The Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God: Christian Preaching as Redemptive Encounter

Ministry, Preaching, The Church, Theology, Worship

SP11

Although the Historical witness to the concept of Christian preaching as redemptive encounter[1] is extensive within the Reformed tradition (it is especially rich in the Puritans), the witness of the Second Helvetic Confession (henceforth 2HC) to the historic Reformed doctrine of preaching will be considered as representative. As a confessional document it carries greater weight than other sources, and it includes the critical phrase oft quoted in discussions such as these.[2] The famous passage reads:

THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.[3]

The first aspect of this statement which is striking is its location within the confession itself. It is located in Chapter I: Of The Holy Scripture Being The True Word of God. To place a discussion of the nature of preaching within the chapter on the Word itself is an immediately arresting choice. The first paragraph of this chapter defines the

canonical Scriptures” to be “the true Word of God, and to have sufficient authority of themselves, not of men. For God himself spoke to the fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scripture.

The third heading of the chapter states it emphatically- SCRIPTURE IS THE WORD OF GOD. It is the very next heading of the confession which states the famous phrase- THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD. Thus the 2nd HC and so too Reformed confessional orthodoxy holds that Christian preaching today is in a real sense God Himself speaking.

It must be noted that these are carefully worded confessional statements. The 2nd HC does not say that preaching is the Word of God. That would be to assign to the modern preacher the sort of prophetic “mouthpiece” function given to men such as Isaiah and Jeremiah.[4] Christian Preaching is not a revelatory event wherein God inspires fresh divine words and the preacher himself is not Biblically authoritative. Rather, the 2nd HC states that the preaching OF THE WORD OF GOD is the Word of God. This is a telling construction. Scripture is the Word of God in itself;[5] preaching is the Word of God insofar as it is faithful to that written Word and attended by the Eternal Word of John 1.

Yet the impact of this bold statement should not be missed. When the Word of God is faithfully preached God Himself transcends the medium of a man preaching. The 2nd HC states this concept explicitly in chapter thirteen under the fifth heading, where Bullinger writes

“That same preaching of the Gospel is also called “the spirit” and “the ministry of the spirit” because by faith it becomes effectual and living in the ears, nay more, in the hearts of believers through the illumination of the Holy Spirit (II Cor. 3:6).”[6]

As it concerns our thesis of Christian preaching as redemptive encounter, the 2nd HC is clear: The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Yet historical precedent can only go so far. It should always give direction and counsel, but it can never bind a conscience. The thesis of this series must be demonstrated from the pages of God’s Word. It is to that task we will turn in the next post.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

[1] It should be noted that there is some overlap in the terminology utilized in this series and the terminology of Neo-Orthodox theology’s doctrine of revelation via encounter. Although the I will completely differentiate the burden of this series from such errors, let it be explicitly stated that I reject Neo-Orthodoxy and holds to the conservative, evangelical, and Reformed doctrines of inspiration and Scripture. While it is hoped that this overlap is not confusing, I am not prepared to cede a good word like encounter to a bad theological system.

[2] This document is the work of Heinrich Bullinger, theological successor to Ulrich Zwingli among the Swiss, and greatly influential among the 16th century churches of the then still nascent Reformation far beyond his own national boundaries. Published in 1566, this confession of faith has it’s own fascinating history within the annals of the Christendom, but for the purposes this paper its witness to the nature of preaching will be the sole topic of interest. See Phillip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom Volume 1: The History of Creeds, pp.390-5. Further quotations from key Reformers such as Calvin and Luther, as well as the Puritans could be quickly multiplied as well.

[3] All quotations from the 2nd Helvetic Confession used in this series are taken from the version available at http://www.ccel.org/creeds/helvetic.htm, with some assistance from Reformed Confessions Harmonized, ed. Beeke and Ferguson.

[4] The prophetic function is classically expressed in Deuteronomy 18:15-22.

[5] Nuance must of course be allowed for issues of textual transmission, translation, and interpretation.

[6] Chapter XIII of the 2nd Helvetic Confession also brings helpful balance to Chapter I’s assertions that the preached Word remains “true and good” even if the preacher “be evil and a sinner.” That is of course true in an objective sense, but Bullinger also put into his confession that the gospel “…today, if sincerely preached, does not lose its illustrious title” (emphasis mine). It would be arrogant to assume that Bullinger contradicted himself, so it is better to assume that he purposefully affirmed both aspects of the preacher’s relation to his message. The Word does not objectively depend on the man for credibility, but the man must preach with sincerity lest he be a vessel unfit, even a workman who needs to be ashamed (2 Tim. 2:15, 21).

 

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