Fly Fishing Your Way from Jabez to Emmaus

What follows is an article I wrote for the July/August edition of Reformed Perspective magazine:

Understanding Sermons Better: A Short Introduction to Redemptive-Historical Preaching

Like everything else that’s worthwhile in life, listening to sermons is enriched by being informed. The benefit of being informed is that it unlocks for you the finer details that make a thing worth enjoying. If you don’t understand how a sport like football works, for instance, watching a game will be confusing and you’ll find yourself flipping channels. It’s by knowing the rules and strategies that you judge one play against the next, and by that knowledge you are freed to enjoy all the details of the game. Understanding sermons, too, is enriched by knowing something of how sermons are supposed to work. Living in the times that we do, with instant access to a wide variety of contemporary preaching, Christians are awash in options for listening. Even the smallest exposure to today’s popular preachers will make it clear that the sorts of sermons you hear in Canadian Reformed churches differ from those that you’ll hear elsewhere. The reason for this is that when a pastor opens up the Word of God, reads it, and explains it to the congregation, he is using specific interpretive methods in order to do so. Different methods will produce different sermons, and, simply enough, similar methods will produce similar types of sermons. Canadian Reformed sermons do have a particular character to them, and one of the reasons is because our ministers rely heavily on a method called “redemptive-historical preaching” (RHP).

I recently finished my freshman year at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary. One of the courses we took was an introduction to Homiletics, which is essentially the study of sermons. Throughout the course we spent a lot of time discussing RHP and had the opportunity to learn of its history and development in our Reformed tradition. You could say that redemptive-historical sermons are to the Canadian Reformed churches what bamboo rods are to fly fishermen. They’ve got the sort of strong and dependable reputation that comes about after years of honest service, but there’s enough subtlety and tradition that those who are prone to romance start calling them works of art. In other words, they’re useful but they do attract the purists.

In order to understand RHP, we need to look back at the Netherlands some eighty years ago and contrast RHP with the method of preaching that was de rigueur at the time. That method is called “exemplaric” preaching, and if you pay any attention to mainstream evangelical Christianity, exemplaric preaching will sound familiar. You won’t find the word “exemplaric” in the dictionary, but if you’re etymologically astute, you’ll have noticed that it’s similar to the more familiar “exemplary” which in turn is related to the word “example.” Ministers who preach using this method will take an Old Testament figure, Abraham, for instance, and preach on how Abraham is a good or bad example of faith for us. The work of God is pushed to the background, if it comes out at all, while the life of the individual becomes the message. Even worse, sometimes the special circumstances surrounding an individual, such as David’s slaying Goliath, or Hannah’s becoming pregnant, are touted as the sorts of things we should expect in our own lives. If you’re thinking of The Prayer of Jabez, then you know what I’m talking about.

The problem with exemplaric preaching is that not only does it miss the point of the text, it can also be a message that leads to despair. For example, a minister might preach on David and Goliath and tell the congregation that with enough faith they, too, can kill their Goliaths. A flock of Davids will stream out of the doors after the service, go home, and that week sling their hearts out. And they’re going to fail. Whatever their Goliaths are – their fears, or addictions, or the darkness that eats away at their minds – those giants will not be slain in a moment of strong faith. Because what the minister failed to tell them was that it wasn’t David’s faith that killed Goliath. It was God’s power. And it isn’t our faith that shatters the grip of sin, it’s Christ’s power.

After all, if it were so straightforward, how did the New Testament writers miss it? Why didn’t Stephen slay his captors, David-style? Or why didn’t the Church simply Jabez her way to more members? As far as I know, nobody’s arguing that the Canadian Forces should change their military tactics because of Jericho, or that the medical profession has been made redundant because of Naaman; nor is Ruth’s crawling under the covers with Boaz put forward as an example for our unmarried couples. Such interpretations would immediately strike most Christians as ridiculous, but they are simply the result of the exemplaric method consistently applied.

This was the method of preaching being used in the Netherlands, and it led to a strong counter-movement. A group of preachers led by Dr. Klaas Schilder instead emphasized the RHP method. As you can imagine, this method removed the focus from the individuals and placed it solely on God and on His plan for salvation. Dr. Schilder and company didn’t invent RHP any more than the Council of Nicaea invented the Trinity, but God often uses conflict to sharpen the Church’s understanding of various points of doctrine or practice. The conflicts about preaching in the Netherlands provoked our fathers to look more closely at preaching in Scripture, and to use the principles found there as a corrective for methods in their own day.

