Review: The Imperative of Preaching
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.
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. His ‘theology of sacred rhetoric’ almost rises above the fray 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 RHP 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.’
As one just recently becoming more intimately acquainted with the matter, I would assure you that having read Carrick’s book made me more interested, not less, in the RH approach. The writings of Clowney and Geerhardus Vos for example are part of my reading, partly due to Carrick’s influence.
A substantial discussion of the salient points of this debate is beyond the scope of this book review. Allow me, please, to describe its substance and to prompt you in reading what I found to be very stimulating and enjoyable.
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’. 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’. 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’. 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. 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. The latter 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)
The exclamative (ch. 3) amounts to an emotional indicative. It possesses an element of excitement and is often signalled 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!’.
The interrogative (ch. 4) is of the nature of questioning. It lacks the note of certainty typically inherent in the indicative. The analytical question which is a kind of dialogue with a proposition, the rhetorical question which does not expect an answer, and the searching question which probes the hearer, are all distinguished, defended and illustrated from Scripture, and demonstrated to be part and parcel of our great Reformed preaching tradition. Though grammatically an aspect of the indicative suited for explication of the Word of God, the interrogative promotes application of the Word of God. It constitutes an important part of what Lloyd-Jones called ‘the element of attack’. It helps distinguish a sermon from a lecture. The interrogative reminds us that man is on the dock and God is on the bench, to quote C. S. Lewis.
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. 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 (1909-52) spearheaded the RH school of thought which gave rise to RHP (108-09). 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 RH school helped to restore an appreciation for the unity of redemptive history and its Christocentricity. It also decried the creeping moralism of preaching in the modern era, in which the grand indicative is conspicuously absent or lacking appropriate emphasis. However, some RHP advocates have taken this too far, and according to Carrick their suspicion of exhortation and application recoils upon the Scriptures themselves. Traces of this Dutch Reformed influence remain at both Westminster Theological Seminaries (in Pennsylvania and California), where ‘biblical theology’ 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 (p. 116).
Carrick quotes other respected Reformed theologians on the matter who appear to share his concerns about 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 (p. 123).
Carrick also enlists Dr. Richard Gaffin for the cause 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’ (p. 127). 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.
The remainder of this last chapter is given to a complex defense of strong application, even from historical passages in Scripture, as an indispensable part of sacred rhetoric. It is the debate’s ground zero. Thus we pass over it as beyond the scope of a mere book review.
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’. 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. 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’ (p. 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 relatively unfamiliar with the spiritual eloquence of our forefathers, as a provocation to read more of their sermons.
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.
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