The Preacher’s Authority: An Artificial Construct?

27 Sep

Introduction

Historically, the preacher commanded immense authority. Not only did he possess the highest levels of education (certainly as compared to the average churchgoer), the very office of the clergy was afforded great respect in society at large. As an institution, the church was viewed as a major force for good within the wider culture; church leaders felt it was their duty to improve the moral condition of the nation overall.

Both in European and early American history, there was a constitutional connection between the church and the state that further reinforced its authority—and the authority of the local preacher. But is this the case today? Does the preacher, and as a corollary, the Bible, possess the same authority today?

In this post, I will examine the following questions: where does the preacher’s authority lie? Is it to be found, as time-honoured traditions hold, within the text of the authoritative, inerrant and inspired Scripture? Or should we deconstruct those traditional views, and be open to new forms of dialogical preaching today?

The Bible: An Authoritative Text of an Authoritative God?

Both the Old and New Testaments make it clear that not only is ultimate authority located within the person of God himself, but that moreover, in Scripture God derivatively grants his authority to those tasked with proclaiming his word. For example, prophets in the Hebrew Bible served as authoritative conduits for the very words of God, which he “placed in their mouths” (Deut. 18.18; Jer. 1.7). Their authority stemmed from the fact that God commanded prophets to deliver his words to their audiences exactly as it was conveyed to them by God (Deut. 18.19; Jer. 1.9; Ezek. 3.10-11). Ideally, as a communication model, no potential distortion of the oracles of God would occur, since the prophet functioned essentially as a human mouthpiece. The prophets, in other words, conveyed the very words of God to their listening audiences with virtually zero distortion of the original message intended by God.

Along with bearing God’s stamp of authority, this communication dynamic provided an additional function: it gave the prophets credibility with their listeners. The prophets were not the originators of the divine word, but rather served as messengers conveying the words—and ultimately the authority—of Yahweh himself. The Old Testament book of Ezekiel gives many examples of this dynamic. Typically, the oracles that the prophet Ezekiel received from Yahweh (to deliver to his fellow-exiles in Babylon) contain an opening “recognition formula.”

When God spoke to Ezekiel, he always addressed him as the “son of man” (Ez. 6.1-2; 7.1-2; 15.1-2 etc.). Beyond establishing Ezekiel’s credibility as a prophet, this formula additionally serves as one of the most important aspects of not just sermons, but of any persuasive speech. For example, Aristotle, in his work on rhetoric, maintained that “persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible… his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.”[1]

Yehoshua Gitay observes that this prophetic messenger formula accomplishes exactly the rhetorical function that Aristotle pointed out. He remarks that “The pragmatic attempt to persuade an audience requires them to trust the speaker’s authority and integrity…The style of the speech is designed to reflect an intimate notion of God who spoke directly to his prophet.”[2] Wilson points out that the entire discourse characterizes Ezekiel as one who consistently and faithfully “speaks only the divine word that is put into his mouth (cf. 3.27) and does not elaborate the message in any way.”[3]

Ezekiel, therefore, served as a channel or conduit delivering Yahweh’s words directly to his fellow-exiles. On this point, Wilson further observes that

“Unlike the illegitimate prophets of whom Jeremiah speaks (Jer. 23.30), there can be no charge that Ezekiel has “stolen” oracles from other prophets or delivered genuine oracles that he has reinterpreted. Rather, the prophet is simply the conduit through which the unaltered divine word comes, and it is impossible to accuse him of speaking falsely. Whoever hears Ezekiel hears God’s word directly.”[4]

Prophetic Preaching?

The major questions this post will now explore are the following: does this same dynamic function currently in terms of the preacher’s own authority? Can preachers today ascend the pulpit, confident that God has derivatively granted them his authority to proclaim a message from Scripture? Some homileticians consider that in fact, preachers today not only can, but also should have, the same levels of confidence for the preaching event that the prophets of old did.

For example, Ulmer believes that in the preaching event the same dynamic is at work as that between God and the biblical prophets. Just as he did with the prophets, argues Ulmer, so today God puts preachers in place in order to be glorified both in and through them. In the same way as such Old and New Testament figures as Abraham, Jeremiah, Elijah, Paul and Barnabas did, claims Ulmer, “So you stand as one with the Word of God in your mouth for the people of God…God says he has placed his word in your mouth.”[5]

Homiletician P.T. Forsyth moreover declared that the pulpit not only has an instric authority, it also speaks with authority. The authority of the preacher is indeed personal, but that authority does not reside within the person of the preacher or his office. Rather, the personal authority of the preacher derives from “an external authority, but it is the authority of an inward objective, living, saving God…”[6]

One must wonder, however, if preachers today can simply count on such confident assurances of derived authority coming directly from God. As noted above, the biblical record demonstrates that the ultimate authority of prophetic messages found its basis in an unbroken line beginning with God’s words to the prophet, that were in turn followed by the prophet’s proclamation of that message to a listening audience. The same dynamic apparently functioned in the preaching of Jesus, at whose words his listeners marvelled because he spoke “as one who had authority” (Matt. 7.29).

Moreover, in distinction to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus claimed to deliver God’s very words as “taught by the Father” (Jn. 8.28, 38). Bond notes that Jesus’ “authority differed from the scribes and Pharisees in its source, methods, and worth. In contrast to their authority of book opinions, ancient traditions, and external ceremonials he presented an authority of personality, originality, and spirituality.”[7]

A Written Text: Changing the Dynamic

One significant communicative development, however, fundamentally altered the previous communication dynamic, and severed the unbroken line of communication between God and the prophets and apostles: the production of a written text of Scripture. Once the texts were committed to writing, the need subsequently arose for levels of interpretation and explanation of that biblical text.

Indeed, even Scripture itself bears witness to this dynamic. For example, in the Old Testament, Huldah the prophetess interpreted to King Josiah the significance of the Torah that had been discovered in the Temple (2 Kin. 22.14-20). Ezra and other Levites read and explained the Torah to the Israelites returning after the exile (Neh. 8.1-8); and Peter charged that some untaught and unstable teachers distorted not only Paul’s writings but “the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3.15-16).

Ever since the formation of churches in the first century that made use of biblical texts for preaching, two major changes were introduced into the previous communication dynamic. First, as opposed to delivering a message directly from God himself, preaching became more about explaining and applying authoritative Scriptures to the lives of the hearers using accepted principles of classical rhetoric. Early Christian preachers, for example, made use of “the ‘homily’ or talk, and the basis of it was a careful interpretation of the Bible.”[8]

Second, along with the authority of the written Word, the appointment of presbyters as preachers became important as this helped to secure their authority as preachers. This demonstrates that in the history of preaching and the formation of the church as an institution the relationship between church leadership, homiletics and hermeneutics has historically been a close and vital one.[9]

The change in the communicative dynamic from the prophetic age, with human prophets speaking the very words of Yahweh to their listeners, to a written biblical canon, is a highly significant development. When understood in its barest essence, regardless of the form it takes, notes Vaughan, “Preaching is biblical interpretation.”[10] Preaching has historically involved a preacher first selecting a text (or texts) from Scripture, second seeking to determine its meaning via some form of exegesis, and finally publicly explaining and possibly applying the implications of the derived meaning to a listening audience. As with Ulmer’s point made earlier, for some homileticians, this interpretative element is still not problematic in terms of the preacher’s authority. For example, Vaughan believes that this process upholds the very authority of Scripture since the preacher makes the text the primary focus. He maintains that “preaching is biblical interpretation because Scripture is dynamically authoritative.”[11]

Conclusion

Despite such assurances, however, surely today it is naïve for the preacher to believe that his or her authority can still be extended in an unbroken line: from God, through the Bible and ultimately to the sermon itself. Is it in fact correct, as Koessler believes, that the preacher’s authority stems from the fact that he or she quite literally “is presenting what God has said”?[12] John MacArthur goes even further, maintaining that a high view of biblical inspiration and inerrancy actually demands an expository style of “preaching in such a way that the meaning of the Bible passage is presented entirely and exactly as it was intended by God.”[13] In MacArthur’s view, the preacher’s authority stems from the reality that he or she has communicated accurately the very mind of God to the listening audience.

Such emphatic (and dogmatic) assertions, however, fail to take one vital point into consideration: human subjectivity, biases and presuppositions involved in the interpretative process. As pointed out above, there is a layer inserted in the above dynamic involving firstly the exegesis performed by the preacher, as he or she wrestles with the potential meaning of a biblical text. That derived interpretation of the text is secondly crafted into some form of sermon that is thirdly conveyed in some fashion to an audience, together with supplied explanations, illustrations or applications.

This observation demonstrates that there is clearly a layer of subjectivity involved in the entire process, thereby potentially altering the flow of authority from the biblical text to the final sermon. In reality, there can be a very wide variety of theological, hermeneutical, pastoral and personal commitments that may affect a person’s reading, interpretation, preaching and applications of Scripture.

This point is particularly relevant concerning the exploration of the question related to authority, and its connection between the Scriptures and preaching. Within the current postmodern Western culture, authorities on every level have been called into question within the last four decades—be they political, educational or religious. No longer can the preacher count on the inherent authority once granted by society either to the Scriptures or the sermon on the basis of the office of the clergy, the authority of the local church or its denominational affiliation.

Facing such an anti-authoritarian, cynical and sceptical mood in postmodern society with its “hermeneutic of suspicion,” what are preachers to do? Blindly continue in the trajectory of the old traditions and proclaim their interpretation of Scripture as boldly as generations of preachers did before? Or should they abandon all pretence of authority, and dispense with the sermon as an “outmoded relic of the past” having little or no relevance today?

Perhaps the way forward is for preachers, first of all, to reconsider their own status as “expert clergy” who are expected to provide all of the answers to people’s questions from the Bible. Second, preachers could also conceive of preaching less as “an authoritative word from God” delivered to an audience. Perhaps it should be thought of rather as sharing their own interactions, struggles and interpretative issues with the texts of Scripture—and inviting discussion, dialogue and openness to new ideas. The truth may well be out in front of us, but we can embark on the journey of discovery only in the context of a safe, supportive, and non-judgmental community.

Footnotes

[1] Aristotle. Rhetoric, Book 1 Part 1. W. Rhys Roberts, trans. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/rhetoric.1.i.html (Accessed 20 February 2006).

[2] Gitay, Yehoshua. “The Realm of Prophetic Rhetoric.” In Rhetoric, Scripture and Theology: Essays from the 1994 Pretoria Conference. Stanley E. Porter and Thomas H. Olbricht, eds. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (1996): 226-227.

[3] Robert R. Wilson, “Prophecy in Crisis: The Call of Ezekiel.” In Interpreting the Prophets. Mays, James Luther and Paul J. Achtemeier, eds. Philadelphia: Fortress Press (1987): 165 (parenthesis his).

[4] Ibid., 165.

[5] Ulmer, Kenneth. “His Word in Your Mouth.” In Prophetic Preaching, Larson, Craig Brian, ed. Hendriksen: Peabody, MA (2012): 143.

[6] Forsyth, Positive Preaching and Modern Mind, in Lischer, Theories of Preaching, 77.

[7] Bond, A.R. The Master Preacher: A Study in the Homiletics of Jesus. Chapter 17, II, 1, “The Authority of His Preaching.” New York: The American Tract Society (1910).

[8] Dargan, Edward Charles. The Art of Preaching in the Light of its History. Doran: New York (1922): 45.

[9] Dargan, The Art of Preaching, 45.

[10] Vaughan, Douglas. “Just what do You Think You’re Doing?” Journal for Preachers Volume 23 Number 4 (Pentecost 2000): 55.

[11]Ibid., 55.

[12] Koessler, John. “The Unchanging Grounds of our Authority.” In Prophetic Preaching, 95.

[13] MacArthur, John F. Jr. “The Mandate of Biblical Inerrancy: Expository Preaching.” Master’s Seminary Journal Volume 1 Number 1 (Spring 1990): 4 (italics his).

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