A Paper Presented to the North Texas Free Conference Faith Lutheran Church Plano, Texas
by Rev. Dr. Carl C. Fickenscher II January 31, 1998
Nowhere in his books does author Cully Gage claim insight as a theologian, preacher, or oracle of societal megatrends; his mastery is in recounting tales of Michigan's Upper Peninsula at the turn of the century. Nevertheless, perhaps quite accidentally, he comments rather sagely on the issue before the 1998 North Texas Free Conference. A wise pastor knows how often his laity will hit the theological nail on the head--that's especially true when he stands before or sits among the kinds of lay people who attend gatherings like this--so he does well to listen to their observations. This morning, let's listen to Cully Gage, let's unpack his humor a bit, and see what he has to say about the way culture affects the church and church the culture, specifically in the area of preaching. The church has a powerful means to affect the culture in which we live: preaching the timeless message of God. But is the church's preaching having the effect it could, and to do so, must it change in any way to accommodate today's culture? Are today's ears hearing God's timeless message?
Are Today's Ears Really Different From Yesterday's?
Listen again to the first part of what Cully has to say to us:
I think it was in the fall of year 1913 that we got William Decker, the new young preacher from down below. Before he'd run out his time with us they were calling him Decker the Wrecker. That wasn't really fair because he was a nice young fellow with plenty of good intentions and enthusiasm. The trouble was mainly that he didn't know us or how we lived or what we expected from our preacher.
You notice what Cully is suggesting? He's saying that there was something about folks in the old Northwoods of Michigan back in 1913 that a preacher preaching to them ought to know. He's suggesting that they are different from people the preacher might have addressed elsewhere or at a different time. He's saying their ears tune in better to one form of preaching than another. Is he right? If he is, then preachers ought to take a long look at adjusting their preaching to be sure God's message gets through. But is Cully right, or are any differences among hearers of different times, different cultures, superficial enough that only a few obvious changes in presentation--such as using the vernacular language--will be sufficient? Are today's ears really that different from yesterday's?
I suspect we know how sociologists are answering this question. In the first part of our presentation today, though, we'll hear from another witness. Have Christian preachers through the centuries perceived changes in their hearers and altered their approaches accordingly?
Most of Jesus' preaching was to one culture and, obviously, it was brilliantly suited. Following Pentecost, however, the Gospel began to engage new cultures. Amos Wilder describes the results: The novelty of grace and the fundamental renewal of existence . . . brought forth a new fruit of the lips, new tongues and new rhetorical patterns. Such modulation of discourse was also conditioned by the changing theatres of the Christian activity. In each new cultural setting the primal dynamic reshaped the particular language-world and language-vehicles to its own purposes and in its own defense.2
Very quickly, as Gentiles became the majority in the church, the Gospel came to be communicated more and more in the logical, linear style of the Greeks. As a case in point, Paul writes I Corinthians like a Greek--in a very deductive form, opening the various sections with theme statements and then developing them. By contrast, John's first epistle is structured as a spiral, not concluding a topic and moving on to another (the linear, Greek layout), but rather revolving around several themes simultaneously, returning again and again to each. (This is a typical oriental, or Hebrew, style.)
As soon as the opportunity did come along, however, the church seized upon the best of contemporary culture to refine its presentation. One decision to do so has now been shaping preaching for almost sixteen hundred years. In the early fifth century, Augustine, who had been trained in rhetoric during his pagan youth, faced the question of whether that pagan discipline might be employed in the cause of the Christian Gospel. He decried the failure of believers to use every available skill, while unbelieving orators polished their trade. Concluding that "wherever he may find truth, it is his Lord's," Augustine put his personal imprimatur upon rhetoric.3 It made sense; rhetoric was a Greek art and most hearers of the Gospel were now listening with Greek-style ears.
