‘Tethered’ Preaching: John Calvin & the Entertaining Pastor
I believe with all my heart that this is the way God has appointed for me not to waste my life. His word is true. The Bible is the only completely true book in the world. It is inspired by God. Rightly understood and followed, it will lead us to everlasting joy with him. There is no greater book or greater truth.
The implications of this for preaching are immense. John Calvin, with the other Reformers, rescued the Scriptures from their subordination to tradition in the medieval church. The Reformation, let us thank God, was the recovery of the unique and supreme authority of Scripture over church authority.
Commenting on John 17:20, Calvin wrote,
Woe to the Papists who have no other rule of faith than the tradition of the Church. As for us, let us remember that the Son of God, who alone can and ought to pronounce in this matter, approves of no other faith but that which comes from the doctrine of the Apostles, of which we find no certain testimony except in their writings. (Commentary on John)
Calvin’s preaching inspires me to press on with this great and glorious task of heralding the word of God. I feel what he says when he writes to Cardinal Sadolet
O Lord, you have enlightened me with the brightness of your Spirit. You have put your Word as a lamp to my feet. The clouds which before now veiled your glory have been dispelled by it, and the blessings of your Anointed have shone clearly upon my eyes. What I have learnt from your mouth (that is to say, from your Word) I will distribute faithfully to your church. (“Letter to Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto,” quoted in J. H. Merle D’Augigne, Let Christ Be Magnified, Banner of Truth, 2007, p. 13).
For Calvin, preaching was tethered to the Bible. That is why he preached through books of the Bible so relentlessly. In honor of tethered preaching, I would like to suggest the difference I hear between preaching tethered to the word of God and preaching that ranges free and leans toward entertainment.
The difference between an entertainment-oriented preacher and a Bible-oriented preacher is the manifest connection of the preacher’s words to the Bible as what authorizes what he says.
The entertainment-oriented preacher gives the impression that he is not tethered to an authoritative book in what he says. What he says doesn’t seem to be shaped and constrained by an authority outside himself. He gives the impression that what he says has significance for reasons other than that it manifestly expresses the meaning and significance of the Bible. So he seems untethered to objective authority.
The entertainment-oriented preacher seems to be at ease talking about many things that are not drawn out of the Bible. In his message, he seems to enjoy more talking about other things than what the Bible teaches. His words seem to have a self-standing worth as interesting or fun. They are entertaining. But they don’t give the impression that this man stands as the representative of God before God’s people to deliver God’s message.
The Bible-oriented preacher, on the other hand, does see himself that way—”I am God’s representative sent to God’s people to deliver a message from God.” He knows that the only way a man can dare to assume such a position is with a trembling sense of unworthy servanthood under the authority of the Bible. He knows that the only way he can deliver God’s message to God’s people is by rooting it in and saturating it with God’s own revelation in the Bible.
The Bible-oriented preacher wants the congregation to know that his words, if they have any abiding worth, are in accord with God’s words. He wants this to be obvious to them. That is part of his humility and his authority. Therefore, he constantly tries to show the people that his ideas are coming from the Bible. He is hesitant to go too far toward points that are not demonstrable from the Bible.
His stories and illustrations are constrained and reined in by his hesitancy to lead the consciousness of his hearers away from the sense that this message is based on and expressive of what the Bible says. A sense of submission to the Bible and a sense that the Bible alone has words of true and lasting significance for our people mark the Bible-oriented preacher, but not the entertainment-oriented preacher.
People leave the preaching of the Bible-oriented preacher with a sense that the Bible is supremely authoritative and important and wonderfully good news. They feel less entertained than struck at the greatness of God and the weighty power of his word.
Lord, tether us to your mighty word. Cause me and all preachers to show the people that our word is powerless and insignificant in comparison with yours. Grant us to stand before our people as messengers sent with God’s message to God’s people in God’s name by God’s Spirit. Grant us to tremble at this responsibility. Protect us from trifling with this holy moment before your people.