Preaching: The Most Frightful Adventure

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Thus the witness to the Word of God–the one who testifies that God is the Word and speaks–is in the full sense a witness, while at the same time he restores to the human words its fullness. We have observed that all human language draws its nature and value from the fact that it both comes from the Word of God and is chosen by God to manifest himself. But this relationship is secret and incomprehensible, beyond the bounds of reason and analysis. This relationship becomes luminous and unquestionable only when the word is spoken by a witness–that is, by one who explicitly makes the connection between the divine and human word. He must have the courage, audacity, and enthusiasm to declare, despite his deep humility, “What I say expresses the Word of God. My word projects the Word of God.” This is inconceivable and must surely be paranoia. Yet only thus can all human language gather strength and find a new beginning. Such statements require the courage to look ridiculous (“Who am I . . . ?”); it is crazy to think that I could express the truth of the Most High God, knowing what I know about myself. Isn’t this a potential source of pride? No, because in fact I am overwhelmed, broken, and crushed by the truth of this word I must speak. Kierkegaard lived this experience in its entirety, as did Martin Luther and Augustine. The witness cannot affirm great truths lightly.

Precisely for this reason preaching is the most frightful adventure. I have no right to make a mistake that makes God a liar. But who can guarantee that I won’t make a mistake? I walk on the razor’s edge. On the other hand, if my preaching is nothing but a pious, oratorical, Sunday-morning exercise, then better to keep silent. If through my words I do not proclaim the Word of God, what I say has no meaning but is the most absurd and odious of speeches. If, however, I try to proclaim God’s word, I am utterly called into question by my very pretension. If I make God a liar I risk being the absolute Liar. And what if I err, substituting my ideas and opinions for God’s Revelation–if I proclaim my word as the Word of God, in order to give it weight and sparkle, in order to beguile my listeners? Then my word, unratified by God and disavowed by the Holy Spirit, becomes the cause for my condemnation.

Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Grand Rapids, Michgan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), p. 109

I find Ellul difficult to penetrate yet delightfully provocative. Here he precisely identifies the fear and trembling that should accompany the preaching of the Word of God. It is no light thing to stand and say that one brings a divinely spoken Word (Ellul is more specific: “the Word of God”) through human words. Far too often, the stakes in preaching are perceived as being too low, not only by the preacher, but by the congregation. However, as Ellul notes, it is the preacher who should be exceedingly wary, not only because of the audaciousness that comes with the preaching task, rightly understood, but also due to the weight of consequence should the preacher err or abuse their trust.

James 3:1 comes to mind, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

Pulpits may differ in their size and construction or perceived prestige and influence. But all pulpits bear this in common: they welcome a human being who declares themselves a proclaimer of the Word of God. The task invites the preacher, as Ellul writes, into “the most frightful adventure.” We foray into divine mystery not fully knowing what we will behold, trusting that in the act of proclamation Christ will be revealed. Rejection is a possibility. We do not know how the congregation will respond, for the Spirit blows where it wills. We do not know if the seeds sown will fall upon the worn path, rocks, thorns, or good soil. We are often left like the sower who sows waiting night and day for the seed to grow up, though he knows not how.

Ellul writes, “The witness cannot affirm great truths lightly.” Preaching is but a step toward witness, and, with God’s help, toward truth.

Apologetics in the Manner of Jesus

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Truth is the point of reference we share with all human beings. No one can live without truth. Though we may disagree about which particular things are true or false, allegiance to the truth–whatever the truth may be–permits us to stand alongside every person as honest fellow inquirers. Our attitude is therefore not one of ‘us and them,’ but of ‘we.’ And we are forever here to learn and not only to teach.

