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Sunday, May 04, 2008

preaching and the word

A couple weeks ago, Eddie Arthur wrote a post questioning some of the language used in his faith tradition. The speaker had said something like, "Now X will read the passage for today and then the minister will come and bring God’s word to us," which apparently is typical language for that denomination.

But this time it struck Eddie as odd:

This isn’t a dig against the chap who said this - he was just using language the way we do from my background. But, which bit is God’s word - the inspired words of Scripture or the interpretation and application of those words through a sermon. I realise that this is a huge can of worms and the use of the term the Word of God can involve the theology of the incarnation, the doctrine of Scripture and our view on preaching and reading. I acknowledge all of that, but somewhere in there, I have a lurking fear that I have spent much of my life valuing sermons more than the Scripture they are expounding.

I come from a different background, where the Bible is consistently referred to as the "word of God," and to be honest, that bothers me. In a comment to Eddie's post, I noted that where the New Testament uses the phrase "word of God," more often than not it refers to the spoken word.

When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.

- Acts 4:31

We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers.

- 1 Thessalonians 2:13

And there are many other examples: Luke 8:21, 11:28, Acts 13:5, 18:11, 2 Corinthians 2:17, Colossians 1:25, Hebrews 13:7, Revelation 1:2, et cetera.

But on reflection, I think the truth is a little more nuanced than that. There is a danger, as Eddie notes, in elevating the spoken word above the scriptures. The Bible provides a foundation for Christian teaching; without this foundation, no matter how eloquent or inspirational a sermon might be, it won't be the word of God.

Every week thirty-eight thousand people visit the former sports arena that is now the home of Joel Osteen Ministries, to hear a speech that is also broadcast across the United States and into more than 100 other countries. The ministry's website notes that Joel has "committed his life to serving and helping every person, regardless of background and economic status, to achieve their fullest potential," and that his wife Victoria "has always had a passion and energy for life that is contagious."

Although these may be admirable qualities, and although listeners may enjoy learning how to "be a better you," there's nothing particularly Christian about any of this. The Osteens can say they believe "the entire Bible is inspired by God, without error and the authority on which we base our faith," but in the context of their preaching, it sounds like God must take a back seat to the development of the individual.

So the word of God isn't simply a synonym for preaching. And yet, if the word of God is "living and active," as Hebrews 4:12 states, it can't be a synonym for unchanging written text, either.

Francis of Assisi heard a sermon on Matthew 10:9, and believed God was speaking directly to him, calling him to a life of poverty. John Wesley heard a reading of Luther's Preface to the Epistle of the Romans -- not even the Bible, just a commentary -- and felt his heart "strangely warmed," and from that moment he trusted Christ in a way he never had before. In both cases, others who were present heard the same words and were not transformed in the same way. And this pattern has been repeated countless times throughout the history of Christianity.

So what makes a message the word of God? Is it having the Bible as a source? Is it inspired preaching? It seems to me that God's word eludes our best efforts to define it or to say with confidence that any particular sermon or text is "the word of God" for us -- unless God uses it to change our lives.

In the end I'm left with nothing more than a tautology: The word of God can be found wherever God speaks to us. Intellectually it's not a satisfying statement, yet I don't think we can honestly go any further than that. And somehow, at some level, it seems to me that it's enough.


At 5/12/2008 2:44 PM, Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

"The word of God can be found wherever God speaks to us."

Yeah, interesting way to put it. Of course this is obviously true. Whatever God speaks is his word.

If I may think out loud, it may be useful to ponder those sorts of distinctions that people often make: Jesus is the Incarnate Word, scripture is the written word, the word is spoken through the people of the church (preachers and otherwise) when God uses their words, God speaks his word through nature, God speaks through reason, through circumstances, direct revelations, dreams, etc.

And at the more ambiguous levels we look to the more definite/concrete levels (Jesus, scripture) to test the veracity of the word we think we hear, etc. So you end up with this matrix of relationships or of 'words' to listen to and sort through.

Now that I put it like that, I wonder if the Roman Church may have more ease of thinking this way? - since they always say they believe not in "Sola Scriptura" but in "Sola Verbum Dei" with the implicit understanding that the word of God is bigger than scripture. And so I guess it must be, for the 'Word was God' in the beginning (and scripture was not).


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