"Preaching as the Word of God" A review by Allan Chapple


Sam Chan, Preaching as the Word of God: Answering an Old Question with Speech-Act Theory (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2016).

This is the doctoral thesis written at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago under the supervision of the Australian Anglican theologian, Professor Graham Cole. Its catalyst is the Reformation view, summed up in the assertion of the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), that the preaching of the word of God is the word of God. Its aim is to determine whether—and if so, in what way—this rather daring claim can be correct.

Part A sets out and evaluates the way Luther and Calvin present this view and the role it plays in their definition of the marks of the true church. Part B, the longest section of the book, assembles and analyses the biblical testimony indicating that the preached gospel is the word of God. Part C uses the speech-act theory developed especially by J.L. Austin and John Searle to articulate the sense in which human preaching of the gospel counts as the word of God. It concludes (p.223) that

to preach the gospel as the word of God is to re-locute and re-illocute the divine speech act, the gospel, which itself was once locuted and illocuted by the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles, and which now continues to be locuted and illocuted in the canonical Scriptures.       

According to the conventions of the academic guild, giving a new book to a reviewer is rather like entering it in a competition in which an expert judge assesses the quality of the entries and weighs up their virtues and defects in order to determine whether a prize should be awarded. It is difficult to see how that approach is appropriate in the family of believers. If the author did not publish his book in order to achieve fame but in order to serve his fellow-believers, then the reviewer should not position himself above the author to pass judgment on his work but alongside him to engage in a respectful conversation about what he has put forward. So what follows enables you to listen in on my side of that conversation with a fellow-Christian I have not met.

This book puts us in your debt, Sam. It does so because this is a task that needed to be done, for (as the book recognizes) this is not a merely theoretical issue: it raises its head whenever any of us prepares and preaches a sermon or listens to a preacher. We are also your debtors because the careful thought and hard work involved has resulted in a model of how such a task should be done: beginning with a clear definition of the focus and limits of the investigation, and working methodically to the conclusion that emerges from evidence that has been assembled and analysed carefully at each step in the process. And I think you’ve done a great job of “plundering the Egyptians”: making beneficial use of a theory developed with no connection to God’s church or our theological task without being controlled by it.

As such a work should, yours has given me lots to think about and raised quite a few questions. Here are some of those thoughts and questions, starting with a very simple one.

Your presentation of Calvin’s view relies almost solely on the Institutes, and especially on the early chapters in Book IV. Perhaps this was the most straightforward way of discovering his approach on this issue, but I couldn’t help wondering whether your summary and assessment of his views would have been modified in any way if you had taken some of his preaching into account: perhaps his expositions of Micah and Titus, to give two examples selected more or less at random.

As I read Part A in particular, I found myself asking this question: As we seek to learn from all that the Reformers have to teach us in this area, are we in danger of unwittingly giving the same status to their social context as to the theological principles they developed in and for it, that is, of privileging the character of their communication/media environment? Is that what is happening in statements like the following?

The Christian church … can pass on this same message [God’s word] by faithfully preaching the message of the Scriptures and the gospel. (p.156)

[For] people to be saved, the gospel must be proclaimed. (p.204)  

What makes me hesitant about this are the words “preaching” and “proclaimed”: while this may have been true of the Reformers, is it an accurate assessment of what we can and should do? Shouldn’t we be using words like “communicate” to indicate our responsibility? Public speaking is certainly an important way of doing that, but we have many more options for transmitting a message than the Reformers had. And that raises the question, While they rightly worked at developing a theology of Christian preaching, isn’t our task wider than that: namely, to develop a theology of Christian communication? (And is it almost time we retired the word “preach” in this context? Not only is a great deal of communicating Christian truth by public speaking being done now outside church gatherings and church buildings, but the only way in which most of our contemporaries use “preach” is quite negative and even hostile: “Don’t you preach at me!”)

Part B raised another question for me. In chapters 5 to 7, you review the biblical material in a four-step sequence: the OT prophets, Jesus, the apostles, and the Christian church. While there are important similarities and continuities between all four, I wonder if you have recognized clearly enough and often enough the very significant discontinuity between the first three and the fourth. You do make the distinction clear at some points—but it isn’t always there when it seems not only appropriate but also necessary. (I think it is clearly missing from Wolterstorff’s claim (pages 197-198) that God “appropriated” human discourse. Surely, “theopneustos” (2 Tim 3:16) means that God generated the written discourse concerned.)

To illustrate what I mean: on page 155 you identify four marks that you see as shared by all of the human messengers of God’s word: they are anointed by God’s Spirit, commissioned by God, receive their message from God, and proclaim it without changing it in any way. You had shown in pages 109-111 how these are true of the Christian church—but are they true of the church in the same ways and to the same extent that they are true of the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles? On pages 156-157, you give a clear “No” in answer to that question, but later on, that “No” seems to be muted or even absent. One example is the discussion of the “divinely ordained convention” which gives a proclaimer warrant to claim “normative status” (pages 206-207), which seems to be applied to the gospel preacher today in much the same sense as it is true of the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles (pages 218-219, 227). In this context, you point out on several occasions that Paul urged Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2), suggesting that the commission that applied to Paul also applied in some sense to Timothy. But isn’t there an underlying and fundamentally important distinction to be made between Paul’s proclamation of the gospel and Timothy’s—and one that goes right to the heart of the issue you are investigating?

The best I can do at the moment to identify the itch I’m trying to scratch goes like this: It is fairly safe to assume that Timothy heeded the appeal—and that he recognized that the way he should do so involved heeding one that Paul had given earlier in the same letter: namely, that he should regard what he had heard from Paul as the pattern of sound teaching he should adhere to, the good deposit he should guard (2 Tim 1:13-14). So “preaching the word” would mean proclaiming and teaching what he had learned from Paul—but the next step in the process is not that Timothy’s hearers will proclaim his message. There will be no letters from Timothy addressing the words of 1:13-14 to his readers! What he is to entrust to people who will be able to teach others is what he heard Paul teach (2 Tim 2:2). And doesn’t this go close to telling us that Paul’s message is the word of God in a way that is not true of Timothy’s preaching or that of those he selects? While Timothy is to “preach the word”, don’t we have to say that his actual preaching is not “the word”?—at least, not in the same way Paul’s is.

I’m not sure if these books would have been available to you—but I’m fairly sure you would have found them relevant and helpful while you were working on Part B:

Peter Adam, Written For Us: Receiving God’s Words in the Bible (IVP, 2008), and

Jonathan Griffiths, Hebrews and Divine Speech (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014).

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that you had clear and well thought-out responses to my questions—or that you would make them in the same balanced and respectful way you responded in the book to views you did not share. And I’m really glad that your book made me do some digging of my own. I hope that preachers who have been listening in to my side of the discussion will read your book—because, as it has done for me, it is bound to lead them to “praise God … for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else” (2 Cor 9:13).     

Sam Chan offered a reply to Dr Chapple’s review:

Dear Allan,

I also am in your debt for your time and care in accurately describing my book, then deconstructing the argument, and then reconstructing a better argument. We need each other to be always reforming. Thank you for role-modelling how to do this, and with a welcoming and gracious tone.

            I agree that Part A – the Reformer’s view of preaching – and Part B – a biblical theology of preaching – in my book has generated several warranted questions on your part. The aim of my book was to use Parts A and B to generate those same questions and then use Part C – speech act theory – to answer your questions.

            For example, you are concerned that I may have conflated “preaching” or “proclamation” with “public speaking”, when I should have used words such as “communicate”. In response, I agree whole-heartedly. I raise similar concerns (but obviously not explicitly enough), which are then answered by speech act theory. Speech act theory identifies the locus of communication as the speech act itself – in particular the locution and illocution, or F(p) according to Searle’s formulation. Hence my book concludes that “a traditional sermon is not the only means of illocuting the word of God … the gospel can be illocuted through other media besides the formal sermon, such as, songs, poetry, and drama … Thus, although my study has tried to argue that the traditional sermon is a legitimate means of locuting and illocuting the word of God, I cannot grant that it is the only legitimate means” (pp. 214-5). Indeed, I hope that my book pushes more people to explore the creative arts as ways of communicating the gospel, besides our traditional modes of speaking.

            As another example, you are legitimately concerned with the tensions in continuity and discontinuity between our preached “word” and Paul’s apostolic “word”. Although my book seems to have understood that there need to be necessary discontinuities, perhaps I’ve been too generous with the continuities? In response, I believe speech act theory gives the warrant for the continuities that I’ve argued for. Again, according to speech act theory, if the essence of communication is the speech act, and if we are locuting and illocuting the same gospel message, we are essentially communicating the same “word”.

            As an aside, I think speech act theory has helpful ramifications not only for how we understand the ontological status of preaching but also of Bible translations. But perhaps that can be the topic for someone else’s dissertation!

            Thank you again for your gracious review. If I can reciprocate the favour in any way, please let me know. I feel sorry for anyone who has to read my writings. So you definitely took one for the team!

Blessings on you and your ministry!

Never in vain,