What We Believe

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 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 book shelf 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 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. The following is a summary of two sections of my book The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age dealing with orality in preaching.[1] I will present two biblical indicatives and two consequent imperatives.

Preaching Is the Voice and Presence of the Great Shepherd

This obvious excellence of preaching is often referred to as the "Incarnational Principle." Unfortunately this principle has often been associated with the immanentism of Liberal and Process theology—a call to social activism. Because the Eternal Son came in the flesh, taking to himself a complete human nature, except without sin, the presence of a live preacher, called and commissioned by the Lord as his ambassador, is the most suitable means of communicating God's Word. So the secular dilemma of coordinating transcendence and immanence is obviated, not only by the covenantal character of God's revelation, but by the incarnation. The One who inhabits eternity becomes a man and enters history. So in preaching the transcendent Lord is immanent through the living announcement of his gospel Word.

The Old Testament looks for a shepherd-king who will faithfully lead God's people. A few types of the hoped for divine shepherd (Joseph, Gen. 49:24; Moses; David, 2 Sam. 5:2, 7:7, Pss. 23, 80) contrast with the many leaders who left "the congregation of the LORD ... as sheep that have no shepherd" (Num. 27:17). How glorious are the words of Isaiah's prophesy of the coming of the great shepherd of the sheep: "He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young" (40:11); he will build the temple of God (Isa. 44:28); and he will feed the Lord's flock: "And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd" (Ezek. 34:23).

When he comes he assures us: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (John 10:27). The great shepherd calls undershepherds to lead and feed his people (1 Pet. 5:2, 4). The Word given to the apostles is the voice of the Good Shepherd after the ascension: "The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life" (John 6:63). His words, which are the words of the entire Scripture (1 Pet. 1:10-11), are the food upon which his sheep feed. This is the task of preaching: "Feed my lambs" (John 21:15). The One who has visited his people in history continues to visit them through his Word and Spirit in the person of the preacher. Nothing—especially electronic media—can replace the personal presence and the living voice of the minister of the Word.

The importance of face-to-face encounter is central to the incarnation. The face, more than any other aspect of the physical nature, reveals the person. Thus John wanted more than any other means of communication to see his spiritual children "face to face." Even writing a personal letter could not replace personal encounter: "Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete" (2 John 12). The consummate reality for the Christian will be seeing the face of Jesus Christ in resurrection glory. Until then, we see the reflection of that glory through the preaching of Christ from his Word, mediated by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit.

The face-to-face presence of the preacher is a reminder of what is coming (Rev. 22:4); a down payment on eschatological glory. Commenting on Haggai 1:12, Calvin says: "We may then conclude from these words, that the glory of God so shines in his word, that we ought to be so much affected by it, whenever he speaks by his servants, as though he were nigh to us face to face."[2] Preaching is the primary means by which the good shepherd visits his people in the interim. Paul saw the preacher, not as a doctrinal lecturer, but as a pastor, who imparted his very life to the flock: "So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us" (1 Thess. 2:8). "It is the job of the preacher to make the Word of God, the Word of the prophets put into writing, a living reality for the congregation."[3]

The Internet and other forms of electronic communication tend to seek to transcend and, at points, even to deny space and time. While these media may in one sense overcome the limits of space and time, they also forfeit the locality of personal presence which may never be transcended by creatures. In Acts we see the apostles employing the "footpower of the gospel." Novelist Larry Woiwode comments: "In order to deliver that gospel in our age, you have to walk up to somebody, even if you've arrived earlier on a Concorde, and there is no proof that the spirit a Christian carries, or the Spirit who applies the gospel to a congregation, is transmitted over television. In Acts the delivery of the gospel is a personal act."[4]

The modern world has never been better "connected" electronically, but is starving for lack of personal and local connectedness. The local church provides this in a way that no other institution can, because at the center of the community is God's speech in the preaching and presence of his appointed vicars (ambassadors functioning in the place of another). The worst tendencies of mass culture will be overcome by the promotion of live pastoral preaching as the center of the church's life. There is no better antidote to the electronic dispersion of our day.

