Chapter 7: Problems in Preaching

Preaching the Gospel
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 7: Problems in Preaching

In a well-known passage, St. Paul speaks of the ‘offense’ of the gospel. What did the Apostle mean in saying this? Certainly not that the gospel is intellectually offensive, even if it was nonsense to the proud Greek mind and absurdly wrong to the Jewish mind -- to the former it spoke mistakenly of the personal loving-kindness of God for humans; to the latter it was preposterous to think that somebody who had been crucified and therefore condemned by Jewish religious teaching could be so important as to be called Lord, Saviour, Life-bringer. What St. Paul was saying was quite different. He was insisting, as Rudolf Bultmann has emphasized in discussing Pauline thought, that the gospel of God’s generous love enacted in Jesus Christ offends human pretension to self-sufficiency, human sinful pride, and human dislike for being recipient of divine grace rather than able to earn by good works an eternal salvation.

All this is relevant here because it indicates clearly that there is nothing irrational in the gospel of Christ. It may and it does affirm what goes beyond the capacity of human speculation or enquiry; but it does not render human understanding and the attempt at discovering meaning in existence a wicked or presumptuous exercise. When the Petrine writer urges that we should be ‘ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us’, he is commending those who are prepared to use their minds to help others grasp what the Christian proclamation has to tell them.

If the gospel is an offense to human sinfulness and pretension, it can also be difficult to accept, not least in our own day, because it raises questions that are inescapable and that must be met and answered in order to make that gospel speak directly, compellingly, in St. Paul’s sense as an offense to sinful men and women as they are, and with the human need to comprehend (in however limited a fashion) what it is about and how it is indeed relevant to their situation. In our day, it seems to me, there are certain intellectual ‘problems’, as we may call them, which require our attention. A responsible preacher will acknowledge these matters and will seek to handle them, both before he or she ventures to proclaim the gospel and also in the course of proclamation -- the latter because unless somehow it is demonstrated in preaching that they are seen to be there as unnecessary obstacles, they may prevent people from facing up to the genuine ‘offense’ which the gospel inevitably presents. I single out five issues, among the many which might have been chosen, and I shall say something about each of them.

The five major ‘problems’ which I believe require attention are these. First, whether the event of Jesus Christ is entirely unique and unparalleled in human relationship with the divine -- in other words, in what sense ought we to speak of the speciality of that event or (in the more usual way of phrasing it) ‘the uniqueness of Christ’. Second, whether we are to regard that event as intrusive into the world so that it constitutes a divine intervention in history or should see the event in a context which relates it more intimately to the wider activity of God in the affairs of history. Third, the question of ‘the miraculous’ and the meaning which can be given to that concept in a world such as we believe ours to be. Fourth, the presence of many other religious traditions or faiths in the world, brought home to us so vividly thanks to travel, the interchange of ideas, and the increasing realization that this is one world. And fifth, the secularization of so many areas of human existence, which makes many wonder if the idea or experience of ‘the transcendent’ can have any meaning at all. I believe that each of these, however differently it may be expressed in words, is a genuine difficulty for a great many men and women of good-will. Each of them constitutes an obstacle to acceptance of the gospel unless what have become conventional (even traditional) ways of dealing with it are modified in the light of a deeper awareness of what the gospel really affirms, on the one hand, and what we know to be the facts about ourselves and the world in which we exist, on the other hand. That is why I have selected these five and shall now proceed to comment on each of them, and at some length,

That there is some special quality about the originating event of Jesus Christ is an inevitable corollary of the importance which is found in it and which the proclamation of the gospel is concerned to affirm. We have talked in an earlier chapter about the focal position of this event in Christian tradition and in the experience which it conveys; we have said that in this tradition and for that experience the event is decisive. We have also used the word ‘speciality’ to make this clear. But the question is then posed: in what sense, or how, are we to understand this particular quality?

Obviously this is in many ways an issue for theology rather than for preaching as such. Yet it is a very real issue and much in preaching will depend upon how it is answered. I wish to make two or three suggestions which may be helpful in this connection.