For the most part, westerners today--like ourselves--have inherited those ears. Let's pause for a minute to explain what that means. To the Greeks we owe our understanding of what is logical. We are accustomed to thinking of a main point which is supported by various minor points. Most of us, as we listen, are trying to assimilate what we hear around one major idea. We sense that everything which is said or written in a given block of speech or print either proves or illustrates or explains or applies one central thought. We see this in our practice of paragraphing. It is natural to us; we do it without thinking. And when items in a block don't seem to fit into a logical pattern, we become uneasy or loose interest.
From this concept of logic, we have the common technique of "telling them what you're going to say, telling them, and then telling them what you just told them"--introduction with theme statement, body, and conclusion. This, essentially is the way court cases are argued, the way college courses are taught, the way job assignments at work are handed out. Not coincidentally, it is also the way most sermons have been prepared ever since the days of Augustine. And that has been appropriate, because our ears have been tuned to it.
THE COMING OF THE KING I. The Dignity of Him Who Comes A. A merciful King--in sparing B. A just King--in judging C. A good King--in rewarding D. A wise King--in governing E. A terrible King F. An omnipotent King G. An eternal King II. The Utility of His Coming A. For the illumination of the world B. For the spoliation of hell C. For the reparation of heaven D. For the destruction of sin E. For the vanquishment of the devil F. For the reconciliation of man with God G. For the beatification of man III. The Manner of His Coming A. That He might more easily correct the wicked B. That He might show to all His lowliness C. That He might draw the sheep to Himself D. That He might teach meekness 1. Meekness delivers us from evil 2. Meekness perfects grace 3. Meekness preserves the soul 4. Meekness deserves the land of the living4
Rightly or wrongly, the Scholastics believed such arrangement was aptly suited to the ears of their congregations. "For," Aquinas explained, "it is the duty of every teacher to make himself easily understood, as Augustine says."5
Complicated thoughts and issues we should discuss in private with the eggheads [Kluglinge]. I don't think of Dr. Pomeranus, Jonas, or Philip in my sermon. They know more about it than I do. So I don't preach to them. I just preach to Hansie or Betsy [Elslein].8
You know what Luther understood? To superimpose him on a different era, we might say he understood that farmers and lumberjacks in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1913 have different ears than factory workers in Detroit or, for that matter, farmers in Germany in 1513.
We may not buy the studies of contemporary sociologists; they may be completely wrong. But if we ask Christian preachers through the centuries--St. Paul, Augustine, the medieval friars, the Puritans, Luther--I believe they would say they never expected their hearers to be like those in the past. Was Cully Gage right? Are today's ears really so different from yesterday's? Christian preaching has consistently answered, "I think so." I doubt even Aquinas would expect us to follow his outline today.
Back to Cully Gage:
For one thing, Parson Decker didn't preach much hellfire and damnation, nor did he try to scare the devil out of our dirty souls as our other preachers had always done. Instead he tried sweet reason with us, tried to show us that sin didn't pay. Now that was all right, of course, but the folks kind of missed the drama and fury the old preachers always put in their sermons. No, the feeling of being scared green and then relieved each Sunday just wasn't there anymore. When you came out of church at the end of the service, you no longer felt that you'd been snatched just in time from the jaws of hell. It was more like you'd come out of Flinn's store with a pound of good cheese.
What was the problem with Parson Decker's preaching?
Lutheran homiletician Herman Stuempfle writes that "whatever other elements are necessary in a Christian sermon, there is a certain theological substructure which is indispensable." This, he says, is "the classic Law/Gospel distinction which has been a constant theme in Lutheran theological and homiletical thought since the Reformation."9
Parson Decker's problem was a failure to properly divide Law and Gospel. C. F. W. Walther would say Decker had not preached the Law in its full sternness and the Gospel not in its full sweetness, when, on the contrary, Gospel elements were mingled with the Law and Law elements with the Gospel.10 When hellfire became just sweet reason, deliverance likewise became mild cheddar.
