Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God

That’s what Heinrich Bullinger asserted in the Second Helvetic Confession.  And he’s not alone.  Check out Luther:

“Tis a right excellent thing, that every honest pastor’s and preacher’s mouth is Christ’s mouth, and his word and forgiveness is Christ’s word and forgiveness… For the office is not the pastor’s or preacher’s but God’s; and the Word which he preacheth is likewise not the pastor’s and preacher’s but God’s.” (Quoted from CD I/1, p107)

Or Calvin:

“When a man has climbed up into the pulpit… it is [so] that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man.” (Sermon XXII on 1 Tim 3:2 “apt to teach”, quoted in THL Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, Westminster/ John Knox, 1992, p24)

Or, more to the point, check out the Bible!

“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thes 2:13)

For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands for ever.”  And this is the word that was evangelized to you. (1 Pet 1:23-25)

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. (Heb 13:7)

So do we agree that ‘Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God’?  Or would we rather Bullinger had maintained a more modest: ‘Preaching of the Word of God explains and applies the Word of God’?  Can we seriously maintain the word ‘is’ in that statement?

Karl Barth did.  Emphatically.  If you want to read more, go here to a very lengthy essay on Barth and preaching.  Here I’ll sketch out the argument in point form:

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1) The Word of God is a three-fold Word.  That is, Christ, the Bible and preaching are all called ‘the Word’ in the Bible.  And yet there are not three competing words or revelations but One Word of God (Christ) who comes to us in the Spirit-mediated modes of Scripture and proclamation.  Thus we have one Word in three modes.  This is Barth’s primary analogy of the trinity.

2) Just as in the trinity we have distinct Persons who, nonetheless, are one, so with the Word we have distinct modes which nonetheless have a perichoretic unity.   The Son is one with the Father in His mediation of the Father.  He is no less God for being a witness of God.  But He is also no less distinct from the Father in this oneness.  In the same way preaching is no less the Word for being a witness (a Scriptural witness) to Christ. But simultaneously it is no less distinct from Christ (and Scripture) for being one with it. We need a perichoretic ontology not only for God but for the Word also.

 3) There is divinity and humanity to all three forms of the Word.  Yet, for all that, we must avoid the danger of Nestorianiam – that is, we must not conceive of the humanity as a separate existence from the divinity.  Barth is adamant that you cannot get around the worldliness of the Word – whether of Christ, Scripture or preaching.  In fact, it is not at all desirable that you should get around it.  For the Word as grace meets us where we are.  Christ the Man says ‘If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.’  Christ the Man says ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’  The humanity of Christ in no way jeopardizes divine revelation or salvation.  Equally, the humanity of the apostles and prophets and the humanity of the preacher does not prevent the Word from being still a divine Word.  

Just as the eternal Word did not come in a man but as a man, so on Sunday morning, God’s Word does not come contained somewhere within the preaching but it comes as this human preacher in this situation witnesses to Christ.

4) We must remember the divine initiative in all this.  It is not a question of ‘Can we hear God’s Word in the preacher?’ Rather the question is: ‘Is it Christ Himself who encounters us in the preacher?’  It’s not a case of pulling Christ down through correct exegesis.  If we think like this we’re basically falling for an ex opere operato of the pulpit.   That is, we’re imagining that our correct priestly exercises ensure a divine encounter.  We must resist this – we must begin from above.  Revelation is grace.  It is Christ who chooses to condescend in Scripture and Proclamation (not we who bring Him down).  But in this divine condescension it is Christ Himself who encounters us. 

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Let’s take all these points together.  Preaching is a mode of the Word of God.  It is distinct from Scripture and Christ but inextricably linked to it.  And in relation to Christ and Scripture – that is, as Christ is proclaimed Scripturally – it is itself the Word of God.  Not a competing revelation to the Bible but rather a ‘Word from Word’ (parallel to Christ’s divinity as ‘God from God’).   The humanity of the preacher is not a barrier to divine revelation but instead is the very worldiness in which the Word must meet us.  Thus the congregation on a Sunday morning is not confronted with explanation and application of the Word.  They are confronted with Christ Himself. 

Think of a preacher who challenges the congregation to confess Christ as ‘My Lord and My God.’ (John 20:28)  If the hearer does not trust Christ, is it only the preacher they’ve disobeyed? Have they not more fundamentally disobeyed Christ?  Isn’t it Christ Himself who confronts them in this preaching?  It is a daunting prospect for preachers, but such is the humbling authority of ‘the keys of the kingdom’ (Matt 16:19; John 20:23).)

[Preaching is] “the speaking of God himself through the lips of the minister.” (Karl Barth, Homiletics, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991, p67.)