First, whatever is said about Jesus Christ cannot so separate him and what he has accomplished in the history of humankind that he becomes, as it were, a ‘surd’ in the picture. In the early history of Christian thought, there was a continued emphasis upon the genuine humanity of the Lord, at a time when it seemed much easier to talk about his divinity without stressing the human-ness which was his. To counteract this, the Cappadocian Fathers used an oft-quoted phrase: ‘What has not been assumed cannot be redeemed.’ This was by way of insisting that only in genuinely human terms could the ‘salvation of man’ be accomplished; otherwise, anything that might be said would have no immediate relevance to the human condition. We may extend this insistence by saying that if the event of Jesus Christ is so alien to human nature and to what men and women have come to know of God and God’s more general activity in the world, it will be without context and, what is more, it will be unidentifiable as an act of God at all. The English writer Evelyn Underhill expressed this by noting that unless we have some notion of what it means to talk about divine doing and presence, we have no possibility of identifying Jesus Christ with such doing and presence; we are seeking to explain the obscure by the more obscure and are bound to come up with nothing.

In the second place, there is no way in which we can demonstrate or prove that there is such a speciality about the originating event, To affirm it is a matter of faith. But it is not blind faith, because it rests back upon what has been experienced through a response to the event itself. In other words, it is what traditionally is known as ‘the work of Christ’ which furnishes the basis for anything that may be said about him as it were ‘in himself.’ This is significant, because at least in the context of a Process conceptuality ‘a thing is what it does’ as Whitehead put it; what we are talking about, in anything said about the event, is what God did there and what ‘stream of influence’ has resulted from that doing.

Third, the Process conceptuality helps us here by its emphasis on the fact that any and every event or occasion in the world has a genuine special quality. Nobody and nothing can be identical with anything or anyone else -- past history, present moments of decision, and future aims are different for each, even if there is a conformity for all of them to that pattern of advance which is integral to the whole creative process. You are you; I am I; John is John; and Mary is Mary. We all meet, we all belong together, we all influence and affect each other; yet we are specifically ourselves, with our own identity as such. The claim for the event we indicate when we say Jesus Christ may be interpreted along those lines. And if the results of the event, in what the ‘stream of influence’ has come to signify and produce, have an importance which in Christian faith is grasped as decisive for those who are caught up into it, then we may very well proceed to claim that the degree of speciality in that instance is much greater than that which belongs to less important moments.

To say this leads at once to the second major issue, which has to do with a supposed ‘intrusion’ or ‘intervention’ of God in that event, without parallels with or intimations present in the wider process. I am obliged here simply to deny the necessity for any such notion. Indeed I believe that to talk in that fashion is to come close to denying the divine omnipresence altogether. There is no need for God to ‘intrude’ or ‘intervene’ in the world, as if from outside it; in fact, there is no meaning in saying this. Why? Because to speak of God at all is to speak of the ever-present, ever-active divine reality in, behind, and through whatever occurs. God then is here or God is nowhere, which latter notion is to say that God does not count in the ordinary course of events and that the created order gets on, not very well perhaps, without the divine presence and action. From any theistic view, that is absurd and incredible. Those who talk about ‘intrusion’ or ‘intervention’ are probably unconsciously ‘deistic’ -- that is, they subscribe to the position taken by the so-called ‘deists’ of the seventeenth and eighteenth century who accepted God as creator in a remote past but were content to think that the creation could now get on without God, although God might now and again interfere with the creation. Otherwise God was still remote and unknown. Or they are using unfortunate and misleading language to indicate what earlier in this discussion we have termed the decisive or focal or special quality that Christian faith has discerned in the originating event. In either case, the implications are extremely unfortunate. They suggest that Jesus Christ is so unrelated to what is going on in the creation that he is indeed a ‘surd’; we might even say that he is a monstrosity without possible comparison. Then he cannot provide the clue or disclosure of what God is always ‘up to’ in the world; he cannot reveal, to put it simply, that God’s everlasting nature and operation is a Love that is ‘of one substance with’ -- of the very same quality and kind as -- what is seen in the Christ-event. That event becomes a complete anomaly.

