Review: The Imperative of Preaching Part I | D. Scott Meadows

by | Jun 18, 2020 | Uncategorized

This review was originally posted on HeraldofGrace.org and has been re-posted by the permission of the author.

The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric1
John Carrick2
Banner of Truth

Book Review by D. Scott Meadows

Introduction

Since “imperative” can mean vital importance and urgency, the title of this book could signal a general defense of preaching—a welcome subject in our prevalent anti-preaching cultural milieu, but already addressed frequently in many other homiletical books.3Carrick’s concern is more narrow, yet also momentous. He devotes attention to the grammatical moods of biblical preaching with their theological significance, emphasizing the necessity of preaching in the imperative voice of command or exhortation. While he may not have intended the title as a double-entendre, in a curious way it is. Applicatory preaching is of vital importance today, not just preaching in general.

This book affected me in a way no other ever has. When I finished it in April 2003, my first thought was, “I wish I had written that!” The terse assessment I penciled at that time on the first page was, “One of the finest books on preaching I have ever read! Very helpful.” It is excellent in so many respects. It is clear and presents strong Scriptural support for its thesis. Carrick often quotes the New King James Version translation and the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary, which would have been my own choices. He has a style of writing that is engaging and confrontational without rancor. Besides giving serious preachers much pleasure, this book provokes thoughtful reflection on one’s own pulpit ministry, with much encouragement of continued reformation toward the biblical standard.

Proverbs 26.17 says, “He who passes by and meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a dog by the ears.” Let go of either ear and you get bitten! If the controversy raised by this book review did not belong to me, wisdom would preclude my involvement—but alas, as a Reformed preacher I have been sucked into it. We have the two ears of redemptive-historical preaching (RHP) and imperative-applicatory preaching, and I find myself holding onto both simultaneously, unwilling to release either. Some may charge me with hermeneutical and homiletical inconsistency. My own opinion is that the best Reformed preachers agree in the most important points, whichever side they take, and that the extreme elements in both may be legitimate causes of concern. Perhaps some ardent advocates of a particular perspective have been unnecessarily divisive from zeal to protect their Shibboleth (Judges 12.6). Did I pronounce that right? Let all things be done with love and unto the edification of the church.

Biblical Theology and Redemptive Historical Preaching

A brief description of RHP may prove helpful. It is that preaching which grows out of the emphasis on redemptive history in biblical theology (BT) in its technical sense, although some who espouse BT do not endorse all the distinctives of RHP (e.g., Gaffin, 145). Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949), champion and popularizer of BT, offered a terse definition. It is “the exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historic continuity and multiformity.”4 It is distinguished from systematic theology in “that it discusses both the form and contents of revelation from the point of view of the revealing activity of God Himself.”5

Systematic theology pulls together within a circle all the biblical data on a given topic, with little regard to chronology, so that the truth is flattened. BT moves along a historical line, noting well the providential context of any salvation-event and anticipating its issue in the completion of God’s redemptive purpose through Christ. RHP, therefore, is typically sweepingly panoramic and conspicuously Christocentric.

Carrick’s book raises his concerns about some advocates and practitioners of RHP. He does not denounce RHP per se, nor does he advocate an approach to preaching in the name of power and relevance with the typical naiveté of evangelicals embracing an “application bridge” mentality, with its clumsy attempt to make Scripture relevant by ill-founded exhortations that miss the point of what the text really urges.6

His “theology of sacred rhetoric” almost rises above the fray (except in chapter 6) to make keen and undeniable observations about the grammatical forms of homiletical statements both in Scripture and in the tradition of some of the greatest preachers since the Reformation. Indeed, he raises some of the very same concerns as RHP advocates like Lee Irons (e.g., the indicative-grounded imperative). The most polemical section of the book is chapter 6, “The Imperative—Part 2,” and even here he praises advocates of the RH approach like Edmund Clowney of Westminster Theological Seminary, who “to many . . . represents the more moderate wing of RHP” (116). Carrick seems most concerned about some RHP advocates who have unduly minimized if not altogether eliminated “the imperative of preaching.”

