The subject of this editorial contains two distinct truths. Both are of fundamental importance for the right worship of God. One is the nature of preaching. This truth lies on the foreground and is immediately obvious to all. The question at issue is whether preaching is God’s Word or man’s word.
The other truth is the place of preaching in worship. This truth lies more in the background of the subject and might easily be overlooked. Does preaching have a place in worship? Does it have a place at all? If it does have a place, is this place central or peripheral? Is the place of preaching in worship this, that preaching is merely one of a number of equally important activities? Or is preaching, with the sacraments that are attached to it, the heart of the worship of the church of God?
If preaching has the central place in worship, is this because of what preaching itself is, because of what preaching is by God’s appointment? Or is this because of tradition and culture—Reformed tradition and Western, intellectual culture?
In the teeth of the “liturgical renewal” in Reformed and Presbyterian churches today, I contend that the preaching of the Word of God is vox Dei (voice of God) and, more particularly, vox Christi (voice of Christ). For this reason, preaching is not merely part of every service of the public worship of the Triune God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Ghost, but is the central, preeminent act in the worship of the church.
Between these two truths concerning the nature and the place of preaching, there is mutual relationship. As the voice of God, preaching is the central act in worship. Who would presume to exclude from worship the voice of God? Who would dare to consign the voice of God to a peripheral, subordinate place in worship?
But the relationship may also be stated this way: God has ordained preaching as His voice exactly in order that His voice may have the central place in the worship of the church.
The truth of the nature of preaching and the related truth of the place of preaching in worship are the two most important issues at stake in the battle by the true, faithful Reformed church for right worship. The battle for the faith now at the end of the ages rages also on the front of worship. “Rages” is the appropriate verb here. For one thing, the battle over worship is furious. For another thing, the conflict in the congregation between those introducing innovations and those holding on to the old ways produces hot anger and heated exchanges.
The movement for liturgical renewal, or “progressiveness” in worship, hinges on a denial of both the nature of preaching as the voice of God and the place of preaching as central. Regardless of the conscious motives of everyone who promotes this renewal of public worship, the movement as such has two results. It dislodges the sermon from its central, dominant place in the worship service, and it inculcates a view of preaching as the word of man (and now, woman).
The seriousness of the raging conflict over worship is that with the loss of a regard for preaching as the Word of God is lost the right worship of God. Where worship is thus corrupted, there can be no giving of grace to needy sinners. Preaching as the Word of God is the means of grace.
The question whether preaching is the Word of God or the word of man is forced on us at the present hour by the assault on preaching in the Reformed churches. It is this assault that drives the movement to overhaul Reformed worship.
One does not have to read many issues of the journal Reformed Worship to realize that in the restructured worship that this Reformed periodical envisions and promotes preaching is, at best, one element among many. Fact is, although the editors pay lip service to preaching, preaching does not have their heart. What truly interests them are banners, dialogue, dance, and music—especially music.
Whereas Reformed Worship damns preaching in worship with faint praise and scant attention, Presbyterian theologian John M. Frame expresses that the current renewal of worship in supposedly conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches takes dead aim at preaching. He does this in his recent book, Worship in Spirit and Truth: A Refreshing Study of the Principles and Practice of Biblical Worship (P&R, 1996). Under the heading “Preaching and Teaching” Frame denies that “teaching in the church is … restricted to elders” (p. 91). He affirms that drama is a legitimate form of preaching and teaching. He asserts that “teaching can take place through dialogue” (pp. 92-94).
This reputedly conservative and certainly influential Presbyterian theologian says, “I see no reason why some worship services should not be entirely musical” (p. 114).
Basic to his gutting of the regulative principle of worship (by so expanding it that it becomes meaningless) is his denial of any validity to the distinction between official, public worship by the church and informal worship at home by a family (pp. 44, 45). This effectively negates the necessity of preaching at church, for obviously we do not have preaching in our family devotions.
