Chapter 2. The Setting of the Gospel

Proclaiming Christ Today
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 2. The Setting of the Gospel

As those who have been ordained to the ministry in the Church of Christ, it is our duty to be "faithful dispensers of the Word of God and of his holy Sacraments." And we are to do this in the Church.

So it is that in the fulfillment of our task of preaching the gospel, we are to proclaim it in the setting and in the context of the life of "the blessed company of all faithful people." We are not commissioned to preach our own private "gospel"; we are not to proclaim some message which we have ourselves discovered; we are not to expound to our hearers some fancy, however brilliant, that has occurred to our own enlightened spirits. As ministers, we are "men under authority" -- the authority of Christ our Lord, certainly, but the authority of our Lord as he has given it to us in and through and by his Body, the Church. This is the common teaching of all Christian bodies; this is "ecumenical doctrine" if ever there be such a thing.

Of course, when I say that we are "to preach in the Church," I am not referring to the church building; for much of our preaching may very well be outside that building. When John Wesley traveled all over England, declaring the gospel of Christ in the fields and on the village commons, in the streets of large towns and in public places in the countryside, he was still acting as an ordained minister of the Church and he was still preaching in the Church -- although the authorities of the Established Church of England, regrettably, did not seem willing to recognize what should have been a patent and wonderful fact. To preach "in the Church" is to preach by and through our belonging to the Church; it is to preach because we are the Church’s ministers, ordained for this very purpose and with the authority and commissioning which the Church gives for speaking and acting in its name. The life of the Church, its worship, its very existence as the "people of God," is the setting for our proclamation of the kerygma.

But there is even more than this to be said. For the Church is not only the setting for our preaching of the gospel; it is also, in a very profound sense, the setting for the gospel itself. Professor John Knox has urged in his many books, and with that simplicity of utterance, persuasiveness of argument, and depth of Christian understanding that we have come to expect from him, that in the total Christian "thing," so to say, there is more than one essential element. He has demonstrated that in the "event of Christ," we have, of course, the historical person who was born, who lived and taught, who died and was known again as risen from the dead; but there was also the context into which Jesus came, a situation which had been made ready to receive him. The older Israel, "Israel after the flesh," as we may say, was necessarily part of the total reality; without it his historical appearance would have been as it were a "flash in the pan." And there was another element too, especially necessary; there was the Christian community, compounded (as Professor Knox himself has shown us in his notable book The Early Church and the Coming Great Church) of "memory" and "the Spirit," remembering the Lord and living in the new energy which his coming had released into the world. Had there been no community, springing into being in consequence of the person of Jesus as he met the response of his hearers and his followers, the Christian gospel could not have been communicated; indeed, it could not have existed, for the gospel exists precisely in the action of God in Christ as this action is received, apprehended, realized, known, shared, and lived by the children of God to whom in his love he reveals himself.

Thus the Church is not an incidental appendage to the Word of God; it is not an accidental accompaniment of the Christian faith. It is in itself a part of the gospel of the living God as Christians know and cherish that gospel. The Church is part of the gospel because it is the community of those who, in responding to God’s love in Jesus Christ, have found themselves knit together in a fellowship which both "remembers" him who brought it into being and which also is possessed by his Spirit and instinct with his life. Thus it is In the Church that Jesus Christ is a present reality, known to his people; and being known in this manner, he is preached by the Church as the Lord. St. Paul may have spoken of "my gospel," but not for a moment did he intend or imply that it was his in any personal possessive sense; it was his, rather, because it was the gospel which he as a person had preached and was still preaching. It was the true gospel as over against the distortions and the deviations which he saw elsewhere. It was his as the true gospel because he was himself a man "in Christ" -- and that phrase signified for him, as his letters make abundantly clear, that he was, and knew himself to be, what the Book of Common Prayer calls -- in another phrase which yet is remarkably Pauline in expression -- "a very member incorporate in the mystical Body of Christ, which is the blessed company of all faithful people."

