4 Common Metaphors for the Preacher

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What is the role of the preacher? How do we define it? One of the ways to help us think about these questions is to explore the metaphors that we use to describe and understand the preacher.

Thomas Long, in his book The Witness of Preaching, lays out a fairly extensive look at four metaphors: herald, pastor, narrator/poet, and, his own, witness. These four metaphors are not the only metaphors but represent some of the more significant metaphors of the last century.

Preacher as Herald

Long locates the prominence of this metaphor in the middle of the twentieth century in the work of Karl Barth. Barth wrote, “Proclamation is a human language in and through which God Himself speaks, like a king through the mouth of his herald, which moreover is meant to be heard and apprehended.”[1] The essential framework of the metaphor is God as the king and preacher as a divine messenger. Long identifies three central premises of this viewpoint:

1.      The message is critical to preaching. “The herald has but two responsibilities: to get the message straight and to speak it plainly”[2]

2.      As result of the importance of the message, identifying the preacher as herald “de-emphasizes the personality of the preacher.”[3]

3.      The preacher exists as both outsider in the community, speaking on behalf of the divine, and insider called by the community and encouraged by the community.[4]

With this description in mind, Long offers the following notes on the benefits of the metaphor of the herald.

“The main value of the herald image, though, lies in its insistence upon the transcendent dimension of preaching. If the power of preaching is limited to the preacher’s strength, if the truthfulness of preaching is restricted to the preacher’s wisdom, it is ultimately too little to stake our lives on.”[5]

As Long’s eventual metaphor is that of a witness, Long identifies the benefits of understanding preaching as limited without the divine. However, this benefit is outweighed because of the overemphasis on the divine aspect of preaching results in a diminishing of preaching.

“The herald image so stresses that preaching is something that God alone does, insists so firmly that preaching is divine activity rather than human effort, that the role of the preacher is almost driven from sight.”[6]

For Long, the preacher as herald is a pointless role, in that God’s divine speech could come from almost anywhere, or anyone and the preacher is merely the vessel. In this sense, this approach serves as an “exaggeration, a corrective to preaching that had turned away from the Scripture and accommodated itself to cultural norms.”[7]

Preacher as Pastor

Long identifies the metaphor of preacher as pastor as essentially the polar opposite to the preacher as herald. Where the latter emphasized the divine work in preaching, the former emphasizes the work of the preacher above all else. This metaphor, drawing from psychology and therapeutic practices, conceives the preacher as working toward the betterment of their listener. Long offers three key markers of this metaphor:

1.      “The crucial dimension of preaching is an event, something that happens inside the hearer.”[8]

2.      “The preacher’s personality, character, experience, and relationship to the hearers are crucial dimension of the pastoral therapeutic process.”[9]

3.      The preacher as pastor views Scripture by way of its therapeutic content. “The Bible describes people trying by the grace of God to be human, and the pastoral preacher views it as a resource for contemporary people trying to do the same.”[10]

Long values this metaphor as it emphasizes the power of the gospel to transform and heal the listener. Further, it points the preacher to think of their preaching in a practical sense. Preaching, in this metaphor, is a source of great potential. Long is critical of this metaphor as it tends to place importance on the preacher as the effective agent in preaching.

“The pastor image of the preacher, which is intended to focus on the hearers and their needs, may well end up overemphasizing the preacher by placing the preacher in the powerful position of healer and therapist.”[11]

In doing so, the approach tends to focus too much on the preacher’s ability to make change through preaching.

“It runs the risk of reducing theology to anthropology by presenting the gospel merely as a recourse for human emotional growth.”

As such, the metaphor of preacher as pastor runs the risk of becoming a form of self-help equal to other forms of spirituality or therapy that offer their unique brands of self-improvement.

