Official Publication of the LMS-USA
Volume 12, Number 3
In this Issue:
Summary of 2005 Conference Presentations Lutheran Ministerium and Synod - USA
by Rev. Richard W. Horn
The LMS-USA Conference of 2005 reflected the historical importance of the Augsburg Confession 475 years earlier (1530) and the Book of Concord 425 years earlier (1580). To give the Augsburg Confession its proper importance in the life of the Church, it is necessary to see it in historical context, in ecclesiastical context, and in contemporary context especially in Lutheranism today. A tall order, indeed! But with presentations by pastors and laymen, by adult leaders and by the youth attending the Youth Conference, the Augsburg Confession was given a proper review and the Church received an appropriate reminder of the role of the Augsburg Confession in the life of faith today. Some of the presentations were scholarly and well-researched on the background and content of the Augsburg Confession; others were more thoughtfully contemplative in applying the teachings of the Augsburg Confession today. The youth presentation was a creative and humorous presentation of the life of Luther which placed us alongside of Luther in his struggles within the Church.
Any understanding of the Augsburg Confession begins with the centrality of the Scriptures. Kenneth Howes placed the Augsburg Confession into the timeline of the importance of Scriptures beginning with the words of Scriptures themselves. Especially in the Gospel of John and in Acts, the Word is to be heard, learned, known and shared. The early church understood this (the Bereans' emphasis on daily study of Scripture, Acts 17), St. Paul emphasized it (II Timothy 3, etc.), and the faith of the Church was based on it. The early Church Fathers continued this emphasis on sola scriptura (Scriptures alone), and St. Augustine argued forcefully that, solely in accord with the Scriptures, God's grace for salvation is through faith. The early Councils of the Church reaffirmed the role of Scripture as the sole source of faith, and they rejected the works righteousness and other heresies that some brought into the Church. By the 1500s and as affirmed in the Council of Trent in reaction to Luther and the Augsburg Confession, the semi-Pelagian theory of works righteousness was no longer considered a heresy to be rejected but was now given credence because it had been accepted as a teaching of the Church. Although the Council of Trent rejected the Augsburg Confession, in fact the Augsburg Confession reverts to the authority of Scripture when tradition leads astray.
Tylan Dalrymple, a seminarian in the LMS-USA, then raised thought-provoking questions for us to consider: Is the Word of God sufficient, or is the Augsburg Confession also needed for our faith? If we exclude anyone or any belief or practice is that intolerance? Are we adhering to our own beliefs? What are the standards to which we do adhere and for what reasons? All of these were asked to emphasize that we must always keep God's Word!
What does it mean to be "Confessional"? Pastor William Pulscher responded that the Augsburg Confession is a written statement of faith and is the response of the Church to Biblical revelation. We are aware of many different translations of the Bible, but there are also many translations of the Book of Concord. Our intent is to search for truth, not just for "correct" theological teaching; our purpose is to present the saving truth of the Gospel. The Augsburg Confession helps us to believe, teach and confess as individual Christians. When it was written, there was uncertainty and confusion over the loss of authority (the power of the State over the Church) in which the Word of God became meaningless and irrelevant in decision-making. The Augsburg Confession made the unprecedented claim to restore the Scriptures to the authority over the teachings, faith and life of the Church, to lead us to obey God rather than obey and bow to the authority of the Church. The Confession is true, godly and thoroughly catholic; the obstinacy of the papacy and church power caused the schisms in the Church. Today there is still much confusion over the loss of authority. Many seek relevant truths rather than absolute Truth. Many Lutherans also view themselves as THE Church of the Reformation rather than as part of the historical catholicity of the Church along with other Reformers.
Pastor Jack Keeler placed an emphasis on the words of the Word of God and of the Augsburg Confession. In one word: LISTEN! Listen to the words. Be familiar with the words of the Word. Know the words that are used and how those words are being used literally and metaphorically. Listen to how the words are bringing comfort and love rather than abuse and condemnation. Listen to what is said and to what is NOT said. Only when we are familiar with the Word are we led to understanding.
