The Proclamatory Rule of the Gospel

On 27 November 2014 I gave a talk titled “St Isaac the Syrian, Apokatastasis, and the Renewal of Orthodox Preaching” at the first Theotokos Institute Conference in Cardiff, Wales. An expanded, footnoted version of the talk will be published in the journal Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies in 2016. I am grateful to the Theotokos Institute for the invitation to deliver this address and for the helpful and encouraging responses from the conference participants. I have divided my talk into three sections: (1) St Isaac the Syrian and Apokatastasis, (2) the Proclamatory Rule of the Gospel, and (3) Preaching the Kingdom. Please do not reblog or reproduce these articles without permission.

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What difference does apokatastasis make to the churchly preaching of the gospel? All the difference in the world! How we understand the conclusion of the gospel story will necessarily inform and shape how we tell the story.

Approximately a decade ago I decided that I could no longer remain in the Episcopal Church. Suddenly I found that instead of having to deliver Sunday sermons, I was “privileged” to listen to them. I have heard dozens of homilies (Roman Catholic homilies, Maronite homilies, Eastern Orthodox homilies). With a few exceptions, they have shared one dominant feature, exhortation—specifically, exhortation embedded within a conditionalist linguistic structure. Orthodox and Catholic preachers alike appear to believe that their principal homiletical task is to urge their hearers to behave differently. Let’s just skip the evangel and get on with the exhortational rhetoric. Orthodox preachers tend to emphasize ascetical behavior, Catholic preachers moral behavior; but the message is the same—try harder! Or to put the matter in the language of the sixteenth century Lutheran Reformers, Orthodox and Catholic priests preach law.

The discourse of law shares a common transactional structure: if … then … It can be presented in positive terms (the language of reward and merit) or negative terms (the language of penalty and punishment):

If you work hard and get straight A’s on your report card, your mother and I will give you a new car.

If you mow my lawn and trim the hedges, I will pay you $50.

Or:

If you do not turn in your term paper by the end of the semester, I will flunk you.

If you arrive late to work one more time, I will terminate your employment.

These and all similar pledges make the outcome contingent upon the performance of the promisee. They pose to us a future for which we ourselves are responsible to actualize. If we fulfill the specified conditions, we will bring about the promised result, either as reward or punishment.

We are all intimately acquainted with this kind of transactional communication. It is the discourse of commerce, our civil and criminal judicial systems, and religion. It is the language of our Pelagian world. We determine our futures by the contracts we make. Law functions as demand upon our performance, and upon this performance falls the weight of the utterance. Once a conditional promise is spoken to us, we had best get busy, either to obtain or avoid the consequent. Conditional promise, in other words, presents the future to us as demand, obligation, and threat. It structures the fallen world in which we live; hence it is not surprising that legalism so often penetrates into the preaching of the Church.

Unconditional promise also has its own characteristic linguistic pattern: because … therefore … Here I cite examples with explicit Christian content:

Because Jesus is risen, your future will be glorious.

Because you are baptized in the Spirit, you are now capable of living a life of faithfulness and love.

Just as conditional promise posits a specific kind of future, so does unconditional promise; but note how differently these two kinds of utterance impact our lives. When God speaks to us a conditional promise, the burden of its fulfillment falls totally upon us. Existentially, it doesn’t matter if we are also told that God will help us by his grace. What matters is doing, or not doing, what needs to be done. Herein lies the difference between heaven and hell. But when God speaks unconditional promise, he assumes responsibility for our future, independent of our performance; he is its guarantor. In the unconditional promise God presents the future to us as eschatological gift.

“If you repent of your sins,” the preacher declares, “God will forgive you.” On the face of it, the pronouncement is clear-cut. Divine absolution is offered on the basis of the fulfillment of a prior condition. If we wish to obtain reconciliation with our Creator, then we had best put our noses to the grindstone and get on with the work of repentance. Reformed theologian James B. Torrance calls this legal repentance. Of course, somebody will need to explain to us what repentance involves—but that is by the by. The critical point is that the responsibility and burden of fulfilling the stipulated condition lies on our shoulders. And at every moment hangs the threat of failure: What if I am unable to achieve a whole-hearted repentance? Will God forgive? If I die in mortal sin, can God forgive?

