Two weeks ago, I posted a third principle of faithfulness for Gospel ministry from 2 Corinthians 4. If the Gospel is veiled to those who are perishing (2Cor 4:3), and if the problem we’re trying to solve is the world’s blindness to glory (2Cor 4:4), then our task is to preach a message that is powerful enough in itself to overcome that blindness. Paul tells us that such a proclamation is not ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord (2Cor 4:5).
And yet it seems that many pastors, churches, and individual Christians have not understood the implications of those principles. Sadly, many do preach themselves. Jerry Wragg has offered us two magnificent posts over the last two days (one, two) outlining some reasons he sees for this. Another of the reasons I believe that is the case is that we have a fundamental misunderstanding of our role. Many evangelical preachers see themselves as orators rather than heralds.
To help us see the difference, I want to quote generously from a chapter by Duane Litfin called “Swallowing Our Pride: An Essay on the Foolishness of Preaching.” It appears in Preach the Word, a book on expository preaching in honor of R. Kent Hughes. In this chapter, Litfin examines the widely-held notion that 1Cor 1:24 speaks only of the foolishness of the message preached to the exclusion of the method of preaching itself. He contrasts the ancient keryx, or herald—that is, what New Testament preachers are called to be—with the orator that Paul labored so diligently to distance himself from (1Cor 1:17–2:5).
By mapping out the Grand Equation of Rhetoric, Litfin demonstrates that it is the orator who was audience- and results-driven (117)—like many of our consumerist, celebrity pulpits—while the herald was obedience-driven and methodologically obligated (119) by his theology (121). In a day where we suppose that we can hold our theology in a closed hand but our methodology in an open hand, Litfin demonstrates that Paul avoided such an understanding for fear that his congregation’s faith would rest on the cleverness, wisdom, and ingenuity of men, rather than the power of God (122; 1Cor 2:5). Rather, Paul’s method was clearly and carefully determined by his theology.
Though a bit longer than a normal post, I include these lengthy quotes because I’m confident they will be a benefit to you. I include the page number after each quote.
The Greco-Roman Orator
“Training in Greco-Roman rhetoric formed the crown of a liberal education in the ancient world, and the orators it produced became the celebrities of their day. The people of the first century loved eloquence and lionized those who could produce it. Eloquence was perhaps their primary entertainment, and it was ubiquitous throughout the Roman Empire. Audiences consisted of avid and sophisticated listeners who knew what they liked and what they disliked. But the orators were willing to risk their displeasure for the sake of gaining audience approval and the rewards that accompanied it.
The training of an orator was a marvelously complex thing. … But when all else is pared away and we lay bare the essence of Greco-Roman rhetorical theory, we discover that ancient rhetorical education was designed to train an orator in the art of persuasion. At its best the study of rhetoric was not about how to compose purpose prose, much less how to manipulate an audience. It was about the discovery and delivery of ideas and arguments that would engender belief in one’s listeners. Given this audience, and this subject matter, how can I achieve the desired result? This was the question the persuader was trained to ask and answer, and the measure of his skill was the degree to which he could do so successfully, in whatever rhetorical situation he might be facing.” – 116
The Orator Adapts His Message to His Audience to Achieve Desired Results
“The audience for the orator was a given. Usually the orator could do little to choose his auditors. The point, instead, was to adapt to what he was given in order to achieve his goals, which sends us to the opposite end of the equation [of rhetoric]: the results.” – 116-17
“The persuader had to be able to adapt his efforts in whatever way possible to accomplish this result with this audience, and all of his rhetorical education was designed to train him in how to do so. It was his skill in successfully adapting himself and his efforts to this particular situation and this particular audience that made the rhetorical equation work.” – 117
“The persuader’s role was both audience- and results-driven. Once set, the desired results govern the equation. That is why so much attention is paid in the ancient rhetorical literature to the psychology of the audience, to their belief systems, to their likes and dislikes, and to what is required to win specific responses from them.” – 117
“Since he was not methodologically obligated or constricted…the message was the persuader’s to design, and he it was who would be given credit or blame for whether or not it achieved its intended effect.” – 117
The Greco-Roman Herald
From the TDNT article for keryx, herald: Heralds “deliver their message as it is given to them. The essential point about the report which they give is that it does not originate with them. Behind it stands a higher power. The herald does not express his own views. He is the spokesman for his master. … Heralds adopt the mind of those who commission them, and act with the plenipotentiary authority of their masters. …
