5. Analysis and Conclusions


5.1 Response to Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching

C. H. Dodd attempted a task similar to that of this thesis when he wrote his now-famous monograph, The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments. Since the subject matter is similar to what has been considered here, a few comments would be appropriate.

Preaching or Teaching

Dodd begins his work with the statement that “The New Testament writers draw a clear distinction between preaching and teaching.”[63] For this viewpoint he has, quite rightly, come under a lot of criticism. Worley, in a detailed critique of The Apostolic Preaching responds:

It is apparent that teaching was not restricted to believers but was aimed at anyone who listened in the variety of places where teaching took place. This fact is particularly striking in depicting Paul’s activity (Acts 5:35; 11:26; 20:20; 28:30-31). Teaching is directed at both believers and unbelievers in Paul’s missionary activity.[64]

He continues, “...even in describing the missionary activity of the disciples and apostles both words were used. They are apparently used interchangeably.”[65] Mounce presents the results of some careful study of the use of these words:

Again, Jesus’ Capernaum ministry is described by Mark as teaching (1:21, 22, 27), exorcism (1:23-28), and healing (1:29-31, 32-34). Yet 1:38 indicates that Jesus viewed His ministry there as one of preaching. Consider also that the famous proclamation, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt. 4:17, Mark 1:14-15), becomes, in the Third Gospel, “and he taught in their synagogues” (Luke 4:15). From this ambiguity of expression we may judge that Professor Dodd has overstated his case in reference to any “clear distinction between preaching and teaching” in the Gospels.[66]

Unfortunately, the idea of a dichotomy between preaching and teaching has taken a firm root in popular Christian thought. Worley had made some perceptive observations with regard to

“the more serious theological consequences of Dodd’s views. The sharp distinctions that Dodd has made in his formulation ultimately have their consequences in increasing the theoretical differences between revelation and reason, eschatology and history, grace and truth, religious experience and didactic content. Preaching is the mode of revelation. Teaching is the mode of reason.”[67]

Weaknesses

Although this distinction was used by Dodd to guide his selection of material for analysis, it does not invalidate the comparisons that he made, once his subject matter was selected. A more serious weakness, that did distort his analysis, was his refusal to accept any of Paul’s messages in Acts as kerygma apart from the Antioch sermon. By defining the kind of proclamation which could be called kerygma, he had effectively pre-judged the question and already defined what his answer was going to be. His rigid selection of material led to the conclusion that the kerygma was rigid in form. MacDonald comments: “The publication of C. H. Dodd’s attractive and influential book, The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments, has had the unfortunate effect of encouraging an inflexible understanding of the kerygma in terms of supposedly primitive and relative stereotyped confessional formulŠ.”[68]

The third major weakness was that he imposed his understanding of a fully realized eschatology[69] onto the structure of the kerygma, with the assumption that it included a proclamation that “the Messianic Age will shortly reach its consummation in the return of Christ.”[70] Ridderbos replies: “It is a remarkable fact that neither here nor in any other part of the kerygma of Peter in the Acts does the nearness of the second coming of Christ receive any special emphasis.”[71] He continues:

It has become a sort of dogma for some modern scholars, especially in Germany and Switzerland, that the first Christians lived in the expectation of the immediate nearness of Christ’s parousia (the so-called Nah-erwartung). Because there can be no appeal to the Acts for support of this theory, Luke’s work is seen in recent literature as a first attempt at giving an a posteriori theological explanation for the failure of Jesus to appear, coming on the clouds.[72]

Positive achievements

Even with its limitations, Dodd did make a huge positive contribution, by starting a discussion on a subject that has been remarkably neglected. Worley reports that: “No word among New Testament scholars has received a more affirmative response in the past thirty years than ‘kerygma.’ Since the publication of The Apostolic Preaching this word, representing a major idea, has captured the church.”[73] Dodd made a positive contribution by showing how important it was to look at the Old Testament contexts of New Testament quotations.