God's timeless message is Law and Gospel properly divided. Walther asserts, "Any passage of Scripture, yea, any historical fact recorded in Scripture can be classified as belonging either to the Law or to the Gospel."11 The message of the Bible, Christ, salvation is the Law and the Gospel. What is more, again Walther:
The true knowledge of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is not only a glorious light, affording the correct understanding of the entire Holy Scriptures, but without this knowledge Scripture is and remains a sealed book.12
That is to say, God's timeless message is heard only when Law and Gospel are divided properly. Even among informed Lutherans, a brief review of the proper distinction between Law and Gospel may be helpful--especially since in the final portion of this presentation we will consider how it can be heard by today's ears.
It is Holy Scripture itself which gives us the terms Law and Gospel. St. Paul shows the distinction: "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather through the law we become conscious of sin" (Romans 3:20). "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16).
We should understand "Law" to mean nothing else than God's word and command, in which He directs us what to do and what not to do, and demands from us our obedience or "work." . . . On the other hand, the Gospel or the faith is a doctrine or word of God that does not require our works. It does not command us to do anything. On the contrary, it bids us merely to accept the offered grace and forgiveness of sins and eternal life and let it be given to us.13
In other words, the Law lays down what is demanded of man; the Gospel tells him that Christ has fulfilled those demands for him. The Law is everything in Scripture about which human beings are to be at work. The Gospel is always God graciously at work in Christ Jesus. Human beings are active agents only in the Law. God alone is active in the Gospel.
This is the Law's chief purpose, to show man his sin, as in a mirror, and thus his need for a Savior. When man hears the demands of the Law, the Holy Spirit convicts him of his failures to obey. The intended result is to drive him to his knees in desperation.15 At that point, the Gospel may then fulfill its chief purpose: to lift man up with the assurance of forgiveness in Christ. Luther again explains,
The other word of God is neither law nor commandment, and demands nothing of us. But when that has been done by the first word, namely, the law, and has worked deep despair and wretchedness in our hearts, then God comes and offers us his blessed and life-giving word and promises; he pledges and obligates himself to grant grace and help in order to deliver us from misery, not only to pardon all our sins, but even to blot them out, and in addition to create in us love and delight in keeping his law. Behold, this divine promise of grace and forgiveness of sin is rightly called the Gospel.16Thus the Law makes man aware of his need for a Savior by showing him his sin, as in a mirror; the Gospel announces that he has that Savior in Christ Jesus.
The Law, Luther recognized, is inflexible, always condemning. Only one Man on earth ever kept it. And where there is a failure to keep the Law, God's Word pronounces terrible and inescapable judgment.17 Quite the opposite, the Gospel announces only God's steadfast love and forgiveness. Indeed, the two doctrines are altogether contrary.18 The Christian faith could never be kept pure unless the Bible is recognized as speaking in two very different and opposite ways, two distinct doctrines, the Law and the Gospel.19
St. Paul strongly insists that among Christians these two doctrines, the Law and the Gospel, are to be well and truly separated from one another. Both of them are the Word of God: the Law (or the Ten Commandments) and the Gospel. Both were given by God: the Gospel originally in Paradise, the Law on Mt. Sinai. That is why it is so important to distinguish the two words properly and not mingle them together. Otherwise you will not be able to have or hold on to a correct understanding of either of them. Instead, just when you think you have them both, you will have neither.20
Law and Gospel properly divided is the message which everyone in every culture needs to hear. "Distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel," Luther reminds, "is the highest art in Christendom, one that every person who values the name Christian ought to recognize, know and possess."21 This truly is timeless, not only because God the giver is unchanging, but also because human ears do in at least one sense remain the same in every day and every culture. Everyone is sinful, and for that reason everyone, including believers, will always need both the Law and the Gospel. As the Formula of Concord puts it bluntly,
For the Old Adam, like an unmanageable and recalcitrant donkey, is still part of them and must be coerced into the obedience of Christ . . . until the flesh is put off entirely and man is completely renewed in the resurrection. There he will no longer require either the preaching of the law or its threats and punishments, just as he will no longer require the Gospel.22The challenge for our culture, then, is to proclaim and hear the Law and Gospel in the proper distinction. That this is no small challenge becomes evident by comparing the observations of two noted preachers, almost five centuries apart. First, Luther:
When it comes to experience, you will find the Gospel a rare guest but the Law a constant guest in your conscience, which is habituated to the Law and the sense of sin; reason, too, supports this sense.23Now, speaking from our own culture, Lutheran homiletician Richard Lischer: "Even in our redeemed state we are all born legalists to whom grace remains an unnatural and often surprising intrusion."24 Once again, every era has this in common: sinful ears. And sinful ears can only with greatest difficulty properly hear the Law and Gospel. In others words, communicating God's timeless message is already tough. Now, what of the additional challenge of communicating it to a changing culture?
