My 500th Posting!!!! Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star…

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500 posts, and yes, I’ll admit, they are a mixture of the good, the bad and the (very) ugly!  But for this milestone I thought I’d post something short and sweet.

BARTHIt is a comment made after preaching by the greatest Protestant theologian, Karl Barth.  I like this because it mocks reductionist simpleton Christianity with a very clever retort to a man at the door who had just listened to his sermon.  It is winsome and smart apologetics at its best:

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P. T. Forsyth a Man of Faith

See the short video (June 2019) on The Fuel Cast, filmed at Torre Abbey ruins, Torquay.

Who was P. T. Forsyth?

Peter Taylor Forsyth was born in Aberdeen, Scotland on this day in 1848 to a working-class family, and was educated there through his university years.  Afterwards, he became a Congregationalist minister serving in five successive congregations in England at Shipley, London, Manchester, Leicester and Cambridge.  

 

 

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Banishing Amiable Religiosity

During his 1907 Lyman Beecher lectures on preaching at Yale University* (these lectures became his classic Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind), Forsyth shared the three ways in which he thought the Church suffers:  i. from triviality.  ii. from uncertainty.  iii. from satisfaction (with itself, or more specifically, complacency).

He later went on in that address to emerging pastors and preachers to make this statement:  “What we need is not the dechurching of Christianity, but the Christianizing of the Church.”  This was his answer to the three ways the church suffers.  But how was this to happen?  Here’s what he said and he may well have been speaking yesterday:

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Chicken Preaching, Flat Mountains and Glorious Contradictions

Chicken Preaching, Flat Mountains and Glorious Contradictions

The funny guys at Babyon Bee have hit on a Forsythian nerve of mine.  The headline ‘Half Of Congregation Dies Of Starvation As Sermon Goes 15 Minutes Over Time‘ is brilliant satire, as are almost all of their other articles; a much welcome relief to the tedium of seriousness we Protestants can so easily find ourselves embroiled in; relieved only by the annual church Barn Dance (this comment is also satire….or is it)?

My first thought upon reading the title was remembering two theological giants famous for, among many other things, their preaching.  The first, John Stott, metaphorically places the nail underneath the fast approaching hammer:John_stott

“Basically it is not the length of a sermon which makes the congregation impatient for it to stop, but the tedium of a sermon in which even the preacher himself appears to be taking very little interest.”

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Right Pitching in Preaching

“I remember one minister for education urging that ‘Britain was the only nation on earth where cleverness was despised’. In other European countries, for example France and Germany, cleverness is sought after and prized. The glorification of educational backwardness, then, is part of a localised British decadence or hedonism that is inconsistent with biblical Christianity.

On this point the stress on ‘right-pitching’ from the pulpit in our churches is potentially confused with the rebellious suppression of the truth which Paul speaks about in Romans 1:18, or with ‘keeping the congregation as babies’ in line with sinful parent-child models of leadership. Right pitching always seeks to ‘move on’ those in the congregation to the next level of understanding. If ‘pitching’ always remains low, then people are not prepared for the complexities of the trials they face in life. When trouble comes, the ‘cartoon’ Christianity they have been fed proves to be hopelessly inadequate and they often fall away. The excuse is often given by ministers that ‘people will not understand’, but this is often nothing more than a patronising assumption that people are stupid.

 

Some, of course, want to remain ‘as babes’ because they do not wish to be alerted to subtle distortions in their own relational patterns. Right pitching, however, combines intelligibility with the introduction of the new, the more advanced, the ‘not completely understood already’. As the famous philosopher Wittgenstein said, in order for learning and growth to occur, more than mere ‘information’ is required. There has to be a gradual increase in the sophistication of the very categories by which people process ‘new information’.

In my second year at Junior school (age 8-9), we did maths using the ‘A2’ textbook. I remember looking at the ‘A3’ text book and thinking ‘flippin’ ‘eck, that looks difficult!’ Yet, in no way was it ‘unwise’ for me to progress from A2 level to A3 level. In no sense did my teacher think, ‘hmm, yes – we’d better keep the class at A2 level because that’s what they can understand’.

In other words, advancement into the ‘at-present-unintelligible’ was right and normal. And that’s for children, let alone adults. Just as we are born, and require education, so when we are born again, we require re-education. Just as it would be wrong to prohibit education beyond 8-9 year-old level, so it is wrong to prohibit biblical re-education beyond ‘spiritual baby’ level. It may be culturally fashionable, but it panders to parent-child patterns of leadership control that are inappropriate for those progressing towards spiritual adulthood.”

Dr Robert Knowles

 

The Ancients on, and in defence of, Preaching

Martin Luther (1520):  “The soul can do without anything except the Word of God. . . . The Word is the gospel of God concerning his Son . . . To preach Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it….The Word of God cannot be received . . . by any works whatever, but only by faith.”

