Thoughts On Redemptive-Historical Preaching

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Introduction

Redemptive-Historical (RH) preaching has seen a resurgence over the last century.[1] Underpinned by the biblical-theological understanding that redemption is the overarching theme of Scripture, the main thrust of RH preaching is a focus on the redemptive work of Christ as the lens with which to interpret all of Scripture. Bryan Chapell, a leading contemporary advocate for RH, explains that “God’s redemptive work is integral to every biblical passage’s proper exposition.”[2] The resurgence of RH preaching (also called “Gospel Centered” or “Christ-Centered” preaching)  has been credited to a reaction to moralistic preaching of the nineteenth century which had little redemptive focus.[3] But is this type of preaching biblically warranted? If so, what are its strengths and weaknesses? This short paper will evaluate RH preaching and its requisite components.

The Case for Redemptive-Historical Preaching

There are broadly three justifications put forward by advocates of RH interpretation and preaching; biblical, theological and practical.

Biblical Justification

A number of biblical motivations are put forward as the warrant for RH preaching. Timothy Keller argues that the apostolic use of the OT constraints RH interpretation and preaching. Says Keller,

For example, Hebrews 10:5-6 quotes Psalm 40:6-8 as something Christ said when ‘he came into the world.’ But when we look at Psalm 40, we see absolutely nothing to indicate that the speaker is Jesus or some messianic figure. Why would the Hebrews author assume that Psalm 40 was about Jesus? He does so because he knows what Jesus told the disciples in Luke 24, that all the Scripture is really about him… So preaching Christ every time is a way to show people how the Bible fits together.[4]

A few notes on Keller’s argument. First, Keller makes it seem as if Jesus’ teaching in Luke 24 indicated that every word in the Scriptures has a direct relationship to him. Craig L. Blomberg correctly states that Jesus taught in Luke 24:44 that everything written about him in the OT must be fulfilled, “not that everything written in these three parts of the Hebrew Scriptures was about Jesus!”[5]

Second, George H. Guthrie argues that the author of Hebrews here shows a fulfilment of indirect typology, where the experience of David predicts the experience of Christ.[6] This is a more convincing understanding of the Hebrews text. There is nothing in the apostolic use of the OT that constrains interpreters to force Christ into the text more than is warranted by that text.

A more convincing biblical argument is offered by Sidney Greidanus. He avers,

There is equally no doubt that Jesus interpreted the Old Testament in a Christocentric way. He saw his mission in terms of the Old Testament figures of the Servant of the Lord (especially Isa 52:13-53:12) and of the Son of Man (Dan 7:13-14). France summarizes the evidence from the synoptic Gospels: ‘He [Jesus] uses persons in the Old Testament as types of himself…; he refers to Old Testament institutions as types of himself and his work (the priesthood and the covenant); he sees the experiences of Israel foreshadowings of his own; he finds the hopes of Israel fulfilled in himself..’[7]

The very fact that Christ showed that he is the locus of revelation constrains interpreters to have Christ and his redemptive work in view when unpacking the Scriptures. Some proponents of RH preaching argue that this implies that every text should be mapped to Christ and the way of salvation explained always. This does not necessarily follow. As Kenneth Langley has suggested, this rather constrains preachers to not preach sermons that undermine redemption, grace and Christ.[8] In other words, preachers should not preach as though Christ has not come and achieved salvation for his people.

Theological Justification

Edmund P. Clowney argues that Christ is present throughout the Bible as “the Lord and Servant” and thus the preacher must preach Christ as the text presents him.[9] He then goes on to show that Christ is present in all the OT text (1) as Lord of the Covenant; (2) as the Servant of the Covenant; and (3) through typology and the various kinds of OT symbolism.[10] For Clowney, even commitment to original meaning of OT texts cannot be made supreme in application to the Word of God because “the prophetic richness of Old Testament Christology goes beyond any grounding in the address to Israel… the witness of the Scriptures to Christ is the reason they were written.”[11] In agreement, Richard B. Gaffin Jr. argues that revelation has taken place as ongoing history, and Christ (that is, Christ as the center of redemptive activity) is the consummate and integrating focus of this history.[12] Thus,

awareness of this redemptive-historical continuity, compounded in terms of context as well as content, tends to ensure a more rigorously biblical focus and more biblical boundaries to the entire theological enterprise.[13]

