In Season

Shane Lems
Friday, February 29th 2008
Mar/Apr 2008

There is a dreadful ditch in Christianity, a wedge between propositional truth and personal practice. Kevin Vanhoozer calls it “a debilitating dichotomy between theory and practice.” (1) Although we probably should not reduce this dichotomy to a battle between modern or postmodern Christians, it is helpful to see how each approaches doctrine, or for our purposes, preaching. The former generally emphasizes doctrinal-propositional-preaching while the latter emphasizes holistic, relevant sermons. Modernist preaching says instruct while postmodernist says authenticate. If we look at both, we can better understand the emphases on propositional or practical.

So what are our options? Should we build up a fortress around our propositional dogma? Or should we destroy the propositional paradigm and seek to “encounter Jesus” rather than preach doctrinal truths about him? (2) Perhaps preachers are tempted to approach these questions with an either/or mentality. I submit, however, that it is not that simple. My proposal is that Reformed preachers cannot simply preach propositions or practice: the content of Scripture must determine the method of preaching. Doctrine and preaching are so much more than divine dogmas or personal encounters. If we truly want the gospel to go forth to people in all cultures and countries, we cannot do so by emphasizing propositional truths or authentic experience alone.

My approach is simple. Since this topic is one that could fill a book, I will be brief at times to allow for the main topic of preaching. When speaking of modernism or postmodernism, I am primarily thinking about Christians who fit into each “ism.” I realize that so much modernism shows up in postmodernism, but I do not have the space to outline that detail. We will first look at modernism, then postmodernism, specifically what each says about propositions and preaching. Finally, an apology will be made for biblical, Reformed preaching that cannot simply be labeled modern or postmodern. The apology will be for a dramatic (theory and practice) model of preaching.


Even if we do not mind being labeled a modernist, we cannot simply stick our fingers in our ears and hum an imprecatory psalm when a postmodernist says that Christianity is “to encounter the person of Jesus Christ rather than to adopt a doctrinal system.” (3) I submit that before we can stick our fingers in our ears (or even think about it!) we must compare and contrast modernism and postmodernism. In this section, we will first note several generalizations of modernism. Since we cannot speak about all aspects of modernism and postmodernism, we will focus on one aspect of both-namely, their outlooks on propositional truth. As we discuss modernism and postmodernism, we will be mainly discussing the two as they appear in the Christian church. Here we speak about modernism because it historically predates postmodernism.Modernism Briefly Stated
According to Stanley Grenz, modernism exclaims, “Knowledge is certain, objective, and good.” (4) The modern mind tends to seek and rely on certain knowledge. That is, a modernist says that knowledge is valid, universal, and genuine. Modernism lays a foundation for knowledge, and upholds the fact that beliefs can be justified. “Modern intellect is an architect whose knowledge not only of foundations but of structures enables him to build the City of Man according to the principles of architectonic reason with a single rational blueprint.” (5)

Clear and distinct categories are helpful for modernists: Baptists believe in x, Presbyterians believe in y, and Episcopalians believe in z. In the conservative wing of modernism, systematic theology is understandable because it is logical; it is outlined under the various loci. “The [modern] rationalist approach that typifies evangelical theology is characterized by a commitment to the Bible as the source book of information for systematic theology.” (6) Modern Christians have no problem proposing certain things about God: he is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and so forth. Doctrine tends to be reduced to “hard and fast epistemological and ontological categories.” (7) Therefore, modernists are familiar and comfortable with sermons containing highly doctrinal themes.Propositions, Propositions
In modern Christianity, as we have just noted, Scripture has often been approached as a book of doctrine. Proof-texting has its heyday in modernist apologetics and systematic theologies. Modern evangelicals, even Reformed evangelicals, look at the inerrant Word as the “incontrovertible foundation” of theology. (8) Modern Christian theologies emphasize the intellectual aspect of theology, viewing biblical doctrine as “informative propositions or truth claims about objective realities.” (9)

What can be said about modern theology can generally be said about modern preaching. A modern Christian sermon on conversion might be outlined with these three points: 1) the Author of Conversion, 2) the Nature of Conversion, and 3) the Necessity of Conversion. The sermon would be rather logical and easy to follow. Furthermore, this sermon could be preached anywhere, at any time, with only a few modifications because the doctrine of conversion is a timeless truth found in Scripture.

