was originally published on this site
Preaching as the Word of God:
Answering an Old Question with Speech-Act Theory,
Sam Chan, Pickwick Publications, 2016, 279pp
The Second Helvetic Confession
expresses the high view of preaching that obtained among the Reformed churches when it says, ‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God’. (Chapter 1). That is some claim to make. Can it be truly said that a mere human preacher can give voice to the very Word of God? The Reformers not only answered that question in the affirmative, they made the faithful preaching of the Word of God one of the identifying marks of a true church.
Sam Chan sets out to examine whether the claims of the Reformers can be biblically justified. He brings the insights of speech-act theory to bear on the question in hand. First of all Chan investigates what Martin Luther and John Calvin had to say on preaching as the Word of God, and the preaching of the Word of God as a mark of the church. Copious reference is made to the writings of the two leading Reformers. They were in essential agreement on both points, while nuanced differences are teased out. Chan’s discussion of the Reformers’ views is illuminating. However, Luther and Calvin were lucid enough communicators for the writer to have foregone his summaries of what they had said after almost every quote.
Attention is then given to the biblical materials. In the Old Testament God spoke to his people through prophets like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-22). The Old Testament also looked forward to the coming of One who would proclaim the Word of the Lord in the power of the Spirit (Isaiah 61:1-4). Jesus is revealed as the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 18 and Isaiah 61. He was anointed by the Spirit to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 4:16-19). Jesus then commissioned the Twelve apostles to bear witness to his works and words (Acts 1:8). The church founded upon the apostolic testimony to Jesus was to preach the Word for the salvation of the lost and the building up of God’s people (Acts 8:4, 2 Timothy 4:1-5). Chan’s scriptural survey gives credence to the Reformer’s claim that God indeed speaks through human beings. The preaching of the Word of God can therefore rightly be regarded as the Word of God through men and to men.
But what exactly is meant by ‘the Word of God’, and how can we be sure that God is truly speaking through a preacher? The whole Bible may be regarded as the written and authoritative Word of God. But in a more limited sense, to preach the Word is to proclaim the gospel of salvation. That is certainly what we find in Acts and also in the teaching of the Reformers. To preach the Word is to announce the good news of Jesus as disclosed in the pages of Scripture. A message that fails at that point cannot be regarded as the Word of God.
Chan draws upon speech-act theory as a tool that helps the church to discern the voice of God in the words of a preacher. Speech-act theorists divide language up into three key elements. Locutions, words or sentences. Illocutions, what a speaker is doing with his or her words. Perlocutions, the effect that words have on hearers. The main thing is that words are never ‘just words’. To speak is to act. Applied to the Bible and preaching, in Scripture we have God’s written words. But God is doing things with these words, such as making promises, laying down commands, or issuing warnings. The illocutionary intentions of God’s words have their appropriate perlocutionary effects as promises are believed, commands obeyed and warnings heeded. Speech-act theory helps safeguard both the propositional and personal aspects of biblical revelation. We have the propositional locutions such as ‘Jesus is Lord’, and also the personal address, ‘believe that Jesus is Lord and follow him’.
Preaching is an act of divine self-communication through a human agent. For preaching to be counted as the Word of God the preacher’s locutions must match those of the gospel given in Scripture. Like the Bereans of Acts 17 the church must “examine the Scriptures, to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11). More than that, those who proclaim the Word of God must also press the practical illocutionary demands of the gospel; repentance, faith and obedience. The preacher, however, cannot secure the perlocutionary effects of gospel proclamation. Only the Holy Spirit can do that.
While Chan’s main focus is on the gospel as the Word of God, the same essential principle applies whatever portion of Scripture is being expounded and applied. That said, no biblical text is explained faithfully unless it it set in the context of the drama of redemption that unfolds in the canon of Scripture as a whole. The preacher, for example, may be expositing the food laws in Leviticus 11, but he will not have preached the food laws unless he relates that chapter to Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7:18-19 and Peter’s experience as recounted in Acts 10 & 11. Then the preacher must press home the key idea of sinners being made clean and included among the people of God by the gospel.
Chan’s conception of the gospel seems to be rather narrow in scope. I am not sure it is right to say that Paul’s teaching on Christ’s coming and the resurrection of the dead in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 are ‘not directly related to the gospel’. That is exactly the good news he proclaimed, 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10.
None the less, I fully agree with the author’s basic thesis. The Reformers were right. Scripture itself teaches that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God, and is to be received as such by the faithful. Speech-act theory helps clarify how that is the case. God as a divine speech-agent communicates his saving word through commissioned human beings to human beings.
But no book on preaching, not even one on the theology of preaching can be regarded as up to the mark if it does not fire us up to preach the Word. In his own terms, Chan may have faithfully re-locuted what Scripture says about preaching as the Word of God, but the illocutionary force of the Bible’s command to ‘preach the Word’ with urgency and boldness is somewhat lacking. The work can be dryly technical. Take Chan’s conclusion, for example,
to preach the gospel as the word of God is to re-locute and re-illocute the divine speech act, the gospel, which itself was once locuted and illocuted by the prophets, Jesus and the apostles, and which now continues to be locuted and illocuted in the canonical Scriptures. (p. 212).
I know what the author means, but that is not a definition of preaching that will inspire busy pastors to preach their hearts out next Lord’s Day. If that was not Chan’s intention in writing on preaching, perhaps it should have been. Since preaching is ‘theology on fire’, we also need a theology that will put fire into our preaching.The practical implications of the view Chan is advocating ought to have been spelled out more fully. The need for the empowering presence of the Spirit upon preacher and hearers alike is mentioned, but not given sufficient weight. Lack of space means writers cannot say everything that they would like, but there is a considerable amount of repetition in chapters 9-10. Choices have to be made on what to leave out and what to include. Less focus on linguistic technicalities and additional practical application would have made this a more useful book for preachers. A theology of preaching should generate heat as well as light.
By all means read Chan. His treatment will help crystallise your thinking on what it means to preach the Word. His discussion of the Reformers’ position and handling of the biblical materials are most helpful. Speech act theory reminds us that the preacher is swept up in the communicative action of the triune God. But you will need to supplement this somewhat theoretical work on preaching with something more soul stirring, like Preaching and Preachers
by D. M. Lloyd-Jones, or practical, such as Preaching Pure and Simple
by Stuart Olyott.
* I am grateful to the author for being kind enough to send me a free review copy.