Chapter 1: Preaching the Gospel

Preaching the Gospel
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 1: Preaching the Gospel

The proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord is basic to the life of the Christian community. What is more, preachers act for that community in their proclamation; they do not speak of themselves and for themselves. Recognition of this fact requires us to begin a discussion of presuppositions by speaking about the Church itself.

There are many different societies or groups in the world, all of which have some purpose or aim. Mutual help is one of these. Another is a sharing of common interests or objectives. Still another is the provision of opportunity for friendship or close association. But the Christian Church, which in some ways resembles such groups, has its own distinctive quality. To understand what that quality is, we need to consider two or three important points. One of them is that to which St. Paul pointed when he described the Christian community of his day as ‘the Body of Christ.’ By this he seems to have meant that the meaning of the Church was to be found in its acting so closely and directly for Jesus Christ and so significantly carrying on his work in the world that it was to him as our human body is to our human self.

It would be possible, but mistaken, to argue from this in an almost biological fashion. Indeed St. Paul appears to have done something of the sort when he speaks of the Church as Christ’s body and those who belong to it by baptism as being members of that body. But we need not press the analogy too far, for if we do there is a danger that we shall make of the Church a substitute for the reality of the Lord himself, who is its head and principle of life, standing ‘over it’ [as we might say) both in mercy and in judgment. Nonetheless, the Church is so intimately the Lord’s Church that it should be respected, honored, and esteemed. What is more, it is the indispensable means for making the reality of Christ a present factor in the ongoing world. Did it not exist, nothing significant could be known about him -- even those who reject it are still dependent upon it for what can be known about that One from whom it took its origin.

Closely related to this meaning of the Church is another. The Christian fellowship is best understood as a living, developing, and dynamic tradition. Tradition, of course, can be interpreted in a dead and static way; but that is not the way in which the Church as tradition should be understood, As we shall see in a moment, the Church is a living ‘social process’, as I like to put it. In that respect it is like every other such process: it has an identity which is established by the very fact that it comes from the past which it unfailingly remembers; it lives in the present where its decisions and actions must be done; and it looks to the future where its purpose for existence will find fulfillment. So it is with every living organism; the Church is an instance, but a special one, of something that runs through the cosmos.

As such, the Church exists to make present in the contemporary world the event upon which it is built -- the event of Jesus Christ, taken as of quite special importance in the affairs of the world. All its activity, of whatever kind, is intended to be an expression of that event and its significance. And its goal is the realization, so far as this may be accomplished in a world of space and time, of the deepest intention disclosed in the originating event.

If we rightly understand the point of God’s action in the human existence of Jesus Christ and all that his existence implies, then we must say that the Church is the community in which God’s active love is both disclosed and released into the world. So it was with the Lord himself. When the Church is true to its own true identity, it is the fellowship of those who have been caught up into and made participant in that divine Love made available for men and women of all sorts, classes, races, backgrounds, and experience. They have been knit together in their being thus caught up; hence they are related one to another in a bond which is essentially the bond of love, divine in the first instance and human as a consequence.

But the Church, like every grouping of humans, must exist in this world and must reflect, in some meaningful way, what is going on in this world. In other words, the Church is part of a created order which itself is dynamic, societal, and processive. In my view we can best understand that created order if we take seriously the insights which are found in the general philosophical conceptuality known as ‘Process Thought.’ Therefore I must say something about how that conceptuality looks at things. I shall do this under a few headings but very briefly -- for further explanation the reader may wish to consult such books as my own Lure of Divine Love (Pilgrim Press and T. and T. Clark, 1981) or Peter N. Hamilton’s The Living God and the Modern World (Hodder and Stoughton, 1968).

In the first place, as I have just said, ours is a world that is in process. That is to say, it is a changing or developing world -- which does not imply automatic progress but which does stress the vital or living quality of its existence. Then, it is a world in which there are not ‘things’, or fixed and static substances, but ‘becomings’, events or occasions, which themselves are foci of energy and experience; only in a macroscopic sense is there such hardness, fixedness, and the like as appears to be the case to the naked eye. It is also a world which is inter-related, with everything influencing and affecting everything else – ‘no man’, said John Donne, ‘is an island entire unto itself, nor is anything else in the cosmos. If ours is a world of ‘becoming’, it is also a world of ‘belonging.’

