TOWARD AN ANTHROPOLOGY OF PREACHING
Kenton C. Anderson
Did you see the cartoon in Leadership years ago? A pastor and his family are receiving a farewell gift from their congregation. No doubt the pastor had preached faithfully to these people for many years. An elder is presenting the pastor with a very large and heavy looking book which the pastor is barely able to receive for its sheer weight and bulk. The title of the book is visible on the spine, “The Life and Times of Pastor Smith as Compiled from His Sermon Illustrations . . . Volume One.”
We all know the agony of listening to a preacher far too impressed with himself and his own life experiences. Yet few of us would care to listen to a sermon devoid of human experience and real life color. For his part, the preacher does not want to get in the way of the message of Scripture. Yet at the same time, the listener finds it desirable if the preacher has a pulse.
How human should a preacher be? Exactly, how much humanity can a preacher offer without interfering in the divine act of communication intended by the task of preaching?
The question could be answered in the positive or in the negative. Both responses have worthy reasons to commend them.
Negative: Repress It
The human being, fallen and finite, is an unfit vessel for the precious Word of God. Preachers who speak for God ought to repress the human element in their preaching for the following reasons:
Human preachers will misinterpret the message.
It is very difficult for even a conscientious preacher to avoid putting a personal spin on the message. The preacher’s challenge is not only to understand the text rightly, but to communicate it correctly as well. To achieve this perilous task, the preacher must suspend the insistence of his personal opinions sufficiently to be able to identify whatever it is that God wants to say through his word as opposed to what the preacher wants said.
Walter Kaiser describes the difficulty of transferring biblical principles across the ancient/contemporary gulf.
In order to principlize without spiritualizing, historicizing, psychologizing, moralizing, or allegorizing, we must first restate the author’s propositions without including a reference to men or places in our sermon points. It is only God’s person, character, work, demands, teaching and comfort which we new wish to urge upon all men (Kaiser 23).
The challenge is to “principlize” the biblical passage without confusing “our own personal point of view (good or bad) with that of the inspired writer (14-15)” In other words, get out of the way. Opinion can have a terrible impact on biblical preaching.
Human preachers will compete with the message.
Preachers who hilight their own person and experience in their preaching run the risk of hindering the objective of the Word of God. Preaching must exalt Christ and Christ alone. As John Piper says, “The goal of preaching is the glory of God reflected in the glad submission of the human heart (Piper 26).”
The preacher who tells a personal story runs the risk of either looking too good or looking too bad. In the former case, the preacher can appear arrogant and self-serving. In the latter case, the preacher risks the negation of either his point or his authority. In both cases, the preacher draws attention to himself at the expense of the text.
Physically, the preacher standing in front of the congregation is the center of attention. The position is seductive. Many preachers succomb to the temptation, encouraging the attention through their choice of physical attire and personal demeanor. When listeners pay more attention to the preacher than to the sermon preached, the process has been sabotaged.
Human preachers will tarnish the message.
All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God (Ro.3:23). Truly, the message is born by those with feet of clay. Of course, one can cite preachers who are widely praised for their integrity and their blameless character, but for every Billy Graham there is a Jimmy Swaggart.
We preach the grace of God, yet the preacher who draws from that well too often and too deeply will lack integrity in the eyes of the congregation. Surely, the wise preacher will limit the exposure of personal foibles in order not to tax the listener’s sense of forgiveness (Bailey 559-60).
Positive: Express It
On the other hand, there are several arguments in favor of the expression of one’s humanity in the practice of preaching. Preachers ought to express their humanity in their preaching for the following reasons:
Human preachers will realize the message
One of the difficulties inherent in preaching is the otherworld liness of the message. The preacher seeks to offer transcendent truth to people who cannot escape their position within space and time. How can the finite appreciate the infinite? How can the contemporary listener overcome their subjective nature sufficiently to gain access to the objective (Grenz 1996)? Somehow the message has to be perceived as “real” by the listener. Speaking of the text in “real” terms, offering contemporary examples and real human interaction makes the truth more accessible to the listener.
The preacher who accents the human character of the text, stands a good chance of winning a hearing at least. Fred Craddock says that “the distance between ourselves and the original readers of the text is in a measure bridged by our common humanity (Craddock 134).” The people in the Bible (as well as the original intended audience of the text) are not so removed from the experience of contemporary people. They hurt like we hurt. They felt the same things that we feel today. If the preacher can help listeners “real-ize” the text, they might be well prepared to at least consider the propositions in the text.
Human preachers will endorse the message.
People rely on one another. In a complex option-laden world, people tend to rely on the advice and recommendations of people they admire or trust. This is of course what has made Michael Jordan a stupendously wealthy man.
Preachers who are willing to describe their own experience with the text endorse the message of the text. A preacher who has earned the trust of the congregation can greatly enhance the impact of the message through the telling of a few well chosen personal stories. In this case, the preacher bears some of the authority for the message in concert with the inherent authority of the Word of God (Miller 1994).
Human preachers will reckon with the message.
Finally, preachers who are not afraid to express their humanity in their sermons will be forced to personally reckon with their messages. Haddon Robinson’s famous definition of expository preaching says that it is the “communication of a bibical concept . . . which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to his hearers (Robinson 20).” This personal reckoning with the message adds significantly to the power of the sermon. The preacher who expresses through word and manner that he or she has done business with God will gain credibility in the mind and heart of the listener.
The Problem with Repression
These are not “straw men” arguments. Expression of one’s human character seems not only important to the task of preaching but dangerous to that same task. So which is it to be? At first glance, repression seems holier. It is motivated by a high view of scripture and a deep desire to exalt Christ at the expense of the human preacher. Yet to call for the complete repression of anthropological content and concern is problematic for the following reasons:
At the risk of offending the reader’s intelligence, let it be noted that both preacher and listener are irredeemably human. The preacher can no more renounce his humanity than he can grow gills and swim like a fish. It is simply not possible.
