What to Teach - C. Kingsley Barrett

What to Teach

C Kingsley Barrett MA DD FBA

25 June 1744, and the five following days, three questions were proposed for discussion: (1) What to teach; (2) How to teach; and (3) How to regulate doctrine, discipline, and practice. It is of the first only of these questions that I have been ’asked to speak, but the precedent of 1744 will perhaps justify me in the observation that the question ‘What to teach’ is one that invites the association with it of other questions which may make clear and specific the sense in which we are to understand it.

In some settings I should understand the question ‘What to teach’ to refer to the drawing up of a syllabus of instruction; professional teachers, whether of theology or of other subjects, are not unfamiliar with the process. In the present context I do not understand the question in this way. Attempts to distinguish sharply within the New Testament between didache and kerygma have not, I think, been fully successful, and ‘What to teach’ is not far removed from ‘What to preach’, All good preaching has an element of teaching in both its content and its manner, but more important for us is the converse of this: the teaching with which we are concerned is not speculation, or even a well-ordered dogmatic system, but propositions, articles of faith, which find their proper meaning only as they are proclaimed.

The step we have just taken is a vital one because it leads to another. I can teach anything I am myself capable of learning and apprehending; but I can preach only what I ‘believe. Hence the third question which we now reach: ‘What to believe’. What to teach; what to preach; what to believe: the three are not identical, but each shades into the next, and we cannot discuss the question ‘What to teach’ in any way that is relevant to the Conference of Methodist Preachers without asking ourselves, in the most pressing, personal, and existential manner, what we do in fact believe.

And here is the rub; for what I have just said might suggest that ‘What to believe’, and therefore ‘What to preach’ and ‘What to teach’, are private questions which each man is free to answer as seems good in his own eyes. And so they are: ‘Let each man’, said Paul, ‘be fully convinced in his own mind’ (Rom. 14. 5). But Paul himself will remind us better than most that this essential freedom means anything but a theological free-for-all in which every preacher is at liberty to do, to think, to leach exactly what he chooses. ‘If we or an angel from heaven should preach you a Gospel different from that which we preached to you, let him he anathema (Gall. I. 8). It is. I suppose, because we have today reached such a theological chaos, in which our own people complain that they hear one doctrine on one Sunday, and hear it contradicted the next, that we are considering this topic in this Conference, I can preach. and. in the deepest sense, teach, only that which I am myself convinced is true, but this does not mean that any undisciplined individualist may promulgate his own ideas as Christian doctrine. That he has every right to maintain and propagate these ideas we should all agree, but they must go out under their own, and not under false colours, Moreover, while some of our fellow-Christians have exercised the widest latitude over Christian belief, historic Methodism has always been clear that there was an irreducible core of ‘our doctrines’, capable of highly individual expression and development but constituting ‘standards of preaching and belief which should secure loyalty to the fundamental truths of the Gospel of Redemption and ensure the continued witness of the Church to the realities of t=he Christian experience of salvation’ (Constitutional Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church, 1969; p289).

What to teach. What to preach. What to believe: what I have already said should indicate that Methodists ought to know very well the answers to these questions, and the foundations on which these answers rest. Permit me to quote once more. "The Doctrines of the Evangelical Faith which Methodism has held from the beginning, and still holds are based upon the Divine revelation recorded in the Holy Scriptures." "The Methodist Church . . .. . . loyally accepts the fundamental principles of the historic creeds and of the Protestant Reformation’ (op. cit. p288). I have not invented these propositions: we have all given our assent to them. I am well aware, however, that what I have just said will seem to some a rigid, wooden reiteration of the out of date, a closing of the mind to new sources of revelation and new understanding of Christian truth. Let me therefore say at once that I am well aware that the shoe pinches, and that I know where it pinches. It pinches in all the three areas I have just referred to. This is the source of our present hesitating uncertainty, and distress, and there can be no advance without some exploration and sympathetic understanding of the difficulties.

