Preaching Not to Kill God

—by Joel P. Meyer

When Stanley Hauerwas writes in his memoir that, “I live most of my life as if God does not exist,”[1] he makes more than a personal confession. He captures the cultural mood that frames Christian belief and practice in much of North America. Most of us can live perfectly coherent lives without ever once thinking about God. This does not mean that we have stopped believing in God or even that we have stopped going to church. It only means that Christians often do not take God very seriously in their own belief and practice. One way of expressing this mood is to say that God is dead. God no longer has constructive force and authority in our lives. In this paper, I will argue that God will have no constructive force and authority as long as the central form of Christian discourse about God, apostolic preaching, is eclipsed. In order to make this argument I will first demonstrate that our mood reflects an inversion of authority. Human beings assume the authority to give life and meaning to God. Then, I will argue that failing to distinguish between what Gerhard Forde calls explanation and proclamation reinforces this condition. Finally, I will suggest that a recovery of the Triune God’s authority will require that Christian preaching be apostolic in nature.

Whatever Happened to God?

Already in the late nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche realized that an epochal change had taken place, even though it had gone unnoticed by most. He saw that the basic structure of Western life and thought had turned upside down. God was no longer the source and ground of everything that exists. Instead, human beings had taken the place of God by assigning themselves the authority to give meaning and to determine truth.[2] In the Middle Ages, for example, the unquestioned assumption about the world was that the God of the Bible created it.[3] Everything that happened was explained in reference to his will and purposes, which seemed to permeate all things. But that clear and shining presence had darkened. And in God’s place, we human beings now stand as the source and ground of existence, even the existence of God.

One way Nietzsche expressed this change was to say that God is dead, and probably his most famous expression of God’s death can be found in a short tale he calls, “The Madman.” The story begins with a deranged man yelling out in the market place that God is dead and we are his killers. The man, in this case, is not an atheist but a reporter, telling us that the God who was once alive and well is now a decomposing corpse. Nietzsche’s sharp prose captures the magnitude of the event. The madman asks in amazement, “How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions?” The point is straightforward. If God is God, then God alone is necessary. Everything else is contingent on God. So without God, we have no orientation; nothing on which to base our judgments about what is good and evil or true and false except our own will to choose. But that is just the problem. Contingent creatures have killed God by making themselves the highest authority. The madman puts it this way: “Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”[4]

The problem Nietzsche identifies is not that we Westerners no longer believe in God. Rather, the way we believe in God no longer assumes that God is the ultimate authority.  One example of our condition can be found in a book by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton called Soul Searching.[5] The book summarizes the results of a large scale survey conducted by the National Study of Youth and Religion. Surprisingly, they report that American teenagers are fairly active and conventional participants in religious practices. Teens follow closely the habits of their parents, they have a generally positive attitude toward religion, and they participate in formal religious practices quite regularly on average. But at the same time, these same teenagers are extremely inarticulate about what they believe, they have great difficulty noticing what difference their beliefs make in their own lives, and they have a negative attitude to those who would pattern their life according to a set standard of beliefs. So while American teens are religious, “religion actually appears to operate much more as a taken-for-granted aspect of life, mostly situated in the background of everyday living, which becomes salient only under very specific conditions.”[6] 

This does not mean religion is unimportant, but only that it is important in a particular way. Religion still draws American teens insofar as it makes them happy and helps them get what they want out of life. “What legitimates the religion of most youth today is not that it is the life-transformative, transcendent truth, but that it instrumentally provides mental, psychological, emotional, and social benefits that teens find useful and valuable.”[7] This attitude is so pervasive among American teenagers that Smith and Denton summarizes their findings by suggesting that teens share one dominant kind of religion. Smith and Denton call it “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”[8] This form of religion has three major components. First, it has a moralistic element: religion provides the impetus for being good, which naturally leads to happy and successful lives. Second, it has a strictly therapeutic element: religion helps teens feel better about themselves. And third, this religion believes in a certain type of God, one who is not demanding or an active part of their lives, but one who shows up when they need him to resolve a problem or give them help. 

