Chapter 2: The Search For Theological Method, And Its Requirement Of Preaching

The Ecology of Faith
by Joseph Sittler

Chapter 2: The Search For Theological Method, And Its Requirement Of Preaching

It is obviously possible for many ministers to keep separate their theological reading and reflection, and their preaching. Given the leaky structure of the human mind whereby contents of one area are regularly sloshing over unto others, this consistently maintained separation is an unusual feat. In trying to account for it I propose to say some things in the last lecture about practical facts in modern American church life which operate to encourage, if not to demand this deadening and guilt-begetting circumstance.

In this lecture I am proceeding on the assumption that the minister really knows that theology and preaching belong together, wants help in keeping the marriage alive and, while aware of the strain on the brain involved, is willing to endure it. The help proposed is to affirm that there is significance for preaching in the contemporary search for theological method, designate and describe an aspect of that search by reference to an impressive discussion of it, and finally delineate what its findings suggest for the public declaration of the Word.

The task of theology, as I understand it, is to make statements which clearly, intelligibly, and in just relationship set forth the content of the Christian faith as that faith is known and celebrated in the church. This definition requires that we understand theology both as a content and a task. It is a content because there is a sameness in the issues, divine and human, which it talks about, and a continuity in the substance of what it affirms about them. But it is the purpose of such statements to be intelligible; i.e., to say what is said in such a way as to communicate clearly to another mind precisely what the claim is. And because this activity goes on within a world where canons of clarity, requirements of intelligibility, and the nature of immediate human needs are in constant flux, the task of theology is a never-ending one.

In his Seventeenth Century Background Basil Willey asks why it was that "explanations of things which were satisfactory to one century were not satisfactory to another." To explain means to "make clear," to "render intelligible." But clarity and intelligibility is not a static quality of a statement; it is rather a quality of acceptability in a statement which quality is determined by the entire culture. "An explanation commands our assent with immediate authority when it presupposes the ‘reality,’ the ‘truth’ of what seems most real, most true. One cannot, therefore, define ‘explanation’ absolutely; one can only say that it is a statement which satisfies the demands of a particular time and place." (Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background [New York: Columbia University Press, 1942], p.13)

The current search for a proper theological method is surely due to the fact that our generation finds older "explanations" simply not clear, intelligible, or in just proportion. There is a "disharmony between traditional explanations and current needs." Statements of one period are "felt as fact" in virtue of their congruity with the spirit, practice, and basic assumptions of a time; they are not "felt as fact" by another period because, in the unstoppable running of water over the dam, the spirit, practice, and basic assumption of a time became altered. The degree to which the common life is aware of this alteration has nothing to do with the case. That is why, to stay within our immediate field of preaching, justly celebrated sermons of thirty years ago, while admirable in terms of craftsmanship and witnessing vivacity, cannot be heard now as they were then. They make statements that are no longer "felt as fact"!

A proper theological method will be one that meets these conditions:

1. It must operate open-eyed in the midst of the problem of hermeneutics, or principles of interpretation, as these are propounded by the biblical record. I am assuming, of course, that the earliest record of what men affirmed the Christian faith to be is admitted as having central status.

2. It must operate with a kind of epistemology which is appropriate to the kind of events and claims which have been clearly generative, formative, and sustaining of the Christian faith and community. I choose a specific example of the contemporary search for a proper theological method not only because of its intrinsic responsibility and impressive force but because, having come to life in this school, its right to be heard will not be lightly questioned.

In 1957 Richard R. Niebuhr published his Resurrection and Historical Reason. (Richard R. Niebuhr, Resurrection and Historical Reason [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957], p. 49) The argument of this book constitutes, I believe, the opening of a fresh and exciting period in American theological discussion. It does this because it is profoundly and accurately aware that the kind of thinking which declared Jesus Lord and Christ by his Resurrection from the dead is a kind of thinking which is a function of the historical consciousness of the community within which that claim was made. It affirms, further, what fifty years of critical biblical and historical and theological studies have made completely clear: ". . . that Christ and resurrection are inseparable, and the old dichotomy of Jesus of History -- Christ of Faith does not solve this problem; it only dissolves Christ and the Church."