'The Divine revelation recorded in the Holy Scriptures.’ Is that, then, what is recorded in the Holy Scriptures? Can such a proposition be made to square with the problematical and diverse character of what we now know the Bible to be? A generation ago Professor C. H. Dodd (see The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments, first published in 1936) discovered what it became popular to call the Kerygma, the common primitive preaching the outlines of which could be traced in the speeches in Acts, in Paul, in the gospels, and elsewhere. The modern student prefers to speak not of a kerygma but of several kerygmata. Which one are we to choose? Is the core of the Bible already a pluralism? And how are we to choose? The work of Walter Baur (Recht glaubigkeit und Ketzerei imaltesten Christentum 1934; English translation in 1972) seems to mean that there is no objective criterion of right and wrong, orthodox and heretical: the orthodox is the side that won, the heretical that which lost - it was as simple as that. How should it have been otherwise? The fundamental tradition was passed on from lip to lip of those who used it for their own purposes and saw themselves established by it; what possibility then of objective information about Jesus and what he intended, especially when objectivity might seem to destroy the faith that the bearers of the tradition preached?

Loyalty to the fundamental principles of the historic creeds is itself a difficulty that begins at the same point, for what are the creeds but an objectification of the unobjectifiable, and that in forms of thought and expression that belong to a philosophical framework that we can no longer entertain? The historic creeds we know the history of them all too well — not only of the more scandalous councils with their ‘apostolic blows and knocks’, but of all the joinery and patchwork, the exclusive attempts «to define out, which formulated the creeds we use. The ‘bankruptcy of Chalcedon’ is an old and familiar phrase, and it points to the credo quia impossibile attitude, which affirms the more stoutly where it cannot rationally explain.

As for the principles of the Protestant Reformation, we hear the very words with something of a shudder and hush them quickly lest they disturb the peaceful ecumenical atmosphere in which we have now come to live. Apart from the sheer embarrassment they cause, they suggest a partial, one-sided view of the Christian truth, whereas what we seek is wholeness and balance.

Let me make it clear that these are all serious issues, and that I have no intention of treating them otherwise than seriously. We cannot, if we are honest men, go back to a pre-critical manner of reading, and studying the Bible, and its historical and exegetical problems are real. The history of the creeds is a grim story, and many a clause is a makeshift stopper, some of them stopping up holes that might with advantage have been left open. We have now learnt that the Pope is not after all Anti-Christ but a Christian brother and that even if he is an erring Christian brother he does not err in a respects, so that it may even be possible to learn from him. We know too that a truth is not true because it was enunciated in Geneva in the sixteenth century, but only because it is true. No wonder people and preachers alike are puzzled and bewildered.

It is impossible to reach a sympathetic understanding of the present situation with recognizing all these factors—and many more—which have contributed to its making. And one must be sympathetic when many are—understandably and genuine1y—perp1exed. But a sympathetic understanding is one thing, and justification is another. It is hard for any one man to estimate how serious the situation is. For the most part we only hear ourselves preach, and even those who sit in the pew usually sit in the same pew, and hear only a limited range of preachers. But there is enough in the wind and doubtless there are problems enough in one’s own mind, to make one profoundly anxious. On the day that I received the President’s invitation to speak in this session (26 March 1973) The Times contained an article, or rather, an excerpt from a sermon, by the distinguished Baptist minister, Dr. Howard Williams. He was preaching to -the Annual Congress of the Free Church Federal Council.

The trouble with modern Free Churches is not that the preacher does not know what to do with his arms and legs. He has nothing to say . . . is it then that the people now dwell in a land where there is a famine of the word and where even the desire for food has died‘? . . . Christ is the Word; that is a true saying and the Bible stands supreme among all other books because it is there we read of the Christ and not in some other place. You are not being true to the faith if you make it appear as though the Bible does not count as indispensable and unique. Nor will you get far with the work of the Gospel if you try to manage without the preacher. Quaker silence, dialogues and happenings. All these may say something to modern man who has learned to trust experience, but without the proclaimed word you will be crippled by emotional spasms. Enlightened Christians sometimes suggest all kinds of substitutes for Scripture. A passage from William Temple, a poem by Auden. A snatch from the Gita . . . there is no limit to the competitors in the field of inspiration.

Has it indeed come to this? Is this too dark a picture? What is most grievous of all is that, I fear, there are some who will say. It is a true picture, but it is not dark. This is how things ought to be. Ours is a pluralist society, and the church should bear the marks of pluralism in Christian theology, and pluralism in religious faith. That this is being said in high in influential circles we all know. It is not new, except as professedly Christian thinking. ‘Uno itinere non potest pervenire ad tam grande secretum’. By one road alone it is not possible to arrive at so great a mystery, said Symmachus, in the not dissimilarly pluralist religious environment of the late fourth century. The question is whether we give him the answer of Ambrose and Augustine, of Anselm and Aquinas, of Luther and Calvin, of Barth and, Niemoller; or have Christianity so diluted that we adopt the ultimate paganism of assigning to Christ a place in the Pantheon. And fill the lectern and pulpit with the religious and not so religious, books of the world.