But now consider the difference when forgiveness is declared in the mode of unconditional promise: “Because Jesus has borne your sins upon the cross, God forgives you; therefore, repent and live in the Holy Spirit.” Suddenly everything changes. By his Word, God raises us from the condemnation of sin and grants us a future no longer bound to the past. He enters our lives as a liberating power. Whereas in response to the conditional promise our activity is directed to the fulfillment of the specific work demanded of us, in response to the unconditional promise our lives may now be lived in the freedom of the Spirit. Repentance is no longer a task that we must accomplish in order to obtain absolution: it is the fruit of a freely bestowed absolution. In other words, forgiveness is logically prior to our penitential response. Torrance calls this evangelical repentance. Life in Christ thus becomes a joy lived in thanksgiving and tears, discipleship, holy works, ascetical discipline, and the worship and praise of God. At every moment we are surrounded and upheld by the divine mercy. We were lost but have been found, blind but now we see, dead but now we live in the power of the kingdom.

Immediately our minds raise a host of objections. I am acquainted, I think, with most of them. They boil down to a single concern: if God declares me unconditionally forgiven, does that mean that I am free to disobey the commandments of God with impunity? Or to state the same concern in its universal scope, will all be saved? What about free-will? At this point we are brought back to the robust and confident hope of St Isaac of Nineveh.

So what difference should apokatastasis make to the churchly preaching of the gospel? Above all, it should encourage and authorize our pastors to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ precisely as good news. No more qualifications and compromises; no more ifs, buts, and maybes. The gospel is a message of triumphant hope, or it is not gospel at all.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus is risen! He has transcended death and now lives with death behind him. In our fallen world, all of our promises ultimately turn into dust and ashes—we cannot pledge a future we do not possess. At any point death may intervene and thus nullify our commitments. But by his paschal victory Jesus of Nazareth now possesses the final future. Only the risen Christ can make an unconditional promise and mean it unconditionally. In the words of Robert W. Jenson: “If Jesus has death behind him, then his intention for his followers, defined by his particular life and death, must utterly triumph, there being no longer anything to stop him” (“On the Problem(s) of Scriptural Authority,” Interpretation 31 (1977), p. 238).

If Jesus were Attila the Hun or Joseph Stalin, the resurrection would be horrifying news; but the resurrection of Jesus is the best, most wonderful, brilliant, and transforming news because of who Jesus was and is. Neither death nor life, neither principality nor power, can defeat the love by which Jesus the Messiah lived and died. His intentions for his brethren, his intentions for all of humanity, his intentions for you and me, must and will triumph—utterly, completely, gloriously. The preaching of the gospel is simply this—the annunciation of the resurrection, with all of its consequences and implications for our lives.

Eastern Christians know this—surely we know this. At the Vigil of Pascha we declaim the words of St John Chrysostom:

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.

The indicatives of the gospel precede the imperatives; the evangelical narrative prefaces all doctrinal teaching and qualifies all ethical and ascetical exhortations. Pastors may dare to boldly promise the kingdom, for the Crucified lives and has given himself as surety.

But not only does Jesus guarantee the promise of eschatological fulfillment, he is, and must be, its ultimate speaker. Every address is the personal presence of someone. In this lecture I am presently intruding into your life with my idiosyncratic, and perhaps controversial, reflections on preaching. But were I to stand before you and unconditionally promise you eternal salvation in the kingdom of the incarnate Son, then it could not be simply me addressing you. I cannot rightly make such a pledge, for I cannot realize and consummate its promised future. Only the One who has death behind him can do so. Only the conqueror of death may bestow the final future. Hence when the preacher dares to proclaim the gospel in its radicality and power, there is the gladdening and inspirited voice of Jesus Christ. The making of eschatological promise must be his act, his presence, his Word, his kingdom. “If the gospel promise is true and unconditional,” Jenson writes, “then the event of the living word, of one person speaking the gospel to another, is the locus of God’s reality for us. Where is God? He is where one man is promising good unconditionally to another, in Jesus’ name” (Lutheranism, p. 102). Or as our Lord has taught us, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am between you” (Matt 18:20).

