There may be times, however, when my pen (i.e., word processor) runs ahead of that judgment which comes from prolonged reflection; in these cases, I beg your indulgence. At the same time, though, I do hope to incite random thoughts within those who read these words. After all, progress in biblical acumen and evangelistic savvy is often the outworking of those initial ideas conjured up in the minds of those who dare to think.
The Apologetic Value of a Good Steak
For some of us there's nothing quite like a nice, thick, juicy steak. New York Strip, Sirloin, T-Bone or Prime Rib—just the thought makes my mouth water. Yet recently I wondered if there might be a theological value to steak, that's right steak. My thoughts are as follows:
There is a good and a bad side to this delicious dish. For many steak is the ultimate reward for their taste buds. But scientists tell us that such meat products can be harmful to our health. The delicacy that we enjoy tends to clog our arteries. It is in this sense that steak mirrors the world in which we live, the world which is simultaneously good and evil.
The Bible's Portrait of Reality
What makes the Bible so valid (among other things) is that it rightly defines and predicts the type of world in which we live. All around us is a mixture of good and evil, a mixture—I might add—which non-Christian philosophies usually miss. There are philosophers who take a pessimistic approach to life; life for them is a chance happening with no real meaning. Death spells the end to a senseless existence. On the other hand, many people hold a more optimistic perspective. This is especially popular in our day as self-esteem and feel-good attitudes permeate our culture.
The problem with both the pessimist and the optimist is that neither gives a valid interpretation of reality. The pessimistic existentialist can't account for the good that he sometimes witnesses around him. He has no formula for understanding hope, joy, and love. Nor can he account for the Christian's faith. The only way he can cope with life is by redefining good, denying that there is such a thing in the first place. Or he might (intentionally or not) simply live in a manner inconsistent with his philosophy. In any case, the pessimist has an incomplete perception of the world, and is forced to deny the reality which stares him in the face.
Of course, the extreme optimist has difficulties as well. He may well try to always wear a smile. There are people who simply refuse to allow bad news to influence them. While the pessimist won't allow good into his world, the optimist pretends that bad doesn't exist. Or he refuses to face up to the awful circumstances that arise from living in a fallen world, attributing the bad things to chance, poor environment or psychological factors. In other words, he can't really account for evil. The optimist can't give a reason for the sin that surrounds him, nor the corruption of his own heart. Therefore, he must live in an unreal world with an imbalanced view of life.
In light of Scripture, both pessimism and the optimism have their strong points. The pessimist rightly recognizes that this world is out of sorts. That is, he sees that there is much that is wrong with this world. Optimists, on the other hand, correctly perceive that God has blessed this world in many ways. From natural beauty and noble deeds to family life and genuine love—there is something positive to say about the world in which we live. But both of these positions miss the mark by not taking into account all of the data. It's not enough to say that the world is ugly; honestly demands that we acknowledge the beauty that exists even in a flawed world. Nor is it proper to highlight only the good we encounter. While the positive outlook philosophy has a ring of (albeit imbalanced and uniformed) truth to it, this outlook has lasting value (and cause for joy) only for those who know the God who rescues from evil. The secular proponents of self-esteem have gone astray because they often refuse to acknowledge human depravity. And even when they recognize calamity and iniquity in the world, they usually minimize it or delude themselves into thinking that evil (whatever it's done to others) hasn't much affected them. Surely Jeremiah was right on the mark when he wrote, "the heart is deceitful above all things" (17:9).
This is where biblical Christianity has much force. The Bible's picture is that good and evil both exist in God's world. The good is the result of the original act of creation, and also of God's abundant kindness toward the undeserving. God has left His indelible stamp on His creation. The evil we see is the consequence of our first parent's disobedience, and all that their rebellion introduced into the world. So pervasive is evil, that even the creation groans under its weight. And the human heart which was made for God has become the very source of man's problems.
The world, then, contains both blessing and judgement, life and death. Even fallen men can produce some measure of good; as bad off as the unbelieving world is, it is not as bad as it could be. Thus the Bible captures and predicts what the pessimist overlooks. On the other side, believers in Christ though renewed by the living God find a tugging toward evil in their hearts. This is something which the optimists ignores.
I suppose we could say that the world is both better and worse than any non-Christian philosophy might imagine. It's worse, because sin has awful consequences, now and later. It's better as well, for the unbeliever who deserves wrath often receives temporary mercy. And those who trust in Jesus Christ receive riches of which even the greatest optimist cannot envision.
The biblical model of life is shown to be true, therefore, because it correctly portrays reality. This realistic portrait forms the backdrop for the gospel. Into this mixed up world the Son of God came. He constantly rubbed up against the best and worst of men. How else can we explain our Lord's ministry? He lived among those who performed deeds of relative goodness, and yet were capable of nailing Him to a tree. Jesus might be invited to speak in a synagogue, but then rejected once He taught the truth. He could be hailed as a miraculous conqueror, only to be misunderstood and finally rejected. His world (like our own) was one in which the remnant of good existed, but which was twisted almost beyond recognition by the evil of sin.
