There’s an experience common to all sports-television-watching American males. The game comes to a break and a commercial begins. Your face is still pointed at the screen but your mind has gone elsewhere. Through the portals of your eyes come images: a fast car, a sleek woman, and a confident smile. If you were asked one minute later what was being advertised, you wouldn’t be able to answer. But later, for reasons unknown to you, there you are buying a new aftershave or razor or brand of beer – and feeling good about it – along with a subliminal expectation that the fast car, sleek woman, and confident smile will be forthcoming. That’s the theory anyway, as advertisers strive to associate images and emotions with their product.
But it’s not only commercials that use this technique. A similar thing can be happening in any given speech or essay. Or it might be happening in a blog associated with Reformed Theological Seminary.
More specifically, it could be happening in a defense of political preaching written by Michael Anthony Milton, its Chancellor. His main point follows:
A pastor I know recently told me that he was criticized for being “too political.” He has heard such an indictment all his ministry, he said. Today he leads a major ministry in America and battles daily for the rights of pastors to speak so that believers can speak. … Is a pastor solely limited to sharing the Gospel to his flock on Sunday mornings? Or was the late Dr. John Stott right that one of our identities as Gospel preachers, in a faithful Biblical portrait of a pastor, is a “herald”? The pastor is not a prophet, yet he most certainly does carry a prophetic voice and speaks with Biblical authority to other Beast-like powers when there are souls at risk or the honor of Christ and His Church under siege.
Obviously the images in support of this idea won’t be fast cars and sleek women, but, rather, names and causes that serve as positive images for political preaching. The most prominent of these images is a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. next to the article. Then there are flashes of other religiously-inspired heroes: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, J. Gresham Machen, and, ultimately, Jesus. Now think of the evil forces implicitly lurking: the Ku Klux Klan, The Nazis, the Soviet Union, and the Roman Empire. Of course there has to be mention of liberals (three, actually), and political correctness. Those are pretty powerful associations to support a commercial for political preaching.
But it’s legitimate to ask what the connection is between fast cars and aftershave, and it’s legitimate to ask for the connection between all these and the ultimate point of the article. The question is how these names contribute to establishing a mandate for reformed preachers of today to engage in politics from the pulpit. For example, is Rev. Milton really ready to sign on to all the causes for which Rev. King preached? If not, that would seem to be a counter-argument. Solzhenitsyn was an individual citizen staring down an oppressive government, not a Russian Orthodox priest. And, although he was admirable and astute in many ways, he also said
One must not have any negative attitude to any religion but nonetheless the depth of understanding God and the depth of applying God’s commandments is different in different religions. In this sense we have to admit that Protestantism has brought everything down only to faith. Calvinism says that nothing depends on man, that faith is already predetermined. Also in its sharp protest against Catholicism, Protestantism rushed to discard together with ritual all the mysterious, the mythical and mystical aspects of the Faith. In that sense it has impoverished religion.
So maybe the reformed pastor should pause before hitching his wagon to the overtly religious aspects of Solzhenitsyn’s thought.
But what about Jesus? Here is Milton’s introduction to the paragraph on King, Bonhoeffer, and Solzhenitsyn:
The prophets and church fathers of old spoke forth concerning the actions of governments, individuals yielding power, and the idols of culture. Our Lord Jesus did when he said of Herod “Go tell that Fox.” [sic]
Most telling about Milton’s case for Jesus as an example of a political preacher is the weakness of his proof text; it’s quite a leap to go from Jesus calling Herod a fox to a mandate for a certain kind of preaching. I’m guessing the pastors that have come out of Reformed Theological Seminary wouldn’t put so much weight on so slender a reed. Finally, Milton name-drops the apostle Paul for support, but doesn’t provide any scripture reference at all.
Although Milton goes on to add some nuance on how political topics are to be chosen by a preacher, this first part – where he makes the case for doing so – really is pretty much a commercial. Had it not been a commercial, it might have had some nuances, like distinguishing between what a pastor might say from the pulpit as opposed to what he might do as a citizen; one is intended to bind the believer while the other isn’t. Or maybe it would wrestle with the significance of “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary” from the Westminster Confession. But, just as the old-fashioned information-based commercials are passe’, maybe real arguments are as well.