And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. . . . telling . . . the mighty works of God.

—Acts 2:2–4, 11

The media have, indeed, provided the devil with perhaps the greatest opportunity accorded him since Adam and Eve were turned out of the Garden of Eden . . . . the only antidote to the media’s world of fantasy is the reality of Christ’s kingdom proclaimed in the New Testament. . . . our amazing technology has a built-in reductio ad absurdum, whereas the Word that became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, in the most literal sense, speaks for itself. . . . That almighty Word was the medium, and the message was Christ.

—Malcolm Muggeridge[2]

This Life’s dim windows of the soul
Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole,
And leads us to believe a lie
When we see with, not through, the eye.

—William Blake[3]

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

—Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven[4]

Considering the modern assessment of various media, particularly the visual media and their electronic associates, preaching has been deemed by many to be an inefficient, ineffective anachronism—a poor means of communication. Because the focus on form instead of substance has been properly viewed as a modern problem, orthodox homileticians have tended to shy away from dealing with the form of preaching as a medium.[5] I would like to challenge modern media assessments of preaching along the lines of a biblical assessment of preaching as a medium. Assuming the existence of a sovereign and omniscient God, modern media are no surprise to the One who ordained preaching to be the most effective medium to communicate his Word. Thus, we must never forget that preaching is, despite its lack of technology, a medium. Everything created is, in a general sense, a medium, analogous to and revelatory of the glory of the Creator. A medium is a channel, instrument, means, or agency through which a force acts or an effect is produced. Communication media are both primary or natural and secondary or technological. Preaching is a natural medium raised to a new height, and for a unique redemptive purpose, by the supernatural power and definition of God. The agency includes the man, body and soul, his voice, and his message. As we have seen in chapter 1, each medium has its unique grammar and environment. In this chapter I will explore the unique excellencies that make preaching without peer among media or means of communication, and therefore irreplaceable as the center of the church’s worship and life.

Preaching Is God’s Choice

This grand fact should be first and foremost in our consideration. We have demonstrated the primacy of preaching in Scripture. The centrality of preaching in Scripture is, in itself, sufficient warrant for us to place it first among the means of grace. When God commands something in his infallible Word, the believer understands by faith that the God who gives commandments to his beloved people is an all-wise Shepherd. Since none of God’s commands is arbitrary, we expect to find biblical reasons for them. While it is not illegitimate to search for the reasons for a particular commandment, the ground upon which the believer accepts and obeys that commandment is God’s sovereign lordship in the believer’s life. But the quest for reasons is itself an act of faith. It is a believing reflection on the wisdom of God revealed in his Word. This is the great motive force behind all theology in the church. Theology is never simple speculation, but rather it is a faithful explication of God’s grandeur and glory through his Word in the present historical situation. God says, “Preach the Word!” and so we must.

Preaching Is an Authoritative Monologue

While we must not isolate the medium from its message or its context in the worship and life of the church, Scripture bids us consider the nature of the medium God has ordained. When attention is drawn to the medium, it is usually only negative in the sense that the importance of the medium is downplayed. While the content of the message is clearly at the center of the Bible’s emphasis on preaching, and while the medium, due to the fallenness of preachers as men, is imperfect, we need to appreciate the suitableness of the medium itself to the unique message of the gospel.

The late modern age,[6] including many of its homileticians, has tended to elevate the dialogical and the interactive aspects of communication almost to the exclusion of the monologue.[7] The reason for this is not difficult to discover. Authority at every level has been repudiated. The very idea of authorship is perceived to be an instrument of oppression. Thus, the single voice of the monologue carries with it the idea of authority and, therefore, oppressive hubris. This is entirely unacceptable to the contemporary mindset. The modern antipathy to preaching is reflected in the oft repeated assertion, “We don’t want to preach to people,” or the more colloquial “Don’t preach at me!”

We should also remember that the monologue of preaching as God’s proclamation has never been acceptable to the autonomous mind. In Paul’s day, rhetoricians were held in highest esteem due to their skills in persuasion. In these types of oral cultures the singer, the poet, and the bard were purveyors of cultural tradition.[8] Despite the presence of widespread pre-Gutenberg literacy, orality was still highly respected in the first century. The Greeks would never have thought of the medium of public speech per se as “foolish.” So many Christians and biblical scholars have decided that the context of Paul’s statement reveals that what the Greeks thought foolish was the message of the gospel of the crucified Christ (1 Cor. 1:21, 23). The New King James Version makes an interpretive decision in favor of this distinction: “it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21, emphasis added). The English Standard Version does the same, “the folly of what we preach.” But, as we shall see in the next chapter, what Paul refers to as foolishness is not only the message of the gospel but also the kind of public rhetoric that Paul thought most appropriate for the gospel message—the proclamation of a herald, to whose message he is called be faithful. He was thus not a gifted persuader, but a faithful messenger.“