One Reformed preacher said that the different parts, or headings, of a sermon should make a central “doctrine or proposition” clear. (10) It is true that many Reformed preachers rail against moralistic preaching, the type of sermons that reduce Joseph fleeing from Potiphar’s wife as an excellent example of how Christians should flee temptation (Gen. 39). However, most of these same preachers approach Joseph’s story as a proof-text of God’s providence. “You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good” is indeed one of the pristine proofs for providence. We have to be sure that many preachers, because they are mindful of the power of the gospel, would point the congregation to the fact that Joseph’s story paved the way for Christ to come and save his people. Yet the emphasis on doctrine still denigrates the story of Scripture. Our emphasis on “story” will resume after a look at the next “ism,” namely, postmodernism.


Postmodernism Briefly Stated
Absolute knowledge or certainty is unattainable according to a postmodernist. A postmodernist gets quite nervous when he or she hears someone speak about ultimate truth. Truth is not universal, but local, communal, cultural. Nothing is superior or ultimate; there can be “new” things, but not better things. Unlike modernists, postmodernists do not try to put ideas into little box-like categories. (11) The nasty little box-like compartments of modernism need to be deconstructed and finally destructed. Postmodernism assumes that there is “no common denominator…that guarantees either the One-ness of the world or the possibility of neutral or objective thought.” (12) There is a passionate denial of absolute status to any ideology or reality in postmodernity. (13) Rather than search for the truth, the postmodernist asks whose truth or what truth?

The postmodern architect, referring back to the above architectural model, is one who views the modernist skyscraper as devastated. We cannot have blueprints to build the City of Man, nor can we hope to find a solid foundation upon which we can build this great city. Actually, “why bother” building another city, since your ideal city might be different from mine? (14) In postmodernism, there is a latte flavor for every person.Anti-propositional
We have noted that with modernism, propositional and foundational truths are acknowledged. Postmodernism, on the other hand, turns the deconstructive drill on the foundations. Foundational epistemology (how we know what we know) and truth are impossible to find, if they even exist. “All postmodern thinkers see the modernist quest for…laying foundations for our knowledge, as a dream for the impossible, a contemporary version of the quest for the Holy Grail.” (15) A postmodernist says that a person cannot state a universal, propositional truth. If someone claims to have the truth, he or she is arrogant and is simply wrong.

In 1995, Christianity Today noted that “abandonment of dogmatism” was one of the top five characteristics of postmodernists. (16) “A nonfoundationalist or antifoundationalist approach to knowledge” says “all beliefs are subject to critical scrutiny.” (17) Although propositional truths are looked upon with a skeptical eye, postmodernity can make truth-statements. These truth-statements, however, are subject to critical examination and are open to “revision, reconstruction, or even rejection.” (18) In postmodernity, there is certainly incredulity toward propositions.

What about postmodernist preaching? This is a little harder to evaluate since the reaction against propositionalism/foundationalism has been multifaceted. There has been a renewed emphasis on narrative, which provides some help for approaching Scripture as more than a tome of dogma. Yet a postmodern sermon “is not a declaration of absolute truth, but a mile marker along the congregation’s journey.” (19) A postmodern preacher “needs to help the congregation have a good sense of what they can trust from God, the gospel, and Christian community.” (20) Sermons deal with the authentic rather than the absolute. What Christians need, preachers say, is “a spirit of love and respect…a spirit of acceptance…a spirit for today, here and now.” (21) Yesterday’s truths are as stale as cold Folgers coffee; sermons can fit only one community for one time.

Most “good” postmodern preachers do preach from the Bible and acknowledge that people today are seeking the truth to some extent. Yet, “sermon” is often downplayed, and other senses besides hearing are utilized throughout the service. Propositions give way to interactive procedures. This is perhaps why we see a renewed interest in tradition; from lighting candles to burning incense, postmodern services are holistically interactive. I submit that this appreciation for the sensual is another way of avoiding foundationalism. Each individual can authentically experience worship in community by interaction rather than by simply hearing a propositional truth. Perhaps an episode can give us a general picture of postmodern preaching.