The presentation by Pastor Dr. Robert Hotes (copies available) showed the historical development leading to the Augsburg Confession in 1530 as "a new and a radical renovation in the life of God's Christian Church." Strongest roots for the Reformation were about 100 years earlier in the teachings of John Wyclif in England and by Jan Hus in Bohemian Central Europe; "the Reformation was in fact an outcome of a long movement of the Spirit within the hearts of God's Christian people who were yearning to be free to know Him through Scripture and to accept His saving grace." In the social and political times of Wyclif and Hus, the rise of a middle class based on a trading economy and the belief that secular powers should determine ecclesiastical matters in their own territories resulted in a general spirit of reformation and correction of the corruptions within the Church. There was an emphasis on preaching in the languages of the people and a renewed emphasis on the centrality of Scriptures for faith and practices, but there was also a countermove by the popes and higher clergy to consolidate their power over Church and State. Jan Hus, in a history similar to that of Luther 100 years later, endured under admonitions and papal condemnations; but despite receiving "safe conduct" from the Emperor Sigismund, "Hus was imprisoned, tried, refused to recant, and was burned at the stake as a heretic."
The most impassioned "preaching" among the presentations came from Dr. Orville Langhough. "Doc" challenged the entire conference to "teach the way of salvation; all else follows." We live in a world of need to hear and know the Scriptures. Taking the meaning of "Confessional," we must all stand up for the faith we confess and declare.
Pastor Richard Barley gave a presentation (copies available) about the immediate origins and contemporary results of the Augsburg Confession. Without doubt the Reformation polarized people and states within the Holy Roman Empire and resulted in bloody wars. For many, the Reformation was the excuse for a secular rebellion against governmental authority; for others, it became a patriotic call to arms. With the power of the printing press and the growing power of the German princes, people and emperor were increasingly at odds. Emperor Charles V called an imperial Diet to be held in Augsburg, hoping to end the religious disunity and thereby unite his military operations against the Turks (the Islamic Turks were seen as a threat to Christendom and, therefore, to the Holy Roman Empire). The Augsburg Confession was a compromise formula which avoided war that year. The Emperor still wanted to stamp out Lutheranism, however, so the Protestant princes and delegates of the free cities formed the Smalcaldic League in 1531. But in 1546, the inevitable warfare broke out as Charles V tried to crush the independence of the states and restore unity both to the Holy Roman Empire and to the Roman Catholic Church. The princes rose up against Charles V in 1552 and drove him from the German lands and, in the Treaty of Passau, established a time of peace which would last until the start of the Thirty Years War in 1618. As an additional insight into the presentation of the Augsburg Confession to Emperor Charles V, the first five Articles of the Augsburg Confession were read, in German, at almost the exact time of day on the same date, June 25, 475 years earlier!
The traditional highlight of the Conference was, as always, the dramatic performance by the young people attending the Youth Conference. This year, after viewing the new "Luther" film, they presented a "Life of Luther for the Theologically Challenged" written by Maureen Spears. With considerable liberties of text, they portrayed significant times in Luther's life in ways that captivated everyone's imagination and made us stand along side of Luther. "One day he was given the opportunity to go to Rome, and, being the perfect monk, he became worse than most American tourists, running from holy shrine to holy shrine, knocking other unsuspecting pilgrimers out of the way for the best deal." Luther, convinced by the Bible, realizes "My focus should be on faith. If I'm faithful that God gives me salvation, then I become righteous. Wait, wait! But that means that God doesn't hate us!" Finally, Luther is called to defend his position at Worms. Chancellor: "Recant!" Luther: "You've got to be kidding. I can't believe that you had me travel 1000 miles just to say 'recant.' Can't you at least say 'How are you?' ... No. Unless you can convince me with scripture or clear reasoning, then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen." Chancellor: "Are you sure? Is that your last answer?" The Pope didn't like Luther's answer either and issued a Papal Bull which Luther decided to burn. Luther: "Obviously, he was an incapable Papal Bull." In summary, Luther tried to make the Church "as Christ originally intended it to be: with lots of potlucks, warm dishes during times of adversity, strong coffee, cold beer, good hymns, and ministers who like to tell lots of bad jokes early in the morning - often from the pulpit ... when you're trying to get in a good nap. And so, like Luther, I encourage you to stand firm on the Word of God and whatever they ask you in confirmation class, remember to tack on the sentence 'This is most certainly true' and you'll do just fine."
