The word and the cross

Preaching in a postmodern world

Timothy S. Warren, Ph.D., is professor of pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary, Rockwell, Texas.

In this postmodern world of misplaced values, some within the Christian community admonish the preacher to abandon the Word and the Cross for a more acceptable, more inclusive, human-centered message.

They argue that the Cross is neither a valuable nor an appropriate message to preach in our time. Those who wish to abandon Christ crucified and other crucial aspects of the faith believe that a massive cultural shift, moving from a worldview shaped by reason and argument to a worldview shaped by image and experience, requires not only a different medium but a different message.

I respectfully disagree. In fact, if ever a generation needs to hear Christ and Him crucified, it is this—the post modern one. The concern here, however, is just how much postmodern thinking has infiltrated biblical hermeneutics. How can we do our part in saving this generation if the church itself is buying into the very blunders it has been called to challenge?

The challenge of changing worldviews

We have gone from the premodern, through the modern, to the postmodern. Walter Truett Anderson's three umpires analogy explain what this means.

The premodern umpire claimed, "There are balls and there are strikes. I call them the way they are."

The modern umpire asserted, "There's balls and strikes and I call 'em as I see 'em."

The postmodern ump says, "They aren't anything until I call 'em."

The premodern worldview embraced the supernatural. People believed in God (or gods) and held that "The Divine" ordered the universe. There were objective values, absolute principles, and transcendent reality. Truth could be known through revelation. "There are balls and there are strikes, and I call them the way they are."

That perspective eroded when the modern worldview began to take precedence in the late 1700s. The modern ideology held that reason, rather than revelation, would unfold whatever objective, universal truth existed in this closed, natural universe. Humanism, science, control, technology—all promised a better life. Reality and meaning were still "out there," in objective form, waiting to be discovered by the awesome capabilities of humankind. "There's balls and strikes and I call 'em as I see 'em."

A postmodern shift has supposedly replaced modernity during the last two to three decades. In postmodernity, what is real is what happens to be constructed within the mind and imagination of an individual or individuals within a social community. There are no universals, no metanarratives, no transcendents, no foundations. There is change, diversity, chaos, and relativity. Volition rules over the intellect, emotion rules over reason, image over argument. Experience has replaced truth, skepticism has replaced moral certainty. Meaning is a purely human phenomenon—"in here." I create meaning for myself and so do others. Whatever is is what I see it to be. "They aren't anything until I call 'em."

A hermeneutical relativism

Probably the key factor for our discussion is that in this postmodern worldview, supernatural revelation and human reason have been replaced by the relativism of philosophical hermeneutics as the way of knowing. God does not speak truth. Reason does not provide meaning. We form our own realities, including God, within ourselves.

Among the most fundamental postmodern disciplines is that of deconstruction, in which any reality claims, in the form of language (as in Scripture or preaching), are deconstructed in order to be reconstructed from the experiential perspective of some "new" author of meaning, and therefore, reality. Here, truth is relative. Communication is subjective. Propositions are nontransferable. Therefore, meaning must be deconstructed. This process has affected and, in some cases, infected biblical hermeneutics and homiletics.

Listen to Ronald J. Alien, associate professor of preaching and New Testament at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, as he argues that topical preaching is grounded in "the gospel" rather than the biblical text. 1

"You move," he says, "not from text to sermon but from a topic ... to a consideration of the topic in the light of the gospel, without centering it in the exposition of a biblical text."2

What is "the gospel" in which we ground the sermon?

Allen answers, "The gospel is the dipolar news that God unconditionally loves each and every created entity and that God unceasingly wills justice for each and every created entity."3

That is a very abstract definition. I prefer Paul's more straightforward one: "Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I pro claimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scrip tures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:1- 4).

More troubling than his definition of the gospel, however, is Alien's state meant that "the gospel itself is a higher authority in the church than the text."4

As a result he argues: "When faced with an intractable text [such as Samuel cutting Agag in pieces before the Lord in 1 Samuel 15] the minister might give an exposition of the meaning of the text and then show why the text is harmful and no longer authoritative."5

A full interpretation of 1 Samuel 15, or other "intractable" texts, which takes into account both its biblical and canonical theology, would resolve its "intractableness." But that's another issue. What concerns me is how quickly Alien seems to abandon biblical authority.