Dallas Willard, “Apologetics in the Manner of Jesus” in Renewing the Christian Mind

Apologetics is the Christian discipline of theological argumentation concerned with the defense of particular doctrines, beliefs, or practices. The Latin term apologia translates “defense.” Christian apologists often cite 1 Peter 3:15, which in part reads, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

Cast out of your mind the notion that argument can only be conducted in anger, or that arguments are always and only about power. Calm, reasoned arguments can be made. And they are often made. If willingly entered into by parties who are share a common objective of arriving at what is true, good, and beautiful, arguments can be decided on the merits. Arguments can be helpful. I wrote yesterday about arguments, not for the sake of argument, but toward wisdom, or the maturation and development of the human soul.

In that same essay cited above, Willard writes:

So, if at all possible–sometimes it is not, due to others–we ‘give our account’ in an atmosphere of mutual inquiry animated by generous love. However firm we may be in our convictions, we do not become overbearing, contemptuous, hostile, or defensive. For we know that Jesus himself would not do so because we cannot help people in that way. He had no need of it, nor do we. And in apologetics as elsewhere, he is our model and our master. Our confidence is totally in him. That is the ‘special place’ we give him in our hearts–how we ‘sanctify Christ in our hearts as Lord’–in the crucial service of apologetics.

I’ve always been struck by Willard’s contention that “Love of those we deal with will help us to observe them accurately and to stay entirely away from manipulating them–meanwhile intensely longing for them to recognize that Jesus Christ is master of the cosmos in which they live.” Willard understood apologetics to be a helping ministry, and as such, it must be conducted in a spirit of neighborly love.

Thus, to be an effective apologist requires undergoing a spiritual formation, not only a disciplining of the mind but of the body, wherein one is free to love one’s neighbor as oneself, to reason freely and without fear, to seek the good of the other, to put self aside, from a place of security derivative of one’s position as a child and servant of God.

Argument Yes, But Toward Wisdom

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But there is some blundering through the failure of instructors; they teach us to argue, not to live, and some error among pupils, who bring to their instructors not the purpose of developing their soul but their intelligence. So what used to be philosophy, the love of wisdom, has become philology, the love of argument.

Seneca, Selected Letters, #108.24

Seneca lived in the first century, and in his letters addresses human concerns as old as dirt. The ancient philosophers observed, quite often, the distinction between the philosopher and the sophist. I read Plato on the subject while in graduate school at the University of Kansas, and I’ve been thinking about this problem ever since. Who is the person of true wisdom, and who is playacting? And how can you tell?

Seneca’s Letter 108 addresses these questions. He observes that some teachers and instructors who present themselves as learned memorize quotations and familiarize themselves with the great sages of the tradition not to gain mastery in the art of skillful living but instead to present themselves, in appearance, as being persons of wisdom without the substance thereof.

In the closing remarks of Letter 108, Seneca writes:

. . . I want to remind you that listening to philosophers and reading their work is for the purpose of attaining a blessed life, not so as to hunt archaic or artificial language and extravagant images and figures of speech, but to learn beneficial instructions and glorious and spirited sayings which will presently be turned into action. May we learn such things so thoroughly that what were words become deeds. For I think nobody deserved worse of all mortal men than those who learned philosophy as if it were a saleable skill, who live in a fashion different from how they declare that one should live. They are parading themselves around as examples of a useless training, open to every failing they denounce. Such a teacher cannot benefit me any more than a seasick pilot in a hurricane. One must hold on to the helm as the breakers snatch it and struggle with the seas itself, one must rescue the sails from the wind; what help can a ship’s steersman give me who is stupefied and throwing up? Yet how much worse a storm buffets life than tosses any boat? We must not talk but steer. Everything these men say, everything they throw out as the crowd listens to them, is borrowed property: Plato said that, or Zeno said it, or Chrysippus and Posidonius and an immense squadron of so many names of this kind. I will tell you how the speakers can prove that these sayings are their own: let them practice what they preached.

Letter 108.35

Sounds almost biblical.

The subject matter I teach is called “practical theology.” In my view there is no other kind, for in the end all theology, if it is sound, has direct application to reality as it is lived and experienced.

If our arguments are only quibbles about words, and are not in an effort to grasp what is true, we are only sophists and not sages.

