Bridges or Ladders?
Gary F. Findley*
And he had a dream, and behold a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And Behold, the Lord stood above it and said, "I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham, and the God of Isaac" (Genesis 28:12-13).
And he said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (John 1:51).
In his lecture entitled "Biblical Theology and Application" given at the June 1999 Kerux conference, Doug Clawson shared with us the following two observations. First, Reformed ministers are duty bound not only to expound, but also to apply the truth of God's word to the hearts and lives of their congregations. (Clawson went on to cite three portions of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church's subordinate standards in making his case that sermonic application is a duty that pastors are obligated to perform.) Second, Clawson suggested that whenever people speak of sermonic application, of practical application, and of life application, the goal they have in mind is making the sermon concrete and relevant. The goal of sermonic application is making the sermon relevant.
These two observations can now be joined together. Pastors are obligated to make their sermons relevant to the lives of their congregations. Pastors shall do this; they must do thisthey must preach relevant messages!
That relevant messages are the goal of every gospel minister, and that this goal is not merely conjured up or fabricated by the detractors of Biblical Theology, but is the goal set for us in the subordinate standards of our Reformed denominations is the theme of this lecture. Relevant messages are what our congregations hunger and thirst for. They are what feed the sheep; they are what nourish the flock. But how do we make our messages relevant? What must we do to apply the truth of Scripture to the life of our audience?
Attempts to answer such questions, efforts to design and produce messages that are relevant for our congregations, have produced two contrasting kinds of sermonic application. There is the sermonic bridge and there is the sermonic ladder. Bridges or ladders, ladders or bridges? Should sermonic application be a bridge or a ladder? In order to answer this question, we need to be familiar with the features and characteristics of each approach.
Let us first examine the application bridge. Now what are the presuppositions that are attached to this method? In other words, why is the bridge thought to be necessary? Proponents of this method tell us that contrasting or opposing cultures are what make the bridge essential. There are contrasting cultures otherwise referred to as contrasting worlds. There are two worlds or ages that are separated by a huge cultural gap, by an enormous situational gulf. There is the ancient world of the Bible, the primitive world or age, with its superstitions, with its ancient text, its primitive text, and some would even say its mythical text. The ancient world of the Bible, the primitive world of the Bible is contrasted with the technologically advanced and sophisticated world of modern man.
The conflicting mindsets belonging to these two contradictory worlds are (how shall I say it?) worlds apart. Or as one fellow's statement capably illustrates, "How can we believe in miracles when we can turn on a light bulb?" Thus, a bridge is needed to somehow join modern man to ancient culture, to somehow join ancient culture to modern man. It is needed to somehow make Scripture believable and its message relevantto enable modern man to make sense of the primitive church and its gospel.
That an enormous cultural gap creates problems for contemporary church goers, that a huge situational gulf exists, is the appraisal of liberal, neo-orthodox and conservative homiletitians alike. According to Charles G. Dennison, the issue that preoccupied Bultmann was not the historical Jesus, but sermonic application. The principle he so relentlessly and consistently pursued was bridging the profound distance between the biblical world and our own. Bultmann's objective was that he built his program of demythologizing to span the alleged chasm that exists between then and now.1 Moody S. Johnson has written the following in his article "Toward a Theology of Contemporaneity: Tillich or Wesley?"
One phrase in particular that caught my attention from Johnson's critique of Tillich was the statement "reconciliation no longer has a vertical content but is horizontal." It is certainly striking that bridges run horizontally; ladders go up and down.
Moreover, Dae Ryeong Kim has asserted the following in his article "Karl Barth and a Missiology of Preaching."
An enormous cultural gap, generations of people living worlds apart, and building a bridge across these worlds, is what preoccupied the hearts and minds of Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Barth and Paul Tillich. It is the preoccupation of the majority of today's homiletitians as well. David Buttrick, Homiletics Professor at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, discusses "preaching as hermeneutics" in the following manner.
It becomes obvious that David Buttrick considers the doctrine of biblical inerrancy hard to swallow. However, sermonic bridge building is no less popular among those who strongly affirm the Bible's authority. Timothy Warren, Professor of Homiletics at Dallas Theological Seminary (a seminary that remains committed to the inerrancy of Scripture), makes this statement in his article "Mind the Gap."
Professor Warren's article serves us well in at least two ways. First of all, it demonstrates that any differences that exist between liberals and conservatives (who follow this model) are limited exclusively to the kinds of bridges (demythologizing bridge, a theology-of-culture bridge, a homiletic moves-and structures bridge, an extraction of timely-truths bridge) that are being built. It demonstrates that although the bridge building specifics may differ, the presuppositions held by both liberals and conservatives, the presuppositions that are thought to make bridge building necessary are precisely the same. According to this model, there are two culturally distinct worlds, miles apart. There is an old antiquated Scripture, and there are modern men.