In such a world, there is a radical freedom, so that novelty may be chosen and may emerge in the creative advance. At the human level, this entails accountability for what is chosen in freedom. Nobody can escape this; and at other (and, as we usually say, ‘lower’) levels, there is an analogous freedom and accountability although of course not known consciously. Again, the world is such that in the long run, persuasion is more effective than coercion, even if this does not always seem to be so. And finally, God is related to the world so intimately and really that what has been said about the general principles required to describe the creation may be applied ‘eminently’ to deity. But this does not mean that God is not transcendent over the world. It means only that the creation reflects what is the basic character of God in the fullness of deity -- the Creator is not denied by what goes on in creation, save when there is willful wrongdoing. Or to put it in another way, the creation bears upon it what the ancient Fathers of the Church called vestigia dei -- ‘traces or intimations of deity.’

Such a view of things does not deny for a moment the presence of evil in the creation nor the appalling reality of sinfulness in men and women. But it sees the entire created order as what might be called a great adventure in which God works ceaselessly to bring good out of evil, to make love triumphant over hatred and wrong, to establish truth over falsehood and error, and to express the divine beauty in that which is in the process of being created.

To my mind, this conceptuality is much closer to the general biblical interpretation than the more static philosophical systems which have so often been adopted by Christian theologians. But I shall not pursue this topic here; suffice it to say that in the present book it is assumed as a presupposition for the work of the preacher in proclaiming the gospel of God’s active love in the Man Jesus and all that his appearance implies.

Now in a world like that, the Christian Church has its part and its place. It too is processive, as I have already urged; it is made up of living entities or human persons; it is a social affair, in which all its members influence and affect each other; it exists in freedom to decide what seems best in any given circumstance but must accept responsibility for what is decided and for the consequences of those decisions; and it lives and works in love -- in the human loving which is both instrumental for and a reflection of the divine Love which in the event of Jesus Christ was [so Christians believe) -- both enacted humanly in One of our own kind and also ‘let loose’ into the affairs of humanity in order to bring men and women to an ever more profound and enhancing existence in mutual sympathy, understanding, courageous defense of the right and good, and the promotion of rightness in all human relationships.

As such, the Church has its own identity. What is it that establishes identity in a world like the one I have been describing? Certainly it is not some substantial thing to which experiences happen. But if not that, then what is it that makes it a this rather than a that?

We can best arrive at an answer to this question by considering what in fact establishes the identity of any one of us. What is it that makes you you and me me? We are different one from another. Each of us is a human identity, specifically himself or herself. In an earlier day, people would talk about the ‘soul’ or would use some other similar term to indicate this identity. But nobody has been able to discover such a thing apart from the various experiences which are enjoyed. We are these experiences. That is, we are a routing of moments or occasions, taking place one after another; and these connected moments or occasions or experiences are what constitutes us for what we are, Where then is the identity?

I suggest that it is in the way in which each succeeding moment along that routing incorporates into itself what has taken place in the past, so that this past is not lost nor rejected but is felt or accepted (‘prehended’ is Whitehead’s word for this) and incorporated into the next moment, along with whatever novelty or specific ‘newness’ that next moment includes. The past has what can be described as a causal efficacy upon the present. And there is an aim toward the future, so that each moment is already anticipatory of what will follow -- that future has not yet happened, but the intimations of it are found in the way in which in the present it is being aimed for. So far so good. But at the human level there is a distinctive quality which we call awareness or self-consciousness, so that at each of the succeeding moments it is I, as somehow aware of that incorporated past, as existing in the present moment of decision and action, and as looking forward (with greater or less intensity) to what next will take place as the result of the choices made and the actions undertaken in the present.

All this may seem very abstract, at least in the fashion in which I have just put it. Nevertheless a little introspection will show it to be the way things go with us. What holds the whole routing together in a unity which has an enduring quality about it is my sense that it is precisely I myself who knows this past, exists in this present, and aims toward this future. In other words, it is my awareness of the past which has been efficacious in bringing me to the present and in providing the material (so to say) upon which by my several decisions (and the actions consequent upon them) a future is opened up for me to know and experience. This is my identity.

If we apply this sort of description to the Christian fellowship we may then say that it exists from its past, in its present, and toward its future. In that respect it is like any other social process of becoming and belonging. For I must not forget that this identity of mine is with others and in a world. Thus the Church is social in its character and is immersed in the affairs of the created order in which it has made its appearance. What is distinctive about it, about its identity, is the particular past which it inherits, what it does with that past, and how it works toward future goals. The past which the Christian community or tradition inherits is first of all the event from which it took its origin -- Jesus Christ as an historical reality, with all that this includes such as the preparation in Judaism for his coming, the way in which he was received and understood in his own time, his own sense of vocation for whatever he undertook, and the way in which he has come to have significance for later generations. So it is that we may rightly say that the Church’s identity is found in its existence ‘in Christ’ understood as ‘important’ -- that is, as making a difference in the world -- and as somehow focal in the relationship between God and that world, at least so far as we humans are concerned.

