Engaging “Preaching” (Fred Craddock) Part II (Theology of Preaching)

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This week did not turn out like I expected. Sandy blew in and I experienced a power outage. It was not easy. So, I may not get to all the posts I wanted; however, this is one that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’ll edit the language when I turn everything in to the instructor. Oh, and yes I know. Symbol and all that, but think about it. 

The megachurch pastor no longer really preaches theology. Maybe this is not fair. But we have far too many Joel Osteens than we do ]]s. The local pastor does from time to time preach theology, although I have to wonder what theology is actually being preached. In the United Methodist Church, I’ve personally encountered a few different theologies. Surprising, even some that is anti-Wesleyan and more along the lines of the neo-Calvinism of Mark Driscoll and John Piper. Of course, there are more moderate Wesleyan theologians such as N. Clayton Croy. ]] has even pronounced the death of Wesleyan theology while others like Bishop ]] (ret.) has taken a more Barthian shine to Wesley. Craddock, I think, would fit will with a Barth-Wesleyan theological tribe. So, what are we to do about preaching theology in a Methodist church?

From a historical theology angle, the United Methodist Church is more Methodist than it is Wesleyan; it is more American Protestant than it is Wesleyan. I would suspect that John and Charles Wesley would not so easily associate themselves with the United Methodist Church as many would like, neither the conservatives nor the liberals. Wesley would lament the loss of the substitutionary atonement focus by the liberals and the loss of charity by the conservatives. Yet, how many founders of sects, denominations, or churches, two hundred or more years removed would easily associate with their spiritual descendants? This is not meant to be an attack on United Methodism, since it is doubtful Calvin would care much for the Presbyterians either; instead, it is meant to suggest that we can reform Methodist doctrine and stop pretending to be completely Wesleyan. In other words, the theology we preach need not be measured for a Wesleyan exactness. It can be our own. However, we must return to the theological framework for preaching Wesley provided us. Indeed, Wesley gave us a theological focus in every aspect of the Christian life.

If we are looking for the theological allowance for the sermon, we need look no further than the speeches given in the Gospels and Acts as well as thee Epistle to the Hebrews. This latter book is a book of homilies from an early Christian writer with the intent to persuade. It uses rhetoric to display the interpretative power of the author/speaker. Narrative passages from the Septuagint are given and then explained through the theological Christ. Craddock calls this the action of “traditioning (47).” This is a fine word indeed. We think of sermons, or preaching, as following a tradition, but it is also an act whereby the preacher establishes a tradition, hence theology. The preacher unites the past and the present with a hope for the future, creating the theological boundary of the congregation. Craddock goes on to examine the theology of preaching, making several statements along the way.

His first claim is “theology and preaching exist in a relationship of mutuality.” This is, he assures us, about using the theological tools of self-criticism. The preacher can lead the congregation to do so, but they need to have some sort of measuring rod to be self-critical. If society ever reaches the point where arrogance has so permeated the individual wherein we aren’t allow self-criticism because we are the pentacle of achievement, we will cease to be God’s creation. The Church must remain self-critical, and thus, it must obsesses over the past; it must examine where it is now in relation to where it started. There is not need to always return to a more traditional position — often times, the opposite is true — but it must know why it stands where it does now. Without a theological voice, which is the prophetic voice, the Church becomes unhinged, unanchored in history, and will drift away until it believes itself the pentacle of achievement.

Craddock’s second claim is that “theology prompts preaching to teart subjects of importance and avoid trivia.” Their are dramatic events going on around us. If your preacher is more concerned with giving you magical incantations to always smile and be in good fortune, your preacher is a letting your down. Hurricane Sandy has come and gone over the last week of October. During the first week of November, we are facing a presidential election in the United States. These are major theological issues that should be dealt with long before the ebb and flow of everyday life. I’m not saying that there is not a place for such discussions, but the place is better suited to small group discussions rather than preaching. Let the preacher preach about theodicy and Romans 13. The preacher should discuss Thomas Aquinas and how it influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States and then, perhaps, if that preacher is brave, compare it to how Romans 13 was read by Origen and others — by others when the Church was not the Powers that Be. Craddock, I think, would agree. Theology is about the life we all share; ministry is about the lives we do not.

The third statement by Craddock is lingual. This is one the main reasons I wanted such a class — to avoid my usual habit of lecturing rather than speaking. The author suggests that theology deals with concepts while preaching uses imaging words. Preaching is where theology is explained and applied through the words, not of the philosophers, but of the people in front of you. Indeed, if a preacher uses concepts of theology as methods of instruction, his words are nothing more than cymbalic clashes; but if he uses the words of the divine creation, the creature, they become something that a heavenly chorus. Craddock urges us to use the tongues of those around us — to cease to pretend that the more angelic our words, the closer we are to God. Indeed, it seems the more conceptual our language is, the further away we are from the people, the further away we are from God.

If theology is a revelation from God, we must strive to take it to those who need it as God strove to find us when we needed him the most. In the Garden, God walked in the evening not as the superman, but as one in a triad with Adam and his wife. When Israel needed a guide across the deserts of Egypt, he appeared as a cloud. When the time had come, Jesus was born of a woman as proscribed by law, to bear the sins that we could not. Rarely ever, except when he was angry, did God appear as anything by the basest of things. In the Garden, he was a tired worker, taking a break at the end of the day; for Israel, he was a vaporous cloud, dispelled easily enough; in Jesus, he was a Jewish vagabond with lackluster friends. If we are to bring theology – the progressive revelation of the Church — to those who need to be self-critical, to those who need an anchor, then we must strive to bring it them to where they can reach it. Not below them so that it is meaningless mush, nor above them so that it sounds foreign. But theology must be given in the sermon as applicable to the life of the Christian.

Preaching theology is covered by Craddock as well, but this will have to wait. 

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