Preacher as Narrator/Poet

The next metaphor of the preacher is that of narrator or poet. In this case, the preacher blends something of the herald and the pastor by rhetorically balancing the voice of Scripture and the experience of the community. This metaphor is the reflection of the approaches of the New Homiletic, where a concern for the listener’s hearing has led to a rhetorical revolution. Long notes that for the proponents of this view “the storyteller/poet preacher actually blends the best traits of both the herald and the pastor without bringing along their most serious flaws.”[12] The narrator pays equal attention to scripture as the herald metaphor does and is equally as concerned with the hearer as in the pastoral metaphor. Long describes five key features of this metaphor:

1.      The preacher as narrator emphasises the relationship between biblical interpretation and rhetorical form. “The storytelling image . . . grows out of a conviction that the fundamental literary form of the gospel is narrative.”[13]

2.      “Narrative is not merely one way to proclaim the gospel; it is the normative way.”[14]

3.      This metaphor balances the divinely focused metaphor of herald and the humanity focused metaphor of pastor by viewing the sermon as “an intersection between the gospel story (or God’s story) and the hearer’s story.”[15]

4.      “The storyteller/poet image places an emphasis upon the person of the preacher, not as pastoral expert but as one skilled in narrative arts.”[16]

5.      “The storyteller/poet image, like that of the pastor, places a premium upon the experiential dimensions of the faith.”[17]

Long suggests that the primary benefit of this metaphor is that it is balanced. It goes beyond the division between preaching on the one hand as purely scriptural and on the other preaching as purely self-help. This balance accounts for the primary value of this approach. In criticism, Long notes that this metaphor fails to account for non-narrative aspects of Scripture by treating the primary voice of Scripture as narrative. Further, much like the pastoral metaphor, the power of preaching remains focused on the preacher.

“There is a deep theological danger in measuring preaching by its capacity to generate religious experience.”[18]

While this metaphor is balanced, it fails to overcome the problem of authority in preaching and as such the balance remains somewhat lopsided.

The Preacher as Witness

Witness is Long’s metaphor for the preacher. It has been further developed by a few authors, particularly Anna Carter Florence and Michael Knowles. The center this metaphor is a conception of preaching as a testimony.

“More and more, it seems to me, preachers are relying not on outside authorities as the proof of their words (that is, ecclesial bodies that decisions about leadership or orthodoxy), but on the authority of testimony: preaching what they have seen and heard in the biblical text, and what they believe about it.”[19]

This is not to suggest that scripture is merely a function of one’s personal opinion but that the study and reflection on scripture leads to an experience of God’s truth. This experience equips the pastor to tell of that experience by way of their testimony. Ultimately, the testimony is a result of God’s action and is given to the preacher.

Long’s metaphor of the witness attempts to avoid the problem of imbalance between preacher and God by offering the preacher as an extension of that which is God’s. That is to say, that the words of the preacher, though crafted and prepared by the preacher are an extension of the experience of God to which they are testifying. The preacher as witness is not making something happen but instead testifying to what has happened in order that others may come to see and experience for themselves.

Concluding Thoughts

This concludes our brief look at some of the dominant metaphors for the preacher of the last century. They give a diverse account of the manner in which we have thought about the preacher. They are, as suggested, not the only metaphors but they do reflect larger trends in contemporary preaching.

I hope that this post has given you a chance to think about your role as a preacher and what the relationship between your work and God’s work is.

[1] Barth, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 57.

[2] Long, Witness of Preaching, 22.

[3] Long, Witness of Preaching, 23.

[4] Long, Witness of Preaching, 23–4.

[5] Long, Witness of Preaching, 25.

[6] Long, Witness of Preaching, 27.

[7] Long, Witness of Preaching, 29.

[8] Long, Witness of Preaching, 33.

[9] Long, Witness of Preaching, 33.

[10] Long, Witness of Preaching, 34.

[11] Long, Witness of Preaching, 36.

[12] Long, Witness of Preaching, 42.

[13] Long, Witness of Preaching, 46.

[14] Long, Witness of Preaching, 46.

[15] Long, Witness of Preaching, 47.

[16] Long, Witness of Preaching, 47.

[17] Long, Witness of Preaching, 47.

[18] Long, Witness of Preaching, 48.

[19] Florence, Preaching as Testimony, xvii.