A version was published in the Expository Times.
Modalities of Preaching:
Christian preaching conveys the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ. John the Baptist, Jesus, His apprentice disciples were heralds of a happening, who announced the coming Kingdom and exhorted people to prepare the Lord’s way. Post-pentecost preachers proclaimed what had already begun to be: how God had fulfilled Divine promises to Israel by raising Jesus from the dead. From earliest times, Christian preaching also had a textual dimension. We proclaim the Good News as contained in, transmitted through the lens of Holy Scripture. Arguably, discourse that is not somehow based on, got to do with the Bible, is not preaching, because the Bible is a medium of God’s Word to us. Notice, I did not say, “the, one and only medium.” On the contrary, Jesus Christ, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, was, is and ever shall be the principal medium of God’s message. Likewise, there are centuries of tradition and Christian reflection, our own prayerful encounterswith the Holy, and the whole earth filled with the glory of God. But–for Christians–the Bible is the pre-eminent textual medium. As Scripture says, it is written for our learning, as a primary tool in our spiritual formation and a vehicle of Divine communication with us. For every Christian, it is both daily bread and duty–as the Advent-II collect says–to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” Holy Scriptures. As Bishop Charles Gore declares, we must put ourselves to school to it, especially to those parts we find least palatable. We are to keep at it every day of our lives.
This means that the preacher’s job is not merely to herald–to relay the simple message, “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand!”–but also to edify by explaining what it means, the better to bring it to bear on our own lives. This was necessary at first when Christianity was new-fangled: Luke 24’s post-resurrection Jesus gives the disciples a Bible study lesson; the Acts of the Apostles represent Paul as arguing the Scriptures sabbath after sabbath, to figure-ground shift hearers into fresh interpretations in every town to which he goes. It is all the more necessary now that Christianity is old-fashioned, guilty by association with the establishment, with centuries of failure to effect substantial improvements in the way human beings behave (e.g., to bring an end to genocidal tribalism, global economic injustice, racism, sexism, and homophobia). Centuries of intra-Christian controversy prove, for us not-yet-fully-sanctified humans, the sense of Scripture is far from plain. But this fact is exacerbated by the lost familiarity with the bible in the current generation. My conclusion is that today’s preacher needs–among other things–to be a teacher, who first builds up knowledge of the canon, and then models how to question and dispute authority. Medieval methods for modern times!
Beginning with Lectio: “Read, mark, learn!”
Even nowadays, fields of inquiry have a canon, which every professional must learn and know her way around. Ancient education was no different, except that it could not rely on the easy access of on-line materials and printed books. This meant beginning with lectio, with lectures, literally with reading out the text for students to commit to memory or copy down. Ancient and medieval literal commentaries were riveted on verbal detail. After outlining the structure of the passage, the the teacher would examine textual difficulties, compare one manuscript with another, perhaps suggest emendations. The teacher would highlight unusual words, offer etymologies, comment on distinctive grammatical or literary constructions. Finally, the teacher would sum everything up by paraphrasing the meaning, before moving on to the next line.
One goal of homiletical explication de textes is to get the text into the hearers’ memory, to get the work as a whole into their psycho-spiritual “blood stream,” to imbed it in their unconscious, so that it will come back to them in time of need. My generation know how this works: we spent our childhoods learning our memory verses, reciting John 3:16, the ten commandments, the beatitudes, I Corinthians 13, Philippians 2, etc. Public and private bible reading, regularly sung canticles and metrical psalms contribute to the same project. Evidently, Jesus was drawing on memory verses when He cried, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34) or when He yielded, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit!” (Lk 23:46) So, too, Pope John XXIII on his death bed: his mind was gone, but his lips kept saying, “Ego sum resurrectio et vita!” “I am the resurrection and the life!”
This kind of Biblical preaching also rends the veil of elementary misunderstandings. I remember how surprized we children were to learn that the King James words of institution–”Drink ye all of it!”–didn’t mean that God would be angry if we failed to drain to the dregs our plastic cups of grape juice; again, that “Study to show thyself approved unto God” (2 Tim 2:15) wasn’t warning us to work hard in school. Explication de textes puts pupils in a position to avoid stupid, silly questions and to focus on matters of substance instead.