To this presentation by the young people - and to the entire Conference itself - a resounding "Amen!" (This IS most certainly true!)
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"Lord Help My Unbelief!"
by Rev. Ralph Spears
Because the famous New Testament father declares to Jesus that he lacks the right stuff-"Lord I believe, help my unbelief"-the "Righteous Judge" rewards him for his honesty and his child is healed and plucked from the jaws of certain death. But Jesus warns his apostles against a very dangerous death-the death that occurs due to unbelief or wrong belief. Before Jesus, Moses draws a simple diagram: "Do this and live, follow that and die!" (Deut. 30:15ff)
Moses, we are told, even writes a song-perhaps a hymn-so the children of Israel can sing it, and remember! (Deut. 31). Later, Moses' successor Joshua, makes it very simple for this nation, gone astray, to repent. He draws the first and thereafter forever famous "line in the sand" as a test to choose the Truth! "As for me and my house, we will serve the living God" declares Joshua and steps with his family across the line!
How does Jesus show His concern for right teaching or-literally-teaching that leads to righteousness? The well-known body of teaching, called the Sermon on the Mount, bears the content of a complete teaching and is sealed with the 'waxen imprint' of a rabbinic seal. This series of scriptures advises us to "seek always the narrow way" rather than the wide road to destruction, and warns us: "beware of false prophets and teachers." Also in these scriptures is the delightful illustration of building our house on the rock instead of on the sand-made into a song so that WE can remember it! [Matt. 7:13-27]. Earlier, in Matthew [Matt. 5:18-19], Jesus warned against weakening the teachings in any way, and stresses the disrepute that will be brought on those who add or remove even a comma or an apostrophe-the famed 'jot' and 'title.'
Not surprisingly, Peter, the Big Fisherman, warns against the "destructive heresies" from "false prophets" that deny even Christ. Peter gives much of his second Epistle to bolstering the Faith. He continually warns against the enemies of Truth, even alluding to the great flood in the last chapter, and warns that the "ignorant and unstable" will "twist the scriptures to their own destruction." Finally Peter dispenses both comfort and care to his followers, those who, like Peter, attempt to fill "the shoes of The Fisherman": "Beloved ... take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen" [2 Pet. 3 conclusion].
Simon Peter and John once had an interesting encounter with another Simon in Samaria, namely Simon 'Magus', who as his nick name implied, thought that the Gospel, which the two Apostles preached and effectively practiced, was magic and could be purchased for his own personal use. Today, unstable preachers on the 'sawdust trail' of the TV tube have bought into the 'magic' but not the Gospel preached by Peter and John. They preach "in his Name" and prophesy "in his Name" or so they say. But will the Lord recognize their work as His at His return?
So, what of today? After the examples given above, is there any wonder that we are very concerned about groups that still claim to carry a Lutheran banner, but that have bent and hammered the Word out of shape? Luther treats the sanctity of Scripture as indeed sacred and of one piece. Our Lutheran Confessions not only laid out the right teachings of Scripture but also designate those errant teachings that "our churches reject and condemn." This line in the sand separated the righteous from the false.
The Augsburg Confession of 1530, its subsequent Apology and the Smalcald Articles drew and retraced the line in the sand while the Catechisms provide the teaching tool for that 'line' to this day. These documents have remained unchanged and are just as relevant 500 years later. When political reasons caused that line to blur a bit after 1560, it fell to later reformers, such as Martin Chemnitz, to once more draw the line without equivocation by presenting the entire Book of Concord again, on its fiftieth anniversary, June 24, 1580. This remains a remarkable feat of clarity and courage and our priceless heritage. [In early July of this year, along with the accelerated beatification of the previous Pope, Benedict VXI, previously responsible for all Papal doctrinal matters, announced a "new catechism" for his body that is "shorter and more user friendly." This is just one in a dozens of make overs, some which resulted in profound changes, to the teaching tool of the Roman church in the last five hundred years!]
