As demonstrated in the previous editorial, there is in Protestantism today a brutal attack on preaching in the worship of the church. Although vehement, the definition that someone has given of preaching as “a monstrous monologue by a moron to mutes” captures the mood of the movement for liturgical renewal.
Within Reformed and Presbyterian churches also, there is a loss of faith that the preaching of the gospel is the voice of Christ Himself. Thus, in their worship these churches break with the worship advocated and practiced by the Reformation. For the Reformation honored preaching as the voice of God in Jesus Christ.
The Reformation’s Regard for Preaching
This was Luther’s estimation of preaching. In a sermon on John 20:19-31, he remarked: “Every honest pastor’s and preacher’s mouth is Christ’s mouth.” On another occasion, he declared, “I am certain that when I enter the pulpit to preach or stand at the lectern to read, it is not my word, but my tongue is the pen of a ready writer.”
Calvin agreed. In a sermon, significantly on Ephesians 4:11, 12 (Christ “gave … some, pastors and teachers …”), Calvin taught his congregation:
If our Lord gives us this blessing of His gospel being preached to us, we have a sure and infallible mark that He is near us and procures our salvation, and that He calls us to Him, as if He had His mouth open and we saw Him there in person.
Therefore, for Calvin the pulpit was “the throne of God.”
This conception of preaching, common to all the Reformers, is found throughout the Reformed creeds. It received explicit formulation in Bullinger’s Second Helvetic Confession of 1566:
The Preaching of the Word of God Is the Word of God. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good (Chapter I).
This high view of preaching continued in the history of the Reformed churches until recently. In his work on liturgics, William Heyns called the minister de mond Gods (“the mouth of God”). In a rich and profound treatment of preaching as the primary means of grace in the church, explaining Q. and A. 65 of the Heidelberg Catechism, Herman Hoeksema described a preacher as one who does not merely speak concerning Christ, “but one through whom it pleases Christ Himself to speak, to cause His own voice to be heard by His people” (Triple Knowledge, vol. 2, pp. 409, 410).
James Hastings Nichols put it well when he described the Reformation’s view of preaching, and, therefore, of the preacher, this way: “the preacher … is … God’s instrument in a terrifyingly direct way” (Corporate Worship in the Reformed Tradition, Westminster Press, 1968, p. 31).
In the life-and-death battle for biblical, Reformed worship today, all that we are called to do, if only we can, is to defend and preserve our Reformation and Reformed heritage. But then we must ourselves see, and be convinced, that this is the biblical view of preaching. The Reformation’s conception of preaching was not cultural, was not an accident of history, although this is how those who are reviving and renewing worship in our day like to present the matter. Fact is, the Reformers knew all about drama and music in worship. They had firsthand knowledge of the most impressive ceremony and ritual in the history of Christendom: the sacerdotalism and ritual of the Roman Catholic Church. All of this they rejected. Instead, they demanded preaching. The reason for their rejection of ceremony and their insistence on preaching was the testimony of Holy Scripture that preaching is the voice of God.
Scripture’s Regard for Preaching
For the Reformers, this testimony was, first of all, the teaching of the Bible everywhere that everything depends upon the Word of God, that is, upon the living voice of God speaking peace to His people. We live by every Word that proceeds from God’s mouth (Deut. 8:3). The sheep of Jesus Christ hear (present tense!) His voice, and only thus do they follow Him (John 10:27). From the beginning of the history of redemption, God has spoken, and now in the end of the ages He does not shut His mouth, to try some other methods, but has spoken—and continues to speak—by His Son, Jesus the Christ, our chief prophet and teacher (Heb. 1:1, 2; Heid. Cat., Questions 19 and 31).
The Reformers had their specific texts: I Thessalonians 2:13 (“when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God”); Rom. 10:14 (“how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard?” Greek text); John 20:21-23 (“whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them”); Luke 10:16 (“he that heareth you heareth me”).
Clear and powerful as these passages are, none is more clear and compelling than Ephesians 4:20, 21: “But ye have not so learned Christ; If so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus.” Writing to the Ephesians who had not heard about Christ and been converted to Him until some 20 years after He ascended into heaven, the apostle says, matter-of-factly, as something both they and he knew to be the case, that those Ephesian Christians heard Christ and were taught by Christ. The only, and obvious, explanation is that the preaching of the gospel by the apostle and his co-workers was the voice of Jesus Christ. The preaching of the Word was for the Ephesians vox Christi.
That this “terrifyingly direct” instrumentality of the minister as the mouthpiece of Christ applies, and is intended by the Holy Spirit to apply, to preachers, and not only to apostles, is evident in two ways. First, the preceding context mentions the office of pastor and teacher with those of apostle, prophet, and evangelist (v. 11). The office of pastor and teacher is the only permanent office in the church, to carry on the edifying of the body of Christ that was begun by the apostolic office. The hearing of Christ and the being taught by Christ that once took place through the office of the apostle now takes place through the office of pastor and teacher.
Second, it is the teaching of Ephesians 4:20, 21 that hearing Christ and being taught by Christ are necessary if we are to learn Christ in the saving manner described in verses 17-19 and in verses 22-24, namely, not walking as other Gentiles, but putting off the old man and putting on the new man. Salvation requires hearing Christ Himself! Salvation requires being taught by Christ Himself! The voice of God in Christ, and only the voice of God in Christ, calls the things that are not as though they were and brings the light of spiritual life out of the darkness of our natural, total depravity! This voice sounds in every age, to the world’s end, through the preaching of the gospel by the pastors and teachers whom the ascended Christ gives to His church.
Fundamental Qualifications of True Preaching
Two things qualify the preaching that is this living voice of the risen Christ, the personal Word of God. First, it is preaching that has as its content, and, therefore, preaching that is faithful to, the message of the apostles, that is, Holy Scripture. The Second Helvetic Confession gives this qualification when it says, “when this Word of God is now preached,” etc. The reference is to Scripture, which the Second Helvetic has just confessed to be “the true Word of God.”
Second, only that preaching is the voice of God which is done by a man who has been given to the church as a pastor and teacher by the ascended Christ, that is, one who is called to this labor by Christ, one who is in office. The Second Helvetic Confession indicates this qualification when it says, “when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called,” etc.
Preaching as the voice of Christ is necessarily connected with, and dependent upon, preaching’s being the exercise of office, and not merely the exercise of gifts. The assault on preaching today begins with the rejection of office. Modern Reformed church members and contemporary synods first disparage and then deny positions of authority in the congregations. Usually they do this in a pious manner, as though they would exalt “service.” The implication is that authority and service in the church are mutually exclusive. A man with authority to bring the Word of God would be a tyrant, lording it over the cowed members. Whatever the approach, the churches repudiate office. This is the end of preaching.
It is also the muzzling of the voice of Christ in those churches. Fundamental to the entire ministry of the Son of God in human flesh is office. He may glorify God in the world, redeem the church, fulfill the covenant, and establish the kingdom of God, not simply because He is gifted but because He is ordained and qualified by God as God’s authoritative Servant. He is the Messiah. He has been called of God.
Still today, when He functions by means of men, particularly as prophet and teacher of the church, he calls and sends these men, so that His labor through them is official. Other than officially, Christ will not work. Other than officially, He will not speak.
(to be cont.)—DJE