In a commencement address today at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., seminary president Albert Mohler quoted at length from an influential 1971 book by Fred Craddock (then at Phillips University, later a professor of preaching at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology).
That book, As One Without Authority, launched something of a revolution in preaching. Craddock proposed that preaching was on trial in the contemporary church, and that it was fast becoming an anachronism….
Why did Craddock see such disaster for the pulpit?
Among other contributing factors, Craddock cited “the loss of certainty and the increase in tentativeness on the part of the preacher.”
As he explained:
Rarely, if ever, in the history of the church have so many firm periods slumped into commas and so many triumphant exclamation marks curled into question marks. Those who speak with strong conviction on a topic are suspected of the heresy of premature finality.
Permanent temples are to be abandoned as houses of idolatry; the true people of God are in tents again….
As a rule, younger ministers are keenly aware of the factors discussed above, and their preaching reflects it. Their predecessors ascended the pulpit to speak of the eternal certainties, truths etched forever in the granite of absolute reality, matters framed for proclamation, not for discussion.
But where have all the absolutes gone?
The old thunderbolts rust in the attic while the minster tries to lead his people through the morass of relativities and proximate possibilities, and the difficulties involved in finding and articulating a faith are not the congregation’s alone; they are the minister’s as well.
How can he preach with a changing mind? How can he, facing new situations by the hour, speak the approximate word? He wants to speak and yet he needs more time for more certainty before speaking. His is often the misery of one who is always pregnant but never ready to give birth.
Craddock’s eloquent way of describing this looming disaster in the pulpit still impresses. Periods turned to commas and exclamation points curled into question marks; thunderbolts left in the attic as the preacher suffers as one pregnant but never able to give birth….
The title of Craddock’s book says it all — As One Without Authority. The biblical reference is all too clear. In Matthew 7:28-29 we read: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”…
Jesus refused to act like an argumentative theologian or a speculative moralist. He rejected rabbinical reasoning and moral casuistry. He warns of hell and commands that we love our enemies. He warns us not to trust our bank accounts or retirement plans but to lay up treasures in heaven….
He tells us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and promises that all these things will be added to us. We are instructed to judge a tree by its fruit, even as we shall be judged. We are to build our house upon a rock and not upon the sand, for the house on the rock stands while the house no the sand falls, “and great was the fall of it.”…
Then we hear from the crowd: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”…
Matthew tells us that the crowds were astonished at his teaching — astonished. They had never seen or heard anything like this…. Once they have heard Jesus, they will never again listen to one without authority — nor should they….
The “without-authority” diagnosis made by Fred Craddock nearly 40 years ago still describes “far too many pulpits today,” Dr. Mohler noted. Unfortunately, the prescription Dr. Craddock offered (and which has been adopted by many mainline preachers) has proved insufficient to the task.
His prescription was inductive preaching — preaching that leaves the big questions unanswered; that lets the congregation come to its own conclusion. This is not the method of Jesus. Jesus uses induction in his teaching, but he never leaves the big questions unanswered, nor can we. He speaks as God. We speak as His preachers.
The preacher’s authority is a delegated authority, but a real authority. We are assigned the task of feeding the flock of God, of teaching the church, of preaching the Word….
We are rightly to divide the Word of truth, and to teach the infinite riches of the Word of God. There are no certainties without the authority of the Scripture.
We have nothing but commas and question marks to offer if we lose confidence in the inerrant and infallible Word of God. There are no thunderbolts where the Word of God is subverted, mistrusted, or ignored.
The crowds were astonished when they heard Jesus, “for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” Congregations are starving for the astonishment of hearing the preacher teach and preach on the authority of the Word of God.
If there is a crisis in preaching, it is a crisis of confidence in the Word. If there is a road to recovery, it will be mapped by a return to biblical preaching.
Our hope and prayer is that you will go forth from here to fulfill a ministry of astonishment. To preach and teach and minister so that commas as turned back to periods, and question marks into exclamation points. Congregations long to have the thunderbolts brought down from the attic and loosed in their midst. They are starving for a word from God.
Go and astonish a church. Go and astonish the nations. Go and astonish sinners and saints alike. Go and astonish your generation. Go and astonish those who no longer even believe that they can be astonished….
If you go out and preach as one who has authority, you will be constantly amazed by what God does through the preaching of his Word. You will see those who hear you astonished — and no one will be more astonished than yourself.
You can listen below to streaming audio of Dr. Mohler’s address, “As One Having Authority” (20 min.) — or download an mp3 (4.5MB).
Although a Southern Baptist, Albert Mohler served two Methodist churches while pursuing his seminary education.