Today a number of new sermon forms are being suggested to meet the needs of our hearers. Which ones will prove useful? Which ones will effectively communicate God's message to today's ears? A discussion of the specific forms would be more appropriate elsewhere, but all of us can benefit by considering criteria for evaluating the sermonic options we might select or hear.
I believe we can be reasonably confident that today's ears will be hearing the timeless message of Law and Gospel properly divided when, to a greater or lesser degree, seven criteria are met. You will notice that many of these criteria would be relevant for any ears in any culture. Different sermon forms will tend to favor some of these over others, and adequate Law-Gospel sermons can, of course, be preached when not every criterion is featured. But I think they can give preachers and hearers some useful guidelines. In the final portion of this presentation we will look very briefly at each. Along the way, we might just hear from Cully Gage another time or two.
Thesis XXV. In the twenty-first place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching.27Both Law and Gospel are the Word of God, but the Gospel is to be preached as the "higher" Word.28 When Law and Gospel clash in preaching (as their nature demands) there should always be a clear winner: the Gospel. Luther emphasizes, Now when both Law and Gospel meet, and the Law declares me a sinner, accuses and condemns me, the Gospel, however, says (Matt. 9:2): "Be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee," "thou shalt be saved," and both are God's Word, which am I, then, to follow? St. Paul tells you. "But after faith is come," he says, "we are no longer under a schoolmaster," the Law has come to an end. For as the lesser Word it should and must give way and place to the Gospel. Both are God's Word, the Law and the Gospel, but the two are not equal. One is lower, the other higher; one is weaker, the other stronger; one is lesser, the other greater. When now they wrestle with each other, I follow the Gospel and say, Good-by, Law!29 It was not really the "hellfire and damnation" that thrilled Cully Gage, you know. It was being "snatched just in time from the jaws of hell" that he had come to love.
Proclamation belongs to the primary discourse of the church. . . . Primary discourse is the direct declaration of the Word of God, that is, Word from God . . . . As primary discourse, proclamation ideally is present-tense, first-to-second person unconditional promise authorized by what occurs in Jesus Christ according to the scriptures. The most apt paradigm for such speaking is the absolution: "I declare unto you the gracious forgiveness of all your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." . . . The deed is done, unconditionally. . . . Proclamation is present tense: I here and now give the gift to you. . . . This is God's present move, the current "mighty act" of the living God.36Obviously, the performative power of proclamation is dependent on a proper distinction between Law and Gospel. Commingling any Law with the Gospel, thus making its promise in some way conditional, negates the act. The same must be said of commingling Gospel with Law and thereby softening its sternness. When the Law became just "sweet reason," all Cully had left was "a pound of good cheese" from Flinn's store.
