Sunday, March 3, 2013

Hearing Is Believing


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Throughout the book of Acts, the advance of Christ's kingdom is announced with the words, "And the word of God spread."
Preaching is too intellectual. It aims at the mind but doesn't really transform the whole person. Besides, we live in a culture that disdains authorities who tell us what to believe and what to do. It gives the pretense of someone having all the answers. What we need are more conversations. The truth emerges in dialogue, not from a monologue. Besides conversations, we need more practices in community gatherings that envelop all of the senses. Preaching is too static. We need more visual movement and imagery, dance and drama, video clips, and the like. More sounds besides words. Even smells, like incense.
You may have heard some or even all of these criticisms of the centrality of preaching in the church. And minus the video clips, you would have heard a lot of the same criticisms in the medieval church, where the Mass was an awe-inspiring theatrical performance.
Is preaching an indifferent medium that just happened to be available in the era of Jesus and the apostles but can be replaced with more effective media in our day? Or is there something intrinsic to the preached Word that makes it essential to the ministry and mission--indeed, the very existence--of the church?

God's Effective (Not Just Educative) Word

It is true that sometimes preaching is treated merely as a method of transferring information from one mind to another. Of course, any communication addresses our minds as well as our hearts and bodies. Preaching, however, is not God's chief means of grace because of any preference for intellectualism. Rather, it is because God gets all of his work done--in creating, sustaining, redeeming, calling, and restoring--by speaking his Word. Forgetting the sacramental effect of the Word as a means of grace, an intellectualist approach reduces preaching to teaching (its pedagogical function). In these settings, the most we can expect is a transfer of timeless information from one mind to another mind. This, however, is not an adequately biblical view of how the Spirit delivers Christ to us through the Word, creating the world of which he speaks. Throughout Scripture, God's Word is characterized as "living and active" (Heb. 4:12), the means by which the triune God created the world, upholds it, redeemed it, and brings it into his everlasting rest. And it is this Word that we must hear if we are to be saved.
In Reformation teaching, the Word is not only written but preached and not only preached but sung, prayed, and administered in the Sacraments. The preaching of the Word is itself a means of grace. In this sense, Calvin called it "the sacramental Word" (Institutes 4.14.4). B. A. Gerrish observes, "Calvin felt no antagonism between what we may call the 'pedagogical' [teaching] and the 'sacramental' functions of the word." He continues, "God's word, for Calvin, is not simply a dogmatic norm; it has in it a vital efficacy, and it is the appointed instrument by which the Spirit imparts illumination, faith, awakening, regeneration, purification, and so on....Calvin himself describes the word as verbum sacramentale, the 'sacramental word,'" that gives even to the Sacraments themselves their efficacy. "It therefore makes good sense to us when we discover that in Theodore Beza's (1519-1605) edition of the Geneva Catechism, the fourth part, on the sacraments, actually begins with the heading 'On the Word of God.'"
As with baptism and the Supper, the Spirit creates a bond between the sign (proclamation of the gospel) and the reality signified (Christ and all his benefits). The Word is a ladder, to be sure, but, like the incarnation, one that God alwaysdescends to us (Rom. 10:6-17). Gerrish further states: "It is crucial to Calvin's interpretation that the gospel is not a mere invitation to fellowship with Christ, but the effective means by which the communion with Christ comes about."
We gather each Lord's Day to hear God, not to see inspiring symbols, express our spiritual instincts, have exciting experiences, or even merely to hear interesting and informative discourses. Furthermore, we come not only to hear this Word proclaimed in the sermon but to hear God address us throughout the service: in the votum (or "God's Greeting"), in the law, in the absolution (or declaration of pardon), in the public reading of Scripture, and in the benediction. This is why Reformed and Presbyterian churches privilege the singing of Psalms: God not only gives us something to respond to but also our proper lines of response in the script. The purpose of singing in church is not to express our individual piety, commitment, and feelings (though it enlists these). Rather, according to Paul, we "sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" so that "the Word may dwell in you richly, in all wisdom and understanding" (Col. 3:16; cf. Eph. 5:19). Even the Sacraments are "visible words," ratifying before our physical eyes the promise that we have heard with our ears. The ministry of the Word involves all of these elements and encompasses our whole being in a communion of saints. Although private reading of the Bible is of enormous value in strengthening our faith by deepening our understanding, God has chosen preaching as a social event of hearing that makes strangers into a family.