Friday, January 26, 2018

Schleiermacher and preaching

But what of the ministry of the Word?  Here we come to the heart of Schleiermacher’s theology of preaching.  Preachers, like Christ, exercise an efficacious influence on their hearers.  Their speech arises, as did the Redeemer’s, from the disparity in the strength of God-consciousness in themselves and others.  They are active in communicating, and others are receptive in being influenced by, their self-presentation.  While preachers truly speak of themselves – their own inner experience – they do no preach themselves or attribute the gifts that they communicate to themselves.  Rather, their communication is the transparent medium through which their hearers encounter the living Christ…  Christ, through his servants, communicates himself – the Word made flesh – through the efficacious influence of their self-presentation.
This is how Dawn DeVries characterises the theology of preaching held by the great 19th century liberal theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, in a fascinating study of Jesus Christ in the Preaching of Calvin and Schleiermacher.

It is terrifying.

Why, according to Schleiermacher, does the preacher preach?  Because the preacher has a stronger consciousness of God than the other members of the congregation.  This is what qualifies, and presumably motivates, the Christian preacher - the awareness that his own God-consciousness (note that this has a technical meaning for Schleiermacher, but basically is the awareness of dependence) outstrips that of his congregants, and that he is therefore able to help them my mediating God-consciousness to them.  Note that the preacher and the congregants all stand on a continuum with Christ here!  The preacher with his greater God-consciousness is just a bit closer to Christ as the ideal of total God-consciousness than are the congregants.

What, according to Schleiermacher, does the preacher preach?  His own inner experience.  This doesn't mean he shouldn't preach from the Bible; in fact Schleiermacher thought he certainly should.  But he must not preach anything from Scripture that does not resonate with his own God-consciousness.  It is not the Christ recorded in the Bible who really matters; it is the Christ present in the preacher's own heart (and therefore potentially in his hearers' hearts) that is important.  What this means in practice is that really the Bible illustrates Christian faith, rather than the latter resting on and deriving from Scripture.

This is terrifying to me as a preacher because it is both so possible and (therefore) so impossible.

It is, of course, possible that I have a deeper knowledge and experience of God than the people to whom I'm preaching.  It is possible that in my experience and understanding of faith there is something worth saying, something that will impart something of Christ.  It is possible that I might stand in such a position vis-a-vis the congregation that I can preach.

But then again - on any given Sunday, can I be sure that I stand in this position?  Am I definitely further up the continuum than all these people?  Aren't there weeks when I'm just empty?  Aren't there times when I have nothing useful to drawn on in my own experience of faith?

Far better to realise that the job of the preacher is quite impossible and therefore possible.

I don't stand in any different position than the congregation in front of me.  There is no continuum; there is just Jesus on the one side and all the rest of us on the other.  Whether I have greater spiritual experience or not is irrelevant, because what I am called to bring forth is not my own faith but Christ himself, with all his benefits offered in the gospel.  I am to deliver to the people the Word of God, which is to say the Lord Jesus.  And I cannot do it.  The congregation stands in front of me in need of Christ, and I am just the same.  I have nothing to offer.  It is impossible to preach.

And because it is impossible, I must rely on God, and in so doing I find that it is perfectly possible - in faith.  Christ must communicate Christ, and my preaching can only be the vehicle of this if and as he so wills.  But because he has promised, I can confidently attempt the impossible...

A final alarming thought: how often do we veer towards Schleiermacher, when we say things like 'the preacher can only truly proclaim what he has experienced?'  I mean, I get what this is trying to do, but it is so crucial that our confidence not lie in ourselves as preachers but in the Word who wills to be preached...

1 comment:

  1. Well said! To stand behind the sacred desk without that august presence is futile.