Unfortunately, too much of the preaching we come across these days does not even have the merit of attempting a faithful exposition of the Scriptures, as these preceding methods do.
When John Calvin was asked to respond to Cardinal Sadoleto as to why Geneva was irretrievably Protestant, the Reformer included this indictment of the state of preaching before the Reformation:
Nay, what one sermon was there from which old wives might not carry off more whimsies than they could devise at their own fireside in a month? For as sermons were usually then divided, the first half was devoted to those misty questions of the schools which might astonish the rude populace, while the second contained sweet stories and amusing speculations by which the hearers might be kept awake. Only a few expressions were thrown in from the Word of God, that by their majesty they might procure credit for these frivolities.
Calvin then contrasts this former way of preaching with the Reformation approach to Scripture:
First, we bid a man to begin by examining himself, and this not in a superficial and perfunctory manner, but to cite his conscience before the tribunal of God, and when sufficiently convinced of his iniquity, to reflect on the strictness of the sentence pronounced on all sinners. Thus confounded and amazed at his misery, he is prostrated and humbled before God; and, casting away all self-confidence, groans as if given up to final perdition. Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete. As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by His obedience, He has wiped off our transgressions; by His sacrifice, appeased the divine anger.
The Genevan Reformer goes on to ask the Cardinal what problem he has with that. It is probably, says Calvin, that the Reformation way of preaching is not “practical” enough; that it doesn’t give people clear directions for daily living and motivate them to a higher life. Nevertheless, the Reformers all believed that the preacher is required to preach the text, not to decide on a topic and look for a text that can be pressed into its service. And the text, said they, was aimed not at offering heroes to emulate (even Jesus), but at proclamation of God’s redemptive act in the person and work of the God-Man.
Who couldn’t find in Calvin’s description of medieval preaching something of the contemporary situation? In many of the church growth contexts, once more the sermon is not given the central place liturgically and the sermon itself often reveals that the speaker is more widely read in marketing surveys, trend analyses, biographies of the rich and famous, “One Hundred & One Sermon Illustrations,” and Leadership journal than in the Greek New Testament, hermeneutical aids, and the riches of centuries of theological scholarship. One can often tell when a pastor has just read a powerful book of pop-psychology, Christian personality theories, end-times speculations, moral or political calls to action, or entrepreneurial successes. He has been blown away by some of the insights and has scouted about for a text that can, if read very quickly, lend some divine credibility to something he did not actually get from that text, but from the Christian or secular best-seller’s list. “I’m a pastor, not a theologian,” they say, in contrast to the classical evangelical notion, inherited from the Reformation, that a pastor was a scholar as well as a preacher.
Good communicators can get away with the lack of content by their witty, anecdotal style, but they are still unfaithful as ministers of the Word, even if they help people and keep folks coming back for more.
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