According to one writer, John Calvin had a view of the role of preaching that could almost be called sacramental. What did Calvin believe theologically about the role of preaching, and how right was he?
Let's take the second question first. Calvin's idea was first of all that the Bible is the Word of God speaking. Note the present tense. The Bible is not simply the record of what God has said, although it's not false when you say that about the Bible; but the Bible is more. The Bible is the means of God's speaking right now, which means that every time the Bible is read privately or in church, the person or persons at the receiving end are being confronted by the Word of the God who speaks. Their attitude and mind should be, What is he saying to me, or to us, right now?
What is God saying to us right now?
Believing that's the nature of Scripture, Calvin understood the preaching office as a matter of relaying what God is saying through the text. That is, you expound the text as you discern its flow and its meaning. You state it, you break it down into little bits and then put it together again. When you've stated what it is that God is telling the congregation, you then make application of what you've said to individual consciences.
Calvin understood the preaching, and the applicational part of the preaching, to be in a derivative sense the word of God. That is, God speaks to you, each one, through the word that I speak to you because the word that I speak to you is my attempt to echo what's there in the text and relay it to you as I've heard it and apply it to you as I, your preacher, see that it needs to be applied for your benefit. Calvin's idea, of course, is that the preacher knows the congregation as a shepherd knows his sheep, and that his drawing out of application from the passage is going to reflect his insight as to what the congregation needs.
So that's Calvin's quasi-sacramental understanding of preaching. I think that he was right. In the books that I've written about biblical authority, I have tried to make clear that Scripture should always be preached and listened to, read, reflected on as the word of the God who here and now is saying what Scripture says. If the utterance from the pulpit is preacher-centered rather than God-centered, if in one way or another the preacher is saying, Listen to me, learn from me, I've got it, I give it to you, that's the preacher getting in God's way, and something has gone wrong with preaching.
I am afraid there are circles today in which that particular form of preaching going wrong is quite frequent. Topical preaching usually errs in this fashion. People take a topic, they appeal to one or two Scriptures to illustrate the topic, they tell stories from their experience and other people's experience to illustrate the topic, but the topic actually is not the precise focus of the text. The texts are being used as a convenience for illuminating the topic rather than being expounded as the Word of God.
We see today people suggesting that preaching should have a less authoritative voice, that it should be dialogical, in the sense of let's talk this all over together. Some are saying that preaching should not have the center place it has had, say, in the Reformed churches, where the pulpit was placed in the center and preaching was seen as the high point of the service. Some suggest that that view of preaching has been part of the problem with the church over the last several hundred years and that there needs to be another way of looking at how we build up Christians with the Word of God. What would be your critique of that?
If the preacher believes that the text of Scripture is the word of the God who is speaking right now, and if he says what the text says, and if he sees himself as no less under the authority of the Word than the congregation, then the old authoritative style of preaching is immediately transformed. You may still preach with very great emphasis, but you preach as someone who is himself under the word.
You brought Calvin into the equation in the way that you put this question. Calvin said, "It would be better for the preacher to fall and break his neck as he goes up into the pulpit, if he is not himself going to be the first to follow God." In missional church circles just as in traditional church circles, that dictum applies. The preacher ought to be quite up front about telling the congregation the significance of what he is doing: "With God's help, I am going to try and open up this passage so that we may all hear what God is saying. I want myself to be the first to hear it, and then I want you all to hear it." That link between text, preacher, and congregation creates a sense of the situation that transcends all this moaning and groaning about preaching being an old-style form of behavior that is unfashionable in these days.
In the way you've answered this question, it sounds as though you're suggesting that the point is not the style of the preaching, per se. The preaching may be dialogical in the sense of being conversational.
The point is, we need to recognize that God is speaking, however we're doing the preaching?
Yes, God is speaking, and our business is to listen and grasp what he's saying, and I the preacher am asking you to join me in that. This togetherness is important in any preaching situation, and, well, yes, it can be dialogical if the preacher keeps control of the situation. But yes, you're right, a lot of the things said about the form of preaching are superficial. I'm talking about the basic dynamics of preaching, which don't change.
J.I. Packer is Board of Governors' professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He has written many books, including Knowing God (IVP, 1993) and In My Place Condemned He Stood (Crossway, 2007), and also served as general editor for the English Standard Version Bible.