Preaching Is the Unique Power of a Living Voice

There is a concreteness and a power to the voice that reflects the power of God's voice in his image-bearer. In prayer we have a greater sense of the reality of our communication with God when we pray aloud. "With my voice I cry out to the LORD; with my voice I plead for mercy to the LORD" (Ps. 142:1). The Bible has much to say about the power of human speech. "There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing" (Prov. 12:18).

In his masterful apology for orality, The Presence of the Word, Walter Ong asserts: "Man communicates with his whole body, and yet the word is his primary medium. Communication, like knowledge itself, flowers in speech."[5] Despite Ong's often-too-negative assessment of the written, he rightly laments the absence of the "wingèd word" in modern life. Only by the living word may persons enter into the consciousness and life of others.[6] "Sound unites groups of human beings as nothing else does. ... human community is essentially a union of interior consciousnesses."[7] Preaching accents and cultivates this communion. Only through preaching does the Word of God have wings to fly into the hearts of people in our day.

There is in the power of the voice—of the spoken word—a mystery, which stands as a poignant testimony against the flatness of modernity and the superficiality of postmodernism. The gospel message is equated by Paul with God's creative word spoken in Genesis 1: "For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:5–6). The staccato commands of Genesis 1 demonstrate the power of God's spoken word in the miraculous immediacy of his creative acts. Paul links the effect of God's spoken word in creation with the power of preaching in the new creation. This is the nature of the sound of the human voice as a replica of God's voice.

Sound alone, Ong maintains, penetrates surfaces.[8] "One does not produce words in order to get rid of them but rather to have them penetrate, impregnate, the mind of another."[9] This supports the fundamental assertion of the primacy of preaching, which is rooted in the original preacher, the logos who inhabits eternity and is incarnate in time (John 1).

The biblical concept of teaching in its relation to the effect of the voice is captured in the word catechize (κατηχέω). It literally means to sound around or re-sound: "to sound a thing in one's ears, impress it upon one by word of mouth."[10] This potency of voice is used to describe the activity of the teacher of the law (Rom. 2:18), and the preacher of the gospel (Gal. 6:6). The voice of the preached word is effective, as God blesses it through the illuminating power of his Spirit. Ong observes "the word as sound establishes here-and-now personal presence. Abraham knew God's presence when he heard his 'voice.' "[11] This is why we refer to the act of preaching as the "preaching moment." Despite all the imperfections of the human messenger, God is acting in the "acoustic event" of preaching.[12]

The public reading and preaching of the written Word seals what is written on the corporate consciousness and memory of the church, which has been entrusted with the deposit of the written Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:15). As normative covenant document, the Bible has a unique power to unite. Eric Havelock states that the Bible is unique among printed books in remaining immune to McLuhan's critique of the printed word.[13] The private reading of Scripture is always also a communal reading, because the Scriptures are a covenant document uniting God's people in all ages. However, Ong's concept of the word as event is very important to the preacher as he approaches the preaching moment and considers the unique God-given power of the human voice, especially when it is used to communicate the message of God's written Word. "No other speech has the public and yet private nature of preaching."[14]

The concreteness of the spoken word has no peer among media in general. It is the primary means of human communication because it is God's primary way of communicating. Thus, preaching is his chosen way to address people in all ages precisely because it is unmediated by technology. Furthermore, biblical preaching is God's chief antidote to idolatry. A people of the Word will accept no substitutes. The Word of God preached has no peer among spoken words. It is God's means of imprinting his Word on the hearts of his people, whom he is molding after the image of his Son.[15]

What are the implications of orality for preachers?

Develop Orality

Because God has chosen live pastoral preaching to be his chief medium for communicating his Word, the preacher must develop the finest oral skills as a communicator. This is our best antidote against the poisonous idea that we need the latest technology in our worship in order to be relevant.