The implications for the way American teens treat God are enormous. Rather than providing the beliefs and practices that make the world shine forth with God’s will and order, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism operates as a salve for teenage life. God is not important because he is the way, the truth, and the life. God is important insofar as he helps teens cope, insofar as they find him valuable or useful. If Smith’s findings are accurate, the madman is exactly right. God is dead. American teens have not stopped believing in God, but the form of their belief treats God as little more than a therapist. God is merely someone who helps teens make their way through life rather than the One who works life, death, and all in all. Put another way, human beings have the authority to assign meaning and life to God. But a God whose meaning and importance depends on the value humans find in him is a dead God.

The way American teens treat God is not unique, however. It only reflects the small place God has within the larger patterns of American culture. Building on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Robert Bellah, theologian John Wright identifies two poles of typical American life—the managerial and the therapeutic. “The public, managerial realm seeks efficiency in a competitive economic marketplace.”[9] In this realm, the most important concern is the bottom line. The goal of this realm is productivity. Managers, whose sole purpose is to match means to ends in order to achieve maximum efficiency, dominate this realm. Humans, along with other materials, are resources for the maintenance and growth of organizations. The managerial realm is impersonal and competitive, and often physically and emotionally draining. So the therapeutic realm exists to compensate for the toll of the managerial realm. “The private, therapeutic realm provides personal affirmation, meaning, self-fulfillment and expression—what has come recently to be called ‘spirituality.’”[10] This realm consists of all kinds of therapists, who help us cope with the impersonal managerial realm by giving us personal support and encouragement that heals or reenergizes us to go back to work. 

By marking out these two poles, Wright is not suggesting anything profound. The give and take between the managerial and therapeutic is as basic to American life as the pursuit of a job that pays us enough to enjoy life apart from work. What’s disturbing, though, is the place the church has within this cycle. Wright observes that typically, “Churches exist as therapeutic safe houses in an impersonal world,”[11] and pastoral care aims to mend exhausted and broken lives with psychological support couched in terms of divine love. Within this cycle, God only fits within the therapeutic realm. God does not help us make managerial decisions, for instance. God, in this case, only helps us get by as he gives us personal encouragement and individual purpose. God is nothing more than something in which we find personal value. 

These examples demonstrate what it means to say that God is dead. In typical American life, God is significant only insofar as we find personal value in him. Therefore, we stand over-against God as the authorities who give God meaning and significance. So in the remainder of the paper I want to ask this question: How does Christian speech about God reinforce or overcome this condition? In order to answer this question, I will turn from cultural reflection to systematic theology, and from Nietzsche to Gerhard Forde.

Explaining God to Death

Throughout much of his work, Forde worries that Christians have stopped observing Luther’s distinction between God preached and God not preached.[12] According to Forde, the distinction works this way: Apart from the preaching of the gospel we cannot get a grasp on God. God does many things for which we have no explanation. If God is a living God, he controls and effects all things. But that means God cannot be easily excused from tornadoes, car accidents, tumors, and viruses. God works life, death, and all in all. God as such presents a problem for us because he cannot be handled, contained, or explained. When a loved-one dies unexpectedly in a car accident, for example, we can say some nice and pious things about God. We might say something like “God did it because he wants something good to come out of it in the long run.” But explanations like this do not hold water. It does not take long before we realize that our explanations of God just make God all that more imposing. If God wanted something good to come out of a death, could not God have done it without killing the person? We might try to say the opposite: God had nothing to do with it all. But then God lacks either the will or power to stop it. 

