The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Preaching that gets through

with 3 comments

I spent yesterday in London at London Theological Seminary. For most of the day I was involved in the Theology Study Group under the auspices of the John Owen Centre. We were studying The Marrow of Modern Divinity (a brief review of this excellent book is here). I then repaired to the hospitable home of Gary Brady from whence I return for the Martyn Lloyd-Jones Memorial Lecture for 2010, delivered by Stuart Olyott. As ever, Stuart was clear and engaging, and I felt the stab of conscience on a number of fronts. Here is a summary of his address:

Preaching That Gets Through

An African friend visited who had never seen the sea. On standing atop a low cliff, a wave sprang up before him, and with great excitement he declared that he had now seen the sea. Of course, he had seen only the smallest part of the vast oceans, but it nevertheless gripped his being. We will see only a small element of the whole, but we trust it will grip our beings in a similar fashion.

I. A quiz

Are the following statements true or false?

1. “Words are powerful things.” True.

2. “Words are units of writing which are the smallest units of language that we can isolate, and which may or may not be spoken.” False. Transpose the writing and the speaking and we understand that speaking comes before writing. We must not write sermons to be spoken (i.e. read written English) but we might write in order to attain clarity for what must then be spoken as spoken English.

3. “Words are powerless to raise the spiritually dead unless accompanied by the omnipotent energy of the Holy Spirit.” True.

4. All this said, as we use words, there are ways of getting through and of not getting through, and these are appointed by God.” True.

5. “These ways of getting through can be learned.” True.

6. “However, the Holy Spirit is no more likely to accompany the ways of getting through than of not getting through.” False. God is not arbitrary, and we should expect to see a connection between the means used and the ends achieved.

7. “Our study can be limited to two areas: the what and the how of preaching.” False.

II. Aristotle and Paul

Aristotle was a rhetorician who lived from about 384-322 bc. He identified three characteristics of effective speech that have been present in just about every treatment of the topic since, from a secular or a religious perspective.

1. Ethos. This is imputed credibility. It is the sense of those hearing that a man has something important to say and some right to say it. We might call it ethical appeal.

2. Pathos. This speaks of a man taken up with his hearers. He cares both for what he says and for those to whom he is saying it. We might call it emotional appeal.

3. Logos. This is the content and structure of what a man has to say, its flow and development, its constituent elements directed toward a particular end. We might call it logical appeal.

However, Aristotle only takes us so far. We come up against Scripture:

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? (1Cor 1.17-20)

And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1Cor 2.1-5)

It is clear from his work that ethos, pathos and logos mattered to the writer of these words, but also that they were not sufficient. He also desired dunamis. In the words of John Livingstone, who knew something of this power in preaching: “There is sometimes somewhat in preaching that cannot be ascribed either to the matter or expression, and cannot be described what it is, or from whence it cometh, but with a sweet violence it pierceth into the heart and affections, and comes immediately from the Lord. But if there be any way to attain to such thing, it is by a heavenly disposition of the speaker.”

This power is of an entirely different order to the other elements in preaching that is heard. It overarches and imbues all the other elements of holy rhetoric.

Paul’s employment of ethos was not the Greek notion of bolstering one’s own reputation in the world, but rather an integrity to which he could and did appeal, and which was pleasing to God. Such integrity delivers from hypocrisy, which God will not bless. It incarnates what a man preaches, and makes him credible before the people to whom he speaks.

His pursuit of pathos was not the cultivation of manipulation with a view to compliance in his audience, but a Christlike fellow-feeling with men, a readiness to weep and to rejoice with them. Deep sincerity carried along compelling truth in the display of a true humanity.

His cultivation of logos was not with the aim of impressing people with his erudition, displaying his rhetorical knowledge and skill, dazzling with style, but the pursuit of clarity for the sake of the gospel, setting forth God’s nature and demands, answering objections, progressing reasonably, employing proofs, demonstrating his argument, applying in concrete fashion.

But he also depended on dunamis: to the Greek, if a man were not persuaded by an orator, the fault lay in the rhetorician – he had somehow failed rightly to employ his tools. Paul, however, knew that there was a largely indefinable but absolutely indispensable element: when a man preaches, only God can give the increase. It lies in the hand of God to give this power, and it is obtained only by asking. For this reason [Stuart opined] there was no real preaching until after Pentecost. The apostles knew no lasting spiritual accomplishments without the blessing of God, and so they sought it constantly:

And being let go, they went to their own companions and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: “Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said: ‘Why did the nations rage, And the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, And the rulers were gathered together Against the LORD and against His Christ.’ For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done. Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4.23-31)

We see the demonstration of all these things, for example, in the sermon of Stephen to the Sanhedrin. Stephen demonstrates ethos, pathos and logos, but is also in possession of dunamis, being a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6.5).

Do you, then, pray to preach in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power? Will you wrestle with God to obtain the blessing? Will you rely upon the Lord? Will you remain unsatisfied until it can be said of you, “The Lord blessed him there”?

III. Upside-down thinking

All this being so, how do we proceed? Upside-down thinking might help. It is the process whereby one asks not, “How do I make a success of this?” but “How can I make a failure?” and then pursues the opposites of the answers. So a restaurant might conclude that ways to fail would include rank food in a grotty environment served by surly waiters offered at times when no one is hungry from a dingy building which no one can find and where no one can park. They then do the opposite of all these things to obtain success.

Preachers might apply upside-down thinking to the elements identified before: how can we fail with regard to ethos, pathos, logos, and dunamis?

With regard to ethos, the golden rule is keep your distance. In other words, prevent close knowledge of yourself; avoid contact with the people to whom you preach; resist everything that tends to credibility and affection; draw a veil over your life.

With regard to pathos, the golden rule is show no feeling. Resist feeling anything about what you are saying or for whom you are saying it. Use no affectionate words and demonstrate no regard; shun empathy. Ignore their circumstances. Never tell stories; ignore imagination; avoid application. Use jargon. Avoid all displays of humanity.

With regard to logos, the golden rule is don’t work too hard. Let there be no exegesis, structure, reasoning, evidences, or conclusions. Let all truth be declared without any stimulation to the heart. Treat all topics equally: especially, never let anyone imagine that the gospel is your priority. Leave all you speak in the abstract. Deliver an unappealing lump of abstract propositions in a grey monotone.

With regard to dunamis, the golden rule is ignore it completely. Conclude that good men differ sufficiently over its precise nature that you can and should safely neglect it. Avoid the issue altogether. Flee all that is mystical. Neglect prayer, absolutely if possible. Save your time and energy in this regard. Abandon once-and-for-all any desire for or pursuit of power in preaching.

And then you will be a magnificent failure.

Do you get the point?

We have been standing on the shore of the ocean of preaching. We have seen only a tiny part of the great vastness of the topic. May it refresh us and grip us, and give us a desire for more.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 28 September 2010 at 10:08

3 Responses

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  1. If the notes are a taster – then you will have been blessed indeed.

    Thanks for the summary


    Tuesday 28 September 2010 at 12:56

  2. We’re off to hear Stuart Olyott next week God willing when he’s over in the province….on preaching. Looking forward to it even more now!


    Tuesday 28 September 2010 at 19:07

  3. Ah the Peppinos!

    Glad I just skimmed the post. Very good and helpful stuff wasn’t it.


    Friday 8 October 2010 at 07:09

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