It comes as no surprise, then, that in the last chapter, “Putting It Together,” where Frame describes the ideal worship for which he has laid the foundation throughout the book (which also happens to be the public worship that Frame has created and leads in his southern California “New Life Presbyterian Church”), the preaching of the Word is lost in the shuffle. (I use the word “shuffle” deliberately since Frame also approves dance in the worship, pp. 130-132.) Not the preaching, but the lively praise songs; the choruses; the clapping; the whistling; the tapping of tambourines; John Frame’s prayer; hymn after hymn after hymn; John Frame’s talking to the congregation between the hymns; the Lord’s Supper; and John Frame’s directing the choir are on the foreground (pp. 145-154).
All these other activities take up most of the time. Unless they hold services for two hours or more in southern California, the sermon cannot be longer than 15 minutes.
The book comes highly recommended by professors at leading, conservative Reformed and Presbyterian seminaries. Steve Brown of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida states, “This is the kind of book that you will read and say, ‘But, of course. Why didn’t someone explain it that way before?’ John Frame has done the church a great service … with biblical balance, insight, and an irenic spirit.” Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia gives this commendation: “Some of Frame’s conclusions and applications are controversial, but anyone concerned about worship honoring to God and true to Scripture will surely benefit from reflecting on this stimulating, clearly argued, and always biblically focused study” (back cover). Frame himself is professor at Westminster in California. The Reformed and Presbyterian saints who have their young men trained for the ministry in these seminaries must not be surprised when their pastors have them dancing in the aisles. They have been forewarned.The attack on preaching in the churches of the Reformation is open, direct, and brutal. Dutch Reformed theologian Klaas Runia has taken note of this frontal assault in the publication of a series of lectures, The Sermon under Attack (Paternoster, 1983). Essentially, the criticism of the sermon is the fruit of the Enlightenment’s liberation of Western man “from the authoritarian shackles of Scripture and the church.” Modern man “does not want to be told what is true and worthwhile; he wants to discover it for himself and, accordingly, he also wants to determine for himself what he should do. . . . He wants to join in the discussion. But the sermon provides no opportunity for discussion (my emphasis—DJE).”
Runia quotes L. E. Keck, expressing well the attitude of the people toward sermons:
If something is worth communicating, don’t spoil it by preaching it! Let it emerge in the give-and-take of the group; celebrate it by music, dance or drama. In preaching, people are as passive as chickens on a roost—and perhaps just as awake. For whatever reason, the authority of the preacher has become problematic (p. 6).
With the assault on preaching goes a deep doubt concerning the effectiveness of preaching. Runia quotes Henry Ward Beecher:
The churches of the land are sprinkled all over with bald-headed old sinners whose hair has been worn off by the friction of countless sermons that have been aimed at them and have glanced off and hit the man in the pew behind (p. 10).
The Reformed layman cannot but notice the wounding, if not the murder, of the sermon in Reformed churches. John J. Timmerman, esteemed professor of English at Calvin College for many years, ruefully reflected on the demise of the sermon in his 1987 semi-autobiography, Through a Glass Lightly (Eerdmans):
The sermon was formerly the centerpiece of worship; now additions and adornments, creative participation and additions, sometimes reduce it to a sermonette…. The long prayer is now written down and read to God. The sermon is in danger of becoming a diminishing dot in a flurry of addenda…. I sometimes think the sermon is in many churches a diminishing island in a surging sea of activities (p. 125).
Implied, if not bluntly stated, in all this criticism and neglect of the sermon is the modern conviction that preaching is a human activity: a man (or, now, a woman) talks about God and spiritual things. This can be beneficial, if the speaker is gifted. But preaching is just another human act that must fight for its few minutes in the limelight of the liturgy with all the other acts that clamor for a place.
Such a conception of the preaching of the Word is a radical break with the conception held by the Reformation. There is today the loss of faith that preaching is the voice of God.
(to be continued) —DJE