However, what implications does this theological framework have for preaching? Proponents of RH preaching argue that since Christians are in the NT era, sermons must reflect that reality. A sermon preached in a Christian church must be qualitatively be different from that preached in a Jewish synagogue.[14] The main way to achieve this is by placing the sermon in view of Christ and his redemptive activity.  From this perspective, preaching needs to frame at which point is the text in redemptive history. What makes this view compelling is that Christ himself gave the overarching lesson that the Scriptures testify to him as the possessor of life (John 5:39).


A sermon preached in a Christian church must be qualitatively be different from that preached in a Jewish synagogue.


Practical Justification

Bryan Chapell explains his concern that preaching without framing the sermon in light of Christ’s redemptive work can confuse hearers into believing that a “relationship with God is a consequence of obedience.”[15] Keller agrees, and goes a step further. Says Keller,

Ed Clowney points out that if we ever tell a particular Bible story without putting it into the Bible story (about Christ), we actually change its meaning for us…  there are, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: is it basically about me or basically about Jesus? In other words, is it basically about what I must do or basically about what he has done?[16]

This view has led writers such as Thomas Jones to argue that “no doctrine of Scripture may faithfully be set before men unless it is displayed in its relationship to the cross.”[17] It must be noted that it is noble when preachers desire to protect the sermon from the heresy of salvation by works. The reformation doctrine of sola gratia must be protected at all costs, as it is a faithful representative of NT teaching.

However, there are some deficiencies in the above argumentation. First, there is simply no biblically mandated schema for preaching every single sermon in light of Christ. This is evidenced by the different kinds of ways on how to design such a sermon.[18] As helpful as these structures are, their diversity shows how unclear the subject is in the Scripture. Accordingly, to dogmatically say that no doctrine can be faithfully preached without relating it to Christ is clearly an overstatement, since the Scripture outlines no such thing. On the contrary, many doctrines in the NT itself are explained without referent to Christ and his redemptive work.[19]

Second, Kenneth Langley disagrees with the suggestion that Christians are likely to hear grace as law and thus it is necessary to make mention of Christ’s provision every week. Instead, he argues that particularly in the West, Christians are more likely to excuse godless lifestyles in the name of grace.[20] Langley’s point rings true even in the Global South. The modern reflex tends on the side of excusing sin and looking for reasons to feel justified in sinning. With this in mind, sermons should rather ensure that the hearers who claim to belong to Christ know his requirements of them.

An Assessment of Redemptive-Historical Preaching

In general, RH preaching is founded on solid biblical and theological ground. The attention now turns to assessing the practical aspects of this preaching emphasis.

Strengths of Redemptive-Historical Preaching

First, the RH emphasis on preaching the gospel of God’s saving grace in every sermon is perhaps the healthiest model of preaching when compared to other contemporary preaching models. Although it is not possible to outline the way of salvation every time given the text at hand, having this as the general frame of mind when a preacher is preparing a sermon will at the very least ensure that the preacher does not miss an opportunity to preach the gospel.

Second, the emphasis on the “grand narrative” of Scripture will lead to healthier and better educated Christians. The various models for preaching Christ in all of Scripture – such as the ones proposed by Keller, Greidanus and Clowney – will not only ensure that Christians are able to recognize a text’s proper place in redemptive history but also will enable them to see the richness of NT passages when they allude to OT realities.

Third, RH preaching forces preachers to always aim at the heart of the hearers instead of their heads. If the goal of Scripture exposition is to show God’s redemptive work, then preachers will have to find ways to expose the need of salvation and arouse praise for God in light of his provision. Without this view, it is easy to prepare sermons that provide academic information on texts without touching the hearers’ emotions.