The theological method for which Niebuhr makes a solid and persuasive plea is so clearly set forth in certain of his own summary sentences that by putting several of them in sequence the scope and rationale of his proposal is plain. Says Niebuhr:

Certainly one of the indisputable offices of theology is to open the mind of the present community to the way in which the primitive Church apprehended the event that became the focus of its self-understanding. Any attempt to relate ourselves to the historical Jesus in a manner fundamentally alien to the experience of the New Testament church is based on a sophistical idea of history, and ultimately leads us away from the object of the quest.

In several chapters following this stated program the writer describes and analyzes nineteenth century and current ways of relating ourselves to the historical Jesus, and gives particular attention to the options elaborated in the work of Karl Barth, Rudolph Bultmann, and John Knox. He finds none of them to be adequate, and all inadequate for varieties of the same reason: they do not take seriously the kind of knowledge of Jesus the Lord which the Resurrection record assumes. Barth, because he makes an attempt ". . . to answer the methodological and historical problems raised by the nineteenth century by foreclosing all discussion of epistemological questions and insisting that the subjectivity of Jesus Christ, the God-man, is the only important reality confronting the mind of man." Bultmann’s program of demythologization is assessed as inadequate because "Faith is oriented not on the picture of Jesus, but on the instantly proclaimed Word; it arises not in memory of the past, but in the eschatological moment without past or future." And further, ". . .the real purpose of historical investigation is the discovery of new dimensions, not in the past, but in the historian himself." New Testament theology is thus disqualified from playing a constructive role in the forming of a theological method which shall take seriously the problem of faith and history, and particularly this faith, rooted as no other religious faith is, in the very concreteness of history, and becomes nothing more than ". . . the first permanent expression of the distinctively Christian consciousness, and begs the question of the external history of that consciousness" (Ibid., 57, 58) "thus leaving . . . theology with nothing to discussion except the human need for self-understanding in general."

The work of John Knox is given detailed attention. Its basic thesis is that ". . . the data with which biblical theologians have to deal . . . will become luminous only if they are approached not as simple facts but as events." Event is, to Knox’s mind, the basic category for an analysis of history and the way in which it is known. A historical occurrence is simply an occurrence that was perceived and remembered. In other words, it evoked the response of a historical subject. . . . There can be no a-historical knowledge of a historically revealed Lord, no relationship to Jesus Christ apart from the power of memory or from the community in which that memory is lodged. (Ibid., pp. 62-63.) This method of interpreting the relation of faith and history, operating with the triad -- Jesus Christ Church § New Testament -- drives the argument, by the power of its internal relations, to declare: "The Resurrection is a part of the concrete empirical meaning of Jesus, not the result of mere reflection upon that meaning. . . . It was something given. It was a reality grasped in faith." (John Knox, Christ the Lord [New York: Harper and Brothers], p. 60.) When, however, one investigates where and when and what this "resurrection-event" really is, what he ends up with is the community’s experience of the Christ-Spirit within it. And so adequate a transcript of the event itself is this "remembering" community that the Resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of faith but a postulate of the community’s experience, and the apostolic narratives of resurrection are superfluous, from the point of men of faith. (Ibid., p. 69)

Niebuhr introduces his own constructive discussion with several statements which are not only a correct report of the biblical-theological situation in our time, but also provide material for our effort to say something useful about the theme of this lecture: what are the requirements for preaching which are suggested by this search for a proper theological method? He writes, "The impasse into which Protestant theology has come through its efforts to give significance to the resurrection tradition shows that the dogma of pure reason does not have sufficient resources to give Protestantism that kind of knowledge of Christian origins that its life and doctrine require." What is necessary, Niebuhr declares, is ". . .a critique of historical reason, a reason that will not seek the possibility of biblical history in the conditions of natural science or idealistic metaphysics, but rather in the answer to the distinctive question, how do we know historical events." (Niebuhr, op. cit., p. 89)