Since this is the case, the point now to be considered follows immediately. The Church exists, in its specific identity, to carry out a certain task; it has a function or functions which are also specifically its own. These are the affirmation or declaration of its originating event, the making of that event a contemporary reality through what we call worship, and the consequences of the event in producing a certain quality or mode of existence which (however various may be its manifestations) is recognizably in continuity with the originating event. In order to make all this possible, the Church also has a kind of succession in which the several functions are insistently undertaken and performed. In a profound sense, therefore, the Church’s identity is indicated by those functions which are proper to its specific character.

To put this in traditional language, the Church manifests its Christian identity by proclaiming Jesus Christ, by making him available for men and women, by laboring to create and nourish a life in others which reflects and serves his purposes and his own quality of life. All of this in an historical succession in which the past of the tradition still lives in the present of contemporary human existence, with an aim toward fulfillment of the dominant and dominating purpose which in the earliest witness was declared as having been enacted in the originating event of Jesus Christ himself. So it is that the Church engages in preaching, worship, and the empowering of discipleship. The way in which these are done may differ from age to age, as would be inevitable in any social process which belongs in the world; but the several functions remain constant in themselves. They are what the Church is for; they characterize its very existence as the Church; and they are believed -- here we come to the highly significant matter -- to be the will and work of the God who was disclosed and whose power of love was released in what took place in Palestine two thousand years ago.

As I have just hinted, there are bound to be changes. In respect to proclamation, there will be different ways of presenting and interpreting the originating event as being important -- in the most profound meaning of that word -- and focal in the God-human relationship. There will be alterations in the fashion in which the worship, always essentially eucharistic and always an anamnesis (or the bringing of the originating event into the present) is undertaken. So also the manner in which life ‘in Christ’ will be wrought out will be different in succeeding ages. We are not asked to live archaically in first-century Palestine; neither are we supposed to engage in a mere repetition of formulae or actions or life such as were known and carried out at this or that particular moment in the past. In biblical language, the Spirit ‘takes of the things of Christ and declares them unto us’, always in a manner which is both appropriate to the Church’s origin and also available for and intelligible in this or that given moment of the tradition’s development. None the less, there is an identity and a continuity which is very real and very impressive.

In traditional Christian thought the Church has been defined as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Something needs to be said about each of these in the context of our discussion. I shall do this very briefly. First, the unity of the Church is in its abiding loyalty toward and its continuing reference to its Lord. This unity is not to be taken as demanding uniformity, since different people at different times and in different places will inevitably have their own way of expressing and realizing in concrete fact their common loyalty with its common reference to Jesus Christ. The outward manifestation of that basic unity has been lost, thanks to historical circumstances; but the reality of it remains -- and one of the concerns of Christian people and their leaders must surely be to labor for its more obvious manifestation. A Church which is rent by divisions within itself is not a satisfactory expression of the oneness of Christian people with God in Christ and their oneness with each other in their communal existence.

As to holiness, this is of course to be seen as not so much a moral quality, although that is demanded, as in its ‘belonging on God’s side’ and hence participant in the holiness which is God’s own. The Christian fellowship is not identical with worldly affairs, however much it should be involved in those affairs if it is to fulfil its vocation. It cannot be separated from that world, to be sure; but precisely because of its nature and mission it must always be distinct from it. Otherwise, it will have nothing to give to the world but will become only a religious icing on the secular cake, providing religious approval to whatever the secular world may consider right and decent and respectable.

In its catholicity, the Church is for the whole world. It is catholic in the sense that it is (as I was brought up to say) ‘for all people at all times and in all places.’ There is more to its catholicity, however, than any such description can provide. The very word itself comes from the Greek phrase kath’olou, whose basic meaning is something like integrated, whole, harmonious. Thus the Church’s catholicity, as our Eastern Orthodox brethren like to insist, is essentially its way of keeping together in an organic fashion its proclamation, worship, and life of witness, in continuity with its past, and with a due balance between and among all these, It is not a sectarian or ‘clique-ish’ society; it has about it a holistic quality which promotes and develops in its membership a similar wholeness of life, with belief, action, testimony, and loyalty knit together in an harmonious manner.