In an article published before the release of his book, Carrick offered a concise assessment: The redemptive-historical school has much to commend it—namely, its high view of the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures, its commitment to the concept of the unity of the Scriptures, and its profound Christ-centeredness. It does appear, however, to have generated a style of preaching which is, regrettably, neither directly evangelistic nor directly hortatory and which is, therefore, not calculated to have very much impact upon sinner or saint. And yet this lack of application within the redemptive-historical tradition is surely an unfortunate de facto concomitant; it is as surely not a necessary concomitant. There is no reason in principle why the redemptive-historical preacher should not apply the Word of God; and apply the Word he must, if his preaching is not indeed to degenerate into mere “aesthetic contemplation.”7

So it appears that Carrick himself holds to both ears. As one investigating the controversy, reading Carrick’s book made me more interested, not less, in the RH approach. He sparked my greater interest in the writings of Clowney and Geerhardus Vos.

Please bear with a personal testimony. The first time I spoke of Carrick’s book publicly was before a group of mostly OPC pastors in the RHP mold, men whom I anticipated would be less than sympathetic with Carrick’s thesis, men who actually know some of the men Carrick criticizes. To prepare for meaningful interaction, several of them read Carrick’s book beforehand. They told me they were mostly appreciative, to their surprise. Now I have realized that we need not take an either-or approach in this controversy. Passionate men of both persuasions have made worthwhile contributions to be seriously considered. Whatever our own views, biblical integrity constrains us to honesty in representing others and charity in relating to all. In that environment, “iron sharpens iron” (Prov 27.17), and all stand to benefit from the spirited dialogue. Sadly, one involved in this debate has said a cloud of suspicion hangs over it.

In the remainder of this book review, I would describe its substance and interact modestly with Carrick’s ideas. Your feedback is welcome since you are my esteemed fellow pastors and I am a student still forming opinions about this topic.

Survey

Between an introduction and a conclusion, the author presents four parts related to the grammatical form of homiletical statements: the indicative, the exclamative, the interrogative, and the imperative. The section on the imperative seems to have been the author’s main concern, and here he allows himself two chapters instead of one, the first of which, like the single chapters on the other three grammatical forms, essentially notes the traits of the form, its warrant and theological significance from Scripture, and citations of sermons both canonical and from five exemplary Reformed preachers, viz., Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Samuel Davies, Asahel Nettleton, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

The introduction (ch. 1) begins with a plea for the legitimacy of a concept of “sacred rhetoric,” despite its negative connotations in the minds of some, since it is only religious speech calculated to persuade. This is not incompatible with a conscious dependence upon the Holy Spirit, so necessary in preaching which glorifies God. We must have Spirit-filled rhetoric. Then the author states his central thesis: “The essential pattern or structure which God himself has utilized in the proclamation of New Testament Christianity is that of the indicative-imperative. In other words, God himself has, in the gospel of Christ, harnessed these two fundamental grammatical moods and invested them with theological and homiletical significance” (5). Besides these Carrick notes the existence of the exclamative and the interrogative which he considers aspects of the indicative. He proposes to define, illustrate, and exemplify these four in the remainder of the book, and he succeeds in this.

“Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative” (7). So he begins the chapter (ch. 2) on this grammatical mood with the justly-famous statement of J. Gresham Machen in Christianity and Liberalism. In that titanic struggle, Machen sagely observed that liberalism begins by telling the sinner what he must do; Christianity begins by telling the sinner what God has done. The indicative is a grammatical term “that points out, states, or declares” (8). The biblical gospel is in the indicative form, and this heavenly declaration of God’s redeeming work accomplished in Christ is the foundation of all biblical preaching. One of this book’s strengths is its frequent appeal to the biblical text cited in full for the reader’s convenient examination and reflection. Carrick praises Herman Ridderbos’ insight that apostolic preaching had the nature of witnessing (12). This is also seen in the Apostles’ Creed.

The indicative is well-suited to instruction, a major part of the faithful preacher’s task if not the whole. Nevertheless, we must remember the distinction between redemption accomplished and redemption applied (19-20). This paradigm suggests the indicative-based imperative. The grammatical form of the Scriptural message is rich in theological significance. The New Testament message can be summarized as two pairs of indicative-imperatives, one aimed at sinners and the other at saints:

Christ died for sinners (indicative) ——————- Repent and believe the gospel (imperative)
Saints have died to sin (indicative) —- Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin (imperative)

Hence there is the double indicative of what God has done for sinners and for believers, and the double imperative of what their response must be on the basis of God’s work. The first is redemption accomplished; the second is redemption applied.

The exclamative (ch. 3) amounts to an emotional indicative (30-31). It possesses an element of excitement and is often signaled by words like how, what, and oh. A section of Scriptural illustration is devoted to each of these, followed by eloquent examples from the great preachers aforementioned. For example, Jonathan Edwards once wrote, “What multiplied and aggravated sins some men are guilty of!” (39).

