How Preaching Participates in the Mission of God: a book review

Books on preaching are of two varieties (at least!). Some books focus on method and creative presentations for the preaching moment, others focus on the content and purpose of preaching. Books on the Missional church follow the same pattern. Some books are pragmatic, offering ideas about ‘new ways of being church’ in the community. Other authors focus on the conceptual framework of ministry shaped by our relationship with the missional God. Of course practical authors hope they are rooted in good theology and conceptual authors see practical application of their ideas, but they have different starting points.

When Patrick Johnson, pastor at Frenchtown Presbyterian Church and adjunct professor at Princeton Theological Seminary decided to tackle both topics–preaching and the missional church–he tackled the conceptual side of both, offering a theology of preaching and mission. The Mission of Preaching: Equipping the Community for Faithful Witness is conversant with the discipline of homiletics and  the missional thinkers who have framed the contemporary discussion, people like Newbigin, Bosch, Barth and the Gospel in Our Culture Network (GOCN). He  is thoughtful about how preaching serves God’s mission and where it fits in the larger context of the church’s witness of Christ. Johnson is suggestive of ways to be more intentionally communal and formational through preaching.

Johnson’s four chapters represent several conversations about preaching and mission. In the first three chapters, Johnson discusses preaching as witness, the witness of Christian community and the witness of missional congregations.. Chapter four forms a nexus, connecting the early conversations and offers a ‘missional homiletic of witness.’

Chapter one examines three different approaches to preaching, from three authors, who each see the function of preaching as witness: The Witness of Preaching by Thomas Long, Preaching as Testimony by Anna Carter Florence and Confessing Jesus Christ: Preaching in a Postmodern World by David Lose. Each of these authors argue that witness is the most appropriate way to understand what a preacher does, though they diverge in their theological commitments, assumptions and points of emphasis. Long places witness alongside other images of preaching, outlines how the preacher bears witness, and places preaching within ‘the context of Christian community’ (4!), Florence repositions homiletic authority on ‘the structure of testimony’ (as opposed to education, ordination and training. (50). Lose offers an analysis of the epistemological challenges to preaching from post-modernity, adds to the idea witness the concept of confession (communal understanding o the gospel) and places preaching within the context of the church’s multifaceted witness (61-62). Johnson closes the chapter with six questions raised by his examination of these three authors and highlights their various answers: (1) What or who is the object of the preachers witness?; (2) By what criteria should one assess the faithfulness of the preacher’s witness?; What kind of witness is scripture?; What of ordination?; In what ways does the congregation bear witness?; and How does the witness of the preacher relate to the witness of the congregation?

Chapter two examines the witness of the congregation through the lens of Barth’s Church Dogmatics (IV,3.2). Barth saw bearing witness as the function of all that the church does. He therefore placed preaching under the larger category of Witness. The church witnesses through praise, preaching, instruction, evangelism, mission, theology, prayer, the cure of the souls, producing exemplary lives, service, prophetic action and fellowship (96-103).  Johnson observes that for Barth, “witness is not a way of preaching, but preaching is a way of witness” (103). Barth helps missional preachers move beyond their individual role in preaching to seeing how the act of preaching connects to the mission of the church and calls the church to orient itself toward the world it is called to reach.

Chapter three focuses on the witness of missional congregations, using the patterns of missional faithfulness described in Treasure in Clay Jars edited by Lois Barret for the GOCN (Eerdmans, 2004). The eight patterns are: discerning missional vocation, biblical formation and discipleship, taking risks as the contrast community, demonstrating God’s intent for the world, dependence on the Holy Spirit, pointing toward the reign of God, exercising missional authority. Johnson walks through each of these patterns drawing out the implications of how missional preaching helps contribute to and give shape to each of these elements in the life of the church.

