Saturday, March 15, 2008

MISOLOGY IN THE PULPIT: A CHALLENGE TO PREACHERS

[This essay was written some years ago, and published in my book, Christianity That Counts (Baker, 1995).]

Early in my Christian life I sat under the preaching of Dr. Jack MarArthur who was doing a Sunday night series on non-Christian groups. As a university student trying to find a way to stand for my Christian convictions in a liberal and pluralistic environment, I found the apologetic and theological depth of his messages to be both uplifting and intellectually inspiring. I could take this material and actively apply it on campus and elsewhere. But this kind of intellectual substance is often lacking in the evangelical pulpit because the life of the mind has not taken its rightful place.

The apostle Peter urged his readers that "if anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God" (1 Pet. 4:11). These solemn words of God, spoken by a preacher, apply to all of us but especially to those who fill the pulpits in our churches. Preachers have a sacred duty to be God's mouthpiece for God's people, to be truth-tellers for truth-seekers. But many evangelical preachers are speaking less than "the very words of God" because the sanctified intellect has not been fully engaged for divine purposes.

Misology is a term used by Plato to describe the position of those who despair of reason's ability to discern or demonstrate truth. Misologists dislike and avoid logic because they deem it impotent, just as misanthropes dislike and avoid people because they deem them bothersome. To this, Plato warns in The Phaedo that we ought to be "careful of allowing into our souls the notion that there is no health or soundness in any arguments at all." But has misology gotten into the souls of those in the pulpit?

Few preachers would admit to despairing of reason entirely, yet some sermons speaks otherwise. Despite some blessed exceptions, it has been my observation that not enough sermons carefully develop arguments and explanations based on a sustained scrutiny of biblical materials. Instead, a biblical text is reviewed and illustrated with anecdotes and humorous asides--sometimes only faintly related to matters at hand. The congregation may be left with a vague warm feeling but receives little instruction. This doesn't mean that some truth isn't spoken, but that it is seldom presented in a rationally compelling manner or in its divine depth or breath.

I find at least three main reasons for this implicit misology. First, preachers unconsciously adopt the mentality and methodology of entertainment instead of rational exposition. This necessarily constricts content, simplifies presentation, and inhibits the intellect in favor of amusement. Things must be kept lively at all costs lest parishioners "turn the channel" in their minds. It's not coincidental that few sermons exceed thirty minutes, the length of the average television program. Second, preachers may labor under the misconception that rational argument is peripheral to biblical instruction. The Spirit blows where it wills and has no obligation to follow the lead of logic; the Spirit applies truth to hearts in a non-rational manner. Third, many who proclaim God's word fear that richer sermons are just too risky. People are not used to them and won't know what to do with them. It better to hit an easy and common target than risk hitting a more difficult one. I can understand this worry, but a diet of milk alone can be nothing but infantile.

As a hungry parishioner, teacher, and pinch hit preacher, I can sympathize with the preacher's plight. But let me make a few suggestions in order to encourage those who hold the sacred trust to speak "the very words of God" from the pulpit. I hope to also encourage those sermonized to expect and request more substance than is normally conveyed.

First, consider this theological justification for rational preaching. As astute theologians such as Carl Henry and R.C. Sproul have eloquently told us, the Greek word for "the Word" in the first chapter of John, logos, can just as accurately be translated as Logic or Reason. Whereas pagan philosophers considered the logos as an impersonal principle that ordered the cosmos and kept it from being chaos, the apostle John turns the tables on unregenerate philosophy and declares that the reason, meaning, and value of the universe are to be found a personal Creator God. Christ himself was the preincarnate Reason of and for the universe and is now the Incarnate and risen Reason. Just as it would be absurd for a journalist to disparage writing or an orator to disparage speaking, the disparagement of logic (mis-ology) is hardly fitting for one who confesses the Logos as Lord and Savior. Paul corroborates this when he affirms that in Christ "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:2-3).

Therefore, it behoves preachers to be daring and preach rich biblical content in a logical fashion. Instead of adapting sermons to suit the anti-intellectualism of the day, preachers should rebuke the culture by appealing to the intellects of their parishioners. As a seasoned lecturer in things that matter, philosopher Mortimer Adler advises in How to Speak, How to Listen that speakers aim a bit over their audience's head in order to stimulate them to reach up to catch the message. Why bother telling people what they already know so well? He gives good advice to preachers: "Always risk talking over their heads! By the emotional fervor of your speech, by its physical energy and your manifest bodily involvement with materials that are obviously abstract, you should be able to get them to stretch their minds and reach up for insights they did not have before."

Adler claims that the Great Books of the Western World, which he has done so much to propagate, are always over everyone's head all the time because of their perennial profundity. "This is why," he says, "they are endlessly rereadable as instruments from which you can go on leaning more and more on each rereading." How much more is this true of the Holy Scriptures, the greatest book of all, the very words of God? We must "reach up" in order to grow in our knowledge of the truth. If preachers don't provide this intellectual challenge they do a disservice both to the book they love and the congregations they serve.