I propose the following grammatical or hermeneutical rule for our preaching: so proclaim the story of Jesus Christ that it elicits from our hearers nothing less than faith or offense. Or to put the rule in its most succinct form: proclaim the gospel in the mode of unconditional promise. Robert Jenson calls this a meta-linguistic rule, George Lindbeck a meta-theological rule. Their point is the meta-. The rule does not specify the content of our preaching—that content is given in the Scriptures and the Sacred Tradition of the Church. The rule, rather, prescribes and instructs how to rightly proclaim this content: preach the gospel of the crucified and risen Son of God, not as law and obligation, but as a word that liberates sinners from the bondage of sin, conquers despair, and empowers believers to live lives of holiness, prayer, and radical discipleship. The proclamatory rule invites preachers to speak into the world the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.

(Go to “Preaching the Kingdom”)

© 2014 Alvin F. Kimel

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11 Responses to The Proclamatory Rule of the Gospel

  1. I think that a better preaching of the consequences of sin is that it blinds us to the truth. I know when I sin, I fall into worry and despair and sometimes forget that Jesus didn’t die for the righteous but for the ungodly. I always need to remind myself of this that if I wasn’t a sinner, I’d be of no need for a savior and yet the savior says “Go and sin no more”. Thank God for the sacrament of confession!

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  2. mkenny114 says:

    The frequently raised objection to universal reconciliation that ‘if God declares me unconditionally forgiven, does that mean that I am free to disobey the commandments of God with impunity?’ is, I think, not so much of a problem as the one that says ‘God declares me unconditionally forgiven, now I can stop worrying and just carry on as usual.’

    In effect, I think the number of people who, presented with the news that God had not only offered them unconditional forgiveness but that He would ultimately liberate everyone from their sins and reconcile everyone to Him, that would respond by slipping into antinomianism is actually rather small. A greater problem is perhaps that people, upon hearing this proclamation, would think it okay to just continue middling along through life, acting out the part of ‘basically a good person’ and not reaching for the demands of true, self-sacrificial love that we are called to by Christ.

    Is there not a real danger that such a proclamation would lead the non-believer to think that, ultimately, there is no need to radically change their life, let alone to join a church; and for someone who is already a Christian, that there is no need to seek out the true locus of the Church in its fullness, to convert and (if, for instance, they are a non-sacramental Christian) avail themselves of the grace mediated through the sacraments?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Michael, thank you for this excellent comment. There are several ways to respond to the quite legitimate concern that you have raised.

      First off, it’s crucial to note that following the proclamatory rule does not mean that our preaching is restricted to saying things like “God loves you unconditionally,” and it certainly does not mean saying things like “It doesn’t matter what you do, no need to repent, all will be well.” The proclamatory rule is a grammatical rule. Its purpose is to guide our preaching, not dictate its content, though the unconditionality of divine grace is also an essential element of that content.

      Nor does the proclamatory rule exclude the rhetoric of threat and warning. It is self-evidently and descriptively true, for example, that certain kinds of behavior and life-commitments will lead us into ever-deepening misery and alienation both from God and from our neighbors. The preacher rightly warns his congregation of these dangers and rightly urges his people to repent and alter their lives. Perhaps he may even have to bluntly say to them, particularly with reference to a particular kind of behavior: “If you do not repent, you will go to hell” (though in my long pastoral experience, I have never had occasion to speak this way to my congregations). Perhaps he may even need to say to his congregation something like this:

      But all will be well, for the little god of your poor content will starve your soul to misery, and the terror of the eternal death creeping upon you, will compel you to seek a perfect father. Oh, ye hide-bound Christians, the Lord is not straitened, but ye are straitened in your narrow unwilling souls! Some of you need to be shamed before yourselves; some of you need the fire (George MacDonald)

      The concern you raise is one that all genuine pastors worry about: how can I renew my indolent congregation that appears to be only Christian in name? My experience as a pastor and preacher suggests that mere summons to repentance ain’t going to change anybody’s life. They have heard it all before. What is needed is a kind of insightful preaching that penetrates into the heart of the indolent and addresses the sicknesses and fears that keeps us from responding wholeheartedly to the gospel of Christ. In this way the preaching of the unconditional promise becomes permission for and empowerment of genuine repentance. And here is the great challenge for the preacher!

      Underlying all of this is the often unstated belief that only the preaching of the law, with its threat of eternal damnation, truly converts. Preaching becomes stick and carrot. First we terrorize, then we offer a way out. Bulgakov describes this approach as a penitentiary theology that strikes hearts with horror and paralyzes filial love. My 3+ decades as a preacher has confirmed my conviction that only the preaching of the love of God in its radical unconditionality generates the conversion that we pray for.

      Finally, I suggest that the worry that you so well express (and all of us worry about this) betrays a failure of faith in the gospel itself. I recall hearing an Orthodox homily on the story of Zacchaeus. I vividly remember the preacher using the story to remind us of the need for our synergistic cooperation with grace. After all, didn’t Zacchaeus climb the tree? And I vividly remember my interior response to this sermon: “No, that’s not the point of the story! Zachaeus is converted by our Lord’s summons to get out of the tree and dine with him!”

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      • mkenny114 says:

        Thank you Fr. Kimel for a very gracious and substantive reply. I also have to say that I pretty much agree with everything you say here! I particularly agree with your point about the preaching of love generating more genuine conversion of heart than the preaching of warning or fear (although the latter tactic will need to be employed from time to time). Also, the point you make about fear such as the ones I raised betraying a failure of faith in the gospel itself is a very good one indeed, and something that is always worth reminding ourselves of (i.e.; how much do we actually trust God and His promises?)

        However, what you say here is concerned with what is preached once people are in the pews (which is fair enough, seeing as this is, in the main, what your article was about!) and what I am really concerned with is the impression given to those ‘on the outside’ – either outside the Orthodox Church (for example) or outside Christianity altogether. For such people, if the Church were to announce tomorrow that all will be saved, I worry that there would be very little impetus for them to sit themselves down in the first place, and hear the clarifications you have mentioned in your response. There would instead be a very strong temptation for many to stay right where they are and carry on living as they are.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Michael, you are correct: my concern in this essay is with preaching to the baptized. It is precisely the fact that the baptized now live with death behind them (Rom 6:3) that makes conditional promise inappropriate, unhelpful, and perhaps even destructive when preaching to the baptized. But it might be that some form of conditional promise is appropriate when evangelizing the nonbaptized: repent, be baptized, and you will receive the Holy Spirit (etc.). Thinking out loud here.

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          • mkenny114 says:

            Yes, this is I think fundamental to the preaching of the Gospel – that God has done something new and something incredible, and this is one point at which I can really feel some common ground with someone like Martin Luther. All is grace, and even our response to the grace given is not a condition but part of the gift we receive. On that note, I just read the link you provided in response to Brian’s excellent question (the letter from Gerhard Forde) and I think he captures all this quite well.

            Given that this is the case though, I don’t think it is right or appropriate to preach to the non-baptised something different to this. We either preach God’s unconditional offer of forgiveness to everyone (and deal with the thorny consequences that might present) or to none at all. I really think this is an either-or situation, and to preach conditional salvation to people when one believes that the offer God gives to us is unconditional is an offense against Truth, no matter what the practical benefits may be.