To put the matter in appropriately domestic terms, the question is whether we do in fact believe and preach our doctrines, whether we are in any proper sense of the term Methodists—for mere connexion with the Conference to which we ourselves give the tone and colour, whose teaching and decisions we not merely interpret but determine, chum»! In any objective sense make us Methodists. Again, let me put the question in its truest and most radical form, for none of us wishes to be dishonest. Can we in to-day’s new situation be Methodists? ls the old framework of word and sacraments, of a full, free, and present salvation, offered, on the basis of the finished work of redemption, to faith alone, an acceptable option for the church and ministry of the late twentieth century? Is such language merely the nostalgia of the old men, who have no sympathy with youth and no understanding of the new world that has grown up about them while they slept?

Lest this should seem to be so let me say at once that we should have no patience with a theology that is not fully radical and critical. I use these words in their plain and simple sense, and with no particular reference to any theological movement or fashion, ancient or modern. By ‘radical’. I understand that which goes down to the roots; by ‘critical' I understand that which questions and investigates, shunning no inquiry and evading no issues. To avoid such radical inquiry, to stifle such questioning, whether it arises within our own minds or among our contemporaries and is put to us from without, is neither Christian perfection nor even, as Mr. Wesley would have said, heathen honesty; the man who thus buries his head in the sand is not thereby qualifying for a seat in the clouds. The conventional and the accepted have no claim to immunity merely because they are conventional and accepted and because to disturb them would raise the dust and make life more difficult. The ministry is indeed no place for lost dogs and stray cats, who do not know where they are and where they are going; but equally it is no place for the greyhound who is content for ever to chase the dummy hare round an endless track.

The question is, on what basis is this radical criticism to be conducted? It seems to me that there can be only one answer to this question. A radical inquiry into the meaning and essence of Christianity can be nothing less than an inquiry into its roots, its origins; and this means an inquiry into the New Testament. I have no wish to say anything derogatory of tradition, whether our own tradition or the traditions of others; we have much to learn from traditions. But everyone knows that if the course of history has contributed many a Christlike action to the Christian story, and has shed many a light on Christian truth, it contains also the record of savage cruelty and a patent untruth. If I mention, the bigamy of Philip of Hesse and the burning of Servetus you will perceive my intention to show that even my heroes are not without their warts. It is however precisely at this point that the importance of the Reformation, and, in a different way and to a different degree, of the historic creeds, lies. The importance of the Reformation is not that the Reformers were wholly right and the mediaeval church and the Counter Reformation wholly wrong; it is precisely this, that it was a serious, indeed a passionate, though not an infallible, attempt to return to the root of, Gospel in the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ—such an attempt as is being made in not a few quarters of the Roman Catholic church today, In this most important fact we have a renewed opportunity of learning that Reformation properly understood is not a period in the history books or an alignment of ecclesiastical parties but a continuous process. Ecclesia semper reformanda—and that, by the word of God, for there is no other way. And as for the creeds: Athanasius declared, in defence of the homoousion, that it was the business of the bishops to collect the sense of Scripture — not to invent new words for their own sake, but to find language that would say effectively in new situations what the Scriptures meant. Reformers and Fathers alike point us beyond themselves to the roots, the scriptural roots, of the faith, bearing their witness but submitting their witness to that to which the witness is borne, challenging us to repeat their inquiry and to correct their results by the standard they themselves accepted. Had we unlimited time we might well pause to learn from them; we have not, and therefore press on in the direction in which they point.

But what then does Scripture mean? Does it mean anything? If our inquiry is to be not merely, radical but in .a proper sense critical it cannot stop short of the question whether Scripture has a real meaning, or is a mere collection of not too closely related ancient documents; it is bound to ask whether all parts of the Bible are equally clear and effective expressions of the same central truth. The Bible, as the book of origins for the Christian faith, is the critical norm for all subsequent expressions of Christian faith; it must also be accepted as the critical norm for itself.

