Proper, Biblical “Parenesis” — What Is it and Where Has it Gone in Lutheran Preaching?
OK, I know, that word “parenesis” is one of those big “pastor words,” let me explain. It is pronounced “pair-uh-knee-sis,” by the way. What does it mean? Here is how a reference work defines it:
Greek παραίνεσις/paraínesis (from παραινέω/parainéō) means “advice, counsel, exhortation.” Among the Stoics, the term can be used for the part of philosophy that hortatively expounds the practical conclusions of their teaching (Sen. Ep. 95.1). (” Parenesis.” Religion Past and Present. Edited by Hans Dieter Betz, Don S. Browning, Bernd Janowski and , Eberhard Jüngel. Brill Online , 2012. Reference. 14 September 2012). Source.
Let me give you some examples from the Bible of what Christian parenesis is, what it “sounds like” when you bump into this kind of “advice, counsel and exhortation” in the Scriptures.
Just click on these links and you will read beautiful parenesis:
Phil 4:5-7; Matt 6:25; Prov 16:3; 1 Cor 7:32; Psalm 37:5 etc . etc. etc.
There are debates that continue to ebb and flow over whether or not sermons should ever conclude with “the law” and since, as the theory goes being advocated by some, anything that commands something of us, or demands something of us, or exhorts us to do something, is “law,” and because the “law always accuses,” as our Lutheran Confessions clearly assert, no sermon should ever end with “the law” or else people will only hear the accusing Law and the Gospel preached will somehow be overwhelmed, clouded, obscured, or otherwise set to the side because of the fact that “the law” has been used to end the sermon. That’s the theory.
I’ve even had pastors tell me, as recently as a day or two ago, that the sermons of the Church Fathers, Martin Luther, and CFW Walther were simply wrong, because they often end a sermon with “the law.” Seriously, I’m not making this up. There such fear of being “like the Evangelicals,” whose sermons give clear, practical advice and exhortation to Christian believers, to a degree that often leaves the Gospel behind, that some counter this problem by thinking they should not do it at all, or only very little, or without any intentionality in their sermons.
It is undeniable that thoughout the Scriptures there is plenty of “parenesis” and if we read that only as a word of Law that exposes our sin we are, to be blunt, misinterpreting the Holy Scriptures. It’s just that simple. It is therefore clearly wrong to assert that a sermon should either never include specific Christian parenesis, or never end with it. That is simply, and quite entirely, completely wrong. Jesus does it. St. Paul does it. The Psalmist does it. In other words, God Himself, does it. So preachers should not hesitate to do it.
I’m not saying that every sermon has to end with it, of course. But the problem in some Lutheran preaching today that is averse to doing it is that the sermon simply, at the end, falls into a fairly predictable pattern and ends up always being a lecture on justification by grace alone, through faith alone, regardless of what happens to be in the actual text theoretically being used as the basis for a sermon. Text become pretext for yet another, usually all too brief, 10-12 minute, little pulpit chat. Lay people notice this and notice “something” is missing from sermons like this. And they are not wrong.
Here’s the bottom line, as far as I’m concerned.
The Holy Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions, the Church Fathers, including our specifically Lutheran Church Fathers … none of these sources ever avoid parenesis in preaching.
Whence, then, this odd departure from the entire consensus of the Holy Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions, and the great consensus of the Church’s teachers, preachers and theologians?
What is the source of this misunderstanding? I haven’t quite figured it out yet.