What I Am Reading…The Priority of Preaching by Christopher Ash

I have accumulated a number of books from recent conferences and am trying to read at least one per week.  All of the books are excellent and timely; however, one has stood out among the rest so far.  It’s The Priority of Preaching by Christopher Ash of The Proclamation Trust.  This is one of those books that is difficult to put down.  It is probably more interesting for a preacher than a listener, but I think it has much value for both.  The 128-page book is structured in three large chapters: The Authority of the Preached Word, Preaching that Transforms the Church, and Preaching that Mends a Broken World–all based expositionally out of the book of Deuteronomy. Here is the outline of the first chapter:

A. The Preacher Exercises the Authority of Christ in the Church.
      1. Under the old covenant, God governed his people by the written word preached by the prophets.
           (a) The primacy of the prophet in the people of God
           (b) The authority of God is exercised not by the written word but by the written word preached
      2. Under the new covenant, Christ governs his people by the written word preached by preachers
           (a) The progressive revelatory role of the prophet is fulfilled in Christ the Prophet.
           (b) But Christ the Prophet is no longer here!
           (c) …and so we need preachers to continue the proclamatory work of the prophets.
B. The Preacher’s Authority Is a Borrowed Authority, Only Obtained by Much Toil, Sweat, and with Deep Humbling.
     1. Beware the shortcut of individual interpretation.
     2. Beware the shortcut of second-hand interpretation.
     3. Beware the shortcut of mystical authority.

Now, here are the sections I highlighted from the first chapter:

This chapter is an exposition (with detours) of three words spoken in the Old Testament and repeated in the New: ‘listen to him.’ In the NIV these are the last three words of Deuteronomy 18:15: ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.’ In the New Testament they are spoken by God about Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!‘ (Mark 9:7)

My thesis in this first chapter is that we must listen today to the voice of the Christian preacher because he is the prophet in our generation as Moses was in his.

Many think preaching is…a heroic attempt by nostalgic Christians to sustain the methods of a bygone age…It is never easy to write in defence of preaching.

In 1980 Haddon Robinson laments that his book Expository Preaching ‘may have been written for a depressed market.’

‘For there are those who have come to regard preaching as outmoded and irrelevant, superseded by other means of communicating the gospel such as dialogue, discussion and drama.’

Right back in 2 Timothy, Paul tells us that these last days (between Jesus’ first coming and his return) will be difficult; people will not endure sound teaching, but with itching ears will pile up teachers to tell them what they want to hear (2 Tim. 3:1-9; 4:3, 4). Until Jesus returns there will be lots of bad preachers and lots of bad congregations.

Are we right to understand preaching as ‘the central part of our ministry of the word’ (Peter Adam) and ‘the most excellent’ part of the pastor’s work (Richard Baxter)?

I have chosen Deuteronomy because it seems to me that Deuteronomy gives us God’s mandate for preaching…I suggest that the big issue in Deuteronomy is this: how are the covenant people going to continue after the covenant mediator is gone? How are the people of God to continue to be the people of God in the absence of their founding leader?…they continue because a series of prophets preaches to them; these are the instruments God uses.

Although Moses was a great leader, the Old Testament doesn’t call him a king. Although he came from a priestly family, he is not remembered as a priest. He is remembered as the first and great prophet of Israel: ‘The Lord used a prophet to bring Israel up from Egypt’ (Hosea 12:13)…So what will happen when he is gone? Who will be God’s vicar in Israel? To whom should we listen? Answer: the prophet like Moses.

True prophets were preachers of the written covenant. Both were needed. Sometimes the word was written but not preached. But without the preacher the word gathers dust in a forgotten corner of the temple, to be discovered by the builders (as in Josiah’s reign, 2 Kings 22).

Every culture knows what it is to sit and listen to an authoritative human being speak…preaching in its essence is an authorized human being speaking the words of God to listening human beings; and every culture understands that.

In some churches we have slipped into assuming that personal Bible reading and one-to-one Bible studies and Bible study groups are the normative way for Christian people to hear the word of God. This, we say, is what a healthy Christian life looks like. But in defining the Christian life like this we may unwittingly have alienated the illiterate, the functionally illiterate, the less-educated, those less confident in studying a text. I wonder if, quite unintentionally, we may have contributed to making some of our churches more monocultural than they might otherwise be.