Rev. Dr. Carl C. Fickenscher II North Texas Free Conference January 31, 1998
ARE TODAY'S EARS HEARING THE TIMELESS MESSAGE?: Preaching and Hearing Law and Gospel in Today's Culture I. Are today's ears really different from yesterday's? A. The Witness of Paul's Preaching B. The Witness of Augustine's Preaching--and "Greek Ears" C. The Witness of Aquinas and Scholastic Preaching D. The Witnesses of Mendicant and Puritan Preaching E. The Witness of Luther's Preaching E. The Witness of Contemporary Preaching II. What Is the Timeless Message? A. Identifying the Timeless Message B. Applying the Timeless Message C. Why the Timeless Message? III. When, Then, Do Today's Ears Hear the Timeless Message? A. When Law and Gospel Clash and Complement B. When the Gospel Predominates C. When the Distinction between Law and Gospel is Clear D. When the Historical Basis of Law and Gospel is Preached E. When the Preaching Corresponds to Life F. When Law and Gospel are Proclaimed as Performative G. When the Gospel Is Used as Motivation for Good Works
1Cully Gage, "Aunt Lizzie: Evangelist," chap. in Heads and Tales: A Third Northwoods Reader (AuTrain, MI: Avery Color Studies, 1982), 21. 2Amos Niven Wilder, The Language of the Gospel: Early Christian Rhetoric (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), 126. 3Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson, Jr. (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1958), 54. 4Adapted from Edwin Charles Dargan, A History of Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954), 1:241-42. 5Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. David Bourke and Arthur Littledale (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1969), 29:117. 6William G. Houser, "Puritan Homiletics: A Caveat," Concordia Theological Quarterly 53 (October 1989): 256-57. 7Martin Luther, Table Talk, ed. and trans. Theodore G. Tappert, vol. 54, Luther's Works: American Edition (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 383-84. Hereafter this edition of Luther's Works will be abbreviated LW. 8Luther; quoted in Fred Meuser, Luther the Preacher, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983), 53. Hansie and Betsy were two of Luther's children, John and Elizabeth. 9Herman G. Stuempfle, Jr. "Law and Gospel in Contemporary Lutheran Preaching, with Special Reference to Oswald C. J. Hoffmann and Edmund A. Steimle" (Th.D. diss., School of Theology at Claremont, 1971), 4-5. 10C. F. W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, trans. W. H. T. Dau (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986), 1. 11Ibid., 210. 12Ibid., 60. 13Martin Luther, "The Distinction Between the Law and the Gospel: A Sermon," trans. Willard L. Burce, Concordia Journal, 18 (April 1992): 156-57. 14Martin Luther, Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. and trans. John Nicholas Lenker (Minneapolis: Lutherans in All Lands, 1905; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1:96. 15Wayne G. Johnson, Theological Method in Luther and Tillich: Law-Gospel and Correlation (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, Inc., 1981), 8-9. 16Ibid., 99. 17LW, vol. 39, Church and Ministry I, 188. 18LW, vol. 26, Lectures on Galatians, 1535: Chapters 1-4, 208. 19Ibid., 313. 20Luther, "The Distinction Between the Law and the Gospel," 153. 21Ibid., 153. 22Theodore G. Tappert, ed., "The Formula of Concord: Solid Declaration," in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 568. 23LW, vol. 26, Lectures on Galatians, 1535: Chapters 1-4, 117. 24Richard Lischer, A Theology of Preaching: The Dynamics of the Gospel, rev. ed. (Durham, NC: The Labyrinth Press, 1992), 37. 25Herman G. Stuempfle, Jr., Preaching Law and Gospel (Ramsey, NJ: Sigler Press, 1991), 35. 26Gerhard Aho, "Law and Gospel in Preaching," Concordia Theological Quarterly 45 (January-April 1981): 2-3. Richard Lischer, A Theology of Preaching: The Dynamics of the Gospel, rev. ed. (Durham, NC: The Labyrinth Press, 1992), 41-42. 27Walther, 403. 28Luther; quoted in Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), 3:232. 29Ibid. 30Lischer, 37. 31Kyle Haselden, The Urgency of Preaching (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1963), 60-70. 32Heinrich Ott, Theology and Preaching, trans. Harold Knight (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), 53. 33Ibid., 50. 34Ibid., 59. 35Walther, 150. 36Gerhard O. Forde, Theology Is for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 2. 37Aho, "Law and Gospel," 4.