Some Thoughts on “Redemptive-Historical Preaching”

When I first came into contact with the controversy surrounding this subject, it seemed to me that it was a lot to do about nothing. After all, who doesn’t want more christocentric sermons? That would sort of be like saying, “No more apple pie, please” or “I hate puppies and kittens.” Nobody in their right mind talks that way.

And so as I began to give an ear to the controversy, it became apparent that, according to the disputants, there were some people who thought application was inappropriate in preaching, i.e. preachers should only preach Christ. No morals please. And there were others who wanted to preach morality only, i.e. hold the crucified-and-risen Christ. But as I’ve listened to the conversation, there’s just one problem: in my experience, I have never encountered these people. Sure, a preacher might leave out some moral application or overemphasize the duties that faith requires by not talking enough about the object of our faith, i.e. Jesus. But in my judgment these are practical missteps, not a lack of commitment to a common core of biblical preaching fundamentals. So to date, I haven’t met anyone who only preaches Christ or who only moralizes. Perhaps it’s worth considering the possibility that we’re chasing a phantom.

Moreover, I also wonder how many of the disputers really understand from where the construct of  “redemptive-historical preaching” (hereafter RHP) comes. Recently on Facebook, I asked my very erudite friends (all of my friends are such!) what the history of the movement was. Like Plato, I assumed I was the dumbest guy in the room. After getting the smart aleck “Paul” and “Acts 2” answers out of the way, it became quite clear that no one really knew. In my own hour or so of subsequent internet “research,” it seemed to me that the moorings of RHP were a complex connection between the biblical theological movement as practiced by Vos combined with the histories of Westminster Theological Seminary and Westminster Seminary California. But this is all conjecture as of now. Someone please write the PhD thesis so I can find out!

The one hard piece of evidence that I had in my office was a copy of Edmund Clowney’s Preaching Christ in All of ScriptureOther than the first two chapters, the book is basically a collection of his own sermons. So with only 58 pages to conquer, I went for it. And I was surprised at what I found. First, Clowney had some amazing exegetical insights! Or at least he knew how to find amazing exegetical insights in commentaries. If you’re ever going to preach through the Pentateuch, particularly Exodus, read the first two chapters of Clowney’s book! But second, I found Clowney’s argumentation for RHP rather weak. Not all of the writing was very good (some of it was downright meandering). But more importantly, he presented many serious exegetical, historical, and theological issues rather glibly. For example, he insists that the second person of the Trinity is explicitly in view throughout the OT (esp. with respect to the Angel of the Lord). And yet he acknowledges on page 14 that, “Orthodox trinitarian theology took centuries seeking to unpack the distinction of persons and the unity of being (or “substance”) that are implied in the way Paul worshiped the one God of his fathers in the full revelation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” In support of this, he enlists Paul’s typology of Christ in 1 Cor. 10, yet without acknowledging that the chapter ends with moral injunctions. He attempts (along with Griedanus) a taxonomy of typology with no interaction with WCF 7.5. He connects RHP’s concern with the history of redemption with Vosian biblical theology, but never mentions Jonathan Edwards’ A History of the Work of Redemption? Lastly, he has written a book on preaching that contains (as far as I could tell) only his own sermons! Is there nothing to be learned by interacting with the tradition of Reformed preaching? So it appears then that it was with Clowney as it is with us: the man knows how to preach, and he thinks there’s a problem (not enough RHP), but insofar as his solution goes, it’s not clear that he knows what it is or how exactly it got here .

Perhaps the takeaway then is that, when it comes to preaching Christ throughout the history of redemption, we should take a bit of advice from Nike and just do it. We should preach holiness when appropriate, but Christ always. Or as one of my FB friends testified, “I just preach the text.” I think that’s sound advice.