The "Word of God," then, is sharp and precise in intention, "sharper than any two edged sword" according to Hebrews (4:12). Today, we continue the heritage, borne faithfully in every age, to fight against enemies who distort and go with the whims of the day. So, the false teachings of yesteryear may seem vaguely familiar today, proving true the saying that "there is nothing new under the sun"...for "what has been, is what will be!" (Eccl. 1:9)
As the main article of this issue states, peculiar sounding teachings have existed since the third century. What about the likes of Marcion, Montanus or Arius? Marcion and especially the later Gnostics [Gr for knowledge] pursued a hidden, arcane knowledge-according to them. Quite recently a Princeton professor of religion, Elaine Pagels, suggested that those gnostic writings might have contained some real cogency, but that more orthodox canonical New Testament books simply choked them out. She especially champions the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, a primitive writing found among the Nag Hamadi Codices in the Egyptian desert. She acts as if the Gospel of Thomas is some new found and superior knowledge that the mainstream church forced underground. While the later may, in part, be true, anyone reading this work will find its superiority highly questionable. Pagels further imagines a dispute between this Thomas (the Apostle) and John the writer of the fourth Gospel, because John was the only one of the four Gospels that mentions Thomas' denial. For this reason, she speculates, the Gospel of Thomas took a back seat and was discredited by New Testament orthodoxy. No, rather the Gospel's brevity, lack of detail and, as we said before, primitive nature, prevents scholars from placing it in the same league with any of the New Testament Gospels. It does contain notions that you cannot find anywhere else except in other Gnostic writings, writings in which you find very strange details indeed. Even with Pagels as apologist and modern day aid to Marcion, it is very difficult to decipher the point of most gnostic efforts, especially those written as late as the 7th or 8th Century.
In the 5th century, Montanus' claimed that supercharged inspiration had uncovered greater truth, and he has many modern counterparts! Montanus actually started an early charismatic movement with all of the bells and whistles, by becoming a mouth piece of the Holy Spirit. He and his two side-kicks spoke ecstatically of the eminent end to the world at which time the spirit would pour out on everyone and give fuller truth. Sound familiar? Montanism lasted for a little less than a century until he was 'left behind' without the benefit of royalties. But the trend continues in the modern day writers of the Left Behind series. Arius (cir. 250 to 336) a Platonist of his time in Alexandria, wanted to seriously limit the role of the Son of God and thus diminish even His divinity. The Council of Nicea countered this notion by officially presenting the Apostles' Creed in 325 A.D. (You may notice that the melody of the great Tinitarian hymn "Holy Holy Holy" is named, Nicea!). Diminished divinity lived on with the twist that The Son was not alike in nature to the Father, nor equal. The Council of Constance countered this by adopting the more definitive Nicene Creed at Constantinople in 381. Much of the effort in opposing Arianism was credited to one Athanasius, who spearheaded the Trinitarian point of view. And when a still more definitive Creed was later formulated it was called the Athanasian Creed largely in his honor. Martin Luther called this creed the greatest of all (non-Scriptural) documents of the Church!
In our day, several have denied the Trinity and Our Lord's status in it. Two Bishops of the American Anglican (Episcopal) Church are notable: James Pike, a self-styled theologizer who passed away in the Judean desert in 1968 while attempting to hike to Wadi Qumran, and present day Bishop(?) Spong of New Jersey who re-wrote theology to his liking! Jehovah's Witnesses and some Unitarians also qualify in this view presently.
Yes, today, there are those who teach and believe that only Jesus is Divine (or that His Divine nature fully overshadowed His human nature) while others favored just the opposite view and state that Jesus was ONLY human-although a very good one. As with all heresy, this presents a real and a subtle danger. The way that we think about Jesus, the Son of God certainly affects our reliance on Him. If He is just human, he is not God incarnate who is ever present as a credible Savior. And if He is completely divine, Jesus cannot know our humanity, true suffering and the overcoming of the flesh as our real friend and advocate.
