Recently I wrote about communion in marriage (i.e. sex).
Modern, western approaches to sex are essentially memorialist (if you don’t know what that means, hang in there, explanation is on the way).
Our culture doesn’t believe that real union is effected by sex. A union of bodies is not considered to be a union of persons – not necessarily. And a vast amount of the sex that does happen is a remembrance of the real thing (i.e. porn).
In this post I want to examine the negative effects of memorialism in preaching. But let’s just remind ourselves of what memorialism is. Let’s consider the clash between Luther and Zwingli in the 16th century.
As these two men discussed the Lord’s Supper, Luther advocated the real presence of Christ “in, with and under” the elements of bread and wine. “This is my body” Luther would quote. In fact he scratched it onto his desk as the last word on the subject. Zwingli considered Luther’s position to be “a perverse and impious superstition.”
Mike Reeves writes:
Luther believed that Christ’s body and blood are really present in the bread and wine, making the Lord’s Supper a gift of grace from God. Those who receive Christ in faith are blessed, those who take the Supper without faith face special judgement for despising Christ when offered to them. Zwingli maintained that Christ’s body cannot literally be present in the bread, but is instead symbolized by the bread. The Lord’s Supper for him was a mere symbol to help us commemorate Christ’s sacrifice and to signify our membership of his body. Luther was horrified. It looked to him as though Zwingli was turning the Supper into an opportunity for us to do something (i.e. commemorate and signify something about us). This, surely, meant that the Lord’s Supper would no longer be about grace but works. Believing that Zwingli had fatally compromised the gospel, Luther refused to partner with him. (The Unquenchable Flame, p70)
Later in the same book, Mike makes the point that in the 16th and 17th centuries “there were no Lutherans among all the refugee theologians who came to England (something still felt today in the almost total lack of Lutheran flavour to English evangelicalism, which has always been much more Zwinglian and Calvinist).” (p129)
Now Calvin did believe in the real presence of Christ in the Supper, but I have to say, when it comes to the sacraments, modern evangelicalism, as I’ve encountered it, is decidedly memorialist. I’ve met many who proudly maintain the real absence of Christ.
This kind of view tends to go hand in hand with a view of ministry that is not “word and sacrament” but almost self-consciously, word and not sacrament. There is a deeply ingrained anti-ritualistic and, yes, even anti-physical streak to our evangelicalism. I’m not sure I’ll be able to displace such thinking in this post – it’s not in my tiny stable of hobby-horses so I won’t be riding it very far. Instead, let me direct attention away from the Lord’s table and onto ground that should be firmer for us: the pulpit. Yet it’s my contention that Zwingli rules here also. Our churches are beset by memorialist preaching.
If you ask me, this is the malady afflicting conservative evangelical churches today. I know, I know, I’m a 34 year old nobody pontificating about the state of evangelicalism. Well… allow a younger guy to let off some younger-guy steam. If it makes you feel better, favourite the page and read it in 30 years when my opinion is worth slightly more than zero. But if you want to take my rants for what they’re worth, here comes said rant…
Preachers simply do not believe that Christ is really present in the word that they speak. How can I possibly judge that? I listen. I listen to their tone, their content, their manner, their prayers and to the preaching concerns they speak of out of the pulpit. In all this, there seems to be very little confidence or expectation that they’re in the business of speaking God’s own word with His authority and power. Modern preachers don’t even consider themselves to be heralds – let alone attempt the feat. They are bible experts, textual critics, near eastern historians, cultural and ecclesiastical commentators and discipleship coaches. They are anything and everything but bearers of God’s living word. In short – they are memorialists. They don’t think they’re doing anything to their hearers in the moment. They seek merely to bring spiritual truths to the minds of the flock.
What is offered from the pulpit is like what’s offered at the table – mere tokens of a far-off reality. The dispenser of such lifeless things hopes that spiritual sentiments will, somehow, be awakened in their hearers. But it’s the hearers who will have to work at it because there’s no real presence in the word. The action doesn’t happen in the gift of the words (either audible or visible). For the Zwinglian, all the action happens between the ears of the recipient.
So memorialist preaching is aimed at educating, equipping and enthusing but not actually giving the hearer anything. Christ is not handed over. Not from the table and not from the pulpit. Instead prompts, like post-it notes, are offered. Little reminders. Little to-do lists. Little platitudes. Little pep-talks. “Now it’s down to you. Just remember what I taught you.”
And perhaps the surest sign of memorialist preaching is a preacher who considers their job to be “explaining the Bible passage.” Like a mere dispenser of bread, the preacher moves through the verses, picking off interesting tit-bits along the way. And somehow, by the end, we’ve been given a commentary and not Christ. This is pure Zwingli.
As Mike notes in The Unquenchable Flame,
Where Luther opened the Bible to find Christ, Zwingli sought more simply to open the Bible. (p69)
What a tragedy. The preacher’s job is not to “preach Philippians”. The preacher’s job is to preach Christ from Philippians. So often the preacher just moves the bookmark forward, noting points of interest along the way. In so doing, they leave the listener to piece together whatever resolve or relief they can muster from the raw materials proffered. This is not preaching.
Offer them Christ. Hand Him over. Placard Him from Scripture and say to the hearers “You want Him? He’s yours, here He is.”
You want to know what that sounds like? I can’t do any better than point you to Mike himself – preaching on Philippians as it happens.
And may his gospel preaching sweeten the after-taste of this here rant.