Then Pastor Dave, who had been sitting barefooted on the floor, quietly rose and began to comment earnestly on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. It was neither a sermon nor a Bible lesson. It was…an impromptu but extended tête-à-tête between church members and its leadership, which compassed meditation, confession, exposition of relevant scriptural passages, and personal revelation. It was “church,” but not a “service.” It was neither sermon nor liturgy. The focus was on the intensity of interpersonal communication. (22)

Although this is but one example of what postmodern “preaching” looks like, the focus is on the practical, the interpersonal, and the authentic: anything but arrogant propositions! Of course, some postmodern “worship experiences” completely avoid sermons or preaching altogether.

Modernism embraces definite truth, absolutes, foundations, rationalistic thinking, and certainty, while postmodernism embraces emotions, authenticity, community, tolerance, and denies unquestionable foundations. (23) Modern preaching highlights the propositional, didactic, and intellectual while postmodern preaching stresses the narratival, communal, sensual, and authentic. The question comes up once again: which shall we choose?

Preaching: Doctrine Embodied in Christians

Is there a middle ground between the modern and postmodern conception of propositions? Should we preach propositional truths at all costs? Or, should we throw propositions into the wind and try to connect and communicate with Christians on an authentic, personal level? I submit that propositions are necessary and biblical. When God says, “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy,” it is a propositional truth (Rom. 9:15). Edmund Clowney’s words are still true: “Preaching must be theological.” (24) We must preach doctrinal indicatives! As J. G. Machen said so well, “Christianity” [and I would add preaching] cannot “live without theology.” (25)

There is, however, a grave danger to propositional preaching: de-dramatization. De-dramatization happens when the sermon is reduced to a message on doctrine. (26) The gospel is anything but mere proposition. It is not simply a dictionary entry, but an event, something that happened in history. The gospel was already foretold in the prima gratia of Scripture: the promise of one who would crush the head of the serpent. The gospel was pre-enacted by Yahweh, so to speak, as he passed between the animal halves (Gen. 15). The gospel was pictured in the dramatic cutting of the sacrificial animals and other cultic activities. The gospel is the drama of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension. To reduce the gospel to mere dogma is to de-dramatize salvation history. Along with proof-texts, pastors should cite proof-acts, the mighty deeds in which Yahweh has proven his covenant faithfulness.

Scripture contains propositions, but there is more to Scripture than propositions. Scripture was “not given at one time, nor in the form of a theological dictionary.” (27) Below, we will compare the drama of redemption to the theater: God is the divine dramatist and he has called his people to take part in this wonderful production. As the playwright, God has revealed truths about himself, yet a play is much more than mere statements of fact-it includes things that God has done and the human response to him. Imagine a theater production in which the actors stood up and simply stated true facts!Practice, Practical, and Purposeful?
“Pastor, we want sermons that are relevant to our lives, sermons that tell us how to live as Christians.” This plea should be heeded by Reformed preachers. A preacher is much more than a lecturer or teacher. Christians need direction, they need to hear the voice of Christ guide them. So yes, preaching should instruct, authenticate, be relevant, and include imperatives: ethical application “is an essential part of the preaching of the Word.” (28)

However, as with the propositional tendency to de-dramatize Scripture, de-dramatization also happens when the sermon is reduced to a moral exhortation. (29) Or, as in some emergent circles, true propositions are swallowed up by the tolerant communal aspect: what kind of Jesus should you be to your neighbor? The propositional truths are what got the church into trouble in the past, so let’s focus on the here and now, and what God’s love means right here, right now. Gone are the sermons on the dramatic, bloody sacrifice of animals by the priests. Gone are the fundamental truths like “shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25). The practical swallows up the propositional hook, line, and dogma.

Scripture contains relevant exhortations to followers of Christ. Sermons should be more than a doctrinal discourse or theological training. They must “authentically connect” with the listeners. Yet the dramatic aspect of Scripture quickly disappears when the relevant is overemphasized. There is a better alternative than choosing either propositional or practical.

Both: Let the Curtain Rise!