Our word-weary generation sometimes forgets how our grandparents before the days of telecommunications considered it a great privilege to go into town to attend a public meeting at which someone would give a public address.”[9] It is only in light of the vaunted sophistication of modern electronic media that the act of monological speech is thought to be foolish. We must not submit to this estimate. Since God has ordained preaching, we are foolish not to cultivate an appreciation for its excellencies as a medium for communicating the gospel. Late moderns dislike all monological speech, because it is inherently authoritative. In addition, gospel monologue is disliked because of the message, which claims to be the only true way of salvation. Preaching is hated above all, because, at its best, it is the most authoritative kind of monologue conceivable, coming ultimately from God. The electronic media, especially the visual, appeal to the immanentistic, multi-cultural agenda of late modernity. Modernity is autonomous man come into his own. There are no authors or authoritative texts; there is no reality under the surface of anything, much less the words of a man who claims to speak for God.

There is, of course, a real sense in which preaching is dialogical, but I hesitate to use the term due to the late modern baggage with which it is presently freighted. Preaching is dialogical, because it is covenantal. God’s Word evokes and demands a response from those to whom it is addressed. The spoken word is more personal, and thus evokes a higher level of trust than other forms of communication.[10] But preaching is not in the strictest sense dialogical, because the two parties of the dialogue are not at all on an equal footing, as in the modern egalitarian use of the term. Perhaps the term interactive is more appropriate, although that term, too, is freighted with late modern baggage. There is also a pugnacity in some preaching, which is confused with authoritativeness, which bears little resemblance to the biblical model, and should be eschewed by every true herald of the gospel.

The excellence of the monological nature of preaching is seen more clearly in its immediacy. As Ong reminds us, “Sound . . . advertises presentness.”[11] For the preacher this is to be the presence of God himself. As a living voice, preaching is not the same as the immediacy of the visual media in several respects. Because preaching is content heavy, it is, as McLuhan has observed, hot communication. Furthermore, when spoken in the church, it is spoken in a context in which knowledge of the message of special revelation already exists. The church possesses the written Scriptures, in which it meditates day and night. The church’s knowledge of Scripture allows it to search the Scripture like the Bereans, even in the act of listening, as the church ransacks its memory in the preaching moment, as the church receives the preaching through the collective and individual grid of Scripture knowledge.

Furthermore, even the unbelieving audience, such as Paul encountered in Athens, brings knowledge of God from its own cultural texts to its hearing, despite its inherent tendency to reject that knowledge (cf. Rom. 1:18ff). The hope of every right thinking preacher is that the message will be discussed after the worship, and even raise questions. As we have seen, one of the strengths of the written Word is its reflective nature. It invites dialogue with the reader; it seeks to change the reader’s perception, and it allows the reader to stop and reflect on the message as it impinges on his consciousness. Most importantly then, preaching reinforces and informs the Bible reading of the church, and vice versa. Thus, the combination of various aspects of the media which function in the church, i.e., oral, written, and visual, works together to accomplish God’s goal in the giving of his Word. It never returns to him empty (Isa. 55:11).

On the other hand, preaching has all the power of cool communication in its immediacy. For in as much as it is God’s Word, it is inarguable, and there is no space in the preaching event for argument. This is God’s design. The preacher is not distracted by the audience but is able to address it with singularity of purpose and effect, rooted in the text of Scripture. Unlike the preaching which is transmitted on television the hearer cannot turn off the messenger with as much ease. As a totally cool medium television lulls the watcher into mental and spiritual sleep. The preacher is not and cannot be a real part of the watcher’s life. And he is, after all, just a watcher, not a true hearer. Even so-called “live” television is only an illusion of reality, a virtual reality. The truly live preacher demands and commands the listener’s attention. “When we hear the Word of God spoken by the mouth of men, we are ready to confine our attention to the visible speaker.”[12] The Scottish reformer John Knox asserted, “What efficacy hath the living voice above the bare letter read, the hungry and the thirsty do feel their comfort.” [13]

While we have referred to preaching as a medium, there is clearly a difference between the direct experience of a speaker’s presence and the mediated experience of the electronic image. One is historical reality; the other is only an appearance. As Knox pointed out, even the read word does not have the same effect that the living voice of the preacher has. Thus, the church is never addressed by the living God in the way he intended without the living presence of preaching in its midst. Iain Murray, in his biography of D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, observes that Lloyd-Jones’s commitment to writing was quite secondary to that of preaching. Ministers

were called to be preachers, not writers. He did not view the readiness of contemporary Christianity to allow the pulpit to be overshadowed by other means of communication as a wise adjustment to modern conditions but as a loss of faith in the means to which God has attached the special promise of His power.[14]

Along with being direct and inarguable, the monological nature of preaching is inescapable. The challenge it brings is ultimately from God himself. True preaching is God’s challenge to change. He confronts us with the need to repent and believe his Word. The grand errand of true preaching is the transformation of sinners. This should not leave the preacher with the idea that he is “six feet above criticism.” Indeed, the priesthood of all believers should always place us in the position of Paul in Berea—open to inspection. The common call for “feedback” among sixties critics of preaching should alert us to the need for openness to and encouragement of questions from the congregation, after worship.[15] We do not need to cave in to egalitarianism to provide forums for discussion of God’s Word—we should encourage it. Properly understood, this enhances, rather than diminishes, the authority of the ministerial office. The wise preacher will be constantly aware of his congregation’s response to his preaching, both during the act of preaching and in his other pastoral contacts.