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  3. Andrew says:

    This is wonderful Father thank you! Am I correct in saying that what is being presented here is not the preaching of apokatastasis per se but how the fervent hope of apokatastasis influences the way the Gospel is preached? Where do you suppose this preaching has been for the last 1000, 1600 years Father? . I can’t help but think that this question has something to do with the mystery of why St John’s Gospel is so different from the Synoptics. This is very very encouraging Father Aidan, thank you.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Absolutely correct, Andrew. You have perceptively identified the heart of my address. Indeed, it is quite possible for one to affirm the proclamatory rule while at the same time denying, or at least not clearly affirming, universal reconciliation. Robert W. Jenson immediately comes to mind, as does T. F. Torrance. Both begin with God’s salvific act in Jesus Christ and both refrain from “deducing” apokatastasis, yet both would agree that the divine love is to be proclaimed as both unconditional and triumphant. In my article I take a somewhat different tack, as I begin my reflections from the eschatological end enacted and made known in Christ.

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  4. brian says:

    Father,

    This is well stated indeed. To be honest, I think this is the gospel of Christ. The moralizing alternative is humanly understandable, but I don’t think it is the gospel. Christos Yannaras recent book, Against Religion, covers similar territory.

    I’m not sure I can articulate this next bit as I’d like. I’m at work and I’ve been wrestling with the angel of God lately. This is partly to reflect upon mkenny’s thoughts as well. Here’s the rub. If Christ’s victory presages, ultimately, a total redemption of the cosmos, then it is an ontological transformation that must necessarily play out in a manner that brings every creature into freedom; liberty, properly understood, is participation in the life of the Triune God.

    Now, it seems to me that this involves every creature, every rock, every plant, animal, person: this is the large vision one can discern in Bulgakov and Berdyaev, for instance. I think that this involves a radical change — resurrected existence is largely unimaginable, though one that has some intrinsic and necessary connection to our ontic, time-bound experience in this fallen world. So, I don’t want to dismiss or devalue what we are undergoing here. Just the opposite! I merely wish to point out that our eternal flourishing depends upon a manner of being we can only imperfectly guess at.

    Why all this? Well, I think moralizing religious responses have several roots. One is a legitimate concern for deep metaphysical change, not simply a juridical pronouncement of “not guilty” that leaves a person enslaved to sin and darkness. Part of it, however, can be a function of the competitive ego that refuses the mystery of God’s charity. Another factor, however, is a failure of eschatological imagination. People simply try to apprehend the meaning of the gospel from within an imaginary that is too bound by the categories we are familiar with in this fallen world.

    Regardless, here’s my perhaps too simple question, but it seems to me that it is simple. Perhaps I am missing something: Even granting concerns that the gospel may incite indifference or spiritual sloth in those who hear it, isn’t it still a matter of whether it is true or not? Say a ton of people embrace an antinomian outlook or spiritual turpitude — does that refute the gospel? If one says, “look here, it’s having a bad effect; better go back to hellfire preaching” — isn’t the correct response — “Well, hellfire sermons of a traditional sort give a false impression of God; and that kind of idolatry may be worse than the evil you see.” But more importantly, “the gospel is true, so even spiritual lassitude will end, the poor responses to God’s love will end, the failure to love rightly will end, but God’s love will not end. Christ is victor. Amen.”

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Brian. Thank you for your good comment.

      Jenson makes an important distinction between first- and second-person gospel proclamation and third-person descriptive discourse, which is the language of theology. I will briefly discuss this in the concluding section of my essay. Perhaps that distinction may generate further reflection on our part. Almost 30 years ago I wrote to Gerhard Forde about this (which simply shows how long I’ve been wrestling with these questions), and he responded with a very thoughtful letter, which you may want to peruse.

      The fear of antinomianism is understandable and common. It is a fear that the Apostle Paul confronted head-on in Romans 6″ “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” Paul’s response is illuminating: you have been baptized–you are no longer the kind of person who wants to exploit grace.

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