How do we know historical events? That question, standing between the biblical narrative of the mighty acts of God and the existing individuals who look up at us at the moment when, having read, we close the book and begin to preach, is the question. And if the preacher does not ponder it and wrestle with it, exciting and informing his pondering and wrestling with the best resources of biblical and theological labors, then nothing really useful can be done for him. For what does it mean that the declared redemptive power of human life comes to us in a narrative? This: that time is the category of the historical; that because the redemptive power of God has become time, faith-engendering witness cannot be borne to that power save in a kind of preaching which is a rhetorical address to men in their time-determined and time-imprisoned existence.

There is a noetic potency in temporality. Preaching must be such an activity as invites the hearer to suspect a congruity between what is declared to have been done by God in time, and his own self-consciousness as a creature of time. By the term "creature of time" I do not refer only to the fact of duration, clock time, the observable but scarcely exciting fact that there is a before-and-after pattern in human experience. I refer, rather, to a fact that has been observed by every critic of Immanual Kant, that time and space are not comparable categories. Space is a conception. Time is a feeling. It is a word to indicate something inconceivable -- a "sound-symbol" -- and to use it as a notion, scientifically, is utterly to misconceive its nature. In the entire company of older philosophy I know but one profound and reverent presentation of time: it is in the fourteenth chapter of the eleventh Book of St. Augustine’s Confessions. "Quid est ergo Tempus? Si nemo ex me quaerat scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio!" (Translation -- What is time then? If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, I know not [Loeb Classical Library Edition]) It is possible to illustrate this statement about time in many particulars. The most quick and living way is simply to muster, for the evocative and response-begetting power they have, a miscellany from man’s general confessional.

From John Milton’s "Nymphs and shepherds dance no more" to our present century is a long time. And this time has seen a magnificent multiplication of devices, institutions, analgesics, and therapeutics designed to make man, the "time-creature," more content, prosperous, and secure in his "brief and mutable traject," or designed to obscure the fact of death by narcotizing the living as we cosmetize the dead. But the intervening centuries have done nothing to diminish the passion with which men regard mutability and passingness. The passion has become rather less restrained -- for life can become so air-conditioned as to make its contingency seem a huge and somewhat rotten joke.

That distortion of the New Testament witness to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (which carries its distinctiveness clearly stamped upon it) whereby its character has been translated out of particularity to the generality of immortality, makes it increasingly difficult even to declare the hope of the resurrection. For resurrection deals bluntly with man in his temporality -- and claims to overcome it. Immortality deals with man in his ideal non-temporality and essays to persuade him that his actuality is not his reality.

But men at whiles are sober,

And think by fits and starts.

And when they think, they fasten

Their hands upon their hearts.

(A. E. Housman, "Could Man Be Drunk?" Complete Poems of A. E. Housman [New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1959] Copyright 1940, 1959, by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., publishers. Reprinted by permission of the publishers.)

So it is that the facts break through, and in so doing draw out from men reflections immediate and forceful. As, for instance, the lovely "Epitaph" by Walter de la Mare:

Here lies a most beautiful lady,

Light of step and heart was she;

I think she was the most beautiful lady

That ever was in the West Country.

But beauty vanishes; beauty passes;

However rare -- rare it be;

And when I crumble, who will remember

This lady of the West Country?

(Walter de la Mare, "An Epitaph," Collected Poems, 1901-1915[New York: Henry Holt & Co., Inc., 1920] , I, 160)

The interpretation of resurrection as merely the persistence of human or divine memories in "minds made better by their presence" can hardly persist beyond the crumbling of the rememberers.

