Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Preaching as the Word of God by Sam Chan

Preaching as the Word of God:
Answering an Old Question with Speech-Act Theory,
Sam Chan, Pickwick Publications, 2016, 279pp

The Second Helvetic Confession expresses the high view of preaching that obtained among the Reformed churches when it says, 'The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God'. (Chapter 1). That is some claim to make. Can it be truly said that a mere human preacher can give voice to the very Word of God? The Reformers not only answered that question in the affirmative, they made the faithful preaching of the Word of God one of the identifying marks of a true church. 

Sam Chan sets out to examine whether the claims of the Reformers can be biblically justified. He brings the insights of speech-act theory to bear on the question in hand. First of all Chan investigates what Martin Luther and John Calvin had to say on preaching as the Word of God, and the preaching of the Word of God as a mark of the church. Copious reference is made to the writings of the two leading Reformers. They were in essential agreement on both points, while nuanced differences are teased out. Chan's discussion of the Reformers' views is illuminating. However, Luther and Calvin were lucid enough communicators for the writer to have foregone his summaries of what they had said after almost every quote. 

Attention is then given to the biblical materials. In the Old Testament God spoke to his people through prophets like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-22). The Old Testament also looked forward to the coming of One who would proclaim the Word of the Lord in the power of the Spirit (Isaiah 61:1-4). Jesus is revealed as the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 18 and Isaiah 61. He was anointed by the Spirit to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 4:16-19). Jesus then commissioned the Twelve apostles to bear witness to his works and words (Acts 1:8).  The church founded upon the apostolic testimony to Jesus was to preach the Word for the salvation of the lost and the building up of God's people (Acts 8:4, 2 Timothy 4:1-5). Chan's scriptural survey gives credence to the Reformer's claim that God indeed speaks through human beings. The preaching of the Word of God can therefore rightly be regarded as the Word of God through men and to men. 

But what exactly is meant by 'the Word of God', and how can we be sure that God is truly speaking through a preacher? The whole Bible may be regarded as the written and authoritative Word of God. But in a more limited sense, to preach the Word is to proclaim the gospel of salvation. That is certainly what we find in Acts and also in the teaching of the Reformers. To preach the Word is to announce the good news of Jesus as disclosed in the pages of Scripture. A message that fails at that point cannot be regarded as the Word of God. 

Chan draws upon speech-act theory as a tool that helps the church to discern the voice of God in the words of a preacher. Speech-act theorists divide language up into three key elements. Locutions, words or sentences. Illocutions, what a speaker is doing with his or her words. Perlocutions, the effect that words have on hearers. The main thing is that words are never 'just words'. To speak is to act. Applied to the Bible and preaching, in Scripture we have God's written words. But God is doing things with these words, such as making promises, laying down commands, or issuing warnings. The illocutionary intentions of God's words have their appropriate perlocutionary effects as promises are believed, commands obeyed and warnings heeded. Speech-act theory helps safeguard both the propositional and personal aspects of biblical revelation. We have the propositional locutions such as 'Jesus is Lord', and also the personal address, 'believe that Jesus is Lord and follow him'. 

Preaching is an act of divine self-communication through a human agent. For preaching to be counted as the Word of God the preacher's locutions must match those of the gospel given in Scripture. Like the Bereans of Acts 17 the church must "examine the Scriptures, to see if these things were so." (Acts 17:11). More than that, those who proclaim the Word of God must also press the practical illocutionary demands of the gospel; repentance, faith and obedience. The preacher, however, cannot secure the perlocutionary effects of gospel proclamation. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. 

While Chan's main focus is on the gospel as the Word of God, the same essential principle applies whatever portion of Scripture is being expounded and applied. That said, no biblical text is explained faithfully unless it it set in the context of the drama of redemption that unfolds in the canon of Scripture as a whole. The preacher, for example, may be expositing the food laws in Leviticus 11, but he will not have preached the food laws unless he relates that chapter to Jesus' teaching in Mark 7:18-19 and Peter's experience as recounted in Acts 10 & 11. Then the preacher must press home the key idea of sinners being made clean and included among the people of God by the gospel. 

Chan's  conception of the gospel seems to be rather narrow in scope. I am not sure it is right to say that Paul's teaching on Christ's coming and the resurrection of the dead in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 are 'not directly related to the gospel'. That is exactly the good news he proclaimed, 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. 

None the less, I fully agree with the author's basic thesis. The Reformers were right. Scripture itself teaches that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God, and is to be received as such by the faithful. Speech-act theory helps clarify how that is the case.  God as a divine speech-agent communicates his saving word through commissioned human beings to human beings. 

