By Carl Trueman
I taught ministerial candidates for 25 years at three separate institutions and, during that time, came across one question in relation to doctrine more than any other: “Is it preachable?” In fact, I suspect it was often not really a question — more an implicit objection to a doctrine merely couched as a question: “BUT is it preachable?”
This question reflects an understandable concern, given the centrality of the Word preached to Protestantism. But it is mischievous in its implications, smuggling into the theological task criteria for doctrinal truth which are little more than matters of personal taste or cultural plausibility. And it has a long and inauspicious pedigree.
Historically, it was one of the objections Erasmus made to Luther’s doctrine of the bondage of the will. How could it make sense to preach the law when nobody could fulfill its commands? Or predestination when it would only subvert any notion of real moral accountability? But this kind of objection to certain doctrines – we might call it the kerygmatic fallacy – is no monopoly of Luther’s nemesis or of anti-Protestants. His own friend and colleague, Philip Melanchthon also thought preaching predestination was a bad idea, a position for which he was implicitly slapped by his Reformed contemporary and friend, John Calvin, in his Institutes. For Calvin and Luther, the presence of a doctrine in God’s Word meant that it must be preached. God knew best and therefore no matters of human taste or misplaced concerns about its impact could silence a biblical doctrine. The kerygmatic fallacy was just that – a fallacy.
In more recent times, the Dutch theologian, G.C. Berkouwer, increasingly made preachability an axiom for dogmatic formulation. In his volume on predestination, Divine Election, his discussion of the divine decree perturbed John Murray. Later volumes only sharpened the problem, as he moved more towards the actualism of Karl Barth as a means of avoiding what he regarded as the static objectivism of classical orthodox formulations.
In my experience, the ‘But is it preachable?’ question/objection has come most recently to be lodged against those centre-pieces of classical Christian Trinitarian theism, divine simplicity and divine immutability and impassibility. Can notions as apparently arcane as the first and as allegedly static as the second have any place in the pulpit? Indeed, can they be preached?
It would take a fat volume to offer anything approaching an adequate answer to that, but a number of preliminary responses might at least give pause for thought to those swept up in the kerygmatic fallacy.
First, and most obviously, it must be possible to preach these doctrines for the simple reason that they have been preached for many centuries. The Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Perkins, Goodwin, Voetius, Owen, to name but a representative handful, all did so. The Westminster divines seem to have known a thing or two about the preacher’s task and clearly codified these doctrines in Chapter Two of the Westminster Confession. If the doctrines were preached then, at the risk of tautology, they were obviously preachable.
Second, if these doctrines were preached and believed until relatively recently by orthodox Christians everywhere, why do some no longer think they can be? When did these teachings start to be ‘unpreachable’? It is doubtful there is a single cause but some aspects of the current context suggest themselves: the idea of process has gripped philosophical imaginations since the era of Hegel and Darwin; post-Auschwitz many theologians have argued that identification in suffering must be a foundational part of the divine answer to suffering, a tendency which has not abated in our own era of cheap victimhood; and (within the evangelical Protestant camp) a skewed understanding of what the Reformers meant by scripture alone has often fueled a biblical theology pursued in detachment from historic systematic theology. The immutability of God has thereby become the victim of the mutability of the world.
But the preachability of a doctrine is determined by its truth, not vice versa, a point made forcefully by Luther in his response to Erasmus. It is also exemplified in the negative by the history of doctrine where the abandonment of the classical doctrine of God has typically led within a generation to doctrines that truly are unpreachable because they are so far detached from historical and biblical Christianity. History seems to suggest that the kerygmatic fallacy ironically lays the foundation for kerygmatic failure.
So the only evaluative question to ask about any doctrine is this: ‘Is it historic, biblical Christianity?’ And if the answer to that is yes, then the next question is not ‘Is it preachable?’ — by definition it must be — but rather ‘How then should I preach it?’ And, whatever the doctrine may be, a brief but humble glance at the great theologian-preachers of the past will almost certainly help you answer that.
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