The true nature of Christ-that He is God's Son AND that he was also human like us-has both a believable and a practical symmetry that meets the needs of mankind and feels right. Indeed, all right teachings have this quality and "feel." The twisting of the true nature of Christ is perhaps the most pervasive and subtle of heresies. Christians should settle Christ's nature within their minds and hearts and know that Jesus is of both human descent and divine nature, and, therefore Son of God. Christ Jesus comes to us by Faith. We do not manipulate Him according to our hopes and desires. As Jesus predicted, heresy [from the Greek meaning 'sect'] dogs the path of Truth from age to age. So we rightly pray in the Service of Confirmation for those confirmed in the Faith that "no false doctrine ... may lead them away from Thee nor from the truth which they have confessed!"
There is a fullness and completeness of reality to the living doctrine of the Church. The more we read and study-and certainly-teach it, the more the assurance of Faith returns its dividends to us on the path of the Way, the Truth, and the Life!
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A Review of Wrong Teachings Through the Ages
The Apostle Peter writes,
"... there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them--bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up" (2 Peter 2:1-3a).
For us Lutherans, our Confessions are "the presentations and explanation of the pure doctrine of the Word of God and a valid summary of the faith." One of the more important reasons for our being familiar with the Lutheran Confessions today is that these false teachers Peter spoke of, are in fact present among us today, even as they have been throughout the history of the Church. Therefore we need to be familiar with this tool which can help us to discern that which is right and true and good, as over against that which is wrong, and very possibly harmful, in our doctrine and practice.
What follows is an Excerpt from, The People's Bible: James, 1, 2 Peter, 1,2,3 John, Jude by Mark A Jeske (c) 2002 Northwestern Publishing House, Wauwatosa WI. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
Sad to say, Peter's grim predictions for Asia Minor of a church infiltrated by false teachers came true over and over. Historian Roland Bainton says, "The East, with its persistent intellectualism, was a fertile ground for the growth of heresies." The Greeks loved learning and debate, and their language was complex, capable of many nuances and subtleties. So it comes as no surprise that the evil one would seek to exploit those characteristics for his own deadly goal of confusing and scattering the sheep.
In the years following Peter's two letters, the church in Asia Minor experienced rapid growth. By the second century, there were congregations sprinkled throughout the land that is present-day Turkey. But their unity of faith and practice was soon shattered by one streak of false teaching after another.
The earliest attacks of Satan sought to undermine the Christians' confidence in the Scriptures as the source of absolute authority for their faith. A loosely organized but deadly strain of false teaching called Gnosticism arose. Among the leaders of the gnostic movement was Marcion, who had been born in the Black Sea coastal town of Sinope. Marcion and other false teachers such as Cerinthus and Basilides taught that there were vast new levels of knowledge that advanced Christians could aspire to, information that went far beyond the "beginner level" of the Bible. They taught that matter and the human body were basically evil, that only spirit had lasting value; they denied the validity of the sacraments; rejected most of the Old Testament, including the Genesis creation stories; and incorporated all kinds of pagan myths into their teachings. Many orthodox Christians were drawn into this movement, just as today cults like Scientology and Mormonism lure gullible people with the promise that "there's so much more than just the Bible." In part to combat the false teachings of Gnosticism, early Christian converts at the time of their baptism would confess their faith in a powerful statement of biblical teaching that soon took the form of what we today call the Apostles' Creed.
Another major attack on Scripture came from a man from Phrygia in central Asia Minor named Montanus. He and two women, Prisca and Maximilla, rejected the Bible's claim of final authority; they taught that they were the personal vehicles of the Holy Spirit and that God's revelation was continuous. So persuasive was their tongues-speaking and the Montanist movement they started that even the great teacher Tertullian chose to join them.
In the fourth century, all of the Eastern Christian world was convulsed with discord over the very identity of God. Anus, a presbyter (elder) in Alexandria on the Nile Delta, publicly challenged the doctrine of the Trinity, asserting instead that Christ had had a beginning, had been created out of nothing, was changeable, and thus was not equal to the Father. Although arising in Egypt, Arianism soon engulfed Asia Minor as well, and for a while even one of the emperors was an Arian.
