Preaching as Sacrament of the Word

What is preaching?

Certainly there are a number of important vantages from which to view this question — biblical, theological, ecclesial, historical, liturgical, etc. What follows is a swipe at the question from the theological perspective with implications that can inform other perspectives on the whole. In addition, it may impact how we as preachers envisage what we do and what it is that happens Sunday after Sunday, sermon after sermon.

To help crack open the nut of this question, let us explore a few insights from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1948). In his lectures on preaching, given at the Confessing Church seminary at Finkenwalde (1935-1937)1,  Bonhoeffer rooted his homiletic in the incarnation of the Word. Furthermore, he emphasized the real presence of that same Word in the ordinary words of the preacher. In his own words:

The proclaimed word is the incarnate Christ himself. As little as the incarnation is the outward shape of God, just so little does the proclaimed word present the outward form of a reality; rather, it is the thing itself. The preached Christ is both the Historical One and the Present One… Therefore the proclaimed word is not a medium of expression for something else, something which lies behind it, but rather it is the Christ himself walking through his congregation as the Word.2

As Bonhoeffer often did, he walked a fine line between dogma and mysticism. In this particular case, he highlighted both the incarnate, crucified, and risen Word in and through whom the cosmos came to be, and the real presence of that Word in the hic et nunc of each congregation, parish, and church in which the Word is proclaimed — “Christ himself walking through his congregation as the Word.” As Bonhoeffer again asserts:

Through the Word the world was created. The Word became incarnate. The incarnate Word continues to exist for us in the Scripture. Through the Holy Spirit, the incarnate Word comes to us from the Scripture in the sermon. And it is one and the same Word: the word of creation, the Word of the incarnation, the Word of the Holy Scriptures, the Word of the sermon. It is the creating, accepting, and reconciling Word of God, for whose sake the world exists.3

In short, Bonhoeffer speaks of the sermon as the sacramentum verbi — the sacrament of the word.4  The Word does what it is, and is what it does. The Word of the sermon does not simply point to that which is beyond itself. The Word of the sermon names sin, estrangement, and death, and the Word of the sermon proclaims forgiveness, reconciliation, and life. The Word of the sermon is not different from the Word incarnate in Jesus the Christ. The incarnate Word is not different from the Word made normative by Scripture and proclaimed in the sermon. Only Christ can give such life.

While the most recent incarnation of the quest for the historical Jesus has to a large degree spun out, it may be helpful to recall Bonhoeffer’s move to consider preaching as sacramentum verbi. As many scholars and students have been and continue to be, occupied with the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth (and for that matter the history of Israel) — myself being one of them, it is wholeheartedly necessary for the vitality of the Church to recall the intimate relationship of the incarnate Word and the Word proclaimed.

Certainly, there is room for and a need for continued vigorous study of the historical and social worlds of the Bible. But at the same time, preachers are called to proclaim the incarnate Word5 — the Christ who takes the sin and death of the world upon himself and is the Word of forgiveness and life.

At this point, it is important to note that this engagement with Bonhoeffer on preaching yields only a skeletal framework. There are many edges of such a conception of preaching that need further and deeper consideration. Some central questions which need to be pursued in far greater depth are: What does one mean by “sacrament”? How does a sacramentum verbi understanding of preaching impact how we understand and practice other sacraments, liturgy, etc.? From such a standpoint, what does one do with poor preaching — ‘poor’ ranging from violent to disconnected with Scripture to utterly irrelevant?

Still, even with these open-ended questions, how might such a conception begin to inform our preaching?

  • First, it strikes a helpful fear in the preacher that the call to preach is not simply an exercise in entertainment or self-help or self-disclosure or morals or even education. The ultimate call of the Christian preacher is not to speak about Christ but to speak Christ.
  • Second, it calls the preacher to be a more careful listener to both Scripture and the community. The ordinary words of the sermon, the sacramental stuff, that bear Christ ought to be shaped both by Scripture and words that are accessible to the hearers of the specific parish. 
  • Third, it frames the preaching task as the work of Christ. This is no excuse for the multitudinous forms of laziness associated with the preaching task.  Rather, Christ is both subject and object of that which we proclaim. It is this preached and incarnate Word that is moving and working to make all things new.

The question, of course, remains: What is preaching? While not wrapped up neatly with a pretty bow, we can say with respect and confidence “that Christ enters the congregation through those words which [the preacher] proclaims from Scripture.”6

1Bonhoeffer’s lectures have had other attention recently on these pages by David Lose, “‘I believe: help my unbelief’: Bonhoeffer on Biblical Preaching,” 11 August — 1 September 2008.

2Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Worldly Preaching: Lectures on Homiletics (Clyde E. Fant, ed. and trans.; New York: Thomas Nelson, 1975) 126. Pedagogically, the particular lecture from which the following lectures are taken comes second only to Bonhoeffer’s survey of biblical and early Church understandings of proclamation.

3Ibid., 129.

4Ibid., 130. Elsewhere, in the context of speaking about the human inability to keep the law and that the ‘law does not establish community but solitude,” Bonhoeffer writes of preaching: “Thus out of utter isolation arises concrete community, for the preaching of God’s love speaks of the community into which God has entered with each and every person — with all those who in utter solitude know themselves separated from God and other human beings and who believe this message.” Communio Sanctorum: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church (J. von Soosten, trans., C. J. Greene, ed.; DBW 1; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998) 149.

5Cf. “The Word exists to be made known.” Gustaf Wingren, The Living Word (London: SCM, 1960) 13.

6Bonhoeffer, Worldly Preaching, 130.