Weaknesses of Redemptive-Historical Preaching

First, its heavy emphasis on redemption as the subject matter of revelation weakens its practical theocentricity. Although it is hard to contend with Sidney Greidanus when he argues that NT preaching was focused on Christ’s redemptive work,[21] it is equally hard to argue with Kenneth Langley when he states that “preaching should be God centered because God is God centered and wants us to be God centered in everything we do.”[22] Acknowledgement of the former truth at the expense of the latter leaves a crucial element out of preaching; the purpose of redemption is the true worship of the Triune God. It follows then that it is legitimate that believers should study what it is to worship God in light of their redemption.

Second, some RH practitioners err on the side of a practical disdain for biblical imperatives because they fear that they will sound moralistic. Bryan Chapell, for example, argues against biographical “be like” messages of biblical characters because those characters are fallen and they themselves would not encourage other believers to emulate them.[23] Chapell fails to acknowledge that the Bible itself does biographical preaching by highlighting certain exemplary aspects of biblical characters.[24] The very fact that some characters have exemplary characteristics shows that by the grace of God obedience to his word is possible. The apostles themselves very often preached holiness in light of redemption.[25] Therefore, biblical imperatives must be preached in a clear way so that Christians might know God’s calling on their lives.

Conclusion

RH preaching is a healthy model for modern churches. Whether in a legalistic or licentious context, a balanced RH preaching diet can fortify the faith of the weak, encourage zeal in the faint, feed the hearts of the malnourished, and point out the clear way of salvation to all who hear. The key here is that RH practitioners must balance their sermons in order to ensure there is no abiding lack of theocentricity and convicting biblical imperatives.


[1] See Bryan Chapell, “Redemptive-Historic View” in Homiletics and Hermeneutics: Four Views on Preaching Today, ed. Scott M. Gibson and Matthew D. Kim (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 2-3.

[2] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 258.

[3] See Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1999), 34-37.

[4] Timothy Keller, Preaching (New York, NY: Viking, 2015), 57-59.

[5] Craig L. Blomberg, “The Historical-Critical/Grammatical Response” in Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views, ed. Stanley E. Porter and Beth M. Stovell (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2012), 142. It must be noted that other proponents of RH preaching agree with Blomberg’s point. See Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ, 204; Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 261.

[6] George H. Guthrie, “Hebrews,” Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 977.

[7] Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ, 203.

[8] Kenneth Langley, “Response to Bryan Chapell,” in Homiletics and Hermeneutics: Four Views on Preaching Today, ed. Scott M. Gibson and Matthew D. Kim (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 36.

[9] Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2003), 1.

[10] Ibid., 2-44.

[11] Ibid., 44.

[12] Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “The Redemptive-Historic View” in Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views, ed. Stanley E. Porter and Beth M. Stovell (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2012), 94.

[13] Ibid., 98.

[14] Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, 1.

[15] Bryan Chapell, Redemptive-Historic View, 13.

[16] Keller, Preaching, 60.

[17] Thomas Jones, “Preaching the Cross of Christ.” Lecture, homiletics lectures from Covenant Theological Seminary, 1976-77), quoted in Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 258.

[18] See Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ, 227-273; Timothy Keller, Preaching, 71-90; Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, 45-58; Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 262-269.

[19] Christ himself exemplifies this. For example, on the doctrine of marriage in Matthew 19:1-12, he appeals to the design of creation as to why one man and one woman for life is the biblical mandate. He mentions nothing with regards to redemption or the grand narrative of the biblical story.

[20] Kenneth Langley, Response to Bryan Chapell, 36.

[21] Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ, 4.

[22]Kenneth Langley, “Theocentric View,” in Homiletics and Hermeneutics: Four Views on Preaching Today, ed. Scott M. Gibson and Matthew D. Kim (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 81.

[23] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 276.

[24] As Brian Borgman has pointed out, Hebrews 11 details exemplary faith in its various nuances. Brian Borgman, “Some thoughts on ‘Gospel Centered Preaching.” Lecture handout, Reformed Baptist Seminary, 2019.

[25] See Colossians 3:1, 2 Timothy 1:9, 1 Peter 1:17-25.

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