This leads us back to that delectable dish of which we first spoke. A steak is a good and a bad thing—it tastes delicious (so far as I'm concerned) but carries with it unhealthy side effects. In this sense it resembles (at least in my warped mind) the world in which we live. Our existence is marred by corruption, perversion, and evil. Yet even in our fallen world we catch a glimpse of good, from the tokens of common grace to the riches of the Savior's redemption. The Bible shows itself to be true, then, because (among other things) it mirrors/predicts the world in which we live. Only the Scriptures portray life this way, the way it really is. Think about it the next time you bite into a juicy steak!
Recently, I have been contemplating exactly what it is that constitutes preaching. This is a little off the cuff, but tell me what you think.
Obviously preaching is proclaiming, heralding Christ. But what kind of "form" should we attach to the concept? How do we define the heralding act?
Here's what got me thinking in this direction again. I have just skimmed through parts of a book called "Power Preaching for Church Growth" (David Eby). It looks fairly good, and comes with impressive endorsements from MacArthur, Piper, Blanchard, Horton, and others. It appears to be a response to a lot of what is apparently occurring in the so-called Church Growth Movement. The basic point seems to be: The Cnurch Growth Movement, in its efforts to reach our modern world, has jettisoned preaching. This may very well be true. And if it is, I agree that preaching must be central to the Church's mission. But what is it, exactly, that constitutes preaching?
For instance, are we guilty of modeling ourselves exclusively after, say, a Puritan or Reformation pattern of preaching? Have we assumed that preaching is . . . a three point outline, a certain style, the promulgation of our systematic theology, the homiletically correct (something like politically correct?) presentation of Church hobbie horses, a nicely dressed person's attempt to sound "like preachers are supposed to sound," a 45 minute recitation of certain religious lingo, etc?
My point isn't to deny the validity of much of this. That is, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with following traditional models. Neither am I saying we should be different just for the sake of being new. My question, though, is whether this is, strictly speaking, biblical. In other words, is founded on Scripture or tradition? Is it the model, or simply a model?
I realize, of course, that those who defend traditional preaching will turn to those passages which tell us to preach the word, etc. But are they sometimes (usually?) guilty of assuming that anytime we discover "preaching" in a given text, we must conclude that what the biblical authors meant by the term is exactly what we mean? Of course, it is easy to go around proof texting in order to show forth the validity of our practices. But can we honestly say that both biblical terminology and early Church practices mirror modern preaching models?
Some more data: Many of the sermons in Acts are preached to unbelievers and so couldn't be applied directly to our local Church situations; they have applications, no doubt. But what are they? And, of course, the early believers met in environments that were nothing like our cozy little settings. Neither did they have the music arrangements, choirs, or neatly orchestrated services that we try so hard to maintain. Also, they probably didn't quite go at the preaching task in exactly the manner in which we do. Part of this surely is related to their place in history. On the other hand, did they construct their messages the way we do? I'm not so sure. In fact, we might even ask whether their priorities parallel our own! (This is not an attempt to question the motives of anyone in our day, but merely an inquiry into the subject of spiritual priorities and the like. For example, we might say exactly the same thing that the early Church did; i.e., Christ must be preached, etc. But the way we "get there" might reflect different priorities than those manifested by the first Christian preachers.)
Again, none of this is intended to minimize preaching. OBVIOUSLY, it is very important to God! But what does it look like? Are there inspired forms? Or are we free to implement what the Bible means by preaching in any one of a number of ways?
Now I really haven't investigated this in any systematic fashion. Yet it seems to me (for what that's worth) that preaching involves at least the following: (1) a qualified teacher, (2) divinely given truth, (3) the proclamation of that truth by this teacher, and (4) primarily, a Christ-centeredness. But so far as what form or style or pattern is "right," I'm not really sure if there is one.
Practically, this tells us (assuming I'm anywhere in the ballpark here, and maybe I'm not) that our precise implementation of the Bible's injunction to preach may not be as fixed as we tend to think. We may have some measure of freedom concerning preaching and preaching styles.
It seems to me that very few are able to maintain freedom, creativity, and balance. Some want to be free, but in the process throw out preaching. Others are committed to preaching, which they define in traditional and (sometimes) inflexible ways. What I wonder is this: Can we magnify the centrality of preaching Christ, without rigidly defining how that preaching works? I tend to think we can, or at least that we should!
What makes this frustrating, obviously, is that few people are willing to consider their ministries in this manner. We're either creative and compromising, or committed and stiff/inflexible. Why can't we maintain our allegiance to the Scriptures, yet also implement these truths in innovative and God-honoring ways?