Finally chapter four draws all of these various conversations together. This is longest chapter of the book and in it, Johnson gives his definition of a ‘missional homiletic of witness.’ He begins under the sub-heading ‘preaching’ and gradually adds more detail until his heading offers a full definition of what he is calling for:

Preaching Confesses Jesus Christ Through a Missional Interpretation of Scripture . . . to Equip the  Community for Witness in the World. 

Johnson builds on the thoughts of all the thinkers he previous profiled, as well as interacting with other recent proposals for missional preaching (such as Al Tizon’s Missional Preaching).

Johnson believes that the preacher has a crucial role in aiding and equipping the church for mission; however, his conclusion draws out several practical ideas from his study. First, he urges congregations to take seriously the idea of communal preaching (a shared ministry of preaching in the church). Because preaching is about bearing witness to Christ’s ongoing (and finished) work, the ordained ministry is not the authoritative voice for the community but one who points to Jesus and his mission. This would mean that one of the tasks of the preacher would be to nurture other preachers in the community, believing that no, one person has all the necessary gifts and insights to prepare the whole church for holistic mission (219). Secondly Johnson focuses on the necessary focus on Jesus Christ as the content of preaching, and a missional hermeneutic of scripture which explores God’s mission for the world (220,221). Johnson also reiterates again how preaching is just one component of the church’s multiform witness.

As a solo pastor and primary preacher at a small church, I found much of what Johnson says insightful and suggestive. I believe in the necessity of biblical preaching and think it is formative and missional but I have been uneasy with the way the preacher’s voice (on any given Sunday, my voice) is privileged over and against others in the congregation. Seeing with Johnson (and Barth) that preaching is just one aspect of the church’s witness is helpful . I also appreciate the hermeneutic lens of mission–reading the Bible with an eye for God’s mission and seeking ways to exhort the congregation to participate in it. Probably the most challenging aspect of Johnson’s proposal for my context, is the communal preaching component. I think I agree with Johnson that this is a good goal to move to, but the culture of my church has been that the called pastor delivers the message. Sermons from occasional members of the congregation or visitors are the exception rather than the rule. A good amount of groundwork would need to precede a move in that direction.

This is a demanding read, examining a large swath of practical theology and systematics. It obviously will be useful reading for a preaching class or seminar at a seminary level; yet this book will also be read fruitfully by pastors, preachers and lay ministers. I give this book four and a half stars and recommend it for anyone who cares about the mission and proclamation of the church.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

The Church in the Image of Christ :a book review

Karl Barth is the giant of 20th Century theology. He is credited with stemming the tide of theological liberalism and recovering a Christological and theological hermeneutic. Others regard Barth with suspicion seeing in his theology a dangerous trend toward univeralism and an undermining of the authority of scripture. Still others are troubled by his ‘theology from above,’ and his dismissal of natural theology (theology from below). For my part, my forays into Barth’s theology have been fruitful, though not without difficulty. Barth is a prolific and complicated theologian and it is helpful to have a guide who illuminates the significance of his theology for my context.

Kimlyn J. Bender (Ph.D, Princeton Theological Seminary) is associate professor of theology at Truett Seminary (at Baylor) and has previously published a book on Karl Barth’s Christological Ecclesiology (subject and title). In Confessing Christ for Church and World: Studies in Modern Theology he explores a range of topics: ecclesiology and ecumenical relations, Canon and confessionalism, Creation and Natural Theology. Karl Barth remains his chief interlocutor but he also looks at the work of Fredrick Schleierlmacher, as a counterpoint to Barth, and several contemporary voices.

Confessing Christ for Church in World divides into three parts. Chapters one through four make up Part One and explore Karl Barth’s ecclesiology in conversation with American theology, evangelicalism and the Catholic church. Part Two (chapters 5-9) explores Barth’s understanding of Canon and the chastened role of confessions in Barth’s theology. Part Three (chapters 10-11)  explores Barth’s doctrine of Creation and rejection of Natural theology as exemplified in his 1938-39 Gifford lectures. Bender concludes in chapter twelve with a ‘postscript’ on Schleiermacher’s Christology.

