The Imperative of Preaching Part II

by | Jun 22, 2020 | Preaching

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


The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric
John Carrick
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Presence and Implications of the Exemplary Imperative

Carrick quotes other respected Reformed theologians on the matter who appear to share his concerns about EW-RHP—men like Jay Adams, Hendrik Krabbendam, John R. de Witt, John Frame, and J. Douma. More importantly, Carrick shows that the Apostle Paul used historical examples as the basis for exhorting his hearers (citing 1 Cor 10.1-14), a classic concern of the RH school. Exhorting from example is also found in Hebrews, as P. E. Hughes (Visiting Professor of New Testament at WTS) noted in his excellent commentary:

The simplest sense [of 11.4] remains the best sense, namely, that Abel by his example of faith and righteousness still speaks to us today, even though he has so long been dead. The spectacle of his trustful integrity, even in the face of violence, should inspire us to persevere and to overcome by the same means. His was certainly an example that the faltering readers of this epistle were in need of emulating (123).

Carrick also enlists Dr. Richard Gaffin, who is himself “unashamedly a passionate exponent of biblical theology” (144-145), for the cause of applicatory preaching by citing his observation that James 5.16b-18 uses Elijah’s example of prayer in 1 Kings 18, an “incidental aspect” and “quite subordinate point” in the OT passage, to make a primary point of application for New Testament believers. Then Carrick raises a provocative question. “Does the RH school regard James’ reference to Elijah as atomistic and moralistic, or not? If it does, then clearly it is claiming to be wiser than the inspired authors of the Word of God itself; and if it does not, then it is conceding the very point at issue in the original controversy. One of the major problems [if true, an understatement!—DSM] with the charge made by some within the redemptive-historical school . . . is that this charge actually recoils upon James himself— it recoils upon the Holy Scriptures of God” (127-128). Even though this statement is in the middle of the book, I got the impression that Carrick considered it something of a climax comparable to checkmate, the burr under his saddle from which he sought relief, the book’s raison d’être. Christ Himself (128) exhorts tersely from an OT historical example when He urged us to “remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17.32). Thus, “Holy Scripture leads the way” for our method of preaching (quoting Huyser, a proponent of the exemplary approach in the original controversy in the Netherlands, 123).

The exclamation point for the exemplary imperative comes from the NT’s appeal to Christ as the believer’s great Example to follow. This comes out in His charge to the disciples when He washed their feet (John 13.15), and in Peter’s counsel to suffering Christians (1 Pet 2.21, 23-24). Christ is both our Savior and our Example, and so we must hold to Him in both His roles. The RH school in some instances has been paranoid about the exemplary approach because of its historical association with “liberal theology and its naïve Pelagianism,” but such heresy is not intrinsic to it.

Without embracing the exemplary imperative, we have no satisfactory explanation for passages like Hebrews 11, 1 Corinthians 10, James 5, and Luke 17. Homiletical Christocentricity is a good thing, but EW-RHP has degenerated to Christomonism. [Monism is a theory or doctrine that denies the existence of a distinction or duality in some sphere; here, Christ as gracious Savior and moral Example.]

Scripture joins the concepts of example and imperative. The letter of any particular example is generally in the indicative, but the spirit of it is always in the imperative, with an implied, “Go and do likewise!” for the positive examples, and a tacit warning with the negative ones. Therefore, we should not be surprised that when RHP is uncomfortable with the imperative in preaching, it is also skittish about using examples, as illustrated in the defective preaching of Klaas Schilder, an early RHP advocate.

Exposé and Indictment of EW-RHP

Here Carrick gets most personal in assailing the errors of his contemporaries, particularly the Dennison brothers1 and Lee Irons, all his fellow OPC ministers associated with Kerux: A Journal of Biblical-Theological Preaching, available free online. 2

In this journal, Carrick observes a striking emphasis upon the double indicatives of Christianity, and a corresponding dearth of the double imperatives (132). He bolsters this with quotations of both Dennison’s which castigate application per se as “man-centered” rather than “God-centered.” This is another false antithesis (133).

James Dennison appeals for support to Geerhardus Vos’ inaugural address already cited (footnote 4), but Carrick notes three problems with this. 1) EW-RHP has an overemphasis on eschatology in preaching. Vos’ statement that “eschatology is prior to soteriology” is ambiguous. Vos may only have meant that eschatology is logically prior (God first resolved to glorify Himself in eternity and therefore decreed to saves us), while Dennison presses the slogan to mean eschatology is more important than soteriology (137), another idea altogether. 2) EW-RHP also exhibits an underemphasis on the ethical in preaching which opposes the NT’s strong emphasis, not to mention Vos’ own characterization of Pauline theology in terms of an “already—not yet” structure. Dennison’s revels in the “already” aspects (indicatives) to the neglect of “not yet” aspects (imperatives) in the kingdom of God. 3) EW-RHP idealizes, almost idolizes, Geerhardus Vos, and this is wrong. His preaching was too heavily theological, with sermons resembling essays. Even Dr. J. Gresham Machen had this opinion (source: biography by Stonehouse). Further, Vos’ sermons were also sparse in application, though not as bad as EW-RHP represented in Kerux.