Bible still authoritative?

Robin Scroggs, Professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York, takes a step further: "Does the claim that the Bible has authority any longer make sense? If assessments about biblical faith and ethics are made from contemporary sensitivities about what is right or wrong, then it is our contemporary perspectives that are authoritative."6

No question about it. If the Bible is interpreted by most postmodern appraisals, then its authority will be abandoned. Scroggs goes on: "What we need is a new understanding of the role of the Bible in the church today that acknowledges the actual reality of our situation—an understanding that takes the Bible as a foundational document but not as authoritative."7

And finally, Scroggs asserts, "I propose... that we forthrightly give up any claim that the Bible is authoritative .... This, I would argue, is the inevitable and appropriate final step in the long story of the erosion of biblical authority. In public discussions the Bible must be discussed as a human document from the past and our dialogue with it seen as a human process of the present."8

Scroggs is right in this: As long as interpretation is controlled by contemporary readings of the text, the Bible will possess no primary authority. I, for one, am not willing to make the necessary concessions. Still, this approach has be come standard fare in many circles.

In a 1996 volume in honor of David Buttrick, several contributors posited what I would call a postmodernist view of preaching.9

Edward Parley writes about a "New Paradigm for Preaching," and says: "Surely we are summoned to preach the gospel, not the Bible," 10 so that "when we say that the what-is-preached is gospel, we are unable to restrict that to a single motif such as incarnation, atoning death, or resurrection ... we refuse to reduce or narrow gospel to a single text, set of texts, or even theme." 11

"Preachers ... do not deliver the world of the gospel to the community of faith. Finding it already there [some how, already in their consciousness], they render it into forms of self-reflection, remembrance, new interpretation, spiritual discipline, and education." 12 Parley concludes that "since the world of the gospel means the mysteries that attend redemptive process, it is never a fixed content." 13

Why is this gospel ever changing with culture, having no objective anchor and transcending the authority of the Scriptures? The answer comes back, "Because this gospel is 'in us." According to this postmodern hermeneutic, the gospel is "already there"—within our "communal consciousness."

The gospel and social consciousness?

David M. Greenhaw, writing on "The Formation of Consciousness," articulates Buttrick's argument that reality is the formation of social, that is, communal, consciousness. "Reality," he states, "cannot be formed in any other way than in consciousness." 14 Whereas Buttrick does not seem to deny the possibility of reality "out there"—an objective reality he seems to own no hope of accessing that reality. The reality of God is merely the consciousness of Him formed by our perceptions of Him. And since we cannot escape our culturally formed consciousness, "God, inasmuch as God is known to us, as God is God as known to us."15 I needed to read that line several times.

Having abandoned the possibility of a divine Word of revelation from God who is knowable, Buttrick posits that we, as interpreters/preachers, construct reality "to transform a world of profound and pernicious injustice." 16 The goal is a homiletic that creates a social consciousness of the world the way the preacher imagines it should be. Buttrick, as interpreted by Greenhaw, maintains that "to form a communal consciousness, to change a common cultural mind, is what preaching can do. Preaching shapes worlds in social consciousness," 17 as it seeks "to reform a communal consciousness." 18

Stepping back for a moment, I wonder why a communal consciousness would need reformation if the reality a community perceives and/or experiences is the only reality that community can or should have? And if there is another "reality" (that is, mine as preacher), who can say that mine is the reality? What right do I have to convert their reality to mine?

"From Buttrick's perspective," says Greenhaw, "Revelation is not the words of the Bible or even the words of preaching but the formation of a faith- world in consciousness. That is, revelation is something that happens, not something that is reported." 19

All this seems to me to be very much like saying, "This million-dollar Rolls- Royce may look like an automobile to you, but to me, it looks like a treehouse. No, I think a septic tank. That's it. I'm going to drop that Rolls into the ground and run my sewage into it."

Reconstruction of the gospel?