In the Christian tradition, it is not enough to rely on “borrowed property.” God’s outside wisdom must be possessed, transforming us from within. This comes not through words, but through a Word, the Word who is Christ. God’s wisdom can be possessed by us, not through argument, but atonement. Wisdom is not arrived upon through abstraction, but by way of an encounter with a person, a living Lord who as our Teacher contours his Way to the exact, particular needs of every student who enters his school of kingdom living.

A Human Being Like Ourselves

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Perhaps it may be well explicitly to note that our Lord’s emotions fulfilled themselves, as ours do, in physical reactions. He who hungered (Mt. iv.2), thirsted (Jno. xix. 20), was weary (Jno. iv. 6), who knew both physical pain and pleasure, expressed also in bodily affections the emotions that stirred his soul. That he did so is sufficiently evinced by the simple circumstance that these emotions were observed and recorded. But the bodily expression of the emotions is also frequently expressly attested.Not only do we read that he wept (Jno. xi. 35) and wailed (Lk. xix. 41),sighed (Mk. vii. 34) and groaned (Mk. viii. 12) ; but we read also of his angry glare (Mk. iii. 5), his annoyed speech (Mk. x. 14), his chiding words(e. g. Mk. iii. 12), the outbreaking ebullition of his rage (e.g. Jno. xi. 33,38) ; of the agitation of his bearing when under strong feeling (Jno. xi.35), the open exultation of his joy (Lk. x. 21), the unrest of his movements in the face of anticipated evils (Mt. xxvii. 37), the loud cry which was wrung from him in his moment of desolation (Mt. xxvii. 46). Nothing is lacking to make the impression strong that we have before us in Jesus a human being like ourselves.

B. B. Warfield, The Emotional Life of Our Lord, p. 96-97

Christians believe Jesus was (and is) fully human and fully divine.

This teaching was clarified and affirmed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. As noted in this article, the Chalcedonian Definition is not a confession or creed, but is, rather, an explanation or commentary on a series of terms appearing in the Nicene Creed, detailing for us how the Nicene Creed should be understood with regard to Jesus’ nature and essence.

When Christians says the Son came down from heaven in the incarnation and was born as a human being, what does this mean for his divinity? And what does his divinity mean for his humanity?

These were challenging questions for the early church. They remain challenging questions for us today. But, as then, so now; these questions remain relevant. In his humanity, Jesus identified fully with us. In his divinity, Jesus accomplished for us what we could not accomplish for ourselves.

B. B. Warfield’s essay The Emotional Life of Our Lord examines the witness of the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and shows us the ways in which Jesus displayed emotion, that he was “a human being like ourselves.”

In my pastoral ministry experience, I have found that it is common for those inside the church to easily see Jesus as divine, but to be reticent to understand him as a human being, like us.

And with those outside the church, I have found that people are compelled by and interested in Jesus as a human being, but are very hesitant to believe that he was and is divine, worthy of our adoration and worship.

Jesus fulfilled the Law by keeping it perfectly, and by paying the penalty for its transgression as our substitute.

Jesus was (and is) both fully human and fully divine.

Warfield’s entire essay can be read here.

The Paradox of Limitation

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In Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman defines the paradox of limitation this way:

[T]he more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty, and frustrating life gets. But the more you confront the facts of finitude instead–and work with them, rather than against them–the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes. I don’t think the feeling of anxiety every completely goes away; we’re even limited, apparently, in our capacity to embrace our limitations. But I’m aware of no other time management technique that’s half as effective as just facing the way things truly are.

p. 32

Facing the way things truly are is the key for a life of wisdom. That insight applies to more than time management.

But let’s stick with time management for a moment. When I was a seminarian, I was introduced to the idea of a well ordered life. I was challenged to think deeply about calling, purpose, and discipline. I was invited to make commitments that would place me on a trajectory that, over time, would make a difference.