So how are we to reach those for whom this kind of study is culturally alien? We have two options: theatre and preaching. By ‘theatre’ I mean entertainment, whether it be by the liturgical colour and drama of high church ritual, or by entrancing music or by entertaining anecdotes.

Peter Adam makes the point that from the seventh century to the twelfth century there was a movement that said that ordinary people could not understand preaching so the best way to communicate with them was by statues, stained-glass windows and pictures.

The alternative to theatre is preaching, the simple activity of a man speaking the words of God face to face with men and women. This is how God used John Wesley, George Whitfield, Charles Spurgeon, F.B. Meyer, Billy Graham to reach the masses. We have no need to be defensive about preaching: it speaks to every culture.

I suggest that we ought to rethink the place and purpose of Bible study groups, for two reasons. The first is that, all too often, a Bible study group is a place where discussion substitutes for submission to the word of God…The second reason…is a concern to mold the Christian life in a way which does not exclude the less confident, less fluent, those less at home studying a written text.

The prophets held together two roles…They were preachers of the covenant word. But they were also progressive revealers of the promised Christ…The book of Deuteronomy sets up brilliantly the tension between these two roles. On the one hand Moses says that God ‘will raise up for you a prophet like me’ (Deut. 18:15)…a succession of prophets like Moses so that in each generation they know to whom they must listen. But on the other hand, the book closes by saying, ‘Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses…’…In one sense there were plenty of prophets like Moses…They were ‘like Moses’ in that they faithfully preached the covenant that Moses preached in Deuteronomy. So how were they not like Moses? The clue is in Deuteronomy 34:10-12…There were prophets who spoke and preached like Moses; but there was no prophet who redeemed like Moses, into whom they were ‘baptised’ in the great redeeming events of the Exodus. For that Redeemer Prophet (the Prophet with a capital ‘P’) they waited, whose mighty redemption would make the Exodus seem small by comparison. Both Peter and Stephen quote this passage in Deuteronomy 18 (in Acts 3:22f. and Acts 7:37, 52). And both of them understand it to refer both to the succession of prophets, and to the expectation of a final Prophet…And so the prophetic succession comes to its climax in Jesus Christ.

As with Israel after Moses, so with us after the apostolic age: we too have a written covenant document. Theirs was foundational but incomplete. Ours is full, sufficient and final, the canon of scripture. The prophets added to theirs; no preacher adds to ours. But just as they needed living prophets to preach the covenant, so we need living preachers to proclaim the word.

In this sense therefore the preacher’s ministry is prophetic: it is not revelatory, but it is proclamatory…Commenting on Romans 1:15, where Paul the letter-writer says he is ‘eager to preach the Gospel also to you who are at Rome,’ Haddon Robinson makes the point that even though the letter to the Romans is so magisterial, nevertheless Paul knew it was no substitute for preaching to them face to face (Rom. 1:15): ‘That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.’ He knows he cannot preach by a letter. Haddon Robinson comments that, ‘A power comes through the word preached that even the inerrant written word cannot replace.’

Listening to the preached word means listening and cannot just be transmuted into reading. Under the old covenant they submitted to God by listening to the prophet. Under the new covenant we submit to Christ by listening to Christ’s preachers. It is by listening that we model submission. Submission is not the same as discussion.

We live in a culture where everyone has their say, where I can press the interactive buttons and register my view on television, where I can set up a blog and proclaim my views on anything and everything to the world, where the most friendly thing we can say in welcoming newcomers is, ‘We want to know what you think.’ But–dare I say it–God does not want to know what we think. He wants us to know what he thinks.

Now clearly we cannot avoid interpretation. And there is a place for discussion and questioning to clarify our grasp of meaning and to correct one another’s blind spots. But all too often, discussion is one of the ways we avoid submission. We need preaching with authority that we may listen submissively. This is counter-cultural. Perhaps it always has been.

When the defining engagement of a church with the word of God is sitting together under preaching, all the other ministries of the word flourish.

But I want to close this chapter by saying that those who seriously think this have not understood the nature of the preachers’ authority. In the sixteenth century some of Calvin’s opponents from the CHurch of Rome seem to have suggested that the authority of the Bible is borrowed from the authority of the church…On the contrary, argued Calvin, scripture is the foundation of the church and the authority of the church’s preachers is borrowed from its source, which is scripture.