The most foundational principle for interpreting the Old Testament is the one we find explained on the road to Emmaus: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” The Old Testament, as David Murray has put it, is the biography of Jesus Christ. What this means is that the book of Esther isn’t just about Esther, but more broadly about Christ; and the same goes for the book of Job, or Joshua. It’s about drawing everything into the larger story of the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ. The account of Abraham in Egypt is less about Abraham’s actions in difficult circumstances, and more about God remaining faithful to His promises to Abraham, and preserving the family through which the Messiah would eventually come.

In addition to drawing the lines to Christ, the RHP method brings out the fact that God did not reveal His plans all at once, but that His revelation progressed throughout history. The Bible, after all, was written over a period of roughly 1500 years. Our culture often celebrates a certain notion of progress which explains history as mankind’s long, slow, and tumultuous journey from darkness to enlightenment, from caves to Cape Canaveral. We see ourselves as having shaken off the chains of the past, striding boldly towards a bright and limitless future. However ridiculous and utopian our concept of progress may be, and it is nothing more than the secular perversion of Christian eschatology, it does help us to understand the progress of revelation as we find it in the Old Testament. The only thing Adam and Eve knew about God’s plans was that a saviour would eventually come, but they didn’t know if it would be a son, or grandson, or great-grandson. Noah knew nothing of the sacrament of circumcision, Abraham did not know the Mosaic laws, and Moses would have been puzzled by the phrase “the stump of Jesse.” These developments occurred as God saw fit, each one revealing a little more of the coming Christ, and it’s important when preaching on an OT passage to note where the passage stands in light of redemptive-historical progress.

However, in the last couple decades in our circles RHP, too, has seen its share of criticism. Or more specifically, it’s the way that the method has been applied that has been criticized. Some RHP sermons were masterpieces of intricacy, drawing out lines in Scripture that were original and intellectually satisfying; but these sermons didn’t always work very hard at reaching into the lives of the congregants. Because of the strong stigma against exemplaric preaching, ministers did not want to be accused of it. They would avoid the fact that the Lord was working in the lives of His children in Scripture, guiding them in the way of truth. Thus ministers sometimes missed opportunities to speak a loving or an admonishing word into the often grimy and confusing lives of those sitting in the pew. After all, there’s no denying that in that tricky situation in Egypt, Abraham should have trusted God, and that we should as well when we find ourselves beset with the claustrophobia of a rock and a hard place. In Stephen’s sermon to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7, he uses examples of Israel’s rebellion in the Old Testament to put the knife to his Jewish contemporaries who had rejected Christ. Which means he finds instruction in the lives of Old Testament people. Hebrews 11 also gives a number of examples of the faith of saints; no doubt a faith that comes from God and holds to Christ, but a faith illustrated to us with flesh and blood.

Nevertheless, these instances do not justify the exemplaric method. For in the end, exemplaric preaching treats Scripture as little more than a catalogue of human interactions with the divine, with man being primary. It assumes that the events we read about in the Bible are faith-activated norms for all believers in all times. If you aren’t experiencing those events in your own life, it’s because your weak and shriveled faith is useless and you should be ashamed. Redemptive-historical preaching, on the other hand, holds that all of Scripture speaks a single message of the revelation of God’s saving work in Christ through history. It recognizes that nothing but the fall was ever accomplished by the will of man, and that God’s supreme power demonstrated in its fullness on the cross is the dominant and defining event in history. Only with that unifying principle securely in place can we properly apply the Scriptures. Only once we have seen clearly through the lens of Christ can we do as Stephen did, or the writer of Hebrews, and gain instruction from the lives of biblical saints. Indeed, only when we understand the account of God’s people within the grand framework of Christ’s redemption can we even begin to understand our own lives.

Because the concept of redemptive history is a significant influence on our sermons, understanding it will help you to gain further insight from them. You may expect that from whatever passage the minister is preaching, he will bring out what it says about Christ, and about the fulfillment of God’s promises in Him. This is the superstructure by which we make sense of God’s Word. Gravity pulls rivers to the sea, and Christ pulls every verse to Himself. With that in mind, there’s plenty of room for discussion on how much a biblical figure’s life should be brought out in a sermon. This will be different depending on the minister and on the pastoral situation in a church, so it’s impossible to clearly delineate what that balance should be. But without question that balance is crucial to the art, to the finesse, of sermonry. The right sermons leave our hearts aglow with the hope we have in Christ, our thoughts riveted to the reality of what He has done; but they also leave us encouraged in the midst of our often undramatic sanctification, comforted to know that we have a God who delights to reach into our messy lives and to make His peace and His presence known.


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