Professor Warren's article serves us well in yet another way. It illustrates that although making the sermon relevant is regularly referred to and identified as sermonic application, what is actually occurring, what is really transpiring, is that the preacher is providing an interpretation of the gospel. Professor Warren refers to ministers as interpreters/preachers who must understand and apply the teaching of the gospel. With other similar statements, Warren alerts us to the fact that whenever men speak of sermonic bridge building, they are not merely speaking of the seemingly benign or harmless task of application, but they are primarily (that is "chiefly involved") in methods of interpretation. It is not application divorced from hermeneutics. It is not relevance separated from interpretation. It is what the title of chapter seventeen of David Buttrick's book suggests, "Preaching as Hermeneutics." Dae Ryeong Kim has this to say in his article "Toward a Missiological Approach to Hermeneutics."
And from David Doriani (who is presently Associate Professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary) in his book Getting the Message.
You see it is not enough to interpret the Bible, now we become involved in interpreting the culture; perhaps worse, interpreting the Bible in light of the culture.
We find the following words in Charles G. Dennison's article "Some Thoughts on Preaching."
Let's be clear and certain about one thing, whenever we talk about bridge building, we are speaking of preaching as hermeneutics. That bridge building is not merely about application but instead concerns itself with interpretation is plain to see from the comments made by Dae Ryeong Kim in his article "Implications of Cross-Cultural Hermeneutics for Preaching."
The words of Kim demonstrate that he is perfectly aware, is entirely cognizant, that bridge building is a method of hermeneutics or interpretation, and not merely a method of application. That hermeneutics is at the root of sermonic application is likewise obvious from the words of Covenant Theological Seminary President, Bryan Chapell:
And returning to the article "Implications of Cross-Cultural Preaching," Kim comments on Grant Osborne's hermeneutical work in the following manner:
I believe that because bridge building is a hermeneutical and interpretive process, and also a process that consumes itself with worldly culturecontrasted with the hermeneutic of Biblical Theology with its strong emphasis on heaven; I believe that it is because bridge builders have an earthy, that is a worldly hermeneutic, and because Biblical Theology resists this worldly hermeneutic that we face so many criticisms within some of our presbyteries. In other words, the bridge building preachers and the redemptive historical preachers interpret both the gospel and the mission of the church differently. Objections that are voiced by some of our fellow presbyters are: that we are too much pie in the sky, that from the pulpit we merely spout forth platitudes, that the rubber never meets the road, that we are abstract, vague, ambiguous, impractical, nonspecific in our sermonic applications, that the indicative crowds out the imperative, that our emphasis on Christ gets in the way of real preaching.
I want at this time to share with you some of the expressed concerns of other Reformed ministers, concerns over Biblical Theological preaching, lest someone underestimate the widespread nature of these criticisms, lest someone think that these criticisms are limited or isolated to a few remote presbyteries. Some of the most influential leaders among Reformed denominations have expressed their concerns. Dr. Jay Adams makes the following statement in his article "The Proper Use of Biblical Theology."
Dr. Hendrik Krabbendam expresses similar concerns in his article "Hermeneutics and Preaching."
And Professor John M. Frame has joined in, by expressing his concerns over Biblical Theological preaching, and in particular over the issue of sermonic application in such preaching.
And we have the following from a recent article by Assistant Professor of Applied and Doctrinal Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, John Carrick.
If nothing else, perhaps we can take some comfort from the fact that we are keeping good company with Vos, whom they criticize in precisely the same manner that we are being criticized. Many of our colleagues, and our ministry peers, influential men in our denominations and fellow members of our presbyteries have voiced their objectionsnot enough applications, not enough imperatives, not enough relevance, not enough concrete with which to build bridges.
Let us now return (for a final time) to Timothy Warren's article "Mind the Gap." In the introduction of that article, he speaks of the London subway system and the seemingly menacing gap between the subway car and the platform that the passengers must negotiate, must step over while getting on and off the train. Warren goes on to explain that the seemingly menacing subway gap is not menacing at all. That in reality there is no menacing gap, there is a distance of a mere five or six inches. Warren then goes on to suggest that the seemingly menacing subway gap is reminiscent of the menacing gap that does exist between the world of the ancient Bible and the world of the contemporary audience.
