Chapter 12: Preaching The New Testament Today

Many Witnesses, One Lord
by William Barclay

Chapter 12: Preaching The New Testament Today

In any engagement it is always wise to see just what we are up against. What then is the situation which meets us when we try to preach the NT today? To put it in another way, what is the situation which faces us when we try to communicate the gospel, not so much to the people inside the Church as to the people outside the visible Christian fellowship?

(a) Unquestionably, we face ignorance of the basic facts of the Christian story. W. E. Sangster tells how in 1947 Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton carried out an experiment with regard to the lads who in that year joined the Navy, and who, it must be assumed, must have been rather above the average in intelligence. Only 15 per cent could repeat the Lord's Prayer accurately; 28 per cent knew it in part; 49 per cent knew no more than the opening words. Although 72 per cent knew who Jesus Christ was, only 39 per cent knew where he was born. What happened on Good Friday was known to 62 per cent, but only 45 per cent knew the meaning of Easter, and only a little more than 2 per cent could explain Whitsuntide. From one point of view this ignorance is a handicap, because it means that we can assume little or nothing in our approach to people outside the Church. From another point of view it is an advantage, for it means that what we have to tell them is for them a new discovery.

(b) Equally unquestionably, we have to face a situation in which the Christian message and the Church have become to many a complete irrelevance. Fairly recently the Sunday Post, a newspaper which is entirely well-disposed to the Church and to religion, conducted an investigation into the reaction of young people to religion and to the Church. A nineteen-year-old clerk said: "I don't believe in God. I don't believe in religion whatsoever." A nineteen-year-old apprentice accountant said: "Christianity is a thing of the past. It's dying out rapidly. 1 won't be sorry to see it go. Church? Nor for me." A nineteen-year-old science student said: "Religion has no place in modern society. They repeat the same things over and over again." The conviction of the irrelevance of the Church was equally marked. A twenty-year-old student said: "The ideals the Church preaches are all right, but you don't need a Church to know how to behave." A twenty-year-old art student said: "I believe I can stay in contact with God without doing it publicly." A lad of sixteen said: "Church drives me up the wall. It's not worth getting out of bed for. None of my pals go to Church either."

It has to be noted that in no case is there any particular hostility to the Church. There is complete indifference to an institution and a belief which has simply ceased to have any relevance.

Clearly, the next question is: What has the Christian preacher to offer to meet this situation?

He has his preaching, and it has been pointed out that there are four kinds of preaching. There is kerugma, which is the uncompromising statement of the facts of the Christian faith. This is proclamation without argument. There is didache, which is the explanation of these facts, both as they are problems for the mind, and as they are matter of practical life and conduct. In other words, there is the development of the kerugma into Christian theology and Christian ethics. There is paraklesis, which is exhortation to accept the Christian faith and to live the Christian life. There is homilia, which is the treatment of any subject in the light of the Christian message. Somewhere within these different spheres the Christian preacher will move.

Clearly, the next question is: What has gone wrong? Why is it that Christian preaching in so many cases is no longer effective? Certain causes are almost immediately identifiable even if we go no further than look at these four different kinds of Christian preaching.

(a) It is clear that somewhere the balance has gone wrong. There is any amount of homilia, the general treatment of almost any subject in the form of a kind of Christian and moral essay. There is an equally large, if not still greater, amount of paraklesis, of the kind of exhortation which is a kind of Christian pep-talk. There is not a great deal of kerugma, for it is a strange feature of the Christian message today that it has become apologetic -- in both senses of the word -- rather than dogmatic -- again in both senses of the term. But the real disaster of the situation is the absence of didache, the neglect of the teaching ministry of the Church. One of the main faults of so much modern preaching is that it lives from day to day, looking each week for a "good text", instead of being a systematic and planned exposition of the Christian faith and of the Bible. There is little good in exhorting people to be Christian, when they have no clear idea of what being Christian means.

