Preaching and the Prophetic Office

A. Clear Heads and Holy Hearts

What John Henry Newman meant when he spoke of the “prophetic office” runs somewhat askew of modern scholarly accounts of prophecy. Theologians today tend to think, when confronted by the word “prophet,” of a figure like Amos or Jeremiah or Martin Luther King, someone who speaks truth to power, who bears God’s word as a two-edged sword of warning and comfort. The message of the prophet, so it is said, is God’s living word, a dynamic word, not a statement informing us about God. What Newman meant, however, when he spoke of the prophetical office of the Church was not a figure like Amos or Jeremiah, but more someone like Thomas Aquinas or the authors of the Baltimore Catechism or (in his Anglican days) the Thirty-nine Articles. In other words, for Newman, the prophetic office of the Church was the teaching office—what Catholics call the magisterium—which has the role of thinking through and formulating doctrine. Newman did not think that this was unrelated to the task of the preacher, for as anyone who has read any of Newman’s own sermons knows, he saw the task of the preacher to be not simply to move hearts, but to inform minds, or, more precisely, to convey to the Christian faithful “the critical judgments of clear heads and holy hearts”[1] that are the teachings of the Church.

While this understanding of the prophetic office and of the task of the preacher runs counter to many of our intuitions, I want to argue that there is something profoundly right about it. Of course, we live in a cultural moment in which the term “doctrine” is right up there with gum disease as something that people want to have in their lives. We have all had enough encounters with people who are spiritual but not religious, whose karma ran over their dogma, who are convinced (often prior to any actual investigation) that all religions say basically the same thing, to know that linking preaching to doctrine is going to be an upstream swim. Part of the cultural challenge of the prophetic office of the Church is that in America we like to separate questions of behavior—i.e. “being a good person”—from questions of truth, not least because America was founded on the proposition that we could all live together without agreeing on ultimate truths.[2]

My Unitarian neighbor and I may not agree on the Holy Trinity, but we can sure as heck coach little league together, and that seems to be an activity that fosters sufficient civic virtue to keep American going. While it has worked OK so far, commentators as early as Alexis de Tocqueville in the early nineteenth century suggested that this was because American were drawing upon a residual moral consensus rooted in Christianity. But it seems uncontroversial to observe that this consensus is just about vanished, which is a cause for much hand-wringing in some quarters (as well as calls to restore America as a “Christian nation”). Whether or not the collapse of a cultural moral consensus rooted in Christianity is a bad thing, at the very least it reopens for Christians the question of whether a consensus on being a good person can really be separated from a consensus on truth concerning ultimate ends. And with this is reopened the question of the relation of doctrine to preaching.

Of course those of us who think that preaching is inherently doctrinal often have only ourselves to blame for those people who rejoice in their karma having run over their (or, often, somebody else’s) dogma. Too often we have been so concerned with Newman’s “clear head” that we have forgotten his “holy heart.” The historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot writes of ancient philosophy as not simply a “discourse” but a “way of life.” Philosophical discourse—the articulated teachings of the philosophers—is in service to a life devoted to loving wisdom, which is fostered not only through discourse but also through a variety of what Hadot is not afraid to call “spiritual exercises.”[3] What Hadot says about ancient philosophy is no less true, I would argue, about theology. Theological discourse—doctrine—is in service to a life devoted to loving the incarnate wisdom of God, Jesus Christ. This is not to say that doctrines have only pragmatic value, such that their truth would be a function of their practical effect in, for example, promoting human liberation or conserving Western values. But it is to say that the truths conveyed in our doctrines ought to produce not only clear heads who can distinguish Nicene orthodoxy from both Sabellianism and Arianism, but also holy hearts who can live the truth of the eternal communion that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by loving God and our neighbor as ourself.

To my mind two exemplary exercises of this prophetic office of the Church can be found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth. Thomas wrote his Summa Theologiae not simply as an exercise in speculative theology (though it contains plenty of that) but as something like a teaching manual for those who would instruct young Dominican Friars as they began their formation for the tasks of preaching and the care of souls.[4] Right in the middle of the Summa, in the so-called Secunda Pars, Thomas integrates a treatment of human action and virtue and vice that is of extraordinary scope and depth. In Newman’s terms, Thomas sought in his Summa to help form preachers with clear heads, who could do more than parrot back doctrinal formulation but truly grasp their meaning and implication, but he also sought to form preachers with holy hearts, who knew God as their ultimate end and had the practical wisdom to guide souls in acquiring virtue and avoiding vice.

