Beckett: Review – Theology Is for Proclamation

Author: Gerhard O. Forde
Publisher: Augsburg Fortress, 1990
Rating: 5/5 stars

Review

This is a great read for any theological student. However, as the book is geared towards proclamation/preaching from the pulpit in the public office of the pastor, this book will be most meaningful and insightful for pursuing pastors, particularly Lutheran pastors. Forde’s systematic theology is a brilliant theology that challenges today’s modern conventions, especially those of the evangelical persuasion. This being the case, evangelicals will find the book especially challenging and frustrating, as Forde completely dismantles their presumptuous thinking and interpretative framework. Forde is a bit wordy goes into a lot of detail about systematic theology being for proclamation, but I will boil it down to his three basic premises: “getting God off our backs,” God preached vs. God not preached, and doing the text to the hearers. Forde’s primary thesis is that the goal of systematic theology is proclamation, which is present tense, me-to-you speech, namely, “I forgive you your sins.” That is, the goal of preaching is the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins—or, in his words, doing the text to the hearer.

Getting God Off Our Backs

Getting God off our backs is something we all try to do, whether one is a devout Christian or an atheist. “The theist most often does it by trying to make God ‘nice,’ to bring God ‘to heel,’ so to speak, and the atheist does it by trying to make God disappear” (14). The idea behind Forde’s “getting God off our backs” is that whether Christian or non-Christian, we are constantly confronted with God, so we always have to deal with Him. Christians and non-Christians do this in different ways.

For Christians, it is called theodicy. “Theodicy” is the combination of two Greek words: Θέος and δικαιόω (Theos and dikaióō), which respectively are “God” and “justify.” Theodicy, then, is our attempt to justify or defend God. When confronted with the question, “If God is good, why does He permit evil and suffering,” the Christian equipped with his theodicy will try to get God off their backs by defending God. We might say something like, “God is sovereign, and God is just. So, He permits evil and suffering to do His justice in the world,” and we leave it at that. We defend God with this poor theology, and we thus get God off our backs (or so we think).

Another way the Christian gets God off their backs is with synergism, or decision theology (also known as the theology of glory). As Forde rightly argues, Christ has accomplished all the work necessary for salvation. All we have to do is hear the Word and believe it, which is a gift of faith from God. The evangelical Christian doesn’t know what to do with this biblical teaching. So, they say, “Don’t I still have to at least do something?” They insist on free will. Yet to insist that man has free will and must choose God is to confess that God did not do enough to achieve our salvation. God achieved our salvation, Forde acknowledges, in the life death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God does not need our help. If He did, the coming of Christ would have been superfluous. It is precisely because we cannot do anything that Christ came to do what we cannot. So, these Christians get God off their backs by insisting they have to do something about salvation since they cannot accept that God did it all in Christ.

The atheist, on the other hand, gets God off their back by getting rid of Him entirely. With the issue of evil again, instead of defending God, they just throw Him out of the picture entirely. After all, it is far easier to believe a good God doesn’t exist in a world filled with suffering than it is to believe a good God does exist in a world of suffering and we can never know why He permits it. In either case, the theist or atheist who try so arduously to get God off their backs cannot let God be God. God does not tell us why He permits suffering; if anything, the book of Job is indicative of this. So, to get God off our backs, the Christian tries to justify and defend God, and the atheist just gets rid of God entirely since it is much easier to do.

God Preached vs. God Not Preached

Here, Forde borrows from Luther’s Deus absconditus/Deus revelatus (God hidden vs. God revealed). The hidden God—or God not preached—is exactly what causes us to try and get God off our backs, such as with the issue of God permitting suffering. God has hidden that part about Himself, so we either try to defend Him and make speculations on the mind of God or we just get rid of Him entirely. The preacher, Forde argues, is not to proclaim God not preached (God hidden); he is to proclaim God preached (God revealed). 

After all, what purpose is there in preaching what we do not know about God? How can we preach about what we do not know? It’s a futile and tiresome task. The task of the preacher is to proclaim God preached—to proclaim God revealed. That is, the task of the preacher is to proclaim what God has revealed about Himself. So, concerning God’s permission of suffering, what can we preach? Something that goes like this, “God only knows.” We could also turn to the book of Job, where we see God quite literally make a bet with Satan on Job’s righteous integrity. What is revealed about God in this text is His absolute power over Satan, evil, and suffering. God would not allow Satan to do more than He allowed him to do. So, God used Satan’s evil plans to thwart his evil plans.

