“Yet the preacher of the gospel of grace cannot be a mere minstrel, grinning good cheer in an age of despair. The preacher’s struggle against the darkness of this present world must be furnished with a full kit: the Bible, the sword of the Spirit, understandable now as it was not understood prior to modernity;1 the history of God’s peaceable Israel old and ongoing (called in Scripture the preparation of the gospel of peace); and supremely (though like the Trinity never so named in Scripture) the primary theology that gives our sermon its center, its raison d’être, its point. Lecturing on preaching to divinity students a century ago, Peter Taylor Forsyth saw this central need. He compared the preacher to the captain of a seagoing vessel. Though it is all very well for this captain to awe his passengers with his confidence and regale his crew with his wit, all this is useless if those aboard do not know where they are. For that, the captain and his officers must have navigation skills; must know how to ‘take the sun’ with a sextant. So it is for the gospel preacher, who must find the ship’s position daily and must determine the course to harbor—that is, must find where the congregation now floats in the moral cosmos and based on that position must set a gospel course for their journey. For this work, the preacher needs not a sextant but theology, ‘primary theology,’ not theology ‘chiefly curious, or speculative, a secondary theology’ such as dilettante schools may provide, but ‘a theology of experienced Grace” to give reality to preacher and sermon alike.’ – James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Ethics, rev. ed., vol. 1 of Systematic Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), 112-113. The internal quotation is from Peter Taylor Forsyth, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind (London: Independent Preass, 1907), 101.
- While not denying the gains of modern biblical scholarship, I would be inclined to see the legacy of the historical critical method of interpreting the Bible in more ambiguous terms than McClendon seems to at this point. ↩
2 thoughts on “The Pulpit is a Prow”
Interestingly sailors navigate with both a fixed point (North Star) and the fabric of all the stars in the sky… there is value to be found in the singular objective truth and the ambiguities around it. The danger lays now in a roving, unfixed ambiguity based not in truth but in half-truth and lies. Where does the modern church give ear to authentic criticism of poorly prepared and poorly preached sermons?
That’s a good question. In my more pessimistic moments I fear that most congregations are unable to distinguish between poor and excellent preaching, or perhaps better phrased, between preaching that is truly theological (in the best sense) and preaching that is merely therapeutic or managerial. Do you have an answer to your own question? Or do others?