Some of the recent criticism of “the centrality of the word” in the worship service has arisen due to the fear of rationalism and an over-intellectualizing of the gospel. Combined with the ongoing liturgical renewal, folks will also challenge this concept for being gnostic, supposing that stimulating our brains is much more important than our bodies.
There may be well something to these fears when we have in mind the entity that they are currently responding to, but it is just as important to pay careful attention to the historic position of the Reformers when they advocated the centrality of the word. They had something specific in mind, and it may not be the same thing that we think of today.
In fact, there’s no reason to pit the word in opposition to the sacraments or the liturgy because all of these are working towards the same goal. Every aspect of Christian worship is for the purpose of receiving Jesus Christ. This is true of the sermon as much as the Eucharist. On this note, Paul Avis writes:
For the Reformers, the word is nothing less than Christ, revealing and communicating himself to us in divers ways– through the Scriptures, the preaching of the gospel, the Christian brother or sister, or the visible words of baptism or communion. These are all facets of the external word. As Calvin says: ‘The sacraments are to be ranked in the same place as the word; so while the gospel is called the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, we do not hesitate to transfer the same title to the sacraments’ (TT 2.4000). And again: ‘Let it be a fixed point that the office of sacraments differs not from the word of God; and this is to hold forth and offer Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace’ (Inst. IV.xiv.17). The treasure of the Church, writes Luther, is the word, for the word includes all divine figts and graces- Verbum, Baptismus, Eucharistia, gubernatio divina, consolatio conscienciarum, timor Dei, fiducia in Deum, pacientia Dei, imitacio Christi etc (WA 40 II.549f.).
The Church in the Theology of the Reformers pg. 82
Avis explains this concept more by showing that the Reformers put the same qualifications on the necessity of the Spirit for the efficacy of preaching as they did for the sacraments. He states:
The external oral word is dependent for its effect on the secret inner word spoken by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men and without this it is of no avail. The Church, writes Bucer, ‘is born through the word; not through the word of the outward sermon or Scripture alone, but through the living word which God speaks in the heart. This does not sound differently from the outward word, indeed, it is one and the same word, except that God has made it live in the heart.’ Zwingli makes the same distinction between internal and eternal word. The word we hear in the sermon has not in itself the power to make us believe, ‘for if we were rendered faithful by that word which is read and heard, evidently all of us should be faithful, for somewhere or other all of us have either read or heard the word, especially in these days in which all things, even woods and fields, re-echo the gospel.’ It is, however, sadly all too evident, that ‘many both hear and see yet have not faith’. Faith is born of ‘that word which the heavenly Father proclaims in our hearts, by which also he illumines us so that we understand and draws us so that we follow’. This is the word that ‘resides in the minds of the faithful’.
It must also be added that the res of the preached word is always united with the sign- if I can use there terms- in that it is very unusual for one to be inwardly enlightened by the Word unless he hears the preached word. The outward and the inward go together in preaching as well as in the sacraments.
This should affect our view of preaching, especially as we are renewing interest in the sacraments. The entire worship service needs to be both mystical and intelligible, held together in that sacred bond.