Arius was opposed chiefly by another Egyptian, a deacon named Athanasius (in whose honor the Athanasian Creed was named). God also raised up three great orthodox writers and leaders in Cappadocia: Gregory, bishop of Nazianzus (A.D. 330-390); Gregory, bishop of Nyssa (330-394); and his brother Basil, bishop of Caesarea Cappadociae (329-379). All three opposed Arianism, teaching that God is three persons but of one substance. Two great meetings of church leaders gave crucial support to the Bible's teachings about the true God: one in Nicea in 325 and another in the imperial capital, Constantinople (today's Istanbul), in 381. From those two great councils came the wording of the Nicene Creed, which all true Christians confess today. Arius' rejection of the trinity lives on today in the false teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Satan next assaulted the faith of the Eastern Christians by sowing confusion about the identity of Jesus Christ. Although the Scriptures seem plain enough in teaching that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, fully divine and fully human at the same time, one false teacher after another caused divisions in the church by distorting the basic truths of Jesus' two natures. A patriarch (archbishop) of Constantinople named Nestorius taught that Jesus' two natures were totally separate, almost as if Jesus had not only two natures but two identities and two separate persons that were not fused together. Sad to say, resentments had been growing between the church within the empire and the Christians farther east, in Syria and Persia, where Nestoranism had its greatest appeal. When the Council of Ephesus in 431 rejected Nestorianism, those Eastern groups broke away.
An influential teacher named Paul, from the town of Samosata on the border of Cappadocia and Armenia, taught that Jesus was just a great man, perfectly good, that he became the Christ at his baptism, and that he was adopted by the Father at his death (Adoptionism). Paul of Samosata had many followers also.
The Greek speculative mind just could not let go of the riddle of Jesus' two natures. A monk in Constantinople named Eutyches, as well as Julian of Halicarnassus in southwest Asia Minor and others, taught that Jesus was really only divine. This idea that Jesus had only one nature (Monophysitism) swept through the Christians in Egypt (Copts), Ethiopia, and Armenia, as well as Syrians who were not already Nestorians. Jesus' full humanity was thoroughly asserted, however, at the important Council of Chalcedon in Asia Minor in 451, and that view prevailed throughout most of Christendom.
By God's grace, the false teachings of Gnosticism, Montanism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Adoptionism, and Monophysitism, though misleading many for a while, did not prevail in the church at large. These are not just matters of religious trivia for underworked theologians to bat around. They are teachings of life and death. Our salvation depends on a Savior who is fully human, who can serve as a personal substitute for you and me under God's law and suffer God's wrath with real human suffering, but who is also fully God, whose blood can cover a world of sinners, sinners of past, present, and future.
As bad as these bitter schisms were for the Christians in Asia Minor, there was worse to come. After the death of an Arab religious leader named Mohammed in 632, his Muslim followers burst out of the desert, determined to unite all Arabs into one nation under the banner of Islam. These armies caught the Christians at a time of weakness and disorganization, and the Muslims triumphed at the Battle of the Yarmuk in 636. By 648 all of Arabia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Palestine (including Jerusalem) was under Muslim control, and the Christian presence began to shrink. By 717 the Arabs were strong enough to assault the capital of Constantinople itself, though that attack failed. By 1071, at the Battle of Manzikert in eastern Anatolia, the Byzantine Christians lost control over Asia Minor and had to retreat to the little bit of land they still held in Europe, thus opening up the great land mass of Asia Minor to invasion and settlement by Muslim Turks. Constantinople itself finally fell in 1453, and today Turkey is 98 percent Muslim, with only a tiny Christian presence.
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The Need for Biblical Preaching
By R. Albert Mohier Jr.
~ Reprinted with permission of author ~
Has preaching fallen on hard times? An open debate is now being waged over the character and centrality of preaching in the church. At stake is nothing less than the integrity of Christian worship and proclamation.
How did this happen? Given the central place of preaching in the New Testament church, it would seem that the priority of biblical preaching should be uncontested. After all, as John A. Broadus famously remarked, "Preaching is characteristic of Christianity. No other religion has made the regular and frequent assembling of groups of people, to hear religious instruction and exhortation, an integral part of Christian worship."
