Book Review: Preaching as Reminding, by Jeffrey D. Arthurs
Jeffrey D. Arthurs, Preaching as Reminding: Stirring Memory in an Age of Forgetfulness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017. 166 pages.
What is preaching? How you answer that question determines not only what you do as a preacher but how you do it. While affirming commonly-accepted definitions of preaching, Jeffery Arthurs seeks to recover a lost aspect of preaching: preaching as reminding.
Arthurs suggests that the “king’s (or queen’s) remembrancer is the oldest judicial position in continual existence in Great Britain” (3). The “remembrancer’s job,” notes Arthurs, “was to put the lord treasurer and the barons of court in remembrance of pending business, tax paid and unpaid, and other things that pertained to the benefit of the crown” (3). Likewise, preachers—the Lord’s remembrancers—put the people of God in “remembrance” of the covenant we have entered into with our king (4). Consequently, “one of the most crucial functions preaching accomplishes . . . is the stirring of memory” (4).
A BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF REMEMBRANCE
Lest one think that Arthurs’s proposal is novel, he grounds his argument in a biblical theology of remembrance. Preaching as reminding, he argues, is built on the foundation of the doctrine of God (chapter 1). “Because he remembers his covenant and forgets the sins of his children . . . ministers take their stance as the Lord’s remembrancers, reminding the baptized that nothing shall separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (25). And because the God who remembers is the God who acts, his people ask him to remember them in their time of trouble (Lam. 5:1; Ps. 89:50) and to forget their sin when they are repentant (Ps. 51:1; Isa. 43:25).
And yet, while God remembers, we are cursed with the problem of forgetfulness. As a result, we are prone to wander (chapter 2). Thus, it is the job of the Lord’s remembrancers to help the church remember the covenant (chapter 3) through “word and sacrament, verbal and nonverbal weapons of the Spirit” (46). The question remains—How?
A PRACTICAL THEOLOGY OF REMEMBRANCE
The means by which the Lord’s remembrancers fulfill their role is style/rhetoric (chapter 4), story (chapter 5), delivery (chapter 6), and ceremony and symbol (chapter 7). To stir memory, the Lord’s remembrancers carefully craft the words and sentences they use to communicate the biblical message, using, for example, rhetorical devices like repetition and rhythm. “Vivid language,” argues Arthurs, “actualizes what is dormant. It captures attention and compels assent by causing the mind to process information in ways that correspond to actual sensory experience” (67). Rightly, though, Arthurs argues that “the use of style is not an end in itself. It is a handmaiden to explanation and persuasion and . . . to the ministry of reminding” (69).
Also, story powerfully communicates biblical truth. Stories allow the hearers to identify with others and experience their emotions. To be sure, Arthurs does not abandon propositional preaching; “biblical preaching,” he admits, “is necessarily propositional because it is the declaration of good news—an announcement of a historical fact with its world-changing implications” (88). It’s just that “concepts need images for actualization to occur” (88).
But it’s not just our verbal communication that stirs memory. According to Arthurs, we must also be aware of our non-verbal communication, for “it holds a primary place in the work of a remembrancer” (104). Arthurs reminds us that our listeners are reading our nonverbal cues, and when our verbal communication and nonverbal communication contradict, we send mixed messages, leaving our hearers in confusion (109).
Finally, Arthurs proposes that the use of symbols and ceremonies are powerful vehicles that aid remembering. He rightly points us to other elements of the gathered service that help remind the church of God and of our covenant commitments to him: the public reading of Scripture, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the reading of historic Christian creeds and confessions, and public prayer. This is not an argument to replace preaching. It’s just that symbols and ceremonies, sacred space and sacred time, are all means by which to “keep the truth warm in heart and mind” (126).
GETTING IT RIGHT AND GETTING IT ACROSS
At the risk of reductionism, I suggest that there are two primary concerns related to faithful gospel preaching: “getting it right” and “getting it across.” Getting it right relates to rightly handling the word of God (2 Tim. 2:15) such that the point of the biblical text is also the point of our sermon, faithfully applied. “Getting it across” relates to communicating the message of the Bible in a manner that faithfully applies it to today’s hearers. Preaching as Reminding is a book that focuses on “getting it across,” not on “getting it right.” To appreciate this book and gain help from it, preachers must understand this distinction.
Because in my circles we spend a lot of time on “getting it right”—or as others say, “cutting it straight”—I benefited from reading Preaching as Reminding. Preaching is primarily about what we say, but it also includes how we say it. Arthurs is not denying preaching as heralding; he is merely highlighting a forgotten aspect of preaching—remembrance. And the idea of preacher’s as the Lord’s remembrancers is a helpful image. After all, that’s what we did with our own children when we used the catechism. Each evening, we reminded our children of God’s word, asking them to repeat it, trusting that the Holy Spirit would use the truth we had deposited in their little hearts and minds to convict them of sin and draw them to Christ. This ministry of reminding continues throughout our entire Christian life.
As helpful as I found Preaching as Reminding, I have two concerns. First, while grounding his argument for preachers as the Lord’s remembrancers in the doctrine of God, much of Arthurs’ explanations are rooted in neuroscience and neuropsychology. I’m not saying he’s wrong. We are, after all, whole persons created as embodied souls. As Christians, we tend to neglect the fact that we are a psychosomatic unity and that Adam’s sin has affected every aspect of our humanity, including our brains. And yet, I can’t say he’s right, either. I am neither a neuroscientist nor a neuropsychologist, so I cannot evaluate whether this line of argumentation is valid or even helpful. Sure, it’s interesting, but because I don’t know how the brain works, I don’t find it persuasive. And I don’t believe that to be faithful preachers, the Lord expects us to be experts in the brain’s operations.
Second, while I agree that rhetoric can be helpful in aiding memory, story can be powerful in stirring emotions, delivery can confirm the truthfulness of our message, and ceremonies and symbols can “keep the truth warm in heart and mind” (126), we may be tempted to want them to bear too much weight in our sermons. It is most important that we get the biblical text right, even if we may not communicate the message in the most evocative, memory-stirring language. The most important part of our preaching is that we are faithful to the word of God, even if our delivery is plain and uninspiring. Let me be clear, Arthurs does not argue that “getting it right” is unimportant. My concern, however, is that a young preacher reading this book may be left with the impression that the most important aspect of preaching is “getting it across.”
GET IT RIGHT, GET IT ACROSS
As preachers, we are not only the Lord’s heralds, we are also the Lord’s remembrancers, reminding God’s people of their obligations to the covenant with our king while also calling God’s people back to covenant faithfulness whenever they may wander. Because I tend to focus on “getting it right” in my sermon preparation and delivery, I found Arthurs’ book an encouragement to put in extra work to “get it across.” Yet, because of my concerns, I want to do so in a manner that does not distract hearers away from the Bible and the God who has spoken it.