Inward Digestion: Many Kinds of Questions
Reading itself gives rise to questioning and disputing, once interest moves beyond ipsissima verba to the meanings that the text is trying to convey. (1) Puzzled questions about what the author intends seek answers in other parts of the same work. This effort gives rise to disagreements about which other passages are most relevant, and disputants mount arguments to defend both sides. (2) It also begets queries about the internal consistency of the work in question. Matthew’s Jesus says that not one dot of an ‘i’ or cross of a ‘t’ shall perish from the law (Mt 5:18); yet Jesus heals and the disciples thresh wheat on the Sabbath day (Mt 12:1-14). More difficult, Matthew’s Jesus says (Mt 5:22) that whoever is so angry as to use contemptuous language, to call a brother a fool, is liable to hell fire; yet later (Mt 23:13-36; esp. 17), Jesus calls the Pharisees blind fools and other insulting names. In Acts 9, Saul’s companions hear a voice but see no one; in Acts 22, they see the light but don’t hear the voice. John’s Jesus says both that flesh is of no avail (6:63) and that eating His flesh and drinking His blood are necessary and sufficient for eternal life (6:53-58)–passages much disputed in Reformation sacramental theology. Within the same discussion, St. Paul both forbids and permits Christians to eat meat offered to idols (I Cor 10:14-30; cf. 21 & 25-27).
Not only are there prima facie contradictions within works. (3) Because the Bible is a library, there are clashes across books as well. Which is it? Ezra and Nehemiah insist that God commands ethnic cleansing (the putting away of Samaritan wives and half-breed children), while Ruth advertizes how King David had a Moabite great grandmother and Jonah dramatizes God’s concern for people of all nations. Which is it? Deuteronomy and many prophetic passages understand foreign conquest as Divine punishment on national apostacy, but deutero-Isaiah casts Israel as the Suffering Servant who will make God’s glory known world-wide. Which is it? James warns against saying that anyone was tempted by God (1:13-14), but Synoptic temptation narratives agree that it was the Spirit of God Who drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Mk 1:12: Mt 4:1; Lk 4:1), and the Lord’s prayer begs God not to lead us into temptations of the same kind (Mt 6:13; Lk 11:4). Which is it? One epistle declares that the Kingdom of God does not come through anger, while another merely cautions: “Be angry, but sin not.” Which is it? Jesus forbids divorce except on grounds of porneia (Mt 19:3-9), but St. Paul allows a Christian converts to divorce if that is the wish of their pagan spouse (I Cor 7:15).
(4) Still other questions arise because the texts underdetermine their application to life situations. The Gospels themselves forward examples. Does the decalogue’s prohibition against graven images (Ex 20:4-6) mean that Jews should never handle coins stamped with Caesar’s likeness? or only that they shouldn’t use them to pay the temple tax? (Mt 22:15-22; Mk 12:13-17; Lk 20:20-26) How could standard legal interpretations of levirate marriage be correct if there were a resurrection from the dead? (Mt 22:23-33; Mk 12:18-27; Lk 20:27-40) Are some of God’s commandments more important than others, or are they all on a par? (Mt 22:34-40; Mk 12:28-34; Lk 10:25-28) Fast-forwarding, we might ask in the same fashion, does the command against murder (Ex 20:13) apply to foetuses or to infants under a week old?
(5) Where canonical texts are concerned, inquiry presses beyond issues of internal coherence and consistency, to whether they fit with the rest of what we believe. Once I preached a homily that made an assumption about the historical location of a given Bible story. Sitting in the congregation was a colleague who was an expert on this period. Afterwards, when I asked whether I had got it right, he replied: “Oh, I assume that in worship we use ‘church-speak.’ I have no expectation that it will correspond to anything historical!” John Chrysostom begged to differ: commenting on Matthew’s story of the wise following a star, he protests, “We know real stars don’t behave like that. It must have been a rational spirit producing a star-like appearance!”
