Some Thoughts on a Pietist Theology of Proclamation for the Evangelical Covenant Church

by Peter Sandstrom

In response to an academic assignment given to me last spring, I began considering the relationship of the disciplines of systematic theology to the task of proclamation as it has been practised and historically understood in the Covenant. It was my intent to find and use a systematic model from a particular theologian and then see if pietist elements of Covenant thinking on proclamation could be melded with that theology to create the beginnings of a pietist systematic theology of proclamation for use in the Covenant. What is presented here are initial reflections for what I hope might be an ongoing reconsideration of preaching, pietism, and theology by the readers of Pietisten.

One historical understanding of the relation between faith and proclamation in the Covenant is provided in the following description by Eric G. Hawkinson of early Mission Friends/Covenanters:

All at once for reasons that remain in part mysterious to thought, there comes a moment of sublime consciousness of grace in life that becomes redemptive. . . . The word "Believing" (Troende) was a remarkably living word for the early Mission Friends. It defined their experience of conversion and their continuing state as followers of Christ. It had the living quality of breathing for them. Though believing was a conscious action of their minds, there was also a reflexive aspect in the nature of believing because they had come to this experience not primarily by an act of their wills but through the preached word and their own reading of the word.

Such people are sometimes written off as Christians with the charge of subjectivism, which must mean, in fact, that all experience, in whatever area of life, is illusive and misleading, but it is also the bedrock of man's intelligent existence and creativity in the world.

The fathers responded with delight to the objective gospel preached with great simplicity, for the greater part, by laymen. . . . In the view of the fathers, faith was more than an act with a past tense. It was for them a beginning and remained hopefully in progress as a dynamic relationship to the Christ of the Word.1

The above description highlights some elements that, are also significant and traditional themes in the areas of proclamation and of systematic theology in the larger church: preaching, grace, scripture, Christ, word, and experience. Each of these elements represents some particular understandings and perspectives in the Covenant, both in its past and in some of its ongoing life as well.

Theologian David Tracy advances two theses for theological work which provide a model for us. The first has to do with the sources of theology and the second with critically correlating the results of investigating the sources.

Tracy states that the two primary sources of theology are: (I) religious texts and (2) common human experience and language.2 Tracy's elements of scripture, experience, and language find a correlation in the above description by Eric Hawkinson of a Covenant perspective on faith and preaching. This article will use Tracy's model as the focus for the systematic theological portion of its reflection.

The proposal, then, is that David Tracy's model of the sources of theology can, together with some particular Covenant understandings of preaching, grace, scripture, Christ, word, and experience, provide a pietistic perspective on the relation of systematic theology and proclamation.

A Covenant perspective on the scriptures would be in order at this point. Its official position, expressed in the preamble to its constitution and in the minutes of its organizational meeting (1885), is this brief statement:

It [the preamble] speaks only about the Bible and in so doing it contains no "absolute musts" of interpretation. The confession is radical — daring — it expresses confidence in the Bible's ability to make its own way in the world. Further, it is a positive, optimistic, ecumenical statement. The framers of our constitution did not prepare a confession that had as its purpose the guarantee of pure doctrine or the detection of heresy... . The confession gifted to us by the 1885 meeting frees us to embrace the "right" approach to Scripture, namely that of listening to and reflecting on its words so that we may experience the life, the wholeness, that God wills for us.3

Holmgren emphasizes a sense of the trustworthiness of Scripture, stressing its own integrity and its being a source of life. When this sense of life from the Scripture is combined with a freedom of interpretation, it gives a two-fold gift to the proclaimer. First is the expectation that when a preacher, reader, or listener approaches the text, that he/she will not come away empty-handed but will have a confidence like that of the author of Deuteronomy: that "the Word is very near you, it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it" (Deuteronomy 30:14). Second is a freeing of the preacher, reader, or listener to interpret the text without a need to conform to any particular denominational or partisan position concerning theology or practice. This means that both the realm of church tradition and the sphere of current human experience are (or ought to be) welcome participants in Covenant proclamation.

This essentially pietist perspective on the scriptures not only incorporates past (tradition) and present (experience), it is forward-looking as well. This was especially well-articulated in a relatively recent article by a Lutheran pastor, Hemchand Gossai:

More often than not, experience dictates the nature of the interpretive task. This experience may be molded from traditions which have been inherited or by new factors within church or society. That fact that the Bible in general and the Old Testament in particular can be appropriated by a variety of bodies throughout history is indicative ol' the "aliveness" and relevance of the biblical Word over time. Various methods of interpretation have come to light in recent years and while many of these have found favor in scholarly circles, they have certainly not exhausted the methods at the church's disposal. The fact is that as long as the church exists, and Christians of various walks of life — with all their uniqueness and individuality — seek to interpret the biblical Word (both Old and New Testaments) in the light of their experiences, new methods will evolve.4

One element of that life which is expected when the Scripture is encountered relates to what Eric Hawkinson (above) wrote concerning a person's and a people's coming to faith as a result of the hearing of the preached word. What happens between people and the living Christ in the midst of proclamation? A word from Karl A. Olsson, Covenant educator and historian, sheds some light on what a Covenant perspective might have to say in response to that question. He refers to the decision by the Covenant's organizational meeting that the official seal of the church should include a recumbent lamb, resting on the Bible and holding the resurrection cross between its feet, as well as an image above it of two hands clasped. The motto was to be conjuncti in Christo. The minutes of the meeting gave this explanation of that choice: "The Covenant owes its existence to a true union in Jesus and is founded on the crucified and risen Saviour."5 Olsson's comment on the conjuncti in Christo motto is that it points to:

the central mystery to which the seal speaks: "I am crucified with Christ; I am risen with Christ." "I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live, I live by faith in the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me." This is the unassailable central mystery of the faith. It beats like a heart in that body which is the Church, and makes us one with Christian believers everywhere."6

Besides the relative mystery of the relation of experience and faith, Olsson's words point to an "unassailable" mystery, which is that union of Christ and human being that can occur when the Gospel is proclaimed through the preached Word. Scripture and experience as elements of proclamation are incomplete without the expectation that when the Word is preached "something will happen," that is, the Gospel will not return to God empty — the Word will be done and God' s redeeming activity will be repeated.

