Thursday, September 04, 2014

Preaching as sacramental

St Helen's Bishopsgate have produced a video of John Woodhouse entitled Preaching is Not a Sacrament. This is not really the main point of the video.

Woodhouse argues for a priority of the Word of God over preaching. Fair enough. The Word of God can be communicated in forms other than preaching.

But I would want to argue that preaching is special and central. I do not agree with him that preaching could be replaced by some other activity.

However, on the subject of the title of the video, it's worth knowing that a number of writers, including some Reformed ones, have said that we might usefully call preaching sacramental.

Donald Coggan’s book on preaching is entitled “The Sacrament of the Word”[1]. Coggan does not give a detailed account of what he means by calling preaching the sacrament of the Word. Writing in the Foreword, John Austin Baker offers this explanation of the title:

The preacher stands at the intersection of the eternal and the temporal, to be sanctified by saving truth so that others may receive Him who is the Truth, and take Him into the complex problems and agonies of our world.

That is why this book is called The Sacrament of the Word. It is about the imparting of Christ through our words [primarily in preaching], and so inevitably through ourselves.[2]

Coggan draws on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper thus:

The prime actor in the Sacraments of the Word is the Holy Spirit. The Sacrament of the Eucharist provides us with a helpful comparison…. [In preaching:] The “elements” are words, ordinary words, the words that we constantly use in the commerce of everyday life. But in preaching, the life-giving Spirit takes these words and makes them vehicles of his grace. He fashions words into the Word. Who can doubt that, when such preaching takes place, there is the Real Presence of Christ?[3]

Three points may be noted. First, Coggan argues that in the Supper and in preaching, the Holy Spirit is the prime actor. Coggan argues that the authors of The Prayer Book were right in “insisting that the two sacramental acts [of preaching and the Lord’s Supper] should go together, both being dependent for their efficiency on the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. Through both, God reaches the hearts of his people and “graces” them.”[4] Second, the ordinary human words of preaching may be likened to the ordinary elements of bread and wine which the Spirit uses as vehicles of grace in the Supper. Coggan also quotes C. E. B. Cranfield’s argument that the Bible is as essential to preaching as bread and wine are to the Supper: “To try to bypass the Bible in preaching is as perverse as attempting to celebrate the Holy Supper without bread or wine… it is, in fact, to show oneself ignorant of what preaching is all about.”[5] Coggan adds: “Water, bread and wine are the stuff of baptism and eucharist. Words are the stuff of preaching.”[6] He sees these uses of created things as instances of what he calls the “incarnational principle”: “God’s taking up of temporal things for the conveyance of eternal realities”[7]. Third, proper preaching (like the Supper) mediates the Real Presence of Christ.

For Coggan, whilst baptism and the Eucharist are God’s verbal visibilia, sermons are his verba audibilia, appealing to the ear[8].

Similarly, P. T. Forsyth calls the preacher a sacrament[9] and describes him as sacramental:

The preacher’s place in the Church is sacramental. It is not sacerdotal, but it is sacramental. He mediates the word to the Church from faith to faith, from his faith to theirs, from one stage of their common faith to another…. He is a living element in Christ’s hands (broken, if need be) for the distribution and increment of Grace. He is laid on the altar of the Cross[10]

Part of the preacher’s role is to “feed” the people with the Word of God[11].

One of the points Forsyth wants to insist on with this sacramental language is that the sermon is not mere talk, it does something. Real preaching is effective spiritual action:

In true preaching, as in a true sacrament, more is done than said…. He [the preacher] is a man of action. He is among the men who do things. That is why I call him a sacramental man, not merely an expository, declaratory man. In a sacrament is there not something done, not merely shown, not merely recalled? It is no mere memorial…. in a sacrament there is something effected.[12]

Forsyth adds:

The preacher’s word, when he preaches the gospel and not only delivers a sermon, is an effective deed, charged with blessing or with judgement. We eat and drink judgement to ourselves as we hear.[13]

As for Coggan, for Forsyth, preaching involves the real presence of Christ.[14] Preaching mediates what Forsyth calls “the Great Act”, the saving work of Christ and especially his cross[15]. The preacher is merely the sacramental element, the power is not his[16].

