The beauty of divine conversation

Clive Cowell makes his debut on Spreading Goodness by offering a reflection stirred by a posting by Peter Mead on January 4 (a second offering by Peter was posted on February 15).  Clive is a dear friend who presently serves as the Executive Director of the Bible Institute of Hawaii.  Read and enjoy!


My brother in Christ and fellow Englishman Peter Mead recently communicated on the Spreading Goodness that “Preaching is at the center of the life of the church.”  Dr. Mead would no doubt agree that teaching likewise has a central role.  Are they the same?  Are they different?  Are they to be marked by separate venues?  I have not come to a complete conclusion but I do have some pieces for our conversation today. 


Both preaching and teaching are clearly used as ways of conversation.  By conversation I am not thinking of an informal exchange, rather intimate acquaintance and relational life.  Christoph Schwöbel leads us to a wonderful invitation in his Introduction to Colin Gunton’s  Theology Through Preaching by (p2) which I trust will delight your hearts regarding the beauty of divine conversation:


Luther was so bold as to suggest that communication is not only the paradigm for the relationship between God and his creation, but even more so the mode of the trinitarian life of God.   There is, he [Luther] says, in the divine Trinity a pulpit: as God the Father is an eternal speaker, so the Son is spoken in eternity, and the Holy Spirit is an eternal listener.  God’s triune being is an eternal conversation (my emphasis), and since the Holy Spirit tells us what he hears, we are taken into this conversation. 


This is not merely talking but intimate relational life.


Schwöbel continues,


The creation of the world and the story of God’s interaction with his creation in Israel and in Jesus Christ is, therefore, about God creating other conversation-partners who are drawn into the conversation of the divine life, distinguished by their created existence but nevertheless enabled in Christ, the uncreated Word of God who became a human speaker and listener, to participate in this conversation.


What a wonderful invitation!  Where once we were kept at a distance from the smoking mountain (Ex. 20:18), now we have confident access (Rom. 52; Eph. 2:18, 3:12) and stand and rejoice in the presence of our Lord.


Dr. Mead rightly gave to us readers a wonderful conversation as to the preaching process, that is, a study of the Scripture (a conversation with God), the message formation (another conversation with God) while keeping stoked in the heart our God-captivated love (sustained by conversation) so that He can be communicated to others (another conversation).  If this is preaching in process, then it is likewise teaching in process.


Biblical dictionaries and encyclopedias often present the premise that preaching is mainly for converting people and teaching for growing them and this is one way of presenting the distinction between preaching and teaching.  However, understanding this distinction might lead us into the trap of emphasizing one method over another and causing unnecessary divergence.  In the parish, most preaching is very application oriented, with parishioners in view as the targets of the applications.  Is it possible to both preach and teach given the Biblical idea that conversion and growing are part of the lovingly divine conversation?  Yes!  In fact it has to, because on any given Sunday events will transpire such that both non-believers and believers are called by God into the conversation. 


Some people are called who have yet to be converted, others come who have already tasted that the Lord is good and are growing in Him.  As much as the preacher and teacher, who is sometimes both, comes to the table to be fed, such persons have the privilege of passing on the good news they have received to these others.  While it is true that most Sunday morning sermons are application oriented, surely a great emphasis should be given to warming the hearts such that the announcement of good news, the exposition of God’s word and the proclamation of Jesus Christ is the centerpiece to allow for teaching in matters of faith, morality and indeed application. 


Observation of church life shows that on many Sunday mornings some level of divergence has occurred.  In extreme cases, preaching has swamped teaching to the detriment of those growing in faith, and in others, teaching has overtaken preaching such that the invited non-believer is overwhelmed.  The problems are further compounded by the fact that such unbalanced conversations only take place on Sunday morning and in some cases are purely monological—there is no conversation.


Friends, God is calling us in an eternal conversation and as the Holy Spirit tells us what he hears eternally, we are indeed eternally taken into this conversation.  This is both profoundly intimate and relational and preaching and teaching take us into the conversation.   Do we deserve to eat at such a table?  From our view, certainly we don’t.  But God is abundantly loving and desires for us to truly fellowship with Him.  I trust that is a good reminder, in short, of our conversion. Our part of the conversion is to continually express our confession, repentance and acknowledgement that there is no other God beside Him.  He is the centerpiece!  Now let’s grow in faith, morality and application.


A conversation on conversion (and a reminder of conversion) sets up well teaching to wholesomely pursue matters of faith, morality and indeed application.  It will take faith to cast aside our current living to be in such a conversation.  You might well posit the question: aren’t there times when it is only preaching?  I will grant that an evangelist would say so!  So be it, but as we have opportunity let us eternally respond to weave both.  Preaching and teaching have a common thread and as Dr. Mead conversed with us, “God is a God who speaks through His Word.  He is a God who speaks because He loves”.


Need more?  Be warmed by the attitude expressed in Malachi!  In the OT the priest communicated with the people and the prophet tells us how both speaker and listener can engage, “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 2:7).


Preaching today is often one-to-many, with the danger that it can be anemically monological.  However, it can, as Mead suggests, be affective. We also know that divergence can set in, but a faithful response in presenting preaching and teaching is possible. 


As we preach and teach, wholeheartedly take up His invitation and engage yourself to seek, to crave, to yearn for God’s instruction and to settle for nothing less.

As we preach and teach, wholeheartedly invite and engage those whom God loves to seek, to crave, to yearn for God’s instruction and to settle for nothing less.


Seek it and yes, as you find it – guard it. 


Continue the conversation!


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