Barth likewise—albeit in a very different way—sought to integrate ethical reflection into his Church Dogmatics. Barth argued that “The one Word of God is both Gospel and Law . . . It is the Gospel which contains and encloses the Law as the ark of the covenant the tables of Sinai.”[5] Thus the truth of the Gospel, the truth of Jesus Christ as the mediator between God and humanity, carries within it our human response to that truth. For Barth, authentic preaching of God’s Word included a word concerning our obligations to neighbors near and far.

We probably cannot preach in our day the way that Thomas Aquinas preached in his day (trust me, I have read all of his sermons and you do not want to preach that way) or even the way that Barth preached in his. But it is important that we emulate them at least to the degree that we seek out ways of exercising the prophetic office of the Church as an office of instruction in truth and not simply of moral exhortation. This runs counter to our culture’s tendency to desire preaching and teaching that is “practical” and “relevant” and connected to the “real world.” While I do not think that we should seek to foster preaching that is impractical, irrelevant, or delusional, I do think that we need to be cautious about letting the world dictate the terms on which we judge our preaching to be such. In this way both Aquinas and Barth can be models for us of preaching that is relevant precisely because it is grounded in doctrine—the “holy teaching” that is the story of God.

B. Doctrine and/as Culture

I now want to turn specifically to the question of doctrine and culture, after which I will take up the question of preaching and culture. In 1984 George Linbeck published his short but extremely influential book The Nature of Doctrine.[6] In this book, he proposed that two approaches to doctrine had dominated modern theology. The first he called the “cognitive-propositionalist” approach, which treats doctrines as statements intended to convey factual information, whose truth value derived from their correspondence to the facts that they claimed to convey. For the propositonalist approach, truth is judged by what philosophers call the “disquotational criteria”: thus, just as “the cat is on the mat” is true if and only if the cat is on the mat; so too “the Son is homoousious with the Father” is true if and only if the Son is homoousious with the Father. This is what most would identify as the “conservative” approach to doctrine. The second approach Lindbeck called “experiential expressivist,” which treats doctrines as symbols that give form and expression to an inner religious experience that is prior to linguistic formulation, symbols whose truth-value is derived from their ability to express that inner experience. Thus, the doctrine that the Son is homoousious with the Father is true if and only if it conveys my experience of having my God consciousness awakened in an unsurpassable way by religious symbols that find their origin in Jesus (or something of that sort). This is what most would identify as the “liberal” approach to doctrine.

Lindbeck, speaking explicitly from the perspective of an ecumenist who was seeking to understand how conflicting doctrinal formulations could be reconciled without giving up on the notion of doctrinal truth, judged both of these approaches to be inadequate to the task at hand. The cognitive-propositionalist offers no way of accounting for reconciling conflicting doctrinal statements: if I say that the cat is on the mat and you say that the dog is on the mat, and there is only one animal on the mat, then, for the cognitive propositionalist, at least one of us is simply wrong. The experiential-expressivist has no trouble accounting for how conflicting doctrinal statements might both be true, since both might be adequately expressing an internal religious experience. But what the experiential-expressivist cannot offer is any reason why one would want to engage in the work of reconciling conflicting doctrinal statements in the first place.

So Lindbeck proposed a third approach, which he describes variously as the “regulative” approach and the “cultural-linguistic” approach. This approach treats doctrines neither as factual propositions nor as expressive symbols, but as “communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action.”[7] A doctrine is true to the extent that in a given context it allows Christians to affirm that which they want to affirm. Thus the doctrine that the Son is homoousious with the Father is true inasmuch as it directs Christians toward a Christological maximalism (i.e. ascribing the most exalted status possible to Christ) while maintaining monotheism; two fundamental Christian convictions that undergird what are perhaps even more fundamental practices, such as the worship of Jesus Christ or the claim that those who are in Christ are a new creation.[8]

Lindbeck describes the view of religion that underlies this account of doctrine as “cultural-linguistic” because it treats a religion as something like a cultural-linguistic system and “stresses the degree to which human experience is shaped, molded, and in a sense constituted by cultural and linguistic forms.”[9] I do not hold certain doctrinal positions because I have particular religious experiences; rather, I have certain religious experiences because I hold particular doctrinal positions.