 The point is that God refuses our explanations. God simply is who he is and does what he does and nothing we say about it all will ever change or resolve that. God is much too great and abstract for us to handle. But that is just the point Forde wants to make. Since God is God, the only thing we can do about it is be silent and listen to God when he speaks for himself. The only way to deal with the abstractness of God is to let God break through it all and talk to us. God does exactly that in the preaching of the gospel. God breaks through the abstractness and actually speaks. “In and through Jesus, the crucified and risen one, a peculiar band has been unleashed on the world, commissioned and authorized to speak, not merely about, but for God.”[13] 

Forde calls this speech on behalf of God “proclamation.” “The proclamation is…the divine address, speaking not my words but the word God has commissioned me to speak, not what I think, but what God has ordered me to say.”[14] The preacher who proclaims stands in God’s place as God’s commissioned representative to speak on God’s behalf. Absolution is the paradigmatic example: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you.” Because God has authorized someone to speak on God’s behalf, this person’s word to you is God’s word, as if God were standing here right now speaking to you face to face. The opposite of proclamation, however, is explanation. Rather than speaking words from God, explanation speaks words about God. Explanation says something in general. Rather than actual absolution, explanation says something like “God is a forgiving God.” Or, “God’s eternal disposition is merciful.”

Now Forde does not want to say that explanation is bad, but only that it has its place; namely, to prepare us for proclamation. We start running into trouble when explanations take the place of proclamation. For example, it is one thing to say about God that his eternal disposition is merciful. But just what does that mean when my brother dies in a car accident. Has God in his mercy decided to kill my brother? When explanations take the place of proclamation, the concrete reality of God more or less drops out of the picture. Rather than letting God be God in both his unsearchable majesty and his own spoken word, God becomes an idea that we can either assent to or not. Forde puts it this way: “Lectures about God are substituted for preaching God. Our personal difficulties with God are assuaged with a little theological tinkering—perhaps a new name, a new image, a new theology more to our liking.”[15] 

We should not miss the therapeutic undertones of Forde’s point. When an idea about God takes the place of God himself, whether in his absolute majesty or in his proclaimed word, God begins to bend to our demands and desires. Take again the example of a tragedy. If we start with the explanation that God in general is merciful, it doesn’t take long for us to start questioning that generalization. Is this how God’s displays his mercy? Well, once we have taken a step down the road of explanation, it is hard to turn back. Now, it seems, we have to give a reason why this tragedy happened that coheres with God being merciful in general. Maybe we say next that it happened because God wants something good to come out of it in the long run. Maybe that will satisfy us. 

In reality, though, our explanations rarely get that far. Usually we are satisfied to hear something nice about God in general on Sunday mornings and go on our way. “God loves sinners.” “God’s Son has paid the price for our sin.” “God forgives.” Speech like that is often enough to help us feel better about the one who does all in all. Once we have God in the grips of an explanation, God doesn’t seem as threatening. Explanations seem to secure us from God’s unpredictability. God is confined, predictable, and even rational, someone we can feel safe about. And that is just the problem. Wrapped in an explanation, God poses no serious interruption to our lives. We can go on just as we did before, but now with the comforting thought that God isn’t really the threat he seems to be. Explanation turns out to be good therapy. 

Preaching that Kills God and the Preaching of the Living God

There are lots of ways that explanation takes the place of proclamation, but none does more harm than in preaching. Christian preaching is supposed to be the place where proclamation happens, where God’s ordained servant speaks on God’s behalf just as he has been authorized and sent to do. But often, preaching tries to convey an idea about God. There are many ways that either explanation takes over the pulpit or proclamation happens there, but I want to focus on one fundamental instance: the preacher’s disposition toward the scriptural text.

When a sermon aims for explanation, the preacher will approach the text of scripture as a resource for information about God, as if there exists within it a kernel of truth that needs to be excavated and conveyed. The preaching task then consists of two stages. First, the preacher uses interpretive skills to locate that kernel of truth, which is thought to be the real meaning of the text. Depending on one’s religious preference, this kernel can be doctrinal in nature (the text reveals a doctrinal truth), or exegetical (the text reveals the author’s intent), or even moral/religious (the text reveals a truth about life). Second, once the preacher locates the central truth within a passage, the preacher then finds a rhetorically skillful way to convey that truth to his hearers. Such rhetorical skill aims to bridge the gap between the truth within the text and the hearer. Usually, the preacher bridges the gap by starting with an illustration that is attention grabbing and easy to grasp. Once that basic connection has been made with the hearer, the sermon goes on to show how the passage of scriptural text fits with the illustration. In the end, the preacher stands in the pulpit as a conveyor of information about God derived from the text.[16] 

