Book Review: The Priority of Preaching, by Christopher Ash
This book began as a series of addresses given at the 2008 Evangelical Ministry Assembly in London. It is written for the “ordinary” minister who preaches regularly to ordinary people in ordinary places. (All others should stop reading at this point!)
The author sets out to “persuade (or at least unsettle) those doubtful about preaching, and to deepen the conviction of those already converted to the priority of preaching.” With a tip of the hat to Gordon McConville’s commentary, Ash approaches the question of the priority of preaching from Deuteronomy. Such daring ought to immediately capture our attention.
THE (EXPOSITORY) PREACHER’S AUTHORITY
Chapter one considers the authority of the expository preacher in speaking the very words of God. Beginning with Moses, Ash lays down biblical and theological reasons for affirming the priority of preaching. For example, Ash writes that “God did not just give them the book, he gave them preachers of the book so that face to face they could be taught, challenged, rebuked and exhorted to repentance and faith.”
In this context, Ash has some provocative things to say concerning the place of Bible study groups. He also argues that preachers are to continue the “proclamatory work of the prophets.” “It is preaching,” says Ash, “that promotes a proper attitude of submission to the Word of God.” At a time when people are far more interested in discussion of the Bible than submission to the Bible, the need for preaching becomes all the more urgent.
MOSES: A MODEL OF TRANSFORMATIVE PREACHING
In chapter two, Ash sets forth Moses as a model of transformative preaching through considering four themes from Deuteronomy. The first of these is the reality of God. The impact of Moses’ preaching is directly related to the fact that the God he preaches is “the creator of the world and not some little godlet of the ghetto.”
Second, Moses’ proclamation takes into account the stubbornness of the people. A sense of the reality of God gives preachers the authority with which to speak, and a sense of the stubbornness of the human heart sends preachers back to their knees in dependence upon God.
A third aspect of Moses’ preaching is the urgency of faith. Ash writes, “It is a fine thing patiently to explain to me so that I understand. But if you love me, you will press home to me with all the force you can, my need to act on what I now understand and to act on it today.” It was the late professor John Murray who explained preaching in terms of the personal, passionate plea, “I beseech you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.”
The second chapter ends with a fourth theme, the wonder of grace. Moses called the people to believe in God’s gracious promises and so choose life. The chapter ends not with a call to work hard at the task of exposition, but to depend entirely on the work of the Holy Spirit.
PREACHING AND THE CONGREGATION
In the third chapter, Ash turns his attention to the congregation or the assembly. This may prove to be the most challenging chapter of all, since Ash argues that preaching and the assembly are inseparable. The assembly, he says, is not a collection of individuals who sometimes assemble, but it is an assembly whose members may sometimes be dispersed. Quoting from Deuteronomy 4, Ash points out that Moses warned the people that if they would not gather under the Word of God, but instead chose their own worship, then the Lord would scatter them.
As Ash traces the theme of the assembly through the Old Testament into the New, he helps us understand that “Jesus is the place where all Israel assembles in the gathering of the local church.” Pointing out that Jesus is “in the assembly business,” he shows how the Christian church is to stand out in a world that is marked by disintegration and fragmentation.
Ash drives home the necessity of this in a way that some readers may find unsettling. He says first of all that we do not gather solely in order to hear; rather, every gathering of the local church points forward to the time when all redeemed humanity will gather around God’s throne. Ash writes provocatively, “We could scrap Bible study groups and still be a church (an impoverished church perhaps, but still a church): but if we fail to gather together in our main meetings under the preached Word of God, we cease to be a church.”
Ash points out that the weekly gatherings of the local church to hear the preached word should be understood as the primary driving force of church life. Again in a way that will challenge many contemporary views, he suggests that all the other contexts in which the Bible is read and discussed have a supportive rather than the primary role in the life of a local church. In addition, I think you will be as helped as I was by considering Ash’s assertion that the goal of the Bible is Bible performance, and not Bible interpretation.
Finally, Ash observes that God reaches the world by shaping the church by the preached Word. The world looks on and learns something of God’s grace in these transformed communities. I only wish that he had time to develop his brief comments concerning the fact that “the church is the proper and normal context for evangelism.”
There is also a helpful appendix in which Ash lists seven blessings of consecutive expository preaching. His desire to exorcise the demons of relevance, entertainment, and immediacy will surely fuel some lively conversations between pastors over coffee.
WARMLY COMMENDED TO ALL
All in all I found this short book to be as helpful as anything that I’ve read in a long while on expository preaching. I commend it warmly to all.