Survey Resumed and Concluded

A few sundry observations round out Carrick’s last chapter. First, biblical salvation is covenantal, and in a bilateral, not unilateral way. Both God and man are parties to the covenant. God reveals, and man responds. EW-RHP fails to appreciate the latter and exposes itself to a fair charge of “objectivism.” It is hard to know exactly what Carrick has in mind by this word since he does not explain it; it is related to the idea of “overlooking man” (139). EW-RHP exaggerates the concept of “progress” while giving short shrift to “concourse,” the relationship between God and man, and insight Carrick gleans from scholar C. Trimp.

Second, Carrick uses considerable space reviewing some of Gaffin’s helpful contributions to the topic, including 1) the relevance of the historia salutis and the ordo salutis and their correspondence to redemption accomplished and redemption applied, with the evident imbalance in EW-RHP, 2) the dual identity of OT characters as both types of Christ and examples for believers, 3) the irreversibility and inseparability of the indicative and imperative moods in Scripture and biblical preaching, and 4) the strong Reformed homiletical tradition of explicatio et applicatio verbi Dei (explication and application of God’s Word). Carrick concludes that a balance of the indicative and the imperative, of proclamation and appeal, is justified from all considerations, and that this is just what EW-RHP, a “homiletical innovation” (144), lacks. This is bound to lead to “distortions of a more or less serious character” (146).

With stunning insight, R. L. Dabney almost seems to have anticipated the controversy and resolved it in 1870 before it erupted in the twentieth century.

[Christianity’s] end and aim is holy living (Eph 1.4; Tit 2.14; et passim). Of this holy life, the law of God is the rule. The believer justified in Christ does not, indeed, look to the law for his redeeming merit; but he receives it as his guide to the obedience of faith and love, as fully as though he were still under a covenant of works. He therefore needs practical instruction, as really as the unbeliever. It must stimulate and direct him in the Christian race, and make him a “peculiar person, zealous of good works.” The exclusive preaching of doctrine [viz., the indicative—DSM] to professed Christians tends to cultivate an Antinomian Spirit. The exclusive inculcation of duties [viz., the imperative, or application—DSM] fosters self-righteousness. The edification of the Church, then, demands the diligent intermixture of both kinds. This precept may be confirmed by the remark, that, as the motives and obligations of all duties are rooted in the doctrines, so the best illustrations of the doctrines are by their application to the duties. The two are inseparably connected as grounds and conclusions, as means and end; and their systematic separation in your instructions would leave your hearers incapable of a correct understanding of either.3

This sounds amazingly like Carrick’s conclusion in the last chapter (146). He may have been influenced by Dabney, without remembering it (since Dabney is not cited), to think along these lines.

The conclusion (ch. 7) is mostly a succinct summary, with the addition of a parting shot: “It is a regrettable fact that much Reformed preaching operates in a virtual mono-mood—that of the indicative— to the virtual exclusion of the imperative” (151). Whether the charge is fair or a straw man, my limited exposure to contemporary Reformed preaching is not qualified to judge. Surely Carrick is right when he opines that the doctrinal must be balanced by the practical, the historical by the ethical, the historia salutis by the ordo salutis, and the work of Christ by the work of the Spirit (151). His final statement is, “It is absolutely essential that the great indicatives of Christ’s accomplishment of redemption be balanced by the great imperatives of the Spirit’s application of redemption” (151). May the Lord deliver His church from pulpits devoid of either.

Three appendixes supply further illustrations of the exclamative, the interrogative, and the imperative from Reformed preaching. They may be the most useful to readers who are relatively unfamiliar with the spiritual eloquence of our forefathers, as a provocation to read more of their sermons. I agree with Earl Blackburn’s two minor criticisms4 that including illustrative examples from Calvin’s sermons alongside the five Carrick chose and an appendix dedicated to the indicative mood would have strengthened the book.

Whatever one’s familiarity with this topic or position taken, this book seems to be an important contribution worthy of consideration by all modern Reformed preachers, and so I recommend it with meek enthusiasm. Its head-on criticisms of some RHP will disturb adherents, but where the tool is sharpened sparks are bound to fly. Let us receive Carrick’s savory meat and leave any bones on the plate. A well-reasoned and specific response to this book by a worthy champion of RHP would also prove an interesting read and may shed more light upon this homiletical controversy.

You may find interesting the attached brief report of Carrick debating a RHP proponent named William Dennison (yes, another brother) at the March 2002 theology conference sponsored by Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where Carrick teaches.5 It may prove especially useful to us because in it the other side is not mute.

1. James T. Dennison, Jr. (1943-present), Librarian and Lecturer in Church History at WTS in California from 1980- 2000, currently Professor of Church History and Academic Dean at Northwest Theological Seminary in Lynnwood, Washington; Charles G. Dennison (1945-1999), Pastor of Grace OPC of Sewickley, PA; Lee Irons (see footnote 6).
3. Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric, Lecture III, “Distribution of Subjects,” pp. 57-58.
4. See first review referenced in footnote 1.

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