Yet numerous influential voices within evangelicalism suggest that the age of the expository sermon is now past. In its place, some contemporary preachers now substitute messages intentionally designed to reach secular or superficial congregations-messages which avoid preaching a biblical text, and thus avoid a potentially embarrassing confrontation with biblical truth.
A subtle shift visible at the onset of the 20th century has become a great divide as the 21st century gets underway. The shift from expository preaching to more topical and human-centered approaches has grown into a debate over the place of Scripture in preaching, and the nature of preaching itself.
Two famous statements about preaching illustrate this growing divide. Reflecting poetically on the urgency and centrality of preaching, the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter once remarked, "I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men." With vivid expression and a sense of gospel gravity, Baxter understood that preaching literally is a life or death affair. Eternity hangs in the balance as the preacher proclaims the Word.
Contrast that statement to the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick, perhaps the most famous (or infamous) preacher of the 20th century's early decades. Fosdick, pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City, provides an instructive contrast to the venerable Baxter: "Preaching," he explained, "is personal counseling on a group basis."
These two statements about preaching reveal the contours of the contemporary debate. For Baxter, the promise of heaven and the horrors of hell frame the preacher's consuming burden. For Fosdick, the preacher is a kindly counselor offering helpful advice and encouragement.
The current debate over preaching is most commonly explained as an argument about the focus and shape of the sermon. Should the preacher seek to preach a biblical text through an expository sermon? Or should the preacher direct the sermon to the "felt needs" and perceived concerns of the hearers?
Clearly, many evangelicals now favor the second approach. Urged on by devotees of "needs-based preaching," many evangelicals have abandoned the text without recognizing that they have done so. These preachers eventually may get to the text in the course of the sermon, but the text does not set the agenda or establish the shape of the message.
Focusing on so-called "perceived needs" and allowing these needs to set the preaching agenda inevitably leads to a loss of biblical authority and biblical content in the sermon. Yet, this pattern is increasingly the norm in many evangelical pulpits. Fosdick must be smiling from the grave.
Earlier evangelicals recognized Fosdick's approach as a rejection of biblical preaching. An out-of-the-closet theological liberal, Fosdick paraded his rejection of biblical inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility - and rejected other doctrines central to the Christian faith. Enamored with trends in psychological theory, Fosdick became liberal Protestant-ism's happy pulpit therapist. The goal of his preaching was well captured by the title of one of his many books, On Being a Real Person.
Shockingly, this is now the approach evident in many evangelical pulpits. The sacred desk has become an advice center and the pew has become the therapist's couch. Psychological and practical concerns have displaced theological exegesis and the preacher directs his sermon to the congregation's perceived needs.
The problem is, of course, that the sinner does not know what his most urgent need is. He is blind to his need for redemption and reconciliation with God, and focuses on potentially real but temporal needs such as personal fulfillment, financial security, family peace, and career advancement. Too many sermons settle for answering these expressed needs and concerns, and fall to proclaim the Word of Truth.
Without a doubt, few preachers following this popular trend intend to depart from the Bible. But under the guise of an intention to reach modern secular men and women "where they are," the sermon has been transformed into a success seminar. Some verses of Scripture may be added to the mix, but for a sermon to be genuinely biblical, the text must set the agenda as the foundation of the message-not as an authority cited for spiritual footnoting.
Charles Spurgeon confronted the very same pattern of wavering pulpits in his own day. Some of the most fashionable and well-attended London churches featured pulpiteers who were the precursors to modern needs-based preachers. Spurgeon confessed that "The true ambassador for Christ feels that he himself stands before God and has to deal with souls in God's stead as God's servant, and stands in a solemn place-a place in which unfaithfulness is inhumanity to man as well as treason to God."
Spurgeon and Baxter understood the dangerous mandate of the preacher, and were therefore driven to the Bible as their only authority and message. They left their pulpits trembling with urgent concern for the souls of their hearers and fully aware of their accountability to God for preaching His Word, and His Word alone. Their sermons were measured by power; Fosdick's by popularity.
The current debate over preaching may well shake congregations, denominations, and the evangelical movement. But know this: The recovery and renewal of the church in this generation will come only when from pulpit to pulpit the herald preaches as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.
R. Albert Mohier Jr. is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
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