In most things, Martyn Lloyd Jones and Karl Barth go together like chocolate milk and pickled onions—that is, they don’t really go together well at all. Yet according to a remarkable paper I’ve been reading by Aaron Edwards from the University of Aberdeen, there is one thing they had in common—their view of preaching.
- They both despised a focus on preacherly personality in the pulpit.
- They both espoused the centrality of the biblical text.
- They both related the text to current affairs, without those affairs taking precedence.
- They both affirmed the “sacrament” of bringing the Word of God by the power of the Spirit.
- And, most pertinently here, they both saw preaching as prophetic, not poetic.
Consider the two quotes below, one each from Barth and Jones:
A: “When God’s Word is heard and proclaimed, something takes place that for all our hermeneutical skill cannot be brought about by hermeneutical skill.”
B: “Christian preaching … does not start with man. … Christianity never starts with man. It always starts with God.”
It’s not easy to tell who wrote which, is it?
In this paper, Edwards argues that Barth and Jones see the difference between a poet and a prophet is that one speaks for people and the other speaks to them. A prophet speaks for God, empowered by the Spirit. A prophet looks for God to speak, and desires to be nothing more than a mouthpiece. A prophet expects that God will speak, and “tarries” until the power from on high comes. “This ‘unction,’ this ‘anointing,’ is the supreme thing. Seek it until you have it; be content with nothing less.” (MLJ)
According to both Barth and Jones, preachers must sacrifice rhetoric so that God can speak. Human speech can convey divine content only if the poetic is subordinated to the prophetic. When the sermon’s form becomes more than a servant, the preaching necessarily becomes less than Godly proclamation.
Of course, this is not a pure either/or distinction. Sermons are necessarily oral. But neither is it a simplistic both/and solution so beloved by students in “Introduction to Theology” courses. The prophetic enhypostates the poetic. [Look it up. ] The poetic serves the prophetic or else it becomes idolatrous. According to both these great men, it’s that simple.
And if two thinkers as disparate as Karl Barth and Martyn Lloyd Jones agree on something as important as this, surely there’s more than a good chance they’re onto something.
So which will you be this Sunday, a poet or a prophet?