First, the preacher must learn to distinguish between oral and written. The written is for the eye, while the oral is for the ear.[16] The greatest problem for the seminary trained preacher—few men can do without such training—is that we have had rigorous literary training. We are book, text, and lecture oriented. Lectures are content heavy and meant basically to inform, not to move or persuade. Listen to J. C. Ryle: "English composition for speaking to hearers and English composition for private reading are almost like two different languages, so that sermons that 'preach' well 'read' badly."[17] Perhaps there is some truth to the provocative statement that "people today are not tired of preaching, but tired of our preaching."[18]

Second, put the results of your study in an oral format. Homiletics is the art of translating the meaning of the text, in the context of systematic and biblical theology, into a form designed to transform God's people. Theology serves homiletics not vice versa. Think of your preparation as soil for the sermon, not the sermon itself. Don't bring your study into the pulpit. Bring the results; and bring them in oral form. Extemporaneous preaching is live preaching, fully prepared for, but exclusively oral, not tied to the manuscript. "The written text of the New Testament itself is ordered to ... oral activity."[19]

Thus, your sermon notes should be structured more as a set of visual cues than a manuscript to be read or memorized. Use two manuscripts, if necessary: one is a written summary of your exegesis and application put in the order of your sermon; the other is a one page abbreviated form for the pulpit.

Clyde Fant's Preaching for Today is especially helpful in this area.[20] He deals with some of the unique mechanics of oral preparation. Write like you speak; do not speak like you write. If you have ever read a written transcript of one of your sermons, you will be horrified at how badly it reads. That is as it should be. This does not mean that poor speech patterns or grammar is acceptable orally. After exegeting and discovering the meaning and unity of the text, begin communicating it out loud, and then write down the main points of the logic of what you have said. Fant calls this the "rough oral draft." Then go back after more reflection on exegesis and the rough draft and make a "final oral draft." From this he recommends a final one page "sermon" brief.[21] Those who use limited notes in the pulpit, or only pay attention to highlighted full notes, already practice something like this.

Furthermore, each genre of biblical literature requires a different approach, a varied use of outlines. The systematic announcement of "headings" may be helpful in preaching from the logically argued epistles of Paul, but the narrative of Judges will be better preached by following the story sequence and leaving the logical divisions "invisible" in the preaching moment. The distinction between oral and written logic should not be exaggerated in this discussion. No one can think, speak, or write without logic. But the logic of narrative and the logic of epistles are quite different. They require different ways of ordering our thoughts, not a logic different from the way we think. The text itself dictates this. Much more work needs to be done with this area of homiletics.

Third, general preparation is crucial for developing orality in preaching. Reading widely on a daily basis is absolutely essential to the development of the mind and spirit of the preacher. As Joel Nederhood counsels: "Be addicted to reading."[22] This does not contradict the need to distinguish between written and oral in the pulpit. Furthermore, being a good reader and writer enhances logical and rhetorical skills in public speech.[23]

One of the best ways to develop oral skill is to read aloud and pay attention to the best oral presentation outside the pulpit. Baseball announcers are an excellent example of the kind of speech that engages the listener. The preacher must cultivate a love for the English language, especially the spoken word. Ransack the best dictionaries. Above all read aloud. Choose the best poetry and prose and read it aloud. Read the Psalms, George Herbert, Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare, the essays and stories of G. K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc, Stephen Leacock, Christopher Morley, aloud! The King James Version is best suited to the practice of reading Scripture aloud, not because it is a perfect or even the best translation, but because it was produced in a golden age of orality, the Elizabethan Age of Shakespeare. In this period the literary and the oral were held in excellent balance. The Authorized Version was translated to be read aloud in churches (as the title says: "appointed to be read in churches"). Let the beauty of the best of the richest language in history sink into your oral memory. Words are your tools. Court them. Work with them to become a wordsmith. Fall in love with them. As McLuhan said, "language itself is the principal channel and view-maker of experience for men everywhere."[24] "The spoken word involves all the senses dramatically."[25] The preached Word is the most powerful "view-maker" of all, as it corrects the idolatrous "view-making" propagated by the electronic media, and inculcates the redemptive "view-making" of the heavenly reality of the incarnate logos.