Certainly, medieval authors were not content to leave the Bible floating loose–like fiction, fairy tales, or mythology–from their other belief systems. Medieval theologians held that Truth is one, and that the Bible–if true–should be compatible with what reason and experience teach. The structure of the medieval quaestio was designed to begin the process of integrated understanding. First, a “yes or no” question is posed; then pro and contra arguments are mounted using premisses from canonical texts or traditional authorities; then an answer is formulated that often takes the form of a via media that learns something from both sides. “Can the predestinate be damned?” An affirmative answer seems to be demanded, because philosophy teaches us that free choices are contingent, and (some) theology insists that eternal destiny corresponds to the individual’s moral record, which can flip-flop in and out of mortal sin right up to the last gasp! The witness of the Bible seems to demand a negative reply: “the call of God is irrevocable” (Rom ); and Divine predestination is certain. Again, “will any humans be reprobate?” Matthew 25 would suggest that some will, because it has God separating sheep from goats and herding the latter into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels (25:41). But according to Acts, God wills that all humans be saved, and the Divine will cannot be thwarted. Again, did the world have a beginning in time? The Vulgate of Genesis 1:1 seems to say so, but Aristotle offered powerful philosophical and scientific arguments that time could have neither beginning nor end. A more recent puzzle of the same sort would be whether human beings evolved from lower life forms, given the geological record on the one side, and Biblical witness on the other–that God is said to have made us in God’s image (Gen 1:26), by making mud-pies and breathing into us His breath of life (Gen 2:7). For medieval school theologians, beginning and intermediate-level inward digestion of canonical texts, was a matter of questioning and disputing authority. Medieval universities made questioning and disputing the medium of instruction for all subjects, and thereby institutionalized disagreement as a tool of analysis, of discovery, and of reintegration.
A Strategy for Preaching: Impudence or Honor?
My thesis is that this medieval method of questioning and disputing authority is an effective strategy for Christian preaching today. Every teacher knows what Anselm pointed out in the eleventh century: questions, arguments pro and contra are more provocative than line-by-line exposition, more apt to shift pupils at their desks and people in the pews out of a passive into a more active posture, the better to win through to spiritual truths for themselves. Many in our congregations are already asking themselves such questions, sometimes pointedly, sometimes in an inchoate way. As professionals, we preachers are supposed to have the knowledge of Scripture and the competence in theology to focus them, to marshall the relevant texts, to lay out and weigh alternative solutions. When we question and dispute Scripture and tradition, we demonstrate how to do it effectively. However penetrating our analysis, the most important thing is not that the congregation should be convinced by our conclusions but that over time they should be thrust into the adult role of questioning and disputing authority themselves!
Reformed and reforming Christians may protest that this is just one more theologically scandalous medieval idea. Don’t Calvin and Luther–like Augustine their mentor–often insist that–given Who God is, given that God’s ways are higher than our ways–it is impudent to question them? If our sensus divinitatis were not clouded by sin, our trust in God would be unreserved, we would not dispute God’s Word but defer in humble submission. Even now, the preacher should stick to explication de textes, use a hermeneutics of harmony to render the plain sense. Secular learning should not be allowed to stand in judgment of the Bible. Preachers should give themselves over to Holy Scriptures to be read, interrogated, and judged by the Bible, not the other way around!
Medieval school theologians would protest that their method has been misunderstood. They question and dispute authority, not to mock or reject or refute it (medievals all believed the Bible, the creeds, and the pronouncements of early ecumenical councils to be infallibly true), but to pay it the honor of active attention, to dig down deeper into it, the better to understand it. As Anselm says, faith seeks understanding, and understanding is the mean between faith and sight. We begin with faith that receives God’s Word and takes it in. Questioning and disputing chews instead of swallowing whole; like cud-chewing cows, chews again and again to derive the maximum nourishment. So far from dismissing, questioning and disputing honors the truth-claims of Scripture: it is because we assign them presumptive weight that we bother trying to discover how they can be consistent with the deliverances of reason and experience, with the settled claims of history and natural science, with arguments from ethics and philosophy. Why shouldn’t it be the preacher’s job to to question and dispute authority with the goal of theological clarification, with the aim of teaching his congregation how to work their way towards an integrated, God-governed, Christ-centered world view?
