My Journey Back to Appreciating a Protestant Sermon
My previous post on the “Word of the Lord,” drew a few different comments encouraging me to expand on what I had written there. Many of them had to do with the fact that I hadn’t fully come to terms with what I wanted to say. I find that much of my writing reflects the fact that I am on a journey towards understanding, as Origen is fond of saying in his Commentary on the Psalms. As a Christian, I believe I’m given the truth in the beginning, in the form of the Scriptures (and the historic creeds). But wisdom and the full logic come later, and may not fully be achieved this side of the eschaton. But that does not stop me from trying.
As a historical theologian, I’m consistently confronted by the fact that my upbringing as an evangelical Baptist puts me at some remove from the historical Christian faith. I’ve often joked that Baptists act as if church history runs from Jesus, to Billy Graham, and then your local pastor. Anything in between, although potentially interesting, has little bearing on what it looks like to understand and live the Christian faith. The Baptist Faith and Message, the summary of what Southern Baptists basically think, is purposefully short and to the point. As a group, Baptists have been historically suspicious of any person forcing them to accept a creed—which can be seen in their roots in England mentioned in the footnote below. The twin convictions of Baptist life have basically been (1) believer’s baptism and (2) the freedom of the individual conscience to interpret, the Holy Bible the only bearer of unquestioned truth.1 As Curtis Freeman’s book on Baptists and their history demonstrates, this might even include diverging from the historic bearers of orthodoxy, the Apostle’s and Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creeds.sup>1 This was how I was raised to think as a young Christian. All you needed was the Bible and to be saved. Then, you could be baptized. That’s not to say there were never any voices outside of that basic framework, but that was essentially what I heard. You ought to listen on Sunday morning to the preacher, he (and in my church it was only a he) could help you understand the Scriptures a little better. The measure of a good preacher was how well he stuck to the Bible itself. One wonders why he didn’t just read the Bible and call it good?
That was part of what I was wrestling with in the previous post. What happens when the preacher climbs into the pulpit? What should the congregant be listening for? What is the measure of a “good sermon?” In the previous article, I spent a great deal of time theorizing about the Verbum Domini because that is what is spoken after the reading of what the “word of God”—which is unhelpfully equivocated with Jesus Christ as the Word. In the previous piece, I wasn’t ready to tackle the whole theological weight of that phrase. I’ve realized that my concern is much greater than the previous simple question. In the church I currently attend, the pastor might spend as long as 45 minutes delivering a sermon. For a number of years, I was a faithful churchgoer in an Episcopal church. I loved the 10 minute devotional homily. The high point of the service was the sacrament of the Eucharist. It didn’t matter if the pastor’s sermon focused on the New York Times or the New Testament. If I could wait a mere 10 minutes, it would all be over and we could get on to the actual meeting of Christ in the meal.
For various reasons, I have begun attending an Evangelical church again, loosely connected to my Baptist roots. G.K. Chesterton has a great line, which reflects my current experience, “Happy is he who still loves something that he loved in the nursery: he has not been broken in two by time; he is not two men, but one, and has saved not only his soul but his life.” While I have gone down many different denominational roads, I find myself back in a church that in many ways is much closer to the one I was raised in. I hope it “saves my soul and my life.” But before it can begin to do either, I need to reconnect with the purpose of the sermon, and maybe more broadly, with the purpose of the Sunday morning experience. In an hour and 15 minute church service, the majority of it is spent listening to some dude talk about the Bible. What am I supposed to be doing while I sit there?
As a short aside, in the last 15 years or so of my life, as I have sought further education and desired a greater knowledge of theology and Scripture, I’ve met more and more people who have left their Evangelical roots. I was raised in Southern Baptist church and attended a Reformed high school which confessed the Westminster Confession. In college, I quit going to church because I was sick and tired of what I heard from the pulpit. After college, I began attending an Anglican service in Paris and was eventually confirmed in the Episcopal church. My seminary degree was from a mainline seminary, loosely PCUSA. In those years, I’ve met numerous people who have chosen to “swim the Tiber” and become Roman Catholic, and increasingly I meet fellow devotees to the Church Fathers who feel their only home is the Eastern Orthodox church. Given my interests and desire for theological depth, is the only choice to leave the more recently developed traditions of Evangelical Protestantism like my friends?