The noetic power resident within the self’s understanding of passingness must, in preaching, be conjoined to the revelationary power resident within a story of redemptive deeds accomplished in sequential, dramatic form, within time and passingness. The congruity of the two magnitudes -- man’s pathos and God’s passion -- both unfolding their power in time and history, is the most general theme of biblical preaching: it is the homiletical counterpart to the "interpretation according to historical reason" for which Niebuhr appeals. If, as he affirms, ". . . one of the indisputable offices of theology is to open the mind of the present community to the way in which the primitive church apprehended the event that became the focus of its self-understanding," so it is an indisputable office of preaching to do the same thing. (It is not necessary for the sake of the present argument to share this chapter’s high evaluation of Niebuhr’s book, nor to consent to Niebuhr’s analysis and judgment upon the ideas of others who are presently busy with biblical hermeneutics. The preoccupation of the entire theological world with this issue is a significant point.)

But not in the same way, for theology and preaching are distinct offices of the church. It is the task of theology to keep categories clean, to explicate the faith of the church in categories which are inwardly fashioned by the particularity of the events and affirmations which are constitutive of the community of the people of God. It is the task of preaching to enflesh these categories with the living, episodic, and anecdotal concreteness of historical and present eventfulness. This concreteness does not deliver its force in a simple melody; it requires, rather, a kind of counterpoint -- voices in such contrapuntal relevancy as shall fuse together the passion from above incarnately become present in order to redeem the pathos from below.

What is required in order to move toward the accomplishment of this? As I now attempt to elaborate several requirements which that task imposes upon the preacher, it will be evident that we are still absorbed in the large figure of speech with which we began: the ecology that determines the fertility of the fields of faith. The single stone of a declaration of a specific grace, or of a promise of power, or of an all-obliterating forgiveness, or of a judgment -- such single stones are set in a ring of remembered mercies. They are what they are; but what they are in their separate brightness gathers a glow and achieves a larger circle of meaning, a certain steadiness of godly fact, when set in the ring of the great story.

Two propositions indicate specifically what, in my judgment, is necessary. First, a reformation of worship whereby the noetic power of time may support the content of biblical preaching. For worship is that activity of the household of God in which the content of the moment is ensconced in the events and the remembered career of the great story. (I have tried to make this clear in another essay during the North American Conference on Faith and Order in Oberlin in 1957. The essay is printed as an appendix to this book. The proceedings were published as The Nature of the Unity We Seek[St. Louis, Missouri: The Bethany Press, 1958]) Worship is personal; but it is never individual. Just as it breaks personal life open to the sweep of the arc of grace in such a way as to gather the person in all the immaculate selfhood of his particularity into the fold of the relentless Shepherd, so, with no loss of existential immediacy, it breaks open the trap of the moment to the power of the possible.

If this prospect means fresh attention to the content and role of liturgy, let us not blanch in free church horror or smilingly relax in liturgical satisfaction. We dare not blanch, for our choice is not, as one of my colleagues is wont to say, between liturgy and no liturgy; the actual choice is between liturgy which may accomplish ecological deepening and liturgy which does not, i.e., between good liturgy and bad liturgy. If the church really is, among other things, the community that remembers Jesus, then liturgy is but the obedience of the practice of the church to the reality of its mind! And we who have grown up within the liturgical tradition dare not relax as if we, by our deeds of preservation, were automatically obedient. For a liturgical tradition, shaped for recollective vitality, may be so disengaged from the glowing stone of the instant Word as not only to fail to enshrine it but actually constitute a devout irrelevancy. Repetition of the mellifluous can become torpor concealed by piety. And often does.

Recall now the evidence, illustrated previously by Niebuhr’s discussion of the current theological concern with the resurrection narrative in the New Testament: that teaching and preaching have not done with this matter. Efforts to contain the meaning of the church’s testimony to the resurrection within various categories of interpretation have, rather, thrust its character as intransigently belonging to the realm of historical reason sharply into the center of the church’s present mind. And suppose now a preacher to this moment who has followed the biblical, philosophical, and historical battles of the past 150 years. Suppose him, further, to be a man who is compelled so to preach the gospel of the Resurrection to the common life as not to betray in his pulpit what he learns in his study. Is it actually possible to declare the dimension of the meaning of the resurrection if that declaration is unsurrounded by, unsupported by, and, in the trans-momentary reality of worship, uninvested with the non-propositional noetic force of historical time? It is possible, yes. It is also possible to speak tenderly to a man who suddenly finds that he has but a few months to live, as if

"He were the first to ever burst Into that silent sea -- -- " but we commonly do not do so.