George Pattison writes:

if we no longer live in a golden age of Christian preaching, few Christians will not at some point have experienced something of the sacramental dimension of preaching- that preaching, no less than the sacraments more narrowly understood, is a way of God becoming present in time to the believing community. Preaching too can be a way of making-present the 'conversation in heaven' to which God is constantly drawing us. Seeing preaching as sacramental in this way goes against the widespread assumption by both preachers and congregations that preaching is primarily a form of teaching, the aim of which is simply to offer an explanation or application of the biblical text, or to demonstrate the logical, historical or psychological grounds for accepting Christian belief.[17]

For Simon Chan “proclamation is a sacramental event just as the sacrament is a proclamation.  It is human action joined with the action of the Spirit. In the act of proclamation, human words are united with the divine Word.”[18]

Preaching as sacramental in Calvin and the Reformed tradition

A number of scholars have argued that Calvin thought of preaching as sacramental. Since this thesis draws on Calvin’s doctrine of the sacraments and of the Lord’s Supper, it seems fitting to explore this suggestion in some detail. Particular attention is paid to what these scholars mean by calling Calvin’s preaching sacramental and often their own words are quoted. It will then be asked whether these formulations could be applied to God’s word written as well as God’s word preached.

Although Calvin does not call preaching a sacrament, in some ways the Word of God serves a similar function to the Lord’s Supper and the language Calvin uses of preaching and the Supper is sometimes strikingly similar. Calvin can make very strong statements about the unity of Word and Sacrament. For example, Wallace says: “To those men whose formal practice is daily to cry, “The Word of the Lord, the Word of the Lord” in their anxiety that the Scripture shall have first place of honour in the Church Calvin says, “They will find nothing applicable to the Word which we do not also give to the sacraments.”[19]
Michael A. Farley argues that “for Reformed theologians … the preaching of the Word has effectively functioned as the central liturgical and sacramental event in Reformed worship.”[20] Similarly Gerrish argues that for Calvin:
The word is not simply information about God; it is the instrument through which union with Christ is effected and his grace is imparted. The word of God, in Calvin’s thinking, assumes the function that medieval theology ascribed to the sacraments. In this sense, it is the sacramental word.[21]
Further, he says that Calvin ascribes “to the proclaimed word of God the power and efficacy that the medieval church credited to the seven sacraments.”[22]  For example, Calvin writes, God “has ordained his word as the instrument by which Jesus Christ, with all his graces, is dispensed to us.”[23] Again, Gerrish says: “the Protestants at the time of the Reformation really did transfer to the proclamation of the gospel the salvific efficacy medieval scholasticism ascribed to a sacrament. But they did not substitute one for the other. They kept both and interpreted each in the light of the other.”[24]
Similarly, Peter Adam says that for Calvin “God is present [when his word is preached] and his words preached are an effective means of grace.”[25] He goes on to say that DeVries has shown that this idea was not common in the Roman Catholic church of Calvin’s day[26].  Adams says “by medieval times the sacraments alone were [thought of as] the means [of grace], and the Word was merely educative.”[27] He quote DeVries: “The Preached word itself, so far from conveying the healing medicine of divine grace [on the understanding of the Roman Catholic church of the time], was rather a prescription for the medicine which was available only in the sacraments.”[28]

Clearly there is a risk of theological confusion in thinking of the Word as a Sacrament since for Calvin as for Augustine the Word of God added to the element makes a sacrament. If the Word itself is a sacrament then does the Word make itself a sacrament? What is the element to which the word is added in this case? Gerrish’ discussion is worth quoting:

Calvin himself describes the word as verbum sacramentale, the “sacramental word”. He means the word that constitutes, or makes, a sacrament. And his argument is that the word, in this sense, cannot be a magical incantation muttered by the priest over the earthly elements, while an uncomprehending people looks on.[29]

This word is the proclaimed word of faith, God’s promise[30]. Gerrish contends:

Since Calvin elsewhere so plainly assigns the proclaimed word of promise the very functions that the medieval church looked for in the sacraments, we may fairly extend his use of the term verbum sacramentale to denote a proclamation that not only makes a sacrament but also, as an efficacious means of grace, is a sacrament.[31] 

John H. Leith argues that: “For Calvin, preaching is sacramental in the context of the order of salvation and as a means of grace, and not in the more general sense by which all creation may be sacramental.”[32]

Describing Calvin’s doctrine of preaching, Wolterstorff says: “The reading in the church of the anciently spoken word of God provides the basis for the here-and-now speech of God to God’s people. The sermon is “sacramental” of the speech of God – not of the static presence of God but of God’s very speaking.”[33] He adds:

Often it is said that the churches of the Reformation have no sacramental consciousness. The truth is that the Calvinistic wing of the Reformed tradition, and the confessional documents of the tradition as a whole exhibit an intensely sacramental consciousness, more than is typical of such as the Roman and Anglican traditions. Part of this “more” pertains to the sermon. More than any other traditions in Christendom, the churches of the Reformation – Reformed, but Lutheran as well – have emphasized that by way of church proclamation, God acts graciously towards God’s people.[34]

Wolterstorff also sees a parallel between the notion of sacramental efficiency and the efficiency of the sermon. Neither depends for their power on the minister:
Those who are hesitant to ascribe to the sermon so “sacramental” a status as did the Reformers will usually focus on the deficiencies of sermons and the shortcomings of preachers. The answer of the Reformers to this objection is structurally the same as that given by the medieval church to the suggestion that the efficousy of the sacrament depends on the holiness of the priest: God uses fallible human material to accomplish God’s ends.[35]
Wolterstorff also suggests that the Reformed practice of praying for illumination before Scripture reading and sermon is an analogous to the epiclesis in the service of the Lord’s Supper. In both cases the work of the Spirit is understood to be essential[36].

Wolterstorff sees in Calvin’s understanding of Supper and sermon the same fundamental structure: “ God acting and we receiving, rather than we acting and God receiving. And just as in the case of proclamation, God’s action must be received in faith and applied by the Spirit.”[37]

J. Mark Beach argues that like Luther, “Calvin …  gives us a doctrine of Christ’s real presence in gospel proclamation. His doctrine … has features and accents all its own— corresponding in many respects to his distinct doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.”[38]

Beach explains his use of the word “sacramental” is “to express the reality of God’s presence through human instrumentation or divine activity through human labor. God is agent; humans are instruments.”[39] Beach is thinking of:

the sacramental character of the Word itself—that is to say, it [this way of speaking] refers to the presence of Christ in, with, and through the Word proclaimed. The sacramental character of the Word means that God’s Word genuinely belongs to God, that it is from God and of God; it is his speech. Therefore God, through the Holy Spirit, is speaking and is the agent of grace. “Sacramental Word,” therefore, has no sacerdotal connotations. God does not transfer his work to humans or cloth human beings (or a human institution) with his power to dispense grace ex opere operato.[40]

Beach argues that: “Christ is spiritually present in the preaching of the gospel through the operation of the Holy Spirit; hence preaching possesses a sacramental character—an outward vehicle for an inward grace.”[41]
Similarly, discussing Calvin’s doctrine, Leith says: “In preaching, the Holy Spirit uses the words of the preacher as an occasion for the presence of God in grace and in mercy. In this sense, the actual words of the sermon are comparable to the element in the Sacraments.”[42]

Parker notes a similarity between Calvin’s view of Supper and sermon as God’s actions:  “Just as Christ is present at the Supper spiritually, that is, by the working of the Spirit, so he is present in the preaching spiritually—by the working of the Spirit.”[43]
According to Wallace, on Calvin’s view: “Through the preaching of the Word by His ministers, Christ therefore gives His sacramental presence in the midst of His Church, imparts to men the grace which the Word promises, and establishes His kingdom over the hearts of His hearers.” [44] And: “In the event of God’s ‘connecting Himself’ thus with the preacher, to make his act of speaking the effective Word of the Lord, a relationship is set up between the human act of the preacher and the divine action of grace which we may call a sacramental union.”[45]
Describing Calvin’s doctrine Gerrish speaks of the ““sacramental” functions” of the Word of God “as a powerful instrument of the Spirit .”[46]
Chan suggests that evangelicals might think of a kind of transubstantiation taking place in preaching:
The Word proclaimed is truly the Word of God. As the Second Helvetic Confession puts it, “The preaching of the word of God is the word of God.” This is the closest that Protestants get to a doctrine of transubstantiation. Human words do “become” God’s Word in the event of preaching – in much the same way as Christ who was the Word “became” flesh without ceasing to be God. If this is so, why is it so difficult to believe that created things like bread and wine could “become” the body and blood of Christ in the event of the eucharistic celebration (without ceasing to be bread and wine)? Preaching and eucharistic celebration share the same logical function. In the Protestant doctrine of preaching a kind of transubstantiation occurs. Could not the traditional doctrine of transubstantiation be understood in a similar way? The fact is that God uses ordinary things to convey spiritual blessings, even if we have no adequate explanation of how it is done. If evangelicals are to return to the norm of Word and sacrament in their worship, their strong sacramental doctrine of preaching must be extended to include the Eucharist and baptism.[47]
It would seem that these points about preaching could have been made without recourse to the language of the sacraments. Indeed, in the view of the scholars quoted above, this was Calvin’s view, although he did not call preaching sacramental directly. These categories appear to be a legitimate and illuminating way of speaking about preaching. The comparison between the Lord’s Supper and preaching could be helpful in articulating something of what preaching involves, how it works and what it achieves.