Take the greatest care in reading the Scriptures aloud. Hughes Oliphant Old has titled his multi-volume history of preaching: The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, because of the essential difference between the written and the preached Word of God. When we read the Scripture we are saying: This is the source of what we are about to preach.[26] We are reading the word of the King. The synagogue and the ancient church read the Scriptures through, seriatim, on a regular basis. Copies of the Scripture prior to the Gutenberg era were rare and expensive. The average person did not have a copy to read privately. In the electronic age we must not assume that people are reading their Bibles regularly or at all. Even when they are, they may not be reading the "whole" of Scripture. Even then there is a unique value for God's people to hear the Word with their ears as the church. The immediacy of the effect when Scripture is read properly has a unique place in the life of the church. But we must cultivate this. The way that we read Scripture aloud, as well as our entire demeanor surrounding the reading, will determine the attitude of our hearers, especially in their reception of what we preach after we read.

In Nehemiah 8:8 we read: "So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading." Acts 13:15: "And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them, saying, 'Men and brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on.'" 1 Timothy 4:13: "Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine." We normally consider this "reading" private, and silent. Its connection with exhortation militates against that individualistic interpretation. Consider Revelation 1:3: "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near." This is public reading. The public reading of Scripture does not replace private reading or preaching, nor does preaching replace the reading of Scripture. Rather the public reading of Scripture demands the preaching of it. In both, the oral dimension is its special power. The immediate presence of God in the voice of the reader/preacher of his Word is subversive to the sinner's rebellious position in the First Adam, and represents a living call to repentance and faith in the Second and Last Adam.

Trust the Power and Presence of God

Trust the Holy Spirit in the preaching moment. The greatest folly of our age is trusting the means, the techniques of doing things. The means of preaching, unlike any other form of public speaking, is uniquely dependent on God's blessing. Reformed preachers know the folly of trusting the Spirit without preparation; but we need to deal with the equal folly of sticking slavishly to our manuscript in the act of preaching, and thus trusting our preparation as if we do not need the Spirit. Pray for the presence of the only power that can make the medium you use effective.

Unction is not a human attribute; it is the secret and mysterious influence that God's Spirit bestows on faithful preaching. Thus it is not a tone of voice or style of delivery. The Sovereignty of the influence is meant to move us to pray and depend humbly on God's power in our preaching. He alone has access to the secret recesses of the human hearts of your hearers. Paul instructs the church to be "praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication ... and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak" (Eph. 6:18-20). Prayer is no substitute for study, but it must also not be a mere article of our faith, unpracticed in our private preparations for the pulpit. The effectiveness of our preaching will always be directly related to our dependence on God's power through all of our studious, intellectual efforts in opening God's Word. The Spirit influences the hearer and the preacher alike. As Augustine insists, the true preacher "is a petitioner before he is a speaker."[27]

The Reformation conception of preaching is embodied in the Second Helvetic Confession: "The preaching of the word of God is the word of God." Our Lord, the incarnate Word, has identified the preaching of his ordained spokesmen with his Word: "He who hears you hears Me" (Luke 10:16). Herman Hoeksema correctly insisted that the Greek of Romans 10:14 should be translated as the American Standard Version has it: "And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?" as opposed to "Him of whom they have not heard?"[28] Thus it is "the preached Word rather than the written Word" which is the primary means of grace.[29] Christ is immediately present as the true Speaker in the preaching moment. "The implication is that Christ speaks in the gospel proclamation."[30] Preaching is not speaking about Christ, but is Christ speaking.

