Review: The Priority of Preaching
Christopher Ash is a preacher who trains preachers, and his little book The Priority of Preaching provides a unique angle on that training. He mines the example of Moses’ long sermon in Deuteronomy for the contemporary (expository) preacher. He places particular weight on the fact that Moses predicts that a succession of prophets will serve Israel—to them the Jews were told to listen (Deut. 18:15–22). The content of their messages was, Ash argues, supposed to be the written words of God.
I’m afraid that connection—and several other connections he made between New Testament preaching practice and supposed Old Testament precedent—is where he lost me. It feels awkward to say so, but Ash actually seemed stronger when he was relating general insights about preaching than when he was trying to tie those insights directly to Old Testament texts.
For example, Ash points out that
an interactive Bible study is not culturally-neutral. To sit around drinking coffee with a book open, reading and talking about that book in a way that forces me to keep looking at the book and finding my place and showing a high level of mental agility, functional literacy, spoken coherence and fluency, that is something only some of the human race are comfortable doing… For those who can do it, it may well be profitable; but many people can’t, and just feel daunted or excluded by the exercise. (28)
Ash wonders if we have unwittingly “contributed to making some of our churches more monocultural than they might otherwise be” by insisting on this kind of exercise. What do we do for those people who lack the education or fluency to participate in small-group Bible study? They need to learn the word, too. If a back-and-forth dialogue won’t work, what will? Ash says there are two options, preaching and theater. Of course, he opts for the former. He makes the perceptive argument, one going back to the Reformation, that theater only produces people who know Bible stories but don’t know what they mean.
Ash attempts, however, to tie this argument back to Deuteronomy (through Moses’ prediction that preaching prophets would come to guide Israel)—and I, at least, wasn’t quite ready to follow. But that doesn’t invalidate his excellent insight.
I had the same feeling multiple times throughout the book. Perhaps added OT study will persuade me that he was right, but for now I believe that the way God ruled His people Israel and the way Jesus guides His church are not meant to be tied together as closely as Ash assumes. (We definitely can and must learn from the OT, but it’s not always a simple process.)
Critique done. Because this was a warm and insightful book by someone whose heart beats for God’s word to spread and be taught accurately.
Let me just tick off some of the insights that are now bathed in neon yellow in my copy of Ash’s book:
• “Submission is not the same as discussion. Discussion is comfortably in line with the spirit of the age. We are happy to discuss and interpret…. There is a place for discussion and questioning to clarify our grasp of meaning and correct one another’s blind spots. But all too often, discussion is one of the ways we avoid submission.” (35, 36) Ash argues that preaching should not be replaced by dialogue, although it should be so engaging as to provoke a silent dialogue. “There may be times when a silent dialogue in preaching is actually preferable to a spoken dialogue. Some so-called dialogue is really simultaneous or alternating monologue…. Good spoken dialogue is easier said than done. How often a dialogue is hijacked by some over-talkative person asking questions that most of the others don’t want answered! Sometimes a coherent reasoned exposition is interrupted by irrelevant questions. Spoken dialogue sounds good, and it is sometimes necessary, but there are both practical and theological reasons for working at the silent dialogue of good preaching.” (54–55)
• “There is not mystical short-cut, whereby the lazy preacher can hope to be clothed by some anointing, so that his ill-prepared words will come with the power of God…. Godly preparation is a struggle, but there is no substitute for the time and the pain of this engagement with the word.” (40, 42)
• “Those who think [the] doctrine of authority puffs up the preacher have not begun to feel the sheer terror of being a preacher…. To be a preacher is one of the most deeply humbling experiences in the world.” (42)
• “Liberalism claims to permeate and influence culture, but only does so in the way that a mouse permeates a cat; it is swallowed by it.” (51)
• “Let us not teach, but also preach. If teaching is like the signpost which explains clearly to us where we ought to go and how to go there, preaching is like the friendly but firm shove from behind to get us started on actually going there and to keep us moving. We must teach: exhortation without teaching…. is an act of verbal aggression, an invasion of my personal space.” (64)
Now for two final insights that deeply benefited me. I’ve seen writers (typically left-leaning ones) praise community interpretation of the Bible, but I’ve never seen anyone flesh out what it means. Ash, a conservative, gave the best insight on the value of communal reading of Scripture:
“We are to be a community who interpret the word; but the kind of interpretation we are to aim at is much more than agreeing what it means. We are to interpret the word in the sense of becoming a living visible interpretation of the word, a community in which the word of Christ is lived out and made concrete.” (101)
In addition, he pointed out that “attending church” online removes the mutual accountability of knowing what we’ve all heard as a community:
“When I gather with my brothers and sisters to hear the word preached, it is still possible to hit the ‘Off’ button. I can look out of the window; I can read Wesley’s instructions for congregational singing in Christian Hymns; I can read the 39 Articles at the end of the Book of Common Prayer; I can doodle; I can daydream. But it is not quite so easy. For I have sitting around me brothers and sisters who might notice; and I would hate to be seen to be inattentive…. When we listen together, you know what word I have heard, and I know what word you have heard. I’ve heard it!… We are accountable to one another for our response, and this stirs us up and encourages us to respond as we ought.” (99)
The book ends with an excellent and brief appendix presenting seven arguments for expository preaching.
Pick up this book, read the appendix, and then dip into a chapter for some insights. If the sustained argument didn’t quite carry me along, I still feel I benefited from the loving work of a careful brother.