The imperative (part 1, ch. 5) follows the basic content pattern of the previous chapters. The imperative is defined as a grammatical form expressing command, request, or exhortation (83). Clearly the New Testament is filled with apostolic preaching in the imperative form. At this point Carrick elaborates impressively on the twin indicative-imperatives found especially in Acts and the canonical epistles. Indeed, the entire structure of some epistles is obviously indicative-imperative (e.g., Romans, Ephesians). Hebrews uses a repeating pattern of indicative-imperative sections, and James is dominated by imperatives. Not surprisingly, great Reformed preaching has also been characterized by the indicative- based imperative, with powerful exhortations to sinners and saints alike, as the author demonstrates.

The imperative (part 2, ch. 6) boldly presents Carrick’s concerns about RHP. He traces its history from the Netherlands in the 1930s and 1940s. Klaas Schilder (1890-1952) and B. Holwerda (1909-1952) spearheaded the RH school of thought which gave rise to RHP (108-109). These men were concerned with an “atomistic” approach to interpretation and preaching which took texts out of context, failed to grasp the sweeping meta-narrative of Scripture understood synthetically, and then applied them arbitrarily and manipulatively. The biblical text was becoming putty in such a preacher’s hands, which he could mold at his pleasure, even to the degree it lost its original and legitimate significance. The RH school helped to restore an appreciation for the unity of redemptive history and its Christocentricity (111). It also decried the creeping moralism of preaching in the modern era, in which the grand indicative is conspicuously absent or lacking appropriate emphasis. It is a sad thing when grand gospel indicatives disappear from sermons and the preacher’s constant concern is that his hearers “be good and do good,” without frequent reference to the grace of Christ and our dependence on Him.

However, some RHP advocates have taken this too far, and according to Carrick their suspicion of exhortation and application recoils upon the Scriptures themselves (113). Traces of this Dutch Reformed influence remain at both Westminster Theological Seminaries (in Pennsylvania and California), where BT and RHP with its reticence in application are not absent. Even WTS Professor Clowney himself, an ardent exponent of both, has warned,

We do well to avoid setting up a false antithesis between the RH approach and what might be called the ethical approach to the Scriptures, particularly historical passages. The RH approach necessarily yields ethical application, which is an essential part of preaching the Word. Whenever we are confronted with the saving work of God culminating in Christ, we are faced with ethical demands. A religious response of faith and obedience is required (116).

Carrick presses the point even further in a closely-reasoned, technical argument, composing the remainder of this last chapter, given to essentially two things: 1) the biblical presence and implications of the “exemplary imperative,” and 2) an exposé and indictment of “the more extreme wing” of RHP (130). For convenience of reference, we label this EW-RHP. These twin topics are the debate’s ground zero and deserve more careful consideration.

Notes:

1. Also see reviews by Earl Blackburn published in the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, 1.2, pp. 194-196, and Jim Elliff at http://www.ccwonline.org/imperative.html (both attached).
2. Assistant Professor of Applied and Doctrinal Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Taylors, South Carolina, and one of the principal homiletics instructors at the seminary. He is a graduate of Oxford University and is currently involved in D. Min. studies at Westminster Theological Seminary, California. He was formerly minister of the Cheltenham Evangelical Church, U.K., and of the Matthews Orthodox Presbyterian Church, North Carolina, U.S.A.
3. E.g., see John Stott, Between Two Worlds, “Contemporary Objections to Preaching,” pp. 50-91; Brian Borgman, My Heart for Thy Cause, pp. 127-141; Gardiner Spring, The Power of the Pulpit (entire volume); Martyn Lloyd- Jones, Preachers and Preaching, “The Primacy of Preaching” and “No Substitute,” pp. 9-44; John MacArthur et al., Rediscovering Pastoral Ministry, pp. 250-261, etc.
4. “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline,” inaugural address in 1894 as Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation edited by Richard Gaffin, p. 15.
5. Ibid, p. 7.
6. Lee Irons, Pastor, Redeemer OPC in Encino, CA, available at www.pcea.asn.au/0008_tpb/Red_Hist_Prchg.htm.
7. “Redemptive-Historical Preaching: An Assessment,” in katek?men: Let Us Hold Fast, 13.1, Summer 2001, published by Greenville Theological Seminary (attached).

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