We must begin somewhere, and it might not be particularly profit; able to begin with Matthew 1. 1; I propose to begin where the Conference of 1744 began. Facing the question, What to teach, the first Conference turned to the doctrine of justification by faith. I quote Tyerman’s summary (i. 443): The Conference concluded that

To be justified is to be pardoned, and received into God’s favour; that faith, preceded by repentance, is the condition of justification: that repentance is a conviction of sin; that faith, in general, is a Divine, supernatural elenchos of things not seen; and that justifying faith is a conviction, by the Holy Ghost, that Christ loved me, and gave Himself for me; that no man can be justified and not know it; that the immediate fruits of justifying faith are peace, joy, love, power over all outward sin, and power to keep down inward sin; that wilful sin is inconsistent with justifying faith; that no believer need ever again come into condemnation; that works are necessary for the continuance of faith, which cannot be lost but for want of them . . .

If that has a rather academic, even scholastic sound, it may remind us that the first Conference was made up of men who knew they could do the practical work of ministry only if they took their theology seriously. The echoes of Luther are unmistakable, and show Wesley’s theological lineage, but this, important as it is, is a side-line, and we have no time to pursue it. How does this first summary of Methodist teaching fare when we take it back to the New Testament?

A superficial judgement will be that it fares badly. Justification by faith is mentioned in a few - by no means all—Pauline epistles; elsewhere hardly at all. It is easy to pass it off as a side-issue and a party war cry; and it is quite true that Paul’s doctrine takes the form that we know because of the opposition he encountered from Judaizing Christians. But this was no peripheral controversy; it touched the heart of Paul’s understanding of Christianity, and the controversy is one that has recurred in varying forms in age after age of the church’s life. In it Paul was prepared to fight, if need be, the whole of Christendom—not only false brothers, false apostles, but Cephas on whom the church was built, and James, the Lord’s own brother. Why? Because the very substance of the Gospel was at stake. The question was whether God himself was prepared to deal with the world’s need realistically or not; that is, whether he was prepared to deal with men in their sin, or required the fulfilment of some prior condition on their part. This was an issue on which God himself had no choice; if he would not deal with man as sinner he could not deal with man at all, for that is what man was. There was no condition that man had to, or could, fulfil, whether religious, legal, or moral. All have sinned, all lack the glory of God; they are justified for nothing, by his grace, through his act of redemption in Christ Jesus (Rom, 3. 23f). The initiative is wholly God’s, and he takes it in Jesus. Him who knew no sin he made sin on our behalf, ‘that we might become God’s righteousness in him (2 Cor. 5. 21). If this is paradox, then there is no escaping paradox, for without this exchange of sin and righteousness, of blessing and curse, there is no Gospel.

If this were a truth that Paul alone proclaimed, our attitude might well be, not, What an odd fellow Paul is! but, Thank God he had the courage to be odd! It is not, however, a truth peculiar to Paul. Theo Preiss demonstrated in Johannine theology a juridical mysticism which combines the fundamental Pauline doctrine of justification with the equally fundamental Pauline notion of being in Christ. Even more important is the fact that the essence of the Pauline doctrine is to be found in the story of Jesus. ‘It was Paul’s greatness that he understood the message of Jesus as no other New Testament writer did. He was the faithful interpreter of Jesus. This is especially true of his doctrine of justification. It is not of his own making but in its substance conveys the central message of Jesus as it is condensed in the first beatitude: “Blessed are you poor, for y-ours is the kingdom of God”’.’ That is J. Jeremias (The Central Message of the New Testament .p70); and, from a different angle, E. Käsemann has said much the same thing, though he picks on the beatitude of those who hunger and thirst after righteousness (Exegetische Versuche und Besinnungen, ii 102f). If the doctrine of justification represents God as starting with man where he is and dealing with him there, the story of Jesus shows precisely how it was done. ‘This man receives sinners, and eats with them.‘ ‘Verily I say to thee, today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.’

