What is the Proclamation of the Word?

pulpit-church-hdr-bibleFor a class recently, I had to read a bunch of items on the part of a worship service in which the Bible is front and center. This “section” of the service is called “The Proclamation of the Word”, or more generally, the “sermon” or homily”. I ran across this great quote:

The very act of preaching, in fact, sets up questions and problems.  Most people no longer understand the difference between preaching and other types of public speaking…. Many people think of a sermon as an occasion for being entertained, instructed, or inspired in matters of religion — hence the customary comment at the church door, “I enjoyed your sermon.”  Nowadays, it is only congregations who have been engaged in a new way of thinking for a long time who are going to sit expectantly waiting for the Word of God to be spoken — for preaching, properly understood, is the good news that God preaches through human beings.  Astonishingly enough, this is the method of communicating that God has chosen.  This is an offensive idea; there are a hundred complaints to be brought against it.  Most common is the objection, “How can anyone presume to speak the Word of God?”  Or to put it another way, “How can any human being be so arrogant as to think he is a mouthpiece of God?”  How indeed?  It is a very good question.  The validity or invalidity of preaching rests on such issues as these. (Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of the Gospel)

I think Rutledge is right (and not just because she is an incredible preacher–all you complementarians could learn a thing or two from her!): people don’t seem to really see preaching as fundamentally different than any other lecture or other public speaking. Preaching is often (subtly and unspokenly) seen (or at least treated) as “mere” personal edification–similar to a book discussion or philosophical lecture or self-help conference.

From my view, people walk into worship services with perceived needs, and see the sermon–more than any other part of the service, to our shame–as the place from which they will find a solution to this need. The need might simply be an encouraging word to get them through the day. It might be a powerful emotional experience of God. In my context, from the new/non-Christians, they simply want a bigger picture of this “Christianity thing”. Many of the Christian “lifers”, however, walk in seeking novelty or some new and fresh way to see a text or a faith that is seemingly in danger of becoming stale if they don’t hear something “deep”, “meaty”, or “challenging” (or some other euphemism for “highly technically theological” or a primarily cognitive approach to a text’s proclamation).

Further, I must say that Rutledge also hits the nail on the head in her conclusion: the utter arrogance and shock that preaching entails if people were to fully grasp what is meant when pastors stand up to “preach” at them. In this, I hear the echoes of the theologian that has influenced all of this for me more than anyone: Karl Barth. In The Word of God & Theology, you find this quote by him:

As [preachers], we ought to speak of God. But we are humans and as such cannot speak of God. We ought to do both, to know the “ought” and the “not able to,” and precisely in this way give God the glory. This is our plight. Everything else is child’s play in comparison.

Preaching is the proclamation of the Gospel thread of Scripture–a Gospel we ourselves are still grasping and knowing and figuring out. And it is in this tension between our call and our inability that we are faithful to this task.

Further, Barth’s incredibly helpful theology of Scripture helps me greatly. The Bible is not the “revelation” of God in some sort of passive, past-tense way. It is not some repository of little “revelation bits” just waiting for the reader or preacher to unearth them. Rather, it is the (present-tense) revealing of God. It is the place where God meets his people and makes himself known by the means of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes the Bible the “Word of God” as this Word is proclaimed. To put it another way, I’ll quote the Catholic Catechism (as I have before):

Still, the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word is incarnate and living”. If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, “open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures.”

I love that.

To me, as I read these texts, on one hand, I am struck at the simplicity of it. Preaching is a proclamation of the Gospel to which all Scripture and all the acts of God in History and among His people testify and bear witness. And yet, on the other, there is a complete and utter reliance on Another–the Spirit, to…I don’t know…”actualize”(?) our preaching among God’s people.

I heard once that John Chrysostom, when he was preaching and felt that the Holy Spirit was not with him doing this work, he would stop in the middle of the sermon and pray, “Oh God, where are thy tokens?” I have never forgotten this. When we preach, we come in desperate need for the gracious tokens of the Spirit to join Herself to our Preaching and Proclamation, that we might not explicate “words”, but rather the Word, to His people.


3 thoughts on “What is the Proclamation of the Word?

  1. I’d be interested to hear more of your thoughts on the actual content of preaching. It’s nice and true to talk about the shock of what is happening when people preach, but what is it that preaching actually communicates, practically speaking? It seems like you answer the question of why people should pay attention to the sermon (the awesome spiritual reality that is being manifested) but not necessarily the question of what preaching actually practically entails. Is it theologically wrong for people to come in expecting to be exhorted or educated or entertained? What should we expect?

    Separate but related: What’s the difference between preaching and teaching? Is it just the spiritual reality that’s different or is the content different?

    I’m asking these as someone who is (1) frequently bored during sermons and who wants to have proper expectations for what preaching is all about and (2) wondering how strict complementarians justify letting women teach but not preach.


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