Where does this reconstruction of the gospel lead us? Should we preach Christ crucified? Listen to Ernest T. Campbell. In the same volume, Preaching As a Theological Task, in his chapter "The Friend We Have in Yahweh," Campbell concedes, "There can be no disputing the fact that the overwhelming majority of believing Christian people would hold that the gospel has to do primarily with how we stumbling sinners can find forgiveness. If this be the fundamental question that the gospel answers, then the focus will fall on Jesus. Not just his life in general but on the final week of his life. And not just the final week, but the final day. And not just the final day, but the final hours— between twelve and three when he gave up the ghost."

But, Campbell says, "I have trouble with this way of going at it for several reasons. First, it seems a rather cavalier dismissal of the greatest life ever lived to toss out 30 or 33 years just to get to the salvific part."20

That characterization is, of course, a straw-man argument. Neither the Bible nor true Christian preachers ever make light of the gracious, compassionate, challenging, and sinless life that Jesus Christ lived for over thirty years.

"Second," says Campbell, "the church has magnified the gravity of sin out of reasonable proportions."21

"Third," he admits, "I have serious problems with the idea that God needed gore to be good; that until God saw blood flow that day, God could not dispense mercy to any."22

In Campbell's postmodern gospel, "God does not need the 'once offering up of his Son to forgive. God's love does not require mediation. God forgave long before Jesus came. (What a friend we have in Yahweh!) God forgives in lands and cultures where Christ has not yet come."23

And finally, he challenges, "If God is one, we may be sure that God is at home in traditions not our own. The term 'God' can be unifying. The name 'Jesus' has proved to be divisive. Unless we are willing to summarily dismiss the faith claims of millions on millions of Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists and consign them to outer darkness, we will have to concede that God conveys grace in many ways and forms."24

Interestingly, this new hermeneutic, emerging from a postmodern philosophy, ends up in an old heresy. Campbell's view of the Cross is the ancient Abelardian view, wherein the fact of the Cross was optional and its only benefit was to offer a fine example of love. There was no sacrifice, no atonement, no redemption. There was, after all, no need.

The apostle Peter defended a different gospel: "He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed" (1 Pet. 2:24, NRSV). Peter took sin and the Cross seriously.

A response to postmodern hermeneutics

The literature of postmodern theology, hermeneutics, and homiletics spews the sentiments expressed by the writers cited above. From the more cautious speculators to the more radical advocates, we could endlessly recount and discuss their "new" challenge to the preaching task. I ask, "Who are these postmoderns, and how should we respond to their doctrines?" Those who summon you to abandon the Word of the Cross are elite academicians, recreational theologians, even ivory-tower intellectuals. Like avant-garde designers of fashion clothing or shock artists, they put on a provocative show but fail to provide the essential stuff of life. These are the professional philosophers who have stared so long and hard into human wisdom that they have fallen in.

But sin and judgment, sacrifice and forgiveness, are not cultural fiction. They are real. The challenge, therefore, for biblical preachers is not, "Should we preach Christ crucified?" That answer is unequivocal, "Yes, we must." The challenge is, "How can we preach Christ crucified to a postmodern culture that questions Christian exclusivism and absolutism?" We will turn to this in the next article.


This article is first of a two-part serial on the
challenge of preaching Christ crucified to an
increasingly Christless culture. Part II will appear in

*All Scripture passages in this article are from
the New Revised Standard Version.

1 Ronald J. Alien, Preaching the Topical Sermon
(Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).

2 Ibid.,ix.

3 Ibid., 5.

4 Ibid., 8.

5 Ibid., 33.

6 Robin Scroggs, "The Bible as Foundational
Document," Interpretation 49 (January 1995) 1:19.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., 23.

9 Thomas G. Long and Edward Parley, eds.,
Preaching As a Theological Task: World, Gospel,
Scripture; In Honor of David Buttrick
Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996).

10 Ibid., 165.

11 Ibid., 168.

12 Ibid., 170.

13 Ibid., 174.

14 Ibid., 6.

15 Ibid., 8.

16 Ibid., 2.

17 Ibid., 7.

18 Ibid., 13.

19 Ibid. ,8.

20 Ibid. ,104.

21 Ibid., 104.

22 Ibid., 106.

23 Ibid., 108.

24 Ibid., 110.

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Timothy S. Warren, Ph.D., is professor of pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary, Rockwell, Texas.

March 1999

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