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Him We Proclaim: Defining and Defending Apostolic Homiletics (Introduction)

September 7, 2011

Dennis E. Johnson

Westminster professor Dennis Johnson gave two lectures at the annual Preaching Conference sponsored by Westminster Theological Seminary (Pennsylvania) on October 20, 2010. His topic was apostolic, christocentric homiletics. Valiant for Truth will be publishing a transcript of these lectures in segments every Wednesday, starting today! Get ready to learn about preaching, apostolic-style.

Him We Proclaim: Defining and Defending Apostolic, Christocentric Homiletics

Thank you for the invitation to participate in Westminster’s annual preaching conference. I have been looking forward to this opportunity to think with you about how we can follow in the apostles’ footsteps in our study of God’s Word and our proclamation of its life-giving message. The Apostle Paul summed up the theme and aim of his preaching as he wrote to the Colossians about his:

… stewardship from God… to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, [admonishing] everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone [perfect] in Christ. (Col. 1:25-28)

It is especially sweet for me to get to address this theme this fall, since it was 40 years ago that my bride and I drove 3,000 miles from California to Philadelphia, so that I could study at Westminster Theological Seminary. In those thrilling days of yesteryear, I “caught” the vision for reading God’s Word in light of its redemptive historical unity, diversity, and “directionality” toward fulfillment in the Person and redemptive mission of Jesus the Christ.

My mentors were professors such as Richard Gaffin, Palmer Robertson, Ray Dillard, and especially Edmund Clowney, then president as well as professor of practical theology. I am grateful for the opportunity to “pay forward” to my alma mater’s younger generation the gift that I received here in the 1970s.

In our two sessions this morning I am going to try to do too much in too little time. My goal is to do two things briefly but, I hope, persuasively—or at least to stimulate your reflection about what Christ-centered preaching, as the apostles did it, sounds like; whether we should follow their lead; and (if so), how we might go about preaching the whole Bible as Peter and Paul did. So I will:

  • first define and briefly defend what I have cumbersomely described as “apostolic Christocentric homiletics”, and
  •  then in the second lecture identify structures and strategies that help us follow the apostles’ lead with integrity.

When terms such as “redemptive-historical” or “Christocentric” preaching are used in our circles, they evoke mixed responses of attraction and suspicion.

On the one hand, we just heard Paul sum up his own preaching as proclaiming Christ and our own hearts have been captured by God’s grace in his Son. So we are attracted to the prospect leading others from every Scripture and through every Scripture to Jesus, the only mediator between God and his human creatures.

On the other hand, we have heard or read preaching that flies under the flag of “Christ-centered” or “redemptive-historical” that makes us suspicious:

  • It disregarded the evident sense of a biblical text in its original context;
  • Or it drew questionable links between a passage’s distinctive message in its “near context,” on the one hand, and the redemptive mission of Christ, on the other;
  • Or it presented a stimulating intellectual exercise in intertextual interrelationships but never connected with the real spiritual struggles of real people.

Almost 25 years ago Dr. Henry Krabbendam, thinking (I suppose) of the debate over redemptive-historical versus exemplaristic preaching that raged in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands before World War II, used this vivid metaphor:

…preaching in the redemptive-historical tradition is often comparable to a ride in a Boeing 747 high above the landscape with its hot deserts, it snowpeaked mountains, its wide rivers, its dense forests, its open prairies, its craggy hills and its deep lakes. The view is panoramic, majestic, impressive, breathtaking, and always comfortable. But there is one problem. The Christian is not ‘above’ things. He is in the middle of things. He is trekking through the landscape. As such he is experiencing heat, or cold, or pain, or failure. (“Hermeneutics and Preaching,” 235)

Just last year Dr. Jason Hood published a sympathetic but cautionary response to Christ-centered biblical interpretation in the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology (“Christ-Centred Interpretation Only?” 50-69). He called attention to the fact that the New Testament authors do, in fact, at times, draw inferences for Christians’ behavior from the Hebrew Scriptures. Consequently he questioned whether the recent surge of interest in Christ-centered hermeneutics and homiletics (stimulated by the influence of Ed Clowney, Timothy Keller, Bryan Chapell, Michael Horton, Sidney Greidanus, Graeme Goldsworthy, and others) runs the risk of ignoring the apostles’ use of OT texts to reinforce moral exhortation.

Some years back, one of my own colleagues in practical theology as leading a homiletics practicum in which a student preacher, zealous to distance himself from that horrible four-letter word, “moralism,” assured his hearers that Ephesians 5:22-33 has nothing whatever to do with how Christian wives and husbands should treat each other, but rather is all about—and only about—Christ’s redemptive sacrifice for his bride, the church.

So my intent in tacking “apostolic” on to “Christocentric” is simply to say that in preaching Christ from all the Scriptures, we should be following the apostles’ hermeneutical and homiletical lead as we actually find it in the New Testament, both in their central focus on Christ and in the diversity of ways in which they relate the Old Testament and their own pastoral concerns to that center point. Dr. Krabbendam is right: Christians walk earth’s rugged terrain rather than flying turbulence-free above the clouds. Apostolic Christ-centered preaching as I find it in the New Testament is “down-to-earth.” And I agree with Dr. Hood that the New Testament’s use of the Old includes hortatory and cautionary lessons drawn from the experience of the people God of old. So I want to discern more deeply how the apostles related those moral lessons to the centrality of Christ. We are on shaky ground if we embrace a form of Christ-centered redemptive-historical preaching that is defined so narrowly that we end up disapproving of the ways that the New Testament authors themselves handled Israel’s ancient Scriptures!

More next Wednesday!