Brief Thoughts on Redemptive Historical Preaching

Cornelis Pronk’s articles on ‘Preaching in the Dutch Calvinist Tradition’ (part 1, part 2) deal with the debate between the advocates of redemptive historical preaching and the advocates of exemplary preaching in the Netherlands. It is claimed that Dr. Klaas Schilder was the ‘originator’ of this approach. Pronk, unsurprisingly (given that this is the Banner of Truth), disagrees with Schilder’s approach, which is presented as overly objective.

I read Schilder’s Trilogy a few years ago and was profoundly affected by it. One of the things that I appreciated most about the work was that it was not always trying to make the text immediately relevant to me. It was more concerned with faithfully and poetically telling the story than with using it to make some moral applications. I found myself drawn into the story in a way that I have never been by exemplary preaching. Having been drawn into the story, I found the story informing my imagination, thought and actions in a way that it hadn’t before.

Exemplary preaching tends to employ the story of Scripture as a reservoir of illustrations of moral virtues and vices. The problem with this approach, as Peter Leithart observes, is that the narrative of Scripture tends to be reduced to the illustration of truths that we learned elsewhere. We ‘use’ the text, rather than allowing the text to reshape us. The text is muzzled as it becomes merely the echo of our own values (high though they may be).

I am a strong advocate of redemptive historical preaching and believe that Pronk’s criticisms are largely unjustified. Leithart’s treatment of this debate and his argument for redemptive historical, typological preaching in the introduction to A Son to Me is particularly helpful. He quotes Lindbeck:—

Typology does not make scriptural contents into metaphors for extrascriptural realities, but the other way around. It does not suggest, as is often said in our day, that believers find their stories in the Bible, but rather that they make the story of the Bible their own story. The cross is not to be viewed as a figurative representation of suffering nor the messianic kingdom as a symbol for hope in the future; rather, suffering should be cruciform, and hopes for the future messianic. . . . Intratextual theology redescribes reality within the scriptural framework rather than translating Scripture into extrascriptural categories. It is the text, so to speak, which absorbs the world, rather than the world the text.

Whilst I think that there are weaknesses in Lindbeck’s approach I believe that he makes an important point. Exemplary preaching tends to address us as those who have our own stories and just need some good examples to live them out. It uses the Scripture to serve our stories. Redemptive historical preaching addresses us as those whose minds and imaginations have been deceived and mislead by the stories that the world is telling us and calling us to live within and who need to be brought into another story. The all-important thing is the realization that the biblical story is not merely a self-contained and closed narrative which we can observe intriguing patterns within (much as we might study some classic work of literature), but that it is our story, something that we must continue to live out, day by day.

Once people appreciate this it will be recognized that redemptive historical preaching can never be merely ‘objective’. To think of redemptive historical preaching as merely objective is to suggest that the story of Scripture is sealed off from the stories that we inhabit and are formed by. It is to fail to appreciate that through the gospel God establishes us as free moral agents within the narrative of Scripture that was taken up in His Son and is lived out within the Church. In telling the story of Scripture redemptive historical preaching is telling our story. Good redemptive historical preaching trains us to be receptive and attentive to the text itself and not to focus on rushing to applications. The redemptive historical preacher should not be afraid to make applications when they arise out of the narrative, but the applications serve the narrative, rather than the other way around.

It seems to me that similar issues are raised today by such thinkers as N.T. Wright. Many find Wright’s work on the gospels troubling. Wright argues that the parables of Christ cannot be read as timeless moral fables, but must be seen more as prophetic riddles for His generation. He argues that the Sermon on the Mount needs to be understood within its particular redemptive historical context and that the prophetic teaching of Christ, such as the Olivet Discourse, generally concerns events that were to happen around AD70. Much the same thing can be observed in Wright’s approach to the Pauline epistles. Wright seems to make the text strange to us. Passages that were once familiar can become alien and seemingly distant.

How can such a Bible be relevant to us? What use is such a text to us? Such a Bible is of limited use to the exemplarist. The crucial step is learning to inhabit the narrative of Scripture as the Church. The text becomes relevant to us in a whole new way. The recognition that the text does not immediately address us reveals to us the degree to which we have ideologized, muzzled and domesticated the text, and reduced it to echoing truths that have become far too familiar to us. Once the alien-ness of the text is appreciated we begin to appreciate the degree to which we must change if we are to read it right. The text then becomes troubling and unsettling, the voice of God calling us to go beyond the familiar, comfortable and safe to the place where He would meet us.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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7 Responses to Brief Thoughts on Redemptive Historical Preaching

  1. Byron says:

    The recognition that the text does not immediately address us reveals to us the degree to which we have ideologized, muzzled and domesticated the text, and reduced it to echoing truths that have become far too familiar to us. Once the alien-ness of the text is appreciated we begin to appreciate the degree to which we must change if we are to read it right.
    Beautiful: it’s not the text that needs to be brought to us, but us to the text; not an abosroption of it into our lives, but ours into its.

  2. One of the best posts I’ve ever read on your blog. Thanks.

    BTW, can you e-mail me the text of your post on the difference between personal bible reading and the Scriptures proclaimed in worship?

  3. Paul Baxter says:

    I don’t know the best way to ask this (so you have to find the best way to answer it) but, by whom/where do you see Wright’s work on Jesus being crticized? I’m not looking for you to single someone out, but most of the stuff I’ve seen critical of Wright’s Jesus work has been from the “left” crowd.

  4. Al says:


    What I am referring to is not so much direct criticism of Wright’s work as discomfort with it. There are a number of people who dislike what Wright is saying, not so much because they believe that he is wrong in his assertions, but because they no longer know what to do with the text. They are used to futurist readings of the Olivet Discourse and reading the parables as moral fables. Wright comes along and destroys such readings and suddenly they are left with a text that seems irrelevant to them, a text that cannot be universalized and abstracted from its context.

    I have heard a number of people voice such concerns. They want to know how on earth we can preach Wright’s understanding of the gospels. Many of them are convinced by his reading of Jesus, but feel that he has left them with a new set of problems for which they see no adequate solution.

  5. Scott says:

    And, Paul, James Dunn (for at least one notable example) has expressed discomfort/criticism of this approach to the parables. The specific case I have in mind is a comment of incredulity that Wright would understand the Prodigal Son as a story about Israel.

    And, I must admit, reading The Challenge of Jesus, for me (and my friend), was unsettling in all the ways that Alastair has just mentioned.

  6. Paul Baxter says:

    I was just curious. I had given up a futurist reading of Matt 24 (and parallels) LONG before I’d heard of Wright, so that bit certainly didn’t bother me. Quite the opposite.

    Perhaps Wright could be viewed by some as a gateway drug into the heterodox world of NT scholarship? I figure this could almost be a legitimate concern as most serious NT scholars these days ARE far less orthodox than Wright.

  7. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2005-2006 | Alastair's Adversaria

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