A pastor who does not pray and work to help the congregation know (theory) and imitate (practice) Christ more and more is not doing his job! In a sense, perhaps the postmodern notion of authenticity is helpful: we want Christians who are authentically following Christ. We want Christians to love their neighbors; our preaching-let me say doctrinal preaching-should direct them how to love even their enemies. Simply preaching either indicative (proposition) or imperative (practical) will not do. “While we were enemies God loved us and saved us” is not just theoretical, it is immensely practical. The people of God need to know his Word and they need to know how to act it out. Preaching must do both, indoctrinate and exdoctrinate, as Vanhoozer suggests. (30)

I have mentioned the words drama and script. Michael Horton describes theology-perhaps we can also say doctrinal preaching-as “the church’s reflection on God’s performative action in word and deed and its own participation in the drama of redemption.” (31) Vanhoozer uses the drama analogy as well, noting that the triune God writes (Father), acts out (Son), and brings us into (Spirit) the drama. (32) Following confessional Reformed theology, we realize that the Spirit clothes us in the righteousness of Christ and helps us remember our lines: in a word, he equips us to play the part. What of the pastor and sermon? The pastor is a sort of assistant director, if you will, a mediator between the script[ure] and the actors. He helps Christians understand the script[ure] and thus direct them to play their parts according to the script[ure].

No doubt we “actors” in this divine drama will stumble (break a leg!), forget our lines, and even at times refuse to come on stage. In our “poor acting”-the pastor reminds the congregation that Jesus has already perfectly played the part, and by his flawless dramatic performance takes our filthy costumes and gives us his beautiful robe. Furthermore, he comes to pick us up gently when we fall, reminds us of our lines by his Spirit, and encourages us to look ahead to the last act: the consummation.

We must approach Scripture like Scripture “is;” our preaching method must be determined by canonical content. Scripture is one grand covenantal drama, an unfolding story about the dramatist himself: the triune God. Therefore, when we preach, we must be sure that we never turn on the drama-Hoover, sucking the drama out of the drama. One probable and undesirable outcome of propositionalist preaching is a loss of the notion of what preaching really is. If we constantly preach “God says” or “God is,” our congregations will in time forget that “God does.” On the flip side, if we constantly preach “do unto others,” and “be Jesus to your neighbors,” our congregations will forget who God is and what Jesus did for us. We must understand that God does things even in preaching: preaching is a means of grace, the voice of the risen Christ doing things to and for his sheep, including comforting, sanctifying, uniting, strengthening, and so on.

“Doing things in preaching” brings us briefly to what some philosophers have called speech-act. This should be no strange fact to Reformed Christians-the fact that God’s Word is powerful and effective, accomplishing its purposes (cf. Gen. 1, Ezek. 37, and John 11). The elocutionary act is God speaking; the illocutionary act is God promising, comforting, warning, etc.; and the per-elocutionary act is what is accomplished in or by the hearer. While preaching today is not equivalent to God speaking to Abraham, it is still just as effective: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17; see also Isa. 55:11, Jer. 1:12, 23:29, 1 Pet. 1:23). Through the preaching of the gospel, the Holy Spirit goes forth, blazing his way into hearts and lives, creating and strengthening faith. This too is so much more than just a propositional truth or personal encounter: the Holy Spirit through the preached gospel-word enables Christians to know and act out the script[ure].

As a side, preaching dramatically will also fence Zwingli from the table and font. That is, preaching more than propositional truths or authentic experience, preaching the grand story of salvation in all its different scenes will emphasize the participatory nature of the sacraments. Is not the celebration of the Holy Supper a “participation” in the blood and body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16)? We see the water of baptism, we hear Christ’s Spirit saying let the little child to come to me, and another person is placed on the covenantal stage of this great drama. To have a “baptized forehead” is not simply theoretical, but practical. To eat and drink the body and blood of Christ is a visible, dramatic declaration that we are not simply sitting in the stands, but that God is pulling us further into his great story.