John Wycliffe (14th c.):  “A Christian should speak Scripture’s words on Scripture’s authority in the form that Scripture displays. . . .The pastor has a three-fold office: first, to feed his sheep spiritually on the Word of God . . . ; second . . . to purge wisely the sheep of disease . . . ; third . . . to defend his sheep from ravening wolves . . . . Sowing the Word of God among his sheep. . . All the duties of the pastor, after justice of life, holy preaching is most to be praised . . . Preaching the gospel exceeds prayer and administration of the sacraments to an infinite degree.”

Alain of Lille (12th c.):  “Preaching should not contain jesting words, or childish remarks, or . . . that which results from . . . rhythms . . . These are better fitted to delight the ear than to edify the soul.  Such preaching is theatrical and full of buffoonery, and in every way to be condemned.”

Hugh Latimer (16th c.):  “Though a preacher be well learned, yet if he lacks that boldness and is faith-hearted, truly he will do but little good . . . When he fears men more than God, he is nothing to be regarded. . . . A preacher is like a ploughman who must first break up the soil; then he plants and waters the seed, to produce a right faith, sometimes weeding them by telling them their faults . . . breaking their stony hearts [so as to] tell them God’s promises to soft hearts. . . .Some are negligent in discharging their office or have done it fraudulently, [making] people ill. . . Many are involved in devilish ploughing, saying, “down with Christ’s cross” and “up with purgatory.  Only Christ made purgation and satisfaction.”

John Newton (19th c. – on prayer but works equally for preaching):  “Even in the exercise of prayer we profess to draw near to the Lord, the consideration that his eye has little power to . . . prevent our thoughts from wandering . . . to the ends of the earth.  What should we think of a person who, being admitted into the king’s presence, upon business of the greatest importance, should break off in the midst of his address, to pursue a butterfly?”

P. T. Forsyth (19th-20th c.):  “The orator, at most, may urge men to love their brother, the preacher beseeches them first to be reconciled to their Father.  With preaching, Christianity stands or falls because it is the declaration of a gospel.  Nay, more – far more; it is the gospel prolonging and declaring itself. . . I note that the Catholic revival of last century (19th), is coincident with complaints elsewhere of the decay of preaching.  And if this decay is not preaching itself, there is no doubt of the fact in regard to the pulpit’s estimate and influence with the public.  Even if the churches are no less full than before, the people who are there are much less amenable to the preached Word, and more fatally urgent for its brevity. . . . But the great reason why the preacher must return continually to the Bible is that the Bible is the greatest sermon in the world. . . . The Bible, therefore, is there as the medium of the gospel. . . . If we ask what is a modern Christian theology, it is the gospel taking the age seriously, with a real, sympathetic and informed effort to understand it. . . . It takes its stand neither on the spirit of the age, nor on the Christian consciousness, nor on the Christian principle, but on the historic and whole New Testament Christ. . . . . This is actually Luther’s test – does this or that passage ply Christ, preach Christ.”

The notion of “prophecy”

“The notion of “prophecy,” as this is understood by various generations of readers (1 Thess 5:19) does not accord with a widespread and popular view today.  Many today regard this in either of two ways which partly diverge from mainline tradition.  Some regard prophecy primarily as predictions of the future; others adopt the classical Pentecostal sense of viewing prophecy as a spontaneous, staccato-like, pronouncement made from within a congregation.  Thomas Gillespie, and others argue that, by contrast, it often constitutes pastoral, applied preaching which conveys the gospel.

This view can be found “throughout the centuries” as the normal interpretation among the church fathers, Aquinas, Calvin, John Wesley, James Denney and many others.  Ambrosiaster and Augustine see “prophecy” as explanatory exposition of scripture (Augustine, On the Psalms 76.4; NPNF1 8.361).  Thomas Aquinas asserts that “prophesying” (1 Thess 5:19) “may be understood as divine doctrine . . . Those who explain doctrine are called prophets . . . ‘Do not despise preachers'” (Commentary, 52).

Calvin declares, “Prophecy means the art of interpreting scripture” (60).  Estius insists that it does not mean “private interpretation” (Commentarius, 2.592).  Matthew Henry remarks, “By prophecyings here we understand the preaching of the word, the interpreting and applying of the scriptures” (Concise Commentary on 1 Thess 5:19-20).  John Wesley writes, “Prophecyings, that is preaching (Notes, 694).  James Denney says of the prophet, “He was a Christian preacher” (Thessalonians, 239).  Such an army of witnesses might suggest that further thought is needed, before we readily endorse either of these two more popular views of what 1 Thess. 5:19 and similar passages mean about “prophecy.”

Introduction, pg. 5-6