of this God is nothing other than sheer Love, personally related to the men and women who are God’s beloved children.

Second, those who are God’s beloved children are made, or rather are being made, toward the divine image. They are being created out of the materials of the world to become reflections of the divine Love and to serve as personalized instruments for the working of that Love. As such they are good. But tragically they have persisted in seeking their own ways and hence are in defection from their intended nature -- they are ‘sinners.’ Through millenia of wrong decisions, with the inevitable consequences of such choices, they are now in a situation where their potential goodness cannot be realized as it should: what is more, each one of us, of himself or herself, continues to choose wrongly. Hence the situation is the more aggravated, the more serious, the more irremediable. But to human existence in its inadequacy and defection, God comes in the ceaseless love which is God, to remedy this and to bring people into a right relationship with God and with other humans. In human freedom, they may respond to this action toward them: or they may fail to respond. Yet God still cares and works faithfully for their return -- as embodied creatures, compounded of matter and spirit, whose wholeness is always a possibility for them.

Third, in the event we name when we say ‘Jesus Christ’, God has acted in a focal way, so far as we humans are concerned, both to reveal the reality and pervasive action of divine Love and to release into the world of human affairs the power of that Love for the re-making of human existence and for its establishment in the divine purpose. In a fully human life, lived among us and sharing with us the conditions which are ours, God has acted. In that event there is a coincidence of the prevenient Love which is God and the responsive human loving which is potential in each of us. The models often used to describe this have been unsatisfactory, to be sure: talk of ‘substance’ has led to much confusion and misunderstanding, as has talk of the union of wills or the association of divine/human consciousnesses. What is really being said is that divine activity and human activity are at work -- always and everywhere, to be sure, but that in Jesus Christ these two ‘come to a point’, so that the latter can properly answer to and serve for the former. God acts first and then there is the human response, the human ‘Amen’ to the divine initiative. The result is a decisive exhibition of how things are meant to be -- for even if humans had not sinned, this would have been the divine purpose for humanity. Here is no incidental nor accidental occurrence: but a culmination in what I call ‘the classical instance’ of what always and everywhere God is ‘up to’ with human existence.

Fourth, through that focal event, there is both a disclosure of God in the integrity and inexhaustibility of the divine loving and the ‘letting loose’ into human experience and history of the divine power (or ‘grace’) which enables a right response to be made and which establishes in human existence the reality of life in love with other men and women, so that human society may become more and more the place where ‘the works of love’ are performed and where justice, deliverance from oppression, and rightness of relationship are given the chance to be effectual within the inevitable limitations of a finite creation. This is ‘redemption’, not as if it were merely a rescue from human failure but as an indication of and an empowering for the ‘wholeness of life’ (shalom, as the Hebrew has it) which God purposes for men and women both in their personal existence and in their social belonging.

Fifth, human destiny is not exhausted by life in this finite world where we live out our days. The final destiny of human existence, as of all else in the creation, is in God. Into the divine life things creaturely, including the human agents in the world, are received and accepted and find their abiding meaning. The book of our human life comes to an end, in one sense, when we die -- as die we all must; but that is not a final stop, since in God there is precisely such reception. The happenings in the creation are valued by God: they are important to God: they make a difference to God and in God. In the deepest Christian insight, whatever idiom may be adopted to state this, God and world are so related that each affects the other. God does not become more divine, of course; but God has other and more varied opportunity to adapt the divine Loving to the creatures, so that in any and every circumstance there is the renewed possibility of novelty, with the emergence of a greater capacity to act instrumentally for God’s intentions in the world.

How this ‘reception’ is accomplished and with what degree of conscious awareness of it on the part of the creatures we do not know. But exactly because God is unfailingly Love and unfailingly loving, we can have the confidence that God will do the best which can be done -- and that best will be the fulfillment of creaturely potentiality and the enactment of divine purpose. In God, ‘where moth and rust’ cannot damage or destroy, all that is salvable is saved: what is more, it is used by God -- not as if it were a way of divine self-exaltation but for the true ‘glory of God’, which is self-giving at its fullest and best. If Philip Larkin’s fine words about An Arundel Tomb (that what remains after death is our loving) are the truth -- and something deep in human existence affirms that they are -- then what matters most of all about any one of us is the way in which and the degree to which we are enabled to contribute, however imperfectly this must seem to us, to the delight of God and the implementation of God’s will and way in the world.

We are judged or appraised by how we have made this contribution. Our destiny is to be in God but whether this is negative or positive will depend upon the openness of the human person to the divine Love and the expression of that Love in and through the affairs of our daily living. Hence there is an accountability which no human can evade.

Sixth, the divine working is universal, not confined to the human level of existence. The ‘whole creation’ is the sphere in which God is active, in most various ways and in different degrees of intensity. Hence the Eastern Orthodox emphasis on the cosmos, in its entirety, as having a place and part in the working-out of God’s intention is entirely right and proper. It is too bad that an almost incurable anthropocentrism has marked so much of our western ways of theologizing that we have tended to do less than justice to the other aspects and areas of the creation which are not directly related to the human enterprise as such. Obviously we cannot know how this cosmic operation is effected but we can at least make sure that we do not ‘parochialize’ the divine love and talk as if its only interest is in what happens in the realm of human affairs. The creation at large is not simply a stage upon which the one significant drama, namely human life, is acted out; on the contrary, it is all significant so that the very ‘stars in their courses’ are important and have their place in what God is doing in the creation.