Put otherwise, questioning and disputing–like asserting, exhorting, and exclaiming–are forms or modes of speech. Any of them can be deployed with different motives for contrasting purposes. There are the child’s puzzled questions, raised with openness and curiousity: “How is God my daddy, when I already have a mommy and a daddy?” “Does Jesus get wet when I put His Body in my mouth?” “Why did God drown the Egyptian chariot drivers? Why does God let people kill animals to eat? Doesn’t God love them, too?” There are school theology’s analytical questions, pressing towards a coherent world view. Common in academic and polemical contexts is the challenge and riposte of competitive questioning that hopes to score, even humiliate the presenter. The Gospels instance loaded or trick questions posed to double-bind the respondent into convicting himself out of his own mouth. For instance, Jesus’ enemies demand, “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Mt 22:17; Mk 12:14; Lk 20:22) “Is it lawful to divorce for any cause?” (Mt 19:3) But Jesus Himself is champion in this genre: “was the baptism of John from heaven, or from men?” (Mt 21:25; Mk 11:30; Lk 20:4) “If the Messiah is David’s son, how does David call him ‘lord’?” (Mt 22:41-46; Mk 12:35-37; Lk 20:41-44) The Gospels also narrate borderline accusatory questions: “why don’t Your disciples fast or wash?” or “why does this man eat with tax collectors and sinners?” “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man [= Lazarus] from dying?” (Jn 11:37)
The Gospels frown on malicious trap questions. What Luther and Calvin find incompatible with faith are accusatory questions that blame God or charge God with wrong. Matthean and Lucan temptation narratives (Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-12) show how disputation can turn diabolical. But preaching that questions and disputes in the medieval manner, motivated by eagerness to learn and a desire to process honest puzzlement, why, what could be objectionable about that?
Daring Blasphemy: Friendly Questioning?
Nevertheless, we Christian preachers will be derelict in our duty if we venture only so far as courteous, if energetic and vigorous, analytical questioning and disputation. For the Christian Gospel cuts to the heart of what is at stake between God and human beings: does God love us? Does God even care about us? Can we relate to God in ways that are appropriate to God and wholesome for us? The Bible insists that God has a history of covenant-making–with the patriarchs, with Israel, with the human race; that the heart of Who God is, is revealed in covenant love and faithfulness. The Bible also is unflinching in its acknowledgement that horrendous things happen to God’s people. The Bible equivocates but we know, not only do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, millions of people lead entire lives of unrelieved misery and degradation. Catastrophes happen–9/11, the Boxing Day tsunami, hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Pakistan–which kill and maim whole communities without regard to individual values, accomplishments, or contributions. While AIDS orphans multiply by the millions in Africa, and genocide continues in Darfur, family violence–physical and sexual and emotional abuse–thrives in outwardly respectable European homes. These big issues prima facie contradict the Bible’s claims about Divine goodness and make debates about biology and the virgin birth look pathetically academic.
My contention is that–in a world such as this–we cannot be true to our callings as Christian preachers without pressing those accusatory questions banned by Luther and Calvin–ones that challenge the character and purposes of God. Faithfulness demands that we question and dispute, not only the Bible, but the authority that is Godself. Happily, the Bible urges us on, with role models reassures us: when we do so, we are not inciting rebellion; we are demonstrating how to be friends of God in troubled times!
Questioning and disputing God’s authority is the privilege and responsibility of God’s friends. Among other things, a friend is an alter ego, one who is granted standing to call the other to account, to speak up to say whether–by engaging in a given action or behavior–the person can be true to him/herself. Friends are also committed to exchanging, so far as possible to entering into one another’s points of view, to appreciate how the other sees and values their surround.