So it is with each one of us who is ordained. We are ordained to the ministry of the Church -- the "sacred ministry," as it is called; but that ordination of ours does not give us any personal rights or privileges which come to us through some peculiar claim of our own. In Anglican theology, for example, the high doctrine of the ministry, such as was taught by the great Oxford divine of the last century, R. C. Moberly, in his notable book Ministerial Priesthood, is intent on making quite clear that there can be no separation of the Church’s ordained minister from the life of the Church. On the contrary, Moberly is emphatic in his insistence that the ordained minister functions only in and as a "ministerial agent" of the Church’s priesthood and ministry. Moberly argues that it is only against the background of the royal priesthood which is Christ’s own, and which Christ wills to share with his Church, and in the context of the priesthood of the laity or the "people of God," a priesthood which belongs to "every member of the same in his vocation and ministry," that "priesthood" can be ascribed to the ordained ministry at all. In different ways and with differing emphasis all Christian communions -- even, in certain respects, the Roman Catholic Church, at least in its best theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas -- say much the same thing. It is not without significance that this is so; and it is not without importance, either, for the eventual reconciliation of Christian bodies in one visible Catholic Church -- although this is a point which has only recently been brought to the fore and given the emphasis it deserves in ecumenical discussion.

Thus there is no unbridgeable chasm between laity and ministry, between "priest" and "people." All of us, clergy and nonclergy, are members together in the laos tou theou, the "people of God"; and all of us share in the derivative priesthood which is given to the Church from and through and in Christ its Lord and Head. To be ordained to the specific office of ministry is indeed to be given a specific function in the Church; and some of us would add that this ordination includes a character in the theological sense of the term -- that is, it includes a particular stamp given to the ordained minister as a man approved by the Church and in it chosen by God to act for the people of God and to serve ministerially in the fellowship from God to the people. But even so, this fact is never understood as setting a man "off" from, even though it does give him a special role within, the total life of the Church of Christ.

This theological statement has to be made if we are to draw certain practical conclusions of great importance. Those conclusions, indeed, are not in and of themselves particularly novel; yet without a theological setting they are liable to much misunderstanding.

The first of the practical conclusions has to do with the tremendous responsibility laid on the minister always to speak and act for, and in, and of, the Church of Christ in which he has been ordained a minister. Here we are referring, not to any specific denomination or sect, any one communion of Christians but to the Church of God in its whole catholic reality. It is the Church’s gospel we are to proclaim; it is not our own particular message which happens to appeal to our own particular tastes. But there is an opposite, and equally important, truth. To preach with this sense of responsibility does not mean, and must not mean, that we are to preach in a fashion which we might style "automatic." Sometimes we hear sermons marked by an almost indefinable "official" quality; we hear the kind of preaching in which the minister’s personal apprehension of the gospel is forgotten in the official nature of his office as preacher. Sometimes it is assumed that the preacher, precisely because he is the proclaimer of the Church’s gospel and not of some gospel of his own creation, must as a preacher be something other than a fully personal human being with his own personal understanding of the gospel, his own personal interpretation of it, and his own personal way of expressing it. Sometimes one is horrified at the way in which some of the younger disciples of the various neo-orthodox and neo-catholic movements -- I say "movements," in the plural, for there seem to be several of them -- act in this fashion and defend their wooden and "official" preaching on the ground that they must in no way obtrude their personalities between the gospel and the hearers. Of course the result is that they obtrude their personalities much more obnoxiously than if they preached simply and naturally. No man can be completely "official," try as hard as he may, for no man can contract out of his humanity at will; and a proper recognition of our responsibility in preaching for and in the Church does not mean that we try to be other than ourselves. To be human means to be a person, with one’s own particular qualities, characteristics, ways of seeing and saying things. The wonderful truth is that God will accept all these, once we put them at his disposal; he will use them to make the gospel of the Church, as each of us apprehends it, effective to those who listen. The very fact that it is we who are speaking has its own added significance, for it indicates something of the wonderful richness of the gospel by which the Church lives.

We are obliged, as Christians, to be ourselves; we can never be anybody else, anyway; and as the Church’s men we are not less men -- despite the nasty little remark that there are three sexes, men and women and clergymen. If we are ourselves, as God means us to be and as the Church would have us to be, then necessarily we are men living at a given time, in a given place, under given conditions, with given ways of seeing and doing. That is the meaning of humanity, with the historical conditioning which is proper to humankind. In consequence, we preach as ourselves -- we preach, that is, as modern men and women who yet believe the gospel and who have been commissioned by the Church to preach it. In consequence, each of us is given the obligation to think his way into and make his own the Christian tradition as a whole; each of us must seek to penetrate for himself into the deep meaning of the kerygma which is the heart of the tradition; each of us must make it his own in his own idiom. It is peculiarly the task of the clergy to do this, for they have -- or should see to it that peripheral activities do not prevent their having -- both the learning and (dare I say it?) the time for the job as the laity do not have.

