Augustine’s Advice for Christ-centered Teachers

Lutheran and Reformed teachers stress the centrality of the person of Christ and the gospel narrative in Christian teaching. In the last several decades, the Reformed community has produced a plethora of books advocating “Christ-centered” and “gospel-centered” (I will refer to them interchangeably) preaching, teaching, and living. The genius of X-centered teaching is its refusal to treat Scripture (or Christian living) as a series of disconnected episodes. These central themes are like stitches that transform a mass of fabric into a usable item, five dollars of unsightly fabric into fifty dollars of Vera Bradley merchandise.

Relating every text, doctrine, and command to Christ and the gospel brings unity, form, and health to the church. But, it is not without dangers stemming from human frailty. One danger is moving from “gospel-centered” to “gospel-only,” a position that undercuts the very purpose of the emphasis. The gospel is glorious in itself, but it exists also to illuminate all the corners of revelation. A lamp may be beautiful, but it is designed so that by it you may see other things.

An indicator of “gospel-only” teaching is cowering in generalities. The teacher may urge his audience to “preach the gospel to themselves,” but lacking any concrete demonstration, the exhortation is a thought-cliché. The same phrases, sprinkled through every sermon or article or broadcast, lose meaning. Bland repetitiveness, a soul-sapping monotony, ensues.

On the opposite side, there is the danger of “gospel-affixed” teaching. This teaching comes from someone who desires to be gospel-centered, but for a lack of practice or reflection or gospel-centered living is unable to pull it off. The gospel or Christ portion of the teaching is inelegantly tacked on to a message, because it’s supposed to be there. However, the teacher has done nothing to relate the topic under discussion to the gospel. The two merely sit uncomfortably jammed together like strangers on a crowded bus. This person too seeks refuge in generalities, cliches, and repetition, and justified boredom results in this case as well.

Some teachers, perhaps fearing boredom and redundancy, eschew Christ-centered preaching. However, that is to forfeit the battle before the fighting. The answer is not abandoning the practice, but improving its execution.

A speaker who clarifies something that needs to be learnt is a blessing, but a speaker who labours things already learnt is a bore, at least for those who were keyed up by the prospect of resolving difficulties in the matters being explained. But in order to delight one’s audience even well-known topics may be treated; here the attraction lies not in the topics themselves, but in the style…. A hearer must be delighted, so that he can be gripped and made to listen, and moved so that he can be impelled to action. (Augustine, De doctrina Christiana, 4.69, 4.75, trans. R. P. H. Green)

How can we seize this style? Throughout Augustine’s work, true rhetoric or style arises not so much from the clever appropriation of techniques as from the character of the speaker, honed by practice. Who a person is (ethos) grounds the orientation of his passion (pathos) to produce words (logos). The eloquence of Scripture is not produced by studied application of rules but by the fitness of the words to the necessity at hand. There is no trick to counteract this malady, only a lively experience of gospel power in the Christian life.

Intimacy with God, daily delighting in his secret kisses, furnishes a well-spring of reflection. The biblical authors called this “walking with God,” an apt metaphor since walking brings the sojourner to fresh panoramas. Many, if not most, of ancient literature consists of travel stories. They captivate with their exotic scenes and tug at the reader to seek out new experiences. Walking with God does this for the preacher, teacher, author, blogger, parent, or whoever else may impart scripture to others. It supplies fresh (not novel) material, so that day after day and week after week we really do connect life with gospel in ways that move people toward God.

Alternatively, the teacher (speaker, etc.) who does not walk with God has no flowing source. Eventually, the stock phrases, learned illustrations, and clever imagination will peter out, exposing him as one who scrapes from the cistern rather than gulps from the spring. He cannot tell others how to relate money, relationships, work, or anything else to the gospel, because he does not done so himself. For this person, too, the gospel speaks. Jesus, the prophet greater than Moses, revealed the Father flawlessly. Enduring an undeserved death and conquering it by resurrection, he offers his righteousness to all of us, who have failed to articulate God’s words. Resting in his righteousness, we partake of his Spirit, who empowers us daily to imitate our Savior.

He should be in no doubt that any ability he has and however much he has derives more from his devotion to prayer than his dedication to oratory; and so, by praying for himself and for those he is about to address, he must become a man of prayer before becoming a man of words. As the hour of his address approaches, before he opens his thrusting lips he should lift his thirsting soul to God so that he may utter what he has drunk in and pour out what has filled him. (De doctrina Christiana, 4.87)

Published in: on January 28, 2011 at 1:51 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. What a blessing to read. And for perhaps an unexpected reason. It means that growth as a preacher is not attained by studying Aristotle’s Rhetoric (although it is profitable) but by studying Christ in the pages of Scriptures, agonizing over difficult passages btrusting He can communicatre its meaning, yearning to understand His mind, and much, much secret time in prayer of delight in Him and His Father.

    Thanks so much for a great post. Truly encouraging for me.

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