Thus, YHWH counts Abraham a friend, takes Abraham into His confidence and shares the Divine plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham girds up his loins and disputes YHWH’s policy of collective punishment. “Far be it from You to slay the righteous with the wicked!” “Should not the judge of all the earth do right?” YHWH concedes: to be true to Himself, He must instead show a bias towards mercy; instead of destroying whole cities because of a wicked minority or even a perverse majority, He should spare whole cities for the sake of a small number of righteous persons. Abraham keeps disputing: fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, ten! (Gen 18:17-33)
If Abraham intercedes on behalf of strangers, Job claims patriarchal privilege to plead his own case. After two chapters of Stoic resignation that would make Calvin proud–”the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21); “shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10)–Job pours out his complaint, for anguished chapters details how things look to him. He insists on the facts as he sees them: that his record is righteous, that his suffering is incommensurate with any wrongdoing, that his woes are so pervasive that he wishes never to have been born. Job experiences himself as one friend betrayed by another, deeply wounded and angry but still holding out hope that God is Who Job had thought Him to be. Job still trusts God enough to dispute God’s wisdom and goodness and to call God to account. Job’s discourse is saturated with bitter irony that twists the texts of Scripture to hurl them back in God’s face. Job “sins with his lips”: “You slay the innocent with the guilty!” “You are more a chaos monster than a creator!” “What is man that You are mindful”–so delight in torturing–”him?” “Go pick on someone Your own size!” Job’s human friends are afraid of Job’s blasphemous accusations and–despite their initial good intentions (Job 2:11-13)–back off, defend God, blame the victim, and emotionally abandon Job to his own devices. By contrast, God counts Job a friend, beginning, middle, and end: in the beginning, when He praises Job to the Satan (Job 1:8); in the middle, when God veils His presence so that Job will not “melt down” into incoherence and be unable to articulate his case (cf. Job 9:27-35); and in the end, when God condemns Job’s human friends for not telling the truth about God the way Job did (Job 42:7). Job told the truth about how the situation looked and felt to him. God reciprocates, favors Job with the intimacy of face-to-face vision, and shares with Job Godhead’s contrasting point of view (the YHWH speeches of Job 38-41)–all of which leaves Job dumbfounded (42:5-6) as he predicted it would.
The book of Job as we have it re-presents a God Who is in favor of questioning and disputing, One Who recognizes the “size-gap” between God and creatures, One Who contrives (by holding back) to make space for His tiny human partners to make their case and say their piece. Once again, it is Job, and not his sychophantic theological friends, who sees God; Job, the quintessential patriarch who presses the blasphemous question, who disputes the Creator’s competence and goodness. Job is the one who experiences how suffering can penetrate to the core, and Job is the one who experiences the God Whose ways are higher than our ways. And so Job is the literal expert–among humans, the one who knows whereof he speaks.
The book of Job makes clear how Christian preachers are called into a ministry of double identification. Like the patriarchs and prophets, we cannot back off from trafficking with the God Who drafts us into service. We cannot preach unless we–like Abraham and Moses–say our daily “yes” to God’s claim on our lives. No more than Moses or Jonah, do we have the option of backing off from the people to whom God sends us. When our parishioners sink into affliction and begin to rail at God, we dare not play the part of Job’s friends. We need instead to follow God’s lead in giving them permission. We should already have imitated Job’s chutzpah in our preaching, to inspire courage to engage the conversation, to furnish examples of how to mount the arguments and vent with full candor, how to give God a piece of our minds the way–when something outrageous happens–a real friend would do.
Put otherwise, John’s Jesus explains how God invites all of the elect into the Father-Son-Paraclete friendship circle (Jn 14-15). But because of the size-gap and because of the kind of world in which God has placed us, God has always had severe communication problems, difficulties in reaching an understanding with His merely human would-be friends. To overcome this, God has chosen patriarchs, formed a people, called prophets and preachers; moving on from oral tradition, God has caused Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; and God has become incarnate in Jesus Christ. However much we Christian preachers are called to explication de textes, we are above all a medium of God’s message, called to question and dispute authority, the better to demonstrate what it is to be friends with God!