But no book on preaching, not even one on the theology of preaching can be regarded as up to the mark if it does not fire us up to preach the Word. In his own terms, Chan may have faithfully re-locuted what Scripture says about preaching as the Word of God, but the illocutionary force of the Bible's command to 'preach the Word' with urgency and boldness is somewhat lacking. The work can be dryly technical. Take Chan's conclusion, for example,
to preach the gospel as the word of God is to re-locute and re-illocute the divine speech act, the gospel, which itself was once locuted and illocuted by the prophets, Jesus and the apostles, and which now continues to be locuted and illocuted in the canonical Scriptures. (p. 212). 
I know what the author means, but that is not a definition of preaching that will inspire busy pastors to preach their hearts out next Lord's Day. If that was not Chan's intention in writing on preaching, perhaps it should have been. Since preaching is 'theology on fire', we also need a theology that will put fire into our preaching.The practical implications of the view Chan is advocating ought to have been spelled out more fully. The need for the empowering presence of the Spirit upon preacher and hearers alike is mentioned, but not given sufficient weight. Lack of space means writers cannot say everything that they would like, but there is a considerable amount of repetition in chapters 9-10. Choices have to be made on what to leave out and what to include. Less focus on linguistic technicalities and additional practical application would have made this a more useful book for preachers. A theology of preaching should generate heat as well as light. 

By all means read Chan. His treatment will help crystallise your thinking on what it means to preach the Word. His discussion of the Reformers' position and handling of the biblical materials are most helpful. Speech act theory reminds us that the preacher is swept up in the communicative action of the triune God. But you will need to supplement this somewhat theoretical work on preaching with something more soul stirring, like Preaching and Preachers by D. M. Lloyd-Jones, or practical, such as Preaching Pure and Simple by Stuart Olyott.

* I am grateful to the author for being kind enough to send me a free review copy. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Some more pastor/governors?

Now, I'm not one of those types who thinks that because they are doing something, so should everyone else. You know, the pastor who has joined the local squash club to get themselves out of the ministerial bubble. They've only been at it a month and a bit, yet that's the thing. All self-respecting pastors should be out there slamming squash balls into walls. 

No, if everyone was doing exactly what I'm doing, I'd lose my USP. Anyone who's watched Dragons Den knows that's a big no, no. Besides, the knowledge that there might be loads of other people out there, all doing my stuff, might make me have existential crisis, or something. Can't be doing with that at my age. 

None the less, in this post I'm going to suggest that if you're a pastor, or have some kind of leadership responsibility in the church, then being a school governor might be something to consider. Not that all pastors should be govs. Some might be rubbish at it. It is the case, however, that ministers often have skills that are transferable to school governance. 

For one, you're a leader,  right? And not in the sense of a boss telling employees what to do, or they can collect their P45 on the way out. You're a leader of a group of volunteers. No one forced your people into church membership, or to take on a role/responsibility in the church. Same with school governors, apart from the Headteacher, for whom it's part of the job. You can't just order volunteers around. You have to take them with you. Ever managed to get a difficult decision past a church members' meeting without creating a split? The same skills will come in handy as a governor. Definitely, if you become chair. 

Plus, you're used to delegating responsibility for certain tasks to others and seeing their skills develop. I mean, if as well as pastor, you're church secretary, treasurer, main musical accompanist, welcomer, leader of the toddler group, etc, etc, you're probably doing it wrong. The concentration of too many roles in the hands of too few people means the overworked few eventually burn out and the undeveloped many eventually drop out. Again, same applies to governing boards. You get that. 

Another thing pastors should be good at is vision & strategy.  You'll have your vision for your church and its mission to the community that is both biblical and  contextual. And unless there's something badly wrong with you, you're a theology geek, yes? Systematic Theology, Biblical Theology, Historical Theology. How everything fits together as a coherent whole. That should help with strategic planning and monitoring progress towards the realisation of the board's vision for the school. A wide range of factors will make for a good education and they're all interrelated. School leadership, teaching and learning, curriculum, pupil attendance and behaviour, school context, and so on. The Department for Education publish richly detailed breakdowns of school data that enable governors to spot strengths and weaknesses in their school's outcomes. Long hours spent reading Berkhof and Bavinck means you should be able to join the dots. 

John Calvin said that pastors should have two voices. One for gathering the sheep, and another for driving away wolves. Governors similarly have a dual role. Their task is to support and challenge their school to make sure it is making rapid and sustained progress. Governors should also be willing to support and challenge one another. It is essential that the board remains focused on its side of the strategic/operational dividing line and doesn't try and meddle in the everyday running of the school. Sometimes it may be necessary to have 'courageous conversations' to bring wayward governors back into line. Wolfish govs who would enrich themselves at the expense of the school, or who are hugely disruptive,  must be warned off. 

Governance requires moral courage. Some schools 'off-roll' underachieving students so they don't have a negative impact on results. Others have narrowed their curriculum to devote more time to subjects that attract additional points in the School Performance Tables. Arts subjects have suffered as a result. It is for governing boards to ensure their schools do all they can for vulnerable pupils and that they offer a broad and enriching curriculum. Boards must be prepared to stick by their guns and not chase an improved standing in Performance Tables as the main indicator of success. The question must always be, 'What's the right thing for our students?' Pressures to compromise will come from various points, but as Martin Luther charged us, "Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”

Pastors should be aware that becoming a governor does not mean they should try and impose their faith upon a school, especially if it has no religious affiliation. There may be opportunities to be 'salt and light'. But I'm not arguing for a Christian equivalent of the Islamic infiltration of governing boards exposed under the 'Trojan Horse' scandal (see here).  

If your children are of school age, why not consider becoming a parent governor? If a local school governing board is looking to co-opt members of the community with skills you possess, why not at least go along to find out more? If the part of the world where you minister is disadvantaged, people from a 'professional' background may be at a premium, so you may be well placed to make a real difference.  

Not for everyone, I know, but perhaps think about it. 

The Inspiring Governance  portal helps to match skilled volunteers with schools. 

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Banner of Truth Ministers' Conference 2018 Report

When I was a younger man with a much sharper memory I used to make extensive notes of the Banner conference addresses. Partly with a view to posting blog reports. Now I'm older and can't retain so much I don't take any notes at all. I prefer to regard the messages as ministry that preaches to my soul, rather than lectures for which I should make notes.

Which is a bit of a problem when it comes to writing up a report. If you want outlines and stand-out sayings, Gary Brady has done a good job of live-blogging on Heavenly Worldliness. Beyond even Gary's efforts, Banner have kindly posted videos of the addresses online. So, what I'll try and do here is jot down what I found especially helpful, challenging and encouraging about this year's event. Based on my dodgy memory.

The overarching theme was 'Ministers of Christ'. What came home to me was...

The privilege of Ministry 

We are called to preach the word of God so that sinners are saved and believers built up. We have a wonderful message to proclaim, good news of what God has done to rescue and renew human beings by his Son and through his Spirit. What a calling; to 'preach the word'. Iain Murray issued a plea for evangelistic preaching, from Luke 5:1-11. Are we 'fishers of men', or simply preachers to the converted? Steven Lawson directed us to various aspects of the preaching-pastoral ministry in his three addresses. What he had to say was challenging and punchy. Some found him a bit too direct and confrontational. But with privilege comes responsibility and preachers will be held to account by the Lord Jesus for the way in which we have served him. I for one needed to hear Paul's words in 1 Timothy 4:12-16, 2 Timothy 2:15-16 & 2 Timothy 4:1-5 powerfully explained and applied. Yes, troubled pastors need to be soothed, but we also need to be stirred up to fulfill our ministries with faithfulness and zeal.

The pains of Ministry

Warren Peel set before us the example of Epaphras as described in Colossians 1:7-8 & 4:13, emphasising, as did Lawson the need for painstaking toil in ministry as we labour in giving pastoral care and the preaching of the word. Some are given to toil away in very difficult circumstances, which may give rise to despondency. Bill Hughes helped us to deal with discouragement in his helpful messages on Numbers 21 and Exodus 6. How God dealt with Moses is an object lesson for us on resilience in ministry when the going is tough. 

The joy and fear of Ministry 

Mike Reeves spoke on 'Spurgeon and the Christian Life' and 'Bunyan: The Minister's Fear of God'. In the first address Reeves drew a helpful connection between Spurgeon's joyful personality and his theology. He wasn't just a jolly old fellow, but a man who knew deep, soul-restoring joy in the Lord. Joy makes Ministers approachable to their people. Spurgeon wanted men whose 'door mat' said 'Welcome', not 'Beware of the Dog'. Bunyan's insightful handling of the fear of God helped us see the close connection between reverence for God and enjoyment of his goodness, Nehemiah 1:11, Isaiah 11:3, Jeremiah 32:39-40. 

Prayer in Ministry 

In his opening sermon Geoff Thomas spoke on the how the Lord opened Lydia's heart in Acts 16:14. The fact that only the Lord can do this, and that he does so though his word compels us to God-dependent prayer. In his closing address Warren Peel once more drew our attention to Epaphras in this regard, Colossians 4:12. Ministry is a 'task unfinished that drives us to our knees'. 

As ever, it was good to catch up with old friends and also to meet new people. On Wednesday evening we had our regular 'Taffia' meeting of men with Welsh connections. Geoff Thomas interviewed Steve Lawson on his life story and ministry experiences, which was fascinating and a real encouragement. 

I only bought one book, but it was a biggie, Sinclair Ferguson's Some Pastors and Teachers, which I very much look forward to reading, having benefited from Ferguson's ministry at past Banner Ministers' Conferences. 

I left the conference feeling reinvigorated refocused and refreshed. View the messages online. Whether or not you are in pastoral ministry, they will do you good. 

Next year's conference is planned for 8-11 April. Speakers: Ed Donnelly, Stephen Curry, Derek Thomas, Lindsay Brown & John Benton.