It may be that there are parts of the New Testament that do not come up to this; if we hear Dr. Käsemann on Jesus and Paul we must also take seriously his criticism of 2 Peter. But it is the mainstream we are concerned with, and the doctrine of justification by faith is not badly chosen as the articulus vel stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae, the article by which the Church stands or falls, not because it happens to be the lucky ticket Luther drew in the doctrinal lottery, or even because it is in itself the whole story, but because it is the first chapter without which the story could not be told at all. There is an old tale of a man in a city — you might well think it could be Newcastle—with a particularly complicated system of one-way streets, who, when asked the way, replied, after Cogitation, I don’t know; I wouldn’t start from here. God could have said that about the human situation. Justification by grace through faith means that he didn’t; in Jesus, the friend of sinners, he plunged into the bottom of the murky pool. of humanity.

Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once;
And he that might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy.

He took life as it was, and made all things new.

I have taken the doctrine of justification not as what it could well have been—the more than adequate content of a single exposition but rather as a starting point. What are the constituents, the raw materials, of this doctrine? What does it require that we believe, preach, and teach? You might well find fifty important things to say; let me be content with five.

(1) This doctrine of justification presupposes, implies, teaches the being of a living God, above but intimately concerned in the affairs of his creatures. This is indeed the core of the whole matter, for though to believe in God is not in itself a Gospel it makes a Gospel possible. It has been said that the quest for a merciful God is a meaningless one today, when man’s search is for a merciful neighbour, or perhaps for a neighbour to be merciful to. But if there is a God, a holy, living God, in the last resort there is no more important question in the world than this: What is he like? Is he love, or not?

Come, O Thou Traveller unknown,‘
Whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
And I am let alone with Thee;
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.

Yield to me now; for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquered by my instant prayer:
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me if Thy name is love.

‘Tis love! ‘tis love! Thou diedest for me!
I hear Thy Whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure, universal love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy mercies move:
Thy nature and Thy name is love.’

I sometimes think we might understand this better if we spent a few more nights in this kind of wrestling.

I said, If there is a God. But does God exist? It would make our fathers rub their eyes if they heard such a question seriously asked in this session of this Conference; but it has to be raised today. You will, however, I hope, permit me to speak both briefly and roughly. I have heard of Christian atheism; I am at a loss to know how those who propound it can escape the charge of being either fools, or knaves, or both. I do not say that atheists must be fools or knaves; some are both highly intelligent and impeccably honourable. I speak of those who perpetrate this contradictio in adjecto. We need not think that by such puerilities we earn the respect and attention of atheistic philosophers: they know well enough that for good or ill real Christianity is a theistic faith, and for this kind of apologetic they have for the most part amused contempt. That we need a new kind of apologetic—not a new natural theo1ogy—that will take seriously the demand for verification is no doubt true, and it is a task that I must leave to my friends who are philosophers. But those of us who are not philosophers will not do too badly with the witness of Scripture and the testimony of experience. To go back to wrestling Jacob: Eduard Schweizer pointed out that at the beginning of the story of Jacob ‘there wrestled a man with him’, and out of this wrestling with man there emerged his encounter with God. This may well be true of our generation too: our wrestling with the problems of society may lead us to deal with God; but it will not do so if we begin by eliminating God from the proceedings.

(2) The second theme presupposed by justification is judgement. If there is no judgement-there is no need for justification. What this means is that God is not ultimately permissive. It is undoubtedly true that some earlier generations, and not only of Methodists, were a good deal more confident than they had any right to be that they knew precisely on what grounds God would carry out his judgement, what he would and what he would not permit._But it is hard to maintain any serious belief in God and believe that there are no limits to what he will tolerate. We are prone, naturally perhaps, to forget that the book that makes clearer than any other the boundless love of God, which is poured out freely for the least deserving also makes clearer than any other the kind of life that God requires, and lays the most stringent demands upon his servants. One speaks of the Ten Commandments, and men will reply. We are not living in the time of the Old Testament. For myself, I confess to being old-fashioned enough to believe that the world would not be duller but happier if we could all manage to abstain from murder, theft, and adultery; but be that as it may. The New Testament will tell you that not these alone but anger, covetousness, and lust will bring you into judgement.

The New Testament doctrine of justification strikes the death blow of legalism: we do not come to God by our good works. he comes to us in his grace. But it does not tell us that God has ceased to distinguish between good and evil, or that his law, summed up in the command of love (Rom. 13. 8tI), has ceased to be our guide. The more we are aware of our dependence upon God’s initiative the more eager we shall be to make the appropriate response. This is a general Christian truth, which all Christians would acknowledge; do we not have the privilege of taking the lead in the practical expression of it? As Methodists, we are pledged not only to preach ‘our doctrines’ but to observe ‘our discipline’. We can and do state ‘our discipline’ better than the nineteenth century did; when we have restated it, do we observe it as faithfully? ‘I now want it (the law)’, said Wesley, ‘as much to keep me to Christ, as I ever wanted it to bring me to Him’ (Sermon XXXIV). We must all stand before the judgement seat of God; and it is not the hearers but the doers of the law who shall be justified.