The conjuncti in Christo, the union of Christ and human beings, brings forward the question of Jesus Christ and the incarnation. Who is the Christ whose Gospel is proclaimed in the preached Word? Don Frisk, Covenant theologian and former dean and professor at North Park Theological Seminary, describes the Incarnation in this passage:

Can there be any doubt that the Incarnation is a central affirmation of the Christian Church? Proclaimed in sermon and worship, confessed in the great creeds, celebrated in religious art and liturgy, it is the living center of Christian faith. It affirms that the transcendent God is not only immanent within the historical process, but that in Jesus he is uniquely present in such a way as to take upon himself the conditions of our humanity. By coming into our midst as one of us, sharing our life in the most direct way possible, he made known to us both his own self and his redemptive love.7

Frisk makes very clear, however, that for most Covenant proclamation, any historical or theological descriptions of God's incarnation in Jesus Christ are offered only in the context of an acknowledgement of the essential mystery of incarnation. This harkens back to Olsson's use of the term "unassailable mystery." Frisk connects this appreciation of the mysterious character of' the union of God and Jesus Christ to the Covenant's acknowledgement of being faithful to the intention of Chalcedon. With this in mind, though, he maintains that "The Church of today has the right and obligation to express in contemporary words its understanding of Christ in faithfulness to Scriptures and in dialog with the living tradition of the Church."8

Yet, why ought we even bother to exercise our "right and obligation" to seek contemporary language and concepts to understand and proclaim our faith and to keep in conversation with voices from the Church's history and tradition? A response to that question that is deeply rooted in a pietist perspective on proclamation is found in Philipp Jacob Spener's fifth proposal for reform of the church as written in his 1674 treatise, Pia Desideria:

I shall here gladly pass over additional observations that might well be made about sermons, but I regard this as the principal thing: Our whole Christian religion consists of the inner man or the new man, whose soul is faith and whose expressions are the fruits of life, and all sermons should be aimed at this. On the one hand, the precious benefactions of God, which are directed towards the inner man, should be presented in such a way that faith, and hence the inner man, should be ever strengthened more and more. On the other hand, works should be set in motion that we may by no other means be content merely to have people refrain from outward vices and practice outward virtues and thus be concerned only with the outward man, which the ethics of the heathen can also accomplish, but that we lay the right foundation in the heart, show that what does not proceed from this foundation is mere hypocrisy, and hence accustom the people first to work on what is inward (awaken love of God and neighbor through suitable means) and only then to act accordingly.9

An essential element, then, in a pietist systematic theology of proclamation would seem to be an understanding of the purpose of preaching which, for Spener, is the development of faith, or the development of the new person. This is coupled in Spener with the corollary task of the promotion of good works, of an ethical life that is active, not merely abstinent. Once more we witness an assumption that in the midst of preaching "something will happen," and, if it doesn't, that this is not treated casually, but that the proclaimer, the sermon, and the listeners need to be re-examined.

David Tracy's second thesis concerning his model of the two sources of theology can now be considered. The two sources were (1) religious texts and (2) common human experience and language. His second thesis states that "the theological task will involve a critical correlation of the results of the investigation of the two sources of theology."10

Tracy's two theses, taken together, provide not only a means of identifying the sources of proclamation, that is, correlating the results of examination of both scripture and experience, but also a method for testing to see why some proclamation fails:

Were the texts of Scripture adequately explored and examined? Was the realm of human experience and language perceived deeply and soundly? Were all of the sources of text and experience brought together into a whole piece?

I conclude this initiation of a pietist systematic theology of proclamation by proposing that a Covenant understanding of itself and the preaching task both requires of the proclaimer and also frees the proclaimer for a correlation of Scripture and the Church's traditions of experience and language, together with those elements of experience and language that come from outside the Church. When such a correlation is made, it serves well the proclamation of God's redemptive activity among us, especially in Jesus Christ. In such a proclamation the preacher is free to approach, respect, and interpret the mystery of God in Christ. Yet, the proclaimer ought also to enter the preaching task with the expectation that the new person and new people in Christ should in some way emerge and/or continue their growth in the life of faith.

1. Eric G. Hawkinson, Images in Covenant Beginnings, (Chicago, Covenant Press, 1968), pp. 46, 47.

2. David Tracy, Blessed Rage For Order, (San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1988), p. 43, (Originally by Seabury, 1975)

3. Fredrick Holmgren, Free to Listen and Obey, The Covenant Quarterly, August, 1985, p. 3.

4. Hemchand Gossai, The Old Testament: A Heresy Continued?, Word and World, 1988, N2,p . 157.

5. Karl A. Olsson, The Mystical And Corporate Nature of the Covenant Church, The Covenant Quarterly, Nov. 1985, p. 3.

6. Ibid., p. 11.

7. Donald C. Frisk, Covenant Affirmations: This We Believe, (Chicago, Covenant Press, 1981), p. 86.

8. Ibid.

9. Philipp Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria, (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1964), pp. 116, 117

10. Tracy, Op. Cit., p. 45.

Peter Sandstrom teaches education and is an editor of Pietisten.

See all articles by Peter Sandstrom