Seventh and last, such considerations lead us to see that when we speak of the divine creativity we are not pointing toward a single historical event ‘at the creation’, as if that were past and done with. God is ceaselessly creative: the world is continually ‘being made’ and we humans are part of that ‘being made’, with our own genuine freedom, our own dignity, and our own responsibility to play our proper role in the enterprise. If this implies that God has always ‘had a world’ in which there is divine activity, that does not mean that the creation is ‘necessary’ to God, as if the divine existence could not be conceived as transcendent over and unexhausted by what goes on in that created order. Yet because God is Love, there must be relationship in deity such that some creation is involved in the total picture. To speak of a Creator without a creation is to talk linguistic nonsense -- quite as much as to speak of creaturely freedom as if it were a freedom apart from dependence upon God’s initiating and continuing concern.

Here we can see that the Genesis story of creation, like the Revelation account of ‘the end’, is to be taken as a way of saying that as all has proceeded ultimately from the divine Love, so all is in the end directed to the divine Love. From that Love a creation has been brought into existence and continues to exist: toward the further enrichment of the divine Love the creation is intended to make its own contribution. Otherwise, the creation is a pointless and unimportant affair. But with this understanding, the creation has its significance and its value: because it ‘matters’ to God, it ‘matters’ also in itself as a sphere in which God finds worth and in which God exerts the loving energy which is the divine character or nature.

I quite realize that what has been said in these seven points is an inadequate and doubtless defective account of what Christian theology at its best has been concerned to affirm. Each point might have been expanded; each of them also needs, what there has not been space to provide, a defense against criticism. Furthermore, some of our inherited theological formulations do not measure up to and may on occasion seem to contradict the account which I have just given. Nevertheless I am convinced that what has been said is on the right lines and that it provides a kind of summary of the best insight and interpretation in the theological tradition which we have inherited.

For basically what we need is an illumination of the concrete data of lived religious faith. We cannot hope to have a ‘chart correct of things in heaven and earth.’ To assume that we could have such a chart is to presume too much: it is to be guilty of that libido sciendi ‘lust for knowing’, which Jacques Maritain quite rightly has condemned as one of the worst manifestations of human sinfulness. On the other hand, since we must say something, we can properly seek the best possible in making sense of and giving sense to the profound reality of the Christian life in grace, lived out in the context provided by the ongoing historical tradition which is the Christian community of faith. We should acknowledge always the imperfection of our statements yet be ready to trust the communis sensus, the ‘agreed sensibility’, which is at the heart of our concrete Christian existence. We can say something, even if we cannot presume to say everything. And what we do say must in some fashion be appropriate to the witness of the Christian centuries and also available or intelligible to men and women who live out their lives in today’s world.

On occasion one may be asked to put down, in a even briefer fashion, what is basic to the Christian theological and moral perspective. I recall that Wystan Auden once told me that when asked to do just this during a lecture-series which he was delivering at an American university, he replied by reciting the Nicene Creed! That was clever and in the circumstances perhaps appropriate. But of course the creedal statement, hallowed as it is by centuries of use during the celebration of the Eucharist, can be understood only when it is seen as a combination of supposedly historical data, theological affirmation put in a quasi-philosophical idiom, and a good deal of symbolic language (with the use of such phrases as ‘came down from heaven’, ‘ascended into heaven’, and the like). My own proposed summary of course lacks the creed’s historical freightage and is hardly the sort of thing that may be sung, say to the plainsong Missa de Angelis or Missa Marialis tones! Yet for what it is worth and with the conviction that it may speak meaningfully to men and women today I should now say something like this:

"We who are Christians commit ourselves in confidence to a supreme Love that is personalized, creative, and sovereign in the world. We affirm that this divine Love was enacted in the human existence which is central to the originating event of the Christian tradition, in the rich totality of that existence. For us this is the sufficient and compelling symbol of what and who the cosmic Lover truly is and what that Lover is "up to" in the world. This Jesus lived among us as truly human: he died and was buried. Yet he "could not be holden of death", because the human love which was his was taken into the divine life and there abides for evermore. Knit together in a fellowship of response to this enactment of divine Love in Jesus Christ, we belong to a communion of men and women which is a unity, which is for all people, which is integrated and enduring, with a mission to proclaim its faith to the world. In this assurance, we believe that our human destiny is to be received, like him, into the divine life, to be used of God for the furthering of the divine purpose in the creation.’

If that summarizes what I take to be the theological perspective, the moral perspective follows as a necessary consequence. That can be expressed much more simply and directly -- and in words that the New Testament attributes to Jesus himself: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength; and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ Obviously those brief words need to be spelled out in more detail. Yet their main drive is clear enough. The moral consequences of Christian faith are to be found in the urgent desire for and dedication to such loving. To say this entails also such concern for, such seeking and striving after, and such commitment to work toward, the reign or rule of love in the hearts of men and women and in the worldly affairs which inevitably must be theirs. All of which is to the end that there shall be justice and righteousness in human society, deliverance from oppression and from the negation of human potentialities, and the establishment among us of harmony, sympathy, understanding, and concord, both in our personal and our corporate existence.

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