He is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World By R. Albert Mohler (Chicago: Moody, 2008)

He Is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World (Hardcover)
by R. Albert Mohler Jr.

Price: $19.99  |  92 used & new from $1.61

Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a strong voice for reformed theology, is always a good read. Passionate and never one to hold back his punches, he does not disappoint in this tome that “emerged out of an intense concern for the state of preaching in the church” (9).

Mohler bemoans the state of preaching today, characterized by preachers’ “embarrassment before the biblical text”: “… preachers simply disregard and ignore vast sections of Scripture, focusing instead on texts that are more comfortable, palatable, and nonconfrontational to the modern mind. This is a form of pastoral neglect and malpractice” (18). Strong words, these. I wouldn’t go so far, but I would agree with the basic premise, not because pastors are negligent or because they are embarrassed, but because they find it easier to understand and apply those less obscure texts. It is a problem of inadequate hermeneutics, not necessarily theological treason.

I appreciated Mohler’s criticism of preachers emptying sermons of biblical content: “Every text does have a point, of course, and the preacher’s main concern should be to communicate that central truth. In fact, he should design the sermon to serve that overarching purpose. Furthermore, the content of the passage is to be applied to life—but application must be determined by exposition, not vice versa” (19). Thank you!

Mohler is also against the trendy focus on felt needs: “Urged on by devotees of ‘needs-based preaching,’ many evangelicals have abandoned the text without recognizing that they have done so” (20). Alright, but that should not mean the negligence of audience needs. The good preacher will show how the thrust of the text applies to needs (felt or otherwise) of the audience, for all of Scripture is capable of meeting human needs of one sort or another. Mohler’s diagnosis is that there is really only one need that the sinner has: “He is blind to his need for redemption and reconciliation with God, and focuses on potentially real but temporal needs such as personal fulfillment, financial security, family peace, and career advancement. Too many sermons settle for answering these expressed needs and concerns and fail to proclaim the Word of Truth” (20). Again, I’d agree, but Mohler seems to be suggesting that a salvific message of reconciliation with God is all that preaching should be about. The Bible addresses far more issues about sanctification (including fulfillment, security, peace, etc.) than it does justification.

Not surprisingly, the main thrust of Mohler’s critique of contemporary preaching is the absence of the gospel. He claims: “The preaching of the apostles always presented the kerygma—the heart of the gospel. The clear presentation of the gospel must be a part of the sermon, no matter the text” (20–21; emphases his). I’m not sure about the apostles’ preaching—all we have are a few sermons, and all of them are evangelistic in purpose. Of course, they would be presenting the gospel. Neither do I have any objection to presenting the gospel in every sermon—in fact, I do so myself. My only concern is that that burden be acknowledged not as a hermeneutical constraint but a pragmatic one—there are, after all, unbelievers in every audience.

In asserting that preaching ought to be Trinitarian, Mohler, nevertheless, seems to (over)emphasize its Christological nature. “All Christian preaching is unabashedly christological. … That message of divine salvation, the unmerited act of God in Christ, is the criterion by which all preaching is to be judged “(43). Does it mean I should preach the cross in every sermon? It appears so. “If preaching takes its ground and derives its power from God’s revelation in the Son, then the cross is the paramount symbol and event of Christian proclamation. … When Paul preached, his message was centered on the cross as the definitive criterion of preaching.” Mohler uses 2 Cor 4:5 to substantiate his assessment of Paul’s practice, but wasn’t that addressing Paul’s evangelistic practice? He applauds Spurgeon: “As Charles Spurgeon expressed this so eloquently, preach the Word, place it in its canonical context, and ‘make a bee-line to the cross’” (21).

Mohler’s Christological tendencies are apparent: “Every single text of Scripture points to Christ. He is the Lord of all, and therefore He is the Lord of the Scriptures too. From Moses to the prophets, He is the focus of every single word of the Bible. Every verse of Scripture finds its fulfillment in Him, and every story in the Bible ends with Him” (96). I hope that part about “every single word” and “every verse” and “every story” is hyperbole, for I am at a loss to understand how Christ can be in every word, verse, and story, without some serious hermeneutical acrobatics.

Mohler continues: “The message of the gospel does not end with the cross, however. It continues to the empty tomb” (43). Actually, it continues even further. Mark 16:1–8 depicts the restarting of the journey, after the empty tomb—it is back to Galilee for disciples to begin the next round of the journey of discipleship with Jesus. In other words, Christian life (and preaching) does not begin and end with the cross, if “cross” simply means, as Mohler appears to hold, merely the message of salvation and the atoning work of Christ.

Nonetheless, I find some balance in Mohler’s assertion that “[o]ne of our aims in preaching, for example is evangelism. … Another motive for our preaching is the edification of our people and their encouragement in the faith” (67). But far too often, the school of thought to which Mohler belongs implies that only the former—gospel-related, cross-demonstrating, evangelistic preaching—is valid preaching, the making of “a bee-line to the cross” no matter what the text exposited (21).

On expository preaching, Mohler is adamant: “… I believe that the only form of authentic Christian preaching is expository preaching” (49; emphasis original), and such a sermon is “one that takes its message and its structure from the biblical text” (50), for “the text of Scripture has the right to establish both the substance and the structure of the sermon” (65). Why the stress that sermon structure be derived from the biblical text? The latter is a written document addressed to one particular group of people in one particular way; mine is a spoken word addressed to another particular group of people in another particular way. Should the structure of both text and sermon be identical? I think not. No doubt the shape of the text is inspired, too, not just its words (67). But preachers need only attend to how the shape contributes to meaning; that meaning may be exposited in a variety of sermonic structures. Otherwise, one is left with the argument that says that since God inspired the Bible in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, we must preach in those arcane languages, as well as in poetry, narrative, and song.

Overall, an interesting read. Nothing particularly new for preachers to glean, especially regarding preaching in a postmodern culture. And the price, I thought, was a bit too high for a book that is less than 200 pages long.

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 10 (2010): 127–128

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