Review: “Preaching in the New Testament” by Jonathan Griffiths

Firstly, this series New Studies in Biblical Theology is really excellent. I certainly haven’t read them all but the ones I have read are well worth it. “The Temple and the Church’s Mission” by G.K. Beale was particularly useful.

Secondly, this new volume in the series, by Jonathan Griffiths (previously with the Proclamation Trust and now pastor of a church in Canada), is well worth reading. This is emphatically not another “how to preach” book; it is rather a “what is preaching” book. Strangely we have many of the former but few, if any, of the latter.

There is, Griffiths argues, an unspoken assumption among Christians (especially evangelicals) that “preaching is a good thing”. But according to the Bible is there even such a thing as “preaching” that is mandated in the post apostolic age, and if so what are its characteristics? This is particularly important because there has recently been – in my view – a highly welcome reaction against what has been called “one man ministry” through a rediscovery of the importance of all Christians having a word-based ministry. Is there then even such a thing as “preaching”, distinct from every Christian’s duty and privilege to share the good word? Are we all called to be preachers?

Griffiths argues that there is a distinct, biblically-defined activity of preaching and he looks in detail at some prominent New Testament passages that address this, as well as the three main Greek words used to describe and define preaching – evangelizomaikatangello and kerysso. These three verbs are ‘used especially by Paul to denote the didactic activity of preaching the gospel’. Griffiths notes that encounters with God in the Bible are often encounters with him through his word. Even in a striking physical manifestation of God such as Moses and the burning bush, the essence of the meeting is what God has to say to Moses.

The book then very helpfully and thoroughly goes through various of Paul’s letters and the Letter to the Hebrews, and analyses what the usage means where it is being used before drawing conclusions.  These conclusions include his view, which I found persuasive, that there is such a thing as “preaching” which is a public proclamation in an official capacity of the good news about Jesus. Furthermore, that this activity in the New Testament stands in continuity with the Old Testament, that there is a sense in which preachers are commissioned, and that God has determined to bless this means of transmitting his truth (though not to the exclusion of other means).

Griffiths makes the important point that the bulk of the usage of the three “semi-technical terms” detailed above are in the context of the public proclamation of the good news to non-Christians – though he also goes on to show that a significant minority of the usages are to assemblies of Christians. Finally, he concludes the whole book by stressing the centrality of preaching in the life of the local church. In fact, almost the last words in the book are ‘the primary feeding and teaching of God’s people should come from the preaching that takes place week by week…’

The book is relatively short – not a bad thing in theology – and the author explicitly states that he is not trying to produce a comprehensive guide or to cover everything. Nevertheless, I would have been interested in learning more about this issue of preaching to believers and non-believers, and a number of other loose ends that are mentioned. For reasons of space these are not really developed. For example, Griffiths argues, again persuasively in my view, that there is a continuity between Old Testament prophecy and New Testament preaching. He draws on the quote from Joel used on the Day of Pentecost that says: ‘in the last days…I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters will prophesy’. For a complementarian like Jonathan Griffiths there is an obvious issue in that verse, and despite pointing out in his introduction the link between a clear separation of preaching from other word activities and a view on different roles for men and women in church, the theme is not re-examined.

I also would have welcomed a longer concluding chapter with more application. What does all the excellent theological spadework done actually mean for preaching in the church today? If this is the biblical template, to what extent are we – especially we evangelicals (because it’s always easier to identify others’ weaknesses than our own) – actually following the theological template laid down? Various questions were raised in my mind. What is “public proclamation” in an internet age? If someone sets up a course or a YouTube video, is that preaching? What is the distinction between verbal and written “preaching”? Where does evangelism fit in? Griffiths majors (though not exclusively) on the importance of preaching in building up Christians, but how do we proclaim to our non-Christian friends when, unlike in previous ages, they perhaps won’t be willing to come to hear “preaching” in a church context? What does evangelistic preaching therefore look like? Where does “apologetics” fit in?

But it might be well observed that the answers to these questions, which others better qualified than I can answer, would form a different and much longer book. It is also perhaps a good thing, in a book on preaching, to be made to think for yourself rather than being spoon fed every answer. What is very good about the book is that it is utterly biblical, thought-provoking, addresses directly a massive assumption, and is very clearly and logically structured. Almost Pauline, one might say, in its flow of argument! Any preacher, whether occasional in an obscure corner or five times a week in a mega church, can benefit from reading it – and it will certainly make them think. I encourage preachers to buy it and read it, and pray that it will prove useful, as I think it will, so that preaching in 2017 will be as powerful, effective and biblically grounded as it was nearly 2000 years ago.