All things are more bearable if we make a story of them. And ultimate desolutions are made both bearable and significant when the story is the Ultimate Story. That is why man’s time, in the Order for the Burial of the Dead, is inserted not only into its own pattern of passingness, but into God’s time. That is why, whether we honor liturgical continuities or not, we enfold the broken rhythms of existence within a mightier rhythm in the words of Psalm 90:

Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God. Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men. (Holy Bible, A.V.)

How the powers of the Christian past are to be related to the living moment so as to help such a central affirmation as the Resurrection of Jesus Christ to bloom in the mind to its indeterminate dimension, I do not clearly know. But I do know that shallowly devised, mood-engendering stimulants to unstructured piety are not helpful. A structure appropriate to this substance, because recollective both of what this substantial affirmation gathers up into itself and of what affirmation and counsels flow out of it, serves to make available to the action of the Spirit the noetic powers resident in historical reason. Hundreds of years of Christian preaching have taken place in such a context; and while it is properly asserted that the erosion from the mind even of the church of the rich referents traditionally clustered about the Easter narratives makes dependence upon them questionable, it must nevertheless be pointed out that a process can be reversed.

There is heartening evidence that a biblical soil-conservation program is presently at work. The following facts support this belief: the participation of the churches in the theological conversations of the ecumenical movement, which perforce have had to find their common starting point and common vocabulary in biblical literature and theology; the growing body of specifically biblical theology, produced by the very vitality of fragmentary and monographic studies. These studies, extracting the differentiation of the parts, and astounded nevertheless by the historical fact that there has been discernible unity transcending them in the mind and life of the church, have thrust into the foreground a fresh interest in the unity of the biblical tradition, and in the doctrine of the church. To these forces from within the churches must be added another from without. An increasing body of contemporary literature has laid hold of old biblical themes, episodes, central terms and symbols because it finds there, presumably, stuff elemental and big enough to contain and furnish forth its message. We remark the curious fact that just as, thirty years ago, the churches had about succeeded in excising Bach and Palestina from the ken of the new generation at the moment college and high school choirs were finding them -- and church schools, afraid of the recondite reaches of the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, beheld their children at school singing "0 Magnum Mysterium" and "Ave, Corpus Verum" -- so, too, the preaching fashion, having become in large part the holy branch office of the local psychiatric clinic, is now confronted with "J.B.," "The Fall," "Christmas Oratoria," and the considerable theological imagery in "Four Quartets."

Easter is not an episode; it is both a culmination and a new beginning. Resurrection is an assertion about God before it is a puzzling reported fact about Jesus. And the persistent heart of the puzzle is due to the fact that the first shines through the second, and has never been understood in the historical mind of the church in any other way. And worship in the church must set that stone in that setting. As, for instance, in the old propers of the missal for Quasi Modo Geniti, the first Sunday after Easter. By an ordered round of readings -- Old Testament, Gospel, and Epistle -- plus the fragments in Introit and Gradual, the church once secured the people against the poverty of the preacher; extended the orbit of this season’s declaration beyond the fugitive inspiration of the moment. The Introit for that day, as indeed for the entire post-Easter season up to Ascension Day, makes clear that the One "with whom we have to do" in the resurrection is God. Here are selections from these Introits:

The Earth is full of the goodness of the Lord:

By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made.

Say unto God, how terrible art thou in Thy works:

Through the greatness of Thy power shall

Thine enemies submit themselves unto Thee.

O Sing unto the Lord a new song,

for He hath done marvelous things.

His right hand, and His holy arm, hath

gotten Him the victory.

Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye

lands, sing forth the honor of His name

Make His praise glorious.