No less than Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (discussed earlier here), Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine has been in equal measure influential and criticized. Some traditionalists think that, in rejecting propositionalism, Lindbeck has given up on truth, trading his dogmatic birthright for a mess of ecumenical pottage. Some progressives think that, in criticizing expressivism, Lindbeck is making normative a set of doctrines that are both incredible and oppressive to modern people, yet impossible to change because there is no religious experience prior to doctrine against which to measure it. Still others have objected that his theory of language and culture is insufficiently sophisticated and combines a number of positions from philosophers, linguists, and anthropologists that are in fact incompatible.

While I think there may be something to these criticisms (especially the third), I also think there is something right in Lindbeck’s proposal, at least to the degree that he sees the Church as something like a culture. As I argued earlier, one of the difficulties in speaking of “Church and culture” is that it can give the impression that the Church and her teachings are a reality that somehow floats free from culture, grounded either in a transcultural truth to which they refer or in a universal religious experience that they express. Lindbeck’s proposal might lead us to think of the relationship between Church teaching and culture more along the lines of an intercultural encounter than as an a-cultural reality seeking to clothe itself in cultural forms.

Let me offer an example of how this might lead us to think differently about the nature and history of Church teachings. The typical nineteenth and twentieth century scholarly (by which I mean “German” and “Protestant”) approach to the development of Christology is that it represented a process of the Gospel being “Hellenized”—i.e. clothed in the thought forms of Greek philosophy. Thus in the Council of Nicaea’s decision to employ a non-biblical term—homoousios—to speak of Christ’s relationship to the Father there was a fateful marriage made between the essence of the Gospel and Greek thought, whereby the dynamic and personalist categories of scripture were replaced with the more static and abstract categories of Platonism.

The moral to be drawn, these scholars thought, was that if the essence of the Gospel could be clothed in Greek categories in the fourth century, that same Gospel could be stripped of these categories and re-clothed in new categories in the twentieth—whether they be drawn from Kantian ethics or Hegelian metaphysics (or, more recently, non-Western cosmologies or Marxist dialectical materialism). The Church’s doctrine relates to culture by clothing itself in that culture’s conceptuality. The Church was not wrong to express itself in Greek thought forms in the ancient world, but it would be a disaster to continue to do so in the modern world.

But what if this way of thinking about doctrine is wrong—not simply historically wrong about the putative “Hellenization” of Christianity,[10] but conceptually wrong in how it thinks about doctrine and culture? What if the encounter between doctrine and culture is not like a thought being expressed in language, but more like two language systems interacting, mutually adapting, hybridizing. When the Norman French and the Anglo Saxons began their not-always-happy coexistence in 1066AD, it was a confrontation not merely of people but of language and culture. Certain elements of vocabulary and grammar from each language began to crop up in the other and while the two cultures kept their distance for a while, eventually by the late Middle Ages there began to emerge a single language (albeit variously spoken) that today we call English.

Something like this is involved in doctrinal development. When Christians confronted the Hellenistic world it was not a matter of a pure essence of the Gospel taking on a cultural form; rather, it was a moment in a cultural encounter that was already underway, since the first century Judaism from which Christianity grew was already in various degrees Hellenized. Our earliest example of Christian discourse about Jesus is already in Greek and the further engagement with the thought world of the eastern Mediterranean was simply a continuation of that process.

If there is anything remarkable about the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the late ancient world it is the degree to which the positions that later came to be identified as orthodox resisted much of what might have seemed natural in a Greek cultural context: the Arian positioning of the Logos as a semi-divine figure mediating between God and the world, the Docetic and Apollinarian picture of Jesus as a god in human disguise, the Nestorian view of Jesus as a human person possessed of a divine daimon.[11] Any of these would have fit better with typical Hellenistic philosophy and religion than did the doctrines of Nicaea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon.

