The authority of preaching is rooted finally in the absolute authority of God. That root passes through the infallible Word of God, the Bible. This book is the only access we have today to an infallible message from God.
Therefore authority is not intrinsic to the preacher. It is intrinsic only to God and his written word. Only the scriptures are “inspired” infallibly by God (2 Timothy 3:16). Preachers may be inspiring, but we are not inspired in this way. Our divine authority is entirely derivative. It is not in us. It is in our preaching only to the degree that what we say and mean truly expresses what God said and meant in biblical texts.
Therefore, (and it is a huge therefore!), the people of God, sitting under the preached word, are weakened when the preaching hovers above the written word of God, making its points, but leaving the people unable to see for themselves how these points are the meaning of God in the texts.
But people are made strong when preaching rivets their mind’s attention and their heart’s affection on the words of God in scripture in such a way that they can see for themselves: this is what God said and this is what God meant.
Does this inference (this huge therefore) imply that preliterate people, who hear biblical preaching, but cannot read, are thereby weakened?
Not necessarily. One of the strategies that missionaries are using today is teaching evangelists and pastors in preliterate cultures to memorize hundreds of Bible stories verbatim (which they can do much better than we can). When this kind of “text” becomes the basis of an exposition, we have in principle the same situation as when I preach, while sharing a written text with my people.
Whether the preliterate people will be weakened will depend, as in literate cultures, on whether the expositors show the hearers where their points come from. Do they come from the recitings of the Holy Book (the “text”), or from the preacher’s ideas?
Oral strategies in missions today raise significant questions, and wonderful possibilities. But, while we wait for the hard-working Bible translators to do their crucial work, these strategies need not weaken the new disciples by focusing authority on the preachers. Authority is finally in God, and in his written word. Verbatim memorization and recitation of that word enable preliterate preachers to root their message in the very word of God.
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