One of my professors had a plaque on his wall that said, “As now, so then.” This principle was applied to the spiritual life: your choices in the present have implications for your life in the future, for who you are becoming, and who you will one day be. Those choices can be intentional, or we can drift along.

The real challenge in applying this principle wasn’t necessarily the “now” (though an inventory of present practices can be complicated), but the “then.” What are we made for? Where do we want to end up? What is a life well lived, who is living that way, and how do I do it?

Answers to those questions will vary. But the answer will make all the difference. If we could envision where we’d like to land, could we better plot the course from A to B?

For Christian people, we are made by and for God, and our purpose is to bring God glory. We glorify God when we live as reconciled creatures, a reconciliation made possible in and through Jesus Christ. Once reconciled through the cross, we leave behind our old way of life. We live in keeping with the “new creation” as citizens of God’s kingdom, remaining in step with God’s Spirit, walking in rhythm with God’s reign and rule.

Our “then” is the then of eternity. Our “now” is bound up and constrained by time. Our life is where time and eternity intersect, and in Christ, time and eternity are brought together. His path becomes ours. His salvation takes effect, not in the ledger of the afterlife, but in the here and now. When we receive this grace, our bodies remain mortal, even while our souls are enlivened and awakened to another plane. Our days in this mortal coil remain numbered. But they are given additional weight, a weight of glory. Our days become more significant, not less. Our work, that which is done unto the Lord, not only counts for a moment, but forever.

A truth I often speak to young ministers comes to mind: “We’re all interims.” Here’s another one: ” We’ll all be held to account, for both the good and the bad that we do.” Our work is appointed for a particular time; it will be weighed and measured by the standard of eternity. Be diligent. Choose wisely. Do good.

There are several Scripture passages I could quote here, but it suffices to say that we want to be good stewards, making the most of the time. As finite creatures, we trust the outcomes to God, who is eternal. We manage our time knowing we are given a finite amount.

Our limitations constrain us. We cannot possibly do it all.

But acknowledging our limitations also frees us. It frees us to trust in God, and to differentiate between what is ours to do and what is ours to leave undone.

If you try to manage your time in order to bring everything under your control, you are attempting to be God. You are not. You are mortal. But if you embrace your limitations, if you acknowledge your mortality, you are free to be productive, to find meaning, and to experience joy in those things which are uniquely yours, appointed for you and your life. You are invited to enjoy the life you have been given and to trust that God, who is eternal, is perfectly capable of handling the rest.

The Cross: The Center of the Story

The cross itself, in short, stands at the center of the Christian message, the Christian story, and the Christian life and mission. It has lost none of its revolutionary and transformative power down through the centuries. The cross is where the great story of God and creation, focused on the strange story of God and Israel and then focused still more sharply on the personal story of God and Jesus, came into terrible but life-giving clarity. The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was a one-off event, the one on behalf of the many, the one moment in history on behalf of all others through which sins are forgiven, the powers robbed of their power, and humans redeemed to take their place as worshippers and stewards, celebrating the powerful victory of God in his Messiah and so gaining the Spirit’s power to make his kingdom effective in the world.

N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, p. 416

The Most Enjoyable of All Subjects

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Because of piety’s penchant for taking itself too seriously, theology–more than literary, humanistic, and scientific studies–does well to nurture a modest, unguarded sense of comedy. Some comic sensibility is required to keep in due proportion the pompous pretensions of the study of divinity.

When the chips pile too high, I invite the kind of laughter that wells us not from cynicism about theology but from lightness about it. This comes from glimpsing the incongruity of humans thinking about God. I have often laughed at myself as these sentences went through their tortuous stages of formation; I ask you to look for the comic dimension of divinity that stalks every stage.

The most enjoyable of all subjects has to be God, because God is the source of all joy. God has the first and last laugh. The least articulate of all disciplines deserves something in between.

