Friday, September 05, 2014

Paul's Message and Method

Unlike the book of Acts, the letters tells us little about the numerical response to Paul's preaching.  We know more about the apparent failures of his preaching.  By refusing to treat the gospel as merchandise (2 Cor. 2:17) or to "tamper with God's word" (2 Cor. 4:2, RSV), Paul demonstrated his concern to be faithful to a trust, even if his faithfulness produced few results.  Although he knew that his audience considered his story "foolishness," he nevertheless preached "Christ crucified" (1 Cor. 1:22-23) in a direct challenge to an alternative way of viewing reality.  His proclamation was neither a response to the questions that people were asking nor an attempt to present Christianity as the answer to their own pursuits.  In his claim that God had acted in the events of the cross and resurrection, he knew that he was challenging a culture's myths and that his listeners would consider the message scandalous (1 Cor. 1:18-25; Gal. 5:11).  Paul gave his listeners a clear choice, a message that they could reject!  We easily forget that most of them did.  A challenge to the world's view of reality and a summons for listeners to conform their story to the larger story is not likely to result in easy victories.

Paul does not assume responsibility for the results of his preaching; God has called him to be faithful, not successful.  Where Paul's preaching results in a rejection of his message, he knows that the fault is with neither the message nor the messenger, but with the blindness that lies over the eyes of unbelievers (2 Cor. 4:4).  Where his preaching has positive results, he knows that it is God's power and not his own preaching that has been effective.  The gospel is "the power of God for salvation" (Rom. 1:16).  Unlike the rhetoricians, he does not preach with "plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power" (1 Cor. 2:4).  God's power is present in the preaching event, awakening faith in the listeners.  Consequently, Paul is not the evangelist who depends on his cleverness, sermonic technique, audience manipulation, or adaptation of the message for the sake of having maximum results.  His task is to confront the audience with a message that it does not want to hear, leaving the response to God.

--James W. Thompson, Preaching Like Paul: Homiletical Wisdom for Today, p. 48-49
This line stood out to me perhaps more than all the others:
His proclamation was neither a response to the questions that people were asking nor an attempt to present Christianity as the answer to their own pursuits.
I still remember the first time I heard the idea that faithful and winsome evangelism requires answering the questions people are asking with the truth of God's Word.  I've heard it multiple times, perhaps most recently from Tim Keller:
So the first task of contextualization is to immerse yourself in the questions, hopes, and beliefs of the culture so you can give a biblical, gospel-centered response to its questions.  When Paul began to speak to the philosophers in Athens, he began by saying he had carefully studied their objects of worship (Acts 17:23).  We should do the same.

--Tim Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, p. 121
Interestingly enough, Keller (commenting on 1 Corinthians 1:22-24) also argues that faithful contextualization requires presenting Christianity as the answer to the pursuits of those who are lost:
Notice that while the gospel offended each culture in somewhat different ways, it also drew people to see Christ and his work in different ways.  Greeks who were saved came to see that the cross was the ultimate wisdom--making it possible for God to be both just and the justifier of those who believe.  And Jews who had been saved came to see that the cross was true power.  It meant that our most powerful enemies--sin, guilt, and death itself--have been defeated.

It is striking, then, to see how Paul applies the gospel to confront and complete each society's baseline cultural narrative.  He does this both negatively and positively.  He confronts each culture for its idols, yet he positively highlights their aspirations and ultimate values.  He uses the cross to challenge the intellectual hubris of the Greeks and the works-righteousness of the Jews.  But he also affirms their most basic collective longings, showing that Christ alone is the true wisdom the Greeks have looked for and is the true righteousness that the Jews have sought.  Paul's approach to culture, then, is neither completely confrontational nor totally affirming.   He does not simply rail against Greek pride in intellect and Jewish pride in power; instead he shows them that the ways they are pursuing these good things are ultimately self-defeating.  He reveals the fatal contradictions and underlying idolatry within their cultures and then points them to the resolution that can only be found in Christ.  This is the basic formula for contextualization.

--Tim Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, p. 111-112
Now, maybe it's just me, but it doesn't sound to me like Thompson and Keller are painting the same picture of Paul's message and method--nor do they sound complementary.  If this is indeed the case, whose portrait more accurately reflects the biblical landscape?

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