So what is the relationship between the written word and the preached word? ‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God’ wrote the Second Helvetic Confession in 1566. And that certainly begs a few questions…On the one hand, the Roman church said that scripture was not clear and needed an interpretive key from outside…On the other hand, some radicals said that scripture was so clear that it was sufficient just to read it, and there was no need of exposition.  All we need, they said, is the public reading of scripture; expository preachers are surplus to requirements. But, as Bullinger pointed out, although scripture is clear, it does not wear its clarity on its sleeve…therefore there are no shortcuts to preaching with authority. This authority is a wonderful authority, but it is an authority borrowed only at great cost. This is why there are no shortcuts that work.

We need the hard work of listening to one another, not least to allow others to show us our cultural blind-sports.

Beware the idea that a quick Google will come up with good sermon material…The internet is a dangerous place when we think it is a panacea for quick preparation.

Calvin wrote, ‘If I should climb up into the pulpit without having deigned to look at a book and frivolously imagine, “Ah well! When I get there God will give me enough to talk about,” and I do not condescend to read, or to think about what I ought to declare, and I come here without carefully pondering how I must apply the Holy Scripture to the edification of the people–well, then I should be a cock-sure charlatan and God would put me to confusion in my audaciousness.’

Expository preaching lets God set the agenda, as we open up the written word in the order, the form, and the books which he has chosen to give us. We do not make the staple diet of our preaching just dotting around with miscellaneous passages in the Lectionary, or preaching topics of our choice, or preaching our systematic theology or what we feel a church needs; by making expository preaching the staple diet, we let God set the agenda.

Those who think this doctrine of authority puffs up the preacher have not begun to feel the sheer terror of being a preacher. They think preachers want to be in the pulpit. Well, some do. But no preacher who wants to be in the pulpit ought to be in the pulpit. Nobody who likes the limelight ought to be a preacher. We do not want in our pulpits men like Diotrephes who loved to have the pre-eminence, who couldn’t wait to be given the microphone (3 John 9). No, to be a preacher is one of the most deeply humbling experiences in the world. Preaching drives us to our knees, puts gigantic butterflies in our stomachs, and makes us cry out, ‘Who is sufficient for these things?’

John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury from 1522 to 1572, wrote this: ‘Despise not, good brethren, despise not to hear God’s Word declared. As you tender your own souls, be diligent to come to sermons, for that is the ordinary place where men’s hearts be moved, and God’s secrets be revealed. For, be the preacher never so weak, yet it is the Word of God as mighty and puissant as ever it was.’

As William Sangster put it, there can be no substitute ‘for a Spirit-filled man looking men in the face and speaking the word of God to their consciences and hearts.’ This ought to be a great encouragement to us as we prepare for Sunday. To the discouraged leader we should say, ‘There is no one who can bring the word of God to this flock this Sunday as you uniquely are in a position to do.” To preach in this gathering of the local church is an awesome privilege. As we listen to you, we listen to Him.

————————————–

And that, friends, is only a small part of chapter one. If you have been engaged by what you have read, order this book.  The remaining two chapters are highlighted in my copy just as much as the first.  Thank you, Chris, for this encouraging and affirming book to pastors and congregations alike!

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Mehwish Ayub on July 10, 2010 at 5:41 am

    Dear Brother,

    Greetings

    I am from Pakistan. I have studied your web site, and have found it to
    be one of many wonderful sites offered on the internet which gets to the
    Truth of the Word of God. As is the case with others whom I have
    contacted, you have created material which is full of knowledge
    concerning development of religious faith. Living in Pakistan, we
    Christians face many obstacles in getting access to God’s Word. Most
    people in Pakistan speak Urdu, and are not capable of understanding the
    English language. Because of limited access in our native tongue, my
    people have a true hunger for fresh Christian Perspectives.

    Proficient in both English and my native languages, I would like to
    offer my services as a translator to you. Presenting your material in
    both Urdu and Punjabi would be a true blessing to the Pakistani and
    Indian people. For a nominal fee, I will enable you to bring the message
    of Salvation to a most deserving people.
    Blessing you in advance for your consideration,

    In Him,
    Mehwish

    Email: mehwishtts@gmail.com

    Reply

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