As One with Authority: The Mandate of Biblical Exposition
- Monday, November 11, 2013
At the 2013 Expositors Summit at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I preached on Matthew 7:28-29. In that passage, the crowds were astonished at the preaching of Jesus, who preachedas one with authority, and not as their scribes. The Christian preacher must also preach as one with authority, but the authority is not our own, but the authority of the Word of God and the commission of Christ.
On December 12, 2008, I preached a message on the same text and theme to the graduating class of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:
In 1971, just six years after being invited to teach New Testament and preaching at the Graduate Seminary of Phillips University, Fred Craddock put his thoughts on preaching into a book. That book, As One Without Authority, launched something of a revolution in preaching. Craddock proposed that preaching was on trial in the contemporary church, and that it was fast becoming an anachronism.
He reflected that the church might “celebrate the memory of preaching in ways appropriate to her gratitude and to affix plaques on old pulpits as an aid to those who tour the churches.” Yet, he warned, “the church cannot live on the thin diet of fond memories.”
Why did Craddock see such disaster for the pulpit? Among other contributing factors, Craddock cited “the loss of certainty and the increase in tentativeness on the part of the preacher.”
As he explained:
Rarely, if ever, in the history of the church have so many firm periods slumped into commas and so many triumphant exclamation marks curled into question marks. Those who speak with strong conviction on a topic are suspected of the heresy of premature finality. Permanent temples are to be abandoned as houses of idolatry; the true people of God are in tents again. It is the age of journalistic theology; even the Bible is out in paperback.
As a rule, younger ministers are keenly aware of the factors discussed above, and their preaching reflects it. Their predecessors ascended the pulpit to speak of the eternal certainties, truths etched forever in the granite of absolute reality, matters framed for proclamation, not for discussion. But where have all the absolutes gone? The old thunderbolts rust in the attic while the minister tries to lead his people through the morass of relativities and proximate possibilities, and the difficulties involved in finding and articulating a faith are not the congregation’s alone; they are the minister’s as well. How can he preach with a changing mind? How can he, facing new situations by the hour, speak the approximate word? He wants to speak and yet he needs more time for more certainty before speaking. His is often the misery of one who is always pregnant but never ready to give birth.
Craddock’s eloquent way of describing this looming disaster in the pulpit still impresses: periods turned to commas and exclamation points curled into question marks; thunderbolts are left in the attic as the preacher suffers as one pregnant but never able to give birth. This is an eloquent warning, but it is a seductive eloquence.
Professor Craddock’s warning retains the ring of the contemporary almost four decades after it was sounded. His description of the pulpit’s problem remains cogent and even prophetic when we observe the emaciated state of preaching in far too many churches. The last thing one expects to hear from many pulpits is a thunderbolt.
The title of Craddock’s book says it all: As One Without Authority. The biblical reference is all too clear. In Matthew 7:28-29 we read, “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”
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