It is unusual for a herald to act on his own initiative and without explicit instructions. In the main the herald simply gives short messages, puts questions, and brings answers. … He is bound by the precise instructions of the one who commissions him. … The good herald does not become involved in lengthy negotiations but returns at once when he has delivered his message. … [In] general he is simply an executive instrument. Being only the mouth of his master, he must not falsify the message entrusted to him by additions of his own. He must deliver it exactly as given to him. … [He] must keep strictly to the words and orders of his master.” – 118
The Herald: Obedience-Driven, Methodologically Obligated
“Far from being an ever-malleable dependent variable, the herald’s message was set for him by another. It was required to be not a variable at all, but rather a constant—he had been given a message by the one he represented and it was his assignment to deliver it accurately and clearly to the designated audiences. And the results? Instead of an independent variable, set by the herald, the results turn out to be the equation’s dependent variable. The herald could not maneuver rhetorically to achieve some particular effect. It was his fate to deliver his message and then watch the chips fall where they may.” – 118-19
“Unlike the orator, the herald was not results-driven; he was obedience-driven. He was a man under assignment, methodologically obligated, so to speak, restricted to the task of announcing.” – 119
The Corinthians Wanted an Orator, but Paul was a Herald
“The Corinthians were critical of Paul because he did not look or sound or behave like the orators they so revered. But Paul considered himself to be commissioned by Christ as a herald, not a persuader, and he understood enough about Greco-Roman rhetorical eloquence to know the difference. Thus, he wrote the early chapters of 1 Corinthians to explain to the Corinthians why their criticisms were misplaced, and why, for theological reasons, the more limited role of the herald was his only methodological option.” – 121
“Paul may have at times been tempted to lapse into the persuader’s role (especially, as some have argued, during his unhappy experience in Athens), but if so he resisted the impulse because he was concerned about the possibility of emptying the cross of its power by preempting it with false human-centered results (1 Cor. 1:17). As elsewhere, Paul focused his preaching in Corinth on the straightforward proclamation of a herald, so that the Corinthians’ faith ‘might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power’ (1 Cor. 2:5 NIV).” – 122
“In contrast to the persuader, Paul enters the equation by asking, not, What do I want to accomplish?, but, What is it God has called me to be and to do? Then he sets out to be that and do that (1 Cor. 1:13–17). As a herald, his efforts are neither results-driven nor audience-driven; they are assignment driven, obedience-driven (1 Cor. 4:2). And Paul is radically willing to let the results fall where they may.” – 123
A Foolish Message through a Foolish Method
“God will not tolerate any lingering pride. Humans must be willing to place their faith in Christ solely on the basis of hearing and accepting God’s announced word on the subject, the gospel. He will not satisfy their pride in other ways. If in order to respond positively they demand miraculous signs to authenticate the announcement, God will not provide them [1Cor 1:22a]. If they insist on something more along the lines of what the Greeks required to be impressed—that is, ‘wisdom’ in the form of convincing arguments designed to satisfy self-sufficient minds, all dressed in winsomely impressive language [1Cor 1:22a]—he will not provide this either. All they will receive is the simple declaration of the gospel by God’s designated herald proclaiming, ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ As Jesus himself often put it, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’” – 124
“Instead, God chose to make himself available through a means that put aside all human pretensions and allowed only the humble acceptance of a simply-announced, crucified Christ—so that in the end it would be clear that God alone was responsible for their salvation. No mortal could boast.” – 125
“By the standards of the world, the gospel of ‘Christ crucified’ is indeed a supremely foolish message. But it is important to see that this content is not the only thing that lacks standing in the eyes of the world. When an audience wants and expects to hear the persuasive argumentation and formal eloquence of the orator—in fact, demands them if they are expected to be impressed—the simple heralding of a declarative message will be greeted by derision. Along with the content, this form too will appear paltry and foolish by comparison, so much so that it will insult them. It will offend the worldling’s pride and seem demeaning to him that he should be expected simply to accept the message as announced, on the mere say-so of its source.” – 125
“In hearing the message of God’s herald, the audience is dethroned from its proud role as judge. Indeed, far from gratifying their pride, the audience is being called simply to accept ‘the word of the cross’ as proffered. But this the prideful will be unwilling to do. If the content of the gospel, Christ crucified, will be considered scandalous or foolish by the world’s standards, so will be its mere heralding [i.e., its method!]. But this is very much by God’s design. It pleased God, said Paul, through the foolishness of both the content and the form of the heralding to save (tous pisteuontous) those who simply believe.” – 126
Taken from “Swallowing Our Pride: An Essay on the Foolishness of Preaching” by Duane Litfin in Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching: In Honor of R. Kent. Hughes, edited by Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson, © 2007, pp. 116–26. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org.