Apostolicity, like catholicity, has two senses. In the first place, as the word in its original Greek suggests, it is sent: the Church exists not only for a mission to the world but as a mission in the world. In that sense, holiness and apostolicity belong together. But in the second place, the Church’s apostolicity tells us that it rests back upon and constantly witnesses to the first and originating moment of its existence. It does not reek of the contemporary, although it is bound to be concerned for that present moment of its life; it has a continuity which relates it inescapably to its earliest and originating days, on the one hand, and to the succeeding stages of its development as a living tradition, on the other hand.

All this finds its representation in the ministry of the fellowship. There is a ministry belonging to all Christian people as participant in the Body of Christ; as the Good Friday prayer puts it, ‘every member of the same, in his vocation and ministry’ is to serve the purposes of God in Christ. But without a specifically ‘ordained’ or authorized ministry, composed of persons who have been ‘duly called, examined, and found qualified’ to act for (but not instead of) that wider ministry of all Christian people, there would be lacking a sharp edge, a vivid and vital expression, of the more general mission and ministry. With this ordained ministry in its function of proclamation of the ‘good news’ or gospel of Jesus Christ this present book is concerned.

I must stress here what in the last paragraph was noted in a parenthesis: that the ordained ministry acts for and not in stead of the ministry which belongs to each and every member of the fellowship. The difference between ‘separate’ and ‘distinct’ is to the point here. Ordained ministering is in no way separate from the wider ministry of Christian people; it is ‘distinct’ from that wider ministry, in that it functions for as it also represents the service which is proper to all who belong to the Church.

In past ages some have talked as if there were a gulf between these two; and in reaction from that utter separation, some have talked as if there were no distinction between them, The fact is that throughout Christian history, whatever may have been the theory accepted as valid, there has been precisely such a distinction. The way in which we can make sense of it is by seeing that the two are inseparably related but that inevitably (in a world like ours) there will be diversity: ‘diversity of gifts but the same spirit.’ I have just put the word spirit with a lower-case ‘s’; but I might quite as readily have put it with an upper-case ‘S.’ For the living reality of the Christian Church in which the Spirit of God -- or the divine responsive movement to what was expressed in the event of Jesus Christ -- is present and active is seen by the Christian ages to be not an accidental or merely historically-conditioned development. Rather, it is seen as in some very serious way guided and empowered by the Spirit of God released in Christ. Thus we can dare to say that the distinction between ordained and general ministry is not arbitrary or purely incidental; it is tied in with the operation of God as God purposes the Church to serve acceptably in this world of time and space.

In Christian teaching the Church is often spoken of as ‘militant, expectant, and triumphant’ -- as the Church in this world of time and space, as the Church as it awaits final fulfillment, and as the Church ‘in heaven.’ Whatever we may think of this familiar description, one thing is apparent: the Christian fellowship, including all those who have been caught up into the love of God released in the event of Jesus Christ, is more than the visible community ‘here on earth.’ In some fashion, about which we can know nothing, those who have been ‘soldiers and servants’ of that same Christ in earlier ages and who have now died must not be forgotten but must be seen as participant in the life of God in a manner which is appropriate to that divine life. But if they are not forgotten by those who at present are living in the world, they most surely are not forgotten in God -- God’s memory is infallible and all-inclusive. Thus when we speak of death we are not talking about the finality of human existence. In God there is no finis, no ending, for Christian faith sees deity as everlasting.

With this in mind, preachers of the ‘good news’ needs always to remember that in their proclamation of that which in Christ God has ‘determined, dared, and done’ (in Christopher Smart’s compelling words) they are speaking not just for the contemporary Church but for the whole body of faithful people. What is more, we cannot in our human ignorance and in our human finitude limit that body to those who have in some express fashion affirmed faith in Jesus Christ. God alone can know those who have responded, in whatever manner may have been possible for them in their time, place, and circumstances, to the divine self-disclosure. The Eastern Orthodox are prepared to include in the body of the Church in this extended sense the whole cosmos, even the natural order, quite as much as human existence on this planet. Here we are in the realm of speculation, of course, but we can say this at least: no preacher who knows his business and who is aware of ‘the wideness of God’s mercy’ can dare to talk as if only those who have visibly and expressly professed Christian faith are the concern of a deity whose ‘nature and name’ is Love, Thus the preaching of the ordained minister must necessarily err, if it errs at all, on the side of generosity and charity. Who are we to attempt to narrow the divine compassion? In ways beyond our knowing, beyond our finding out, God cares for the whole creation.