But sermons that engage the sanctified intellect need not be a stuffy affairs devoid of passion or humor. If preaching is, as Philips Brooks tells us, "truth through personality" then the whole person can honor the depths of divine truth. Jesus, the master preacher, never lacked depth or profundity in his preaching; yet his messages were filled with warmth, a common touch, and even humor, as Elton Trueblood brings out in his classic book The Humor of Christ. A cool head goes quite well with both a warm heart and a ready wit.

Sermons are not academic addresses, and the pulpit is the worst place in the universe to exhibit egotistically one's intellect. Nevertheless, I believe that the people of God--with a little cognitive coaching--are able to understand and apply a deeper level of truth than they are accustomed to hearing. Two examples bear this out, one from the university and one from the church.

I taught a course a few years ago called "Christianity, Modernity, and the New Age." This was an accredited class through the experimental college at a state university that allowed me to articulate a Christian response to the New Age movement in a secular setting. I explained the biblical world-view which involved a theological and philosophical analysis of the Christian view of God, humanity, ethics, salvation, and history. After the last class a student gave me a letter which I'll never forget. She was a Christian who had struggled in her faith after her first pregnancy had miscarried. But through the knowledge she gained in the class about the nature of God and apologetics, she was able to better honor him and trust him as her sovereign and loving Lord. She thanked me for this revelation. I thanked the Lord for this opportunity.

I want to underscore that the lectures on Christianity were not homiletical. I was behind a lectern, not a pulpit, so I could not preach as I would in a church. Nevertheless, the sheer intellectual substance about the nature of God and the reasonableness of Christianity helped change her life. Although I taught little more than basic theology--which she had not heard from the pulpit--her encounter with living truth helped heal her. If theological truth in the academic setting can have this kind of effect, what can it do in the pulpit?

I know of a man who was asked to preach a guest sermon on the New Age movement at large evangelical church not known for the intellectual substance of its sermons. The guest preacher expounded basic Christian doctrines in relation to the heresies of pantheism, relativism, and reincarnation. He also engaged in apologetics in order to discredit these irrational falsehoods. Although he preached about fifteen minutes longer then the church was accustomed to, only a few left early, no one feel asleep, and almost none of the five hundred in attendance appeared to change channels.

I submit that if given the chance this church would have responded similarly on a weekly basis despite the fact that this kind of a message was rare from its pulpit.

In The Soul Winner, Charles Spurgeon, the great nineteenth century English preacher, lamented over preachers who were all fire and no light, and who too soon began to preach about what they hardly understood themselves. He urged preachers to fill their sermons with truth about the fall, the law, human nature, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Everlasting Father, the new birth, obedience to God, and how we learn it. I would add to this list: truth about apologetics and truth about the great social issues of the day such as abortion, homosexuality, race relations, sexual ethics, and our duties to the dispossessed. Christians need intellectual ammunition as well as subjective passion if they are to face a hostile world with biblical integrity. Let's consider in more detail the area of apologetics in preaching.

My observation in numerous churches over the years is that apologetics is usually not welcome in the evangelical pulpit. The gospel is proclaimed, but seldom defended in such a way as to resolve the doubts of the faithful or answer the objections of the sceptic. Sermons traffic in truths largely unrooted in rational reflection; preachers often deem such cerebral fare either unnecessary or impossible. But despite its rarity in the pulpit (and elsewhere), the rational defense of Christianity as objectively true is both necessary and possible.

It is necessary because the very idea of objective, universal, and absolute truth is eroding in pluralistic America. In What Americans Believe, George Barna reports that only 28 percent of his respondents expressed a strong belief in "absolute truth." Religion is then viewed as just another personal and subjective choice among innumerable other choices facing American individualists. Such relativists need to be convinced that Christianity is more than just a "lifestyle" or a "religious preference," if they are to surrender to Christ as "the way, the truth, and the life" (Jn. 14:6).

In our pluralistic setting sermons should set forth the exclusive claims of Christ as rationally superior, not just dogmatically demanding. This means building a reasonable case for the uniqueness and finality of the Incarnation which can withstand critical questions such as: Are the biblical documents reliable? Is Christ significantly different from other religious figures? Can't the pagan be saved? Aren't miracles fables? Isn't God in everyone? As preacher and apologist Francis A. Schaeffer taught us, "honest questions deserve honest answers," not a rejection of the questions. We should remember that although Schaeffer is best remembered as an apologist, his apologetic ministry grew out of his desire to pastor and evangelize those immersed in modern culture. May his example inspire us to do the same. Relevant preaching demands that the skeptical questions of the day be recognized and responded to in the pulpit.

Besides the practical and contemporary necessity, the Scriptures themselves report people of God contending for "the faith entrusted once for all to the saints" (Jude 3). An apologetic for apologetics is that we find apologetics in the Bible itself, often mingled with preaching (see Acts 17:16-31). The preacher Peter gave us this great apologetic charge: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason or the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" (1 Pet. 3:15).

