Preaching Without Authority?
In 1971, Fred Craddock rocked the preaching world. His book As One Without Authority proclaimed that preaching would continue “for another generation as ‘a marginal annoyance on the record of a scientific age’” if it did not change its methods. His underlying message was that the authority determining the value of any sermon was the hearer. The result was a radically altered presence in America’s pulpits.
According to Craddock, preachers cannot preach with authority. He insists, “The preacher exists as one without authority.” Instead of preaching with authority, they had to appease the listeners with sermons that tickled their ears and made them feel good. In essence, Craddock was calling for a new homiletic. Preachers should no longer preach deductively from the Scriptures, but should preach inductively, targeting the hearer as the true authority on the quality, quantity, and content of the sermon. Craddock’s book was a kind of canary in the coalmine for biblical preaching. With the rise of the church-growth movement and emerging spirituality, authoritative preaching has fallen out of fashion.
Nevertheless, true preaching—biblical preaching—must be authoritative preaching. The nature of the message we preach necessitates authority. If we are faithfully exegeting and preaching the Scriptures, then our message necessarily comes with authority, because it comes from God. Now to say it comes with authority is not to say that our preaching is abusive, abrasive, or harsh. We must speak the truth in love, with kindness, with patience, with grace and with mercy. Still, we need to realize that when we speak we are not speaking for ourselves—we are speaking for God. Peter gives us this mandate, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies” (1 Pet 4:10–11). Peter, addressing the issue of spiritual gifts, breaks them down into these two broad categories: speaking and serving. In addition, he says if you are speaking—if you are ministering to someone by way of speech—you need to do it “as one who speaks oracles of God.” Moreover, his scope is comprehensive. He says this applies to “whoever speaks.” Anyone who is ministering by word is to speak “as one who speaks oracles of God.”
The word “oracle” (logion) is sometimes translated “utterances.” It is used four times in the New Testament and in each instance it refers to the Old Testament Scriptures. It is a unique word in that it focuses on the “oracular” nature of Scripture. In Stephen’s great sermon (Acts 7:38) he refers back to Moses and says, “He received living oracles to give to us.” They were not dead words from a dead man they were living, effective, operative and still speaking. That is the point. They were oracles – the very voice of God in the highest and strictest sense that the word “oracle” or “utterance” can bear.
B. B. Warfield says that by referring to the Bible as oracles of God, the apostles saw the Scripture as “nothing other than the crystallized speech of God.” This is as much the very words of God as if God were speaking audibly out of heaven.
When you read the New Testament, you see this attitude toward the Old Testament among the apostles. They showed a profound reverence toward the text of Scripture as the very Word of God. They made a regular practice of appealing to the Old Testament text as to God Himself speaking. You see it in passages where the New Testament writers refer to the Scriptures as if they were God. In other cases, they refer to God as if He were the Scriptures. For example, Paul, quoting from Genesis 12:1–3, writes “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’” (Gal 3:8). In another place, he writes, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth’” (Rom 9:17). As Warfield points out, the Scripture obviously did not exist either at the time of Abraham or at the time of Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh. The first pages of Scripture would not be written until after these events when Moses was out in the desert with the people. Paul could still equate the Scripture with God. Warfield says: “These acts could be attributed to ‘Scripture’ only as the result of such a habitual identification, in the mind of the writer, of the text of Scripture with God as speaking, that it became natural to use the term ‘Scripture says,’ when what was really intended was ‘God, as recorded in Scripture, said.’”
In Hebrews 1:6, quoting from Deuteronomy 32, the writer says “And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God's angels worship him.’” Hebrews 1:7, quoting from Psalm 104, he writes – “Of the angels he says, ‘He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire.’” (cf. also Heb 1:8, quoting Ps 45). However, in the original context for each of these verses it is not God who is presenting as speaking. These are the words of others recorded in the text of Scripture. But they are attributed to God because, as Warfield says, there was “such habitual identification, in the minds of the writers, of the text of Scripture with the utterances of God that it had become natural to use the term ‘God says’ when what was really intended was ‘Scripture, the Word of God, says.’” In addition, they are never presented as the Words that God once spoke. The present tense verb presents them as living words still speaking.
Warfield quotes B. F. Westcott: “Generally it must be observed that no difference is made between the word spoken and the word written. For us and for all ages the record is the voice of God. The record is the voice of God, and as a necessary consequence the record is itself living.… The constant use of the present tense in quotations emphasizes this truth.”
So when we speak, we are to speak “as one who speaks oracles (or utterances) of God.” The Scripture that we share is as much the very words of God as if God were speaking audibly out of heaven right now.
This is what Peter meant when he said: “Whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God.” Of course, we can only do that to the extent that our message and our words are filled with the Scripture. J. I. Packer writes:
The Bible text is the real preacher, and the role of the man in the pulpit or the counseling conversation is to simply let the passages say their piece through him…. By being made God's spokesmen and mouthpieces for His message, the messengers become emblems, models, and embodiments of God's personal address to each of their hearer.
It is not as if all we can do is sit there and read Scripture to people. There is a place for our words alongside of the words of Scripture. However, we must grasp the point that the Lord gives us a weighty responsibility because of this inherent authority that comes along with preaching. When we speak as one who speaks oracles of God, we need to understand the confidence with which we can speak into the issues of people’s lives. Again, when we say confidence or talk about authority, we are not suggesting authoritarianism. Too many preachers become authoritarian. They make demands of their congregation that are nothing less than legalism. When you minister the Word of God, you must speak God’s truth not your own ideas.
Regarding authority in counseling, Jay Adams says:
Nouthetic counseling is subject to the directives of the Bible and is not a law to itself. It is counseling that uses (and does not exceed) the authority of God. Therefore, it is neither arbitrary nor oppressive. Nouthetic counselors must learn to distinguish clearly between good advice that they think grows out of biblical principles and those principles themselves. The latter (“You have no grounds for divorce; it would be sin!”) they may enforce with the utmost authority; the former (“Why not set up a conference table in order to begin to learn how to speak the truth in love?”) they must present with more caution. It is possible that one’s deductions from scriptural principles may be false. The counselor must always allow such deductions to remain open for question by the counselee in a way that he cannot allow a plain commandment of God to be questioned.”
So we should clarify that our calling is about the Word of God, faithfully handled, rightly divided, and then presented and spoken to people “as one who speaks utterances of God.”
Shane Koehler is one of our ten TES campus pastors, having served as teaching pastor at Faith Community Church in Woodstock, GA since 2003.