Part one begins with a brief summary of Barth’s ecclesiology. Barth sees the church as the body of Christ in his ‘earthly-historical form of existence’ (22). As with any other point of contact between God and humanity, Barth speaks, by analogy, using the Chalcedonian formula to speak of  what the church is (29). That is, the church is to be understood as a divine institution and a human one (fully human, fully divine). Christ is not fully identified with or dependent upon the church, but the church shares in his life and bears witness to his coming (32). As Bender states:

Barth’s own position is to speak of the church as both divinely constituted and historically situated, a reality comprised of both an inner mystery of the Spirit and a society of human persons in fellowship and joint activity. The Church is for Barth both invisible and visible, so that the inner mystery is not sacrificed to the external form, or vice versa, thus maintaining the integrity of each. Barth seeks neither to confuse nor separate the divine event and the historcal and sociological form, presented in a highly dialectical construal of the relation between divine action and historic duration. (36-7).

Bender then surveys recent critiques of Barth (that he subsumes pneumatology into Christology, how his soteriology makes the church appear non-concrete or unnecessary (43-51). However Barth, agrees that the church is a concrete reality, but is concerned that our definition of church doesn’t collapse into its visible expression solely (55). Furthermore,  Barth sees redemptive history coming to close with the cross but that doesn’t mean that he dismisses all human agency(58). Barth’s  high Christology means the church is always subservient to him. As Bender notes, “While the church is necessary for us because God has freely chosen it and freely joined himself to it, it is not necessary for God, nor is God’s salvific activity limited to the church by some type of necessity (62).

In Chapter two, Bender brings Barth’s ecclessiology in conversation with evangelicalism showing where Barth would critique it and  its practice, where he may contribute something of value for evangelicals, and where Barth’s project is sympathetic to its aims. Bender argues that Barth would critique evangelicals for substituting a movement for a church, the ways we may be anthropologically grounded rather than theologically grounded, our triumphalism and secular methodology, our ‘cults of personality,’ and our reliance more on testimony than the gospel (77-78). Bender sees Barth as contributing to evangelical ecclesiology by providing a rich theology of church (rather than a concession to sociological categories or Catholic substance), a critique of evangelical individualism, and a theology which sees church both as divine event and human institution (79-87). Bender sees common ground between evangelicals and Barth in their shared embrace the scandal of the gospel (87), and believe in commitment to a particular congregation (ibid.). and the commitment to mission (89).

In chapter three Barth delves into Reinhard Hütter’s critique of Barth, from a Catholic perspective, and illustrates how Barth provides a radical alternative to Roman Catholic ecclesiology. While Roman Catholicism (in Hütter’s understanding) sees the church as an ’embodied pneumatology,’ which undergirds the ‘great Tradition’ in the Nemanesque sense (109-110), Bender observes this is opposed to not only Barth but  Protestantism (116). Like many other Catholic theologians Hutter sees a ‘Catholic substance’ in the church’s ecclesial life where the church is the continution of Christ’s work making the church a ‘steward of grace.’ In contrast, Bender observes:

Herein lies the difference between Catholic substance and the Protestant principle. For there is an irrevocable insistence by the latter that the gift never be seen as a transferable entity entrusted to a steward who possesses it, that the church can be a servant and not a steward of grace, and a permanent distinction be made between Giver and recipient, between Christ and his bride, between Spirit and temple. In effect, this insistence is made because a Protestant vision is predicated on a refusal to grant that the church is, itself, an extension of the incarnation. This refusal is in turn joined to a basic recognition that Jesus Christ is present, and not absent, and is so though the power of the Spirit. The church does not “make” Christ present, but Christ makes himself present through the power of his self-attestation (118).

Bender brings this Protestant-Catholic distinction to bear on ecumenical discussions between Evangelicals and Catholics in chapter four. While conversation between the two is increasingly friendly and mutually edifying, too often Evangelical Protestants have conceded their lack of ecclesiology and looked to Rome. Bender sees in Barth a mature and thoughtful alternative to Catholic Substance (133).