F. F. Bruce's insightful book, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament, bears witness to the various strategies required by the early church to defend the faith amidst the task of proclaiming it. He says: "The men and women who commended the gospel in the first century 'had understood the times': the kingdom of God calls loudly for such men and women today."

It is not only necessary, it is also possible for pastors to preach apologetics in the pulpit. Whatever their level of formal training in apologetics, preachers can benefit from studying the relevant books, both ancient and modern, which intellectually advance Christianity. For instance, Blaise Pascal's Pensees is a neglected masterpiece which repays careful study. Pastors who take up apologetics will deepen their own spirituality by growing in their understanding of Christian truth, how it can lose credibility, and how it can be defended afresh by drawing on both ancient and modern resources.

Considering the demands on pastors, no one should require they become apologetic wizards. But given the severity of the need, the apologist G. K. Chesterton's quip should be heeded: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." Although his quip may not apply to brain surgery, but feeding the starving with something less than gourmet cuisine is no crime. A pastor need not have a Ph.D. in New Testament studies to give a defense of the New Testament as historically reliable. Nor does one need an advanced degree in philosophy to say something intelligent about the perpetually vexing problem of evil or whether the Bible is reliable.

The preaching of apologetics has two direct benefits. First, the doubting believers in the congregation (often the most thoughtful people) will find that doubt can be eased, if not resolved, because there are reasons to believe. Many in our congregations are praying, "Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief." Apologetics helps answer that prayer. Great doubts, honestly encountered and mastered, can lead to even greater faith.

Second, the preaching of apologetics will challenge unbelievers with arguments and evidence. Instead of simply hearing about Christianity or being urged to accept it, they will receive rational arguments to support it. In a culture which holds Christianity in intellectual contempt, a good deal of pre-evangelism (apologetics) is required before evangelism will stick. Imagine the surprise of the unbeliever who stumbles into a church on Easter to hear a compelling defense of the resurrection of Jesus as an objective fact of history! Instead of hearing only "He is risen!" he hears, "This is why you should believe he is risen!" Or think of the possibilities of a Christmas sermon that no only explains the meaning of the season but answers common objections that the virgin birth is nothing but a myth.

We should grant that the Holy Spirit often works in ways beyond our rational comprehension (Isa. 55:8-9) and that we should never count on bare logic to convert or edify a soul, yet this only undermines the idea that logic is sufficient in the pulpit; it does nothing to undermine the necessity of logic in the pulpit because God says "Come let us reason together" (Isa. 1:18). Biblical preaching certainly requires more than arguments and factual presentation; it must exhort if it is to convey the "very words of God" with power, but exhortation without argumentation is hollow, just as argumentation without exhortation is vain...and mere amusement with neither argument nor exhortation is worst of all.

The most effective kind of exhortation is built on truths reasonably presented. The order of exposition should be: 1. This is God's truth. 2. This is why we believe it. 3. This is how to put it into practice. We are more likely to listen to and obey the recommendations of our physician if he has reasonably explained and defended his description of our condition. If we find his diagnosis reasonable we are more likely to follow his prescription. Likewise, the preaching of reasonable conclusions is far more powerful than preaching mere assertions or opinions unsupported by explanation and argumentation, no matter how vociferously they may be urged upon us.

Until more rational conclusions find their way into our sermons, misology will continue its silent siege on truth; we will continue to find more fire than light in our pulpits; and congregations which should be rich in God's revealed truth will remain intellectually impoverished. But through prayer, repentance, and education the Spirit of truth may again fill our pulpits with "the very words of God." The dignity of that platform demands nothing less.

3 comments:

The Scottish Reslers said...

This is an excellent post, one in which myself and a few others here at the University of Aberdeen have been discussing. Your effort here will help in our meditations and reflection as we seek to better serve the church in the future.

On a personal note, I find that your charge finds a home in the work of Knox and others with whom I am studying at the moment. There are simply truths that transcend time, culture, and personalities. The church needs to remember the importance of the "why" and not simply settle for the "what." Please God help us to think!

Soulcraft - East of Eden said...

Richard Baxter, of the well known "The Reformed Pastor", is clapping from on high!

Jim Pemberton said...

Truth well articulated in any context will never fail to stir hearts. That is, truth causes people to examine their presuppositions. I can see where some may be tempted toward misological thought, however. We swim in a created order that is bivalent. God, being eternal, is univalent or absolute. The foundation of temporal bivalence upon eternal univalence creates apparent breaches of logic we may categorize as theological tension. Some fall on one side of the issue or the other and devolve into unfruitful theological debate. That’s not to say that all theological debate is unfruitful, but some think so. These often merely muddy the water with doctrinal agnosticism or outright heresy. Rather, we might consider theological tension a divining rod to know where to dig for water. The truth is often found under a paradox.