A second practical consequence of the truth that the Church is the setting for the gospel of God in Jesus Christ is that we preach to make men members of the Church. The gospel is the Church’s gospel. It is the gospel which gives its raison d’être to the Church, but there is a deep sense in which, as we have seen, one must say that the Church also gives its raison d’être to the gospel. Not, of course, that the Church created the gospel out of its own fancy or desire or idealizing tendency. The Word of God is there; the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ is the given prius for the Church. In Professor Knox’s terminology, the person of Christ has a certain kind of priority in the total event of Christ. But yet it is the purpose of God to incorporate men into a new community, to lift them to what might be styled a new level of "human being," to make them men "in Christ" -- and all this as they respond in faith, love, and service, to the gospel of his Son. To be "in Christ" is in New Testament thought to be "in the Church," to belong to the family of God in Christ, to share together in the common life which the Lord who is proclaimed in the gospel opens up for those whom he did not refuse to call his brethren.

Dr. R. Douglas Richardson, sometime principal of Ripon Hall in Oxford, has put this in telling words: "The volume of life that flows from Jesus Christ is the greatest experience that men have ever had: ‘the Life, the Eternal Life which was with the Father,’ as the writer of I John says, has through him welled up in millions until they have felt their life to be taken up into him." This means, Dr. Richardson points out, that "so deeply is Christianity derived from the person of Christ that it has been said that Christianity is Christ." Precisely: "for me to live is Christ," St. Paul wrote; and for the Apostle, as for every other Christian, the very life which as a Christian he lives, in fellowship with God in Christ and in fellowship with the brethren through that "exchange" which is the secret of Christian discipleship, is both the life of Christ himself and the life of the Church of Christ. St. Augustine wrote of Christus caput et corpus: Christ head and body, as the one Christ who now lives forevermore; and the Epistle to the Ephesians, as Dr. J. Armitage Robinson noted many years ago, is a long meditation on the theme that the Christian is not to think of Christ and his followers so much as of Christ in his members. The Lord, who is proclaimed in the gospel as God’s definitive and focal activity in manhood for our wholeness, takes us into himself, makes us one with himself, lives in us as we live in him, to the end that we may be knit together in "a bundle of life" in a much deeper sense than the Old Testament writer of that wonderful phrase could ever understand. The Church, then, is itself part of the gospel we preach; it came into being in and round and through response to him who is the subject of the gospel; it exists to witness to and keep the gospel; it is the setting in which the gospel is preached and heard and appropriated and made a vital and vitalizing reality in the experience of those who are brought to the Church’s Lord.

One of the most important developments in the Christian world in our day is an awakened sense of the Church as the una sancta, the one holy people of the one holy God as he has manifested himself in his incarnate Son. The very essence of the ecumenical movement is in this new awareness; it recognizes that only through an ever-deepening understanding of this truth and its centrality in Christian life can Christian reunion become a living possibility. Through a renewed study of the biblical record and witness, as well as through the pressure of events in our time, men and women of all Christian groups are coming more and more to see that the Church is no afterthought; it is bound up with the fact of Christian faith and the faith in the Christian fact.

In the New Testament the Church is seen as the new and true Israel of God. The older Israel, chosen as the Jews believed to be God’s very people, had rejected the promised Messiah when he came; but the "little flock," and those who responded to their preaching, had remained faithful, had accepted the Messiah; and now, round him risen from the dead, they were constituted the new "chosen people," "called of God," the ekklesia kyriake, called according to promise and given responsibilities commensurate with that calling. So the Church is the "new covenant," the "new testament in Christ’s blood"; and into it are to be brought all those, whether Greek or Jew, barbarian or Scythian, male or female, bond or free, who will answer the preaching of the Church by a surrender of themselves to the Lord who is the living head of the new community.

Our preaching of the gospel is a carrying out of this responsibility which has been laid upon the Church. The Church is preaching through us: Christ our Lord in his Church is calling men through our preaching. This is our share in the ministry of reconciliation: that "God in Christ was reconciling the world unto himself and has committed unto us the word of reconciliation." We preach in the setting of the Church, that men may be reconciled to God. And the reconciliation is made effectual when those who respond to its proclamation are incorporated into the life which has been opened up for them: the life "in Christ" which is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, the living Church. So all preaching is set in the context of the Church’s worship and devotion, as well as of the Church’s shepherding and serving of God’s children.

When the gospel was preached by the primitive Church, it was preached with expectation of a result. Since God had done, was doing, and would do, such and such things, now therefore repent and be baptized. Repentance, a change of orientation, a "new look," was expected as the result of the preaching; and in consequence of that repentance, men would seek entrance into the Christian community. They would be baptized. Initiation into the life of the Christian fellowship was the hoped-for effect of the proclamation of the Word.

That at once suggests an aspect of preaching which today needs the strongest emphasis. For those who are outside the Church, for the pagans and for the "god-fearers" of our time, we are to preach to the end that they shall repent and seek entrance into the fellowship of Christ through baptism. This is why it is so very important that we should not confine our preaching to those who are already of our Christian company. It is our task, as it is our bounden duty, to find ways in which we may bring the message of the gospel to those who are outside the Church. It is not my intention to discuss such ways of reaching the "unchurched"; suffice it to say that the World Council of Churches has lately been studying the problem of evangelism and has recognized that the older methods, effective enough in their time, will not serve today and new methods need to be found. Even such organizations as the "service clubs," so often regarded with contempt by the self-righteous, should be used as means for reaching those with whom otherwise we do not readily come into contact -- not to speak of the use of labor chaplaincies, industrial chaplaincies, and many other agencies and devices.

For those who are already within the Church, entered on our lists as baptized (and in Anglican circles "confirmed") communicants, we have a responsibility too. Is our preaching such as shall strengthen them in their church-belonging, deepen in them their apprehension of the Church’s gospel, enable them to appropriate more fully the grace of God in Christ as this is known and shared in the fellowship? These persons are already members of the Church; many of them are already communicants. But certainly it ought to be clear that our preaching must have as one of its aims what we might describe as the consolidation of their belonging.

In all of our preaching, we are not talking in the air, giving voice to speculations and theories; we are not handing out a set of theological opinions for discussion by our hearers. We are preaching, always and ever, "for decisions." In fact, we are doing every Sunday what Dr. Billy Graham says is his constant purpose. Whatever we may think of Dr. Graham’s own preaching, and the content of it, he is right at least in this respect. "For decisions" -- which means that when we preach Christ as "the way, the truth, and the life," as God’s definitive and focal action for man’s wholeness, we are preaching not that men and women may "accept Christ," as it were, in a vacuum, but that they may be of his flock, in his Church. Or if they are already in it through present membership, we are preaching with the purpose that they may grow in the knowledge and love of Christ, the Church’s Lord, more fully appropriate his grace in the community of his people, and more profoundly realize what it means to be incorporated into his ongoing life in the fellowship of the Church.

They who are commissioned to preach the gospel are preaching, then, in order that men will respond in faith and will grow in Christ’s knowledge and love, becoming participant in his very life. Among other things, and central among them, this means, for all of us who are historical Christians, that such men will become devout, faithful, penitent, and regular communicants at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

It has been said over and over again, by Christians of all kinds in this mainstream of historic Christianity, that the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Liturgy, the Divine Mysteries, the Mass -- call it what you will -- is the Church’s characteristic action. Here the Church is doing what it ought to be doing. Now if that be true, then the Eucharist is also the characteristic action of every Christian. For it is in the Lord’s Supper that the gospel comes alive in a very special way. The sacramental action of the Church in celebrating the Eucharist is the living enactment of the gospel which is proclaimed by preaching; Luther was insistent on the point that the gospel is enacted in the sacrament, and he was altogether right in this insistence. Hence our preaching of the gospel should lead men to the Holy Table, to the altar if we may use that word, where the Word which we proclaim becomes, through God’s gracious action of blessing and giving, the Word which is "received by faith with thanksgiving." Whatever may be our eucharistic theology, the fact remains that the Holy Communion is the distinctively Christian act of worship and that regularity in attending and receiving it is expected of every Christian who understands his discipleship.

When I was a boy, my parish priest used to say that he preached for "more communions." If he had meant by this that he wanted merely a numerical increase, larger figures in a statistical summary, he was saying something that was neither right nor Christian. But he did not mean that. What he meant was that he preached so that his people would more regularly, more devoutly, more penitently, more faithfully, frequent the Lord’s Table. He was profoundly evangelical in the very best sense of the word. Indeed it is here that preaching can be of special importance. All too often Christians of whatever description have a tendency to turn the sacrament into an almost magical rite, by reason of their failure to understand quite clearly that "faith is the means whereby we receive" it. On the other hand, all too often Christians have managed to make the sacrament an occasional appendage to what is in fact a nonsacramental Christianity, by reason of their failure to grasp the great truth that it is "the gospel in action," as well as by reason of their failure to demand and make use of frequent occasions for its celebration. Hence preaching of the gospel should have as one of its main objectives the preparation of our people for the faithful receiving of the "sacrament of the body and blood of Christ," "to their great and endless comfort," and in consequence of this, a strong desire on their part for more frequent opportunities to receive it. If we grasp this aspect of our preaching, we may well have our part in a great movement of return to the intention of the Reformers of the sixteenth century as well as of the Fathers of the ancient Church: that the Lord’s Supper shall in very deed be the act of Christian worship most loved, most used, and most honored by the whole of the Christian world, without base superstition or ungodly fear but in loving obedience to the command of the Lord and for the "strengthening and refreshing" of his people.

Normal Sunday Christian worship, we are more and more coming to recognize, should be a service in which the Word is preached and the sacrament received. This is what the ancient Church did; this is what the Reformers intended and desired; this is what the remarkable "liturgical revival" in our day, found as it is in all Christian churches, seeks to restore. The regular Sunday-by-Sunday spiritual "diet" of every Christian should be one act of worship in which the two elements of sermon and sacrament are combined. It is not the fault of our Reformers, whether on the continent of Europe or in England, that this has not been the case; it has been the laziness, the lack of interest, the spiritual indifference or poverty, of the people which has prevented its realization; and a large measure of the blame for these things must fall on the shoulders of the ministers of God’s Word and sacraments. It has been an almost unmitigated tragedy that the regular preaching of the gospel has been separated so often from the sacrament, and the celebration of the sacrament from the preaching of the gospel; the awful truth is that both have suffered from the separation and the encouraging fact is that both will benefit enormously by a return by us all to the norm of Christian worship.

Anglicans have a special opportunity today to work towards the strengthening of the already active movement for the establishment each Sunday of a Parish Communion, held at a convenient hour when men and women can come together as a congregation to hear the Word proclaimed and to receive the sacramentally communicated life of the Lord about whom the Word speaks. We must repent of the misunderstanding of the real meaning of worship which led the Oxford Movement and its successors to emphasize "early celebration for communion" and "late celebration for worship and preaching"; just as we must also repent of the equally sad misunderstanding which led others to substitute Morning Prayer for the Holy Communion as a normal Sunday morning act of worship. In other Christian communions there is also need for repentance, and for a recovery of the norm in worship; and one of the encouraging signs of the times is the increasing frequency of celebrations of the Lord’s Supper in all denominations and the increasing emphasis which is being laid on its central place in the Christian life. This has nothing whatever to do with "party" allegiance in any given church, nor with the differences, such as they are, between Anglicans and Presbyterians or Lutherans or Congregationalists or Methodists or any other Christians. It is simply and solely a matter of the integrity of the Christian Church and the fullness of the Christian life.

The Church of Christ, which is the setting for the gospel and for the preaching of the gospel, is something other than the given empirical Christian bodies with their membership lists -- or perhaps it would be better to say that Christ’s Church is not other than but more than those bodies, either taken separately or taken as a group. The Church of Christ is Christ’s Church; it is the una sancta, as our continental brethren like to say; it is, in the words of the Te Deum, "the holy Church throughout all the world," and it is also the Church "in heaven," including those who have gone from our sight in this world but who are still with Christ and are sharers in his grace. There is nothing more presumptuous nor less fruitful in this connection, than to try to fix the limits of that Church which is Christ’s Church. "The Lord knows who are his"; and so far as we are concerned, we get out of any definition of the limits of the Church exactly as much as we put into that definition.