Do you see where Professor Warren has gone wrong? He misses the most prominent feature of his analogy. He begins with an analogy of a menacing gap "that does not exist" and then from this analogy, attempts to build a case for a gap "he imagines" does exist. He starts with an analogy of a gap that "by his own admission" is merely imaginary, and seeks to establish a real cultural chasm and gap.
Now to this imaginary-gap analogy, Redemptive Historical preachers must shout a hearty amen! The subway gap is imaginary, and the cultural divide is likewise imaginary. The problem with Bultmann, Barth, and Tillich is that they imagined a gap that does not exist. They imagined a gap that does not exist and fell headlong into a ditch that does. The question that needs to be answered at present is whether or not Bible believing preachers are falling into Bultmann's ditch? Particularly useful in clarifying this point are comments made by Charles G. Dennison.
Has the Bible believing church sold out? Have Bible believing preachers capitulated to Bultmann through the use of the application bridge? Is the prince of bridge builders, Rudolf Bultmann, applauding? is he all smiles? And if so, are the Reformed denominations in which we serve even aware of it?
At this time, I wish to draw your attention to the second variety of sermonic application, the application ladder. The presuppositions attached to this method are precisely those we have just mentioned. The imaginary cultural gap is precisely thatit is imaginary.
One of the chief concerns of those who endorse the bridge-building model is a concern for "situational specificity." You must apply the message to the contemporary situation of your listeners. Yet the advocates of bridge building understand "situational specificity" almost entirely in cross-cultural terms. What they ignore, neglect, and fail to see is that the "situational alienation" that must be taken into account in every sermon is not cross-cultural alienation. Rather, it is the spiritual alienation that has transpired because of man's sin. Indeed, there is a gulf. What's more, it is an enormous gulf, but it is a sinful chasm that separates, it is the gulf of human depravity.
Vos's masterpiece, The Pauline Eschatology, clearly demonstrates not only what Vos's understanding was, but more importantly provides us with an understanding of what the apostle Paul believed and taught. Through his writing, Paul describes a present world that is (and that is about to perish) contrasted with a future world that is to come. Sin has taken its toll on the present world, corrupting it and alienating from God those who belong to it. Thus, it is reserved for destruction. The world that is to come is heavenly, eternal and incorruptible, that is, imperishable. Although Christians currently dwell in the present world, their citizenship is located in the world that is to come. They are in this world, yet they belong to a future world. They reside here on earth as tent dwellers, with no place on which to lay their heads.
While it is the preoccupation of certain preachers to focus all of their attention, all of their time and all of their energy upon the earth, forever busy looking for a place to build a bridge, Paul discovers the ladder. Paul finds the ladder that connects heaven to earth, and God to his people. Jesus Christ is that ladder!
The bridge builders are missing the point entirely. They promote some farfetched notion of cross-cultural alienation, while ignoring the chasm no bridge can cross. It is spiritual alienation that separates and divides; it is the product of man's sin. Moreover, the reconciliation that needs to be included in any situationally specific address to the listeners, is not cross-cultural reconciliation. Rather, it is the reconciliation accomplished by the great peacemaker Jesus Christthe "Prince of Peace," who takes away our sins, who appeases God's wrath, imputes to us his righteousness, and restores us to fellowship with our Maker.
Application (a word that we now recognize is a euphemism for interpretation) sets itself on the wrong course each and every time it tries to draw hard lines of distinction between a present and earlier audience. When proper attention is being paid to the unity of the human race, the one covenant of grace, the promises of God, the church universal, and the eschatological age in which all saints live, we then realize that all of God's earlier and present audiences are essentially one and the same. We were in Adam. Thus, legitimate application of the Scripture causes us to feel the guilt that Adam felt, to see ourselves as Adam saw himself standing outside of Christ. Legitimate application also causes us to see ourselves in Christ, as Christ saw himselfa Son bent on pleasing his heavenly Father. We see ourselves in Abraham whose covenant, journey, inheritance, and destiny are no different than our own, connected to the city whose builder and maker is God.
Therefore, legitimate sermonic application must cause people to identify with biblical history (must join them to it) and must connect them with God's visitations to earth throughout its history. Such application preserves the integrity of Scripture, so that each and every passage carries us to Christ, the ladder on which we are carried heavenward to God. Application of the text involves bringing the listeners into the text, to experience its history, to see themselves there, to see that neither their spiritual situation, nor their need for Christ is any different from the saints of old. No different than Peter, than Paul, than Mary or Martha, James, John, Philip or Andrew. The situation of everyone remains remarkably the same. Either you are in Adam, or you are in Christ.
Indeed, there are two contradictory worlds. However it is not cultures that are clashing, rather it is a clash of commitments. True "situational specificity" means that you are either for, that is committed to Jesus Christ, or you are against him.
