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Preaching That Predictably Lacks God

  • Tristan A. Emmanuel,
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Graeme Goldsworthy's Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture is a book about preaching Christ.1 "I can think of no more challenging question for the preacher's self-evaluation than to ask whether the sermon was a faithful exposition of the way the text testifies of Christ."2 However, he's not simply concerned about the content of preaching, but the method. Thus, this book is not only about preaching Christ, but also about how we preach Christ. For Goldsworthy, the method ought to follow the layout of Scripture. "The way the bible presents its message, a message that reaches the climax in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth," says Goldsworthy, "provides us with the principles we need to preach."3 As such, Goldsworthy presents a method of preaching known as redemptive-historical (here after referred to as RH).

Goldsworthy's development of RH is not without merit. His definition of Biblical and Systematic theology is fair and balanced;4 moreover his development of "typology" is free of the typical liberal influences of Source and Form Criticism,5 and the distinction he draws between the "call of the gospel" and the congregation's "response" is very helpful.6 However, Goldsworthy's main argument, in the estimation of this author, fails to mitigate the very real flaws inherent in RH preaching. Very briefly I will analyze three flaws.

Protection from Predictable Preaching

First, Goldsworthy argues that one of the benefits of RH preaching is that it guards against "predictability."7 Says Goldsworthy; "It is…obvious that something is very wrong if the preacher's way of relating the text to Jesus is felt to be boring and predictable." Goldsworthy believes that typical expository preaching has the tendency of degenerating into moralistic platitudes. According to Goldsworthy, this accounts for the boring predictability of contemporary evangelical preaching. As he sees it, RH is the remedy. "When done properly, preaching Christ from every part of the bible need never degenerate into predictable platitudes about Jesus."8

This insight is not without basis. The examples of predictable moralistic preaching abound in contemporary preaching. One need only turn on the local evangelical radio station to get a sampling. But then again, there is an equal amount of entertaining and unpredictable examples as well. Surely "boring predictability" cannot be the basis for determining whether or not "preaching" is sound? To be fair, Goldsworthy is not making this claim. However, he does present the subtle suggestion that "boring predictability" is a problem inherent in contemporary expository preaching. But this evaluation is far too simplistic a caricature. Boring predictability is not unique to scholastic/moralistic preaching.

If truth were told, the same criticism can be made of RH. In fact, it is my experience that it is. Goldsworthy relays a cute story about a Sunday school teacher who had so inculcated Christ within the thoughts of his students that they began to see Christ under every nook and cranny of his lessons. Ironically little Suzie's answer: "I know it is Jesus, but it sounds like a Koala!"9 dramatically illustrates one flaw of RH preaching: it is so predictable it is dangerously boring. RH sees Christ where the text and context does not and thus teaches the hearers to tune out - after all, even if we don't follow the sermon we know it's about Christ.

Isolation of Texts

Second, and notwithstanding, Goldsworthy's concern with contemporary preaching is more fundamental. He states, "[B]iblical theology involves the quest for the big picture…it is the nature of Biblical revelation that it tell a story rather than set out timeless principles in abstract."10 In comparison, Goldsworthy charges that, "preachers with a taste for expository preaching will often have recourse to series of sermons in which the longer text is divided up into manageable portions…the potential danger of this method is for the isolation of the text about Christian living from those texts that explicitly expound the nature of the gospel."11

There is no doubt that some expository preachers have made more out of detail (isolated texts) than is justified. And it is certain that failure to connect the "isolated" text to the gospel "context" has happened in many instances. However, the potentiality, or actuality, of this danger in expository preaching is no worse than the dangers inherent in RH. There is a real tendency within RH to rush over great pearls of wisdom (detail) in the race to cross the finish line of the gospel (big picture), something very few proponents of this method admit.

In fact, the "potential" problems with RH have serious implications: the avoidance of the whole counsel of God's Word. In their haste to develop the "big picture" the unwary proponent of RH will often fail to develop the "good" and "necessary" conclusions of "isolated" texts. In doing so, he avoids the whole counsel of God because the Word of God isn't simply the stated words of the text it is also the unavoidable deductions drawn out of the words themselves. Therefore, preachers with a taste for the "big-picture" scheme are "potentially" more prone to avoid the full counsel of God's Word than the others.