Forde comments that,

The basic presupposition for such oral communication tends to be the freedom of choice. The words provide information about God and Christ which one is expected to appropriate or accept by an act of will. One may, of course, insist that such choosing is aided by grace or the workings of the Spirit…But even so the presupposition remains the same, that of the continually existing subject making its choice over against a battery of facts.[17] 

So rather than confronting us with God’s own present speech, the preacher associates God with an idea that we have to be enticed to believe on the grounds of the rhetorical persuasiveness of the sermon. If the sermon succeeds and we happen to find the idea persuasive, then that is exactly the problem: we find the idea persuasive. God fits into what we already know about the world and we remain the authorities on God.

If preachers want to maintain God’s authority over-against us, if they want their speech to honor God as a living God, then they must ask the question, “What does the text of scripture authorize me to say on God’s behalf?” When preachers proclaim from the pulpit, they have the authority and the obligation to speak in the stead and by the command of God himself. 

Speaking on behalf of God is doing something different than conveying information about God. In his book Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks,[18] Nicholas Wolterstorff makes a helpful distinction between divine revelation and divine speech. According to Wolterstorff, the claim that God reveals something is different than the claim that God speaks. Divine revelation is an act by which God discloses some item of knowledge about himself that was hidden or previously unknown. That is to say, divine revelation is the act of conveying information. This might occur when God uses a written text in order to deliver a message. Or this might occur indirectly through God’s actions in history. In either case, divine revelation is characterized by the communication or transference of some item of knowledge. 

Divine speech, on the other hand, is something quite different. When talking about divine speech, Wolterstorff has in mind here what J. L. Austin calls illocutionary acts, such as asserting, commanding, promising, or asking. According to Wolterstorff’s account of speech, God does not simply convey information to us. God enters into a moral relationship with a person by assuming a normative standing. He explains,

Imagine, for example, a field worker uttering in the hearing of his fellow worker the words, “would you hand me a drink of water,” thereby requesting the other to hand him a drink of water. The standing of having issued that request is now normatively ascribed to him. And part of what thus having that standing entails is that if the addressee understands what was said, and the speaker’s request is not undercut for him, then the addressee is (prima facie) obligated to hand the speaker a drink of water…By uttering that sentence, the speaker has altered the moral relationship between himself and his fellow worker.[19]

One condition that would undercut the speaker’s request would be that the speaker does not have the authority to take such a normative stance. For example, an observer in the stands of a baseball game might declare that the runner was out at first. But the game will go on regardless of what the fan said because only the umpire has the authority to take up such a normative standing.

Divine speech, then, happens when God uses words to enter into an obligating relationship with someone. A principle instance of divine speech is when God makes a promise. Oswald Bayer, commenting on Austin’s work in reference to Luther, helpfully describes what takes place when God makes a promise. “What happens when this is said or heard? I place myself under an obligation. An activity is described, but it is not what is asserted by an uninvolved observer who says, ‘He is making a promise,’ but is rather an activity that actually constitutes a certain state of affairs. A relationship is created thereby that did not exist previously.”[20] So when God speaks, he does not merely use words to transmit knowledge about himself. God uses words to act in the present upon another. God takes a stand over-against us as a living and contemporary person that we have to deal with—a person who addresses us, and by his address obligates himself to us, and us to him.

When preaching aims at proclamation, the preacher will approach the text of scripture as directions on how to speak to his congregation on God’s behalf. Rather than serving as a resource for information, the scriptures authorize the preacher to stand in the pulpit as God’s own spokesperson. The task of the preacher, then, is to discern how God speaks through the scriptures. So the preacher must not simply ask what information about God lies at hand, but how God uses the scriptural text to speak.