Furthermore, the encounter of Christianity and Greek philosophy changed Greek philosophy, introducing, for example, new notions of personhood and substance. While there certainly was an appropriation of Greek philosophical vocabulary and habits of thought, the influence did not simply flow one way. The encounter was one of mutual transformation, so that to suggest that we could now “de-Hellenize” doctrine by removing what was appropriated would be like suggesting that we could remove the French elements from the English language to restore its Anglo Saxon essence. As the Church moves into the future, her Hellenistic borrowings—just like, in the West, her Latinate culture—are a permanent part of the doctrine of the Church that she can and must bring with her into any new cultural encounters.

C. Preaching in and to a Culture

So if Church teachings function less like propositional statements or expressive symbols and more like rules within a cultural-linguistic system, how does this teaching get transmitted to God’s people? The old adage lex orandi stat lex credendi not withstanding, liturgy is not primarily a means for transmitting doctrine but rather for worshipping God. It belongs, as we have seen, to the priestly and not the prophetic office of the Church. Certainly liturgy can be the place where people imbibe the ethos of the Christian faith, but doctrine is also a matter of logos: not just holy hearts, but also clear heads. While preaching is in some sense a liturgical act, it is less highly-coded than the rest of the liturgy; it operates, if you will, on a more colloquial level precisely because its power is connected to its intelligibility. It is through preaching that doctrine informs the life of the Church and the Church’s proclamation to the world and it is in preaching that we find a particularly intense point of cultural encounter.

Even if one agrees with Lindbeck that religions are like cultural-linguistic systems, it seems undeniable that, as we have seen in the case of the development of Trinitarian theology and Christology, no religion is a closed system, unrelated to other cultures and languages. To once again invoke Mary Midgely, crossing the boundaries between cultures is less like crossing a state line and more like passing from one ecosystem to another. And, as I also noted earlier, none of us lives entirely within a single cultural linguistic framework; cultural blending plays out in the lives of individuals, who find themselves with multiple cultural belongings. Particularly today, in a context of nearly instant communication, massive migrations of peoples, and ongoing social fragmentation, the phenomenon of cultural encounter is something that each of us lives internally. I am not just one thing but belong to multiple communities that form and claim my identity.

This is, I think, highly relevant to the task of preaching. It has, I believe, always been the case that preaching differs from liturgy in that, while the latter operates for the most part with its own ritual vocabulary and according to its own ritual grammar (efforts at inculturation not withstanding), preaching is a place of linguistic hybridization, where the language of doctrine collides with the language of the day as the Word becomes flesh in the here and now. And it collides with the language of the day because both the congregation and the preacher bring into the event of preaching their multiple belongings, the unique cultural encounters that make up their identities. All within the assembly may claim the identity of Christian, but they are also baseball enthusiasts, opera buffs, horticulturalists, historical preservationists, feminists, hipsters, Republicans, transgender activists, medical professionals, union members, and so forth. Some of these identities might be nothing more than a hobby, but some are (rightly or wrongly, and almost surely wrongly) as significant, or possibly more significant, in people’s lives as their identity as Christian is.

All of these connect members of the assembly to communities other than the Church that claim them with varying degrees of intensity. All of these give them stories other than the Gospel through which to interpret their lives. And in order to preach effectively, we must let the story of the Gospel collide with these other stories, confident that however good those other stories might be, the Gospel is better. And it is better not because the other stories are bad (though they might be) but because the Gospel has the power to include those other stories within its own narrative, whether it narrates them as stories of sin from which Christ frees us or as stories of God’s prevenient grace preparing the earth of the heart for the seed of the Gospel. But in order to draw those stories into the Gospel story, the preacher must know those stories, must know how they run and where grace and sin are made manifest in them.