(b) There is the use of religious jargon, or, to put it in another way, the use of conventional religious words and expressions without any definition of them. W. E. Sangster told how Dr William D. White carried out an experiment in which he asked twenty-five intelligent people in his congregation to make a list of words and phrases, commonly used in preaching, which they did not understand. The list included such words as dayspring, logos, husbandman, washed in the blood of the Lamb, cherubim and seraphim, throne of mercy, heir of salvation, alpha and omega, things of the flesh, balm in Gilead, the bosom of Abraham, in Christ. It may well he that there are many who fail to understand still greater phrases like the Kingdom of Heaven, justification by faith, sanctification, atonement, eternal life, simply because they are so often used but so seldom expounded and explained.

The great characteristic of the language and the thought of the NT is that it was completely contemporary. It is the simple linguistic fact that, apart from the papyri, the NT is the supreme monument of Hellenistic Greek, Greek as the ordinary man spoke it in the first century AD. And further, it is the supreme characteristic of the NT that it uses categories of thought which were completely familiar to the people to whom it spoke. And the problem which faces us today is precisely the problem of persuading ourselves to admit that these categories of thought are quite alien and strange to the mind of the twentieth century and have to be reminded and restated in the language and the thought of today. It may well be that it is a basic mistake of a great deal of the presentation of the Christian message that it is offered in first-century categories of Jewish and Hellenistic thought expressed in Elizabethan English.

(c) However much we may hesitate to say it, it has to be said that a great deal of modern preaching is essentially trivial in its nature. W. E. Sangster said that "a great deal of Protestant preaching for a generation past has been on marginal things". Bishop Kulandram, looking with oriental eyes on western preaching, said that what struck him most was "its astonishing silence on deep theological issues". When that famous preacher Leslie J. Tizard was dying, and when he was thinking of what preaching had to say to a man with incurable and inoperable cancer, he quoted a saying of J. B. Priestley that people get a bit sick of having the front of their minds tickled, when they want something "which goes deeper". A group of intelligent people deeply regretted that the older didactic and exegetical sermon has so much given place to the topical address.

Clearly, the next and the last question must be: In what direction lies the cure? It lies in three directions.

(a) It lies in a revival of expository preaching. To put it very bluntly, it is the fact that people are not very interested, at least they are not interested for long, in hearing any man's opinions about all kinds of things political, social and economic; they are interested in trying to find out what the Bible has to say. And it is there that the preacher can help them. He has been deliberately trained in linguistic, historical, archaeological, theological study in a way which enables him to discover the meaning of, and thus to expound, scripture in a way that is simply not open to the layman. The whole aim of his training is to do precisely that. It is in fact the one thing that he can do better than the layman. The first thing that is needed from all pulpits is systematic exposition of scripture and systematic explanation of Christian doctrine, with the application of both to the human situation of the particular sphere of the hearers in the twentieth century.

(b) It lies in an approach of sheer honesty. This will involve the abandonment of conventional religious language which has ceased to be meaningful even to the preacher. It will involve the refusal to mutter pious platitudes. It will involve the frank admission by the preacher that there are problems before which he can only stand silent and go on seeking. A reverent agnosticism can be on occasion a better evangelism than a religion which knows all the answers.

(c) It will involve a total approach to the New Testament. One of the worst of all mistakes is to standardize one religious experience, and to speak and to preach as if there were no other. The NT has its John and James as well as its Paul. The amazing thing about the NT is its frank ad-mission that there are many ways to God, and the mistake which so many of us make, which maybe we all make, is to limit our preaching to that which specially appeals to ourselves. It is necessary to expound the full-orbed teaching of the New Testament, to remember that, while there is one Lord, there are many witnesses, and, when we set ourselves to do that we will undoubtedly find that parts of scripture which we thought had nothing to say to us become strangely and amazingly eloquent.

W. E. Sangster tells somewhere of the preacher who read himself full, thought himself clear, and prayed himself hot; and to read, to think and to pray is the only way to become a preacher in any century.