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Redemptive-Deconstruction: Anti-System & A-Historical Currents in Redemptive-Historical Preaching

  • Tristan A. Emmanuel,
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I don't think it's an overstatement to say that "Redemptive-Historical" preaching has had a profound impact on Reformed preaching. In fact, unlike any other school of preaching in post-modern times, Redemptive-Historical appears to have gained unilateral acceptance — in certain circles it has assumed a position of orthodoxy, ensconced as the purest, most sublime, manner of unfolding the mystery of Christianity from the pulpit.1

One avid proponent of this method is Sidney Greidanus, professor of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dr. Greidanus has authored several articles and books on the subject. His latest contribution is his book: Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method.2

Greidanus articulates in the clearest terms that the genius of Redemptive-Historical is that it enables a preacher to preach Christ from the whole Bible. All of Scripture points us to Christ, not just the New Testament. Therefore a preacher can, with confidence, reorient the thinking of his congregation. Says Greidanus, to reorient the thinking of the congregation, a "Christian preacher cannot preach an Old Testament text in isolation, but must always understand the text in the context of the whole Bible and redemptive history.…"3

Undoubtedly, one of the greatest challenges facing a Reformed pulpit ministry is reorienting the way Christians view the Bible, especially the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments. And, given today's dispensational milieu, it is certainly refreshing to hear a staunch defence of the historic Protestant view of the Old Testament.

However, for all of its value, there are a number of problems with the method, problems that at the root compromise sound hermeneutical and exegetical practices. In Dr. Greidanus' book, these problems take the form of false dichotomies. Given the limited space we shall only examine two.

The first dichotomy is the "Chronology or System," fallacy. Greidanus asserts, "Although the Old Testament contains a rich treasure of biblical truths (doctrines), we should first consider redemptive history. For redemptive history precedes biblical doctrines."4 There are three basic flaws with this position.

First, it pits chronology (progressive revelation) against theology (systematic dogma). It implies that one is superior to the other. Now, it may be indicative of an internal dispute between Biblical and systematic theology. However, this does not establish a priori homiletic commitment. Moreover, it leaves the impression that Redemptive-Historical is immanently more concerned with progress than with logical development.

Second, and closely related, is that there is no Biblical imperative that necessitates considering "progress," before we consider the logical ordering of a "doctrine," especially when it comes to arranging a sermon. Even if one were to grant that progress chronologically precedes Biblical doctrine, this would still not justify considering the flow of redemptive history first.5

Within the first three chapters of Genesis, there are at least five different foundational doctrines that can stand alone without appeal to their progressive context: Doctrine of Creation, Doctrine of the Image of God, Doctrine of Anthropology, Doctrine of the Fall, Doctrine of the Covenantal Divide, etc. Where is the Biblical imperative that a preacher must begin with progress?

Third, his assertion belies the fact that it is itself a "doctrinal" position based upon systematic development. Certainly one cannot deny the progressive unfolding of Scripture, but that the complex of redemption (the proto-evangelium to its fulfilment in Christ) is understood, as progressive revelation, is itself a doctrinal position developed systematically. Redemptive-Historical is endanger of subterfuge. Its abhorrence with scholastic preaching has caused it to sacrifice system in the name of progress.

The second dichotomy is the "Exemplaristic" or "Redemptive-Historical" fallacy. Greidanus states, "[I]f we make a sermon on the narrative of David and Goliath, we many not isolate this narrative from the flow of redemptive history and hold David up to the congregation as a hero.…"6 Elsewhere, speaking of John Calvin, Greidanus decries the use of "detail," saying, "Although this patristic method of explaining and applying sentence by sentence and clause by clause keeps him close to the text, in narrative texts it leads to moralistic applications of dos and don'ts being attached to mere elements of the preaching-text. Frequently Calvin attaches these applications to the actions of words of the biblical characters."7

Here, men like Joseph, Moses, and David (examples) are pitted against the main point of the author (redemptive-history). In essence this erodes, if not destroys, the very foundation of "history" that Redemptive-Historical so desperately tries to champion. Ironically the dichotomy is indicative of an a-historical current in Redemptive-Historical. There are two reasons for this.

First, the method dehumanizes the saints of old, because the only homiletical value we place in them is in how they relate us to the over-arching theme of redemption. In its zeal to uncover Christ in the Old Testament, it covers up the men, and the "details" of their life. It does this not by refusing the historical account, but by placing little to no value in them as historical personages.

Certainly, Christ is the apex of all Scripture, but God ordained and created real redeemed men to whom we can relate, not shadows, or play actors. God created fallible, sinful men, who, just like us, have been redeemed from particular sins (details). Therefore, historical details, situations, and the very people to whom we are introduced are very important. It is imperative that we don't diminish the significance of humans in history - in doing so we may even end up losing the historic Jesus in the process.8

Second, it also denies the Biblical warrant for role models. Without question Christ is chief among role models. However, Paul categorically stated, "Imitate me, as I imitate Christ."9 We look to Old Testament personalities (examples) to see how as human beings, with all their idiosyncrasies and their particular struggles with sin (details), they as redeemed men imitated Christ. Thus, we learn from them very practical points for living in our day. This does not need to be an either or situation - something Dr. Greidanus does not account for.

Sidney Greidanus has made a number of valuable contributions in the field of preaching and Biblical theology. This book has particularly helped to explicate the foundational indicative of the Old Testament - Christ; and, as previously stated, it helps preachers reorient the mindset of their congregation. However, Greidanus has been influenced by a number of undercurrents; undercurrents that not only compromise sound hermeneutics, but are in danger of undercutting the very foundation of truth.

Notes

1. I find this trend most disconcerting.

2. Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999).

3. Ibid., 230.

4. Ibid. 26.

5. When pressed for an imperative that mandates Redemptive-Historical as the normative Biblical method, proponents generally appeal to the many apostolic examples of preaching. Ironically, Redemptive-Historical advocates generally view “examples” as having little to no normative influence on the behaviour in the modern Church. One must wonder why “preaching” is the only exception.

6. Ibid., 238.

7. Ibid., 150.

8. I suggest that there is an undercurrent of Neo-Orthodox influence in Redemptive-Historical preaching.

9. 1 Cor. 11:1 emphasis mine. (In 1 Cor. 4:16 Paul makes a bolder statement: “Therefore I urge you, imitate me.”)


  • Tristan A. Emmanuel
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