How does the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ use the scriptures to speak? I can only sketch an answer to this question, and my basic description will try to follow the account given in the synoptic Gospels and especially Luke and Acts. The God of Israel sent Jesus to bring about God’s eschatological reign. Anointed by the Spirit, Jesus acted and spoke in the stead and by the command of this God. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead and he absolved sinners of their sins. But Jesus’ own authority to speak and act on God’s behalf was challenged by the leaders of Israel. When Jesus would not back down from his claims to authority, they crucified him with the help of the Romans as a blasphemer: one who did not have the authority to speak and act on behalf of God. But God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. Jesus then commissioned his disciples to go into the whole world with Jesus’ own authority to act and speak on his behalf—to forgive sins, to baptize, and to be witnesses to the things that had taken place concerning him so that all who believe in Jesus will be saved from the wrath of God’s final judgment. God sent Jesus to speak on God’s behalf. Jesus sent the apostles to speak on his behalf by bearing witness to the things God had done through Jesus. They considered their own words to be God’s words because just as God had commissioned Jesus, Jesus had commissioned them. The New Testament scriptures, then, are authoritative apostolic divine speech. God uses them to speak to us about his Son, so that we might trust in him and in his words.

Therefore, preaching will be proclamation when the preacher steps into the pulpit as part of the apostolic mission, speaking the apostolic word as he is commissioned by the scriptural text. Forde describes the mechanics of proclamation when he says, “the proclaimer should attempt to do once again in the living present what the text once did and so authorizes doing again.”[21] Exactly what that deed is will be determined by the individual text and the place it has within God’s purposes of speaking through the apostles to create a people for himself. That speech might be to make a promise concerning Christ. For instance, when Jesus promises in John 6:35 that, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst,” the preacher should aim to make the same promise about Jesus to his hearers. Or, the text might move to elect its hearers on God’s behalf, or to warn them of complacency, or both. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 10:1–13, Paul elects the Corinthians by typologically placing them within the story of Israel. Then he warns them not to put God’s election to the test. Then he promises that despite their unfaithfulness, God will be faithful. A preacher should aim to do the same to his hearers and speak in the present just as Paul spoke as an apostle of Jesus on behalf of God. 

In any case, when the preacher lets the scriptural text place him within the apostolic mission as God’s own spokesperson, God gets the final word. Rather than conforming to our own best ideas, God stands over-against us and speaks his own mind. If the Christian God is to be a living God, then, preachers need to fully embrace the apostolic mission for which they are ordained.

Rev. Joel P. Meyer is pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Kingsland, Georgia

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), x.

[2] Both my account of Nietzsche and my expression of the problem owe much to Martin Heidegger, “The Word of Nietzsche: ‘God Is Dead,’” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, ed. William Lovitt (New York: Harper, 1977), 53–112.

[3] See Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelley, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (New York: Free Press, 2011), 118–142, in their discussion of Dante.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Vintage Books, 1974),181–182.

[5] Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University, 2005).

[6] Smith, Soul Searching, 130.

[7] Smith, Soul Searching, 154.

[8] Smith, Soul Searching, 162–170.

[9] John W. Wright, Telling God’s Story: Narrative Preaching for Christian Formation (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2007), 129.

[10] Wright, Telling God’s Story, 130.

[11] Wright, Telling God’s Story, 133.

[12] For Luther’s use of the distinction, see Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (1525), in Luther’s Works, vol. 33, ed. Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972), 138–140.

[13] Gerhard O. Forde, “Whatever Happened to God? God Not Preached,” in The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament, ed. Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 44.

[14] Forde, “Whatever Happened to God,” 46.

[15] Forde, “Whatever Happened to God,” 38.

[16] See Gerhard O. Forde, Theology Is for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 152–55, as well as Wright, Telling God’s Story, 24.

[17] Forde, Theology, 147.

[18] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[19] Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse, 84.

[20] Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 51.

[21] Forde, Theology, 155.

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