The Sermon under Attack

Written by Klaas Runia Reviewed By Ronald S. Wallace

The author begins with an informative survey of the contemporary criticism, levelled by social scientists, experts in communication, theologians and church members, at the preaching which is heard today, and the place which the sermon is given in the church. We are compelled to engage in heart-searching reflection on what we are doing when we preach.

What, really, is preaching? Dr Runia in a brief and masterly way reviews the biblical answers to this question, and also recalls the teaching of Luther, Calvin, C. H. Dodd, Karl Barth, and others. Preaching is indeed the word of the living God. Through it the power of the kingdom of God and of the saving deeds of Christ are actively and dynamically brought to bear upon our present situation.

The source of all true preaching is the Bible. In itself it is the greatest sermon in the world, and it is made up of sermons. Dr Runia points out the inadequacy of the ‘neo-orthodox’ view that the Bible merely ‘becomes’ the Word of God in its inspired use (a view from which he dissociates Barth himself). Among the ‘theologians of the post Barthian era’ he criticises especially Pannenberg’s teaching that the essential content of the Word lies beyond the Scripture and has to be discovered behind the texts, which too often share the fallibilities of their authors. Such a view, Runia believes, runs counter to the whole tenor of Scripture which focuses our attention on the reliable texts themselves, as well as on the events to which they bear witness.

Professor Runia believes that the methods used in the ‘so-called historico-critical research of Scripture’ are useful. They can enlarge our understanding of the text, and help us to see how its final form was reached. Certainly the results of such research are too often dictated by philosophical or theological prejudice. The conservative scholar or preacher need not be led on in this way to reach destructive conclusions, yet, if he wishes to be a biblical preacher he must persevere in the true and correct use of such methods. Dr Runia believes that the Bible has a redemptive-historical structure which gives us a key to its Christ-centred witness.

The Bible, when it was written, was always relevant to particular situations which it addressed. There is truth in Barth’s claim that the real situation of people today is their situation before God, which we find mirrored so clearly for us in the Word. To be faithful to the text is therefore to be faithful to life. Yet there is a vast cultural difference between our own and Bible times. Things today are changing with unprecedented rapidity. Therefore we are challenged to reflect as much on the congregation as on the text in preparing our sermons. The situation before us can decide how we handle the text. We are warned not to create a mere show of relevance by moralizing, or by creating in our minds an imaginary ‘man in the pew’. We must be careful, too, not to adapt the biblical message to our situation.

Dr Runia gives us some simple rules to help us to follow a process which he illustrates from within the Bible itself: a continuous process of ‘interpretation and re-interpretation, of actualisation and re-actualisation’.

The book consists of five lectures given to students at Moore Theological College, Australia. It keeps us in touch with how the whole matter has been discussed during the past fifty years, and brings us up-to-date. It is admirably and clearly written, and covers a remarkably wide range of thought. It gives wise guidance to the conservative student. It would make the book more valuable for the working pastor, for instance, if Dr Runia could expand the mere reference he makes to the pastoral ministry as a help to relevant preaching. In an interesting appendix, and in response to a question raised during the lectures, Dr Runia argues cogently that if Paul were living today he would regard it as proper that women should preach.

It is good to read a book in which the helpful footnotes are printed at the foot of each page.

Ronald S. Wallace