Although many have disagreed with his detailed outline of the kerygma, there has been a general consensus that there are strong parallels between the sermons in Acts. Green concludes: “However incomplete Dodd’s assessment of the early kerygma may have been, it showed that there is a very high degree of uniformity running through the speeches or sermons attributed to Peter in the early part of the Acts. More recent studies have only served to underline this fact.”[74] Many of his critics have represented Dodd’s kerygma as being more rigid than he in fact suggested:

“In this survey of the apostolic Preaching and its developments two facts have come into view: first, that within the New Testament there is an immense range of variety in the interpretation that is given to the kerygma; and, secondly, that in all such interpretation the essential elements of the original kerygma are steadily kept in view.”[75]

Dodd was rightly critical of some modern preaching of the Gospel: “To select from the New Testament certain passages which seem to have a ‘modern’ ring, and to declare that these represent the ‘permanent element’ in it, is not necessarily to preach the Gospel.”[76]

5.2 The Method

The task of trying to draw together the many-coloured strands of the Apostolic preaching, with the aim of presenting something of use to the modern Christian, is a formidable one, but this is not the sole objective of the thesis. My hope is that this work has served to draw attention to the source material in Acts, and so by now the reader should have started drawing his or her own conclusions. As Cranfield wrote at the end of his two volume commentary on Romans:

If any reader, turning to this page before he has worked through the commentary, should be tempted to start here in the hope that this essay might prove (in spite of what was said on p. 1) to be a helpful introduction to what precedes it or even render the toil of reading the commentary unnecessary, he is herewith respectfully but with the utmost urgency and seriousness entreated to resist the temptation and to work patiently on from p. 1.[77]

We will now consider the methods used by the Apostles.

A. They understood their audience

On almost every occasion that we have Gospel preaching recorded, there was a strong reaction from the hearers. The reaction was because the preacher had precisely hit the mark, and accurately uncovered the source of their hostility to God and his Son, Jesus Christ. In some cases it led to faith and repentance, in others to rejection, but rarely was there a problem of apathy. Peter, and especially Paul, were skilful in using the Old Testament when speaking to Jews. Paul, especially, showed a mastery of covenant history that enabled him to confound the Jews, until the only weapon left to them was physical attack (14:2-5).

When Paul spoke to Gentiles, he showed an understanding of their philosophies, and where they differed from the Gospel. If we do not take care to do the same in our evangelism, we may be speaking words that are interpreted as meaning something quite different. For example, a follower of the ‘new-age’ movement might hear us say that God is omniscient and omnipresent, and agree with us, because we have not taken care to distinguish the Christian world view from pantheism. Many of the cults use the same theological terms as do Christians, but give them a different meaning, and so we must be aware of this when speaking to them.

Preachers today are sometimes content to preach a sermon that could have been preached unchanged 300 years ago. They may claim that they have an unchanging Gospel, but the evidence from Acts is that although the core content of the message was fixed, the structure of the message, and arguments used were anything but unchanging. To communicate the Gospel, we have to understand the thought processes of our generation, and to put our finger on the heart of their rebellion against Christ. Maybe when we do that, we will see more of a reaction from them.

Stephen understood precisely what were the values and objectives of those to whom he spoke. He knew how they thought, and so was able to point out exactly where and how they had gone wrong, in a way that they understood only too well. We live in a broadly materialistic society, but the values and outlook of individuals varies with each generation and each sub-culture. For example, the philosophies of young people are echoed in their music, their magazines and their TV programmes. Another generation has a different set of reading and viewing material. Ethnic groups have a sub-culture of their own which we need to understand if we are going to follow in the footsteps of the New Testament preachers.

B. Boldness mixed with wisdom

The fearlessness of men such as Peter, Stephen and Paul is truly amazing, as they pushed home their message, knowing that their words were driving their audience to a white-hot fury. Boldness and fearlessness by themselves are of no value if the message that we are trying to be bold about is seen as irrelevant. To walk down the main street of our city carrying a placard that warns of the ‘wrath to come’ may take some courage, but it is not boldness in the New Testament sense. True boldness is saying words that we know are going to provoke a strong reaction, possibly causing us personal hardship.

