Reformed Baptist Fellowship

A Commendation of Him We Proclaim by Dennis Johnson

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on September 12, 2011 at 7:30 am

In case you neglected to view the video of Dr. Dennis Johnson on Redemptive-Historical Preaching posted on September 3, 2011, let me encourage you to view that two-minute video and take an additional six or seven minutes to read this post as well (yeah, I timed it).  I was privileged in July to take Dr Johnson’s class on “Redemptive Historical” (RH) preaching.  RH preaching emerged from a controversy in the 1930s and 1940s in the Reformed Church in the Netherlands.   “The central issue in this debate was whether or not it was valid for the preacher to utilize the characters or the events of the Bible as examples or models for believers today.” (John Carrick, The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric, Banner of Truth, 2002, p.108).  The RH school denounced “exemplaristic” preaching as violating Scripture by transforming history into parable-like moralisms, disconnected from God’s objective historically unfolding redeeming acts.  They warned against allegorizing and accused the exemplarists of fracturing Scripture, reading it atomistically out of context, and then applying it arbitrarily in preaching.  The exemplarists bemoaned the absence of application characteristic of (some) RH preaching.

This discussion came to America around the turn of the century.  Sidney Griedanus (Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method, Eerdmans, 1999), Graeme Goldsworthy (Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, Eerdmans, 2000), and Edmund Clowney (Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, Crossway, 2003) spoke to an American readership with an increasing renewed appreciation for Calvinism (cf. the cover story of September 2006 Christianity Today: “Jonathan Edwards is My Homeboy”) and thus receptive to a more reformed covenantal hermeneutic that recognizes the continuities and developing redemptive motifs as summarized by Dr. Johnson in the video.  Carrick (2002) wrote as a corrective, concerned that RH preaching can tend merely to present the message of the gospel while falling short of arresting the conscience and appealing for the response of faith and repentance.  Carrick calls for preaching that informs the hearers with “the indicative,” appeals with “the exclamative” and “the interrogative,” and summons with “the imperative.”   He demonstrates these aspects of preaching from Scripture and the examples of preachers like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  I commend Scott Meadows’ book review (http://ch-books.com/blog/?p=76 and  http://ch-books.com/blog/?p=119 ).

Richard Gaffin also shares Carrick’s concerns (quoted by John R. De Witt, “Contemporary Failure in the Pulpit” in The Banner of Truth, 210. March 1981, p118): “I have read Sidney Griedanus’s Sola Scriptura and some of the other books on the subject, but I have yet to find a way of bringing together the redemptive-historical conception of Scripture and warm, pointed, applicatory preaching.  I do not, it should be said, question the validity of the insights of the redemptive-historical method.  But to warn off ministers from the exemplary and moralistic methods of a former time and of other schools is not as yet to have shown them how to be personal and applicatory without doing injustice to the scope and intent of the Word of God.  We need some solid, helpful work here, and we need it soon.  If the redemptive-historical interpretative principle robs men of power in the pulpit, there is something radically wrong with it.”   Like Gaffin, I too “do not question the validity of the insights of the RH method.”  My concern is obtaining the biblical balance of a biblical hermeneutic, which the RH method advances, and a biblical homiletic, which Carrick fortifies.

Although the redemptive-historical indicative school and the exemplarist imperative school express concerns about each other, I think that they are putting the em-PHA-sis on different syl-LAB-bles and talking past each other while substantively desiring the same thing.  The “debate” confronts us with the fallacy of false options as though they were either-ors when, in fact, they are both-ands.  The redemptive-historical brethren put the emphasis on hermeneutics: HIM we proclaim.  The exemplarists put the emphasis on homiletics: Him we PROCLAIM.  Both want to preach Christ and both want to move men to action in response to Christ, but each has its own emphasis and balance between them is needed.  Carrick’s critique is incisive: “If the indicative is permitted to predominate to the exclusion of the imperative, the preaching will inevitably tend in the direction of quietism or antinomianism.  If the imperative is permitted to predominate to the exclusion of the indicative, the preaching will inevitably tend in the direction of moralism and legalism” (p.146).

I believe that Dennis Johnson’s book Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ From All The Scriptures (P&R, 2007) substantially meets the need that Gaffin saw in 1981.  Johnson is a mature and balanced voice which warrants our hearing.   That he is not anti-exemplarist is evident at the outset of the book.  His Introduction is entitled: “Preaching the Bible Like Peter and Paul.”  His appeal to use Hebrews as a paradigm is to the point as Hebrews dynamically moves in and out of exposition and exhortation, thus exemplifying that desired balance between RH hermeneutic and heart-gripping homiletic. His chapter on “Preaching Christ, Head of the New Creation and Mediator of the New Covenant” is superb.  Indeed, Johnson’s strength is his persistent and convincing summons to preach Christ and the gospel, from every portion of Scripture (notice I didn’t say “every verse” per se), in the context of redemptive history and God’s fulfillment of all His promises in Christ Jesus (2 Cor 1:20).  Let me also recommend Sinclair Ferguson’s article Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (2002   http://www.proctrust.org.uk/dls/christ_paper.pdf  ).  I hope you will read Dennis Johnson’s Him We Proclaim for I am sure that you will experience heart-warming discoveries of your Lord and His saving grace as you see Him in the light of the OT and again in the NT.   Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the ScripturesWere not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:27,32, see also v45).  Then with burning hearts, let us proclaim, and with open Bibles, let it be Him that we proclaim – even like Paul who was explaining to them by solemnly testifying about the kingdom of God and trying to persuade them concerning Jesus, from both the Law of Moses and from the Prophets, from morning until evening (Acts 28:23).

One last observation on this exemplarist issue… Dennis Johnson exemplifies that man of God whose heart has drunk in Christ from Genesis to Revelation.  (By the way, get his commentary on Revelation too – The Triumph of the Lamb, P&R, 2001 and The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption, P&R, 1997).  I was privileged to sit under Dr. Johnson’s instruction.  His example of Christ-like graciousness and humility coupled with solid biblical and Reformed conviction has compelled me to know Christ as He is revealed throughout redemptive history, and knowing Him, Him I’ll proclaim.

Alan Dunn, Pastor
Grace Covenant Baptist Church
Flemington, NJ
  1. Thank you, Pastor Dunn.

  2. Judicious commentary, dear brother.

  3. Pastor Dunn,
    Thanks for your review. I also highly recommend the book. Dan Doriani has written two books on hermeneutics and application that, I think, are very helpful and address these issues as well.

    http://www.wtsbooks.com/product-exec/product_id/132/nm/Putting+the+Truth+to+Work%3A+The+Theory+and+Practice+of+Biblical+Application

    http://www.wtsbooks.com/product-exec/product_id/241/nm/Getting+the+Message%3A+A+Plan+for+Interpreting+and+Applying+the+Bible

  4. I found Johnson’s book very, very helpful and recommend it highly. There are some sections that are simply profound and profoundly helpful. When interpreting/preaching the OT, we must submit ourselves to the methods of Christ and His apostles. If we don’t, we have imported a method of interpretation/proclamation that can not be justified biblically. I think this issue is, at bottom, a hermeneutical one with wide-ranging implications for doctrine and practice. Goldsworthy’s book on hermeneutics is good. I highly recommend David Dockery’s “Biblical Interpretation Then and Now” as well as “40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible” (I forgot the author). Silva’s “Has the Church Misread the Bible” is very helpful as well.

  5. Thanks Gentlemen for the additional resources and confirmations of my commendation.

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