Part two examines Barth’s Canon,  his understanding of scripture and ecclesial confessions. Barth’s theological education schooled him in liberal theological assumptions and the historical-critical method. Bender traces Barth’s move away from his training in his early theological works (chapter five) and as a mature theologian (demonstrated by his published dialogue with Harnack discussed in chapter six) to an understanding of scripture rooted in its particular witness to the coming of Christ. In chapter eight, Bender turns to the work of Barth Ehrman (our modern day Harnack?)  and illustrates the problem of reading scripture (and the canon) non-theologically. Chapter eight shows how Barth’s understanding of creeds and confessions brings him into fruitful conversation with Baptists and other non-creedal, free churches. Barth banged out his understanding of Creeds against Lutheranism (not Catholicism). In Lutheran Orthodoxy, the Augsburg confession took on scriptural authority whereas Barth found, in the Reformed tradition, the various confessions were offered provisionally. Bender argues that free church can learn from Barth an appreciation for confessions without a capitulation to a forced subscription (264). While Baptists will find points of tension with Barth, Bender illustrates several points amendable to them in his theology (265).

I particularly enjoyed Bender’s chapter on Barth and atheism (chapter nine). Barth did not see secularism and the growing antipathy toward God as a new problem. For Barth, this was a new spin on an old issue. Religion and Atheism were but two sides of the same coin; both were an idolatrous rejection of Christian particularity: the gospel of Jesus Christ (275). Barth’s response to Atheism was to emphasis the peculiar person of Christ, to subject atheists to critical negation, not allowing them to set the terms of the debate, and to continue to hold out grace toward them through Jesus (271-280). Barth could even see a value in the growing secularism and Atheism in helping the church clarify its identity over and against the wider culture.

Part three discusses Barth’s (and Schleiermacher’s) Christological understanding of creation and his rejection of some-sort of universal natural theology. As Barth’s Gifford lectures demonstrate, Barth was much more interested in the particularity of special revelation.  This Christocentric particularity (and contra-Schleiermacher, an objective Christology) is instructive for us and the church’s proclamation of the God in Christ.

What should be evident from the above summary, Bender is a sympathetic reader of Barth (though I would hasten, not uncritical). I found this book helpful in helping me hear how Barth would critique our age. I recommend this book for students and theologians. As a pastor, I found Bender’s discussion helpful for clarifying the purpose and witness of the church. Whatever differences I may have with Barth (and I am a neophyte in his theology), I appreciate his challenge to secular and sociological modes of church. I also think that Bender argues convincingly that there is a such a thing as a Protestant ecclesiology with substance. The Church is the invisible-that-becomes-visible, bearing witness to our redemption through Christ. I give this book five stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

What has Basel to do with South Bend? a book review

When Karl Barth, the great twentieth century theologian, famously denounced natural philosophy it appeared to some that he was anti-rational and no place for philosophy within his theological framework. Indeed he did reject a ‘theology from below’ which worked out a basis for belief in the Triune God through reason or from some generalized theistic position. But this does not preclude that possibility of Christian philosophy. Philosopher Kevin Diller (PhD, St. Andrews) brings the work of Karl Barth into conversation with Alvin Plantinga and argues that together they present a unified response to Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma.

Diller aims at showing both the combined response of Barth and Plantinga to epistemic problems and their areas of incompatibility. The two great thinkers stand about a generation apart, and Plantinga did not interact much with Barth’s theology. They occupied two different guilds in the academy, Plantinga’s work is useful in some apologetics while Barth doubted the value of apologetics (102). In Barth, theology is personal while Plantinga jumps much quicker to propositional truth (100). Despite the differences, their respective projects both rest on the fact of Revelation as Divine gift.