When all is said and done, the monological nature of preaching has been and will always be offensive to a fallen world, because it is in essence a resounding “Thus saith the Lord.” In this sense there are, as Charles Dennison has aptly said, no modern preachers, only preachers.[16] Our understanding of unique factors in the modern world should only reinforce our commitment to the age-old task before us as heralds of the gospel. The Christ of Scripture has commissioned his ambassadors, not to “share” the gospel, though we are called to share many things, but to announce and proclaim it with the authority of our King, to give full force to the imperative “repent and believe the gospel.” While this message must be preached with great humility, it must in humility be preached with great authority, the authority of God himself.

God Still Speaks[17]

Charismatics insist that God still speaks. We should agree, rather than disagree, because the Reformed tradition has always insisted that God still speaks through the ministry of his Word. Thus, the basic instinct of Charismatics is healthy. God is a living God who continues to communicate with his people. How he does this is another matter. This is where we strongly disagree with our Charismatic friends. We properly insist that God speaks—with reference to special revelation—through his written, infallible Word, and that alone. The Charismatic response would be something to the effect that we believe in a dead letter. That is not living speech. The rejoinder to this accusation, which many of us have sadly forgotten, is that the primary way in which God addresses his people is through the preaching of the Word. This is a living speech in which the living God directly addresses his church. To underestimate or deny this is to denigrate God’s power and undermine his primary means of communicating grace to us. Ministers and members of the church must cultivate this awareness.

In our important effort to protect the inspiration and authority of Scripture, we oppose the neo-orthodox notion that the Bible becomes the Word of God during the act of preaching. We properly maintain that the Bible on our bookshelf is still the Word of God. However, in our defensive posture, we may fail to appreciate that the primary means of God addressing his people since the close of the canon is the public reading and preaching of his infallible Word. It is easy to forget that few believers before Gutenberg had access to the text of the Bible and that the text itself is crafted to be heard not seen. Our seminary training is almost exclusively literary in nature. This is as it should be, since we are a people formed by the text of Scripture and the tradition of interpreting God’s Word. But we have underestimated, and thus undervalued, the place of orality in preaching and in the seminary curriculum. I will explore this topic in more detail in chapter 11.


[1] This chapter is based on Gregory E. Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 333–38.

[2] Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 15, 24, 42, 59.

[3] William Blake, “Camera Obscura,” in Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 62.

[4] Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1954), 45.

[5] Cornelius Trimp, “Preaching as the Public Means of Divine Redemption,” trans. Nelson D. Kloosterman, Mid-America Journal of Theology, Theme Issue: Preaching, Vol. 10 (1999), 39–75. This is a powerful defense of the monologic nature of preaching and a plea to view preaching not only as a complete event but also in the context of the church, the liturgy, and pastoral care.

[6] See fn. 47 in Chapter 1. Keyes, “The Idol Factory,” 29.

[7] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, As One Without Authority (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971), 19. Modern homiletics is filled with depreciation of the monological aspect of preaching.

[8] Eric A. Havelock, The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 73ff. The entire book deals with this question.

[9] Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, vol. 1, 82.

[10] Craddock, As One Without Authority, 29.

[11] Ong, The Presence of the Word, 101.

[12] George Lawson, The Life of Joseph (1807 Reprint. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), 87.

[13] Quoted in Iain H. Murray, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith 1939-1981 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), 345. John Knox, The Works of John Knox, David Laing, ed. (Edinburgh: James Thin, vol. 5, 1895), 519.

[14] Murray, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, 345.

[15] Cf. Clyde H. Reid, The Empty Pulpit: A Study in Preaching as Communication (New York: Harper and Row, 1967).

[16] Charles Dennison, “Preaching and Application: A Review,” Kerux 4:3 (December 1989), 52.

[17] Adapted from Gregory E. Reynolds, “God Still Speaks Today: The Power of Orality,” Ordained Servant 17 (2008): 25–31.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, June/July, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2023


Also in this issue

Two Paths to Happiness, and Why Only One Can Lead to a Happy End

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 5

Getting to Know Your Pastor: Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 6

Secular Insight on Happiness: A Review Article

Muddying the Baptismal Waters? A Review Article

The Holy Spirit by Robert Letham


Sonnet LXXII

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