Thomas C. Oden, The Living God: Systematic Theology, Vol. 1

Finite beings seeking to comprehend and infinite God, who, for our sake, reveals himself only in part. Imagine the kind of person taking on that kind of work. How funny! Moreover, if its true that God is the source of all joy (and I believe this to be the case), imagine the kind of person who wouldn’t want to do the work of theology. We can’t help ourselves. We all have something to say about God. It’s very serious work. It’s also very joyous work. Thus, to the degree that we reflect something of the God who is there, it is the most enjoyable subject of all.

The Difference Maker

Maturing in our life of faith brings us to a sense of God’s grace. As we realize how vast the resources of energy of God are in our everyday lives, we find that we don’t have to carry the weight of the world’s sins on our shoulders, that our moral sweat isn’t going to make the critical difference in history, but that the difference has already been made by Christ’s blood.

Eugene Peterson, The Hallelujah Banquet, p. 76

Authoritative, but How?

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Students of Christian ethics and of the Christian life may differ widely in the ways they use the Bible and in their interpretation of how it is authoritative, but they generally agree that it is authoritative. Some scholars and Christians in general would cite particular laws or specific rules as authoritative in the Christian life. Those who take this position turn to the commandments of the Bible which they claim are found in both Testaments.

There are others who place the emphasis on the principles or ideals of the Bible instead of on laws and specific precepts. Those who take this approach do not necessarily turn to the Bible for specific answers for every question or as a solution to every problem. They suggest that more important than the commandments are the principles or ideals that may be expressed through the commandments or may be the source of the commandments. Also, some would say that more important than any specific principle is the spirit or attitude revealed by and through the ideal.

T. B. Maston, Both-And: A Maston Reader, Selected Readings from the Writings of T. B. Maston

If you want to be charitable in debates with fellow Christians regarding differences in Scriptural interpretation, keep in mind Maston’s distinction between how and is. Most Christians agree that the Scripture is authoritative. Disagreements arise from how.

The quotation I’ve selected names two ways Maston saw Christians approaching biblical interpretation. The first is law or precept. The second is principle and ideal. The third, which Maston names later, is relationship. And of course, Maston argues that interpretation should not be confined by only one of these approaches, but should enfold them all.

Maston writes, “A strict choice does not have to be made between law, principle, and relationship…It is a question of emphasis or primary concern.” For Maston, it is always a “both-and,” with weight distributed based on the needs of the case.

That’s fine, in so far as it goes. But then it is still a question of how one interprets and applies the Scriptures, because while you may factor more than one approach in deriving at an answer, you are still privileging one approach over another.

The categories may remain helpful, at least in how you listen to your conversation partners. Knowing how others approach the Scripture can help you to trace the source of your differences, not necessarily in the substance of the text itself, but in the disposition towards it.

Ellul’s Religious World

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Never have people believed as much, everything and nothing. The modern world is above all else a religious world. It is loaded with religions–communism, Maoism, nationalism, revolution–all are purely and specifically religious attitudes. The modern world is not really secularized, in spite of all the absurd ballyhoo based on a whole series of misconceptions, and on an extremely superficial analysis. This is essentially a world of the sacred. The political enemy is “damned.” Wars are ideological wars, that is to say, wars of religion. Social movements are sacred. Revolution is an act of God. Technology belongs to the domain of the sacred, and science even more so. The most that can be said is that modern humans have completely desacralized the natural environment, they have transferred all the sacred to the cultural and the social. One need only observe the entranced state of those who talk revolution, or the complete irrationality of discourses on politics, irrespective of the specific question under discussion. The modern world is overflowing with myths. It is constantly producing myth, but they are no longer the same myths as before, and they no longer come by the same process. This contradicts the superficial view that humanity, attached to ancestral forms of myth, is being demythologized. We are caught up in the development myths (and those of underdevelopment), in the myths of self-management and growth, as well as in the myths of fascism and imperialism. World and humanity are crammed with faith, with religion, with belief, with mythology.

Jacques Ellul, Essential Spiritual Writings, p. 40

Right on, Ellul.

These words, sourced from Hope in Time of Abandonment, were written in 1972.