In his biography of James I. Packer Alister McGrath gives Packer's excellent definition of preaching: " 'The event of God bringing to an audience a Bible-based, Christ-related, life-impacting message of instruction and direction from himself through the words of a spokesperson.' Preaching was thus defined, not in terms of human performance or activity, but in terms of divine communication."[31] Paul said it clearly to the Thessalonian church: "When you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers" (1 Thess. 2:13). The preacher should never be satisfied with anything less than a congregation that is "taught by God" (1 Thess. 4:9). While recognizing that he is a mere man like each of his congregants, and a sinful man at that, the preacher must have the confidence which God has connected with his preaching ministry. If, as an ambassador, he sticks to the message of his King, he may be assured that God's word, and not his own, is what the church receives. Calvin recognized God's condescension in this arrangement in commenting that God "deigns to consecrate to himself the mouths and tongues of men in order that his voice may resound in them."[32] The egalitarianism which favors dialogue does not favor faith, as Peter Berger notes: "Ages of faith are not marked by 'dialogue' but by proclamation."[33] This is our task as ambassadors of Christ.


[1] Gregory E. Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), chapter 9, "Tongues of Fire: God's Chosen Medium," 338–45, and chapter 10, "Trumpeter of God: The Effective Preacher," 378–385.

[2] John Calvin, Commentary on Haggai (1540-1563. Translation and reprint. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society. 1847. Reprint. vol. 15. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969), 343. I owe this quotation to my friend and colleague Stephen Doe.

[3] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: Volume 1—The Biblical Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 59.

[4] Larry Woiwode, Acts (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 121.

[5] Walter Ong, The Presence of the Word (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967; repr., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), 1. Citations are to the 1981 reprint.

[6] Ibid., 15.

[7] Ibid., 122, 146.

[8] Ibid., 74.

[9] Ibid., 98.

[10] Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1853).

[11] Ong, The Presence of the Word, 113.

[12] Clyde E. Fant, Preaching For Today (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 157ff.

[13] Eric Havelock, The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986) 49.

[14] Gerald Hamilton Kennedy, His Word Through Preaching (New York: Harper, 1947), 8.

[15] Cf. Fant, Preaching For Today, 162. Quotes Thomas Aquinas: "Therefore it is fitting that Christ, as the most excellent teacher, should adapt that manner of teaching whereby his doctrine would be imprinted on the hearts of his hearers."

[16] Ibid., 162.

[17] Iain Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), 345.

[18] John W. Doberstein, Introduction to Thielicke, The Trouble with the Church (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), viii, referring to a statement by Paul Althaus, emphasis added.

[19] Walter Ong, Review: Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion (William A. Graham) in America (Mar. 4, 1989): 204.

[20] Fant, Preaching For Today, 159-173.

[21] Ibid., 166-169.

[22] Joel Nederhood, "Effective Preaching in a Media Age," class notes, Westminster Theological Seminary in California, 1990.

[23] Richard S. Storrs, Preaching without Notes (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1875), 45ff.

[24] Marshall McLuhan, "Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters," in The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, edited by Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szlarek (Toronto: Stoddart, 1999), 154.

[25] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964) 77–78.

[26] Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, vol. 1, 52, 58.

[27] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, translated by D. W. Robinson, Jr. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1958), 141.

[28] David H. Schuringa, "The Preaching of the Word As a Means of Grace: The Views of Herman Hoeksema and R. B. Kuiper." Th. M. thesis (Calvin Theological Seminary, 1985), 18-22. Later in chapter III (34-43) a convincing case for the grammatical correctness of this translation is made.

[29] Ibid., 33.

[30] Ibid., 43.

[31] Alister McGrath, A Biography of James I. Packer: To Know and Serve God (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997), 256.

[32] John Calvin, Institutes, IV.1, in James Daane, Preaching With Confidence: A Theological Essay on the Power of the Pulpit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 15.

[33] In Daane, Preaching With Confidence, 16.

Ordained Servant, June-July 2008.

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Ordained Servant: June 2008

Preaching the Infallible Word

Also in this issue

Incarnation, Inspiration, and Pneumatology: A Reformed Incarnational Analogy

The Voice from the Pulpit: John Calvin and Preaching

Iain M. Duguid, Numbers

The Divine Voice: A Review Article

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