God's Law

Finally, the most serious flaw in Goldsworthy's thesis is his treatment of God's law. Goldsworthy declares, "[W]hile the Sinai law continues to be appealed to in different ways throughout the Old Testament period, there is little direct evidence in the New Testament that it was regarded as in any way the normative expression governing Christian behaviour."12 Elsewhere he asserts, "Nowhere in the New Testament epistles are the Ten Commandments as such expounded to teach Christian ethics; in fact, only individual commandments are mentioned, and those not very often.…"13

Goldsworthy's justification for his "scholarly" handling of the law of God is a caveat. He warns, "I suggest that we love this kind of treatment [preachers constantly thundering on about the law] because we are legalists at heart…it is a constant temptation to want to take our spiritual pulse and apply the sanctification barometer."14 In referring to the Sermon on the Mount, he states, "Jesus…takes the ground of self-justification out from under those who think they can somehow climb up the ladder of the law to acceptance of God."15

If preaching the law makes one a legalist, then without a doubt Christ was chief among legalists. The Sermon on the Mount, certainly touches on justification, "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness/justification for they shall be satisfied."16 But Christ also addressed sanctification — "if your righteousness/sanctification doesn't exceed the righteousness/sanctification of the scribes and Pharisees then you shall not enter into the Kingdom of heaven."17 Christ measured sanctification by a divine standard, not by some ethereal principle. That standard was the law of God, which the Pharisees had perverted.18 Christ declares unequivocally that any who follow the perverse interpretations of the elders, and practice their "piety," are not only hypocrites,19 but will follow them down the broad road of false tradition that leads to destruction.20

To suggest, therefore, that the New Testament does not treat the law of God as the normative prescript in the New Covenant kingdom, is blatant falsehood. It smacks of the very thing Goldsworthy decries — the splicing up of the "Whole Bible." It is a degenerative form of dispensationalism, the very thing Goldsworthy militates against. It is degenerative, I say, because here is a man who trumpets a type of "Reformational" preaching, but leaves the back door open for antinomian lunacy. Moreover, if there is a more didactic passage on the law of God in the New Testament other than the Sermon on the Mount, I can't think of one. And to suggest that it is legalism to measure our lives by the yardstick of the law is pietistic arrogance. We do well to heed the warning of Christ, over Goldsworthy's caveat, "Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom.…"21

It's clear to me that one of the great shortfalls of RH preaching is it's failure to see the integral harmony between justification and sanctification, and more particularly the integral role the law of God has in either of these divine acts (of course sanctification is more properly viewed as a work, rather than an act). It is oft heard that RH accentuates the "in Christ" (justification) at the expense of "work out your salvation in fear and trembling." Dr. Goldsworthy's handling of the holy law of God certainly intensifies this criticism rather than mitigates it.

In conclusion, we must understand that preaching the whole Bible, as Christian Scripture is indeed a fundamental concern of faithful gospel preaching. I applaud Goldsworthy attempt and desire to propound the unity of Scripture. However, as in my previous essay, I regretfully submit that neither Goldsworthy, nor Greidanus have successfully mitigated the serious flaws of RH preaching.

Notes

1. Goldsworthy, Graeme, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000).

2. Ibid., 21.

3. Ibid., 7.

4. Ibid., 26.

5. Ibid., 111.

6. Ibid., 82.

7. Ibid., xii.

8. Ibid., 30.

9. Ibid., xi.

10. Ibid., 27.

11. Ibid., 59.

12. Ibid., 153.

13. Ibid., 154.

14. Ibid., 119.

15. Ibid., 159.

16. Matthew 5:6 (New King James Version).

17. Matthew 5:20.

18. Matthew 5:21-48.

19. Matthew 6:1-18.

20. Matthew. 7:13-14.

21. Matthew 5:19.


  • Tristan A. Emmanuel
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