Diller’s book divides into two parts. In part one, Diller begins by identifying ‘theology’s epistemological dilemma. Modernity posits a high view of truth but is highly skeptical about human ability to apprehend truth. Postmodern approaches to epistemology are personal and pragmatic, valuing what is known by the individual but denying but is skeptical about an overarching Truth. Diller posits that neither option is available to the Christian theologian. Against post-modernity, Christians hold to a high view of truth; against modernity they assert that Truth can be known (albeit not through our cognitive means alone).

From here, Diller turns his attention to Barth’s theology.  In chapter two he illustrates that for Barth, theological knowledge is rooted in God’s own self revelation, that knowing God is a personal, cognitive, participative knowledge (54), that it is self attested, Divine initiated grace (60), resulting in transformation and reconciliation with God (64). Chapter three explores the way that (and the degree that) Barth engages with philosphy.  Contra Harnack and Pannenberg, Barth is not anti-rational and anti-philosophical but he does reject Enlightenment epistological assumptions, namely the: (1) the obligation assumption which argues that theological knowledge needs to account for the grounds of its metaphysical claims; (2) the general-starting point assumption which claims that such an account must stem from general epistemology; and the access-foundationalist assumption which anchors theological claims in trustworthy, readily accessible grounds (75).  Over and against these, Barth argues that theological knowledge is not contingent on our fulfilling the obligation to give an account of said knowledge (76-7),  that theological knowledge comes from above (through revelation) rather than being reasoned to from below (81), and therefore God is the ground for theological knowledge rather than nature (87-8). None of this negates the positive contribution of Philosophy. What Barth rejects is enlightenment style foundationalism and ‘philosophy’s presumed competency’ to speak of God and matters of faith (90,92).

Diller than turns his attention toward Plantinga and shows how his idea of Warrant similarly calls the question on Enlightenment foundationalism and Scientific evidentialism. Yet, Plantinga is more positive on the role of reason though even positing a form of natural theology–a sensus divinitatis (147).  Nevertheless, Diller sees ten areas of convergence between the two thinkers:

  1. – The knowlege of God comes as a real gift.
  2. – Tuth is ‘theo-foundational’–grounded in God’s self revelation.
  3. – The revelation of God is transformational.
  4. – Knowledge of God is corporately known through participation in the body of Christ (church).
  5. – All knowledge of God is contingent in some way on the grace of God.
  6. – Knowledge of God is both personal and cognitive (relational and propositional).
  7.  – Our knowledge of God is mediated to us through the Bible and church, but knowledge of God is not reducible to this medium.
  8. – Communion with God is the only secure grounding for the knowledge of God.
  9. – Theology is ‘faith seeking understanding’ and so is not concerned primarily with prolegomena but seeks to think in light of the givedness of God’s self revelation
  10. – Theological knowledge is coherent and warranted (169-72)

In Part Two, Diller  explores further the tensions between Barth and Plantinga and the way that their unified response speak to the realm of natural theology and reason (chapter seven),  the nature of revelation and human knowing (chapter eight) and the ontology and authority of scripture (chapter nine).  Diller makes the case that Plantinga’s version of natural theology is compatible with Barth’s theology of revelation because it is rooted in God’s revelation and does not function independently (219). Diller further demonstrates that their unified approach provides a beneficial place for apologetics (though a much more of a humble place than some of apologists’ presume).

Diller’s proposal of a unified Barth-Plantinga approach to epistemology is intriguing. I am a better reader of Barth than Plantinga and I think Diller does a good job of presenting Barth’s views (especially as found in Church Dogmatics 1.1, which I am currently reading). He avoids many of the caricatures of Barth (i.e. he correctly points out that Barth is neither an apophatic theologian or against critical thinking). My knowledge of Plantinga’s thought is mostly mediated to me through secondary literature, but I found Diller’s description compelling. This does point a way forward for analytical theology and Christian philosophy and warrants careful study. I give this book five stars and recommend it for Christian theologians and philosophers. This is ‘faith seeking understanding’ at its finest. Five stars: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP Academic for the purposes of this review. I was not asked to write a positive review.