I believe that these two issues have enormous importance for the effective preaching of the Christian gospel. I need not spell out that importance since it seems obvious. If the event of Jesus Christ is special in an entirely unique sense, so that it has no parallels anywhere, and if that event is so intrusive that it does not illuminate what is going on in the creation by God and under God, then the proclamation of the event is a vain series of words, speaking to nobody and providing no insight into who God is and what God does. Hence it is of no interest, save as a form of words which years ago may have been found valuable but today offer nothing to men and women in their present concrete situation, with their desires and yearnings, their deficiencies and their needs, and their vague but genuine sense that human existence possesses significance and value.

Still another problem which faces a preacher is the question of miracle. What is one to make of such reported incidents if one is not prepared to accept what I have just called a ‘deistic’ view of God’s relationship to the created order? For those who do take that view, whether knowingly or unconsciously, a miracle is an intrusive act of God in the natural world; it is a ‘violation’ of the order of nature. But in the world view which I have been defending as the only one possible for us today, that sort of understanding of the miraculous can make no sense. On the other hand, it may be that the concept can have a real meaning; and incidentally, this may not be remote from the fashion in which miracle seems to be suggested in the biblical material.

In the New Testament, there are three Greek words our older translators have put into English by the use of the one word ‘miracle.’ There is semeion, used primarily in the Fourth Gospel; its proper translation would be ‘sign.’ So the verse following the story of the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee would read, ‘This is the first of the signs which Jesus did; and his disciples believed in him.’ In that gospel each miracle-story is associated with a discourse, with the statement of some implicit significance which explains what the tale is really concerned to show. The second New Testament word is dunamis, whose correct translation is ‘a power’ or ‘an energy’. And each of the occasions to which this word is applied has to do with a release of God’s activity such that it made a difference to those in the story. Somehow in the incident there is a working of God through Christ which brings healing or renews faith or opens up a novel possibility. Finally, there is the Greek word terrha (found only in Matthew’s gospel, by the way). This word, which comes closest to the ‘vulgar’ meaning of miracle in later usage, is to be translated as wonder or marvel. It has to do with what has produced astonishment, surprise, sometimes a sense of awe or worship.

In the New Testament period and of course in the Jewish history which preceded it there was no knowledge of ‘laws of nature’; there was only a sense that God’s activity in the world had a purpose or objective, which might at this or that moment be vividly disclosed with the consequence that those who witnessed it or heard about it were more profoundly aware of the reality of God’s working in the world. The interpretation of miracle as sheer intrusion, as the breaking of nature’s established order, and the like, is a much later position of which the biblical writers would have known nothing.

I have said again and again that God’s working in the world is by ‘acts of love’; that God is Love and that God’s doings in the world are ways in which that divine Love is operative. Now I propose that we can best understand the genuinely religious significance of the stories about miracles in those terms. To use the New Testament words, here stories are told which have to do with ways in which God was disclosed through signs of the loving divine activity, in which there was a release of the divine power which is love, and in which men and women were brought to marvel at exactly such disclosure and release. Of course we cannot know exactly what took place in any of the many reported incidents; the preceding chapter was intended to show that our way of seeing the Bible leads us to regard those incidents not as sheer reporting, as might occur today, but rather as witnesses of or testimonies to faith in God through the event of Jesus Christ. The stories told of Jesus’ ‘mighty works’ are a reflection of the primitive Church’s own faith and are intended to awaken in those who hear or read them a similar faith. Hence I say that the point of the stories is not to assert anything like that which the ‘vulgar’ notion of miracle might suggest but to bear their witness to the conviction of the first Christian disciples that in and through the happenings which together make up what I have so often styled the event of Christ, there was indeed a disclosure or sign of divine love; there was indeed a release of divine power in love for the wholeness of human existence; and there was indeed a demand that in the presence of this disclosure and release the believer be brought to give God praise and glory as he or she wonders or marvels at just such a reality. I believe that it was the Anglo-Scots philosophical theologian A. E. Taylor who once wrote that in the presence of the miraculous in the New Testament sense we are brought to say, ‘Oh! my God!’ Those who are theologically informed will recall here that the German theologian Schleiermacher said much the same thing: that a miracle in the biblical way of understanding it is any event which evokes religious faith both in God and in God’s presence and action in the world.

The preacher can use these stories without necessarily subscribing to their historical accuracy; he or she can speak about them and direct attention to them on the part of those who hear the proclamation, as indications of the speciality of the event of Jesus Christ, in its disclosure of God’s nature and activity and in its ‘letting loose into the world’ the divine energy of love. The preacher can help contemporary Christian believers to read the biblical material with this point as central, compelling, and evocative of a deeper faith in God, In a similar fashion, the story of the virginal conception of Jesus, found only in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, will be a way in which witness was given to that same speciality; or, in another way of phrasing it, the virginal conception narratives are not concerned with the biological question of Jesus’ conception and then his birth but have to do with the conviction that it was indeed God who was in and behind the coming to live amongst us of One who was both entirely and genuinely human but also and for faith supremely was part of the divine activity to bring men and women to share in the divine Love. In respect to the resurrection narratives in all four gospels, we can say once again that the point is not in attempting to reconcile the patently diverse material on the subject with whatever may have been the supposed residual historical fact; but rather it is to show that although Jesus had truly died on the Cross, that was not the end of him. He was so much the enactment of divine Love that ‘he could not be holden of death’. The reality of that divine Love enacted in the event was so enormous that nothing could stop it. God received into the divine life this human enactment while at the same time it was so released into the world that those who had known the Lord Jesus in ‘the days of his flesh’, and those who through their witness were led to respond to him, could and did experience new life in Christ’ and were empowered to work for him in continuing his mission of ‘amorization’ in the affairs of the world.

If anyone should say that what has been argued in the last few pages is a ‘reduction’ of the historic faith and hence inadequate as a context for the right proclamation of ‘the Word’, my reply is simply a flat denial. Far from being that, it is an attempt, however successful or unsuccessful, to maintain the historic faith in the light of undeniable developments in biblical understanding and with honest acceptance of our present way of seeing the world in relationship to God. The discussion in the last chapter about the Bible, the tradition, and Christian preaching had for its chief object making clear that the only way in which we can properly affirm the faith which the Christian ages have professed is by what Pope John XXIII called aggiornamento, which does not mean ‘reduction’ but does mean our coming to see the faith in terms which are intelligible to our own time as well as appropriate to the apostolic witness which is given in the Bible and supremely in the New Testament.

The Anglican Articles of Religion asserted that nothing is to be held as part of Christian belief save that which can ‘be proved -- which in the days when the Articles were composed meant ‘tested’ -- by ‘most certain warrant of Holy Scripture.’ I should claim that what we have been saying stands up to that ‘most certain warrant’, once those writings are correctly understood and properly interpreted. Far from being a ‘reduction’, therefore, what has emerged is a re-affirmation.

There are two other issues with which we shall concern ourselves in the present chapter. One has to do with the non-Christian religions, about which we now have a much more adequate knowledge; the other has to do with the omnipresent phenomenon of ‘secularization’, found in all parts of the world, both in the older countries and in the ‘newly-developed countries’ wherever they may be.

In an earlier day, people had no genuine acquaintance with most of the non-Christian religions, save for Judaism and to a certain extent Islam. Nowadays we are aware of and most of us have a deep respect for Buddhism, Hinduism, and even for the more ‘primitive’ religions. Very few people, even among conservative groups, are likely to dismiss all these as instances in which ‘the heathen in his blindness’ is thought to ‘bow down to wood and stone.’ There may be much in them that we find difficult, perhaps mistaken; yet we are not ready to say that they are nothing more than ignorant and entirely false attempts on the part of humans to construct their own religion on the basis of sheer superstition, total error, and a disregard of the one and only God there is -- for there can be but one God, despite the variety of approaches and interpretations of deity found among humans. The day of what Arnold Toynbee once bitingly condemned as ‘Christian imperialism’ is long past, save perhaps in some back-woods sects and among absurdly reactionary groups.

In the early Church the great thinkers were by no means guilty of that imperialism. By differing devices, theological and practical, they sought to show that ‘the Word of God’, the Logos, had been made known through divine providence to all men and women; while they were also ready to say that this ‘spermatic Word’, diffused throughout history and down the ages, had supplied enough of the truth for those who accepted the non-Christian faiths or the philosophies which in some cases took the place of religious belief so that God had never ‘left himself without witness.’ What was particular and special about Christianity, they said, was that in Jesus Christ this ‘diffused’ Word was (as they put it) ‘made flesh’ in a distinctive and special manner. We may prefer other kinds of statement but the point is clear: The main tradition of Christianity has been much more generous, ‘hospitable’ in Baron von Hugel’s word, to these different non-Christian faiths than many have thought; yet this has been without for a moment surrendering the conviction that in Jesus Christ something decisive is to be found. I cannot attempt here to develop this approach, not only because I am insufficiently instructed in the non-Christian faiths but also because to seek to work out the newer position would require a book in itself. Suffice it so say that there is a great benefit for the preacher in being able to recognize that God is somehow in touch with all men and women, that their ‘salvation’ is in God’s hands not in ours, and that our task in what used to be called ‘the missionary enterprise’ is to share with others that which is so important and so dear to us who believe in Jesus Christ. Thus the preacher can boldly affirm with Archbishop William Temple that we need only believe that the work and the person of Jesus Christ are both the completion and coronation of all the divine working in the world and also the correction or error or misunderstanding. Christian faith is not the outright denial of what in other religious traditions has been said about God and humanity -- or, as in some varieties of Buddhism, about the fulfillment of human possibility even if God is not named or worshipped in the concrete circumstances of men and women anywhere and everywhere.

Finally, I shall say but a few words about ‘secularization’, since already by implication and occasionally by explicit comment I have indicated what I take to be a right Christian attitude. The increasing secularization of life does not amount to a totally secular -- that is, non-religious and entirely humanistic -- position. Bonhoeffer’s remarks, already noted, are to the point here. Insofar as secularization is an insistence on human dignity and human responsibility and a refusal to make God into a universal panacea for all human ills, we can welcome it gladly. Only when it is given a totally secular expression does it constitute an enemy of Christian, and indeed all other, religious faith.

For the preacher the important thing is to affirm that God is everywhere at work; and where God is at work, the God who is there active is the same God who is known and adored in his distinctive and decisive presence in Jesus Christ. Perhaps one way of making this plain to our contemporaries is to urge that when and where goodness is sought and to some degree found, truth is sought and to some degree discovered, justice is sought and to some degree established, health and abundance of life are sought and to some degree made available . . . so many ways and under so many ‘secular incognitos’ God is carrying out his great purpose of love. Thus, to repeat what has been said in earlier parts of this book, the clue or key to what God is always ‘up to’, always doing, always evoking from humanity, always providing for the sons and daughters of divine Love, is to be seen, known, accepted, and implemented in what we as Christians dare to say has been declared in the event from which our Christian faith took its origin and to which it always returns: namely Jesus Christ, whom we believe to be the Lord and Saviour whose ‘name is above every other name’ -- and all this is ‘to the glory of God the Father.’

At the end of the last chapter, I spoke about two ‘stories.’ One was the historic and human story whose outline, with many detailed incidents, is to be found in what the Bible has to tell us, coming to its culmination in the event of Jesus Christ and its immediate consequences. The other story was the story of the divine initiative and activity which Christian faith has discerned in the historic and human story. The two stories are different and yet Christian faith has believed them to be truly one story, seen from different angles and understood in different terms. That they are indeed one story cannot be demonstrated, How could the historic and human demonstrate any such thing? It is with that historic and human story that the scholars and biblical critics and historians necessarily deal, But the witness of faith, based on the facts of experience and the experience of facts, need not be alien to nor contradictory of the interpretation which the tradition has given it. Perhaps I may be permitted to claim that the conceptuality which I have used in this book helps to make the tradition’s claim more probable, although of course not inevitable.

In the following chapter we shall turn to some of the religious affirmations, both theological (or about the God-world relationship) and moral (or about how faith and life in faith entail a pattern or principle of human existence) which in the Christian tradition have been seen as basic, For the proclamation of the gospel these affirmations provide a background, never to be obtruded but always present; and for a preacher, aware of his representative function and rightly informed about the thought of the past which is still effectual in the present, these are matters of the highest importance.