There is no Christian communion which does not have some theological device for getting into the Church in the widest sense those who are not, so to say, "officially" included in some particular definition. Traditional Catholicism speaks of baptism by blood, by intention, by desire; and some of the great Catholic doctors have even spoken of every soul which loves truth as being somehow part of the Church whose Lord is himself the Truth. The Reformed communions have had the conception of "uncovenanted grace," to bring in those who seem to be outside the "covenant"; or they have talked about the "latent" Church as well as the "patent" Church; or they have made a contrast between the Church "invisible" as known to God alone and the Church "visible" here in earth. Surely all of this points in one direction. It is impossible for men to tell God what he shall do or to set limits to his grace and mercy. On the other hand, however, it has been a deep and abiding instinct of all Christians to see that without fellowship with others who belong to Christ there can really be no "salvation" at all, no wholeness of life such as comes from living in the community of the brethren who like ourselves have been made brothers of the living Lord.

Whatever St. Cyprian may have meant by his dictum extra ecclesiam nulla salus, it cannot mean for us that outside the empirical Church as it is known and visible on earth, there is no possibility of the redeemed life with God in Christ. An Eastern Orthodox priest once remarked in my hearing that the real meaning of the Cyprianic phrase must be that those who are "saved" are saved through the Church, whether or not they recognized or accepted the fact that this was so; but that we dare not, on our side, say just how or when or why this occurred. He spoke with great insight. It is with an exposition of this point and an application of it to the preaching of the Church’s gospel that we shall bring this chapter to a close.

If Dr. John Knox is right in his assertion that the response of the community to the "memory" of its Lord and the empowering of that community by the Spirit are integral parts of the total Christian event, two things would seem to follow. The first point to be noted is that in order for Christianity to be Christianity at all there must be the Church. In this sense Christology and ecclesiology are almost one and the same -- not that the Church is Christ, in a simple way, but that the Church is the indispensable where in which Christ is encountered, received, followed. The second point, however, is that the divine Act of self-expression, sell-revelation, the raising of men to God in Christ, cannot be confined to the historical events which are the origin of our faith. God is always like that; God is always doing that.

In terms of Christian theology, this is a way of saying that the Eternal Word, the second hypostasis of the Blessed Trinity, is the eternal Agent of Godhead not only in creation but also in revelation and in restoration. It is a way of saying, too, that while the Eternal Word, the Eternal Christ or Son, is focally manifest in the human life called Jesus, he is not confined to that life. Rather, he is defined by it. And wherever response is made to him -- response which is in reality nothing but response in and by the Holy Spirit, who in the Godhead is Response, or as Emil Brunner has so nobly put it, "the Amen" in God -- there those who respond have been caught up into a fellowship which in the most profound way (even if not visible) is the life of the true and abiding Church, "without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing." So the Church in this highest and most wonderful sense is indeed a ‘sacred mystery," as the ancient Gelasian collect puts it. As the Church, known to us empirically, is the setting and context of the gospel historically understood by us, so the Church, as God’s own mystery, is the setting and context for the gospel in its eternal and cosmic range and sweep.

No preacher should think this too "mystical"; in truth it is the factor which saves his preaching from triviality, parochialism, mere "this-world-ism," and gives to our faith in the Lord of the gospel a glorious and illimitable quality. It is against that vastly extended background in the light of those vistas of eternity, that we can preach this decisive action in the Man Jesus. So we can make our own the words of a noble Latin hymn of the ninth century:

Only-begotten, Word of God eternal,

Lord of creation, merciful and mighty,

Hear now thy servants, when their joyful voices

Rise to thy presence.

Yes, it is in that setting, in that context, that the Word of God is to be proclaimed. For the gospel of God in Christ is the explanation of what thus "goes on" in the Church, as it is the proclamation of the Church’s very existence in Christ. The end of it all is that, incorporated into him and sharing in the fellowship of all the faithful, whoever they may be, known or unknown to us, we may come to sing with that ancient hymn-writer his paean of praise:

God in three Persons, Father everlasting,

Son co-eternal, ever-blessed Spirit,

Thine be the glory, praise, and adoration

Now and for ever.