The common thread that runs through all of the messages of Paul that have been considered is that he unfailingly identifies the main source of his hearers’ opposition to Christ and then fearlessly addresses it. He spoke to the Jews about the Gospel going to Gentiles, he confronted pagans with their idolatry, and he talked to Felix about personal ethics. Alongside him we can place Stephen, who probably knew that his words would cost him his life, and Peter, whose response to the council in Acts 5 nearly caused his death (5:33).

Yet although the New Testament preachers were fearless and direct, they also were wise and used restraint and careful planning where appropriate. Paul delayed mentioning the Gentiles in his address to the Jerusalem mob until the end of his commissioning account. If he had mentioned it in the same place as when speaking to Agrippa, then some of his later points would have been lost. Similarly, Stephen’s speech is very cleverly crafted: his audience would have been carried along with the re-telling of their history, until it suddenly became all too clear to them where Stephen was going, but by that time he had already made all his points. A less careful sermon would have been interrupted much earlier, and failed to have the impact that it did.

We must be careful in our own preaching not to ‘turn-off’ our hearers prematurely, but to be careful and well planned so that our messages have the maximum impact.

C. Proclamation with persuasion

There was a balance in New Testament preaching between declaring and reasoning. On the one hand, the preachers did not merely announce the message, and then leave—Paul vigorously debated and reasoned with his hearers: “And he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). On the other hand, the preachers did not present the message as a ‘valid option’, and ask their hearers to make up their own minds on the basis of the evidence. Evidence was presented, but it was used to support the proclamation. It was never suggested that the evidence should be brought to the bar of human reason, to judge whether or not the message was true. An example of their persuasive reasoning is given in Acts 14:1they went together to the synagogue of the Jews, and so spoke that a great multitude both of the Jews and of the Greeks believed.”

D. Dialogue and discussion

As was noted earlier, Paul’s method of preaching followed the debate format of the synagogue. There is a belief among some today that true preaching is a one-way discourse, from a man standing in a pulpit and declaring the truth. The evidence is that this is not the way it took place in Apostolic times. Occasions such as evangelistic Bible-studies have proved to be an effective way of communicating the Gospel, and maybe these are closer to the New-Testament pattern than our present-day Gospel sermons. Even Peter’s Pentecost address involved some kind of dialogue (2:37-38). We must not consider our ‘traditional’ mode of Gospel address as a tradition that goes back to the Apostles—it certainly does not.

5.3 The Message

A. The death and resurrection and person of Jesus Christ

The message was essentially facts: “that the Christ would suffer, that he would be the first to rise from the dead, and would proclaim light to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:23). In New Testament usage, the word “does not mean the delivering of a learned and edifying or hortatory discourse in well chosen words and a pleasant voice, it is the declaration of an event.”[78]

In our preaching today, we must rely on the facts of what has happened historically. For New Testament preachers, the facts were not simply the foundation on which the message was built, the facts were the message, followed by a demand to respond to the facts. Sermons that attempt to market Christianity as the answer to the needs of modern man have missed the point if they do not declare that Christ has died and risen, and that has made all the difference.

These facts are not cold, but living. The message was summed up in the person of Jesus Christ. His character was that of the perfect Servant of the Lord. His followers loved him enough to die for him: “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (4:12).

B. The testimony of the Spirit and the Scriptures

It has been pointed out that the only times when there is an appeal to miracles as part of the Gospel message are in the immediate aftermath of Pentecost. This is not the place to begin a detailed discussion on the purpose of miracles, but the evidence from Acts is that they appeared at certain times to signal the new age, to encourage believers, to authenticate Apostles, and support the Gospel message. “Proclamation is the main thing, miracles have no independent value. They are simply signs that through the proclamation of the Word the Kingdom of God has come.”[79]

Use of the Scriptures in preaching depended entirely on the audience and their background knowledge. We must be sensitive to this in our preaching, although the case is rather different with us in that we have the New Testament as well as the Old. Some parts of the New Testament are readily understood (at least in their broad thrust) by those with a minimal background in the Old Testament. We must, with Philip, be prepared to interpret and explain the Bible, and to guard against misinterpretation. Sometimes we will meet those who think they know the Bible very well, and we will have to stand with Stephen and show them how they “have received the law... and have not kept it” (7:53).