When God created humankind he deemed his handiwork “good.” God understood that when he gave his Word in written form that it would require translation and interpretation inevitably creating confusion as a result. He built emotion and passion into the human experience knowing full well that these feelings would be difficult to control.
Humans are sometimes uncomfortable in their own skin. Men and women misunderstand their own impulses, much less those of one another. It is frustrating, bewildering, and exhilerating and it is part of the plan of God.
When Jesus took on flesh and blood (Jn. 1:1-14) he showed the value God places on created human beings. We preach because we have a message. Our humanity would have hindered us from knowing God in his transcendence, except that God was willing to make himself known from within our human experience. William Placher says,
We can know the transcendent God not as an object within our intellectual grasp but only as a self-revealing subject, and even our knowledge of divine self-revelation must be God’s doing (Placher 182).
God is making himself known, revealing himself from within our experience, integrating objective truth in subjective form. God created man in his image. He sent his infinite Son to live in finite flesh. He encased his Word in words. He speaks in space/time by means of his Spirit.
Therefore, we preach. God has been willing to make himself known in the down and dirty of everyday human life. In fact, it is in the deepest of human experiences that God is most fully revealed. The crucifixion taught us that. We should no more find it necessary to divorce our humanity from our preaching than God himself did.
If our experience tells us that a disembodied experience is impossible, and the incarnation tells us that it is unnecessary, our listeners will tell us that it is unwise. People want to hear about people.
One of the faster ways to empty a church is to refuse to tell stories and offer emotion. Jesus himself taught us that one of the most effective ways to offer truth is by encasing it in human narrative. The gospels were not afraid to tell us Jesus wept (John 11:35). When Nathan had to confront David over his sin, he did it with a story (2Sa.12). Later, when David went to God to confess his sin, he wrote a psalm, a deeply emotional expression of his human sorrow (Ps.51). If the Bible can express humanity, whey can’t a preacher?
Mark Galli and Craig Brian Larson are sold on the power of human narrative. One of them confesses that he had been preaching for years before he fully appreciated the power of a well told story.
“My college degree was in accounting, and I’ve always felt at home with facts, analysis, and principles – the abstract and conceptual. I would have been embarrassed to simply tell a Bible story in a sermon – that was for children.”
“Somehow, however, these sermons were not hitting the mark. The people were not interested.”
“So I tried recounting Bible stories in my sermons, accenting dialogue, building suspense. I began woodenly, then loosened up and found I actually enjoyed telling the stories! Best of all my people now had looks of interest. They were enjoying the stories too (Galli and Larson 81,82).”
Preachers will find it wise to express their humanity in the practice of their preaching. Their listeners will thanks them.
Toward an Anthropology for Preaching
This paper has raised only a few of the issues relative to the question of anthropology and preaching. The work begs a fuller treatment. Nevertheless, let it be said that as human beings charged with the task of preaching the gospel, we ought to …
We bear our treasure in jars of clay (2Cor.4:7). We are easily tempted and subtly selfish. We owe everything we have to the grace of God. Therefore we express ourselves humbly and graciously, submitting carefully to the authority of God’s Word, even as we offer that Word to others.
Those who offer themselves to preach must examine themselves closely as one called to a higher standard (Ja.3:1). We do not want to disqualify our message by our actions. We must spurn our pride and live faithfully, if not perfectly, that people would be compelled to listen and respond.
Despite our weakness, God is gracious. He has promised that when we preach the Word it will accomplish its purpose (Is.55:11). The Word preached humbly, truthfully and with integrity, can be preached confidently.
Only Human, Yet…
To this point, I have been studiously following academic convention, avoiding the first person, and generally seeking to keep my person out of the argument of this paper as much as possible. However, in a paper on the expression of humanity in proclamation, I think it time I practiced what I preached. Let me share with you a personal experience.
Last week, my wife and I attended the movie, Mystery Men. I do not admit this with pride, as the picture was undoubtedly one of the more mindless and silly things ever put to celluloid. The plot described a group of super-hero wannabe’s vainly trying to describe and employ their “powers” in the desire to combat evil. The main character is “Captain Furious” whose dubious power seems to be the ability to get very, very angry. The story climaxes when he realizes there is real power in the simple acknowledgment that his name is “Roy” and that he is a human like everyone else.
As we walked out of the theater my wife asked me, “if you could be a super-hero, who would you be and what would be your powers?”
“I would be “Preacher Man” I said, able to put people to sleep by the power of my voice in 30 seconds flat.” We laughed and the conversation moved on. Later, however, I found myself returning to the thought. I am Preacher Man combating evil with the power of my voice. Yet, like Roy, I need to know that I myself am only human and I can’t do it on my own. The power comes as God takes my weakness and fills it with his strength to change the world and bring glory to his name.
Bailey, Raymond. “Ethics in Preaching.” In Handbook of Contemporary Preaching. 549-61. Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1992.
Craddock, Fred. Preaching. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1985.
Galli, Mark and Craig Brian Larson. Preaching that Connects: Using the Techniques of Journalists to Add Impact to Your Sermons. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.
Grenz, Stanley J. A Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.
Kaiser, Jr. Walter C. “The Use of Biblical Narrative in Expository Preaching.” In The Asbury Seminarian 34 (July 1979): 14-26.
Miller, Calvin. The Empowered Communicator: 7 Keys to Unlocking an Audience. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1994.
Piper, John. The Supremacy of God in Preaching. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1990.
Placher, William. The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking about God Went Wrong. Westminster John Knox: 1996.
Robinson, Haddon. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980.