Preaching from a conviction of the Gospel’s power to assimilate other stories, of the Church’s capacity to include within it a multiplicity of other cultural identities, is preaching that aims to gather the fragments of our lives and forge for people a coherent identity in Christ. The concatenation of various subcultural identities that we call our “self” is inherently unstable apart from an overarching story and a community that bears that story. We each feel this instability, though we often think of it as simply “being busy” as we run from Opening Day to a performance of Aïda while having to skip our horticultural society meeting. But the problem is not simply a time crunch, but rather our struggle to give each of our loyalties, each of our identities, its due. But the only way to do this is to find some way to order them in relationship to each other, and this requires some way to fit them into a larger story. This is what the Church offers in her preaching: a story big enough to order our various loves and loyalties into a coherent identity.

This means preaching must be something more than an occasion for telling amusing or interesting stories. It must tell the story: the story of God’s love for the world taking flesh in Israel, Christ, and the Church. It must tell that story in a way that is rooted in the Church’s doctrine, but it must also tell it in relation to other stories, the stories that accompany the multiple identities that make up our lives. This means that the preacher must know those other stories. He or she must know those who make up the Christian assembly, know their loves and loyalties, know their tensions and struggles, and know how the promise of the Gospel speaks to all of these.

I do not have a lot of concrete advice that I give out on preaching, but one thing I do say is that in preparing to preach one should think of particular people in the congregation, what has been happening in their lives, what joys and hopes, what grief and anxieties, and then ask, what do the scriptures have to say to this person? The person one thinks of may very well not be there when the sermon is preached. But almost certainly someone with similar joys and hopes, grief and anxieties will be there, and in this way preaching avoids becoming mired in vague generalities and pious platitudes, but has an edge that has a better chance of actually cutting into the stuff of real life.

The prophetic office of the Church, however, involves not only preaching to those within the Church so as to form their identities in Christ; it also involves the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel to the world. This involves the work of evangelization, but also the attempt to reduce the amount of sheer misery in the world. Here we see perhaps something of the image of the prophet with which I began: the Amos or Jeremiah or Martin Luther King who unleashes the living word of God in order to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Much of the Church’s “political” role is exercised under the rubric of the royal office and I will discuss this in the next part of this series. But there are a few things about politics and the prophetic office of the Church that need comment.

There is a dual temptation that attends the exercise of the prophetic office within the political sphere. One is to the temptation to mistake a particular partisan social agenda—whether conservative or progressive—for the Gospel. It has become something of a cliché to say that the Church’s vision of social justice does not find a natural spot on the American political spectrum, but it is no less true for being a cliché. Being a prophet is not a matter of finding an agenda and promoting it in the name of the Gospel. The other temptation is to see the world as nothing but a wasteland of error in which the Church alone has a true word to speak. There are things afoot in the world both to affirm and to reject.

Those inclined to affirm can get carried away with their enthusiasm for saying “yes,” while those inclined to reject can take an unholy relish in saying “no.” In preaching to the world we must know both when to say “yes” and when to say “no,” but we should always say “yes” with a certain reserve, knowing that no worldly achievement is the arrival of the kingdom, and say “no” with a certain sadness, because we may be denying people something they are convinced will make them very happy. Here too, we see how the prophetic office of the Church requires both clear heads and holy hearts as we seek to find our way through the complicated cultural encounter by which God’s Word takes flesh in preaching and teaching.

[1] Newman, “Preface” to The Via Media, lxvv.

[2] For a lengthy philosophical defense of this proposition see John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

[3] See Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2004).

[4] See Leonard Boyle, The Setting of the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1982).

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2: The Doctrine of God, 511.

[6] George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Westminster/John Knox 1984).

[7] Ibid., 18.

[8] Ibid., 94.

[9] Ibid., 34.

[10] For a brief critique from a historical perspective of the “Hellenization thesis” as it applies to early Christological developments, see Larry Hurtado, Honoring the Son: Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018).

[11] This was at least the view that those who resisted Nestorius’s formulation of the relation of humanity and divinity in Christ believed themselves to be rejecting; whether this was in fact the view of Nestorius himself is a separate question.

Featured Image: Vittore Carpaccio, The Sermon of St. Stephen, 1514; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Frederick Bauerschmidt

Frederick Bauerschmidt is Professor of Theology at Loyola University Maryland and a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, assigned to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. He is most recently the author of The Love That Is God: An Invitation to Christian Faith.

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