"Until the Enlightenment, philosophers and theologians traveled a single road, 'Authority Avenue.' In the 18th century, however, these travelers came to a fork in the road. The old road was marked with the old sign 'Authority of Revelation.' The new road sign, marking the new fork, was erected by Immanuel Kant and read 'Autonomy of Reason.'"
With these words David Allen, senior pastor of MacArthur Boulevard Baptist Church and director of the Jerry Vines Institute of Biblical Preaching at Criswell College, began the three-day H.I. Hester Lecture Series on preaching at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Allen, who also serves as a professor of preaching at the Dallas college, is the co-author with Jerry Vines of "Biblical Authority and Homiletics" in the book Authority and Interpretation: A Baptist Perspective, and has written a number of articles on preaching, including "Hermeneutics, Exegesis, and Proclamation" in the Criswell Theological Review. His address was taken from his article by the same title in the September 2000 issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.
"The result [of the Enlightenment] was politically, socially, ethically, philosophically, and religiously momentous," Allen said. "The Enlightenment witnessed the rise of the democratic state, resulting in the reduction of political authority; the rise of humanism, resulting in the reduction of moral authority; and the rise of religious liberalism, resulting in the reduction of religious authority."
Noting that the postmodernism of this era is every bit as momentous as the liberalism of the 18th and the 19th centuries, Allen said, "Modernism's collapse has bequeathed us postmodernism. Enlightenment modernity distrusted authority. Radical postmodernity dismantles authority."
Quoting New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan's description of the postmodern condition, Allen said, "There is no lighthouse keeper. There is no lighthouse. There is no dry land. There are only people living on rafts made from their own imaginations. And there is the sea."
Allen went on to observe, "In light of this, it should come as no surprise that the question of biblical authority has been the burning issue for theology in the 20th century. The issue of authority has been at the heart of the rise of neo-orthodox theology, evangelical theology, revisionist theology, and post-liberal theology. The authority issue has been keenly felt in homiletics [preaching] as well. Every sermon preached presupposes a certain theology and a concept of authority."
In his lectures, Allen recapped the birth of liberal thought and the subsequent reaction to it in the 20th century by such theologians as Karl Barth, who became the father of neo-orthodoxy. "Barth's major theological faux pas, entailing immense repercussions for theology, was his assertion that the Bible, as a witness to revelation, is not revelation itself. For Barth, this 'witnessing' aspect of the Scripture to God's revelation is nothing more than human speech. Barth consistently avoids ever saying that human speech is appropriated for divine speech in the Scripture. Many of the so-called 'neo-evangelicals' have also appropriated Barth's thinking on this point."
Pointing out the difference between saying the Bible is God's Word and the Bible contains God's Word, Allen said, "Barth and his cadre maintain that the Word of God is still to be found in the Scriptures. But this is precisely the point at issue! Who or what will tell us what is and what is not to be considered as God's Word in the written Word? How is one to know when God has taken up the Bible and has spoken through it? All who opt for the Barthian dichotomy regarding the Word of God and the words of Scripture become inextricably entangled with inconsistency."
This inconsistency, Allen said, finds its way from the study into the pulpit. "The Barthian dichotomy is also at the heart of the distinction between evangelical and non-evangelical preaching. This is the heart of the issue for homiletics. If the written words of the Scripture are not to be considered as God's revelatory speech, then the preaching of the Bible in an expositional manner becomes less important — which is exactly what we see in the so-called 'new homiletic.'"
Allen continued, "The shift which has taken place in homiletics was summarized by Thomas Long when he noted that in the past, preaching sought to communicate meaning in a propositional way. Today, a fundamental axiom of most homileticians is that it is the audience and the preacher together who create the experience of meaning. [Robert] Reed, [Jeffrey] Bullock, and [David] Fleer have shown that the goal of the new homiletic is to reach the will through the imagination rather than through reason. It is the privileging of individual experience of narrative and imagination over rational discourse that is the essence of the new homiletic."
A high view of biblical authority "creates a solid foundation for expositional preaching," Allen noted. "Such exposition will respect and reflect the various literary genres in which God was pleased to reveal His Word. A high view of biblical authority requires that the umbrella term for preaching today should not be narrative, topical, or any approach to preaching other than the expository method. Biblical exposition, week after week from the pulpit, is the logical outcome of a high view of biblical authority and the most effective means to fulfilling Paul's mandate to 'Preach the Word!'
"The way ahead for homiletics is to go back to the fork in the road and to take the way marked 'Authority of Revelation,'" Allen said. "This should be the highway for homiletics in the new millennium. It is the only road that leads to the Father's house."