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T. David Gordon on Preaching as Spiritual Cartography
Conscientious preachers have long wrestled with the question of homiletical relevance: how to make Christian proclamation “relevant” to their hearers. Ordinarily, wrestling with the question of relevance is understood to be a homiletical activity; I believe that it is also a theological activity, not merely a homiletical one.
That is to say, the question—how the redemptive work of God is relevant to hearers of that redemptive work—is not merely a rhetorical one. It is not merely a question of how we gain the interest or attention of our hearers to our message. Yes, we preachers are responsible to preach “in a language understanded by the people”—as the Lord did, in terms of a general knowledge and understanding of his audience. But beyond this, there is a theological question of the substance or content of the proclamation itself. The preacher is not so much responsible to learn from his hearers “where they are” as he is responsible to declare to his hearers “where they are,” and indeed to correct their misapprehensions of that matter.
Under Judgment & Curse
To borrow language from the Lutheran tradition, the preacher declares both law and gospel. “Where they are” is this: Our hearers are law-breaking rebels who have revolted against the majesty of God (both in Adam and in themselves), and who therefore justly have fallen under his judgment and curse. This judgment and curse are not merely the source of the other “where they are” circumstances; they are those circumstances.
People may indeed be lonely, because of Genesis 3; they may be depressed; they may be dysfunctional; they may be neurotic, or anxious, or a host of other things. But none of these things constitutes “where they are.” Where they are is under God’s judgment and curse: “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). Our universal circumstance is this: We must give an account to God. Outside of Christ, we, like Adam and Eve, are “naked and exposed” to God’s all-perceiving sight; only in Christ are we clothed with a redemptive covering.
Apostolic preaching did not discern “where they are”; apostolic preaching declared “where they are.” Further, “where they are” was not individually considered, but corporately considered. The apostles did not attempt to discern the particular “where they are” of each individual, but the general or corporate “where they are” of the entire race.
Peter, for instance, twice proclaimed at the inaugural apostolic moment, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36; cf. 4:10). He did not ask his hearers: “Do you feel like you crucified Jesus?” He declared to his hearers what they were likely astonished to hear—that they were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ.
Paul, similarly, did not ask the Romans, or survey the Romans, to discover whether they regarded themselves as God-seekers or good; he declared to them, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10–12).
Diagnosis & Cure
Apostolic proclamation assumed no burden of discovering people’s misperceptions of “where they are.” Apostolic proclamation assumed, rather, that people’s perceptions of “where they are” were wrong and needed to be corrected. Part of the blindness that constitutes sin is blindness as to our true condition. Like the patient who tells his physician he has congestion, and therefore a “chest cold,” when in fact he has pneumonia, the sinner often perceives the consequences or symptoms of his sin and rebellion (and God’s consequent judgment and curse), but misunderstands or misconstrues the true cause thereof.
The preacher is under no responsibility to attempt to discern in precisely what way the majority of his hearers misconstrue their condition, especially since it is likely that they individually misconstrue it in many different ways. To the contrary, the preacher is responsible to declare what that condition is. Just as a responsible physician declares both the diagnosis and the proposed cure, the responsible preacher declares both the condition and the cure.
Several years ago, I informed my physician that, based on some symptoms I noticed, I probably had some sort of stomach ulcer and might need to change my diet or take Maalox. My physician, with the help of some tests and other physicians, informed me that in fact I had colo-rectal cancer and would need to undergo surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy treatments.
Our hearers, whether individually or corporately, do not necessarily have any clue at all about how to explain their symptoms; they may know no more about their condition than I did about my cancer. The duty of the preacher is to tell them what their condition is, and therefore, why Christ’s redemptive work is the only solution.
The alternative to this is chaotic, fruitless, often heretical, and at times, laughable. Chaos ensues because of the comprehensiveness of the curse of Genesis 3. Virtually everything is now wrong with the created order. Any attempt, therefore, to be “relevant” by discovering people’s perceptions of what is wrong, is analogous to a physician attempting to locate every individual leukemia cell in a patient’s bloodstream. And since people suffer under the curse of Genesis 3 differently, such attempts at being “relevant” inevitably become irrelevant to many hearers, whose experience differs from that of others.
The Only Relevant Problem
When my students occasionally ask me, “Dr. Gordon, what do you think the major problem facing the church today is?”, my canned answer always is: “The major problem facing the church today is the attempt to discover what the major problem facing the church today is.” The attempt to discover “the major problem” causes preachers to preach at contemporary symptoms rather than timeless diseases, and to preach therefore at symptoms that are not universal anyway, which makes their preaching irrelevant to many individuals, and ultimately wrong anyway.
People do not ultimately need to be delivered from their dysfunctional families, their media-saturated culture, their Oedipal urges, their neuroses, or their various alienations; they need to be delivered from God’s judgment and curse. And their perception that all of these other matters are more important or relevant than God’s judgment and curse are merely evidence that they are under his judgment and curse, and that they need to repent of these very misperceptions.
The Christian gospel is not merely relevant to particular individual symptoms or to particular cultural symptoms; it is relevant to the entire race fallen in Adam. We need not join Protestant liberalism in removing Christianity’s offensively wrathful deity; we need not join Rudolf Bultmann in removing its offensively miraculous resurrection; we need not join the emergent churches in removing its offensively theocentric vision of reality. To the contrary, in each and every case, to each and every hearer, in each and every cultural moment, the preacher’s duty is to declare both disease and cure, both law and gospel, both sin and redemption, both judgment and grace, both the first Adam and the Last.
Our universal predicament, and therefore the only truly relevant problem to address in Christian proclamation is this: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10). Where we all “are” is here: in a waiting room, but we await not a dentist, an optometrist, or a physician; we await the coming judgment of God’s holy Son.
Individuals or entire cultures may or may not approve our telling them this, and they may or may not fill our churches if we do so. But we as preachers are no more at liberty to permit our hearers to diagnose their own condition than physicians are to permit their patients to diagnose theirs. We do not “make the gospel relevant” to misperceptions of what is wrong or needed; we declare what is wrong and needed, and the gospel as the only solution to what is wrong and needed. Effectively, we declare the irrelevancy of all false relevancies and the folly of all false wisdoms. •
T. David Gordon is Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College. His notes on Johnís Gospel appear in the New Geneva Study Bible and the Reformation Study Bible, and his articles have appeared in New Testament Studies, Journal for the Evangelical Theological Society, Modern Reformation, and other periodicals. He, his wife, and their two daughters live in Grove City, Pennsylvania, and attend Grace Anglican Fellowship in nearby Slippery Rock.