[1] (Glasgow, Collins Fount Paperbacks, 1987)
[2] Coggan, The Sacrament of the Word, p12
[3] Coggan, The Sacrament of the Word, p76
[4] Coggan, The Sacrament of the Word, p77
[5] Coggan, The Sacrament of the Word, p77, quoting The Bible and Christian Life, T. T. Clark, 1955, p12
[6] Coggan, The Sacrament of the Word, p77
[7] Coggan, The Sacrament of the Word, p77
[8] Coggan, The Sacrament of the Word, p77. The category of visible words was questioned above. Of course sermons are usually “seen” as well as heard.
[9] P.T. Forsyth, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind: The Lyman Beecher Lecture on Preaching, Yale University, 1907 (Hodder and Stoughton, MCMVII), p79
[10] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p80
[11] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p80
[12] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, pp81-82
[13] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p83
[14] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, pp 82 and 83
[15] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p84
[16] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, pp84-85
[17] George Pattison, Short Course in Christian Doctrine, p108
[18] Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community (Dowers Grove, IVP, 2006), p p134
[19] Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of The Word and Sacrament, pp160-161, citing Corpus Reformatorum 9:20-21
[20] Michael A. Farley, “Reforming Reformed Worship: Theological Method and Liturgical Catholicity in American Presbyterianism, 1850–2005” (Ph.D. diss., Saint Louis University, 2007), p177, n156
[21] Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude, p76
[22] Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude, p84
[23] Calvin, Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper (1541), quoted in Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude, p84
[24] Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude, p109
[25] Peter Adam, Preaching of a Lively Kind, p21 in Thompson (ed), Engaging With Calvin
[26] Peter Adam, Preaching of a Lively Kind, p21, citing DeVries, Jesus Christ in the Preaching of Calvin and Schleiermacher (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), p14 
[27] Peter Adam, Preaching of a Lively Kind,p22
[28] DeVries, Jesus Christ, p22 quotes in Adam, Preaching, in Thompson, Engaging
[29] Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude, p85
[30] Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude, p85. He cites Calvin, Institutes, 1559, 4.14.4 (2:1279-80)
[31] Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude, p85-85
[32] Leith, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Proclamation of the Word and Its Significance for Today in the Light of Recent Research,” Review and Expositor,86 (Winter 1989): 31 p211 quoted in Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude, p76. Wallace comments that “… the nature of this [sacramental] union is as unique and unparalleled as the incarnation itself is a unique and unparalleled event; … there is no true analogy to this relationship under consideration, outside the events of the Bible and indeed outside of Jesus Christ. Calvin sees no “natural sacramental principle” running through the world of nature from the study of which we might begin our thinking about the sacraments.” Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, p165. However, Zachman, Randall C., Image and Word in the Theology of John Calvin (Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 2007) argues that a sacramental sense is pervasive in Calvin’s approach to all of creation.
[33] Wolterstorff, The Reformed Liturgy, in McKim, Major Themes, p288
[34] Wolterstorff, The Reformed Liturgy, in McKim, Major Themes, p288
[35] Wolterstorff, The Reformed Liturgy, in McKim, Major Themes, p289
[36] Wolterstorff, The Reformed Liturgy, in McKim, Major Themes, p290
[37] Wolterstorff, The Reformed Liturgy, in McKim, Major Themes, p290
[38] J. Mark Beach ‘The Real Presence of Christ in the Preaching of the Gospel: Luther and Calvin on the Nature of Preaching’ Mid-America Journal of Theology 10 (1999) 77-134, p91
[39] Beach, Real Presence, p92, n38
[40] Beach, Real Presence, p92, n38
[41] Beach, Real Presences, p117
[42] Leith, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Proclamation of the Word and Its Significance for Today in the Light of Recent Research,” Review and Expositor,86 (Winter 1989): 31 quoted in Beach, Real Presence, p93
[43] Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, 42
[44] Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, 84
[45] Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, 90-91
[46] Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude, p82
[47] Chan, Liturgical Theology, pp134-5

No comments: