I am a fan of T. David Gordon. He writes well. He speaks plainly. He doesn’t mince words. With some writers it’s quite possible for five people to read them and come away with five different conclusions about what the writer is saying. This is not so with Gordon and he is deeply concerned about the state of preaching in conservative evangelical and conservative Reformed circles.
As he explains in the preface, this concern has been developing for 30 years. He hesitated to write the book because he feared that by indicting preaching his pastors might think he was indicting them. When he was diagnosed with stage-3 cancer, however, he decided that he had to write the book. Mercifully, his cancer is in remission, but the state of preaching is, we must say, still quite unhealthy.
Gordon has every right to be concerned. My experience is that preaching in evangelical and Reformed circles is too often not very good. As Gordon notes in a footnote ( 12–13 n. 1) in the introduction, sermons in the mainline tend to be better crafted but less filling and sermons in more conservative pulpits more filling but poorly constructed. There’s a reason for that. Anecdotal evidence suggests that mainline preachers tend to be better educated but believe less and “sideline” preachers tend to believe more but they tend to be less able to express themselves. The ideal is to marry orthodox content with suitable rhetoric. As Machen used to say: suaviter in modo, fortiter in re (winsomely in manner, strongly in substance).
Gordon is not pursuing an idiosyncratic agenda. His concerns are not whether people agree with him on questions such as “how to preach Christ from the Old Testament.” Rather, he argues that “few sermons have unity; and the lack of unity is a serious, if not fatal defect in a sermon” (13-14). The concern is not, as some might assume, that “ours is not a day of great preaching” (14). Rather, the concern is for the “average Christian family sitting in the average pew, in an average church on the average Sunday (14). The problem is not lack of gourmet meals, it’s the lack of basic nourishment.
The point is not even to hammer (already defensive) pastors. The point is to note the connection between changes in the media and culture and how those changes have affected the ability of preachers to do the things necessary to preach well. He is asking: “How has the movement from language-based media to image-based and electronic media altered our sensibilities and how, in turn, has this change in sensibility shaped today’s preachers?” (16).
Reformed folk should take a special interest in this book. First, because we confess that it is by the “due use” of this particular “ordinary means” to which God the Spirit has attached promises (Rom 10) and through which he ordinarily works to bring the spiritually dead to life and to build up believers (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 65; Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 88). The Reformed liturgy is structured in a dialogic pattern: God speaks and the people respond with his Word. Thus, the sermon (lit. “the word”) is at the center of our liturgy since it is there where God speaks to us most extensively. The Second Helvetic Confession famously notes that the preaching of the Word is the Word (if the heading is correct). Obviously, the sermon must be faithful to the text of Scripture to be “the Word.” Not everything that proceeds from every preacher’s mouth is “the Word.” That’s the problem. We’re not talking about an occasional failure to communicate. We’re talking about, as the tech guys say, “a systems” failure here. More to come…
You can hear an interview with Gordon at Reformed Forum.