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Him We Proclaim: Defining Apostolic Homiletics (Part 1)

September 14, 2011

Dennis E. Johnson

Last week's introduction appears here.

Let’s start by sketching what apostolic Christocentric, redemptive-historical interpretation and proclamation of the Bible looks like, as we see it exemplified in the New Testament—not only in the sermons such as we find summarized in the Acts of the Apostles and the “word of exhortation” that we call the epistle to the Hebrews (13:22; see Acts 13:15). I am also thinking of Paul’s use of Scripture in his epistles, because Paul’s insistence that his message is consistent, whether delivered in person or by correspondence, gives us reason to expect that his interpretation the Scriptures in his letters was consistent with his use of the Old Testament in face-to-face preaching. And, since the written Gospels had their roots in the spoken gospel, I would include the use of the OT as we find it embedded in the narrative and teaching material found in the good news according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The definition (or description) that I have to offer comes in a series of contrasts between what Christ-centered preaching is sometimes said to be and what the New Testament shows us to be the actual practice of the apostles—which I will henceforth call, “apostolic homiletics,” asking you to understand that apostolic homiletics—that is, their preaching—is grounded in and therefore includes “apostolic hermeneutics”—that is, their principles and practices of interpreting the Bible.

1. Apostolic homiletics is not allegorical ingenuity that disregards a biblical text’s message in its original literary and historical contexts for the sake of “importing” into ancient Scriptures as much later theological detail as possible.

Rather, apostolic homiletics treasures the historically-progressive character of God’s special revelation, recognizes the limitations of an ancient scripture’s original historical and theological horizons, and then highlights our privileged perspective as those who live in “the last days,” when shadows have given way to fulfillment-realities.

We may smile as we read Augustine’s creative exposition of how “the Ark Which Noah Was Ordered to Make Figures In Every Respect Christ and the Church” (City of God, 15.26): its wood, its dimensions (those of the human body, its length 6 times its breadth and 10 times its thickness—which shows that the ark prefigures Jesus’ crucified body as well as the church as the “body of Christ”), the door in its side prefiguring the spear wound in Christ’s side, the squared timbers symbolizing the steadiness of the saints, the three stories representing Jews and Gentiles and…or, well, perhaps the whole of humanity descending from Noah’s three sons, or else faith, hope and charity, or else the threefold gospel harvest in the parable of the Sower (30, 60, 100 fold), or else the three states of chastity—marriage on the ground floor, widowhood above that, and virginity, of course, on top. Whatever became of the historical/literary/theological horizons of Genesis itself and of Moses’ generation?

We do not find the apostles handling the Old Testament text in this a-contextual or anti-contextual way—not even in Galatians 4:21-31, that singular text in which Paul uses the Greek verb ἀλληγορέω from which we get our English term “allegory”. Admittedly, there the apostle draws many connections between Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, on the one hand, and the alternative avenues to Abraham’s blessing that confront his Galatian readers —either Torah-observance or faith in Jesus. The sons and their mothers stand for two covenants, old and new, associated with distinct mountains or cities. The outcomes of those covenants are signified in the status of the mothers, slavery or freedom, and in their respective sons’ exclusion or inheritance. The sons’ conceptions were traceable either to “the flesh”— resources within human control—or to “the Spirit”—dependence on God’s power to act in life-giving power beyond human capacities.

Appropriate humility would encourage us to be cautious about drawing as many links as Paul does here between particulars of Old Testament events and their New Testament fulfillment. But at the heart of Paul’s argument is in a contextually-faithful reading of the Ishmael-Isaac narrative in Genesis. The issue, in the life of Abraham and in the lives of the ancient Israelites, really had to do with two alternative routes to the fulfillment of God’s promise of blessing. One remedy devised by Abraham and Sarah—Hagar’s pregnancy as a surrogate mother for her mistress Sarah—was a solution that lay within the reach of human resources—that is, the flesh. The other was utter dependence on God’s power to create life in Sarah’s dead womb—a prospect that lay beyond the limits of creaturely possibility: nothing but the Spirit of God could bring life in such circumstances. In the Genesis context, then, the alternatives of flesh and Spirit are visible in seed form, as are their outcomes: slavery and expulsion, or freedom and inheritance.

Hebrews 4:6-8 offers an example of a NT author paying special attention to the original historical-theological context and horizon of an Old Testament passage. The preacher wants us to know that Psalm 95, in its original redemptive historical setting, was retrospective. It looked back to the unbelief of Israel’s wilderness generation. The Psalm did so from a period “long afterward,” in the era of David’s rule. In that later time period, God was still addressing his people “today,” summoning them to persevering faith, lest they be excluded from his rest. That threat of failing to enter God’s rest implied that in the conquest Joshua had not achieved the “rest” envisioned in this Psalm. Despite statements in the book of Joshua that “the Lord gave them rest on every side” (Josh. 21:44; 22:4), even in David’s day, long after the conquest, still Psalm 95 summoned the people of God to look ahead to another “rest of God,” yet to be entered by persevering faith. The “location” of Psalm 95 in the history of redemption and revelation is crucial to our understanding of “the rest of God” that it offers to those who hear his voice “today.”

Nuanced and responsible advocates of Christ-centered, redemptive-historical preaching in recent decades have emphasized the importance of attending carefully first to a text’s import in its original historical and literary setting, and then to its placement in the unfolding progress of biblical revelation. Edmund Clowney, in his first significant work on the subject, Preaching and Biblical Theology, devoted the fourth chapter to the content of preaching, discussing first the interpretation of each text “in the light of the historical horizon in which it is found,” and then “in God’s total revelation” (89-112). Likewise, Sidney Greidanus in Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, maps out the Christocentric method in terms of two steps: First, we must understand the passage in its own historical context. Then, we go on to understand the message in the contexts of canon and redemptive history (228-234). Biblical contexts rightly curb our creativity and must control our interpretation and proclamation!

The second contrast comes next Wednesday!