The Collect for the Day, by the very amplitude of the gift prayed for, makes clear that the deed of God’s power in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is in a continuum of grace whose endless field of operation is nothing less than the restoration of human life to its Godly intention. Profoundest theological assertions in these simple prayers are made a part of the worshipers’ consciousness.

"Grant we beseech Thee, Almighty God, that we who have celebrated the solemnities of the Lord’s Resurrection, may by the help of Thy grace, bring forth the fruits thereof in our life and conversations: through the same Jesus Christ . . . "

In the Introit the source of resurrection action is stated; in the Collect the scope of resurrection action is acknowledged; and in the Epistle and Gospel lessons which follow, what is required of the hearers is set forth. This requirement in the Gospel lesson (John 20:19-31) is stated not propositionally but in a narrative: the story of the appearance of Jesus, the disbelief of Thomas, and the response of the Lord.

Simply to have these elements in this sequence in the single hour of worship does not, to be sure, guarantee anything at all. What is suggested, however, is that these words of the remembering-church-in-time provide a pattern within which the nature and size of the resurrection faith and promise is secured against reduction and trivialization. Reformation of worship cannot convey faith; it can go a considerable distance toward making clear what the Christian object and substance of faith is.

The second proposition in which I suggest what the quest for theological method requires of preaching is this: the pace of historical reason, whereby ultimate meanings are disclosed, is not the pace at which problems of faith arise; and preaching must be a leading activity of that nurture of the church whereby this is acknowledged and dealt with. That is to say that what the gospel has by way of reply to a man’s problem cannot be proclaimed, disclosed in its salvatory depth, or enfold his problem in its strange reconstitutive power with the same instant clarity and immediacy as marks the problem. What I need is clear, immediate, and pressing: what has been accomplished and is available for my need cannot be packaged and instantaneously delivered as from a holy pharmacy. Problems arise in the lives of individuals, and the terms in which the problems of faith become articulate are a function of the total life of the generation. But the replying instruction into the faith which is the church’s true treasure is not commonly available to human need in the clinking and separate coins of declaration, diagnosis, judgment, and grace. The need and the reply must, in the complex ecology of faith, find their congruity. This seeking and finding have been many times described, and G. K. Chesterton’s account is a particularly moving one:

And then followed an experience impossible to describe. It was as if I had been blundering about since my birth with two huge and unmanageable machines, of different shapes and without apparent connection -- the world and the Christian tradition. I had found this hole in the world: the fact that one must somehow find a way of loving the world without trusting it; somehow one must love the world without being worldly. I found this projecting feature of Christian theology, like a sort of hard spike, the dogmatic insistence that God was personal, and had made a world separate from Himself. The spike of dogma fitted exactly into the hole in the world -- it had evidently been meant to go there -- and then the strange thing began to happen. When once these two parts of the two machines had come together, one after another, all the other parts fitted and fell in with an eerie exactitude. I could hear bolt after bolt over all the machinery falling into its place with a kind of click of relief. Having got one part right, all the other parts were repeating that rectitude, as clock after clock strikes noon. Instinct after instinct was answered by doctrine after doctrine. Or, to vary the metaphor, I was like one who had advanced into a hostile country to take one high fortress. And when that fort had fallen the whole country surrendered and turned solid behind me. The whole land was lit up, as it were, back to the first fields of my childhood. ("G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy[New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, Inc., 1936] , pp. 127 f. Reprinted by permission of Dodd, Mead & Company. Copyright 1908, 1936, by Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc.)

This process, which is the inner history of every man whose life in the whole weight of its problematic character and its ambiguous self-consciousness has been lived within the sound of the voice of the Christian tradition, has a pace that is slower than the urgent haste of individual perplexities. And in every generation it is the peculiar task of preaching to lay the shape of the healing to the peculiar contours of the hurt. This ministerial task requires a double sophistication and a double pace: the preacher must constantly repossess with the deliberate steadiness of history’s pace the accumulated resources of the fields of faith, and he must at the same time race along with his time in instant knowledge of its lusts and loves, its longing and its lostness. Only thus can he sink the moment’s problems into the accumulated humus of the long history of the people of God.