Preaching dramatically is preaching covenantally. Preaching covenantally is preaching Christ. Scripture has everything to do with covenant: from a broken covenant in the garden to a gracious covenant in the midst of the curse, to the breaking of the covenant by God’s people, to the keeping of the covenant by God’s servant-Son. This covenant is played out dramatically: God reveals himself in language and deeds. The pinnacle of this revelation is Christ on the cross as covenant servant and covenant Lord where God was at work. The church takes part in this drama-not going back in time or by opening up the canon-but by realizing that the drama is the same one, only in the act that falls between Jesus’ incarnation and his parousia. Preaching dramatically will direct Christians how to act according to the script[ure]. God loves his enemies, gently picks them up, clothes them in glorious garments, and gives them the means to act on his stage. What will Christians do when they see their enemies broken and in need?

The Grand Finale

Francis Turretin, although not often utilizing the theme of drama, spoke in terms of proper performance: “There is no mystery proposed to our contemplation as an object of faith…which is not prerequisite for its proper performance.” (33) In other words, the wonderful truths of Scripture must be known so that we can perform well on the stage. Godly performance is directed by God’s script[ure]. Godly performance is also pictured by God’s own performance: Jesus perfectly executing his role in the drama, where we failed along with Adam and Israel. Preaching teaches the script[ure] and how to act it out.

I confess that the exhortation to “preach dramatically” is more easily said than done. The propositional and authentic examples we have looked at, however, simply will not do in isolation or opposition. The method of preaching should reflect the content of Scripture: a covenantal drama that includes God’s words and deeds, and the church’s response in word and deed. If we truly want our preaching to be doctrinal and biblical, what better way is there than to reflect Scripture’s own content? There should be no modern or postmodern dichotomy between proposition and practice, between dogma and deed. A preacher explains what the script[ure] means-propositions included-and in turn directs the congregation how to live their lives according to the script[ure]. This includes knowledge and practice, indicative and imperative.

1 [ Back ] Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), p. 3.
2 [ Back ] John Stackhouse, in D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), p. 66.
3 [ Back ] John Stackhouse in Carson, p. 66.
4 [ Back ] Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 4.
5 [ Back ] Kevin Vanhoozer, "Pilgrim's Digress: Christian Thinking on and About the Post/Modern Way" in Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views, ed. Myron Penner (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), p. 74.
6 [ Back ] Stanley Grenz and John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 13.
7 [ Back ] Michael Horton, Covenant and Eschatology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), p. 246.
8 [ Back ] Grenz and Franke, pp. 23-24.
9 [ Back ] George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), p. 16.
10 [ Back ] D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), p. 76.
11 [ Back ] Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), p. 47.
12 [ Back ] Elizabeth Ermarth, "Postmodernism" in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. E. Craig (New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 587.
13 [ Back ] Ermath, p. 589.
14 [ Back ] Vanhoozer, Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views, p. 75.
15 [ Back ] Wentzel van Huysseteen, quoted by Grenz and Franke, p. 38.
16 [ Back ] Mark Filiatreau, "'Good News' or 'Old News,'" Regeneration Quarterly 1, no. 1 (1995), p. 15.
17 [ Back ] John Franke, "Christian Faith and Postmodern Theory," Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views, ed. Myron Penner (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), p. 111.
18 [ Back ] Franke, p. 112.
19 [ Back ] Ronald Allen, "Preaching and Postmodernism," Interpretation 55, no. 1 (2001), p. 37.
20 [ Back ] Allen, p. 47.
21 [ Back ] Rob Bell from a sermon, "How to Lose Your Life," given on 4 December 2005.
22 [ Back ] Carl Raschke, The Next Reformation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), p. 176.
23 [ Back ] Carson, p. 27.
24 [ Back ] Edmund Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), p. 74.
25 [ Back ] J. Gresham Machen, The Origin of Paul's Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947), p. 20.
26 [ Back ] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, p. 403.
27 [ Back ] Clowney, p. 15.
28 [ Back ] Clowney, p. 80.
29 [ Back ] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, p. 403.
30 [ Back ] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, p. 400. Turretin spoke along similar lines: "We consider theology to be neither simply theoretical nor simply is more practical than theoretical." See Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Giger, ed. J. Dennison (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1992), pp. 1-21.
31 [ Back ] Turretin, pp. 4, 276.
32 [ Back ] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, p. 448.
33 [ Back ] Turretin, p. 21.
Friday, February 29th 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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