C. The eschatological element

Even when Paul preached to Gentiles, he told them that the time for repentance is now. We preach a Christ who is risen, but who also is “ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead” (10:42). Paul reasoned with Felix about “judgement to come” (24:25), and we have to warn men and women that they are living in the days of grace. The opportunity is now and will not continue forever—Christ will return as a Judge.

D. Faith, repentance and remission of sin

When it comes to the Gospel appeal, the message is almost invariably to turn from their useless idols (whether the blatant idolatry of the pagans or the sophisticated idolatry of the Jews) and believe in Christ, and then they would have their sins forgiven. This is good news to both the Jew and the Gentile. The Gentile can be freed from the superstition of idol worship, and the Jew from the bondage of a system of which Jesus said “Woe to you also, lawyers! For you load men with burdens hard to bear” (Luke 11:46).

Those who reject the message will be “utterly destroyed” (3:23), but at the same time, there is no evidence of a Gospel message that excessively emphasizes the horrors of hell, to drive people to Christ out of terror. Christ is not presented as a way of ‘getting out’ of going to hell, but rather positively as a means for entering into a right relationship with God and receiving the resulting blessings. There is a curse on those who reject the message, but this is balanced with a blessing on those who do: “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).

We can so easily lose the sense of wonder and gratitude that God has forgiven our sins and utterly cleansed us from them. “Nothing is more basic to Christian living than our celebration of this forgiveness. There is far more to ponder and appreciate than forgiveness; other truths about Christ can inflame us with passion to know him better. But nothing must ever be allowed to replace our gratitude for redemption.”[80]

5.4 We are Witnesses

The Apostles were called to be witnesses, and, as seen earlier, this idea is behind all of the preaching that took place in Acts. Paul was just as much a witness when giving his testimony, as when proclaiming the message in a synagogue. The concept of witness unifies all of the ideas presented above. “For Luke the idea of witness is a living metaphor. Christians take Christ’s side in real courts of law when his claims are in dispute and when their loyalty is tested by persecution.”[81]

In Luke 12:8, Jesus tells his disciples that “whoever confesses me before men, him the Son of Man also will confess before the angels of God.”

A striking illustration of this principle occurs in the words of the dying Stephen, who cries: ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’ (Acts 7:56). The Son of Man is viewed here in the light of the legal terminology of the Old Testament (where the judge is described as ‘sitting’, the witness as ‘standing’, and the right hand as the place of the vindicating ‘witness’).[82]

In all our evangelism we are to see ourselves as witnesses to the risen Christ. We have not seen his resurrection body, but we bear testimony of his resurrection power in our hearts and lives. The Scriptures are still bearing witness to Jesus of Nazareth, although we must follow Paul’s example in being sensitive to the backgrounds of our audience. The Holy Spirit is still working in the hearts of our hearers, bearing witness to our words.

The responsibility of a witness is to be faithful—to argue the case as persuasively as possible, with understanding and with boldness. May we be given grace to follow in the footsteps of the preachers of Acts, and may our Lord confess us before the angels of God, that we have been faithful witnesses.

[63] Dodd, p.7

[64] Worley, p.35

[65] Worley, p.35

[66] Mounce, p.41,42

[67] Worley, p.15

[68] MacDonald, p.3

[69] “In the eschaton ‘the whole purpose of God is revealed and fulfilled.’” Dodd, p.81

[70] Dodd, p.23

[71] Ridderbos, Speeches of Peter, p.15

[72] Ridderbos, Speeches of Peter, p.15

[73] Worley, p.27

[74] Green, p.66

[75] Dodd, p.74

[76] Dodd, p.78

[77] Cranfield, p.824

[78] TDNT, vol. 3 p.703

[79] Kittel, TDNT, vol. 3 p.714

[80] Crabb, p.106

[81] Trites, p.153

[82] Trites, p.132

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