What is the preacher doing?

  
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I’ve been chatting with the trainees at CBS about preaching recently, and have come up with a slightly different way to describe the preaching task. See what you think …


I have a newish definition of preaching to run past you. 

Or at least, a newish angle from which to view what we’re trying to do when we preach. (And by ‘preach’ I mean what we normally mean in our circles—the public exposition of a passage of Scripture.)

I ended up thinking about preaching more than I expected to while working on the PhD, between 2015 and 2018. My actual topic was all the other word ministry that happens in a Christian community apart from preaching—the ‘one-another edifying speech’ that we engage in as Christians, to edify, encourage, exhort, admonish and exhort one another. 

But this required me to think about preaching as well, in order to understand and differentiate these two broad kinds of speech—the one-to-many communication that teaches and applies the word to the congregation, and the one-another communication that spreads and applies and generally ministers that word to each other in multiple ways. 

In the course of all this, I found myself dabbling in ‘speech-act theory’. If you’re not familiar with it, ‘speech-act theory’ is a currently popular way of thinking about how language works. It rests on the insight that all language is a form of action. When we ‘say’ something we’re never just ‘saying’. We’re always doing something through the words that come out of our mouths. We might be explaining, answering, promising, commanding, warning, entertaining, exclaiming, interjecting, declaring, exhorting, comforting, and so on. 

Speech-act theory goes into some detail to analyse and describe this process. Putting it a bit simplistically, speech-act theory differentiates three main aspects of any utterance:

  • the action of the speech (the kind of thing you’re doing as you speak: promising, telling, asking, explaining, exhorting, and so on);

  • the propositional content of the speech (what it is you’re promising or explaining or asking); and 

  • the hoped-for outcome of the speech (what you’re expecting to happen as a result of your speech-action: for your hearers to trust the promise, to understand the explanation, to heed the exhortation, and so on). 

A number of biblical scholars have picked up on this idea and applied it to Scripture. Perhaps most prominently, Kevin Vanhoozer has argued that the Bible is God’s communicative action.1 When God speaks in the text of Scripture, he is always doing something—declaring, explaining, teaching, urging, commanding, and so on—to fulfil his covenant purposes through the words of the human author. And like all speech, this speech-action that God is ‘doing’ has certain content, and certain expected outcomes. God’s speech is living and active and purposive. 

Now, the biblically alert among you might have already figured this out, even without the geniuses of speech-act theory to help you. You might have read and believed these famous verses, for example:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isa 55:10-11)

God is intentionally doing something whenever he speaks. Speech-act theory highlights this, and in a basically helpful way it seems to me.

What has this got to do with preaching? 

Well some other clever chaps (most notably the British evangelical scholar, Timothy Ward), have argued that if God’s word is an action, then what we are doing when we preach is re-enacting the word for our congregation. A sermon is a bit like re-performing a classic stage play in a new context, with updated language, and a different set, but with the same content and purpose as the original. 

This brings us to the newish definition of preaching I want to run past you: our goal when we preach is to do for our hearers what God was doing in the passage of Scripture we are expounding

I say ‘newish’, because this is just me summarizing the clever insights of others—but also newish because it is only a bit different from definitions you might already have in your mind. Take for example, this classic paragraph from Simeon: 

My endeavour is to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there. I have a great jealousy on this head: never to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding.2

Or to put this in terms we’re familiar with (thanks to Haddon Robinson): our goal when we preach is to let the Big Idea of the passage be the Big Idea of the sermon. 

All the same, the differences in my newish definition have some advantages, particularly over the ‘Big Idea’ approach. 

Perhaps it’s just me, but when I look for the Big Idea in a passage, I tend to focus on the propositional content of the passage (on its key ideas and theological truths and how they fit together). I then draw these ideas together into a main truth or proposition that the passage is teaching (the Big Idea). Then I figure out a good structure for explaining this Big Idea compellingly to the congregation. And then, I cast around (often with difficulty and a sense that I’m being arbitrary) for a Big-Idea-related application that is relevant to my hearers. 

My newish definition frames the process a bit differently. The goal is not just to identify the main truths or ideas of the passage, but what the speaker is doing with those truths or ideas in the context of the passage, and for what expected outcome or response in the hearers or readers. 

In other words, what divine transformative action is taking place in the passage itself? And how can I re-enact or re-perform that action in my own context this Sunday?

I find this a useful thought process, especially for tackling the ‘application’. 

Rather than feeling like I need to construct some ‘action step’ for the congregation to take in response to the passage, I look for what God was doing in the passage in its original context, and the implied or explicit response that he was seeking. I frame the purpose and ‘landing point’ of my own sermon accordingly. 

Our goal when we preach is to do for our hearers what God was doing in the passage of Scripture we are expounding.

What do you think? Is that a definition of the kind of preaching you want to practise, train others in, and listen to? 


PS

There are some big questions lurking here. 

For example, it was the contention of the Reformers that when God’s word was faithfully and truly preached, then the word of God itself was being spoken by the preacher. (‘The preaching of the word of God is the word of God’, as Bullinger put it.) Perhaps we can rephrase this in light of the above discussion: when God does again through us in our sermon what he was doing in the text of Scripture, then he truly is speaking his word through us to his people. Does that work? 

Another big issue, which my PhD spent some time thinking about: If this is indeed the nature of preaching—a re-presentation or re-enactment of what the text itself is doing—then is the same also true whenever we re-enact or re-do what God was doing in the text of Scripture? If by reading and discussion in a group of three or four, we do for each other in our speech what the text is doing, then is the word of God being spoken truly and powerfully? Is it as true and powerful in the lounge-room as in the pulpit? Hard to see why not. 


This is a partner post, but please feel free to share it around, especially among your preacher friends. 

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1

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to the Christian Theology (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005).

2

I spotted this in David Helm’s excellent little book Expositional Preaching (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 12.