The Preacher as Bridge-Builder: A Misguided Metaphor

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One of the more prominent homiletical metaphors that is operative in the imaginations of preachers of many different stripes and backgrounds is that of the preacher as a bridge-builder between the ancient world of Scripture and our current cultural moment.  Through careful rhetorical engineering, the preacher is able to construct a bridge that is capable of carrying the biblical freight across the chasm of the ages, in the process demonstrating its relevance for today. 

Conservative “expository preaching” seeks to do this through “application,” while liberal preaching attempts to translate biblical truth into the medium of universal human experience.  Ironically, both end up in a similar position, in that once the bridge has been crossed and the preacher and congregation reach the firm ground of application or universal principle, there is no continuing need of the biblical text.  Both approaches, grounded in the preacher as bridge-builder, lack a sufficiently theological account of the task of preaching, the nature of Scripture, and the Church as located within the continuing drama of salvation.  This could perhaps explain why I frequently come under fire from both liberals and conservatives when I attempt to articulate a more robustly theological account of the practice of preaching.1

Annette Brownlee in her book Preaching Jesus Christ Today—one of the texts for the upcoming Homiletics course I will be teaching at Providence Theological Seminary—makes plain the dangers in the bridge-building metaphor and shows how a more robust theological account of preaching liberates the preacher from the unbearable burden of relevance.  Brownlee observes:

“Both expository and “liberal” approaches, different as they are, assume that Scripture can speak to the lives of parishioners and that it is somehow outside of those lives.  In expository preaching the preacher assumes that Scripture needs to be applied.  Liberal approaches carry hope that it can be translated into a contemporary context.  In both approaches there is something to be extracted from the text—a biblical truth or universal experience of the transcendent.  A question to ask about both approaches is, What happens to the text of Scripture once the truth or universal experience has been extracted?  It is left on the far side of the bridge?  In both approaches the burden of making an old text relevant today is placed on the preacher’s shoulders.

This theologically shaped practice of preaching begins with a different starting place, not on the far side of the bridge with the job of transporting goods to the other side.  Scripture is not on the far side nor is it outside the lives of people today.  Scripture speaks directly into parishioners’ lives because in it the living, ascended Christ, the Son of the God of Israel, addresses us as he did Lydia, Job, Barnabas, the Syrophoenician woman, and every generation since.  God’s address forms a single people across all time who, in the Spirit’s hands, are God’s witness to the nations through their common life.  We are as much a part of Scripture—or as Robert Jenson describes it, “inside the story Scripture tells”—as any of them.  “Acts 29” churches, a self-described family of church-planting churches, points to this same idea.  The church across time is a single continuum, whose life itself is an interpretation of Scripture.”2

  1. For some of these attempts that appear in print, see “Unapologetically (A)Political: Stanley Hauerwas and the Practice of Preaching,” Didaskalia, vol. 25, (Fall 2015) 128-157” and “A Tale of Two Stanleys: Why We Need More Pointless Sermons from Hauerwas,” in Stanley Hauerwas with Robert J. Dean, Minding the Web: Making Theological Connections (Eugene: Cascade, 2018), 292-309.
  2. Annette Brownlee, Preaching Jesus Christ Today: Six Questions for Moving from Sermon to Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 113-114.

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