To give a little more background, I’m not only a seminary grad, I’ve also worked as a youth a pastor, taught Greek and Latin and studied more Hebrew in my master’s degree than any other language. Currently, I’m working on a Ph.D. in historical theology, focusing on early Christianity. I’m also working on a book of commentary on the Psalms from theologians from the Greek East and the Latin West, where I am the primary translator of Origen’s Commentary on the Psalms. I only bring that up to confess that I have been, in many ways, ruined by all this in many ways. In my arrogant mind, I know more than most people who will stand before me in the pulpit on a Sunday morning. Few pastors could or really should devote the amount of time that I have devoted to learning the Biblical languages and studying the history of interpretation of Scripture. They have other tasks that are just as difficult, yet no less necessary. That being said, I still have to sit through a 45-minute sermon. But what am I listening for? Am I trying to hear if he conducts proper grammatical-historical exegesis, like I learned in Seminary from people trained in German higher and lower criticism? Am I trying to see if the preacher has read the Greek or Hebrew and knows how to properly utilize a lexicon? Maybe I should see if they know something about the way the Church Fathers read that Psalm (this probably just relates to me because it’s my field)? It would not be wrong if a pastor did those things, but would that be any different from a lecture in Biblical Studies or Patristic exegesis? Here’s the kicker, how is a sermon different from a lecture, a speech, or simply a re-reading of the Biblical text? What new is happening in that moment?
None of those things is what makes a sermon a good sermon, or an interpretation of Scripture the right one. It would be unreasonable to expect that of a pastor, or of the congregation, to be able to follow the kind of lecture that I have spent a decent part of my life consuming. Nor is a lecture a replacement for the sermon itself.
With the background provided, I think I’m beginning to drill down into what really concerned me in the previous post: if I am to stay in the evangelical church, in many respects Baptist like the church I was raised in, how can I meet God in the sermon? I’ve chosen to focus on the sermon because it is a particular moment of much import in the daily life of a Christian. One, it begins with the reading of Scripture, tying me back to the problem of the word of the Lord. Two, I might have developed a theology that is something at odds with what a pastor might say. What am I to do then? Three, I am not willing, or convicted, that I should throw my hat in with the Roman Catholic Church or Eastern Orthodox Church, but that does not mean I want my faith to be divorced from the theology developed within those traditions, where the sermon is not nearly as important. Yet, I know that all theology, often given in the sermon, has developed from these roots. It may not be entirely dependent on them, but it cannot be divorced from them because Trinitarian theology, and the Scriptures themselves, historically evolved during the period after Jesus of Nazareth walked in Judea.
This is what brought me to read Curtis Freeman’s book Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists. He does a great deal of work to begin to recover the four marks of the church, “one, holy, catholic (as in universal), and apostolic church” which comes from the Apostle’s Creed. Karl Barth has argued that what makes Protestants “apostolic” is the apostolic proclamation which continues to this day from the pulpit. This is of course a marked divergence from the EO and RCC traditions. When I’m sitting and listening to the apostolic proclamation, I do not want to be so arrogant to say that I have nothing to learn, because I surely do. But, I believe there’s something more at work in the kerygma, the preaching, of the Church.
This is what I am proposing. The post on the Verbum Domini was a false start in a way. I rewrote this current piece several times, one of the initial draft was a purely philosophical exploration of why I’m a Protestant and not a Catholic. I scrapped that in favor of an approach that showed a bit more of what my journey has been, realizing that ultimately I need to re-learn what it means to hear the Word of God, in all of its forms: proclamation, Scripture, and especially Jesus Christ. With that in mind, I am going to follow Karl Barth’s threefold meaning of the Word of God, the Verbum Dei, of Preaching, Scripture, and Jesus Christ. In future posts, I will also explore the intersection between these three meanings of the Word of God and Patristic commentary on them, bringing my education as a patristic scholar to bear on my childhood as a Baptist and previous training in modern theology for a holistic approach to the Word of God. My hope is that throughout this exploration, I will come to terms with how to be a better listener to the sermon, and that anyone else who follows me will think through what it means to be confronted with the Word of God. I’m also hoping to demonstrate that the theological legacy of Protestantism needs to recognize its larger indebtedness to the historic Christian faith, without losing its own elements which make it unique.“View
1. “For we do freely profess that our lord the king has no more power over their consciences than over ours, and that is none at all. For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it,” (53). And, “What does it profit the king’s people to have the Word of God to hear, and read it, seeing they are debarred of the Spirit of God to understand it, but according to private (one) interpretation, by the lord bishops as though they had the Spirit and could not err” (43). Thomas Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1611/1612). ed. Richard Groves (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1998).
2. Curtis Freeman, Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists (144-159) details the Baptist defense of Socinian’s and Neo-Arians.