(3) The third theme in the doctrine of justification is grace. Grace is not a commodity; it is action. You know the grace of our Lord Jesus. that though he was rich yet for your sake he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8. 9). There are many aspects of grace, many things that may truly and profitably be said about it. But these words of Paul’s give us our clue; grace is essentially the event of Jesus Christ. I alluded to this a few minutes ago and must not repeat what I said then—though if anything is worth repeating it is the old story of Jesus as the friend of sinners. But I use this point in the interest-s of a wider one. Grace is the event, the whole event, of Jesus Christ, and this event must be at the heart of our teaching and our preaching.

One of the few unexceptionable remarks in Dr. Trevor Roper’s Spectator review of C. H. Dodd’s The Founder of Christianity was the observation that in every age the Church has made a Christ in its own image, to serve its own purposes. It is precisely for this reason that the Church (or at least some representative members of it) must always be busy with the ‘Quest of the Historical Jesus’. Not that we shall ever achieve the goal we aim at. The Jesus of History like the Christ of Faith is a mystery; as Albert Schweitzer said in one of the most famous passages in modern theological literature, ‘He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old’, by -the lake-side, He came" to those men who knew Him not’ (Quest of the Historical Jesus, p401). And it is still true that it is to those who obey him that he becomes known. But the sheer discipline of historical study (and I do mean the indiscipline of historical fantasy) will help to purge our thought and teaching of conscious and unconscious creation, and to keep them objective.

I should, I think, say a word or two more about this theme. The historical study of the gospels, which should never be entirely separated from the theological study of them, is not an easy task. The threads of historical tradition are tangled with the lines of theological development in the thinking of the primitive church, and disentanglement can never now be complete; we have work on hand that will last as long as there are men to 'do it, and on most issues complete certainty will never be attainable. But it is just this entanglement that is the point: there is iii the end no separating the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, and the common element that binds them together is precisely—grace, whether it is seen in the myth of the descending and ascending redeemer, or in the concrete story of the friend who ate and drank with publicans and sinners.

(4) Justified freely by grace, through faith: faith is the fourth theme of justification, and it is at this point that we must begin to speak of the Holy Spirit. It is very important to confuse neither faith nor the Holy Spirit with what we commonly describe as religious experience; yet at this point I must at all costs take the risk and talk about our own personal realization of the Gospel of salvation. Perhaps the best known of all Luther’s sayings is this. He is commenting on Paul’s, ‘The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2. 20).

Read with great vehemency these words, ‘me’, and ‘for me’, and so inwardly practise with myself, that thou, with a sure faith, mayst conceive and print this ‘me’ in thy heart, and apply it unto thyself, not doubting but that thou art of the number of those to whom this ‘me’ belongeth: also that Christ hath not only loved Peter and Paul, and given himself for them, but that the same grace also which is comprehended in this ‘me’, as well pertaineth and cometh unto us, as unto them.

This is the essence of faith; and you will note that if it is real faith it must be my faith, since what Christ did he did for me—not the Church’s faith, or the faith of the Methodist fathers, important as these are, but mine.

At this point, the sequence ‘What to teach’, ‘What to preach’. ‘What to believe’, takes a further step. We may teach what the Church believes, but we do not always proclaim it with conviction and with passion. Small wonder, then, if our hearers are not deeply moved, and gradually fall away till the pews are left empty to listen dumbly to our even tones. ‘I hear that so-and-so’, said a colleague of mine, ‘is writing an article to explain the success of the Pentecostal churches. He doesn’t need to ‘write an article, the reason is obvious—they really believe something.’ I hope I am wrong, but. I cannot help suspecting that sometimes not only sound doctrine but personal faith is wanting in our preaching today. There is a famine of hearing the words of the Lord because there is a famine of faith.