That preachers must produce sermons that are relevant for our congregations is the theme of this lecture. However, attempting to make our sermons relevant through the bridge building enterprise is far too costly; it is much too expensive. Building bridges across imaginary chasms takes our attention away from what truly separates man from heaven, and from that glorious ladder (Christ) that carries us there. Focusing on imaginary gulfs and worthless bridges, distracts us from what is real and tangible. Such things distract us from what is concrete and relevant.
That we must produce sermons that are "SPIRITUALLY" relevant for our congregations is the theme of this lecture. Sermons that accurately address the believer's situation in, and the unbeliever's situation outside of Christ. Anything less than this falls short of the "situational specificity" that is required by the gospel itself. To describe the congregation's situation in anything other than spiritual terms is to fabricate a lie.
Attempts at cultural relevancy, attempts at building cross-cultural bridges, are the Devil's sleight-of-hand tricks, to get our attention pointed away from Jesus, who is the author and perfecter of our faith. These are distractions that get our attention pointed away from the city whose builder and maker is God.
Something that I want every biblical theological preacher to do is to go on the offensive within our presbyteries. I would like for us to turn the criticisms around. Let us forcefully object to preaching that leaves Christ out of center. Let us say of their preaching that it has no concrete/tangible application. Let's complain of their preaching that it is not "situationally specific," for it fails to mention the believer's situation in and the unbeliever's situation outside of Christ.
What you must understand is this. Preaching that prefers bridges to Jesus Christ has no relevance for anyone at all. For it ignores the true situation of the listener, it ignores the vertical dimension, it ignores the reality of the incarnation, it ignores the reality of heaven itself. And there is something else that it ignores, it ignores our confessional standards. In particular, it ignores question and answer number one of the Westminster Shorter Catechism which teaches us that man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him in glory, that is in heaven, forever. Note that our catechism begins with some heavy duty eschatology, as is clear from the words "end" and "forever". Note also the "Vosian" nature of our catechism in that its eschatology is taught prior to its soteriology.
It is likely that Reformed and Presbyterian bridge-builders would cite question and answer 159 of the Westminster Larger Catechism in support of their brand of sermonic application. For there, the Catechism teaches that preachers must make the whole counsel of God known to their congregations, wisely applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers. But does this portion of the Larger Catechism actually support the application bridge? Is this truly the Catechism's way of saying we need to be cross-cultural bridge builders? A very helpful article for interpreting this portion of the Larger Catechism is "Some General Observations Concerning Preaching, and Especially Application," written by (the Old Puritan) James Durham. This treatise by Durham is, in essence, a commentary on this part of the Larger Catechism. And although this article demonstrates that James Durham had a great concern for situational specificity in preaching, he voices no concerns over cross-cultural chasms or bridge building.
Not unlike Vos, and in no way inconsistent with the Biblical Theological method, Durham understood application as a means of joining the spiritual situation of his audience to Jesus Christ and joining Jesus Christ to the spiritual situation of his audience. For Durham saw his listeners as belonging to one of three "spiritually specific" camps: either they were hypocrites, or openly profane, or else they were good "in the sense" that they were redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, we must not let the detractors of biblical theology confuse us on any of these points. The Westminster Assembly was not preoccupied with cross-cultural bridge building. Furthermore, the Westminster Standards support us in our desire to preach Christ from all the Scripture.
So in your preaching, be less concerned with contemporary culture. Be less concerned with some unique cultural or literary genre that belonged exclusively to the so-called ancients of biblical times. Be less concerned with Sitz-im-Leben, that is, "situation in life."
Be concerned for Sitz-im-Christus, our "situation in Christ." Be concerned with spiritual relevancy over cultural relevancy. Ask yourselves these questions. Does my sermon show the believer, the profane and the hypocrite where they standwhat their spiritual positions and situations are in the light of Christ? Does my sermon draw attention to the reality of the incarnation, to the reality of the coming eschatological judgment, and to the reality of heaven itself? If your sermons accomplish these things, then they are relevant and reliable for all sorts of persons.
We are climbing Jacob's ladder,
Every round goes higher, higher,
Vos was the soldier who arrived before us; Paul was the soldier who arrived before Vos; Jesus was the soldier who arrived before Paul; AND JESUS was the soldier who carried the cross! Thus, Paul has written, "I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus and him crucified." It is that Christ and that cross that has become our ladder to heaven.
Bridges or Ladders, Ladders or Bridges, Bridges or Jesus, Jesus or Bridges, Bultmann or Jesus, Jesus or Bultmann? Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!
* A slightly revised version of an address delivered at the Kerux conference, August 2001.