Such a biblical proclamation is meant to be comforting. God is so powerful over evil and the Devil that He uses the Devil’s own plans to thwart him? That’s awesome! Instead, this proclamation makes us squirm in our seats. That’s all we know about God—that He has absolute power over the Devil and even uses him to thwart his evil plans. But we don’t know why God would do this. We know God is all-good and all-powerful. Here, we see how He is all-powerful, but how can we see that He is all-good? If God is all-good, we think, why would He permit evil and suffering to happen at all? We fail to see that God is all-good precisely because He gives evil and suffering its limits. Yet why not do away with evil entirely? Well, He did, and we killed Him for it. God’s goodness does not match up with our definition of goodness. Because this is so, it is only indicative of the fall, or as Forde calls it, the “upward fall.”

I quite like Forde’s term for what we usually call the fall. “The fall is really not what the word implies at all. It is not a downward plunge to some lower level in the great chain of being… Rather it is an upward rebellion, an invasion of the realm of things ‘above,’ the usurping of divine prerogative” (48). The original sin of Adam of Eve—which is in all of us—is the ascent to godhood. This was, after all, Satan’s temptation in the garden, “You shall surely not die… you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5). We strive to be gods of our own lives, but when confronted with the one true God, He is constantly on our backs. So, as the supposed god of our own lives, we have created our own definition of what it means to be good, namely, the cessation of evil and suffering. (We even create our own definitions of sexuality and gender roles that are in direct conflict with the biblical definition.) But the one true God does not define good this way; it is something entirely different from our made up definition.

Furthermore, as a result of the upward fall and seeking to be gods, we think we can peer into the mind of God—the hiddenness of God—and examine His mind and come to a sound conclusion of why He is the way He is or why things are the way they are. But these are just mere speculations—speculations we have no right to make. We are not gods, so we cannot know the hidden God. We are creatures, which means we are totally dependent on the one true God. Because we are creatures dependent on God, our responsibility is to proclaim God preached/revealed—what He has made known about Himself, not make speculations about the hidden God that we can never know nor comprehend.

Doing the Text to the Hearers

Finally, the crux of the matter. It takes him six long chapters to get here, but the hermeneutics are quite exciting. Earlier, I made note that Forde’s primary thesis is to proclaim in the present tense, “Your sins are forgiven.” This is doing the text to the hearers. More specifically, in any given text, we are “to inquire what the text did to the hearers and prepare to do that again” (156). Forde observes how most preaching today utilises the allegorical method. That is, most preachers today will come up with some secret meaning in the text that the text is really not conveying at all—they allegorise the text. They do this in the attempt to make the text “relevant” to the hearers. Instead of the text “interrupting” or “changing” our story, we interpret the text to “fit our story” (153). The task of the preacher is not to make the text relevant to the hearers; it is already relevant! Otherwise, you would not be preaching it in the first place! Rather, the task of the preacher is to proclaim God’s story so that it changes our story—or in Forde’s words, do the text to the hearer.

For example, when preaching on Matthew 8:23-27the preacher will allegorise it this way, “Just as Jesus calmed the storm, so, too, can He calm your anxieties.” To the preacher, apparently the text is about human anxiety and Jesus’ power to alleviate it. That’s not what the text is about. What does human anxiety have to do with Jesus having the power to calm a raging sea? Absolutely nothing. Rather, the account tells of Jesus’ absolute power over creation. This can only mean one thing: He truly is a man from God, just as Moses was when God enabled him to enact the ten plagues and split the Red Sea, just as Elijah was when God enabled him to prevent rain for three and a half years, and so on. Hence the disciples’ response, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey Him” (v. 27)?

So, what did the text do to the disciples? They were beside themselves—they were in shock, in awe; they marveled. Jesus has complete authority over all creation; what a shocking, marvellous thing! So, how can the preacher “do” this text to the hearers? In our post-resurrection perspective, we know all authority over heaven and earth has been given to Jesus (Matthew 28:18), and we thus know He will recreate all creation—both the heavens and the earth (Revelation 21). This is the sure reality for all who believe, and His power and authority to completely recreate everything as we know it into something new and better should cause us to gasp and say, “What sort of man is this, that even the whole earth and all the heavens shall obey His Word?” Not only this, but He has also recreated us into new creatures in Baptism (Romans 6:1-4). Again, we ought to gasp and say, “What sort of man is this, that even my spirit is created anew in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?”

Furthermore, what other authority does Christ have? The authority to forgive all our sins. Thus, as the hearers are shocked at Christ’s utterly recreative powers over all creation and even our own bodies and spirits, the pastor moves to forgive the sins of the hearers as he prepares the Lord’s Supper. The pastor does the text to the hearers not merely by explaining the text, but doing the text to them so as to put them in awe of Christ’s power over all things and, finally, in proclaiming forgiveness of their sins in the body and blood of Christ in, with, and under the bread and wine at His Table.

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