‘Prophetic’ Proclamation or Didactic Doctrine?

In 1963 Emil Brunner wrote that, ‘A further consequence that necessarily follows from the basic error of orthodoxy is the overvaluation of doctrine in the life of the church and in the faith of the individual’ (Truth as Encounter, 178)—this from a man who spent his life teaching and writing books on Christian doctrine! Brunner has not had a change of heart whereby he now considers doctrine to be deleterious to the life of faith or the life of the church. To the contrary sound doctrine is greatly desired and necessary. Still, he asserts that doctrine can be ‘overvalued.’

First it is necessary briefly to note the ‘basic error of orthodoxy’ to which Brunner refers. The error is what he calls objectivism, the idea that somehow God’s activity stands complete in and of itself whether or not there is any human response or correspondence to that activity. This view pictures God’s work in impersonal terms and as such departs from what Brunner considers a more biblical portrayal of God as relational and personal. Thus, Brunner views with suspicion concepts of grace, the church, or the sacraments in which the divine activity is institutionalised or rendered automatic or mechanical in its operation. Brunner uses the practice of baptism as an example. Baptism is a work of divine grace in which God is active forgiving sin, cleansing, and regenerating. But it is not an act of God solely, for the human agent is also active having been moved by grace in faith and confession. Any practice of the sacrament that either implicitly or explicitly diminishes or removes the human element so that the requirement of faith is removed ‘destroys’ the character of the sacrament (181-184). Brunner’s view is that God’s grace and truth is always an ‘event’ in which the person is encountered by God in such a way that their personal response is called for and called forth.

With this background we can begin to explore Brunner’s point in the citation above. Brunner insists that the primary commission received by the church is not doctrine but proclamation.

Proclamation, I suppose, must always have a doctrinal content, but it is itself something other than doctrine. It is faith awakening, faith-furthering, faith-wooing address. Genuine proclamation always has a prophetic character – even if we preachers are no prophets; pure doctrine, on the other hand, has a didactic character (178).

As Brunner uses the term, prophetic refers not to foretelling future events or preaching about social issues or condemning various evils—two common misconceptions. Rather it is hortatory address, calling people to respond to God and his promises. It is to be a messenger of the covenant as the Old Testament prophets are sometimes characterised, calling people to faith in God. The prophet confronts the hearer with the reality of God and calls for a decision. Teaching, on the other hand, is didactic, instructional, the communication of information that may or may not have any direct existential claim upon the hearer.

Brunner rejects, therefore, a direct identification of doctrine with ‘the Word of God.’ The Word of God is the event whereby a person is addressed by God through the human word of proclamation in such a way that the response of faith and obedience is aroused. In the modern period especially, Brunner contends, proclamation is more necessary than teaching if the church is to fulfil its missionary commission (198). This is even more the case in the postmodern and post-Christian environment in which we now live.

Once let the relation between the Word of God and doctrine be rightly understood, and there will hardly be room any longer for the view that the single thing which the church could do for the awakening of faith is the conceptual clarification of the Holy Scriptures. Has it, then, not yet been noticed that the most perfect knowledge of Biblical concepts and the entire acceptance of Biblical doctrine is wholly compatible with the completest want of actual faith – and indeed that this is anything but a rare phenomenon? (180)

I am sure that Brunner’s reflection provides crucial guidance for the present task of preaching. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus went about teaching (didaskōn), preaching (kērussōn), and healing. Teaching is certainly necessary for those who are already Christians. But even more now than in Brunner’s day the church in the west exists in a missionary context. We would do well to infuse all our sermons with a kerygmatic element—proclamation, and not simply teaching. Such preaching points to the beauty of Jesus Christ, his sovereignty, grace, promise and redemption, and on this basis, calls people to repentance and faith. Such preaching seeks not merely to inform but to call for an informed decision. That such a decision is actually made is not our work, however, but the work of the Holy Spirit. For this we can and should pray.

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