“…in what Church preaching says of God, God Himself speaks for Himself.” (Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, vol. 1, part 2, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956, p800)

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           This post contains reworking from my comments at Faith and Theology

Posted on by Glen in Barth, preaching

About Glen

I'm a preacher in Eastbourne, married to Emma.

10 Responses to Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God

  1. Paul Huxley

    Good post. It slightly bothers me when preaching in church is presented as ‘explaining the Bible’. Sure, good preaching will always do that to some extent but are those kind of expectations really helpful? Or would it be better if we were told the pastor was going to come and ‘proclaim the Word of God’ (or something like that)?

  2. Bobby Grow

    Good points, Glen.

    You said:

    Think of a preacher who challenges the congregation to confess Christ as ‘My Lord and My God.’ (John 20:28) If the hearer does not trust Christ, is it only the preacher they’ve disobeyed? Have they not more fundamentally disobeyed Christ? . . .

    That’s true, I am reminded of some of Moses’ angst relative to the complaining Israelites. Nevertheless, what of the situation where the “pastor” proclaims in the “name of the WORD”, Christ, and yet “mis-proclaims”, and thus does not “bear witness to Christ”? In other words he misunderstands Christ, because he has mis-interpreted Christ as disclosed in the scriptures–and thus misrepresents the Word and does not “witness” to Him . . . but to ‘himself’. I think the Word, “scriptures”, are the epistemological means for “encountering” the Word HIMSELF . . . by definition (i.e. epistemology) then, “proclaiming the Word rightly” first requires interpreting, rightly.

  3. glenscriv

    Hi Paul,
    I know! There’s such low expectations for the Word proclaimed. ‘Bill’s going to share with us from the Bible.’ ‘Joe’s going to explain that passage to us.’ If that’s all Joe’s going to do, I feel like staying home and reading Matthew Henry! Why not: ‘Harry’s now going to declare to us the Word of the living God!’ Perhaps in our service sheets the reading could be listed as ‘The Word read.’ And the sermon: ‘The Word proclaimed.’ But, yes we need a sense of holy expectation – God is speaking now through human lips!

    Hey Bobby,
    ‘mis-proclamation’ is always possible. But the three-fold Word is not only a guarantee of preaching as God’s Word it is the context in which it is so. Therefore, the Scriptures mis-interpreted according to themselves or Christ take us out of the perichoresis in which preaching is meant to exist.

    To put it another way, the congregation must still ‘search the Scriptures to see if these things be so’ (Acts 17:11) – even if Paul himself is preaching. And they must ‘test the spirits’ (1 John 4:1-3) according to whether Christ is proclaimed. Again this is the perichoresis of the three-fold Word. Only in proper relation to Christ and Scripture is preaching truly the Word.

  4. Bobby Grow

    Thanks, Glen.

    Of course, your points here aren’t thoroughly ‘Barthian’, i.e. his usage or analogy of mode, and or replications of persons in the trinity . . . vs. your reworking through perichoretic language. Am I correct?

    And I agree, “. . . only in proper relation to Christ and Scripture is preaching truly the Word.” This indeed would have to be the “assumption.”

  5. glenscriv

    Yes Bobby, well spotted. Doctrine of God really is at the heart of everything huh?

    I think Barth could and would say that preaching must be judged according to its Scripture-consistency and Christ-centredness. So I think he could still put those safe-guards up regarding preaching.

    But I think where I differ from him is on how the three are one. For Barth it is the “event” of the Word that makes the three one. Where and when preaching becomes an “event” there the Word is truly encountered. In this event, Barth seems to lose all distinctives between the modes – and yes, I think this is a reflection of his trinity of ‘replications’.

    I prefer (along with TF Torrance and Geoffrey Bromiley) to see a perichoretic one-ness. Barth can often sound like the one-ness is a sporadic one-ness that’s down to some arbitrary divine will. In order to uphold the divine initiative Barth keeps saying they are one ‘where and when’ God chooses. And this one-ness can sound like some mystical identical one-ness. I prefer to see that the Scriptures are always witnessing to Christ. They have their being in being derived from the first form of the Word and pointing back to Him. Thus the Scriptures can remain properly distinct from Christ but no less one with Him by continually witnessing Him.

  6. Phil Sumpter

    Thanks for taking the time to post this. As I struggle to figure out Brevard Childs’ “canonical approach,” I’ve been forced into the world of Barth’s dogmatics. This is a particularly important area.

  7. glenscriv

    Hi Phil,

    I have a few quotes from Barth on these issues here:

    http://christthetruth.net/2008/02/07/barth-on-preaching-christ-from-all-the-scriptures/

    In the comments of this recent post Childs is mentioned – I definitely prefer Barth

    http://christthetruth.net/2008/06/02/christology-and-hermeneutics/

    Glen

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