This is not a state of things that can be improved by the use of more emotional illustrations, or by raising our voices and waving our arms. ‘Certainly it cannot be improved by anything I say in this session of Conference. It can be mended only by the work of God the Holy Spirit. ;Hence the one permanent, unending prayer of preacher and people: Veni, Creator Spiritus. With this, the question, What to teach, is‘ lifted off the level of the merely academic and becomes personal— existential. If you ‘can stomach the old-fashioned word, it is a matter of assurance, assurance that is rooted not in my personal self-confidence but in precisely that which is not I. The hand with which I hold God is a trembling hand indeed,'but the hand with which he holds me is one ‘that will never let me go, and in that confidence, that assurance, I can and must preach as dying man to dying men; and this I cannot do unmoved.

(5) Finally, justification has an outlook on the future, the immediate future and the more remote. In the old language, justification leads to sanctification. It must. Justification is an eschatological term, and means that the last judgement has been brought into the present, and that God has already, miraculously, pronounced’ the verdict of acquittal, even upon the guilty. If you think of the last judgement in the straightforward terms of Jewish apocalyptic, what lies beyond it? The life of bliss and holiness in heaven. And if the eschatology of judgement is partially realized in justification, what lies beyond that? The partial realization on earth of the bliss and holiness of heaven. To all this. justification opens the door.

And of course it opens the door to the long-term future too. It is not surprising that an age, and a church, that call in question the being of God should also call in question the hope of a personal future life. But not only does justification make no sense without a personal God, it means that the justified are related, positively In him; and this relation can mean nothing less than eternal life. The mode of it remains unknown; the fact of it remains.

What I have said in this address has taken its shape from the doctrine of justification. Almost any doctrine would have served as well. If we retain any stake in Scripture, if we continue to be, as some of our fathers called themselves, Bible Christians, we have to speak in terms of the living God, of judgement, of grace, of Jesus, of theSpirit, of holiness and eternal life. I have made no attempt to translate these terms into the language of modern paganism, partly because I am speaking to those who are familiar with the technical terminology and to use it saves time, partly because, though I accept whole-heartedly the obligation to use language our contemporaries can understand, I believe that a preacher gripped by his message can do more with the old language than any amount of modern communication can achieve in itself.

Let me draw the whole subject together by recalling a short article Barth wrote many years ago under the title, ‘The Basic Forms of Theological Thought’. These, he said, are three: Exposition, in which the truth is dug out of Scripture; criticism, in which the truth thus excavated is laid alongside the world’s life, its behaviour and its thought, for comparison and judgement; and, third, proclamation. If our proclamation lacks weight and effectiveness, may it not be because we have inverted the processes of exposition and criticism, using the world’s standards of thought and behaviour as a norm to which our understanding of the Bible has had to conform? There is no recognizable Christian theology that does not begin with exposition and issue in proclamation; and no proclamation, no mission, will be effective, that is severed from its roots.

And this. proclamation is our business. I do not say that we have no other; I do not say that it is confined to the formal and conventional operations due to take place at 11 and 6 on Sundays. It is not merely that Methodist ministers are nothing if they are not Methodist preachers; you will read no instructions plainer than those of the New Testament: Preach the word; be at it, in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort; use all your patience and every kind of. teaching (2 Tim. 4. 2). Or, if you would have it in a picture, there is no better than this:

Christian saw the picture of a very grave person hung up against the wall; and this was the fashion of it. It had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth was written upon his lips, the world was behind his back. It stood as if it pleaded with men, and a crown of gold did hang over his head.

My problem today has been to grasp clearly what I am supposed to do — to lecture on theology, to deliver an exhortation, or maybe some other thing. I fear I may have mixed all these possible objectives together, and consequently achieved none of them; but I know that I have reached here the point at which I hoped to arrive, and where I know I can stop. For the ministry as a whole, and for myself, I want a renewed conviction not only of the reality but of the sovereignty and the grace of God: the sovereignty that sends us back to the grimmest tasks and the gravest problems singing Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth; the grace that sends us out to plead with the highest and lowest, the nearest and farthest, the best and the worst. Be ye reconciled to God.

 

This address was first delivered at the Ministerial Session of the Methodist Conference, 1973 and appeared in the January 1974 issue of the “Epworth Review”. We are grateful to the Editor, Rev. John Stacey. for permission to reprint it.

 

The Aldersgate Press (VMA) 111 Windsor Road Southport Merseyside PR9 9BX

This Paper is from an original published as above. 

 

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